3 May 2012

Devolution & the UK's accelerating "social disunion"

“The social union” has become a sufficient commonplace in Scottish political discourse that increasingly little effort is expended in defining it. And an important concept it is too, inclusively capturing a range of stances, signalling the absence of anti-English animus in the SNP’s arguments for constitutional change, the repudiation of ethnic nationalism and a more relaxed posture towards Britain and Britishness than has hitherto obtained. Emphasising instead continuing ties and connections, it symbolises the rejection of what we might think of as a spherical imagery of state sovereignty, an isolated and insular affair, upon which nothing “external” enjoys any purchase. To move from Union to independence is not, on this theory, the foregoing of ties with England, Wales and North Ireland, but reconstituting those ties on a different, (and nationalists contend) more politically convivial basis. The concern is to “recast the relationship” with what remains of the United Kingdom, not to cast aside the relationship altogether.

A rummage back through the archives begins to explain the contemporary prevalence of the idea. The idea of “social union” has been bandied about by various nationalists for more than twenty years. As early as 1998 in the Scotsman, you can find Alex Salmond – as plain old SNP leader – saying….

“I think that people are looking for a continuation of the social union between English and Scotland after political union ends but the question will be whether the monarchy is the best vehicle for that”.

In the same year, Margo MacDonald wrote in the same organ of “the building of a new, equal political partnership with England, and the continuation and strengthening of the social union among the peoples of the British Isles”.   Mitchell, Bennie and Johns have recently suggested that the concept denotes, “the family, personal and professional links within the United Kingdom that would remain unaffected by constitutional independence” (The Scottish National Party: Transition to Power 2012, 121), but arguably, some versions encompass broader ideas of connectedness than those listed.

Different articulations stress different contents of this “social” – or occasionally “cultural union” (cf Pete Wishart), from the more formal and institutional to the personal and familial. Some versions emphasise future diplomatic solidarity and cooperation after independence - “Scotland and England will remain the best of friends and neighbours”. Others address more quotidian concerns about free movement of persons across future boundaries and borders. Will we ever see our cherished southern grannies or beloved cousins from Ashby-de-la-Zouche again? Will a Yorkshireman be able to cross the Tweed to enjoy a scone, or will independence force him to find a high tea in his own riding? Overlarding these are concerns in the professional domain. Will future, hypothetical Scots be able freely to take up jobs in Manchester or Bristol, if offered, after independence?

SNP arguments have – quite rightly – aimed to reassure and clearly set out an account of independence, rooted in recent European traditions of free movement of peoples, and shared access to cultural goods. Salmond again, in the April 13th 2007 edition of the Times, said...

“People in Scotland would be able to visit their granny in Grimsby in the same way as they currently visit their cousin in Cork”.

In a lecture at the London School of Economics in 1999, proposing a “council of the isles”, the Salmond gave this now characteristic account of the idea, incorporating both the more formal and informal connections which he envisaged would be preserved after independence:

“We have operated a social union for more than 300 years of political union and that social union will not change simply because our political structures change. We will still visit each other, inter-marry, move from one country to another for work and we will still buy and sell each other’s goods and watch each other’s television. We will still be the closest of neighbours and, I really hope, the best of friends”.

Even earlier, we can find a letter in the Herald from Margo MacDonald in 1992, lightly adjusting Lampedusa, to argue
“... if the social union of the UK was to be maintained in a good spirit the governmental institutions must change”.

But what conception of the social and the political?

The main conceptual work done by the idea of a social union is to distinguish the social from the political. You may abandon Westminster, and govern yourself, but all the other ties will remain – more or less – intact. But can that trick be so neatly transacted? Does the central distinction which gives the idea its force make any sort of sense? What conception of the social and the political does it appeal to?

One version might imagine some domain conceived of as "the social" existing inertly beneath the official institutional assemblages of our politics. Appealing to a cynical common sense that the political institutions of our life are an elsewhere, their animating concerns divorced from the ordinary experience of the average punter. You may be governed by a distant Westminster, or a less distant Holyrood, but either way, probably won’t be able to see the difference. On this account, the personal is determinedly not political, and the "social union" offers reassurance that voters' private domains will remain undisturbed by political and constitutional changes.

