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Why I’m voting for Scottish independence

August 22, 2014

photo (5)

When God was making Scotland he created a country with fabulous scenery, full of lush greenery, deep lochs and high mountains. In it he placed a people of warmth and character and a language of great beauty and poetry. A Scotsman asks God, “Oh Lord, what have we done to deserve this?” God replies, “Better not thank me yet, just wait until you see the neighbours I’m giving you!”

As someone from an English background growing up in Scotland I used to shrivel at those sort of jokes. I remember modifying my rounded vowels so that people wouldn’t sneer. My parents, born well south of the Tweed, once went to a party held by a neighbour, who, forgetful after a few drinks, confided in them that he “hated the English”.

I sometimes felt I had a vague inkling of what it must be like to have a different skin colour among bigots. The slight stiffening of posture; the difference in tone.

Here’s another typical quip:

A visitor to Scotland was walking through a farmer’s field one day when he spotted a pool of water. He was thirsty and began to drink from it, scooping the water out with his hand. When the farmer saw what he was doing he cried, “Laddie, dinnae drink fae there, it’s fu’ ae coo keech!”*

The visitor didn’t understand and called back: “Speak English please, I’m English!”
The farmer replied: “Use two hands, you’ll get more that way!”

That gag’s a bit funnier than the first but it’s still essentially xenophobic, the kind of joke that at first made me suspicious about independence. A country that blamed its neighbour for its own problems surely didn’t have enough self-respect to run its affairs. An already inward-looking nation – and, let’s face it, one which is ethnically homogenous – faced the risk of disappearing even further up its own posterior.

I’ve never been a brandisher of flags because flags represent invented tradition, the false sense of being part of a tribe. The Union Jack is canned monarchy. Those who wave it are effectively shouting: “Amritsar, Mau-Mau, aristocracy, inequality!” The Saltire’s little better given that Scots administered a large part of the British empire. Far from making me proud, it leaves me indifferent.

I find patriotism distasteful. I’ve never met most other Scots so I don’t consider myself part of a Scots community and like all of them it’s only chance that I was born in Scotland. Patriotism, in my cynical mind, is the thin end of the racist wedge.

Scotland’s no better than anywhere else, whatever the flag-wavers say. The people who happen to live in this particular territory are much the same as others – they’re just humans, with good points and bad points, who respond to similar impulses. They eat, talk politics, laugh, drink (OK, maybe they’re not quite the same as everyone else), so they shouldn’t behave like they’re special or seek unique treatment. As it happens I like most Scots I meet, but then I like lots of other peoples too.

There’s nothing inherent in Scottish character which in some unpleasant future would prevent the kind of nationalism seen in the Balkans. Give Glasgow football bigots their own flag and country, tell them they’re special, and the less-enlightened among them might do all manner of nasty things. Nationalism uncorked can be difficult to re-bottle.

National traditions, which underpin national symbolism, are like dead hands reaching from beyond the grave and forcing us to behave in a certain way. Why not decide what we do for ourselves?

A beauty-contest of nationalisms?

But if politics is about deciding things for ourselves, then maybe independence isn’t such a bad idea after all. Maybe the Scottish movement for self-rule is the more benign of the British nationalisms?

As Adam Ramsey of OurKingdom says here: “You’d never catch Salmond or Sturgeon or Swinney saying ‘Scottish jobs for Scottish workers’. There are no prominent Scottish isolationists, and most [independence] advocates argue against empire rather than apologising for it. Not only the SNP, but the broader movement is vocally welcoming of migrants, and encourage inclusion: ‘we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns’ and all that.”

The emergence of UKIP, in contrast, is part of a gradual rightwards shift in English party politics. The “who, me?” brand of pseudo-innocence that pervades Nigel Farage’s pub politics can’t hide a foul streak, the kind of BNP-lite bile that prompted so many liberal commentators to give him sofa-to-wall coverage around the European elections.

It’s not so much UKIP’s popularity that’s so worrying; it’s the response of the main parties. I still think that the best UKIP can hope for is a seat for Farage in the Commons (dreadful though that would be), followed by a collapse in support as people figure out that his party is run by middle-England nutjobs with a toilet roll for policy.

