7 November 2012

"Our job is to link the individual issues to the concept of independence..."

Imagine an election hustings, held somewhere in Scotland in early 2011. As you would expect, the political panel was filled out primarily by representatives of all of the main Scottish political parties, both unionist and nationalist, scrounging for votes. Gathered up before the assembled speakers, a modal sort of Scottish crowd, if perhaps, by dint of their attendance at the meeting, more interested in politics than many of their fellow citizens. 

The issue of independence was raised, sceptically, by a voice from the floor. Hostile rhubarbs from the Labour and Conservative representatives, albeit of varying degrees of intensity. Then, up pipes a pro-independence speaker. She asks the panel and the crowd something like the following series of questions.

"Would you rather commit our welfare system into Iain Duncan Smith's hands, or to elect someone - to elect any of us, all of us - sitting here, to ensure we can secure a decent standard of living to the poor, the unemployed, the disabled? Would you rather David Cameron decided if and where the Royal Regiment of Scotland was deployed to fight and die in the field, or anyone on this panel? Are you comfortable with George Osborne's ideas of what a fair taxation system looks like, comfortable with George's ideas of equality, or might you have a more faith in a John Swinney - or for that matter, any of us sitting here to share your values and reflect your priorities on taxation, if we only had the powers to decide?"

It should not, perhaps, surprise us that this form of pro-independence rhetoric was put to me by a Green Party member, who doesn't conceive of himself and his politics as being driven primarily by national sentiment. I've tried permutations of it out a few times with socially liberal, economically centre-left, highly-educated, well-off or soon-to-be relatively well-off Scottish friends.  If we've had our noses in the polls, it shouldn't surprise us that the vast majority of these AB voters - or offspring of AB voters - remain sceptical, and most are minded to give you a negative answer if you ask them pat, "do you support independence for Scotland?"

I've found that if you reorientate your question, however, that robust, reflexive rejection of independence starts to look decidedly shooglier.  Many of these folk share an essentially fatalistic assessment of the possibilities afforded by Westminster politics, and are not optimistic about the prospects of the UK Labour Party, whether in office, or in opposition. Most would, given their first preference, choose some sort of devo-something settlement for Scotland.  Unless they have a taste for tomorrow's condiments, ingredients not yet disclosed, they're deprived of that option. One of the critical benefits of the whole devo-something discussion, kite-flying though much of it has been, is that it has focussed minds and the recent debate - at least in Scotland - on powers not on identities, and it is powers which are of the essence in the intervention which I sketched above.

Who should make decisions impacting on your life? Which institutions and which politicians do you most trust to make decisions which come closest to your core convictions about the role of the state in society, or the scope of its ethical vocation to its citizens? This case for independence emphasises responsibility and faith in Scotland's hidden powers, the potential of its people to make decisions for ourselves, hoisting the burden of political choices - seasoned, admittedly, with just a little old time anti-Toryism. It couldn't be further away from the images which still heftily predominate in the London-based media, envisaging a Scottish nationalism driven primarily by Romanticism, the political expression of which being an atavistic - and essentially suspect - ethnic project. 

Instead of asking your dubious pal about independence, file instead through the catalogue of things which the state does or could do, and canvass who they trust more (or less) on the issues and where they'd prefer to see powers exerted and decisions made, if they were cloud-compellers and could work their constitutional will without restraint. I'd wager that you'll find that many of your friends, though reflexively anti-independence, will begin to squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, realising the extent to which the gap which separates independence from the distribution of powers they'd prefer to see is rather smaller than the gap separating their constitutional ideal from the constitutional status quo.  The SNP have been promoting the idea of a "spectrum of self-government" for some time now, most recently in Salmond's speech to conference in October.  Lest we missed it, the First Minister courteously kept it back until the last lines of his address:

"Our home rule journey, begun by so few so many years past, is coming to its conclusion. Together, we say Yes. To Scotland and to Independence."

For obvious reasons, unionists have been making strenuous efforts to denounce this sort of rhetoric in at least two ways. First, simply as an inadmissible category mistake, which conflates constitutional solutions (Scottish independence) to contingent political problems (Tory government).  Secondly, we see pro-Unionists striving simultaneously to dismantle the metaphor of a spectrum of self government, from status quo ante, to devolution, to independence, to European and international bonds - positing the middle two as categorically opposed choices, all or nothing.  It's this sort of childish logic which lies behind the eminently tiresome but regularly regurgitated proposition that the SNP or "Alex Salmond doesn't believe in devolution", feeding quietly on an abiding (but fundamentally disingenuous) Labour myth, that only "we are the true party of devolution", and accordingly, that any credit for establishing Holyrood ought to accrue exclusively to those in red jaikets. 

With this in mind, I was interested to watch Alex Salmond, interviewed by Raymond Buchanan on the BBC this morning. Inevitably, the referendum came up in their discussion.  What was interesting was Salmond's response: for my money, the clearest statement yet from the First Minister about how he strategically envisions the upcoming argument for Scottish independence. Interestingly, it is remarkably similar to the argument advanced above.  It's an important answer too, so I've transcribed it in full below. Emphases mine.

Buchanan: You have, though, an issue if you talk to pollsters, which is: you're very popular, the SNP are popular, but your principal aim of independence still only commands around a third of Scots in most polls. And, in fact, that seems to be going down in recent polls. How are you going to convince people that they can back independence.

Salmond: Well, there is another paradox in the polls. And that is, if you ask people the individual questions like, "should Scotland control its own economy?", the answer's yes.  "Should Scotland have the power to abolish nuclear weapons from our country?" The answer's yes.  So when you ask people about specific policies about independence, then they give an argument in favour. And therefore that gives me great hope that we can combine the specific beliefs that people have and say, well, what that is, is Scottish independence. There's a great yearning wish to have power in Scotland. I think generally, actually, there's a great wish for people in these difficult economic times to have more control over their circumstances, more control over what's happening to them and their communities and families.  And independence, I believe, is part of that process.  It's part of a process of empowerment. 
So our job is to link the individual issues to the concept of independence, and to paint a picture of the future, of what Scotland could achieve, because the other thing that is important in difficult times is hope for the future.  Some people say optimism in politics is something for when times are easy - when the money's flowing - when the economy's going great. I just think optimism and hope and belief in the future is even more at a premium when times are tough. So if we can pitch our campaign to say these individual projects amount to Scottish independence, if you want to have control over these things - like the economy - then independence will give us that, and to show that independence is a proper, optimistic way forward for this country.

When Shakespeare wanted to emphasise something, he included it twice in his scripts. Salmond makes the point three times here, and for me, his analysis is absolutely spot on.  For nationalists, the referendum cannot - will not - be about British or Scottish identities, Braveheart imagery or plucked heartstrings, but must focus instead, foremost and forefront on the question of who exercises political power and to what purpose, and the opportunities represented by independent statehood for Scotland.

This is already shaping up to be one of the great ironies of this campaign: supposedly Romantic nationalists only want to talk about democratic governance structures and political choice, while it is the pro-Union side of the debate who are currently discoursing most and more vehemently on identities and sentiment.  One day, the UK press might notice this queer discrepancy.  Until then, though, it's Scotland through the looking glass...


  1. Let's start listing the reserved powers so that people get clear what they are being asked if they want transferred to Edinburgh.

  2. Excellent analysis except for your hope that one day the Unionist press will notice. Whilst I agree that most English people 'don't get it' and are absolutely convinced it is all 'Braveheart' and yes the MSM endorse this I am increasingly of the opinion that there is a a 'conspiracy' to maintain the establishment order as it is. I'm not suggesting they meet regularly in some sort of cabal but when you look at the apparent inability of the media to challenge a variety of subjects eg paedophilia, phone hacking, police corruption a la Hillsborough, privatisation of education and the NHS should we be surprised that the same people make no attempt to intelligently analyse the issue of Scottish independence. Even the Guardian who once upon a time you would have expected to challenge establishment shibboleths last week penned the totally disingenuous article about Van Rompuy and our membership of the EEC?

  3. "home rule" and "independence" are two different concepts.

  4. Don't mention the war!

    The journey from William Wallace to Basil Fawlty is nearing completion...

  5. Absolutely spot on LPW, and aligns with how I've been viewing the debate and framing my argument amongst friends and family for some time. The reflexive snort that greets the topic of "independence" soon gives way to reasonable debate when you break it down into it's constituent parts and a realisation that, yes, we want something that looks very much like independence but can't bear to say the word. It is absolutely the way to go and needs to be quietly and consistently re-enforced over the next two years.

    And you are also right about the subtle change in approach. Until recently, independence was ridiculed as identity politics: Braveheart this and Brigadoon thon. Critics of independence were happiest painting it as the dream of MacGlashan's running about in facepaints and kilts. And yet, it is anything but.

    And yet, now that the campaigns kick off into the 2 year "debate", it is remarkable how much of the Unionist argument defaults to identity politics, with discussions about how proud they are to be British or how they "feel" British. I am not saying there is anything wrong such a position but it is shaky ground upon which to build a campaign. It points to a lack of substance they often decry of the Yes campaign, and it is questionable how many people will cling to their British identity at the expense of suppressing their Scottish one. Maybe those "Do you feel more Scottish or British?" polls do highlight one of the key fault lines ahead after all.

  6. I think it's nice that Cllr Gallagher and Grahamski still occasionally pop in to show us just how nervous they're getting.

  7. Groundskeeper Willie9 November 2012 at 12:49

    What's going to happen to the SNP when they lose the referendum?

    Are they going to be demanding another referendum immediately or will they stick to Salmond's 'once in a generation' stricture?

    Will the party split?

    Will this be their high water mark?

    Are these matters being considered?

  8. What are the Lab/Tory plans for an independant Scotland?
    How will they manage without funds from London?
    Are these matters being considered?