An essay written ahead of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Imagine going to the polling station on General Election day and being given your ballot paper. You take it into the cubicle and study it carefully, but all you see are the same old discredited parties that have been in and out of power for decades, all complicit in bringing your country to the woeful impasse everyone has been lamenting throughout the campaign. Maybe there are one or two newer parties, but for you they are non-starters. ‘I wish there was a None of the Above option’, you think wryly. But then you see something even better. At the very bottom of the list, you see a new option: ‘Alternatively, put a cross here for Something Else.’ Something Else? That’s just what you wanted to vote for! Problem solved.
Except, of course, it isn’t. Eighteen months-or-so later, you’re voting in another election, looking at another ballot paper, and guess what? All you see are the same old parties you didn’t want to vote for the last time. Was this some kind of joke? No. This, in truncated form, is the story of the Scottish independence referendum. Or at least it will be if Scottish voters take the bait on Thursday.
Pro-independence campaigners are convinced an independent Scotland would have a fundamentally different political make-up, but this assumption is not supported by the experience of the devolved Scottish parliament, which has hardly had to have its radicalism reined in by Westminster. All the parties are the same, except Scotland has the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is distinct only in favouring independence. One key difference is that the Conservatives are even more unpopular in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, but even this is overstated: at the last General Election, the Tories won 17 per cent of the vote in Scotland compared to 40 per cent in England; a big difference, but nothing like the zero to 80 per cent you would imagine from the way ‘Yessers’ talk.
The key similarity between politics north and south of the border is that none of the parties is genuinely popular: Scottish anti-Toryism is not matched by enthusiasm for Labour or any other party. The SNP’s surprise victory in the 2011 Scottish election was generally recognised as a vote for ‘Something Else’ in the Scottish parliament, since no more than a third of Scots backed actual independence in polls. Still, elections speak louder than polls, so victory for the nationalists had to mean a referendum, if for no other reason than to seek clarification of just how Else that Something was to be. Of course, there are some Scots who want independence for its own sake, but never enough to win the referendum. It is those Scots who are simply desperate for an alternative who could make the difference.
The Better Together campaign has failed to grasp this, and has thus appeared for much of the campaign to be making little more than an apologetic case for the status quo against a phantom ‘nationalism’ few people believe in. This is unsurprising given that the campaign is run by the status-quo parties – or, more accurately, the status-quo parties minus the SNP, which has governed Scotland since 2011 after all. The case No campaigners need to make is not that things are fine as they are, but that meaningful change is possible, and even more likely, at the UK level. Instead, they have mostly focused on the dangers of going it alone, implying that No means Yes to more of the same politics.
In contrast, a relative success of the Yes lobby has been to run an upbeat campaign on the entirely negative premise that the UK political situation is so bad, and prospects of change so hopeless, that an independent Scotland couldn’t possibly be any worse. Indeed, there is so much uncertainty about what an independent Scotland would actually be like – the currency situation, whether it would be in or out of the EU, how the economy would fare – that this is the only credible argument in favour of it (again, except for the minority who want independence no matter what).
What is really objectionable about the Yes campaign, however, is its disingenuous assumption that the argument is between Scots on one hand and the UK establishment on the other, rather than a disagreement among Scots. The ugliest aspect of the campaign has not been any anti-Englishness, but rather a contempt for the (probably) majority of Scots who plan to vote No. They are portrayed as cowards and lackeys who lack the independence of mind to break free. This is especially unfair given that polls have shown for generations that most Scots actually want to remain in the UK. There is nothing cowardly about refusing to grasp an ‘opportunity’ you don’t want.
Through the rhetoric of hope triumphing over fear, Yessers peddle the falsehood that deep down all Scots want independence, but some are just afraid to go for it. On the contrary, though, it is a loss of hope in British politics that has moved some to back independence as a last resort. This is why the actual content of a new Scottish politics is so hard to pin down.
In fact, first choice for most Scots – certainly enough to swing the referendum – would be to remain in the UK but without a Tory government. A UK with a Labour government, then. But this is where it gets complicated. Because there is little appetite for an actual Labour government, led by real people like Ed Miliband and Johann Lamont. No, what people might go for is something more like the sort of Labour government Scots voted for all those years in the 1980s, but which never got in, never actually existed. Not quite Old Labour, though, because if Scots had wanted that they would have voted for Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party, which tanked. No, instead, the sort of Labour whose policies and principles you can’t really articulate because it’s like trying to remember a distant dream, but a party that’s somehow decent and compassionate and everything the Tories are not.
So a UK under that kind of government would have been first choice, but unfortunately it wasn’t available, firstly because that Labour Party doesn’t exist, and secondly because English people inexplicably refuse to vote for it. So, second choice, how about a Scotland with that kind of government? Okay, independence itself doesn’t address the first problem, the non-existence of a political party you want to vote for, but it sure takes care of the second one: those stubborn English people who seem so dead set against it.
