The SNP and the 'New Politics'
Thompson, Richard, Soundings
Scottish independence would have a progressive impact both internationally and on the rest of the United Kingdom.
For all the talk before the election of the emergence of a progressive consensus in the UK - in parliamentary terms at least - any such prospect fell apart at the first post-election hurdle. Although the idea of a defeated Labour Party clinging to power might not have been to everyone's taste, it remains the case that a Lib Dem/Labour coalition, backed by 15.4 million voters as against 10.7m Conservatives, could have formed a viable administration, supported on matters of confidence by the SNP and Plaid Cymru. An opportunity for developing a progressive coalition has therefore been missed.
Perhaps a period in opposition will allow Labour to refresh itself. However, the refusal by some elements of the party to even consider working with the Lib Dems in government, far less with fellow-travelling Nationalists and a Green, shows that the party still has a long way to go to recognise that other political traditions also have a legitimate claim to the mantle of progressiveness. And so it is that Labour now finds itself out of office in every capital of the UK except for Cardiff, where it continues to share power with Plaid Cymru.
The new coalition politics between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives presents a challenge to all other UK parties. Even at this early stage the new coalition can point to some fairly strong progressive credentials of its own: a constitutional reform package which includes Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay; an economic agenda of raising the starting threshold for income tax, banking reform, strengthened consumer protection, extending the right to flexible working and restoring the earnings link for the basic state pension; a civil liberties agenda of scrapping ID cards, the defence of trial by jury, the better recording of hate crime and restrictions on the storing of DNA samples; enshrining in law a commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas aid; and supporting the expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the nationalist inclined left in Scotland tended to cast arguments for home rule in terms of what it could do to halt an 'alien' Thatcherite philosophy at the border. And though Scottish politics has begun, thankfully, to move on from that negativity, the new policy agenda from south of the border, with its Conservative influence diluted, has the potential to change the Scottish political landscape, particularly if it is seen to be respectful of political difference and allows space for the country's differing policy agenda to develop.
For most Scottish voters, the response to the question 'Independence, yes or no?' is still based on the question of whether Scotland will be better or worse served by assuming greater sovereignty. The question which now faces Scots of all persuasions is whether having a Parliament in Edinburgh, possibly with enhanced fiscal powers, is sufficient to meet growing aspirations and keep Scotland in the UK. Should the answer come back as 'no', the question will take on an added significance for the future of the left elsewhere in the UK. Thus the impact of the 'new politics' could have far-reaching consequences.
Charting a different course
Inevitably, whatever broad headings the left signs up to, these values will be expressed in different ways in practice. There are already many differences between practices north and south of the border, and these will shape future progressive alliances.
One of the arguments often posited for Scottish independence from a left perspective is that the political centre of gravity would, liberated from Westminster, allow Scotland's 'innate' sense of social democracy to further assert itself. It's a cherished myth in Scottish left circles that Scotland is somehow more egalitarian, more left-wing and more pro-European than England. While the truth of this is certainly open for debate, there can be little doubt that Scots are less inclined to elect Conservatives. Even on this issue though, it's not necessary for these alleged qualities to have to stand up to any particular scrutiny - every nation has its myths, old and new, which can serve a purpose as something to which to aspire.
It's worth pointing out that Scotland is different in many respects from the rest of the UK, and not just in the obvious matters of culture, or law, religion and education, in which Scots have always enjoyed significant institutional autonomy post-union. Geographically it is very different: a twelfth of the UK population is spread over a third of the landmass, and there are many island communities. While patterns of wealth and deprivation in cities and post-industrial communities may be similar north and south of the border, this population distribution means that public services are likely to require a different model for delivery than elsewhere.
