An independent Scotland could end up strengthening the United Kingdom

As long as the right lessons are learnt

Andreas Whittam Smith@indyvoices
Thursday 11 September 2014 18:19
First Minister Alex Salmond, with Scots and other European citizens, supporting the 'Yes' vote in Glasgow
First Minister Alex Salmond, with Scots and other European citizens, supporting the 'Yes' vote in Glasgow

It is time to study how we might make the best of what would be a profoundly disappointing outcome of the Scottish referendum, a victory for the Yes campaign. The pro-independence movement could easily move forward again, and on Thursday next week produce a majority in favour of leaving the United Kingdom.

The major difficulty, which I believe could be overcome, would be that a discredited political class would still command the Westminster Parliament. In Scotland itself, this low opinion, widely shared on both sides of the border, has made the task of the No campaign much harder than it would otherwise have been. “We don’t trust you” has been the damaging riposte of Yes supporters to politicians from the south.

Moreover, the actual performances of the party leaders during the campaign has further lowered the respect in which they are held. David Cameron, for instance, allowed Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, to dictate the timing of the referendum, the wording of the question and who would be able to vote. As for Ed Miliband, the longer the campaign has lasted, the more numerous have been the Labour supporters who have disregarded his advice and moved over the from the No camp to the Yes camp. The last-minute concessions that the three leaders announced on Wednesday were embarrassing in their muddle and confusion.

But following a Yes victory, if that is what happens, there would be favourable aspects of the post-referendum situation that could provide the basis for a good future for the rest of the United Kingdom. There would surely be, for instance, a Year Zero feeling, such as there was in Germany immediately after her defeat in the Second World War.

While the ending of the 300-year-old union between England and Scotland would have been peaceful, it would still be a massive change. Year Zero means that one is starting again with a determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past. I would hope for such a mood in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would mean that history was still in the making.

Then we have the enormous advantage of a vibrant civil society. While civil society contains many things, from credit unions to churches to amateur football clubs, I am referring to a particular aspect - the charities and think-tanks that campaign on social issues. As examples of their excellent work, one should notice the authoritative, carefully prepared papers that have been published in just the past few days.

On 4 September, the final report from the independent Commission on the Future of Health and Social Care in England was delivered. In it, the commission discussed the need for a new settlement for health and social care to provide a simpler pathway through the current maze of entitlements. It proposed a new approach that redesigns care around individual needs regardless of diagnosis. On the same day, the result of the £250,000 Wolfson Prize, the second biggest economic prize in the world after the Nobel Prize, was announced. The winner proposed a plan to provide about 3.5 million new homes in England by allowing up to 40 towns and cities to double in size and become garden cities.

Indeed, when you also take into account the numerous other path-breaking studies, reports and proposals which appear every year, you can see that civil society has far broader and deeper policy making skills than Whitehall’s 24 government departments put together. The problem is not thinking through issues and finding sensible answers, it is the political class itself.

On the other hand, I worship Parliament as an institution. It is as old as the nation itself and it is thus part of our genetic inheritance. It is one of the things that make us the country we are. And because we do not have a written constitution, the Westminster Parliament is unusually powerful compared with legislatures elsewhere in the world. But it needs members with more skills and vision than the candidates put before us at recent general elections by the traditional political parties. Without that change, nothing of lasting good can happen.

A fourth asset can be listed along with a determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past, with the policy-making skills of civil society and with the potential of Parliament. It is the power and scope of social media. It has been extensively used in the referendum debate. The Yes campaign has 81,400 followers on Twitter while Better Together has 37,300. The author JKRowling has become a prolific tweeter to her 3.64m followers. The other day she tweeted: “People before flags, answers not slogans, reason not ranting, unity not enmity.”

What social media can bring about is well illustrated by National Collective. It was founded by a small group of artists and writers based in Edinburgh in 2011. Since then it has grown significantly across Scotland, with over 2,000 members. It is a non-party movement for artists and creatives who support Scottish independence. Its website is attracting over 80,000 visitors a month. It supports independence “because of the opportunity that comes with the ultimate creative act – creating a new nation”. To achieve this, National Collective argues, “we need to inspire and engage the people of Scotland in a way that has never been seen before”.

If Scotland is lost, we shall have to start thinking like National Collective. We would not be called to create a new nation but, rather, to renew a very old one with a glorious history. Civil society, which includes artists and creatives as much as it involves people working for charities and social enterprises, would have to be prepared to engage more fully in the political process. But the definition of civil society I have used is too narrow for my purposes. I really mean all those people for whom the traditional political parties make no sense. They must act as civil society on the march. That would be the first challenge for a United Kingdom that had just lost Scotland.

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