New Internationalist

Would Scottish independence be good for radical politics?

September 2014

Writer and activist Adam Ramsay and professor and author Jim Gallagher go head to head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

Adam

Confusing centralization with solidarity was a disaster in the 20th century. Where given the opportunity, we need to start bringing power closer to people. The Scottish referendum is the biggest chance in a generation to do just that.

YES: Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom, the UK section of openDemocracy, and author of the forthcoming ebook 42 reasons to support Scottish independence. Before this, he worked for student activist network People & Planet.

It’s an opportunity for much more, too. While neoliberal economics exist almost everywhere, Britain’s constitutional, class and cultural systems have provided it with particularly fertile soil. They have led Britain to be the most unequal country in Europe, to privatize more than almost anyone else in the Western world.

Centralization has allowed the same families to wield disproportionate power across these islands for literally a thousand years. Holyrood [the Scottish parliament], on the other hand, is much more normal for a western European parliament. With proportional representation and without Westminster’s culture, it at least vaguely reflects the wishes of the people who elect it. Independence is also a chance to push broader reforms of a political system in Britain which has for too long failed to act as an effective vehicle for the aspirations of almost all of the people who live here. It opens a space, a chance for a newly empowered people to push for more radical changes.

That’s not an opportunity I’d want to miss.

Jim

The confusion is to equate independence with social justice. Nationalism is about one thing only: creating a separate state. It suits nationalists to let progressives hope independence would reverse inequality. But they are just as keen to encourage the neoliberals who support and fund them to develop a vision of Scotland as a tax haven, and the SNP [Scottish National Party] are already promising even deeper business tax cuts than [UK Chancellor of the Exchequer] George Osborne. So, at least one group is sure to be disappointed.

NO: Jim Gallagher holds a fellowship in Nuffield College, Oxford, and is a Visiting Professor at Glasgow University. He was formerly Director General for Devolution in the UK government. He now advises the Better Together Campaign and is one of the authors of Scotland’s Choices: the Referendum and what happens afterwards.

The one guaranteed result of creating a separate state is to end social solidarity inside the UK. No more pooled risk for pensions, benefits or public spending. If, like me, your ambition would be to widen, rather than narrow, social solidarity, then this can only be a backward step. As it happens, it also looks as though this would be contrary to the interests of Scottish voters.

Of course there is a lot wrong with Britain, and I’ve some sympathy with those who, in despair of making progress, clutch at the straw of independence. But don’t be fooled: independence means no more, and no less, than it says on the tin. Decentralization, on the other hand, is something we can pursue, by giving more powers to the Scottish parliament, including powers to decide on the balance of taxation and spending, and to let Scots make a choice about social justice.

Adam

‘Social solidarity inside the UK’ is just nationalism by another name. We should stand with people in Corby, but equally with people in Cork and Kabul. Solidarity is international or it is nothing, and it certainly doesn’t depend upon the unity of a kingdom.

We need to start bringing power closer to people. The Scottish referendum is the biggest chance in a generation to do just that – Adam

Of course, independence doesn’t guarantee social justice, and a seat at the UN doesn’t make you a good global citizen. But to have significantly less inequality than Britain, significantly lower rates of child poverty, significantly less privatization, and to be significantly less warmongering, Scotland wouldn’t need to be special. It would just have to be an average western European country. It is post-imperial Britain, with its anachronistic parliament, ancient class system and a wealth gap twice as wide as any other EU state, that is bizarre. This is not because of the beliefs of the people who live in the country, but because our constitutional framework and post-colonial nationalism are used by neoliberalism to devastating effect. Independence would be a blow to both.

You highlight the SNP’s misguided call for a three per-cent corporate tax cut but ignore that [Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Blair government, 1997-2007] Gordon Brown cut it by five per cent and [current shadow Chancellor] Ed Balls has suggested going even further.

You propose more powers for Holyrood within Britain, but this means leaving decisions over Trident [nuclear missile programme] and foreign wars to a post-imperial Westminster that retains a culture of trigger-happy interventionism. We should of course collaborate across these islands and across the world, but that doesn’t mean we must all have the same prime minister.