Where this conceptualisation arguably starts to break down, however, is that it runs directly counter to most mainstream Scottish nationalist conceptions of Scotland as a "distinct society", which distinctiveness it owes in great part to its distinctive politics, and after devolution in 1999, to its distinctive political spaces and institutions. On this account, politics are not distinct from the social, but are literally constitutive of a distinct social space.  The comprehensive line the "social union" hopes to draw between the social and the political  hopelessly collapses. This conceptual slipperiness is handily demonstrated by mentioning just a few examples from the contemporary independence debate. If the idea of "social union" derives much of its strength from distinguishing between what it suggests are retainable and sustainable “social” and discardable “political” aspects of Union, how can shared political institutions - currency, monarchy, what have you - plausibly represent the social union's full expression?

As a matter of practical politics, signalling a range of important ideals and commitments to an open-minded and porous Scottish nationalism, I'm happy to concede that the idea of a "social union" has its uses. Analytically, however, the central distinction it suggests between the social and the political is confused and confusing. Just as nationalists' accounts of a distinct Scottish society conceive of that society being substantially generated and sustained through its shared experience of politics and political institutions, so too, it seems obvious that shared UK institutions - parliament, PMs, television programmes, things discussed in them - in great part generate the ties which make being part of the UK state meaningful. These cannot be jettisoned and sustained simultaneously. Independence for Scotland will not mean an end to sociability across our jotted borders, but it will certainly mean that the available ways of being sociable will fundamentally alter.

Devolution: a social failure within the Union?

Watching BBC Question Time and the like, politically obsessive Scots tend to be well versed in UK national controversies, know the prominent faces, the vocabulary and key discourses. That is not to say your average anorakical Scot truly understands the politics of England – I am persistently befuddled by it myself, despite living here for the past two and a bit years – but politics in the UK is a matter of passionate concern for Scots, whether or not the policies which matter most to them are mostly decided in Edinburgh.

You can peep curiously across the Irish Sea and watch Vincent Browne tormenting Irish politicians, yet I’m always struck by the extent to which participants bandy concepts about that are clearly political commonplaces to them – but which sound a strange note in an ear tuned to Scottish and British politics. That doesn't mean I can't visit Ireland when I fancy - or woo, wed or enjoy friendly discourse in Dublin - but it does mean, of necessity, that when a politically obsessed Irishman and a political obsessed Scotsman wish to discuss their respective politics, a good deal of background reading will be required of both parties.  Not so an Englishman and a Welshman and a Scotsman taking in the party leader debates during the last election, or howling denunciation at some egregious prat on BBC Question time. When you cease sharing matters of concern – and shared political institutions, political arguments and structures are one way of constructing our shared sociability in these islands - the changes are fundamental.

Many Unionists talk of independence as categorical separation, and by implication, an unprecedented and threatening cleavage. The interesting thing is, we needn’t vex our imaginations, or project ourselves into the imagined future, to guess what things might be like after Scottish independence.  Devolution furnishes its own compelling examples of political fragmentation. Scottish political debate is given mostly to emphasise the ignorance which now characterises the UK metropolitan media’s engagements with Scottish politics. Just today, the Guardian’s Martin Kettle writes about “Devolution and the separation of the English mind”, and “Britain’s increasingly centrifugal politics”, which “means that the English are remarkably ill-equipped to understand or engage with changes in Scotland and Wales that are driving the future of the Union”.

Kettle’s is just one in a recent series of commentary pieces in the London press on this theme. In the Telegraph, Fraser Nelson has recently described a “tricolour Britain” – yellow, red, blue, north to south – on British political fragmentation, and the puzzlement in the metripol about its whys and wherefores.  But how many Scots – even Scots particularly interested in politics – seriously engage with the distinct political spaces and discourses and matters of concern in Northern Ireland, or in Wales either?

A scant few I’d say. The interest and significance of this is that this growing mutual cluelessness within the Union has coincided with the obliteration of many of the old barriers to the communication of political knowledge which obtained until quite recently. The London-based media has seen an explosion in eminently accessible sources, with which to allay their ignorance about devolved politics, if there was a will for it. While the average soul living in England would in all probability have struggled to find a local hard copy of the Herald or Scotsman or Sunday Post in the past, today we have a proliferation of sources of information online, replayable, rewatchable, scornful of jurisdictional boundaries. The potential for the England-based observer to access, imbibe and comprehend public discourse in Scotland has – arguably – never been better served.