What’s more serious is that the main parties all responded to the rise of UKIP by galloping even further to the right. It’s as if Miliband, Clegg and Cameron got together in some London gentlemen’s club and collectively decided that there’d been a popular rejection of Europe, when in reality most UKIP support only came from a forgotten stratum of English people voicing their protest at their perceived powerlessness.

Now that all the main Westminster parties have promised a referendum on EU membership, Scotland potentially faces the choice of two unions: with England or Europe. Most Scots would surely choose greater ties with the continent. Despite the scaremongering Brussels will let Scotland in.

Contrary to my past fears about the ugly side of nationalism, so far Scotland hasn’t experienced anything like the level of right-wing thuggery that seems occasionally to burst forth in England. (The so-called Scottish Defence League (defence against what?) is just a gaggle of bewildered knuckle-draggers. In August last year I saw a very Fringe event: the SDL, significantly outnumbered by the anti-fascist league, staged a sad protest outside the Scottish parliament. Bizarrely the SDL was supported by members of the English Defence League, of whom there are many more.)

The long-term rightward drift in English politics manifests itself in lots of other ways: the stealth privatisation of the National Health Service; benefit cuts; austerity; arms spending; militarism; inequality.

No large Scottish party agrees with any of this. Every major political grouping supports public ownership of the NHS, which has suffered less under devolution than it has south of the border. The Scottish political spectrum is unanimous in its support of a basic level of welfare, from the Green party’s advocacy of a basic citizen’s income for all, to Salmond saying that a Scottish constitution would establish a right to a house and a decent wage. All but the Scottish Tories recognise the need for greater equality. Few Scots support Trident, and indeed the prospect of its removal has been a major motivation behind independence.

And if you think the politicians are lying about all this, one way of locking them in to their commitments is to vote for a self-rule — ie. a new constitution. I for one don’t believe Westminster’s promises of new powers for Scotland after September.

In a way it’s the London establishment that’s moving away from Scotland and from ordinary people. If you’re a Scottish anti-nationalist, you probably ought to vote for self-rule.

A better economy is possible

Scotland is more sensible about economic policy, too. Rather than urging yet more liberalisation and the encroachment of the market into every part of our lives, the Scottish government argues for a strategic, developmental approach. Current UK economic policy sees tax and spending as necessary evils or about revenue collection. Leave the economy alone, the free-marketeers say, and it will look after itself.

But the events of the last decade or more have proved that the economy isn’t very good at self-care and that governments need to intervene to produce desirable outcomes and to mitigate the worst impacts of markets. The Scottish government reports that capital spending under independence would have been £7 billion higher over the five years following the global financial crisis, and that this would have helped mitigate the impact of recession by creating 19,000 jobs.

Presenting specific policy controls, as Holyrood does, takes chutzpah, as does the naming of specific economic sectors for development. They aren’t the high-employment, low-value-adding industries of the past; there’ll be no return to ship-building or mass manufacture. The future is in the life-sciences, whisky, tourism, the creative industries, digital and information communication technology and renewable energy.

The government has formed a fund for the support of the wave-power industry, something which it sees as important for meeting carbon-reduction targets and as a possible source of exports. Rather than the discredited import-substitution or ‘picking winners’ policy so derided by the right it’s smart, targeted investment in sectors with obvious potential (Scotland is very windy and wavy, for example, and has lots of good scientists and engineers), in conjunction with the private sector.

Of course there will be a few failures, but it also looks likely that the success stories will outweigh the cock-ups. Most other governments and many economists lack the imagination to go beyond the same old low-tax, hands-off, light-touch policy that has dogged economics for the past few decades. Alex Salmond’s government and its advisers should be congratulated on their courage and foresight (not that we’re voting for them on September 18th). Who knows whether in 20 years, when the oil is running out and countries are fighting over fossil fuels, we’ll look back at Scotland’s policy of energy self-sufficiency as a stroke of genius?