You get the idea. For those motivated by the desire for a political alternative rather than national feeling, the independence movement is a massive displacement activity. It ignores the real problems facing Scotland and the UK alike to focus on a non-problem: the English voters who are apparently preventing Scotland from doing all the wonderful things it would be doing if not for the UK government. A Yes vote would clear the path for the radical programme of the party-that-doesn’t-exist.
Of course, there are those with very clear ideas about what kind of politics they would like to see in an independent Scotland. There are Yessers who blog and tweet away about the left-wing, green, pseudo-Nordic utopia they imagine, but their radicalism contrasts sharply with the politics of the official Yes campaign, which emphasises continuity, while the SNP courts both the EU and big business.
The situation is reminiscent of 1997, when the radical left voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour while vowing to build a socialist alternative which of course never materialised. The difference is that left-wing Yessers and others who dislike the SNP’s policies other than independence don’t actually have to vote for the SNP. The referendum is a chance to engage in politics without engaging in politics, to vote for a political alternative without committing to any particular political alternative – or having to convince anyone else of its merits. You get all the euphoria of ‘change’ while putting actual politics in abeyance.
I’m reminded of something written by Alexander Trocchi, Scotland’s very own Beat writer and a notorious junkie. In Cain’s Book, a novel published in 1960, he described how heroin allows one to exist only in the present: ‘It’s somehow undignified to speak of the past or to think about the future. I don’t seriously occupy myself with the question in the “here-and-now,” lying on my bunk and, under the influence of heroin, inviolable. That is one of the virtues of the drug, that it empties such questions of all anguish, transports them to another region, a painless theoretical region, a play region, surprising, fertile, and unmoral.’
There is something of this unworldly, dopey quality in the Yes campaign. It asks voters to close their eyes and imagine the Scotland they want, and to vote Yes on the assumption that they will get it. It reassures the cautious that nothing will really change while encouraging dreamers to build castles in the sky. And it asks Scots not to worry about the details, because those can be ironed out between the referendum and the first elections in an independent Scotland. Vote Yes, and in doing so hit the Giant Snooze Button of History, and when you wake up, we’ll have a smashing wee election with a wide choice of parties-that-don’t-exist.
Not so, Yessers would insist. A Yes vote would usher in a golden age of democratic participation, bubbling with ideas and creativity. But this is wishful thinking. There may of course be parties with new names – ‘social democratic’ is the meaningless label most often bandied about – but what exactly is it about leaving the UK that is supposed to generate ideas and possibilities not currently available? And if the new politics we’re about to see is so inspiring, why is it inconceivable that it might also appeal to people in Manchester or Leeds, or Chipping Norton for that matter?
In any case, there would be no blank slate. The first order of business would be the considerable project of undoing a 300-year-old union and renegotiating Scotland’s place in the world. Scottish politics after independence would be dominated by the country’s relationship with England like never before. There would be years of acrimonious wrangling about everything from oil to border controls, not to mention the numerous institutions Scotland currently shares with the UK. As for currency, demanding independence while insisting on monetary union, as the Scottish government has suggested, is like filing for divorce and expecting to retain your conjugal rights.
Then there’s the EU, which the SNP wants Scotland to ‘stay’ in. Effectively, though, it would have to join from scratch: a small country desperate to join a massive institution whose other member states are either ambivalent or hostile. Even if accepted, the terms are hardly likely to be favourable. More generally, the uncertainty brought about by independence would be economically damaging, at least in the short term, in a still precarious global context.
In principle, of course Scotland is as capable as any other country of having a successful economy, but the process of becoming independent would expose it to new risks. Given that so many Yessers claim to be critics of capitalism, they have an almost touching faith in the capacity of a capitalist economy to provide a comfortable standard of living for all if only it is managed by people with the right ‘values’. In fact, even a ‘social democratic’ Scottish government could find itself compelled by circumstances to impose austerity measures far worse than anything seen in the UK, and Scotland’s golden age of democratic participation could culminate in huge demonstrations led by people with no better answers than those in government.
It is a risk that might be worth taking if the Scottish parliament really were being held back by the UK government from pursuing a clear agenda for a better kind of society. But it isn’t. The whole project is a punt based more on disaffection with British politics than genuine belief in an actual Scottish alternative. Sure, you can believe in ‘Scotland’, but that’s a nationalist’s answer. Those motivated by a desire for meaningful social change should have higher standards.
The most frustrating thing is the fact that voting No isn’t the ‘answer’ either. Or rather, it’s the right answer to the wrong question. British politics is a mess, and the major parties are intellectually and morally bankrupt. The wish to have done with it is understandable. But Scottish politics is British politics, too – the lifeboat is just as full of holes as the ship of state. Scots who want Something Else are in the same position as their English counterparts. A No vote will at least acknowledge this reality, and prevent further political energy and enthusiasm being channeled into a dead end.
First published on spiked.