“Nothing we say is gonna change anything now” – Independence Day, Bruce Springsteen
So here it is: independence day. The day on which, for many nationalists, Scotland would have gained its ‘freedom’ from the wicked union and embarked upon its journey towards better days; the day on which, for me, some powers would have been transferred from one parliament to another and the latest iteration of pooled sovereignty would have begun.
One thing clear to all but the most rabid of nationalists is that, economically, Scotland would have started life as an independent country in a pretty weak position. Given anti-austerity posturing has been so central to arguments for independence, and the economic position would almost certainly have necessitated ‘austerity’, nationalists do their best to prevaricate and even mislead on this point. This does a very good job of addressing most of the lines wheeled out but one absolutely key point is that much of Scotland’s economic position is due to higher public spending rather than some inherent flaw in the Scottish economy. This isn’t to say that policy at Westminster is irrelevant – indeed it’s essential to acknowledge that different choices have been and are possible. Still, nationalists who seek to blame ‘the union’ for Scotland’s economic troubles would do well to remember that, until the global recession, the SNP vision for the country was as part of a regulatory light-touch ‘arc of prosperity’ with Iceland and Ireland. That ‘arc’ didn’t work out too well.
Anyone who reads me with any regularity, whether on here or elsewhere, will know what I think of Scottish politics post-referendum. I am more convinced than ever that much of the country, and crucially much of Scotland’s left, has gone down a cul de sac of self-delusion. Despite the economic issues I have never argued against independence, and against nationalism, because I don’t believe Scotland could ‘work’ as an independent country. Of course it could. Yet the response to the economics is one of many illustrations of the faith-based nationalism which now dominates politics in the country. As I wrote in this post, “the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland.” Indeed, independence itself is framed as the repository of all that is good and pure. To believe in independence is to be more noble, more progressive, more correct than the dastardly ‘unionists’ who are, in turn, framed as reactionary, conservative, wicked. This is how the nationalists pull off the bizarre trick of claiming to be for ‘democracy’ and ‘self-determination’ while dismissing the ‘self-determination’ exercised by the majority in the referendum – these people were either hopelessly mendacious and thus not worth bothering with or they were duped by the wicked state/establishment/media, unlike the nationalists who saw The Truth.
That the central political divide in Scotland is now ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ is a source of huge sadness for me. What a state for a country to be in, where we end up with the absurd situation where self-proclaimed ‘socialists’ have more ire for socialists who oppose independence than for a Scottish government passing on cuts while reneging on promises to raise the top rate of tax (for example). There is a very real sense that many ‘socialists’ in Scotland would rather Jeremy Corbyn fail than have to face the reality that they privilege nationalism over socialism – as perfectly evidenced by Mhairi Black’s recent admission to Owen Jones that she would rather have an independent Scotland than a UK with a socialist government. Of course, it seems glib for me to complain about the nationalist/unionist framing when I so freely call people nationalists. Nationalism is not, of course, something unique to Scotland and certainly not to those wanting independence. British nationalism is very real, as Scottish nationalists never tire of pointing out. Yet as I’ve covered before, no matter whether they view themselves as left, right or neither, few who push notions of Scottish exceptionalism and who buy into the idea that Westminster is the problem for Scotland (always conveniently ignoring complex questions of sovereignty re: the European Union, NATO, economic power etc) ever view themselves as nationalist. I couldn’t really care less about being labelled a ‘unionist’ but I certainly have little in common with the (Tory) archetype that term has come to evoke. I am a socialist republican who wants fundamental reform of the UK state and who believes that international co-operation, of a substantial kind rather than glib statements of solidarity, is essential to achieving lasting radical change. The independence movement in Scotland has, I think it is clear, placed unnecessary obstacles in the way of this. For all the talk of solidarity which the ‘left-wing, not nationalist’ advocates are fond of, it’s notable that in Scotland the immediate response to any and all Tory attacks is ‘independence’ and ‘Scotland is different’. For example, much of the left in Scotland responds to Tory attacks on trade union laws by demanding that employment law is devolved to Holyrood, rather than seeking to join and build a cross-border movement against them (or, indeed, face Holyrood’s own shortcomings in this area;) similarly, the response to proposals to relax Sunday trading laws in England & Wales was to try and protect the ‘premium’ pay of some Sunday workers in Scotland rather than even begin to address the real issue of employment rights and labour power. These are the very real consequences of the nationalist cul de sac and those who stridently assert that they are pro-independence for reasons of social justice must surely take stock of the movement they are part of: one where the gains have overwhelmingly gone to the SNP and to nationalism, not to socialism and solidarity.
