A Beginner’s Guide to Scottish Independence and Britain

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by Gerry Hassan, Open Democracy

It has never been very simple to describe Scotland and Britain to people from other places.

Scotland is a nation, but not a state. The trouble begins when you try to explain the UK. It is not a nation, but a state. It is routinely described in our political conversations and on that fountain of wisdom, wikipedia as ‘a unitary state’, when it is in fact a ‘union state’. You can see where confusions begin.

If all of this troubles foreigners then it is not completely surprisingly that the British political classes and world, including think tanks, media and government, see Scotland as a distant, strange land, one they either don’t think about, or see occasionally as they do now, as a land of chippy restless natives. And even more crucially, this apex of British power, influence and status, hasn’t a clue about the nature and composition of the UK and this matters to all of us.

Once upon a time it was all so different. The British establishment had a deep understanding of what Britain was, its history, or one version of it, and the nations and peoples of these isles. This was a partial, elite story, but it has a popular resonance and version. There were powerful Tory and Labour stories of Britain, the first the land of patriotism and localism, the second, a ‘people’s story’ of progress; they have both withered and are no more.

In the last few days, Scotland has voted for a SNP majority government which is committed to an independence referendum at some point in its current parliamentary term. This is an event which has Scottish, UK and international consequences. It is not just a Scottish story, but a UK and international one.

Now a clever answer to where we find ourselves is to ask as Bill Emmott did in ‘The Times’ this week, what exactly is the problem Scottish independence is the answer to? This question illustrates the gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Scots would list: the fact that Britain is the fourth most unequal rich country in the world, London that splendid ‘world city’ the most unequal city, and the fossiled, ossified, bankrupt politics of the British state. There is a powerful sense in Scotland that Britain doesn’t work effectively for most Scots, or indeed for most English, Welsh and Northern Irish people, but that Scotland has a clear way of doing something about it.

Scottish nationalism – by which I mean a movement and set of opinions well beyond the SNP – has these last few decades remade Scottish politics, changed society and institutions, and provided some of our most influential thinkers: Tom Nairn, the late Neil MacCormick, Neal Ascherson and others. It is revealing that over the same period Labour and the unionist cause have not had one person of similar standing since the death of J.P. Mackintosh in 1978. There is a palpable crisis of Scottish unionism which long predated Margaret Thatcher, but which has roots in the demise of Empire and how post-war Scottish society has changed.

What is interesting about Scottish nationalism is how relatively open, generous and pluralist it is. This is not to be rose-tinted or romantic about it. Like any political movement it has its shortcomings: an over-sentimentalising of Scotland and Scottish history which is more ‘we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ than Bannockburn and Robert Bruce, and a catch-all politics combining centre-left values with compromise with market fundamentalism very similar to New Labour and politics elsewhere.

Yet on the crucial question of independence Scottish nationalism could be the most bold, ambitious and radical reformers to the British political system. Indeed, they could even in some senses, save it from itself.

Nationalists cant despite what Labour and unionist opponents say really get hung up about flags, symbols and border controls. Yes, they do like a bit of dreaming about flags and symbols, but it isn’t what motivates most of them. The opposite is the case as the academic work of James Mitchell shows on the SNP membership, and the writings of Michael Keating explore. The SNP as a party from its leadership to grass roots is extraordinarily flexible about what independence might look like.

This is a politics comfortable with shared sovereignty in the UK and Europe, of flexible, fluid, evolving arrangements, and the kind of politics and statehood which could look very different from what we have grown accustomed to. The SNP are implicit post-nationalists, whereas the British political class obsession with absolute sovereignty, the weary debate about Brussels power and Westminster supremacy, shows a mindset stuck in the 19th century.

Paradoxically, the Scottish nationalist movement could be important friends and allies of the union that makes up the UK. That will require the British state to show an adeptness and fleet of foot in understanding Scotland and Scottish nationalism which Labour and Conservatives have had historically, but haven’t shown in recent times.

And this requires a very different British story. It necessitates the world of Westminster realising it is not this great, cosmopolitan, internationalist village, but a rather narrow, intolerant take on Britain which is a key part of the problem. Britain has a future if the British political classes wake up and realise that they need to know their past and present to have a future, the nature of the country we live in, and embrace a politics fit for the modern world. Otherwise, change is going to come from a northern debate and nation, Scotland, which aspires and aims to live in the 21st century.