Following the creation of a Scottish Parliament, the 1999-2007 Lib/Lab coalition moved further away from the Westminster direction of travel in several important respects. A 'learn now, charge later' graduate endowment scheme was introduced in preference to upfront university tuition fees. Despite considerable internal Labour scepticism, free personal care for the elderly was introduced, as was PR for local government in time for the 2007 elections - the culture change of which, in terms of sweeping away long-established municipal Labour fiefdoms, has perhaps yet to be fully appreciated.
The SNPs minority administration has seen a continued divergence in the policy agenda. The graduate endowment scheme was scrapped to restore free university tuition. Marketisation of the NHS has been resisted, and in some cases reversed. Prescription charges began to be phased out. Business rates for premises with low rateable values were also cut, or in some cases reduced to zero. Meanwhile, 'concordats' were signed with every Scottish local authority, which saw the council tax frozen and an ending to centralised, ring-fenced funding - initiatives which now look set to be implemented in England as well.
A new generation of council house building was announced, with the 'right to buy' ended for new tenancies. New nuclear power stations have been rejected, approval of renewable energy projects has been accelerated, and world-leading climate change legislation enacted. And while PFI was never explicitly ruled out as a funding source, its use has not been favoured, with major projects such as the replacement Southern General Hospital in Glasgow and the proposed replacement Forth Road Bridge to be funded through the Scottish government's capital budget.
Overall, the SNP government is perceived as being a competent manager of Scottish affairs. Ministers are seen as accessible and have likable public personas. This has won significant goodwill in business, the civil service, the professions and the third sector - much of which was sceptical pre- 1999 not only about independence, but also about devolution itself. The SNP hopes that, having shown it can govern devolved Scotland effectively, this will help persuade voters to back independence in a referendum, thereby transferring the remaining powers reserved to Westminster by the Scotland Act to a sovereign Holyrood Parliament.
Is this social democracy, Scottish style? Neoliberalism with a heart?1 Or the perpetuation of the interests of a small 'c' conservative, managerial Scotland? Examples can and have been picked selectively to support all of those cases. However, it's important to judge the record of the Scottish government with the following in mind.
Firstly, with only 47 out of 129 MSPs, it lacks a parliamentary majority. Secondly, unusually for a sub-state level administration, it has at present no meaningful control over its funding base, being reliant instead on taxes raised in Scotland being sent back north in the form of a block grant. Thirdly, in seeking the support of institutional Scotland for further constitutional change, and in the face of an economic downturn, embarking on a more extensive reform of sub St Andrews House government could be seen as biting off more than any government would be sensible to try and chew in a single term.
Each of these factors exerts its own restrictions on what can and can't be done at present. In particular, the lack of a parliamentary majority has meant that much has needed to be done through executive authority rather than legislation. It's meant that swift parliamentary footwork has been required in order to build alliances on an issue by issue basis. It's also generated an acceptance amongst those long used to the idea of a majority government at Westminster winning nearly every vote in Parliament that occasional defeats in the Holyrood chamber are now part of the landscape of administration - only the failure to pass the yearly budget and subsequent impasse need bring about a fall of the government.
Despite the promise of further devolution, particularly in respect to financial powers, the prospect of Independence refuses to go away. The Holyrood Parliament is now firmly entrenched in Scottish public life, and by virtue of its existence, makes independence much less of a conceptual leap for people than it was in the past. Although presently there is a majority against holding a referendum amongst MSPs, the major spending reductions on the way and the restricted nature of the Lib Con mandate in Scotland mean that the potential exists for the situation to change in future - either through a sudden crisis in legitimacy developing, or even from a belated recognition that whatever one's views on the subject, the issue deserves to be tested anyway.
What independence means for Scotland
An independent Scotland would see no difference on day one other than that the powers reserved to Westminster under schedule five of the 1998 Scotland Act would have been transferred to the existing Scottish Parliament. In this way, Holyrood ministers would take control over the policy areas of macroeconomics, welfare, broadcasting, defence and international relations. The queen would remain as head of state, sterling would remain as the currency and Scotland would seek to take her place as a member state of both the EU and UN, within the Commonwealth.
