This is a guest post by James Mackenzie. James is the former head of media for the Greens in the Scottish Parliament, and ran the party’s 2011 score-draw election campaign. He is also a founding editor of Better Nation, one of the few group blogs in Scotland whose editors don’t agree on independence.
Some on the English left, including Owen Jones, think a yes vote in the independence referendum would be bad news for the rest of the UK. The typical reasons include the fear of a perpetual Tory-led administration at Westminster, and a general view that nationalism is a distasteful ideology with which the left should have no truck, working class solidarity (“a working class resident of Dundee has more in common with a working class resident of Doncaster than with his middle class neighbours”).
Not only are they wrong, but Scottish independence could actually be a radical blow to the forces of conservatism across the UK.
But first, the fears, starting with the presumption of perpetual Tory rule in Westminster. Since 1945 the Scottish delegation have only changed the outcome of a general election three times out of eighteen. The numbers are here.
In two instances, Harold Wilson would twice have had a hung parliament rather than a weak Labour majority of three or four – both in 1964 and October 1974. I like hung Parliaments and minority administrations, personally, because they require cooperation and give rare moments of power to neglected minorities.
And in 2010, the Tories would have got an absolute majority of 19 without the Lib Dems to do exactly what they like, rather than a majority with the Lib Dems to do almost exactly what they like. And the rest of the UK wouldn’t have learnt what Scots learnt when the Lib Dems were in government here from 1999-2007: that they can’t be trusted. So that’s unfortunate. But rare.
And it’s fair to say that the MPs we’ve sent to London haven’t always been first-class – and the standard continues to fall as ambitious politically-minded Scots increasingly prefer to contest Holyrood seats. Of those that remain, to quote myself, “You won’t miss them. We won’t miss them either.”
As for the distaste for nationalism, the thing people like Owen either forget or ignore is that many Scots supporters of independence aren’t nationalists. They’re Greens, Socialists, radicals, localists, and anyone else who either feels Westminster can’t or won’t be reformed any time soon. Even many in the SNP fall into this category, even if some of the “non-nationalists for independence” in their ranks gloss that as “civic nationalism”. Plus, there are nationalists on the other side as well as pragmatists – anyone who argues for a continued Union based on myths and history of Britishness falls into the former category.
What’s more, although the SNP combine a centre-right economic position with a soft liberal social policy, they’re really nothing like the kind of right-wing nationalists you see elsewhere in Europe, even if some of their fringe supporters are rather grim. Sure, the SNP are as weak on climate change as Labour or the Lib Dems, but that is hardly enough to justify attempts to demonise them by people who know little about them.
From the left arguments against independence, that leaves working class solidarity. I’ve personally never understood why that same argument doesn’t apply to the working class in Ireland, France, or Peru, but let’s leave the idea of creating a Union with them all. Also, let’s forget that plenty of solidarity and cooperation already involves working across national borders – especially between neighbouring EU members.
Instead, turn it on its head. What could independence deliver for the left, for the working class, for environmentalists, feminists, socialists, peace activists and the rest?
For one thing, Scotland could be a good example of practical alternatives to the immigrant-stigmatising, poor-hating, soggy Westminster consensus. We already are on many issues. We got control over the health service well before the worst of the moves towards privatisation in England in particular. If the English left want to point to a successful model to adopt for their health service, we’ll almost certainly be keeping the flame of the NHS’s founding principles alight. While England and Wales saw tuition fees trebled, Scotland saw them abolished. We’ve shown how PR can work both for a national parliament and at a local council level. Across all the issues I care about, independence would let us go much further. Attitudes here are, across the parties, are much more positive about immigration and asylum, and any divergence there would be a pretty good test case for what it would be like if England rejected the “immigration is a problem” myth.
A particularly clear example is Trident. If Scotland achieves independence, it seems likely that the clock will start ticking for the closure of Faslane. That will force the rest of the UK either to spend vast and unpopular sums rehoming this Cold War technology, or to consider how to accept a scaling-back of its nuclear ambitions. At worst, that looks like a massive campaign opportunity for the anti-war left outside Scotland.
And finally, the real purpose of independence for me: a vote against Westminster governance. It’s not just the Scottish left that regards Westminster as using a barely democratic electoral system, hobbled by inherited office-holders, in hock to corporate vested interests, opaque, and alienating. Ask yourself: if you had a vote next September to get Westminster out of your life forever and to replace it with a more open and fairly elected parliament, wouldn’t you take it? And wouldn’t you be just a little bit narked when people who don’t have a vote urge you to vote for Westminster?