Sunrise in Scotland this morning
Will we all wake up in a new country tomorrow morning? Whichever way the Scots vote today, it looks like we could be in for interesting times. So, some very brief thoughts.
If I were resident north of the border, I think I might have voted Yes. This is an extrapolation from how I feel living in a northern city forced by a London government few people here voted for to make savage and soon to be unsustainable cuts to public services. And I how I feel about a political elite more concerned to bail out the banks for their grievous errors; one dedicated to cutting taxes paid by the rich rather than funding investment in the nation’s health, education and well-being.
Writing in yesterday’s Guardian Linda Colley, though she didn’t name him, drew upon the sort of analysis which Tom Nairn, the Scottish political theorist, has been making since his The Break-Up of Britain in 1977 – namely, that forces of civic (rather than ethnic) nationalism would be awakened by the tightening grip of global capitalism on national economies, governments and party political programmes. Colley wrote:
The fiercer, more uncompromising, often utopian nationalism that now grips some Scots possesses echoes in other parts of the world. In part this is because the relentless advance of globalisation has fostered a desire in many countries for a more distinctive and reassuring local identity. This trend is particularly marked in Europe because it contains so many ancient, culturally distinctive groupings – like the Catalans in Spain – who do not possess a state of their own, and want to have one.
It’s this aspect of the Scottish campaign that I strongly identify with: if there was a referendum here in Liverpool tomorrow on whether the city – or a city-region perhaps encompassing Manchester as well – should have more power over local services, and more freedom to raise taxes to fund those services, I would unhesitatingly vote Yes.
(However, I was given pause for thought by Polly Toynbee’s argument that ‘localism is no panacea’ for deprived regions in yesterday’s Guardian:
At first sight, how attractive it looks for each locality to raise tax and spend its share of national income as best suits local circumstance. Localism sounds comforting. It is indeed high time to give back powers Margaret Thatcher stripped out and replace the millions of council homes she sold. Labour would give local health and wellbeing boards some NHS powers. Schools and further education should be returned too. Borrowing to build, councils should sell bonds.
But alarm bells ring when groupthink grips all parties. For social democrats there are as many dangers as opportunities. Unlike more equal federal countries, England is so grotesquely unequal in geography and class that London and the south-east make all the money, the rest take it. Redistribution from the south must limit the scope for local tax-raising. The north-east, Cornwall or West Midlands may feel angrily alienated from Cameron’s government, but they can’t break away.)
Nevertheless, it seems that Scots voting No today might really mean Yes: yes to ‘Devo-Max’, more devolved powers to Scotland (and perhaps, if Tory backbenchers and UKIP don’t put their oar in, to Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, too). In one sense, it’s becoming clear that the result doesn’t matter: the Scots are going to want to exercise more power at their level whatever the outcome. As Neal Ascherson wrote some 14 years ago in the London Review of Books (reviewing a book by Tom Nairn):
The Scottish public are not much interested in distinctions between supposedly incompatible variants of self-rule like devolution, independence, quasi-federalism and so on. What they want is to run their own affairs, never mind what the arrangement is called.
I think the Welsh, Liverpudlians, Mancunians, Geordies and the Cornish would like to run their own affairs as well – and sod the banks, global corporations, the London government – and, sadly, probably the European Union, too. Fundamentally the issue is democracy.
As Billy Bragg thoughtfully argued in another Guardian piece this week:
In the post-independence debate about how the remaining parts of the UK are governed, the elephant in the room will be devolution for England. Regional assemblies elected under a proportional system with Holyrood-style powers would offer us the opportunity to address the inequalities that have opened up between London and the rest of the country.
Support for Scottish self-determination might not fit neatly into any leftwing pigeon hole, but it does chime with an older progressive tradition that runs deep in English history – a dogged determination to hold the over-mighty to account. If, during the constitutional settlement that will follow the referendum, we in England can rediscover our Roundhead tradition, we might yet counter our historic weakness for ethnic nationalism with an outpouring of civic engagement that creates a fairer society for all.
It’s democracy, stupid
A clear vote for No – yet 45% of Scots, including majorities in the cities of Glasgow and Dundee, voted to leave the Union. The turnout was an astonishing 84.6%.
So where now? Curiously, the rejection of independence for Scotland seems to have led to a clamour from Tory backbenchers and UKIP for English independence – to which Cameron’s opportunistic response has been to open up the question of whether Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on ‘English’ matters in the Westminster Parliament. Since such matters include health, education, human rights and social care this smells to high heaven of crude party manoeuvring and threatens a situation where, even with a Labour government, the Tories could out-vote policies in those crucial areas. (See Helena Kennedy, Constitutional reform: English votes for English laws cuts two ways). So, in England at least, we appear to be exactly where some feared we’d be if the Scots voted to leave us.
And Scotland? In today’s Observer, Neal Ascherson writes:
Even SNP figures say independence won’t return to the agenda for a generation. This is unlikely to be true. Scotland is being carried along on a process of steady institutional, political and social divergence from the rest of the UK, which will continue.
The case for full self-government will make increasing sense in the next few years. The latest hasty suggestions for increasing the powers of the Scottish parliament are little more than a rehash of existing proposals judged some years ago to be hopelessly behind the curve. Anyway, Mr Cameron now proposes to embed them in a vaster constitutional reform for all Britain. This is unlikely to get anywhere serious, and would take many years if it did. If the Westminster system has one real expertise, it is for gently enfolding radical ideas, like a jellyfish with its prey, and dissolving them to transparent mush.
In the past three days, Scots have looked at one another and asked: “What do we do with all that joyful commitment, with the biggest surge of creative democratic energy that Scotland has ever seen?” For many, perhaps thousands of people, it has been the most important public experience in their lives. Must it go to waste?
Nearly one in two Scots, it seems, consider the United Kingdom as broken. Now that they must remain in it, some of their energy for change can go into fresh reforms through the devolved Scottish parliament – for example, giving back power to the people through a grant of real responsibility to local communities.
Best of all, they should not break their hearts because they failed to bring their country into the world of free and sovereign nations. This referendum year leaves Scotland a transformed, empowered society. The men and women of yes should live and work as if they already belonged to an independent country. And perhaps, in a sense, that is what Scotland has now become.
A society transformed and empowered ? Now that would be something to be.