Dear England: Scottish independence and what it means for you

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By Stephen Bowman

Depending on who you listen to, Scotland is currently a one-party state under the tyrannical rule of the megalomaniac Alex Salmond. The ‘rotten’ Scottish First Minister is in the midst of whipping up anti-English sentiment in an effort to distract voters from the ‘real issues’ at hand so that he can place himself, and the SNP, at the head of a ‘separate’ Scotland for ever and anon.

Hadrian’s Wall is being rebuilt as we speak, while there are suggestions that Scotland may have developed nuclear weapons and is in the process of testing them in the North Sea ahead of a possible attack on Berwick-upon-Tweed.

By Stephen Bowman

Depending on who you listen to, Scotland is currently a one-party state under the tyrannical rule of the megalomaniac Alex Salmond. The ‘rotten’ Scottish First Minister is in the midst of whipping up anti-English sentiment in an effort to distract voters from the ‘real issues’ at hand so that he can place himself, and the SNP, at the head of a ‘separate’ Scotland for ever and anon.

Hadrian’s Wall is being rebuilt as we speak, while there are suggestions that Scotland may have developed nuclear weapons and is in the process of testing them in the North Sea ahead of a possible attack on Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Simultaneously, Salmond has commandeered an unused subterranean oil pipeline between the London Treasury and Edinburgh and is siphoning English taxpayers’ money to fund such egotistical and subversive schemes as free personal care for the elderly, free healthcare and free university education. Scotland is a land of milk and honey, where milk and honey really does flow directly into everyone’s homes via the water mains. Irn Bru and square sausages are not just free, they are compulsory.

Okay, I exaggerate. Yet the inference that Salmond is uniquely undemocratic and untrustworthy was there when Jeremy Paxman likened the Scottish First Minister to Robert Mugabe in a BBC interview last year. It was also there when Scottish Labour MP Anas Sarwar stood up in the House of Commons in January this year and said that Scotland  ‘is not a democratic place in the conventional sense; it is a dictatorship of one man sitting in Bute House’.

The interestingly contradictory perception of Scotland is of a country under the corrupt rule of a uniquely self-serving and anti-English politician, who spends English hand-outs maintaining a standard of living wildly, and unfairly, better than in any other part of the UK. Presumably Scotland is a social democratic dictatorship. Such notions are, of course, constructs of the unionist press.

All the same, since I moved to the North East of England in September 2011, and following occasionally heated discussions about Scottish independence with acquaintances, friends and colleagues, I have been left with the impression that, for many people in the region, there exists a very real feeling of resentment towards the Scots. With Scotland potentially becoming independent and removing its Labour MPs from the Westminster Parliament, the worry is that the people of the North East will be left at the mercy of the Tory party, with whom they have no more in common than do the Scots. The implication is that Scotland and the North East of England have both been badly served by distant London governments and that we should all just stick it out together.

I understand and sympathise with this resentment. I also reject it.

For one thing, it makes no more intellectual sense to feel resentment after Scottish independence than it does to feel resentment now. Scotland does indeed already have a devolved Scottish government implementing policies which many people in the North East of England may also feel an ideological affinity with, but to which they have no access. Indeed, that is itself a cause of resentment which is occasionally, and unjustly, directed at Scotland. Such resentment should instead be mobilised in opposition to the democratic deficit inherent to the current constitutional arrangements. In other words, a radical overhaul of the United Kingdom, up to and including Scottish independence, is required.

Any sort of resentment during this great debate over the future of the UK is both distasteful and unhelpful and should be rejected for a further two broad reasons. The first reason is nationalist, while the second is internationalist.

Firstly, it is a mistake not to recognise that Scotland already exists as a nation. Even though being a nationalist and a supporter of independence are sometimes taken to be the same, really they aren’t. You don’t need to be a nationalist to support independence, and vice versa. Perhaps that’s because in Scotland, Scottish nationhood is a self-evident truth. I don’t think this is fully understood in England, where there is still some fear of ‘nationalism’, of any shade.

As Robin McAlpine has argued in an article for the Jimmy Reid Foundation, a lack of understanding in England of Scottish nationalism and nationhood has allowed people like UKIP’s Nigel Farage – recently heckled by socialist and anti-fascist campaigners in Edinburgh, some of whom were English – to get away with painting Scottish nationalism as anti-English and racist.

Importantly, however, Scottish nationhood genuinely doesn’t entail negativity or feelings of superiority on the part of its residents towards those of another country, including England. Nor does it assume any particular political stance in relation to the union. The Scottish nation is accepted by Scottish opponents and proponents of independence alike.

Even after union with England in 1707, Scotland maintained its own legal, educational and religious systems, and continues to have a distinct civil society. The creation of a Scottish Parliament in 1999 merely recognised a reality.

In these ways, Scotland cannot be compared to those English counties which are regarded as having some kind of autonomous identity separate from the rest of England and Britain, like Northumberland or Yorkshire. Failure to accept the ‘fact’ of Scotland, and failure to understand that it is a country with its own internal regional and cultural differences, is one possible contributor to English resentment toward the potential of Scottish independence. As with the unfounded fear that Scottish independence is anti-English, a lack of understanding in England has bred resentment.