Leaving the cage

Somehow a lot of Scots, Welsh and English – middle-class and poor – have been lulled into believing that what we have now is the best that we can hope for; that a life of working hard, doing what the politicians tell us and worrying about the mortgage is as good as it gets. Equality, instability and uncertainty are here to stay.

But they aren’t. The cage door is open, and we can leave it. Which of the 30 countries to gain independence since 1960 wants to return to its previous union? Almost all small countries have managed to forge a more prosperous future than when they were part of the empire or a bigger nation. Most people in former colonies will tell you that they care less about cash than about having control over their lives.

Singapore is perhaps an extreme example of small-country economic success but it’s one I know well after having lived there for three years. The hundred or more states and territories with smaller populations than Scotland have proven that small nations are viable; in fact some economists, such as these World Bank authors, argue that smallness makes countries more nimble and adaptable, allowing them to develop via growth in human resources.

We shouldn’t accept that in no Westminster election since the second world war has the Scottish vote brought to power the party Scotland voted for. Talk about turkeys supporting Christmas. If we want representation we can’t afford not to vote for independence.

Just as the Irish assembly was part of the political settlement that then brought about parliaments in Cardiff and Edinburgh, Scottish independence can demonstrate to England that more democracy is possible; that we don’t need to submit to five-year dictatorships punctuated by meaningless polls at which we choose between shades of grey.

Squabbling over a few pennies here and there or however long the oil lasts is beside the point. Recent psychological research confirms the fairly obvious fact that the freedom to make choices makes us happier than money does. For the first time Scots can be in charge of their own destinies, and in more than a narrow, old-style nationalist sense; in a way that has the potential to revitalise democracy in the whole of the British isles.

The minority of predominantly English people who complain in some vague way that they “don’t want Scotland to leave us” are just dangling red herrings. Despite it being OK to ignore Scotland for the last half-century they seem suddenly to have noticed that Scots have their own views about how their lives should be run. Scotland’s not going anywhere. English people will still be able to travel north without passports, go camping in the Highlands or visit the Edinburgh festival.

Independence, in short, is the only hope of a fair and sensible society everywhere. That statement bears rephrasing in the negative: by sticking with the union Scottish people risk condemning everyone to perpetual misrule by the same grey old British political establishment. Independence isn’t really about old-style nationalism; it’s about bringing democracy closer to home. This is it. It’s our chance.

When I was growing up some people who heard my slightly southern inflections would ask where I was really from. Now, in a newer, more open-minded and mature Scotland with international ambitions, I don’t feel quite such a need to justify my identity. Hopefully the increasing number of ethnic minorities, English and people coming from overseas feel equally secure.

It seems worthwhile ending with a more upbeat joke.

In Glasgow the other day I went to the barber. I settled down in the chair.

“Comfy?” asked the barber.

“Scotland,” I replied, with self-assurance.*

* explanations/translations

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2014 6:30 pm

    Would you be in favour of an independent Scotland issuing its own currency rather than an independent Scotland being in a currency union with either England or the Eurozone? I ask because you are well aware of the constraints on development when monetary policy is imported but fiscal transfers are not. I see what has happened in Caribbean nations (as an example) where central banks whose currencies are pegged to USD are content to swap employment for the masses in favour of the Holy Grail of Price Stability.

  2. August 22, 2014 7:30 pm

    Good question Arijit. I reckon the best answer is that Scotland should use the pound in the first instance whatever England says then at a later stage launch its own currency. This is what Ireland did. Yes, in the early days this would mean less space to pursue proper social policy but there would still be some wiggle room. When some degree of credibility was established Scotland could issue its own currency. The euro is a dreadful idea, and it would risk permanently low employment.

  3. J. Sharp permalink
    September 8, 2014 2:10 pm

    Dan, I get the impression from your blog that you are confusing Scotland with the emergent nations with which you deal. Scotland is actually a partner in a supposedly global power, the one which in the past subjugated many of these small nations which are now independent. It is not under the thumb of that power as were many of the smaller nations to which you refer and technically does not need ‘independence’ – it’s a matter of separation.

