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What’s the Alternative? – Scottish Review of Books
by Jamie Maxwell

What’s the Alternative?

August 3, 2014 | by Jamie Maxwell

 few months ago I visited the Rangers supporters’ club in Sandy Row, a staunchly loyalist area of south Belfast where the pavements are literally painted red, white and blue. I went to talk about Scottish independence with the club’s manager, a pleasant, stocky, tattooed chap named Warren Miller, but we ended up discussing the community’s economic decline. These days, Sandy Row – once a thriving part of industrial, Protestant Belfast – is among the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, marked by high rates of poverty, unemployment and ill health. Inevitably, with this decline has come gradual depopulation, as Miller said: ‘Thousands of people lived here in the 1970s and ’80s, now it’s about 2,000 or 3,000. People couldn’t get jobs locally, so they went elsewhere. It’s a real shame.’

The Irish Question doesn’t feature as prominently in Scotland’s referendum debate as it could – or should. With all the talk of 1707, it’s easy to forget the United Kingdom has only existed in its current form since 1922, when 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties broke away from London to establish the Irish Free State. Few people north or south of the Irish border (that I’ve spoken to, at any rate) believe a Yes vote has the potential to reignite the Troubles, but they are wary of the impact such a profound rupture might have on Ireland. Given Alex Salmond’s plan to cut corporation tax, does the SNP intend to position Scotland as a free market competitor to the Republic? How quickly, if at all, would Sinn Fein try to capitalise on the new ambiguity surrounding the UK’s constitutional set-up by calling a border poll of its own? More to the point, what role would Northern Ireland play in a UK defined almost exclusively by English majority interests?

As David Torrance explains in his brief but engaging new polemic, Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal Union, the traditional response of British leaders to the demands of ‘peripheral’ (specifically Irish) nationalists has been federalism. According to Torrance, UK federalism reached its ‘high watermark’ in 1919-1920, when a Cabinet sub-committee was charged with ‘drafting a Bill for a federal UK that would square off Nationalist aspirations with (Ulster) Unionist fears’. A Bill was drawn up, some of which became the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, but by then the wheels of Irish independence were already turning. When that independence (of sorts) was achieved two years later, the dream of a federal UK vanished, pushing, Torrance says, ‘the Ulster precedent from Tory minds [and replacing it] with premonitions of constitutional catastrophe’.

After a lengthy absence, however, and with the peripheries again agitating for change, federalism is back on the British political agenda. In June, Gordon Brown became the most senior UK politician yet to back a federal or quasi-federal settlement for Britain following a No vote in September. Writing in The Guardian, Brown said the Scottish referendum had ‘already sunk without trace the old idea of Britain as a unitary state’ and warned that, ‘If Britain does not change of its own volition, Scotland … could force upon the whole country a system of government as close to federalism as you can have in a nation where one part forms 85 per cent of the population.’ Brown’s intervention echoed the findings of the Liberal Democrats’ 2013 report, Federalism: the best future for Scotland, which reaffirmed the party’s century-old commitment to ‘a modernised, federal United Kingdom’.

But what would federalism actually entail and why would it be preferable to either devolution or independence? For Torrance, as for Brown and the Liberal Democrats, Scotland’s position within a federal UK wouldn’t differ radically from its position now. Macro-economic policy, monetary policy, defence, foreign affairs and the constitution would all still be decided at the central state level, while Westminster would cede a greater degree of control over borrowing, tax and, perhaps, welfare and pensions to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Crucially, sovereignty would be formally divided between the four home nations within the context of a written British constitution. ‘Since 1999 the UK has experienced federalism by stealth, so why not formalise it?,’ Torrance concludes. ‘After all, the leap between the quasi-federal status-quo and a … UK federation is much shorter than that between ad hoc devolution and independence as defined by the SNP.’

