As Scotland’s independence referendum approaches I thought I would review some of the better books and essays I’ve read about it over the past few months. What the world needs now is more words about Scottish independence…
The magnitude of the decision has reinvigorated Scottish civic culture. People have been given an opportunity to imagine, to dream about what kind of nation they would like Scotland to be. During the debate the bounds of Scottish political discourse have widened to include a utopian dimension, which has found colourful expression through several new informal political groups where people of all parties and none share visions for a post-referendum Scotland.
These include the Common Weal, the National Collective, Nordic Horizons and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), all of which have held many meetings across Scotland, published magazines and books, and developed lively online communities. I’ve been particularly impressed by the force and coherence of a book published on behalf of the RIC, Yes: The Radical Case for Independence, by James Foley and Pete Ramand.
The book’s argument flows from a simple insight. The independence debate is often framed as an argument about the assertion of a proud Scottish nationalism, the merits or otherwise of a patriotic claim to Scottish self-governance that will rupture a pacific, internationalist British state. The onus is on Yes campaigners to justify a wilful desire for self-rule. But Foley and Ramand note that the referendum is actually a choice between two nationalisms: an emergent, cloudy ‘Scottish nationalism’, still in the process of formation; and a much more definite ‘British nationalism’ that has evolved a distinct identity over 300 years history.
This evolving Scottish nationalism is better understood in terms of aspiration than description, as a nebulous sense of possibility. It takes as many forms as there are Yes voters, but finds most common expression in the desire for Scotland to become a fully fledged social democracy, somewhat like that of its prosperous Scandinavian neighbours. The wish list for a social democratic Scotland is extensive: free childcare; a more progressive taxation system; a comprehensive social security system; the development of a high skill, high wage economy; investment in renewables; a North Sea Oil fund; the removal of nuclear weapons; land reform; and the fostering of a genuinely participative democracy through significant devolution of powers from Holyrood to local government.
Foley and Ramand contrast the character of this nascent Scottish nationalism against that of the British state. They acknowledge that the term ‘British nationalism’ is unfortunate, and should not be confused with the openly racist politics of the British National Party. Rather, they use it as shorthand to refer to a set of ideologies and assumptions that form the backcloth of British political debate, setting limits to what any Westminster government, of the left or the right, can achieve. These include the dominance of a neoliberal economic paradigm that privileges the interests of the City of London of the wider economy; an expensive commitment to maintaining a strong military disproportionate to the UK’s size; and a chronic propensity to consolidate political power in Westminster. For Foley and Ramand Scotland’s continued membership of a union governed within these parameters makes impossible the realisation of the radical political vision to which many Scots aspire. A devolved Scottish Parliament can only go so far, constrained as it is within a framework set by Westminster.
Foley and Ramand define neoliberalism as a complex of policies ultimately concerned with the restructuring the economy in favour of corporate interests. Neoliberal ideology espouses a philosophy of market fundamentalism that seeks to apply the principles of the marketplace to all spheres of economic activity, and finds expression in policies such as privatisation and labour market liberalisation. But neoliberalism is not driven solely by doctrinal belief in the efficiency of freely operating market forces. It is also a political project that works to restructure the economy for the benefit of certain economic actors: namely large multinational corporations and the financial sector.
Foley and Ramand argue that both Conservative and Labour administrations of the past 30 years have governed, willingly or otherwise, from a neoliberal perspective. Both have sought to rollback the mixed economy of the post-war years through relentless privatisation of public infrastructure and services: nationalised industries and services have been moved to the private sector, even natural monopolies such as rail and energy, and the management of central and local government services has been contracted to private sector suppliers. Major infrastructure projects that would previously been undertaken by the state can now only proceed through the mechanism of the Private Finance Initiative. Governments of all parties have also prioritised the development of flexible labour markets. Even during the New Labour years, which saw the introduction of the minimum wage, the bargaining power of employees relative to employers declined, a trend that has accelerated markedly under the current coalition government which has further weakened workers’ security through welfare cuts and tacit encouragement of the normalisation of zero hours contracts.
Above all, governments of both left and right have restructured the economy in favour of finance capital. The Big Bang of the 1980s liberalised the constraints within which the financial sector could operate, leading to a culture of risk that New Labour did nothing to address. Regulations were tightened somewhat in the wake of the financial crisis but the City has resisted thoroughgoing structural reform, and the coalition government has pursued an austerity programme designed above all to protect Britain’s credit rating and safeguard financial interests.