    Secondly, sadly, what screams out to me is the fact that you have never felt yourself to be Scottish, despite having been born and brought up in Scotland, and seeking separation seems, in your mind, to be a means of becoming truly Scottish (or whatever we incomers choose to call it) at last!

    Finally, let’s not forget that we will still be governed by the same politicians who have lied to us and deferred possible improvements in order to bribe us into thinking we need to be ‘out of that cage’ and on our own before they can be activated and achieved.

    By the way, I have never lived under a government that I have voted for, and if the vote is yes, I guess that will continue to be the case. Best regards, Jenny.

    • September 8, 2014 6:15 pm

      Jenny, I think you’ve confused a constitutional vote with a party-political one. The referendum is about a change in how we elect governments. We’re not just voting for another political party. I would have thought by now you’d have understood that we will have a new election in 2016 and that in the intervening and succeding period we will collectively, as a country, design a constitution. The latest polls suggest that Labour would take a narrow lead in that election in an independent Scotland. Salmond is in all likelihood going to step down anyway, and because the electoral system will be more sensible we’ll have representation of some of the smaller parties like the Greens. There’s a good chance that for the first time you’ll be able to live under at least some of the politicians you voted for.

      Nobody’s saying that Scottish political human beings would be any better than the last. The promise of independence is that we can start from the beginning and that certain institutions can be designed rationally rather than being based on what happens to have occurred before or what serves particular privileges or interests. A great many features of government or policy can be rebuilt sensibly so as to make impossible the duplicity and corruption about which you complain – such as the tax code, which is currently a gargantuan hodge-podge of unworkable bits and pieces and which permits an army of overpaid accountants to spend their lives dodging Whitehall rules for their multinational paymasters. The Scottish parliament has already declared an overriding principle of non-avoidance, which would bypass the existing outdated and arbitrary system – but for which Holyrood needs full powers in order to work. Tax is only one example. There are many more ways in which Scotland could wipe the slate clean and build a more sensible country which overcame the iniquities of Westminster. It’s important to realise that Westminster can’t do these things because of vested interest and tradition, not to mention its lack of a constitution. Scotland can.

      I’m not sure where you get the idea that I’m confusing Scotland with a subjugated colonial state. I certainly don’t think this. As for personal identity, I, like many people nowadays, don’t feel any need to define it via staid old fictitious groupings based around flags and immagined community. I’ve never felt any need to feel ‘really’ Scottish or ‘really’ British, or anything like that. My identity is probably more to do with what I believe and what I do. Whilst I had past concerns about the ugly side of Scottish nationalism I don’t think they are on balance merited. I’m certainly not worried about ‘belonging’ to a place or group.

      The recent upturn in the Yes vote is to do with a rejection of Westminster conservatism, paternalism and a desire for proper democracy (as you probably know Scotland’s vote wouldn’t have altered the composition of government in any election since the second world war), not to mention a rejection of the war-mongering that characterises the British state. It’s really not about nationalism. I’d say that England has a bigger problem with identity and nationalism than Scotland does. Do you really want to be aligned with a country led by fear of UKIP and to face the prospect of leaving Europe?

      On the issue of politicians being liars: they aren’t all unprincipled, and many countries design their institutions and government in such a way as to limit the power of the disreputable or not to allow them to gain power in the first place. If it were the case that all political systems were just as bad as each other no administration would be better than the last, and no political system better than any other. Believe it or not several British politicians are still, and have been, reasonably principled, and it’s unreasonably cynical to suggest that none are to be trusted. The media-led campaign against Westminster risks turning everyone off politics, which would be the worst possible outcome in that it allows them to get away with their misdeeds. The independence campaign at least has the merit of politicising Scots, which I think is fantastic. Who’d have thought people would be posting pictures of their polling cards on Facebook? Again – it’s because for the first time we can affect change, rather than having to choose between southern shades of grey.

      Finally the whole point of independence is to try to recast the political system so that by design it avoids the kind of scandal and self-serving behaviour that has afflicted parliament in the last decade or so. It’s an attempt to set in stone constitutional laws that would avoid this sort of thing, which is something that can’t happen in Westminster due to lobbying and the weight of history. It will be far from perfect, but it stands a good chance of being better.