In both cases – opposition to the idea of Scotland leaving the North East of England to the worst excesses of the City of London, and the perception that the campaign for Scottish independence is some kind of personal insult against those living south of the border – English resentment towards the Scots is undermined if Scotland is understood as a nation. Thus it becomes less legitimate to criticise the people of Scotland for exercising their right to self-determination on the basis that the possible results may adversely affect the political representation of people in what is plainly another country.

Yes, it is nationalistic to say so, but a country can only do what its people perceive as in its national interest. Simply put, removal of doubt or uneasiness over Scotland’s status as a nation should remove English resentment at the possible effects of that nation’s full independence.

The second broad reason for rejecting English resentment at Scottish independence is internationalist. Alex Salmond has suggested that an independent Scotland could become a ‘beacon of progressivism’ and a catalyst for social democratic change elsewhere in Europe. To be sure, this is an overly neat concept, and downplays Scotland’s more conservative aspects, including the SNP’s commitment to neoliberal economic ideas.

There is, however, truth behind the rhetoric. Broadly speaking, Scotland’s electorate votes for centre-left parties – be it the SNP or Labour – and supports a policy agenda which, even before independence, is marked by striking differences to the ideas prevailing in Westminster.

Generally speaking, Scots favour a strong interventionist state. This is not because they are dependent on the state for benefits, or because it employs lots of them, as is sometimes spuriously implied. Instead, it is because Scotland has a collectivist tradition which means that people regard the state as having a communitarian and benign role to play. That’s why Scotland has free prescriptions, free care for the elderly and free university education.

That’s also why there is every reason to regard what is happening in Scotland as the only meaningful challenge to the aggressive individualism of Thatcherism, which continues today through the UK government’s ideological assault on the welfare state and its wilful demonization of the poor. An independent Scotland would not pursue such policies.

The ‘Yes’ campaign is largely a coalition of progressives, including Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, while the SNP Government has already made clear its own social democratic credentials. It is, moreover, outward looking, internationalist and pro-Europe.

In Scotland, the debate in relation to Europe is not over whether Britain should leave the EU, it is instead over whether remaining part of the UK is the best means for Scotland to retain EU membership. Unionists and nationalists both proceed from the assumption that Scots favour continued EU membership, and both proclaim that their vision for Scotland’s future is the only one that guarantees continued EU membership. Recent events in England, with both Tories and Labour scrambling rightward in response to the challenge of UKIP, lends the lie to the unionist argument.

But if there is one issue which underlines the progressive significance of Scottish independence, it is Trident. Simply, an independent Scotland will demand the removal of these illegal weapons of mass destruction from the naval base at Faslane. This would create a unique geopolitical dilemma for the UK government, with a recent report by the Foreign Affairs Committee at Westminster suggesting that it would cost too much to build a replacement base in England.

In other words, an independent Scotland could force the UK’s nuclear disarmament and, in so doing, do serious damage to Britain’s pretensions as a world power. This would strike at the heart of the identity of the British establishment and could see the beginning of the end for what is an anachronistic, militaristic institution. More than all the commendable protests and peace campsites at Faslane, Scottish independence provides a palpable and achievable challenge to nuclear weapons.

Thus Scottish independence is of international significance because it could provide an example of different ways of doing things: an alternative to the backwardness of Westminster. It could give succour to those in England who support progressive change, and could strike fatal blows at some of the worst aspects of the British State.

To be sure, only residents in Scotland – of whatever origin – can vote in the referendum. In that sense, it is a nationalist franchise. Progressives in England do not, as such, have a say. It can, however, become an international discourse.  The referendum could spark debate elsewhere and act as a catalyst for wider international change. Instead of feeling shut out of the independence debate, people in England should feel re-energised by what is happening in Scotland and should think about the very real opportunities it presents to them.

Indeed, even without trying to – and thus without impinging on the Scots’ right to national self-determination – those in England could positively influence the outcome of the referendum. Scots have long worn their identity on their sleeves. But this pride often seems accompanied by a certain lack of self-confidence, the so-called ‘Scottish cringe’.

This has perhaps been lessened in the years of the SNP’s Scottish Government – itself a change from Labour’s ‘Scottish Executive’ – but independence is truly a bold step away from what has often been a paralysing insecurity about what Scotland’s community can and can’t do. That’s why a realisation in Scotland that progressives across Europe are watching the referendum with great interest, and with no little hope, could give Scots more confidence and tip the scales in favour of independence.

Scottish independence won’t fix all of Scotland’s problems. In the short term, it will fix even fewer problems in England. But it is the only realistic radical option on the table.

That’s why it’s time for some liberals and lefties in England to stop swallowing the reactionary and false narrative that Scottish nationalism is somehow anti-English. It’s time to stop sneering from the sidelines and proclaiming on what can’t be done. 

Instead, more people need to take notice of what’s happening in Scotland and pay better attention to the details. Contrary to what you might have read in the unionist press, Scottish independence has nothing, and everything, to do with England.

Stephen Bowman is originally from Cumbernauld and is currently working towards a PhD in History at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne.