After the launch of the official Yes Scotland independence campaign, we are optimistic that this can be the beginning of a genuine and long overdue democratisation of Scotland. But the Yes camp needs to send stronger signals about engagement, participation, and diversity to cultivate an appetite for transformation.
There were certainly positive noises on grassroots involvement. Speakers promised the “biggest community campaign” in Scottish history, with an ambitious target to gain a million signatures on the declaration for independence by 2014. Given the scale of the unionist backlash, involving a motley alliance of establishment figures from NATO Generals to Tony Blair to George Galloway, there will be no space for half measures. Although there were few direct hints about how the campaign will be implemented, there are encouraging signs of a recognition of the scale, if not the specifics, of the task. The point bears reiteration: although all the energy points to breaking up the old Westminster state, it must involve a social movement on an unheard of scale in Scotland.
While there were many unanswered questions about the dividing lines between the SNP and the official Yes campaign, the gestures were overwhelmingly towards a non-governmental and broad leadership. Foregrounding critics of official SNP policy, such as Patrick Harvie MSP, helped to give the launch a refreshing feeling. It was telling that Salmond was willing to hand the floor to Harvie, the first minister deferring the last word to the Green radical, hopefully the beginning of a broader recognition for independent leftist voices for independence. Salmond and Harvie were the only two politicians at an event which intentionally foregrounded “civil society”. There was a clear intention to present the campaign as representing the broadest cross section of Scottish society.
This was, inevitably, a media launch rather than a campaign rally. Organisational details were slim, spectacles and photo opportunities were prioritised. Although there were a majority of non-SNP and extra-parliamentary voices on the platform, the audience as well as the speakers were unquestionably too white, too grey, and too male to constitute the foundations of a social movement. Promises for engagement with “internet wizardry” are not sufficient – if independence is to become more than the preserve of old, white male anoraks, it must learn from the openness, inclusiveness, and diversity of the campaigning movements in Scotland. These diversity problems are standard to all parliamentary politics and they could be resolved, relatively simply in this instance, by reaching out to include student campaigners, feminists, anti-racist, anti-cuts, anti-homophobia and peace activists alongside the standard range of cultural figures and civic notables. The Yes campaign needs to find its energy in a younger audience, and this depends on a willingness to extend equal space to an edgier, more subversive set of campaigns for social change in Scotland.
We should not shy away from fraternal disagreements in the Yes camp. There are some who believe, on the basis of opinion polls, that the referendum will be won or lost on an economic dividend of £500. For these “pragmatic” voices, a winning campaign message is one which stresses continuity with existing arrangements, from keeping the pound to preserving a “Scottish” monarchy. As Gerry Hassan has noted, some senior SNP officials desire a campaign that is “an expression of traditional Scotland, as being about continuity and preservation, rather than fundamental change…a kind of ‘devolution max plus’.”
Patrick Harvie has rightly warned against the dominance of these minimal pragmatic voices in the Yes campaign. Fear of the Tories and economic instrumentalism will not be enough to generate a social movement to transform a state that, uniquely amongst its European neighbours, has lasted virtually unreformed for more than three centuries.
To win the referendum, we must accomplish two things. Firstly, there must be a clear equation between the No campaign and the status quo of Westminster-style government. Austerity and cuts, accepted by a cross-party consensus of Westminster parties, is a bankrupt economic model that has only served to exacerbate the already severe trend towards declining social mobility, youth alienation, and community devastation, particularly in former industrial areas. In terms of economic and foreign policy, working class communities are still paying the price for Britain’s deranged desire to retain great power status after the loss of Empire. The war on terror, Trident replacement, and sluggish progress on climate change are reflective of a cross-party consensus on free trade, open markets, and deregulation at all costs.
As issues like Iraq demonstrate, Westminster politics is deeply unpopular. The MPs expenses scandal, the Murdoch affair and years of Alistair Campbell inspired spin have highlighted a sycophantic, corrupt and closed politics that the vast majority of people would sincerely hope to break from. The danger is that the SNP leadership will move too far to placate the British establishment to “soften the blow” of revanchist voices. Instead, they should trust in the fact that the majority of Scottish people want to see an end to imperial invasions, NHS privatisations, and venality in government. The Yes campaign needs to be quite clear that Britain is unaffordable; the real risk for Scottish people is not the “leap in the dark” of independence but the tangible costs of remaining in Britain and having our resources drained to maintain American alliances and pro-City economics.
Secondly, the Yes campaign must present a positive alternative to blackmail of Westminster-style neoliberalism, with its stark message of “there is no alternative”. We do not have any illusions in the royal socialism of Norway or the island autarky of Cuba. But an independent Scotland could manage our existing resources in a much more economically sound and socially just manner. Currently, about half of research and development spending goes on wasteful, government-subsidised military and pharamaceutical research. A rational model of economic development could redirect resources away from war, finance, and moneyed interests towards investment in the renewal of infrastructure, “braining up” the population, and ensuring that we play a pioneering role in developing green technology to meet the urgent challenges of the 21st century.
Contrary to neoliberal wisdom, another Scotland is possible. An older generation might remember the British state as a lovable technocrat supplying public services. But for anyone under forty, this Britain never really existed – we have known nothing from Westminster government except cuts, Empire nostalgia, and decline. There will surely be many fraternal disagreements in the Yes campaign to come, but we can unite on the urgency to break with the failures of Britain, at home and abroad, and restore the levers of popular power in Scottish society.