The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, June 27, 2014



An argument against Scottish independence

The debate on Wednesday night went well. The venue was friendly, informal, hospitable and efficient. The Scottish Artists Union, which hosted the discussion, drew an engaged audience of its own members and others. Jim Tough of the Saltire Society chaired with a firm but easy hand. The other participants -- Sarah Beattie-Smith and Kevin Williamson for Yes, and Ewan Morrison for (I think) Undecided-edging-towards-No -- put their points across sharply. No punches were pulled, and despite or perhaps because of that everyone stayed friendly and civilised -- we had a good conversation afterwards at the bar at the back. I like and respect all the other participants, all of whom I've met before -- which, I suggest below, is part of the problem with independence, but there you go.

Forewarned by past debacles, where I learned the hard way that spontaneity can wither in the spotlight and that (for me anyway) irony and hyperbole work better on the page than in the hall, I wrote out all I wanted to say beforehand. It was too long but I managed to say the gist of it, in my presentation or in response to questions and comments from the floor. The event was recorded and no doubt will appear on video at some point.

Here's what I said, more or less.

Every country is affected by the financial crash of 2008. Trillions in public funds have been advanced to save the banks. The resulting debt and deficit is used as an excuse to cut services to those who need them most. This is the case in just about every country, whatever its political system.

Climate change is visible to the naked eye and felt on the naked skin. Military instability is on the news every night. There have been times in the past few months when it seemed that some governments had decided to reverently commemorate the First World War by having it all over again.

None of these are problems to which Scottish independence is an answer.

There is a core of about a quarter to a third of the Scottish electorate that will support independence no matter what. The task for independence supporters is to push that up to 50% of the vote plus one on September 18th.

To do that the Yes campaign has to do two things. With its right hand it has to persuade better-paid workers, professionals and business people that not much will change: hence into the EU and NATO, keep the pound and the Bank of England as lender of last resort, keep the monarchy, and keep a high level of social provision without having to pay high taxes. At the same time, with its left hand as it were, it has to persuade lower-paid workers and poor people - those most likely to support independence, and least likely to vote - that much will change for the better. It has to persuade localists to vote for Brussels, pacifists to vote for NATO, greens to vote for oil dependency, socialists to vote for the City of London and republicans to vote for the Queen. Needless to say, the official Yes campaign can't do both at once, and doesn't even try. It keeps its left hand behind its back.

That's where the pro-independence left, both green and red, comes to the rescue. They canvass the housing estates telling people that Britain is for the rich and Scotland can be ours, and that setting up a new capitalist state in NATO and the EU and under Her Majesty and the City of London is a step towards a green socialist antiwar republic. Funnily enough they're finding forty percent saying they're undecided, double the numbers in the polls. I can think of a few reasons for that!

Let's look at the claim that the SNP government is more progressive than Labour. In some respects, notably opposition to the war in Iraq and to nuclear weapons, it is. But even these are partial - it has no objection to the war in Afghanistan, and no objection to nuclear weapons as long as they're not in Scottish waters. The claimed universal benefits are paid for out of taxes that Holyrood doesn't have to raise, and by cuts to services. Free university tuition is paid for by cuts to Further Education colleges. The council tax freeze is paid for by cutting local services. Free prescriptions are paid for by pressure on other parts of the health service. Free personal care is paid for by running the carers off their feet. Does the pro-indy left expose these as middle class tax breaks at the expense of the less well off? Do they heck. Instead they seize on and amplify every shameless SNP distortion of what Johann Lamont says. Everything is subordinated to getting out a Yes vote, and that means subordinated to the SNP.

Any idea that after a Yes vote Labour, let alone the smaller parties of the left, will be in a position to challenge a triumphant SNP's political dominance or its policies, including whatever it has up its sleeve in the very likely event that all is not plain sailing, is a complete delusion. The SNP would rule the roost for a generation. Its first decade at least would be dominated by acrimonious disputes with the remaining UK over divvying up the assets, with all the love and forebearance you'd expect in a messy divorce combined with a family fall-out over an inheritance. All this national bickering and bourgeois beancounting is not going to make politics on either side more progressive by any measure. To expect, as Irvine Welsh did the other day, that people in the remaining UK would respond to Scottish independence by moving towards a more generous, a deeper and more radical democracy is another delusion. A carnival of reaction north and south is more likely.

How are artists likely to fare under such a government? Well, if you look forward to being dependent on the goodwill of a nationalist cultural apparatus in a small country where everybody knows everybody and memories are long, an SNP hegemony might be just the thing. If you relish the relentless polarization of every last issue of culture and society and nature and beauty along the axis of the national question, go for it. And if the pro-independence artists and creatives protest, as my friends here surely will, that this is not what they want at all, I would respectfully suggest that calling themselves National Collective and Bella Caledonia is not the way to reassure us. If you thrill to the vision of the future that these names evoke, knock yourself out.

But I think most artists would prefer to keep their independence. I'm voting No.

7 Comments:

I've been trying to translate "Bella Caledonia" into English. The nearest I can get is "Wars by, with or from Scotland", or just possibly "Wars, O Scotland". But I'm not quite sure that that's what those who named it intended to convey.

Fun though twitting them may be, the name Bella Caledonia obviously means 'Beautiful Scotland' and is taken from a character in Alastair Gray's novel Poor Things - hence the lassie in the logo.

The resulting debt and deficit is used as an excuse to cut services to those who need them most. This is the case in just about every country, whatever its political system.

You may have given up the fight, but those of us who are voting Yes are attempting to keep driving the wedge into that "just about".

How is that supposed to work?

One of the best arguments I've read for a long while.

So you accept the lurch to the right all Westminster parties pander to in the scrabble for votes and that in Scotland our votes will make no difference for generations to come. You accept that the welfare state will be dismantled and the poor will be made to suffer. You accept that nuclear wepons are more important than a just society. I am sorry that you feel that the mechanics of separation will be too difficult for you and that the reason you are voting no is that you dislike the SNP (because of some forecast of future artistic control). Some of us can see past narrow nationalism to a better future. If you are expecting a socialist revolution to bring change then I think you will wait a very long time. Well done, you have really thought this through.

If I 'accept' all these things (I don't, of course) then so must the Communist Party/Morning Star, which argues against Scottish independence for much the same reasons as I do.

My objection about the mechanics of separation isn't that they are 'too difficult' but that they are likely to be - guess what - divisive.

I don't particularly dislike the SNP. What I dislike is a section of the Scottish left that has subordinated itself to the SNP and promotes illusions in independence.

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