Jim

You fall into an error much encouraged by the SNP: that is, to see the independence referendum as a competition between two different nationalisms, a Scottish nationalism and some sort of British nationalism. Competing identities, if you like. I see the choice quite differently. It is between two different Scottish visions of Scotland’s future. One in which Scotland is an entirely separate state, severing all our political links with the other parts of Britain, or the better vision in which we choose to opt into the multinational state which is the UK.

It is no part of my argument that the United Kingdom is perfect, but the nature of that multinational state is highly relevant to these questions of social solidarity.

I agree with you that social solidarity ought to cross national boundaries. Sadly, it seldom does. International fiscal transfers are contingent and subject to unpredictable political choices – as in international aid. Or they are grudging and conditional – as, for example, the transfers within the European Union [EU] from richer northern nations to Mediterranean countries like Greece, in deep fiscal doodoo.

The confusion is to equate independence with social justice. Nationalism is about one thing only: creating a separate state – Jim

In Britain, by contrast, fiscal transfers between the different parts of the country – notably for things like pensions and benefits – are unconditional and needs driven. No German taxpayer guarantees Greek pension payments. So if Greece is in fiscal trouble, pensioners there are in trouble too. But within Britain, pensions in Cardiff, Liverpool or Glasgow don’t depend on the fiscal position of Wales, the North West or Scotland. They are supported, if need be, by the resources of the whole UK – taxpayers in London or Birmingham as well as Wrexham and Dundee.

This is multinational social solidarity in practice. It does not happen in the EU, still less between Cork, Cambridge and Kabul. The world would probably be a better place if social solidarity were wider, not narrower. Since the one guaranteed result of independence would be to narrow it even further than now, I’m guessing you’ll agree separation is a bad idea after all.

Adam

The data shows that small European countries tend to be richer and recover faster from global recessions.1 This is because government intervention can be more surgical. Subsidies from another area are less important than the power to steer your own specific path out of the problem.

In any case, talk of fiscal transfers rings hollow in a society in which the main transfer of wealth is from poor to rich; from workers to owners. The important question in the 21st century is how we can build a political system capable of protecting itself from being captured by corporate power. Westminster, more than almost any other European parliament, has failed in this regard: it presides over greater inequality and more privatization, and has done so under both Labour and Conservative governments.

The governments in Europe that have succeeded more in protecting the interests of their people against the most extreme demands of global capital are those in smaller countries. There is a simple explanation for this: the best guardian against neoliberalism is an empowered citizenry. Bring power closer to people, to where they feel they can influence it, and they organize themselves. Tie it up in a distant bureaucracy, and the money merchants and faceless lobbyists will always ultimately win.

Scale matters in such questions, but this isn’t just about size. Westminster is the least trusted and one of the least democratic parliaments in western Europe. Ultimately, Scots must decide which they can more easily hold to account: Holyrood or Westminster.

Jim

This has been an interesting exchange, and it has shed a little light on the choice Scots face.

The data [you quote] doesn’t really back you up in whether size makes a country more nimble rather than more vulnerable. Over the years, Scotland has done economically as well as the average small country. In both the length and severity of the recent financial crisis, Scotland fared slightly better than the small European countries the SNP likes to compare us to. So that argument does not hold up.

The revealing thing about this exchange is how negative the arguments for independence are – you seem to see it as an escape route from things you don’t like (and many of them I don’t like either). That’s wrong for so many reasons. The SNP tells us (not you, but they are the ones who might govern) it’s not really much of a change at all – keep the Queen, the pound, the BBC… and even the Department for Work and Pensions. Both can’t be true, and I fear it’s you who’d be disappointed. Independence isn’t a cure-all for everything that’s wrong with the world, though it suits nationalists to say that it is, so you’ll vote for it. Don’t be blinded by wishful thinking.

In the end, this is a choice between a nationalism that is determinedly negative, and by definition inward; or – as I prefer – a commitment to a Scottish future as part of something larger, whatever its faults.

  1. ‘Scotland Analysis: Macroeconomic and fiscal performance’. UK government, 2013.

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