Torrance has a point. Federalism probably would be the neatest of the available constitutional options and, as the ‘Ulster precedent’ shows, the British state can, under the right circumstances, open itself up to relatively far-reaching reform. Moreover, unlike the other options, federalism actually commands something approaching majority support. For the last few years – since, at least, the SNP’s 2011 landslide victory – Scottish voters have shown consistently high levels of enthusiasm for an increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament that would extend beyond ‘ad hoc devolution’ but fall short of ‘independence as defined by the SNP’. In this respect, federalism seems like the most practical – and in some ways distinctively British – choice.

But things aren’t quite that simple. For a start, the only parties capable of delivering a federal UK – Labour and the Conservatives – have already committed to less radical devolutionary alternatives. Indeed, Scottish Labour’s offer, when it finally arrived earlier this year, was a hopeless fudge which included granting Holyrood the power to raise income tax rates but not to lower them. And while the Tories’ proposals are slightly more ambitious, particularly with regard to those all-important ‘fiscal levers’, they too would leave the principle of Westminster sovereignty – the bête noir of nationalists and federalists alike – more or less intact. The fundamental problem with federalism, however, is its lack of overarching purpose. Ultimately, its justification seems to rest on the fact that it represents a workable compromise between independence and devolution. Yet there are many people in the referendum debate – most of them, it should be said, on the Yes side – who view 18 September as an opportunity to inject some much needed disruption and instability into Britain’s stuffy political firmament.

Two such agitators are James Foley and Pete Ramand, co-founders of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and authors of Yes: the Radical Case for Scottish Independence, a left-wing critique of the ‘Westminster consensus’. For Foley and Ramand, the referendum is not, as some unionists claim, a contest between narrow-minded Scottish separatists and benign British multiculturalists. It is a battle between competing nationalisms, one of which is more reactionary and jingoistic than the other: ‘The progressive elements of [British] welfare nationalism have been cut to the bone. Loyalties are preserved by jollying the population into a mean-spirited nationalism of the Belgrano-sinking variety … [British nationalism] revolves around invading and occupying other nation-states while warning that rival sovereignties are toxic.’ According to Foley and Ramand, this ‘neo-Britishness’ is as much a feature of Labour politics as it is Tory politics: ‘It was Labour who coined the phrase “British jobs for British workers”… Labour Home Secretaries who encouraged apocalyptic fantasies about immigration…Labour [who] used [patriotic] rhetoric against striking firefighters.’

Foley and Ramand detail the Blairite takeover of Scottish Labour during the early years of devolution. They explain how leftists and so-called ‘soft nationalists’ within the party were isolated and then unceremoniously dumped in favour of candidates who could be relied on to comply with London’s policy diktats. ‘The Iraq War,’ Foley and Ramand write, ‘proved a watershed. Six [out of 56] Labour MSPs rebelled against the party in a Holyrood vote … By contrast, 139 Labour MPs defied Blair at Westminster.’ It was at this point that Labour’s hegemony in Scotland began to crumble. These days, as Foley and Ramand point out, support for independence is highest in those working class neighbourhoods Labour would once have considered part of its natural territory.

Yet Foley and Ramand are as critical of the official Yes campaign as they are of the Labour Party. They view the Yes Scotland/SNP approach – ‘continuity plus optimism equals victory’ – as a political dead end. Only by exposing Britain’s structural and economic failings, they argue (convincingly), will a majority of Scots be persuaded to take the independence gamble: ‘Yes Scotland presents independence as an evolution … The existing social order will stay intact, but a few administrative tasks will move to Edinburgh. [This represents] a bloodless civic identity politics [when] our starting point should be the failure of the present settlement in Britain.’

Another critic of official nationalist narratives is Gerry Hassan. His latest offering, Caledonia Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland, tackles the ‘Six Myths of Modern Scotland’, which include the notion that Scottish society is inherently social democratic. In Hassan’s view, Scotland is dominated by various self-regarding media and political elites who speak the language of redistribution but consistently refuse to take the radical steps necessary to reduce income inequalities, improve educational opportunities or make public institutions more transparent. For Hassan, Scotland’s opinion-formers and policy-makers inhabit a ‘fictional political and social community’ – ‘a kind of quasi-Brigadoon’ – entirely at odds with the reality of life for most Scots: ‘[Their] account [of Scotland] seems to embody a land which defines itself by not voting Tory, but at the same time supports the existing status quo, and the “settled will” of institutional Scotland.’

It’s a legitimate observation. Scottish progressives have been complacent about Scotland’s susceptibility to anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populism, and there’s little doubt Scottish society falls far short of mainstream social democratic norms. But Hassan has a habit of overstating his point. For instance, he accuses the Scottish left of believing there is a ‘natural socialist majority just waiting to be re-awakened by the right kind of leadership.’ Yet, in June, RIC staged a series of well-staffed and highly-publicised mass canvassing sessions in deprived communities across Scotland, showcasing the left’s commitment to grassroots level activism. Equally, the growing urgency with which the Scottish electorate voted against the Conservatives in the 1980s and ’90s didn’t stem from a culture of juvenile socialist (or anti-English or male chauvinist) ‘indignation’. It was a rational response to the effect Mrs Thatcher’s policies had on the Scottish economy. Scottish poverty and unemployment rates almost doubled during the Thatcher era. It would be astonishing if that trauma didn’t influence Scotland’s subsequent political development.

Nonetheless, Hassan’s central argument – that there exists a gulf between Scottish political rhetoric and action (particularly centre-left rhetoric and action) – is a good one. It also, of course, highlights the key difference between independence and federalism. With independence, Scots will no longer have any alibis or excuses. They won’t be able to blame their disgracefully low rates of average pay, or their high rates of material inequality, or their imbalanced economy, or their child poverty, or their ill health on Westminster’s ‘disregard’ for Scottish interests. Responsibility for tackling these problems will lie solely with Scottish people and Scottish institutions – and Scots alone will be culpable if they persist. Towards the end of Caledonia Dreaming, Hassan quotes from a piece by Dublin journalist Fintan O’Toole. Reflecting on Ireland’s own often messy and demoralising experience of independence, O’Toole writes: ‘You end up feeling more disillusioned but also more grown-up…There are still follies and delusions but at least they’re your own…Do you want to have the safety net of an auld enemy to rage at when policies don’t work and the world turns mean? Or do you prefer to look at yourself in the mirror, in all your glories and stupidities?’ When they head to the polls in a few weeks’ time, Scots would do well to consider these questions almost as closely as the one they are actually being asked.

In the midst of all this polemicizing, it’s tempting to ignore the large section (around 30 to 40 per cent) of the Scottish public that still hasn’t made up its mind about independence. For these undecideds, Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards, by academics Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher (now an adviser to Better Together) and Guy Lodge, is a useful assessment of the main issues in the debate. Although written in a rather technocratic style (it dedicates ten pages to a discussion of ‘Horizontal Fiscal Equalisation’), Scotland’s Choices provides masses of detail on a range of complex subjects without swamping the reader with irrelevant information. Of particular interest is the chapter on ‘Welfare and Citizenship in the UK’, which explains how the devolution of certain political rights to Scotland has created ‘a platform for the articulation and expression of [distinct] social rights’. The question this raises is whether British citizenship, an idea tied closely to the UK’s shared system of post-war welfare provision, can survive another substantial decentralisation of power.

Somewhat less useful, however, and certainly much less interesting, is Enlightening the Constitutional Debate, a collection of ‘expert’ testimonies on independence and unionism drawn from a series of British Academy and Royal Society of Edinburgh seminars. Enlightening the Constitutional Debate simply describes the views of its contributors (more than three quarters of whom are men) in the plainest terms, as though all voters are looking for is a set of cool establishment heads to chaperon them through the referendum minefield. The problem with a book such as this – apart from its staggering dullness – is that it is essentially just a closed dialogue between the sorts of elites identified by Hassan. It gives no sense of being engaged in, or even aware of, the broader democratic discussion taking place across Scotland in the run up to September.