Outside the realm of domestic government, it is an arrangement which would still permit co-operation with the rest of the UK (rUK) where it is the interests of both sides to do so, while offering the freedom to build alternative alliances where those interests do not coincide, all the while preserving everything that we value in our own, unique 'social union'. For Scotland, that would be likely to mean pursuing its own international and military policies, providing an alternative pole to Dublin for Anglophone pro-Europeanism and developing its own form of cultural and diplomatic 'soft power'.
It would mean that the present obstacles to tapping Scotland's renewable energy potential - such as skewed grid connection charges and a lack of government borrowing powers - could be overcome, thus securing a sustainable, non-nuclear and low carbon energy future. It would also allow a Scottish government to use the remaining revenues from the Scottish sector of the North Sea, with resources at their halfway point, to build up an oil fund which could help restore some inter-generational solidarity in a country burdened by PFI and a lack of pension provision.
It would see a country which remains overwhelmingly sceptical of NHS marketisation, and where the market has failed to provide any significant private alternative, to continue to fly the flag for the founding principals of an NHS free at the point of need. Liberated from the 'realists' of New Labour, it is to be hoped that the decision to restore free tuition at Scotland's universities is one which will stand true to the much vaunted Scottish tradition that aptitude, rather than means, should be the criteria for entrance to the university system.
Most of all, it would allow the Scottish Parliament, for all its undoubted inheritance of Westminster DNA in its debating style, to continue to build on its principals of openness and accountability. Already, politics in Edinburgh is more accessible, even if, as in the rest of the Western world, only a minority continue to choose to access it. However, from the ability to present petitions and have them discussed by committee, to openness over expenses, the embracing of ICT and the very design of the building itself, Holyrood is more welcoming to the population at large, and has earned a degree of legitimacy that Westminster, for all its undoubted pedigree and grandeur, has long since lost. With less tradition to encumber it, and providing there is no laurel-resting on the assumption that Holyrood managed to get it right first time, the potential exists to further improve participation and entrench legitimacy.
Something lost, something gained
Changes that take place in Scotland would of course have an impact on politics in rUK, but this may be no bad thing for progressives.
Scottish MPs have played a disproportionate role in the past fifty years at Westminster in both the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaderships, if only because the country has traditionally provided a secure base for both parties even when the Conservatives dominate in England. The SNP, too, has played its own part in holding the executive to account, notably in the last parliament in terms of attempting to impeach Tony Blair and 'Cash for Honours'. There can be little doubt that the loss of 59 Scottish MPs is something that would change the character of the House of Commons; and it would become an even more English-focused forum than it already is. The potential loss of Scotland's social democratic political sentiment could, initially at least, see the Westminster centre of political gravity move further towards the Conservatives, if only because of the distorting effects of the First Past the Post voting system.
Yet despite the 'Southern Discomfort' thesis,2 the combined Labour and Lib Dem vote in London, the South East, the East and South West still exceeded that of the Conservatives in 2010, even though the Conservatives won 191 seats in these regions compared to 48 Labour and 30 Lib Dems. This demonstrates that even without the influence of Scotland and Wales there is and remains a strong constituency for a progressive centre-left politics in the South as well as the North of England.3
It's clear that whatever short-term impact independence might have, the potential is there for a political realignment in England in the event of Scottish independence. In view of the growing English dissatisfaction over the West Lothian Question, it is arguably more important than ever that policies that only affect England should be should be seen to originate within England, and should be able to command the majority support of English representatives, rather than be seen to have been imposed as a result of a bloc of compliant Scottish MPs whose constituents are not affected directly. The benefits of this are obvious, in terms of the increased legitimacy of government that would arise from such a state of affairs.
