On Scottish Independence

Whether an independent Scottish nation will have more progressive politics because we’ll always get the government we vote for: I don’t think so. There’s nothing radical about that. I also don’t really buy into this idea that Scotland would be a progressive beacon for the rest of Britain. But Scottish independence will open the way for further devolution in England, for example the divide between Northern England and Southern England is almost as striking as the divide between England and Scotland, and potentially Wales and even Cornwall too.

Daniel Davies interviews Calum Barnes

Via.

On Thursday, September 18, the Scottish people will vote on whether to dissolve a 300-year-old political union with England. Just over a week ago, for the first time in the two-year campaign, a poll was released putting the pro-independence movement ahead. Since then, Britain has been in a state of panic: mainstream political parties have been clamoring to throw praise and promises at Scotland, pleading with the Scottish public not to break up the “family” of Britain. Against the backdrop of increasing disillusionment with mainstream politics and the austerity consensus that includes all of Britain’s main political parties, independence seems to offer an alternative. The Yes campaign has been positive: it has galvanized the Scottish electorate into imagining a different future for Scotland, while the No campaign has been built around a neoliberal politics of fear, emphasizing that there is no alternative to the Westminster consensus.

Last month I was in Edinburgh, and the sense of excitement was palpable. Walking through the normally staid streets, I was struck by the signs of affirmation that surrounded me: YES in windows of tenement flats, posted in shops, hung from lampposts. It seemed to me that Scotland was on the precipice. There was a movement gaining traction and support, swelling around the possibility of breaking the status quo.

Despite the momentum behind the Yes campaign, a No vote remains a very real possibility. It’s also unclear what a Yes vote would even mean—a true rupture or mere rearrangement of familiar forms. While the Scottish left attaches its hopes to independence, the Scottish National Party has already promised a 3 percent corporation tax cut, a move critics say will only further enrich the wealthy. On Monday, I talked through some of these issues over Skype with Calum Barnes, a grassroots political activist based in Bathgate, a small, postindustrial town close to Edinburgh.


Davies
One of the main criticisms attached to the Yes campaign is that it is reactionary, because at its heart it is a debate about nationalism. Could you expand upon that?

Barnes
Is it reactionary because it’s about nationalism?

Davies
I’m thinking here about attempts on the right to frame this debate as nationalism, and attempts on the left to frame it as democracy.

Barnes
There is an odd disconnect between the Scottish media—what I see on TV, how they’ve been covering independence this whole time—and the sudden interest from the BBC and London stations since last week. The London media have always just treated it as, “Oh, it’s just nationalism.” This is why they got such a shock last week and realized, “Oh wait, it’s not nationalism—it’s disillusionment with Westminster!” It is fundamentally a choice between two types of democracy, really. That’s how I initially saw independence. Because for me Westminster is a sclerotic, undemocratic voting system that favors the Labour-Conservative duopoly, and with an unelected House of Lords to boot. That versus the Scottish parliament, which has still, granted, a number of seats decided by first past the post, but it also has the additional member system, and there is no unelected house. So I always thought it was about democracy, and I think that is largely how it’s been framed by the Yes campaign and supporters. The line you hear repeated from Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon [of the Scottish National Party] is that in an independent Scotland, Scotland will always get the government it votes for. This explains the democratic deficit that has emerged—that saw Scots reject Thatcher at the ballot box yet still be ruled by her government. In the last sixty-eight years, Scotland has voted Tory in six elections, yet has been governed by a Tory government for thirty-eight. There’s a clear disjunction between what happens at the ballot box and what the Scottish people get stuck with.

It’s worth noting, too, that the implicit reasoning of everyone decrying Scottish nationalism is that the alternative, British nationalism, is nothing to worry about. I think the fact that the Orange Order marched through Edinburgh last week shows how totally nonsense that idea is. If the independence debate is about nationalism, then it’s nationalism used as a means to an end: a way to achieve the creation of a new nation-state, shorn of the imperial and feudal trappings of Westminster.

Davies
You hit upon an idea that has become important for Scotland’s self-perception: unlike their neighbors in the south of England, Scotland is a proud left-wing nation with ideas of social justice at its heart.