Closer to the spirit of that discussion is A Modest Proposal for the Agreement of the People, an intriguing, if chaotically structured, call for the UK to adopt a formal constitution. Written partly in tribute to Mike and Sheila Forbes, the Aberdeenshire couple who fought Donald Trump’s Menie estate development, A Modest Proposal is made-up of a handful of shortish essays, the best of which is by labour historian Mary Davis. Davis charts the history of popular opposition to illiberal and authoritarian governments in the British Isles, from the English Revolution in the seventeenth century to the Easter Rising and the feminist movement in the twentieth Legislative progress, she argues, is often the result of organised working-class action, but parliamentary reform is not in itself enough to secure lasting gains for ordinary people. Rights are only worth having if individuals can actually exercise them.

Unsurprisingly, the idea that nationalists are obsessed with ‘soft’ constitutional issues at the expense of ‘hard’ political and economic ones has become a prominent theme among unionists of late. Last year, Scottish Labour briefly adopted the slogan ‘Scotland On Pause’ to highlight what it saw as the Scottish government’s fixation on all things independence-related, while other unionist parties routinely attack the SNP for sacrificing the ‘everyday concerns’ of voters in order to pursue its ‘separatist pipedream’. Davis’s point is relevant here. There is no guarantee that shifting Scotland’s constitutional goalposts will have a positive effect on Scottish society. Nor can the SNP claim a written Scottish constitution will automatically alter or improve the lives of Scottish citizens.

However, on the basis of my experience up in Sandy Row, I would warn against trying to divide a country’s politics into opposing categories marked ‘the economy’ and ‘the constitution’. In the early the twentieth century, Belfast was the most industrially developed part of Ireland and had a strong socialist tradition. Who knows what Sandy Row might look like now, had Ulster followed the rest of Ireland out of the UK in 1922? Given Ireland’s general economic trajectory over recent years, it’s possible the community would be even worse off than it is today. On the other hand, without the liberalising influence of successive UK governments, perhaps it would have been better equipped to cope with the challenges of deindustrialisation. The same goes for mainland Britain: is it a coincidence that the structure of the British state (sclerotic and heavily centralised) so closely reflects the structure of the British economy (sclerotic and heavily centralised)? Or is it possible the concentration of political power in London feeds and reinforces the concentration of economic power in the capital?

With the referendum finishing line now very much in sight, most Scots still seem fairly relaxed about Scotland’s place in the UK. In the two years since the campaign kicked off, the polls may have narrowed somewhat but there hasn’t been a decisive shift in favour of independence. This is partly due to the way Better Together has relentlessly exaggerated the apparent economic pitfalls of separation, and it is partly to do with the contradictions in the SNP’s independence prospectus. Above all, though, it is because Scotland’s middle and professional classes see no reason to mess with a system that has served them so well. The status quo has made their lives comfortable, even if poorer Scots haven’t felt the benefits of Danny Alexander’s ‘Union dividend’ for a while. What are the chances middle Scotland will change its mind before September? Pretty low, I suspect. But there’s still a little bit of time left.


David Torrance

Luath Press Ltd., £9.99, ISBN 978-1-910021-11-8, 108PP


James Foley and Pete Ramand

Pluto Press, £9.99, ISBN 978-0-753-3475-2, 153PP


Gerry Hassan

Luath Press Ltd., £11.99, ISBN 978-1-970021-06-4, 256PP


Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge

Edinburgh University Press, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-7486-6987-5, 256PP


The Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy

ISBN 978-0—902198-27-2


Angus Reid, Mary David and Others

Luath Press Ltd., £9.99, ISBN 978-1-9-910021-05-7, 190PP

From this Issue

Amen to All That

by Harry Reid

Best Foot Forward

by Lee Randall

Shuffling the Deck

by Colin Waters

Off the Beaten Track

by Hugh MacDonald

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