I’ve been asked a lot about what my position on independence is. It’s not an issue I find particularly easy. I grew up in Belfast where constitutional debate is a like a dead hand on politics. The five larger Northern Irish parties all contain almost the full ideological spectrum, and it’s still not clear to me how social policy is decided within or between them. All that matters is where someone stands on the border.
In December 2010 much of Northern Ireland was left without running water as a result of a complete failure to invest in pipe infrastructure. For days, even weeks it seemed that no-one in the Northern Ireland administration had any idea what to do. There was an election the following May in which I fully expected the governing parties to be defeated. They were returned with an increased majority.
It still amazes me that a government in a developed state can leave large swathes of the population without water over the festive period, and yet be re-elected merely months later with an increased majority.
All five parties promise higher spending and lower taxes, Blairite modernisation of public services, with none of the associated loss of universality. Politics was an exercise in promising all things to all people and delivering little to anyone. Sometimes not even running water.
I dreaded the emergence of constitutional debate in Scotland. It seemed that everything would get lost in the politics of ‘where you stand on the border’. The real politics could and would have to be done under whatever constitutional settlement we ended up with. The important things were to make people’s lives better, to act as a good global citizen and to try to stop the advance of corporate power. Would that be easier in an independent Scotland? Maybe, maybe not. It was most important to focus on the things that mattered, and at that time I didn’t believe that was the constitution.
But I’ve changed my mind. And only partly because the constitutional debate in Scotland is a lot fresher and more interesting than it will ever be in the north of Ireland.
I’ve changed my mind because it is much clearer just how resistant to change the British state is. We have a state that has been totally captured by large corporate interests. It is corrupt to the core, with clear collusion between cabinet members and the owners of the media. There is a tiny plutocratic elite aggressively using our state to further their own interests.
The Westminster Government’s persistence with austerity, cuts and rolling back of the state demonstrates that this is ideological rather than pragmatic. These policies are harming the economy, but Cameron and Osborne persist with them because they suit the plutocrats for whom our state is run.
The House of Lords is desperately in need of reform. It is outdated, designed not by compromise but by centuries of compromise. It cannot fulfil its purpose. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government decided to destroy the NHS, with no electoral mandate and despite explicit promises to the contrary. An effective upper chamber would have saved the NHS. The House of Lords failed. Yet the ferocious resistance to Lord’s Reform shows how important even the failed elements of the British state are to the governing elite.
The failure to secure a change to the Alternative Vote system speaks to just how those who benefit from the elite control of the British are totally committed to preventing any change. In short the London government has become a tool for the ultra-wealthy to plunder our common wealth, and it’s hard to see what we can do to stop that. If even a small change to the electoral system is unacceptable, how can we turn the British state around? How can we make the state serve the interests of those who aren’t already billionaires?
We have a government that suggests we cut £25bn from welfare and benefits. It wants to take the vote from unemployed people while cutting the taxes on rich people. It will veto a Robin Hood Tax that would stop financial speculation and raise billions in much needed revenue. It is doing these things not because they are right, but because they suit the rich.
I think the clear answer is that we can’t hope to win back the British state. Even a Labour administration is likely to be in the pockets of the same plutocratic elite that is currently doing so much damage. That’s why they won’t commit to reinstating the 50p tax rate on high earners. It’s why they want to keep student fees at £6000 a year. They’re as much a part of a problem as they are a part of the solution. What hope I had for change in the British state that was dashed with Blair’s failures on international policy, democratic reform and, to quote Peter Mandelson “being intensely relaxed about the filthy rich”. We need to leave reforming the British state to the English who control it.
So the only way we can hope to have a better country is to have our own country. A Scottish state would have none of the ‘important traditions’ of the British state like unfair voting systems, or an economy run in the interest of financiers in the City of London. And the dead hand in this context is not the constitutional debate, but the media-political-financial elite in London. Freed from these self-interested actors we can create the state that the many want. We can care for the vulnerable, we can decide how our economy works; we can be the good global citizen that the British state has so comprehensively failed to be.
While a similar elite exists and will develop in Scotland it has little of the resource or position enjoyed by its equivalent in London. And the stakes are much lower for it. A Scottish elite won’t be defending a bastion of wealthy power. The members of our Scottish elites are much more disparate than their London counterparts. Much of the wealth and influence of the Scottish elite is in London, isolated from Scotland, and therefore much less likely to be able to stop change. Independence will wrong-foot our elite and for a time we will have substantial opportunities to create a state that has equality and justice at its heart.
I’m not naive about how corporate elites will attempt to capture the Scottish state. I don’t believe that independence will make everything better. There will be a Scottish elite similar to the British elite. But there will be much less entrenched advantage for this elite. And independence will make it possible to make things better. We’ll have to fight to win our vision of a Scottish state. It is, though, a fight we can win.