I’ve long wanted to write a post about how independence for Scotland would be to the benefit of the remnant UK. For various reasons, I’ve not done. For a start, it’s such a big, wide-ranging issue that touches on so many aspects of politics throughout these islands that it’s been hard to know where to start.
I’ve been spurred on, however, firstly by some conversations on the topic on Twitter, and secondly by the emergence of a few voices from south of the border who have written about the opportunities of a Yes vote.
The best starting point is to scotch (excuse the pun) the myth that this referendum is remotely, in any way about England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Honestly. It really isn’t.
It’s not about you…
Not to be disparaging, but certain folk among our neighbours and cousins south of the border flatter themselves when they take umbrage at the movement for independence by thinking that we’re somehow doing it because of them. In fact, the campaign is not motivated by them, a slight against them, a reaction to them, nor an expression of hatred of them. For folk from the rUK to think otherwise is a reflection of their own sense of importance. After all, why on earth would a referendum in one country be all about the people in another?
On the contrary, the independence movement is about us here in Scotland. It is, you could say, inward-looking. I mean that not in the sense of it being insular and parochial, but the fact that it is about giving ourselves the time and space to reflect on our society and place in the world, where we want to be, and how we are going to get there.
Another myth to scotch is that in moving towards independence the Yes campaign doesn’t care about England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And let’s get one thing definitively clear – it will not lead to perpetual Tory governments south of the border. The idea that Scotland needs to stay in the UK to save the rest of the union from the Tories is a racist, confused and ignorant lie.
It’s racist because it rests on the assumption that the rest of the UK – and England particularly, whose Tory vote is much higher than that of Wales or Northern Ireland – is a bunch of gibbering imbeciles who require saving from their own self-destructive stupidity. It says, in effect, that England cannot be trusted to make its own political decisions and deserves to have them vetoed. If I was English I’d be ferociously offended by that.
It’s confused, because the argument is both complementary and derogatory about Scotland. Complementary, because it rests on Scotland being an intellectual superior within this union: the only part whose political judgement should count as definitive. Derogatory, because it suggests Scotland’s primary role is to save England, rather than having its own political choices reflected in its government.
And finally it is ignorant, because election results simply don’t stack up to support the argument. As the House of Commons library’s own blog reported earlier this year, Scotland has hardly ever influenced modern UK election results:
- In 1964, the Conservatives would have been the largest party but would not have had a majority. Including Scotland, Labour won a House of Commons majority.
- In February 1974, the Conservatives would have been the largest party but would not have had a majority. Including Scotland, Labour was the largest party but did not have a majority.
In October 1974, Labour would have been the largest party but would not have had a majority. Including Scotland, Labour won a House of Commons majority.
- In 2010, the Conservatives would have won an outright majority. Including Scotland the Conservatives were the largest party but without an overall majority; they are in government in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
To summarise, that’s something like seven or eight years since the Second World War where Scotland has affected the outcome; and only about two and a half years of those in which Scotland’s absence would have led to an actual Conservative government that otherwise didn’t occur. So, we wouldn’t have stopped the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s (not even Major’s relatively slender 1992 majority), and Blair’s landslides would have happened without us.
Surely it’s obvious that a country with only around 50 MPs can never really hold that much sway in an election of over 600 MPs. We are about 8% of the House of Commons, and someone with basic primary school arithmetic can tell you that’s not going to be much of a bullwark.
Solidarity is an admirable (and necessary) concept. But the solidarity of the independence movement in Scotland stretches further than the border of the UK. There is an internationalism at its heart, a sense of togetherness with people all across the world – whether thanks to ties of history, geography, economics or just basic humanity. We do not need shared citizenship to feel solidarity with the people of, say, Ireland, Norway or New Zealand. To suggest otherwise is genuinely insular. And we similarly don’t need shared citizenship with England, Wales and Northern Ireland to have solidarity with their people. Indeed, solidarity is rather meaningless if, for reasons of electoral arithmetic, it has little meaningful impact.
In short, if Scotland’s job is to save the rest of the UK from the Tories, then we’re a manifest failure. If Scotland were an employee on that basis, it would, despite its good intentions, be sacked for gross incompetence.
So those are a couple of myths quelled that independence is not about, or a problem for, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. To confirm, guys, it really isn’t about you.
…but it could be.
In fact, as a pleasant side effect, independence for Scotland will have significant benefit for the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, principally revolving around a sense of fresh thinking.
One consequence of this fresh thinking is a reboot of the national identities down south. Englishness especially, and to a lesser extent Welshness and Northern Irishness, have been locked too long in the often confusing and misrepresented concept of Britishness. It’s impossible to define what Englishness actually is, because it’s so much tied up with Britishness, like two nearly overlapping circles in a venn diagram. When the islands of Great Britain become home to two sovereign states (as they were for nearly a millennium up until 1707) and Britishness takes on more of a transnational, regional identity, Englishness can rediscover itself.
And that needn’t be a bad thing. Englishness gets a bad rep (when not being confused with Britishness) as something reactionary, bigoted and conservative. Yet it’s a nationality also renowned for its humour, creativity, and rich diversity. That, perhaps, can come to the fore again as English people use the fresh start to ask themselves who precisely they are. The diversity is a big aspect of that – English doesn’t just mean one homogenous thing, after all – it’s a complex wealth of regional, county and immigrant identities from the Cornish to the Cockneys, the West Country to the West Indians, and East Anglia to Eastern European.