The second defining characteristic of the British state identified by Foley and Ramand is the determination of successive governments to maintain a strong military. Since the dissolution of its empire Britain has sought to retain international influence through the cultivation of a transatlantic alliance with the United States, a ‘special relationship’ that has obliged governments of both the left and the right to support US foreign policy through thick and thin, demonstrated in recent years by prolonged British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Britain’s concern to retain its role as an international policeman, which Foley and Ramand refer to as a ‘post-modern imperialism’, requires a large defence budget, which has fostered the development of a military-industrial nexus: government investment in the development of arms for the British military has created lucrative opportunities for the export of UK defence technology to an international market. The British economy has become ever more dependent on the production and sales of arms, which now accounts for a significant proportion of its export trade. The diplomatic and economic importance of the defence sector makes it hard for any Westminster government to contemplate a significant scaling back of its military commitments
Centralisation of power
A third trait of British politics highlighted by Foley and Ramand is a tendency towards the centralisation of political authority. Successive governments have sought to consolidate power at Westminster, limiting the agency of regional authorities through the imposition of council tax freezes and the contracting out of local government services.
Holyrood gives Scotland some autonomy, but the British Parliament sets the parameters within which it operates. Westminster retains full control over fundamental economic levers such as the setting of interest rates and levels of public expenditure; establishes regulatory frameworks for public utilities; and controls foreign policy, including crucial decisions about Britain’s EU membership.
Moreover, Westminster’s winner-takes-all, First-Past-The-Post electoral system ensures that British elections pivot on the results in a few dozen marginal constituencies. This restricts the freedom of all parties to pursue radical programmes, particularly Labour, which has to trim its policies to address the concerns of a narrow constituency of cautious swing voters.
Constraints on Scottish autonomy within the British state
For Foley and Ramand then, these ideologies of the British state entangle Scotland within a net woven according to London’s political priorities:
- If Scotland stays within the union the most crucial decisions on its economy will continue to be set by Westminster governments operating within a neoliberal paradigm. Like the rest of the UK Scotland will become ever more dependent on its financial sector. Foley and Ramand note that in recent years the Scottish financial sector has grown at a faster rate than that of the rest of the UK: by 2008 seven of the top 20 Scottish companies were in financial services, accounting for 78% of profit and 52% of employment. The deregulation of the UK financial sector encouraged Scottish banks to take risks that proved even more catastrophic than their English counterparts, demonstrated most graphically by the fall of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
- The ongoing British commitment to the maintenance of a powerful military ties up public money that could be invested elsewhere, and obliges Scotland to continue to host Trident.
- And Westminster’s winner-takes-all election system obliges parties to tailor their manifestos to appeal to cautious ‘middle England’. Labour’s ongoing concern to appease this constituency led to its reinvention under Tony Blair ‘New Labour’, a technocratic party of the centre-left characterised by managerial caution.
Labour’s shift under Blair extended to Scottish Labour, which during its years in office at Holyrood pursued a similar agenda to the national party at Westminster, particularly notable in regard to its authoritarian stance on law and order, and zealous application of the Private Finance Initiative. In Foley and Ramand’s view ‘Scottish Labour drags Middle England around like a ball and chain.’
The SNP administrations of 2007 and 2011, free of any need to appeal to a conservative English electorate, have been able to govern with greater freedom. The Salmond governments have been able to signal social democratic aspirations through the introduction of free prescriptions, resistance to university tuition fees, and the flagship promise in its independence White Paper of free childcare.
But Foley and Ramand argue that elements of even the SNP’s agenda are marked by Westminster orthodoxies. Neoliberal assumptions have crept into the White Paper, notably in the promise to reduce corporation tax, a pledge that reflects the aspiration of some of senior SNP figures to model Scotland on low tax deregulated economies such as those of Ireland and the Baltic countries, which Alex Salmond has referred to as an ‘Arc of Prosperity’. And the SNP government’s Council Tax freeze has been criticised as the most visible manifestation of a tendency to arrogate powers to itself at the expense of Scottish councils.
A ‘Radical Needs Agenda’
So for Foley and Ramand nothing less than independence will do. Scotland needs full economic and political autonomy to break from the constraining ideologies of the British nationalism and clear the space for the implementation of a progressive political programme:
For those who put social justice before private profit, the UK model stands for everything that makes the present social order unsustainable. Hence, a true internationalist does not seek to protect the British state. A true internationalist strives for an alternative, and wishes to prove that the British model is not inevitable, to weaken the global drift into minimal market democracy. For radicals, alternatives are workable as well as necessary, and the task is to break societies from neoliberal conformity.
They go on to outline a ‘Radical Needs Agenda’, a manifesto for a new Scottish state modelled on the policies of progressive European parties such as Greece’s Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke in Germany and Spain’s Podemos. It’s a radical programme by the standards of mainstream British politics, but Foley and Ramand argue that something like it would be necessary to force through the systematic reforms required to fulfil the aspirations for social democracy voiced so often during the referendum debate.
