There are two fundamental issues at the heart of the Scottish independence debate: Independence from what? And for what? The answers to both questions seem obvious. Independence for Scotland means independence from the UK, or, more specifically, from rule from London. And it would be independence for Scotland to pursue its own policies. Dig a little deeper, though, and we find that the answers are not nearly so straightforward.
The nationalists seem strangely reluctant truly to break away from Westminster. The SNP wants, for instance, to keep the British Queen as the head of state – a more potent symbol of an undemocratic system and of ‘London rule’ it would be hard to imagine. It wants also to keep sterling as its currency, a policy which would hand the Bank of England and the British Chancellor of Exchequer considerable control over the Scottish economy. For all the talk of breaking free of British rule, and of establishing a more democratic system, the pro-independence movement itself is seeking to constrain Scottish democracy and independence.
The answer to the question ‘independence for what?’ is equally problematic. For many, especially leftwing, nationalists, Scotland needs independence to pursue its own radical agenda because it is being held back by English conservatism. There are currently 304 Conservative MPs at the Westminster parliament; just one comes from Scotland. Free of England, nationalists suggest, Scotland would no longer have to suffer the Tories’ austerity policies or cuts to public services.
Whether an independent Scotland would actually ditch austerity policies or create the health service that Scots need is a moot point. But the nationalist argument is a challenge as much to democracy as it is to Tory policies. If everyone always got the government they desired, democracy would be redundant. We only need democracy because different people hold different views, and we often disagree with government policies. The Scots have, of course, a democratic right to vote for independence. But to suggest that they should do because there is a conservative-led government at Westminster seems fundamentally to misunderstand the nature and demands of democracy. Democracy puts the onus upon us to engage with people and to change their minds. Rather than create a movement that can challenge Tory policies throughout the UK, however, proponents of Scottish independence seek to create a new constituency that they think will be more amenable to their views.
An independent Scotland will not solve the dilemma that democracy often creates governments with which a large proportion, even the majority, of the population disagree. There is no single Scottish view on any issue from abortion to Iraq to independence. Scots, like the rest of the UK, are divided by class, culture, politics, gender, age and much else. And, when it comes to politics and values, rather than a mythicised national identity, Scots often have greater affinities with people in England than with fellow-Scots. As the comedian Billy Connolly has put it, ‘I’ve always remembered that I have a lot more in common with a welder from Liverpool than I do with someone with an agricultural background from the Highlands.’
The very fractiousness of the independence debate shows how divided Scotland is. If Scotland becomes independent, should the Labour-supporting areas of Glasgow, or the Orkney and Shetland Islands that for decades have voted for the Liberal Democrats, insist that they have no desire to be ruled by Edinburgh and seek to self-govern? Or should those who oppose independence seek to form their own mini-state?
Just as there is no Scottish view, so there is no single English view. Resentment of Conservatives is as great in Liverpool and Newcastle as it is in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Billy Connolly’s ‘welder from Liverpool’ is more likely to oppose the Conservatives than ‘someone with an agricultural background from the Highlands’.
There is also in England widespread resentment of the power wielded by London – though ironically, the image of London in England is often the opposite of that expressed by many Scottish nationalists. For Scottish nationalists, London rule represents a suffocating conservatism. Many in England see London, on the contrary, as too liberal, too diverse, too supportive of immigration. UKIP, the populist anti-immigration, anti-EU party, made sweeping gains throughout England in this year’s council election. The one place it did not make much headway was in London.
The irony is that many in England support UKIP for much the same reasons as many in Scotland support independence: because they feel disengaged from mainstream politics, marginalized and voiceless. Not just in Scotland, nor even just in the UK, but throughout Europe there is a crisis of political representation, a growing sense of political institutions as being remote and corrupt, of voters being denied a voice, of traditional parties abandoning their traditional constituencies. One expression of this has been growing support for populist parties, such as UKIP in Britain or the Front National in France. Scottish nationalism is another expression of this social mood. It is not that the SNP and UKIP have the same kinds of policies. Clearly they don’t. And I would not want to suggest that the SNP is reactionary in the way that UKIP is. What connects them is growing disconnect between the public and the political sphere.
As the political sphere has narrowed in recent years, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the ways in which people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations has changed. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people have come to ask themselves is not so much ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. In recent years, however, the two questions have come more and more to be regarded as synonymous.
The answer to the question ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to struggle to establish than by the kind of people that we imagine we are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ defined less by the kind of society we want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly we belong. Or, to put it another way, as broader political, cultural and national identities have eroded, and as traditional social networks have weakened, so people’s sense of belonging has become more narrow and parochial, moulded less by the possibilities of a transformative future than by an often mythical past. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity. This shift is apparent in both England and Scotland; it has merely expressed itself in different ways.
There are many cases, from India to Ireland, in which nationalist movements have sought to overthrow the restraints placed by an external power upon democracy or self-determination. National identity in these cases may play a major role in fostering the collective action against injustice and for democratic rights.
Scotland today is not such a case. The problem of democracy is not one of ‘London rule’ or external restraint. It is not a matter of injustice or denial of democratic rights. Scots are not being denied the right to vote, or to celebrate their culture, or to express the identity, or to act as citizens. The problem, rather, derives from the same kinds of trends evident throughout the UK, and indeed throughout Europe – the disengagement of people from the political process, the breakdown of more universal movements for social change.
The challenge we face is to build new social mechanisms that can overcome the fragmentary character of contemporary politics, reverse the replacement of broader political and cultural identities with more narrow, parochial ones, confront the shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity. Scottish independence will not help achieve any of this. In fact, it will only exacerbate those very problems.
The pictures are, from top down, John Duncan’s ‘Riders of Sidhe’, (The McManus Gallery, Dundee); James Craig Annan, ‘The Dark Mountains’ (Scottish National Gallery); Wilhelmina Barns-Graham ’s ‘Scorpio Series 1, No. 7’ (The Barns Graham Charitable Trust). The front page image is from Dorothy Bruce’s ‘On the North Road’.