It’s a cul de sac the SNP seem very eager for Scotland to remain in. My disdain for the SNP is clear: I find its use of populist nationalist rhetoric (‘Scotland’s voice’, ‘standing up for Scotland’, ‘the Scottish lion’) to frame the important divide as ‘Scotland/England’ rather than class and economic power to be hugely damaging and not a little embarrassing. I find its eagerness to turn everything into a matter of grievance against Scotland, while dismissing criticisms as ‘talking down Scotland’ to be tragic. Yet even I remain shocked at just how mendacious the party continues to be in its ditching of ‘progressive’ policies (council tax reform, higher rate of tax) while pointing the finger at ‘unionists’ with flat-out lies which rely on people taking its word and not doing any fact-checking. Only yesterday, Philippa Whitford asserted that Labour hadn’t voted against the Budget in a tweet which was swiftly being shared by the faithful. There is no way Whitford could not have known this wasn’t true. Yet in the ‘carnival of democracy’ that is post-referendum Scotland, being ‘engaged’ and ‘educated’ seems to mean sharing nonsense memes about whisky duty and how ‘the vow was a lie’ rather than actually doing the boring work of doing research on the issues you are seemingly so aggrieved about. It seems clear to me that few of those who rant about ‘the vow’ have read the Scotland Bill, just as few who rant about EVEL have the faintest clue what it actually means. It’s telling how quickly the SNP line that a 1p rise in the Scottish rate of income tax wasn’t progressive was taken up and repeated, despite every independent body who looked at it finding otherwise. Yet when the SNP ditch abandoning the council tax or raising tax, the criticism is muted at best (and, at worst, leads to a chorus of excuses from supporters who previously passionately supported these policies).
Displaying not a hint of self-awareness, comedy rag The National has today published a couple of ‘what if’ pieces which are perfect examples of the faith-based nationalism I have described above. This one describes a world where an independent Scotland has become a one-party state with free energy on tap, the ditching of Trident has led to world peace and Nicola Sturgeon becomes President of the world having eradicated poverty. Somehow Scotland hasn’t cured cancer, which seems to me to be talking Scotland down. This nonsense from Lesley Riddoch goes even further into fantasy land by suggesting that an independent Scotland would have led to Prime Minister Andy Burnham. Note, however, this section:
Andy Burnham, with his narrow 2015 General Election win producing a small working majority, is set to cancel Trident to appease the left-wing grassroots of his own party while stopping short of announcing a permanent end to the UK’s nuclear deterrent for fear of provoking anxious Tory,
Unionist voters. Who’d be an rUK Premier?
This no doubt seemed like a comedic aside to Riddoch but it illustrates the state Scottish politics is in and the dark underbelly of the nationalism which dominates it. Compromise is presented as something unique to the UK, with left/right division incredibly being attributed to ‘unionist voters’. This is contrasted with an independent Scotland where “there’s worry over the number of long-awaited and ambitious progressive policies being implemented simultaneously” and there are plans “to replicate the astonishing human chain created in Catalonia three years ago, with folk from all nations creating human chains over hills, glens, straths, riversides and pavements to link Oban with Aberdeen and John O’Groats with Berwick.” With independence, all division in Scotland has melted away and it’s full-steam ahead to utopia now that the wicked Unionists are defeated. It’s not just drivel, it’s dangerous.
Sadly, I think this kind of thinking that is so impervious to reality has taken firm hold in much of Scotland. The nationalists are happy in their cul de sac, projecting whatever they like onto a brick wall rather than having to walk blinkingly into the cold light of day. Nothing we say is gonna change anything now but all those of us who think independence is a harmful diversion can do is keep saying what we think and keep fighting the lie that ‘progressive’ = ‘independence’ and vice versa. Bruce Springsteen has spoken of his song ‘Independence Day’ being about becoming an adult and facing the compromises you have to make in life – the kind of compromises you don’t have to make when you’re young and can angrily point the finger at those you view only as barriers to your freedom.
Happy independence day, Scotland.