Green economic growth
An independent Scotland would be empowered with the tools it needs to refocus its economic strategy around its resources of renewable energy. Scotland has the potential to produce a quarter of Europe’s wind and tidal energy, and a tenth of its wave power. Scotland needs a ‘Green New Deal’ that would channel significant investment into the development of new wind farms, both onshore and at sea, and tidal barriers.
This ambitious restructuring would require coordination through a green economic planning council empowered to direct investment appropriately. That would be a tough challenge: half of Scotland’s land is owned by 432 individuals, and energy supply is in private hands. Foley and Ramand argue that tenants and communities should be given the right to buy land even against the wishes of landlords, and that energy franchises be taken back into public ownership. They also recommend that all new wind farms be co-operatively owned and run by local communities. This model has worked well in Denmark, where popular support for wind farms is much stronger than in the UK.
Nationalisation of the North Sea oil industry
The economic strategy proposed by Foley and Ramand’s focuses on renewables, but they acknowledge that North Sea oil will be an important resource for decades to come, studies estimating that up to 25 billion barrels are still to be extracted, which could return as much as £1000 billion in tax revenue. Much of the industry is currently owned by multinationals, with only 30% of the profits from the extraction and sale of North Sea oil taken in taxes. Foley and Ramand’s agenda argues for reconfiguration of the industry on the model of the Norweigan oil sector, which is 80% state-owned. A publicly managed North Sea oil industry would secure a huge additional source of revenue for an independent Scotland, allowing the establishment of a Sovereign Wealth Fund of the kind that has so far generated $750 billion for Norway.
An accountable financial sector
Foley and Ramand’s argue for the radical reform of the financial sector to ensure stability for the wider economy, and the channeling of significant investment towards socially useful purposes, not simply short-term gains that encourage property bubbles and consumer debt. Their agenda proposes the establishment of a national investment bank charged with directing capital towards investment in green industries.
A Scottish currency and central bank
An independent Scotland will only be able to exercise full control over the management of its economy if it has its own currency and central bank. For Foley and Ramand the SNP’s proposal for currency union with the rest of the UK cedes too much control to Westminster, continuing to lock Scotland into a monetary policy prioritising the City’s interests.
A progressive taxation system
Scotland is just as unequal as the rest of the UK. According to Oxfam Scotland’s wealthiest households are 273 times richer than the poorest. Foley and Ramand argue for a more progressive taxation system designed to distribute the proceeds of economic growth more equitably: VAT, a regressive sales tax, should be scrapped, and the focus of taxation shifted from income to wealth, land and property taxes.
Scotland could free up significant resources for investment in green economic growth by scaling back its military commitments. Independence would relieve Scotland of the burden of renewing Trident, and allow the redirection of a substantial proportion of the £3.3 billion it currently spends each year on defence.
The independence debate has reinvigorated popular interest in politics, giving the previously disengaged a sense of what real democratic participation feels like. Foley and Ramand argue for the incremental redesign of Scotland’s tiers of government to encourage much wider popular participation in local and national decision making.
Independence would make possible experimentation with the concept of ‘participatory budgeting’, an exercise in radical democracy that has been trialed successfully in some South American cities. In the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, for example, spending decisions are made through regular neighbourhood assemblies in which thousands of citizens, from all backgrounds, meet to decide upon spending priorities, considering, for example, whether to allocate funds to repairing a road, building a bridge, or a new cooperative day centre. The empowerment of citizens through these participatory frameworks has improved the quality of decision making by opening up consultation to a wider constituency, and ensured a more equitable distribution of community resources.
In addition to the exploration of options for strengthening political democracy Foley and Ramand argue for the extension economic democracy through the promotion of cooperative principles. The prevailing imbalance of power between management and workers could be addressed through the reformation of company law to give employees greater say over the running of the businesses in which they work. Workers could be given the statutory right to representation on company boards and more options for taking over the management of failing firms. Workers’ enterprises have proved successful in other European countries:
The Mondragon federation of worker cooperatives is the largest company in the Basque region of Spain, employing 92,000. It has a turnover of €33 billion and is one of the largest manufacturing and financial firms in Spain. The gap between executive pay and the lowest worker pay is set between 3:1 and 9:1, and at an average of 5:1.
Free childcare and investment in education
Foley and Ramand welcome the independence White Paper’s promise to extend free childcare to 30 hours per week, but want to go further. Working mothers should have access to completely free childcare, as in Sweden, and the legal right to equal pay and conditions of work. And Scotland should follow Finland’s example by investing in one-to-one support from qualified teachers for every child, a policy that has helped Finland achieve the best education results in Europe.