With the constitutional question decided in favour of independence, there could be expected to be a significant realignment in Scottish politics. The unionist/ nationalist split would be gone, opening up the scope for a single, social-democratic party to exist, and for a socialist party to re-emerge further to the left. While the benefit of removing such a significant division between progressive forces in Scotland is obvious, the immediate benefit to the progressive movement elsewhere in the UK is admittedly less clear. However, as a starting point, there's no reason to believe that progressive alliances would necessarily be harmed; and from there, there's every reason to believe that, with sufficient interest in the other from each side, alliances could even broaden and deepen.
All of these are unqualified good things. While the social, political and cultural networks which exist in small countries can be tremendously enriching and nurturing, they are always al a greater risk of introspection. If independence is to succeed, it must be used to develop a wider and more direct Scottish engagement with the world
However, it's important to recognise that parochialism is a state of mind, and that independence would leave Scotland no more prone to this vice than it would be with any other conceivable status as part of the UK. Independence is not isolation, in either a political or economic sense, and will never become so in an intellectual sense for so long as minds remain open to the wider world around us. For one thing, geographical proximity and shared use of the English language makes the transmission of culture and ideas a great deal easier. This, together with economic and cultural links and ties of kinship, will keep the nations of the UK 'plugged in' to one another, whatever their political status.
It's inconceivable that trade unions and professional bodies would not continue to co-operate closely, and not just in those industries or shared public services which continue to operate on a cross-border basis post independence. In academia, there is also no reason why there would not continue to be at least the same degree of interchange of students, academic staff and ideas as takes place at present. Similarly, the lack of independent policy-making in Scotland, due to the paucity in the number of think tanks and the limitations of political parties in their ability to fill the void, means that Scots will need to be willing to harvest the best ideas from elsewhere, including rUK, if the civil service is not to become the sole source of policy development.
Nor should the capacity of less traditional campaigning groups to nurture shared values be overlooked. While Compass requires presently that membership is open only to Labour members or to those without party affiliation, it has still succeeded in bringing together progressives from across the various UK political divides. It should be possible to envisage similar engagement in future, regardless as to the constitutional arrangements which may develop.
The independence impact - on everyone else
An independent Scotland would also have interesting implications for the international arena. It is part of the unionist mythology common to left, right and centre that the nations of the UK will be economically stronger, militarily more powerful and able to exert greater influence in the world acting as a single unit. In this, it is an article of faith that the influence exerted by Britain will be benign, even though this has not always been the experience. But while the process of breaking up Britain might lead to certain losses to the strength of the left, it could also help to bring about a number of progressive outcomes against which the nature of the British state currently mitigates heavily.
Trident is the UK's main expression of military geo-political power, and the rUK without Scotland could certainly afford to maintain a 'son of Trident' if it chose. However, rUK would face an immediate difficulty in the event of independence, since the deep water submarine base and armaments depot necessary for its operation would henceforth be based in a 'foreign' country hostile to their presence. A lack of access to these facilities would be even more debilitating to the integrity of the Trident 'deterrent' than any withdrawal of US support for the system. The facilities at Faslane and Coulport would take years to replace elsewhere, but even then, where could they go? And where would they be welcome? As such, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that independence would also mean the end of the UK as a nuclear power.
Then there is the loss of Scottish service personnel to UK forces. While Scottish forces would undoubtedly find themselves serving alongside those of rUK from time to time, it is inconceivable that they would be used, as they have been in the recent past, in operations such as those in Iraq. With the UK already stretched, if Scotland's conventional military capabilities were to be 'lost' in this way, rUK would find it near impossble to fulfil its present commitments.
All of this would have a significant diplomatic impact. Nuclear weapons or not, the inevitable consequence of a reduced military capability and ability to deploy would be a diminished status internationally. At the UN Security Council, it would become increasingly hard to justify continued rUK presence in the permanent 5, particularly when a nuclear armed Indian democracy of 800m sits outside. Although it would be fiercely resisted by the French, pressure may build to have a single European seat, or at the very least to expand the number of permanent members.