Obviously, this knowledge is limited only to the more formal and institution sites of politics which are increasingly captured and broadcast unedited online and what the press write about, but what there is isn’t to be sniffed at. There are precious few practical impediments for the political observer based in England, not to accrue a decent understanding of the dynamics of politics in devolved settings. The irony being that while technology, online publication of text and transmission of video having given anybody with a laptop and an internet connection practical freedom to find out about Scottish politics, this theoretical liberty has coincided with London-based hacks’ great alienation from devolved politics.

Why might this be so? How can it be accounted for? In Michael Ignatieff’s recent interview on Newsnicht, the former leader of the Canadian Liberal party observed that “everybody’s saying nothing will change” in the independence referendum, but with reference to Quebec, diagnosed...

“The problem here is that we don’t have anything to say to each other any more. There’s a contract of mutual indifference which is very striking for someone of my generation ... Now effectively – effectively – we’re almost two separate countries. And that I think has produced this strange reality – we survived the referendum, but it did us damage.”

Ignatieff's observation suggests, to my mind convincingly, that political fragmentation shouldn't be thought of as an incidental development, nor entailed as of necessity by the creation of distinct political spaces in Edinburgh and in London, but is driven fundamentally by the fragmentation in political concerns, mutual indifference, the loss of common discourses and institutions, which generated and sustained a sense of common interest.

It is pleasingly ironic, in what is becoming a long list of ironies attaching to the referendum campaign, that the "indifference" generated by devolution and its creation of distinct political sociabilities in these islands has at once become one of the substantial arguments for a readily envisagable Scottish independence, and simultaneously, we find nationalists, promoting a conception of the social which aims to marginalise the social significance of a shared politics.  If devolution demonstrates anything, its is that shared politics aren’t distinct from the social, but an important way of being social, one way that our social ties are constituted. When those ties fray - or break - we quickly find ourselves contracted into two distinct, parallel political conversations. 

While the idea of "social union" is one intended to reassure, it arguable does so in a queer and unexpected way.  Devolution has already fractured the British state, and owing to that state's determined refusal to countenance the transformation of its centre - has already created the distinct political conversations - and for the moment, a unilateral rather than mutual indifference in England towards the devolved periphery. Independence won't inaugurate a new political sociability, but simply build on the current political and social drift, perceptible across these islands  Without the admixture of a revitalised account of the British state, independence merely completes the logic which devolution - unrooted in a broader, stabilising and federalising political project - set in motion.


  1. I was struck by Micheal Ignateiff's analysis in the BBC interview that everything will change no matter the referendum result, his view appears to be that Westminster can not be sustained in its current form.

    Also interesting was his assertion that the Labour Party are heading for the dustbin of history through their complete failure to engage in the process of enhancing devolution after the SNP's rise to power in 2007.

    The reality for me is that on an individual level my links and relationships with relatives and friends in England Wales or Ireland will not change but in terms of 'society' (social and political) independence will bring the differences into sharp relief.

    The future problem lies not so much with an increasingly social democratic Scotland but for a Westminster, neo-liberal, London dominated England at odds with the majority of English people's views which tend to reflect the old fashioned ideals of 'One Nation' pre-Thatcher Tories and Liberals.

  2. As always with LPW, elegantly argued, but the idea of a specifically Scottish social union - in contrast to other polity entities - seems to me to be not right. An example: a few years ago we knew a really nice Dutch family who had settled well in Glasgow and then sold up and moved to Lewis, expecting the same sort of society. They had the neighbours round, everyone seemed friendly, but no one invited them back. Their children found the culture very strange and friends hard to make. One of the problems was clearly religion - the Dutch family were secular the neighbours were not.

    The family sold up and moved back to Glasgow, where they felt at home. Their experience mirrors that of most urban Scots. If I go to Liverpool I am immediately within a culture that I feel at home. North and west of Fort William - hmmm great place to visit, but will you fit in?

    This is all partly a universal rus et urb matter of course but there are distinct fault lines within our polity - not quite as brutal perhaps as in the days of the Fife Adventurers setting out to conquer Stornoway (with Jamie Saxt's blessing) or when the lodges banged their war drums outside Catholic churches in the 70s (1970s not 1670s), but there nonetheless.