Barnes
Well, this is the handy myth that has come to dominate the Yes side: that Scotland always votes for left-leaning parties and half the time gets bumped with right-wing parties. But I always struggle to articulate the feeling I have about this. There is in some ways a degree of self-flagellation in some people, in the sense that they put up with the Tory government, they acknowledge they didn’t vote for it, but for some reason they don’t see that independence is the way to actually challenge this. At the moment people say, “Yeah, I hate the Tories, but I didn’t vote for them,” and shrug it off. It’s about making that leap, about forming a political system in which people feel like they have responsibility because this is something they care about. And this is something we’re seeing on the doorsteps: this campaign has been remarkable for the amount of first-time voters it’s engaged. You hear so often people telling you they’ve never voted before, but this time it really matters.

Davies
You’re saying there’s a popular narrative of victimhood in Scotland, exacerbated by the contempt shown for Scotland by the Thatcher government in particular—the hated poll tax was tested in Scotland before England, and many people saw the Scottish people being used as guinea pigs. This strain of thinking relies upon a sense of Scotland being oppressed by their English masters. Could you say that a vote for independence is a vote for decolonialization and the breakup of the British Empire?

Barnes
Well, Scotland’s complicity in the British Empire . . . it’s come to the fore in the last few years, most recently with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last month. Glasgow is the only major port of empire that doesn’t have a museum that reflects on its imperial past. Liverpool has one, Portsmouth has one, but Glasgow never really came to terms with it, despite being the Second City of Empire.

There was a great initiative during the Commonwealth Games called the Empire Café where they rented this space with talks every night reflecting on Glasgow’s past. Interestingly, one guy suggested a radical thing independent Scotland could do—that it’s not going to do—which is apologize for its role in the slave trade, and leave it open to pay reparations. Britain hasn’t yet apologized. It’s also worth remembering that Scottish support for the Act of Union in 1707 came amidst the economic crisis of the Darien scheme, which was Scotland’s first attempt to establish a colony, and union was seen as a means to achieving imperial power for Scotland.

Davies
Independence can be understood as this vehicle for otherwise unimaginable political ideas, such as reparations. Could you talk a little bit about how the independence campaign has intersected with radical politics in Scotland and England?

Barnes
Psh . . .

Davies
I’m thinking specifically about the Radical Independence Campaign.

Barnes
The Radical Independence is the biggest rejuvenation of the Scottish left since the explosion of the Scottish Socialist Party in 2004–5. You had over 1,000 people meeting up for the Radical Independence conference last November; it was the biggest political meeting in I don’t know how long.

Davies
So what is Radical Independence?

Barnes
It’s a loose coalition of left-wing parties, groups, trade unions on the left, campaigning for Scottish independence with class at the forefront of its analysis.

Davies
One of the main things RIC has been doing is voter drives. They’ve pushed up registration. Now Scotland has 97 percent of the eligible population registered to vote. Over the last few decades we’ve seen a corrosion of representative democracy through illegal wars, the deconstruction of the welfare state, and the imposition of austerity, as well as things such as declining voting numbers. Independence has bucked this trend.

Barnes
Yep. It has. The amount of people on the doorsteps saying they feel like they’re reconnecting with the political system . . . which could potentially be short-lived. It’s not inherently radical to create a new nation state.

Davies
Do you think independence might concentrate the divide that already exists between the central belt of Glasgow and Edinburgh and the Highlands? That there’s a danger that this will just destroy class solidarity across Britain and further fragment the left?

Barnes
One of my biggest hopes for independence is just that it will decentralize power from Westminster and lead to more decentralized power and strengthened democracy in a more equal way across the United Kingdom. Independence is a step toward decentralizing. Whether an independent Scottish nation will have more progressive politics because we’ll always get the government we vote for: I don’t think so. There’s nothing radical about that. I also don’t really buy into this idea that Scotland would be a progressive beacon for the rest of Britain. But Scottish independence will open the way for further devolution in England, for example the divide between Northern England and Southern England is almost as striking as the divide between England and Scotland, and potentially Wales and even Cornwall too.

Within an international context, there has been a lot of solidarity with the Catalan independence campaign: Spain has been vociferous in insisting that an independent Scotland would not be able to waltz right into the EU. They’re entirely self-interested in making this argument, though, as they’re scared what message an independent Scotland would send to Catalunya. But the concern is that this move toward smaller states and localized democracy will curtail the cooperation necessary for dealing with the pressing challenges of climate change and diminishing natural resources, for example. This is something the Yes campaign doesn’t really deal with. To be honest though, large states have demonstrated a manifest failure in combating these issues anyway.

Davies
And what about organized labor, what role have they played in the debate?

