Here’s a column I said I’d never write. The debate about Scotland’s future is one, of course, that the Scottish people alone have to determine, and there are enough London-based English journalists sticking their oar in as it is. But, as the September referendum on independence approaches, it is becoming impossible to ignore, and the implications involve all of us.
I have my own personal reasons for an interest: most of my family live and work north of the Border, and I spent two years of my childhood in Falkirk. In March 1990, my family went to the great Glasgow anti-poll tax march, just one visible expression of seething anger at a Westminster government that Scots did not vote for.
Scotland has changed dramatically. It was once a True Blue stronghold: more than half of Scots voted for the Tory sister party, the Unionists, in the 1950s. But as the grip of religious sectarianism weakened, and de-industrialisation hammered entire communities, Toryism imploded. By the early 1990s, the number of manufacturing jobs left in Glasgow was just a third of the number two decades earlier. A labour movement that once promoted at least some sense of solidarity across Britain’s internal boundaries began to disintegrate.
The disappointments of the New Labour era only compounded a sense of alienation. The Scottish National Party, under Alex Salmond, has – at least in rhetoric – skilfully captured a social-democratic space that was all but abandoned. No wonder nationalism has filled the void. If northern England had a national identity, it too would undoubtedly have a thriving movement in support of independence.
Although the No crowd still have the edge, recent polling suggests the Yes vote is chomping away at its lead. It is poorer Scots – those who have the least stake in modern Britain – who are more likely to advocate independence. Whether separation would improve their living standards is a debate to be had, but a cross next to Yes seems like the ultimate rejection of the status quo.
With independence at least a distinct possibility, corporate interests are warning Scots not to vote the wrong way. Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive, said this week that his company would face higher costs and that “all businesses have a concern”. The much-loved financial lobby is warning it will have to pay more, too. It it looks like it should be filed under “Likely To Backfire”: an anti-Establishment mood, that is certainly not unique to Scotland, will not be cured by the Establishment appearing to close ranks.
The question is, what would a new Scotland look like? Despite its progressive rhetoric, the SNP would hand big business a mighty cheque in the form of cuts to corporation tax that would out-Osborne the current Tory Chancellor. That could well provoke a Dutch auction on corporation tax with the rump of Britain.
But others in the Yes camp are keen to emphasise that the SNP does not have a monopoly over the independence cause. The Radical Independence Campaign promotes a Scotland that would break away from the free-market status quo. More than 1,000 delegates attended its conference last year, with speakers ranging from representatives from trade unions to Oxfam. They are keen to emphasise their internationalist credentials. “A Yes vote opens up an opportunity for wider and deeper social change, and we are supporting a Yes vote for those reasons,” the RIC’s Jonathon Shafi tells me.
The non-Scottish left panic that secession would saddle them with an eternity of Conservative governments. It comes across as electoral colonialism, that Scottish territory must be preserved because of its left-leaning voting fodder. But the relative weight of the Tory core vote would undoubtedly grow, and Scotland itself may find itself economically dependent on an England whose political centre of gravity has shifted rightwards.
For some – not all – of the Yes camp, support for independence seems to be born out of a sense that the Union is the source of social ills. But it is neo-liberal dogma – which, to varying degrees, has swept practically all industrialised countries – that has given us a low-wage, low-rights, insecure workforce, privatised utilities and services, and a housing crisis. It would be striking, but rather unlikely, if, in the era of globalisation, a small, independent nation managed to break from this without building an outward-looking movement first.
There is something inescapably sad about this situation. Scottish nationalism is one symptom of the tragic decline of a type of politics: of movements based on shared economic interests – of people who really “are all in it together” – rather than national identity, striving to win concessions from those above. The NHS, the welfare state, workers’ rights: all of these gains – now under attack – were won through the joint effort of ordinary Scots, Welsh and English people. But it is just a symptom, and the reality is, for now, as uncomfortable as it is inescapable.
An alternative, of course, would be a loose federation, with the English regions granted substantial autonomy, too, breaking the hegemony of Westminster across the islands. Movements for a living wage, decent housing, publicly run and accountable services and workers’ rights would unite shopworkers in Glasgow with call centre workers in Manchester and Cardiff. An old dream, yes. But still one worth fighting for.