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.


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.

This from a fellow Leòdhasach...

Btw, did Great Britain deal with the banking crisis? Or did it just as a couple of £billion to its £trillion debt? Hey, anyone could that!

As to climate change - Scotland could be the world leader in renewables. Does that not combat climate change? Or is fracking Loch Lomondside as DC proposes the answer? Gaoth is uisge gu leòr againn!

This is excellent stuff Ken thank you.

The condescending chauvinism of the Indyleft who think that the English need us to show them that alreternatives are possible says much about the nationalist left’s self regard and unwillingness to deal with the world we live in, rather than the one they would like.

The problems we face require a response driven by the reality that we are workers who happen to be scots - not scots who happen to be workers.

Thanks Stephen! (By the way, are you Stephen Low of Red Paper fame?)

The attitude of Scots exceptionalism is also shared by some in England, notably Billy Bragg who has argued consistently, if bafflingly, that the English working class (he ignores Wales & Ni completely as he describes himself as an "English Nationalist") is waiting for Scottish independence before it can emancipate itself.

In other words, Scots more enlightened than English. Very sad from someone who used to sing the INTERnationale

eh yes... 'fame' is probably stretching it a bit though

Ken, i was your biggest fan. like, really. i'm an american and i have been pushing your books for years. my heart is breaking.

you're a monarchist????

i don't even know what to say. i believed you were the Real Thing, as we say over here. WFT?

i guess i'm going to wait on buying your next book. a pretty long while. this is so bitter for me, some of your books taught me what the Revolution should be like, but you want to keep your expensive Queen. OK. /sobs

chicago dyke -

I'm not a monarchist. What on earth makes you think I am?

Ken, I think it was that whole "I'm voting No" thing that did it. :)

Hi, I'm a friend of Chicago Dyke's which is how I happened to get here. I do not in any way speak for her but have some questions of my own.

You mentioned the Important Questions (the monetary situation and climate change) to which Scottish independence is not an answer. In what way is a continuation of the status quo likely to lead to improvement on either?

I know nothing of Scottish politics or internal power structure. Personally though based on activities of recent decades in the US I suspect you are right in that the smaller the state the easier it is for the Excessively Rich to move in and control things for their own benefit. In this way a No vote is entirely prudent.

However we have the counterexample of Iceland on the banking issues, and Ireland on the benefits, tax wise anyway, for artists. How do you think a Yes vote would affect climate change? Does the current government have subsidies for wind and solar installations to reduce carbon output? Would an independent government be likely to start or increase or decrease such measures?

I guess my hope for the outcome is a Yes vote that loses by less than 1% or so, to make the Green Left do the work required to answer the questions you propose above. And both Green and Red Left to come up with a plan for an independent currency. Carrying on with the pound would be no independence at all, and as far as the Euro, ask Spain and Greece how that is working for them.

Scottish independence would be lovely if Scotland can be independent. Self sufficient in energy, food and manufacturing with control over its own trade policies. If strides can be made in those directions (never going to be a perfect guarantee any more than there is in any other part of life) then next time around Yes will win in a well deserved landslide.

Great article, glad I read it even if ChiDy will thump on me for this response. I have drifted away from SF in recent years but must start picking up your work. :)

Xan Avalon

Have been a fan for a long time. I am Puerto Rican and think that all nations have a right to independence but you make some very good arguments. Look forward to your next book.

"You mentioned the Important Questions (the monetary situation and climate change) to which Scottish independence is not an answer. In what way is a continuation of the status quo likely to lead to improvement on either?"

There is no such thing as a status quo. I don't accept the attitude of fatalism surrounding the future of the UK. Look beyond the referendum. The UKIP are dividing the right wing vote. Public disgust over NHS privatisation is universal. The chickens of climate change will be coming home to roost. Huge swathes of people who voted tory now consider the conservatives to be 'too right wing'. If the indie left think their arguments for reform of the state is so good, then they can make those arguments to the people of England as well.

One way or another, political changes will take place over the future. Does the distraction of international acrimony help? I don't think so.

Thanks, Xan Avalon and Chicago Dyke.

Just on the point about the monarchy: the Scottish Government's White Paper setting out policies for an independent Scotland, and the SNP's draft of a Scottish Constitution, explicitly state that they want to keep the Queen (and her successors, in due course) as Head of State.

My opening point about war and economic crisis and climate change may have been too elliptical: what I should have said was that the most pressing problems are global, and require a global response from the workers of the world, or at least of the most economically important countries. A tall order to be sure but not made any closer by partitioning Britain and the (still, just about) united working class of that country.

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