  4. Alan Gay permalink
    September 8, 2014 7:23 pm

    It’s good to discuss about what was, what is and what might be, but the fate of Scotland will depend on ordinary peoples’ perceptions about practical matters: London, Bankers pay,Trident, University fees, Land, Wars, Oil, the NHS, Social justice, Taxes and about HOW MUCH SAY we have on all these. How much say depends on new political structures and institutions and on the Constitution that is adopted.

  5. J. Sharp permalink
    September 11, 2014 7:57 am

    I love your optimism.

  6. Mungo permalink
    September 12, 2014 2:38 pm

    I fundamentally disagree.
    Your argument appears to come down to a question of the most attractive level of subsidiarity in political decision making. You appear to feel at some abstract level that all decisions affecting Scotland should now be taken by the current residents of Scotland (pop. 5 million) rather than the bulk of decisions being taken at a Scottish level and others at the level of the United Kingdom (pop. 65 million) within a supranational EU/NATO/UN structure. In doing so:
    (1) You fail to acknowledge the very significant Scottish subsidiarity that already exists – law and order, health & social services, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, education and training, environment, housing, local government, sport and the arts, tourism and economic development, transport, etc – and that the level of devolution will continue to increase significantly in coming years. Responsibility for any perceived shortcomings in these areas rests with Holyrood and makes passing references to privatisation of the NHS fundamentally misconceived;
    (2) You also fail to acknowledge the very significant, tangible, benefits that Scotland derives from its pooled sovereignty with the rest of the UK in the most significant reserved matters, in particular Sterling (with the Bank of England as lender of last resort) and defence. In relation to the former, I dread to think what would have happened to an independent Scotland heavily reliant on financial services during the financial crisis – Iceland on a larger scale. Re: the latter, just think about how smaller north European countries fared when faced with overwhelming Nazi or Russian aggression within living memory: they were trampled all over or assumed morally comprising neutral stances to survive. I am surprised that as an economist you are prepared to parrot the SNP’s assertion that “capital spending under independence would have been £7 billion higher over the five years following the global financial crisis” when the recent experiences of Ireland, Iceland & Cyprus demonstrate that small countries with large financial services industries in practice suffered much more significant downturns and ensuing austerity than the UK;
    (3) You place disproportionate emphasis on perceived passing/current (& fiercely contested) current trends in British party politics: the policies of the current coalition government, UKIP, “stealth privatisation of the National Health Service; benefit cuts; austerity; arms spending; militarism; inequality.” I suggest these should not rationally be considered of great importance – and certainly not decisive – when making a decision over whether to end a 307 year union. I would also remind you that Ed Milliband is the most likely PM – probably in a coalition with the LibDems – following next year’s UK general election, such that a referendum on leaving the EU is unlikely to take place.
    I still expect a No vote, but it troubles me that risk-taking young adult males – according to today’s Guardian/ICM poll – are imperilling one of the most successful political unions in history – the cradle of democracy, the enlightenment & the industrial revolution – based on what is essentially a sense of adventure & a dislike of some short term party political trends.

  7. September 12, 2014 5:42 pm


    That’s a fairly huge bit of reductionism! My argument is about better economics, the opportunity for improved social and health policy, defence and equality, and the differences in nationalisms north and south of the border. A lot more can be said in favour of independence, but many Scots have reached a point where they feel that the economy and their views have been left at the margins to the extent that separation is their only choice. As I say I don’t think they’re moving away from London. It’s the other way round.

    To deal with the particular part of my argument on which you chose to focus: yes, I do think that many people in Britain would like greater direct control over the decisions that affect them. That Scotland happens to have the chance to further this process is something that many in other parts of the UK would envy; particularly those who suffered the consequences of the banking-led economic downturn and who haven’t benefited from the London boom. Take one indicator, unemployment. In some parts of the Midlands and northern England it’s been stuck near one in five for years, which is a travesty. I suspect these people feel nothing to do with the southeast or Westminster. Politics, not to mention the economy, doesn’t serve them.

    To some extent what we think is moot: history has shown an inexorable trend toward the break-up of larger countries over the past few decades, something to which Belgians and Spaniards will testify.

    1. I wouldn’t call a block grant with limited tax-altering powers ‘very significant subsidiarity’! Few people — including many no-voters — think that it’s enough only to be able to distribute a specific sum within certain limits and not to be able to raise revenues. In addition a number of important issues about which Scots have consistently shown concern are out of their full control, Trident among them. A recent example is the bedroom tax. There’s no guarantee that devolution will increase, as you suggest, and any plans are confused, unclear and therefore unconvincing. We had the spectacle of Gordon Brown of all people coming north this week to make promises on behalf of the coalition, less than a year after the coalition had ruled out devo-max and kept it off the ballot paper. No wonder people are unconvinced! I’d actually accept devo-max if it had been clearly laid out at an earlier date and was credible.

    You misunderstand my point on the NHS. Contracting-out in the English NHS has reached such a level that many in the profession feel it is tantamount to privatisation. They’re now talking of consultation fees. Scotland’s health service is better because Holyrood has ruled out backdoor privatisation. Full powers would enable Scotland to further insulate itself from the budget cuts.

    2. Funny you mention Iceland. It’s economy outperformed Britain’s after the collapse, partly because they let their banks go under and prosecuted the bankers: a much more sensible idea. Ireland’s collapse was to do with structural problems with the euro and poor fiscal strategy including its excess emphasis on indirect taxation. An independent Scotland would suffer neither problem. Cyprus is a dodgy little Mediterranean tax haven and nothing like Scotland. You can always find small countries which have had crises, just as you can find big ones like Russia, the US or the eurozone. Lots of economists even argue that small countries are more nimble and adaptable, and therefore more resilient in the long run.

    Foreign governments would have part-responsibility for the financial services companies operating out of Scotland because most of their operations are abroad. That’s globalisation. The US and UK, for example, supported each others’ banks. If you believe the Edinburgh financiers they’ll all be rushing for the exits after 18 September anyway (just like they said in 1979 and 1997).

    No-one thinks the Nazis are coming back. That reminds me of George Robertson saying the other night that somehow the emergence of ISIS means Scotland should beef up its army. A large part of the explanation for Britain’s domestic terrorism threat lies in its foreign wars. Peacable nations like Sweden don’t have a problem of domestic religious violence.

    As for the pound, Scotland could use it whatever Westminster says. And it is, whatever Cameron says, partly Scotland’s as well as England’s.

    3. Hmmm…. maybe this one’s just down to differences in values. I would certainly suggest that “stealth privatisation of the National Health Service; benefit cuts; austerity; arms spending; militarism; inequality” should be considered of great importance. This is no temporary party-political shift. We’re experiencing a long-term trend in politics dating at least to the 1970s. Most people can see that New Labour was a continuation of the Conservative project. And as many have repeatedly pointed out, Scotland has demonstrably, for the past half-century, voted and thought differently.

    Who knows what will happen at the next general election? The very prospect of leaving Europe and the craven pursuit of the UKIP agenda are anathema to most Scots and they don’t see why they should put up with this, the culmination of a long-term move to the right.

    Surely young men have a right to their views? Shouldn’t they be allowed to assert their opinions just like old ladies? I hope you’re not insinuating that there’s some sort of irrational testosterone politics going on and that only sober, rational older types should make the decisions. I’m sure 25-34 year-olds are quite capable of rational analysis.

    As for the stuff about being a cradle of democracy, the enlightenment and the industrial revolution, well, again I suspect that’s a question of how you view such things. Nobody’s consigning those achievements to the dustbin. We could still celebrate them as part of the British isles. And on that note I don’t see independence as a nasty divorce, still less some sort of cultural cataclysm or dramatic start to long-term hostilities. Just like the amicable relations between Norway and Sweden, the Schengen countries, Beligum and France, Switzerland and Europe, I’m sure people could all still be friends, maybe even better friends.

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