That in turn links to the second consequence of the fresh thinking I can think of – a chance to devolve power away from Westminster. The shock to the system that a Yes vote up north will spark will be a perfect opportunity to think precisely how the rUK should be governed, and how power can be moved out of the bloated, dysfunctional and out of touch Westminster system that is frankly medieval and unfit for a modern democracy.
Of course, while Wales and Northern Ireland have good national assemblies, devolved government has a bad reputation in England. A referendum in the north-east of England a decade ago was defeated in the 1990s as part of Labour’s rather half-hearted moves to address the imbalance of the three smaller nations’ new devolved authorities.
But of course, they aimed for the wrong level. Government needs to be at a level that actually means something to people, like counties, cities or parishes. Thankfully England has deep and long-standing county identities (arguably much stronger than those in Scotland) and the same could be said of, for instance, the London boroughs or the big cities of the rest of England.
So a great way forward would be to look at how considerable powers, budgets and indeed revenue-raising capability can migrate out of Westminster and into authorities that are close to people – meaning that the impact of, say, a Tory government in London on the people of the north of England would be significantly mitigated. That sounds like a huge change, and pessimists may call it impossible.
And yes, the chance of this happening under the status quo is zero. But the brief moment of bewilderment that would follow a Yes vote in Scotland is the perfect time for these ideas to take flight, and for the political narrative after the 19th of September to be shaped by something other than the same old establishment politics.
That requires positivity, energy, organisation and oomph. And after years of over-centralised government geared to the City of London elites rather than to an increasingly unequal society, it may seem hard to suddenly discover the energy for new movements, new ideas and new dialogues.
But Scotland found it. The 2011 landslide in Holyrood that led to the referendum was totally unexpected – not that they’d admit it, but it was unexpected even by the SNP. Yet this shock to the constitutional system sparked a huge wave of creativity and vision, and Scotland’s all the better for it.
Scotland is awash with new non-party groups that have only existed or developed any prominence since the prospect of the referendum came along – groups who, whether pro-independence or not, are trying to imagine what Scotland could really, truly look like. There are local Yes groups across Scotland, special interest groups supporting independence, and campaigning organisations like Labour for Independence or Women for Independence. There’s the wonderful National Collective. There is a host of new media, from Newsnet Scotland and Bella Caledonia to Referendum TV and, yes, let’s not forget the hilarious Dateline Scotland. And then there’s a host of individual blogs presenting always interesting personal perspectives and independent research on the referendum.
This is an energy, a movement, that won’t be put back in a box after a No vote. Nor after a Yes vote, for that matter. There are people and communities being engaged like never before, new ideas for Scotland being created, and most crucially they are all beyond the reach, influence or direction of governments, political parties, traditional media, or any previous established order. This grassroots revolution could never have been predicted and cannot be controlled, but it’s the best part of the campaign.
In short, something in Scotland has awoken. And there is much in the rest of the UK that can be similarly awoken. England, after all, has one of the greatest radical traditions in Europe. From the Peasants’ Revolt through to the birth of the labour movement, taking in the creation of the welfare state, the trade union movement, the Suffragettes and many more movements besides, England has a long-beating radical heart that has influenced the world. It may have seemed frustratingly dormant lately to many folk, but is certainly not dead.
In a telling, important article for Bella Caledonia, Common Weal founder Robin McAlpine writes about a couple of talks he did in England where audiences were enlivened by the vision he and other Yes voices were putting forward. The fact that it took Yes campaigners from up here to cause the scales to fall from the eyes of English radicals is a sad indictment of the shoddy state of the left across the border, but if the spark required by England, Wales and Northern Ireland must be a Yes vote up here then so be it. It’s hard to see what else it’s going to be.
And as Billy Bragg recently wrote in the Sunday Herald:
Just as the referendum sparked debates about the Scottish identity, so independence will force the English to wake up and take a good look at themselves. A new constitutional settlement would be on the table, allowing activists to make the case for devolution under a system that makes everyone’s vote count.
A debate about Trident would ensue, questioning not just the cost of retaining nuclear weapons, but also England’s place in the post-Cold War world. Of course there would be tensions – like every nation, England has its share of xenophobes and misanthropes – but we’ve seen them off in the past and will do so again.
Scottish independence offers the English the opportunity to cast off their imperial pretensions and rediscover their Roundhead tradition – that dogged determination to hold absolute power to account that has surfaced in the crucial moments of our history. In the past it was King Charles that we rallied against. Today that absolute power rests with the corporations and financial markets that exploit our citizens without making any contribution to their welfare.
Maybe some folk south of the border are scared of radical change. But when the status quo is so awful, and opportunities for change are so rare, then why not grab what you can?
To quote yet another pro-independence article written from England, The leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Natalie Bennett, recently referred to an event she was speaking at where she was in a discussion with an audience member about the constitutional implications of a Yes vote for the rest of the UK.
“Won’t there be constitutional chaos?” he asked.
My response was: “Yes, isn’t that great!”
Yes indeed, it’s great. A post-Yes world for the remnant UK won’t be easy, just like it won’t be easy for Scotland itself. But it will be terrific fun and full of the most exciting, limitless opportunities for reimagining how politics and society should work. It’s the best – indeed, only – game in town when it comes to turning politics on its head. And it’s just a few days away.
I’ll leave the last word to English writer and campaigner George Monbiot, who tweeted this recently.
This pathetic, snivelling, apron-strings argument on English left: we depend on Scotland to solve our problems for us. Get some spine folks!
— George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) September 4, 2014
And if you need any more ideas or inspiration, dear England (and indeed dear Wales and Northern Ireland), then we’re not far away. We promise to keep in touch.
Indeed, you may end up inspiring us in turn with what you get up to.