Envisioning Real Scotland


by Pat Kane

Hopes, visions – and fears – for 2011 in Scotland? Certainly, the prospect of a Labour-dominated Scottish Parliament after the May elections has a strange, deadening feel to it. Observing the half-hearted constitutional contortions of the Calman Bill, with its eccentric repatriations of powers to Holyrood and its anaemic concessions on fiscal powers, shows how punctured and empty the Unionist imagination is (never mind the extinction of the federal spirit of Scottish Liberals).

But the spectacle of a Scottish Parliament slowed to a stunned snail’s pace, kept quiescent as the Westminster Labour Party works on disaffected Lib-Dem voters and MPs to unravel or challenge the Coalition over the next few years, is deeply depressing.

How can it be avoided? The nature and extent of the SNP’s hold over the popular imagination in Scotland, after four years of minority government, has to be directly addressed. Are they perceived as only a Tartanised version of Peter Oborne’s “political classes”, with at least some of the taint of the Westminster expenses scandal, of complacency about the financialisation of our economy, of white-elephant creating (for Millennium Dome and Nesta read the Gathering and the Saltire Prize) while glaring inequalities in Scottish communities exist?

Or, alternately, do they still display that attractive zeal and ambition in the promotion of a distinctive “Scottish Way” – in which education has a comprehensive and inclusive dimension, in which health is kept apart from market mechanisms, in which the natural resources and beauty of the country are developed and harnessed, in which values of justice, participation and equity are still explicit (the Jimmy Reid question) – but which only sharpens their critique of the limited powers of the Parliament?

Yes, there will be engagement in a numbers game over the use and deployment of public-sector employees, or about our relatively successful economic record amidst recession – that is, statistics will be used to verify the managerial competence of the SNP government. Will “defending a record” be enough to solidify the Nationalists as the “party of Scottish progress” in the minds of voters? A Polly Toynbee / David Walker-style reckoning of the SNPs governmental record will undoubtedly be a very political piece of research, if and when it appears over the next five months. And yes, abstract and romantic appeals to national sovereignty, draped in Saltires with rolling hills in the background, will doubtless be evoked.

But there is a bigger credibility gap for the SNP to fill than these trusted techniques can address.  A high wave of policy innovation might do it. But it’s not as if there isn’t quite a lot of material there already, not all of it readily developable. The discussion about macro-level economic powers has moved from the National Conversation and the Independence Bill with its carefully laid-out economic powers, to the business-driven, cross-ideological debate about fiscal autonomy – but with an undoubted hole blown in the side of the discourse by the Crash, and the easily lampooned “Arc of Prosperity/Arc of Insolvency” headline.

That the SNP should have some well-worked out and authoritative economic briefing to cope with the “an-Independent-Scotland-would-have-been-crushed-by-the-Crash” charge is obvious. If it doesn’t appear quickly and soon, with some powerful and authoritative backing, they will be permanently vulnerable to the charge.

A countervailing and positive strategy is to present a convincing enterprise case for full taxation, borrowing and regulatory powers. The green-energy and -tech sector is still the strongest synthesis of so many of these different elements of Scottish progress – native talent, natural resource, and the need for control over market conditions that create incentives for innovation and dynamism in this area. But green dynamism has to be made concrete at the level of non-entrepreneur-class jobs – retrofitting, infrastructural projects, sustainable community development.

And green lifestyle – the aspirational desire to live healthier, more self-providing, more convivial and sociable lives – has not been inspiringly evoked by an SNP leadership, which seems a little too comfortable with business lunches and ministerial chauffeuring. Again, those invoking visions of Scotland as a progressive environmental society have to be careful to walk – rather than waddle – their talk.

I would love the SNP to start “envisioning real utopias“, in the words of the Swedish social theorist Erik Olin Wright. This is a process in which institutional reforms and creations, aimed at practically improving the immediate conditions of citizens, are also heading towards the egalitarian horizons represented by the late Jimmy Reid’s phrase, “the rat race is for rats”.

As a socialist who wants to promote the “social power” of democratic and collective self-determination, in dominance over economic power and state power, Wright’s specific policy suggestions may seem challenging: Argentina’s participatory budgets; Quebec’s Solidarity funds; Wikipedia as a new model of collective investment in knowledge; workers’ cooperatives (according to the Mondragon model); and a guaranteed social wage (to support the care economy).

But I wonder whether there is a way that a solid campaign strategy of “defending and extending our achievements” within the devolutionary framework, can be combined with something a bit more experimental and futuristic. Perhaps an attempt to anticipate the kinds of new lifestyles, institutions, possibilities and services that would be possible with maximum attainable political and economic autonomy (or independence).

In the style of the wildly-successful online conference, one might imagine it as TEDIndependence – a range of short web presentations which take as their premise an independent Scotland, and imagine (or imagineer) what would be practically possible within that settlement. The lightness and accessibility of the TED style would place it in a different realm from the argy-bargy of character assassination that seems to be the coming tactic of the Scottish Labour campaign.

It could also connect with ambitious, conversation-setting knowledge workers, and the newly mobilised student movements too. One might imagine TEDIndependence Salons, where (as in the Obama campaign) people were encouraged to gather in others’ homes and communities with these videos as a starting-point for discussion.

We must always be wary of the American technology critic Evgeny Morozov called the “Net Delusion” when it comes to political organisation: these suggestions would only be an amplification of the kinds of real-world doorstepping and street activism that still makes up the sinews of a political movement. But the central ambition for using social media in this way – that independence should be about disciplined but imaginative leaps into one’s own future – is still best expressed by Alasdair Gray: “work as if you were in the early days of a better nation”.

Independence at the state level has to be rooted in autonomy and self-determination at the individual and community level. Ministers might do well to remember what it took to get them there, in order that they might have a chance of a second bite at the apple of Scottish freedom.

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