Then we come to Europe, and votes in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers (CoM). An independent Scotland would see an increase in her number of MEPs, and would for the first time gain direct representation at CoM level with 7 votes. This would have an impact on rUK: a population loss of 5 million would focus attention on the fact that Germany, with a population of 82 million, would have the same number of votes as rUK, on 56 million. One solution might be to increase the weight of German votes from 29, although this would probably be unacceptable to the French and Italians. Accordingly, the most likely option for any alteration in voting weight would be to see a reduction in rUK votes in the CoM from 29 to 27 - the same number as Spain and Poland. Strange but true, together with Scotland's 7 votes, this would still see Scotland and rUK with a stronger combined influence than the UK at present.
It's impossible to tell how domestic rUK politicians might react to such recalibrations. However, there can be little doubt that a reduction in the capacity of the British state to engage in overseas military action, whether unilaterally or together with the United States, is something which would lead to a greater respect for the wishes of the international community. Such a loss of influence in Washington may make British politicians more favourably disposed towards the opportunities for pooled sovereignty in Europe and the closer relationships which would result, as an opportunity to maintain as much influence as possible.
It may seem intuitive for those on the left to argue that unity is strength. However, as contradictory as it may seem at first glance, by ending the present 'one size fits nobody' dynamic of Westminster government, a number of progressive aims - unilateral nuclear disarmament, closer ties with Europe, answers to the English democratic deficit, the advancement of a progressive politics in Scotland and rUK unfettered by the political choices made elsewhere - become easier to achieve.
It will force a long overdue appraisal of the nature of Britishness, Englishness and civic identities. If Scots seem further down the road to resolving outstanding issues of politics and identity in the world, it's probably because we've been obsessing about it for far longer. Neither Scotland nor England requires the other in order to ensure its own decent, tolerant, outward-looking bearing in the world. Given the growing political significance of 'Englishness', it is imperative that the English left engages with the debate, to avoid English identity becoming synonymous with ethnicity, rather than civic values of tolerance and inclusivity.
It would be up to others to decide what, if anything, they wished to take from the experience of a future Scotland. However, the narrative of a small, prosperous, socially-just, peaceful, culturally rich nation which is respectful of difference, democracy and international law, and which has resolved its political status peacefully, could provide no more compelling example to the rest of the world, and is one which many other stateless nations, in less benign circumstances, would be wise to follow.
In turn, the people of England, once unshackled from the constraints of their past, and liberated from the burden of Britishness, could be free to discuss more widely the nature of the society to which they aspire and their place in the world. Hopefully, in so doing, its multi-culture of inhabitants will find themselves increasingly at ease with each other, and able to look confidently to the future, without feeling diminished by contrasts with the past. That's a state of affairs which even the most nationalistic of Scots could find worth applauding - and to which they themselves might also aspire.
1. See Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, 'SNP Economic Policy: Neoliberalism with a heart', in Gerry Hassan (ed), The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press 2009.
2. Giles Radice, in Southern Discomfort (Fabian Society, London 1992) argues that Scottish independence would cause major discomfort for the left in England.
3. See John Harris, 'An English Realignment', in Mark Perryman (ed), Breaking Up Britain - Four Nations After a Union, Lawrence and Wishart 2009.
Richard Thomson began his career working in Edinburgh's life and pensions industry, before being appointed Head of Campaigns for the SNP in the lead up to the 2005 general election. Since then he has worked in both the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons, and until recently was the party's Head of Research in the Westminster Parliament; he was the SNP candidate for the Gordon constituency in the 2010 general election. He writes a monthly column on politics and culture for the Scots Independent and blogs at www.scotsandindependent.blogspot.com.…
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Publication information: Article title: The SNP and the 'New Politics'. Contributors: Thompson, Richard - Author. Magazine title: Soundings. Issue: 45 Publication date: Summer 2010. Page number: 45+. © Lawrence & Wishart Spring 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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