A positive attitude to immigration
Foley and Ramand argue that Scotland needs to adopt a different attitude on immigration to that of the wider UK if it is to attract the skilled international workforce it will need to generate the economic growth necessary to pay for the support of an ageing population.
Towards social democracy
Foley and Ramand’s ‘Radical Needs Agenda’ is unashamedly idealistic, perhaps unrealisable even by a steadfast Holyrood government with a popular mandate. It would be bitterly contested at every point by those who benefit from the status quo. The redirection of the economy towards green growth would require the pushing through of radical land reform and the assertion of public control over energy corporations, measures that would meet fierce political and legal challenge. It is hard to envisage how the diverse international ownership of the North Sea oil sector could be unravelled. (Norway’s oil industry has been under public ownership since its formation.) Demilitarisation threatens to fracture Scotland’s relationships with its international partners, and would be resisted by powerful defence industries and communities dependent on the sector for their livelihoods. The replacement of the British pound with a Scottish currency and the establishment of a central bank would be accompanied by a prolonged period of economic turbulence.
But there is a refreshing clear-headedness about Foley and Ramand’s unapologetic radicalism. These are the kinds of thoroughgoing reforms that would be required to realise the soaring hopes for a progressive Scotland that has energised the Yes campaign; to, as Foley and Ramand’s put it, ‘define a social citizenship against Britain’s neoliberal citizenship.’ It is easy to dream about the possibilities for a new Scotland, less easy to develop credible policies for realising those abstractions. And would be harder still – infinitely hard – to force those policies through in the face of the entrenched opposition of vested interests. Foley and Ramand are at least honest about what would be involved.
All of this, of course, is wholly academic if one does not accept the founding premise of Foley and Ramand’s argument: that there is such a thing as British nationalism, a set of ruling ideologies that render the British state ineffective as a tool for building a progressive, social democratic United Kingdom.
I think they are certainly part right. This debate is a choice between two nationalisms, British and Scottish, a judgement about the merits of the former as much as those of the former. Like all nations Britain operates within the parameters of a framework of beliefs, aspirations and prejudices that influence governments of both the left and the right. But whether ‘British nationalism’ is as toxic to radical aspirations as Foley and Ramand maintain is less clear. Progressives might agree that Britain is flawed, in certain respects broken, but can still serve as an effective channel for social democratic ambitions. One might imagine a response along these lines:
- The neoliberal advance of the past 30 years has indeed undermined many elements of the post-war social democratic settlement. But much of it remains. Britain still has a comprehensive welfare system ensuring universal access to a National Health Service, a state pension and a broad range of social security payments. The coalition government’s partial dismantling of that system could be reversed by a successor. Other public services such as education and the BBC have been reformed, but are still there. The outlines of a social democratic Britain can still be discerned, and be built upon.
- It is also true the maintenance of Britain’s prominent role on the international stage has committed the UK to an expensive military and unwise international adventures. But Britain’s international influence can and has been used for good. Some military interventions, such as the strikes on Kosovo in 1999, are taken on humanitarian grounds, as a last resort when diplomatic efforts have failed. And the UK is a generous international donor, capable of supporting bold initiatives such as the Jubilee 2000 campaign for the cancellation of debt owed by the world’s poorest countries.
- Political power in Britain remains much too concentrated in Westminster, but is capable of redistribution, as evidenced by Scottish and Welsh devolution. The very fact of the granting of the independence referendum shows that the British state is able to contemplate its own dissolution, in a way that is not possible for some other countries. Spain, for example, refuse to allow a referendum on the independence of the Basque region, despite overwhelming popular demand.
- And while it is true that the ongoing controversy over immigration threatens Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, British life also exhibits a vibrant multiculturalism.
An adequate response to Yes: The Radical Case for Independence would require many more words than this blog post can allow. It needs a book of its own, and several have been written. But even those ultimately unconvinced that Scotland needs full independence might agree that Foley and Ramand’s book has helped clarify the questions that Scotland should be asking itself. This is a choice between two nationalisms, and if Scotland is to go its own way it needs to face up to the magnitude of that decision, and think in radical terms about the kind of political agenda that would be required to translate the hopes for independence that have been expressed so eloquently by so many over the course of the referendum debate into reality. If Scotland does indeed break away from the rest of the UK will leave more in sorrow than in anger, in the belief that independence offers the only means of safeguarding what is best about Scotland, and retrieving what was once best about Britain.
Yes: The Radical Case for Independence, by James Foley and Pete Ramand, is published by Pluto Press.