Barnes
One of the tantalizing possibilities of independence is that it offers the opportunity to repeal the draconian trade union laws that have been systematically imposed upon British workers over recent decades. There’s a chance that collective bargaining rights could be reinstated to restore the balance of power to labor. However, this idea has been severely undercut by the disgraceful role the unions have played in the debate. They’ve cravenly followed the Labour party line and backed a No vote without consulting their members. USDAW, the fourth largest union in Britain, sent out letters to all of its members stating, “If you don’t know, vote no.” This hardly seems to suggest that anything radical will change after independence.

The Yes campaign is conservative in the sense that it is trying to conserve the British welfare state. The biggest argument from the Yes campaign at the moment is that you have to vote Yes to protect the National Health Service (NHS). One of the key planks of the Scottish National Party’s vision for Scotland is to have the NHS inscribed into the Scottish constitution. So it’s harking back to this social democratic ideal that probably, when it comes to an independent Scotland, will prove to be unsustainable. Hence the need to think beyond these outdated social democratic principles. It really has to be emphasized that the independence campaign is bereft of any radical vision: instead it just fetishizes full employment and a cradle-to-grave welfare state, stubbornly clinging to a social democratic paradigm to which there is no possibility of return. The postwar settlement between capital and labor that enabled these policies is now a relic, the structural conditions that allowed for it were a historical anomaly.

There were some hints at more progressive ideas at the Radical Independence conference, like the citizens’ basic income, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Yeah, if we could have a citizens’ basic income we could reduce the hours in a working week, and this would be a step forward from the conservative Yes campaign, which concentrates on preserving services and job-creation powers. Radical Independence can potentially create a forum for questioning the idea of work in the first place, and this is a beginning for that. These arguments are only really going to happen after independence, when this horizon, these possibilities, are opened, which I guess is the central claim: that there can be an alternative to the Westminster hegemony of center-right parties committed to austerity.

Davies
By concentrating on the Radical Independence Campaign, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of the grassroots campaign for Yes. You’ve highlighted the split between the grassroots campaign and what many have perceived as a totally biased mainstream media. Do you see the grassroots campaign serving as an effective mechanism against this myopia?

Barnes
Yeah, because people on the door are encouraged to think about independence in another way. When they’re met with the Yes campaign on their doorstep, they have to conceptualize what the debate is about. ’Cause I’m saying, “Hi! I’m here as an ordinary citizen putting it to you that I think Scottish independence is the best decision for Scotland.” I’m not Alex Salmond trying to get his name in the history books, or a member of the SNP trying to brownnose their way up the ranks. My agenda isn’t about petty party politics. I think people have really appreciated the opportunity to just talk about politics. That’s how they’ve come to see it in a different light from the relentless twenty-four-hour news sound bites from interchangeable men in suits.

I think it’s important to emphasize how the grassroots is acting as a counterpoint to the media, and how through social media in particular, they’re holding the media bias to account. Undoubtedly at times this shades over into paranoia, but my Facebook is abounding in videos of BBC reportage taken on phones which is nakedly propagandistic or where interviewees seem to go “off-message” and support independence. There has been a counter-hegemonic online movement, too, that has attempted to resist the bias of the mainstream media. Blogs and networks such as Bella Caledonia and Newsnet Scotland have taken the place of the obsolete mainstream newspapers.

Davies
What happens if the vote is no?

Barnes
I think it’s already been a victory. But I wouldn’t have said that until last week, when we somehow managed to cause a constitutional crisis by just showing ourselves to be ahead in the poll. So we sent shockwaves through Westminster and we’ve engaged so much of the population in politics. Westminster is desperately trying to sell whatever apocalyptic vision it can to the Scottish electorate; their negativity is just a sublimation of their darkest fears of the unraveling of the British state. They can see that the Union is approaching Götterdämmerung. But where that energy’s going to go after the vote is troubling. If it’s a close vote, people will probably just be organizing for another referendum.

It’s about channeling that energy for momentum on the left, particularly given that after a “no” vote independence will no longer scoop up disillusionment with Westminster. That won’t be the focal expression of it within Scottish politics. Whereas in England disillusionment with Westminster has been monopolized by the hard-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), at the ballot box at least. But we’re engaging 30 percent of the electorate that’s never voted before. Could this disillusionment be hoovered up by UKIP as well? I’ve heard some pretty hair-raising anti-immigration views on the doors. I’m seriously scared that that’s what will happen—the emergence of a Scottish right-wing movement. Whereas independence offers an opportunity to break away from that, to try another possible future.

This conversation was condensed and edited for publication. 

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