“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on” is an odd rallying cry for a national movement.
It is not a “free or a desert” demand to cast off oppression, and it doesn’t contain anything of the claims to blood-right and purer heritage that have coloured the character of nationalisms the world over. It certainly does not imply a revolutionary moment of liberation. It is simply a claim to the right to be normal.
Uttered by the charismatic Winnie Ewing when she stunned the British political establishment with her by- election victory in 1967, it remains the founding statement of modern Scottish nationalism.
Of course, In the intervening decades, the world hasn’t stopped. But ever since that night of electoral sensation in Hamilton, Scottish nationalism has weaved a path from the fringes to the mainstream. Unlike so many other national movements, it has been prepared to duck and dive in order to try and circumvent the problems of all of this relentless global change, earning a hard won flexibility that is key to its resilience. Rather than seeking to provoke insurgency, it has instead attempted to one day nestle into an opportune niche on the international stage, in the hope that the nation, despite overwhelming odds and sporadic popular support for statehood, might decide to become sovereign again.
Right up to the present day this effort has seen several false dawns, ideological manoeuvres, changes of tack, emphasis and rhetoric, and the occasional moment of bitter recrimination. Andrew Wilson, once an early noughties poster-boy for a dynamic, thrusting free-market post-nationalism within the SNP, has outlined the latest discernible shift in the recently published Sustainable Growth Commission, Scotland the New Case for Optimism. This represents the latest instalment in the long running saga of how Scotland might establish itself on the scene as, in the report’s terms “a normal independent country.”
The pitch contends that Scotland can become an easily integrated sovereign nation, in an ever-more globalised world, if it plots a steady course and sticks at it through the building of broad non-partisan support for a set of specific economic policies. Wilson, at the behest of his party’s leadership has outlined a “toolbox”. But he’s done so without demonstrating any clearly defined vision of what these five million people might want to build with it. That, of course, is part of the point of the exercise: the vision part, we’re told, can be filled in once Scots have found the confidence in their hearts, and accepted a credible balance sheet in their heads. After independence they can then vote for whatever party makes the best case in the first election to the Scottish Parliament. The tools are presented as benign, impartial, rational and non-partisan, simply the best way of doing things, carried out by the best people. In a riposte to the populism of Brexit, the report claims “Scotland, we think, has not had enough of experts.” Essentially the new country must be hard-wired by technocrats at its birth in order to flourish, by agreeing to pursue the goal of prosperity and credibility in one of the most financialsied economies on the planet. Leaving the UK, without a process of economic disentanglement, is the key aim, to be followed by an economics of national unity: “A cross-partisan collaborative approach to policymaking against the long-term national strategic framework should be institutionalised.”
But credibility doesn’t come cheap and unity on core policy and strategy is fraught with risk. This was something that the tottering Scottish state discovered at the dawn of financial capitalism in the years leading up to 1707. United behind one-true enterprising scheme of national salvation, the Scots had the historic capacity for cross-partisanship, pulling together and the shared sacrifices. But in becoming enamoured of what were then the latest financial tools on offer, Scotland lost everything in an effort to show it was a credible global player. The world didn’t stop in response to Darien and the great powers strangled the wee upstart venture as they were always bound to: the power of capital and the ruthless pursuit of national interest made that outcome inevitable.
In a world in which imperial trade wars are back on the agenda, it might seem more sensible to see the local as the starting point for any kind of economic sustainability, let alone renaissance. Framed in order to depoliticise the economics of independence and to mitigate against the prospect of capital flight, the Wilson report provides a string of answers to a host of questions, none of which address the realities of a rapidly changing world economic order. Can we really look at the financial services sector, with its criminality and enormous social irresponsibility, and say that being locked in to a monetary arrangement determined for the City of London is a good thing? What the Growth Commission singularly fails to achieve is any kind of serious acknowledgment that the whole point of independence might actually be about establishing a new paradigm, in the wake of global crisis. After the experience of 2008, would we really take Ireland’s grossly inflated GDP over an actual project of rebuilding post-industrial communities?
Political change has rarely consisted of great leaps in Scotland, it’s not the way things tend to get done here. But the one great unlooked for moment in recent Scottish history, in 2014, did not take place because the great and the good got together and convinced the markets they wouldn’t rock the boat. By defying, rather than petitioning the world and those who run it – from POTUS on down – something changed in Scotland that could not be put back in its box. People rediscovered their own power, and decided to create their own political reality, despite the risks, the threats and the propaganda handed on down from the very same people that the Growth Commission is designed to placate. A people does not decide to form a new state because Standard & Poor’s give them a nod, they do it precisely because certain political truths are held to be more important than the interests of capital, out of a revulsion at what went before, and a need to start all over again. They never decide to create a new country on the basis of continuity.
In the run up to the last vote, as long as there was a polite and contained approach to winning independence, in the form of an essentially anodyne official Yes Scotland campaign, the polls were consistently dire. Yet when it became apparent that centralised control and a narrow prospectus could not win the day, a sea change began to take place. A cluster of visions about what Scotland could be took precedence over the politics of triangulation and richer/poorer self interest. This rested squarely on the notion that, having tried everything to save the core decencies of a social democratic post-war Britain, independence might be a vehicle to resurrect and resuscitate them. The timing was crucial. Post-2010 austerity made the quiet dismantling of that social settlement explicit, where it had long been taking place in coded terms. The 2010 UK government, formed on a non-partisan basis in the “national interest”, began an unprecedented shrinking of the state. Every member of that sorry crew did so citing one reason and one reason only: the markets demanded national unity. Politics could wait.
2014 was in no small part a response to this moment of utter failure for centrist politics, often driven by those who had seen the damage up close. Scotland was not, in this moment, normal. It seemed to be claiming that social democracy could be saved, perhaps even extended, just as it retreated all over the continent. What was happening to the NHS, the obscenity of Trident and military interventionism, older traditions of protest, dissent and sheer awkwardness merged.
The writing of a business plan for Scotland PLC might be the most important missing link for a certain strata of people in Scottish society, just waiting for that opportunity to jump ship as Brexit Britain sinks. But it does not speak to, or even assist, the telling of a new story in a scene already so different four years on – when the world is on fire, democracies are crumbling under authoritarian rule and protectionism is back on the agenda once again. Even in such a precarious world in which there is a lot to defy, and not much to settle in to, Middle Scotland will not move an inch from its comfortable perch. The Scottish Government seeks to promote that comfort, telling the world that “Scotland is Now” – citing baby boxes, equal marriage and the V&A to imply that Scotland has somehow already arrived at its historic moment to shine. There is no longer a future to be won, just a present to be preserved, and made certain: hence the lack of any transformative vision from the Growth Commission.
Our habitual hand-wringing about social justice in Scotland often looks with neo-Victorian horror at the schemes and the high rises that those with power never visit. We seldom take a trip to consider the other side of the coin: the home-owning suburban Scotland, and ask why they would give up a fraction of what they have for the sake of change, having shown a consistent and deep reluctance to ever do so. Best to sit tight with a disaster like Brexit coming down the line.
Stephen Maxwell, that most incisive of Scottish nationalists, noted in his 1991 essay ‘The Scottish Middle Class and the National Debate’: “in recent decades, as Scotland’s circumstances have undergone rapid and dramatic change , the Scottish middle class has managed only a stuttering, hesitant and ineffective response”
A quick look at the map of Yes/No results in 2014, and at how establishment Scotland lined up to vehemently reject independence as toxic, reveals the astonishing prescience of Maxwell’s note that: “If the Scottish middle class is peculiarly defective in its capacity for national leadership the implications for Scotland’s future are grave.”
Indeed. Andrew Wilson’s report speaks to a section of Scottish society who don’t require change, have no interest in leading it, who dither and equivocate as they are confronted with a new constitutional crisis and democratic deficit once again.
Contrary to what the Growth Commission implies, the tools used to construct a new state are inherently political: the method defines the outcome. To claim otherwise represents a displacement and deferral of basic truths about how we might live. The toolbox is the sovereign people, who create Scotland’s wealth, claiming ownership of it.
Image: Andy Arthur: