Why England needs its own White Paper
Christopher Silver on the infantilism of the London press.
In the north, there was nothing surprising about the response to Scotland’s Future: the unusual mix of vision and minutiae that is the white paper on independence. Yet, because this moment meant wider coverage, the paper’s launch at Glasgow Science Centre was instructive. London correspondents appeared and through their questioning demonstrated just how far off their own radars the conversation happening in Scotland really is.
Of course, from the right wing British press, there was the typical mix of outrage, classism and sheer incomprehension. The Daily Mail described Scotland’s Future on its front page as ‘a litany of shameless political bribes and a blueprint for certain disaster’. To underline this point the accompanying image was a caricature of Salmond as Braveheart.
Tellingly, sections of the UK’s left-leaning media often echo right wing titles when it comes to the Scottish question. Take for example Martin Kettle’s comments on the SNP in his article on the white paper in The Guardian:
It won’t win next year’s vote by Braveheart-style appeals to blood and soil. But it may win by persuading enough doubtful Scots that separation offers them a better material deal than anything that is likely to come from London in the near future.
The idea that there is any section of the debate in Scotland that appeals to ‘blood and soil’ shows a major ignorance of what is happening. Such an assessment reveals a bizarre and polarised view of Scottish opinion: to want to leave the union we must either be foaming at the mouth ‘bravehearts’ or shallow materialists. For many commentators, perhaps simply unable to grasp the nuances that have brought Scotland to this juncture: electors must be cast as either mad, doubtful or selfish.
Popular though it might be, the ‘head and heart’ dichotomy is simply shallow analysis. Yes, countries do not become independent based on a financial deal proposed to them in a 650 page document. The United States Declaration of Independence did not spell out to the thirteen colonies how they’d be better off. Though it is fatuous to suggest that such a ‘classic independence struggle’ did not have an extremely significant economic impetus behind it. In both the Scottish and American experience taxation without representation was the most clear and concise impulse towards persuading a reluctant populace that independence was the necessary option.
The head and the heart in such struggles tend to overlap. Only a shallow analysis could say that big controversies in Scottish politics: Trident, Poll Tax, de-industrialisation, Iraq, welfare reform, universalism, do not have strong pulls on both. If there wasn’t a major convergence of culture, economics and politics in Scotland, it’s perfectly possible that we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.
The treatment of Scottish alternatives
It’s not just clumsy analysis that we’ve witnessed. There is a worrying and sometimes explicit anti-Scottish tone emanating from sections of the commentariat. For the second time in two years (after a notorious bit of laughter about the Scottishness of a murdered teenager) The Wright Stuff made clear that Scotland is foreign, subsidised, anti-English and ungrateful for its inclusion as part of the wider realm. It sets a dangerous precedent.
Then there was The Independent’s cartoon – which would have been perfectly at home exhibited alongside the dark anti-Scottish cartoons of the mid 18th century. Salmond is the new Sawney in the Boghouse, kilt, toilet humour and all. Sniggering at Scottishness itself is no big deal, except when it consistently muddies the line between a political project and a person’s origins. What is significant about such a response to a historic day in Britain is that Scottishness acts as a block on coverage: it blanks out the interesting parts of the debate, leaving many, both north and south of the border, pitifully informed.
Imagine if Ed Miliband had announced some of the policies and reforms held aloft by Salmond and Sturgeon last week. The reaction in the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express may have been identical: but it would be inconceivable that any would have reduced such a seismic political event to a caricature of the man’s ethnic origin. The idea of The Herald’s cartoonist dressing Ed up as a morris dancer when Labour’s 2015 Manifesto is launched is simply too surreal to countenance.
It’s genuinely sad that the first black and white commitment from a Government in the UK to a written constitution is dismissed as a portly man in a kilt farting out a window. It’s strange that a move that would supersede achingly slow, but desperately needed, lords reform is met by commentary in the New Statesman describing the referendum as ‘a Scotch Mist that conceals the real issues afflicting Scots.’ The fact that some have nothing better to say on the first legislative commitment to the removal of Trident (and the likely mothballing that would follow) confirms that something strange happens to news when it makes its way south to be commented on. All too often it becomes wrapped in tartan and is branded a regressive, parochial, fantasy.
It also shows a poverty of regard for Scotland’s potential: a damaging exercise for any polity, or two closely linked ones, to engage in. This is why Iain MacWhirter is right to call for a more combative approach from Yes and the Scottish Government. In the process of building a consensus based, gradualist form of independence, there is a risk that some realities are lost. Seeking to answer all the unanswerables on the EU, NATO, the monarchy and (to a lesser extent) Sterling, makes the debate about existing institutions, not Scottish alternatives.
Voices of dissent
The salient point from last week is a simple one. These are choices that Scotland can make with sovereignty and it is that ability to choose that is at the heart of what the white paper signifies. We are not the subsidy junkies of metropolitan imaginations, we are a confident, wealthy and creative nation, with an asset; social cohesion; that many in today’s British politics are completely unable to understand. Whatever their IQ happens to be.
Or, as Neal Ascherson put it:
What’s so exhilarating is the flock of many-coloured hopes gathering behind this project, like seabirds in the wake of a working trawler. Scotland’s departure from the union could mean all kinds of liberations and reinventions for the islanders who live under the crown.
When you turn a map of the Britain Isles on its side an entirely different picture emerges. The transformation of a north-south axis into an west-east one makes the scene look far more like the archipelago that it is. Ever louder bleating from London may stem from a premonition that Scottish independence could mean a long overdue, ‘all island’ approach to how we are governed. It’s particularly interesting to look at that transformed map and see the Isle of Man right in the centre. It’s not simply that Britain is not a unitary state: it’s so archaic that the ‘crown dependencies’ of Man and the Channel Isles are often forgotten, despite the fact that their low tax regimes are key to our low tax, low wage, economy.
The point that anyone, anywhere, can take from the white paper, is that people need to shape government once again. Individually and collectively Scots are faced with the prospect of being the agents of change. Not just through writing a constitution, but through the thrilling democratic prospect of being able to decentralise government in the Atlantic Archipelago. This can be dismissed as backwater ingratitude for as long as the London media sees fit, but as a wise man once said: one does not withstand the invasion of ideas.
This concept of a better, if imperfect, democracy, inexorably heading south, is starting to make an impact. We’ve seen a growing number of commentators in England realise that a Scottish brand of social democracy, still taking place within a broader UK family of nations and the EU, is a potentially transformative prospect for England too. Perhaps, it might even be the catalyst that will loosen ingrained privilege and a growing Etonifcation of British society.
Many have already woken up to this and don’t dismiss Scotland with simplistic analysis. Ian Martin’s hilarious invective on Boris Johnson and his own support for Yes, is a must read. ’Oh, to be young and Scottish!’ proclaimed Mary Dejevsky in her Independent column. John Harris in a similar mood stated: ‘If I had a vote in Scotland I would, with a mixture of trepidation and enthusiasm, vote in favour of independence.’
How can Better Together write off a growing body of intelligent progressive opinion from those in the other parts of the union? Though stranger things have happened, the No campaign can’t simply smear such voices as unhinged Bravehearts or sell-out materialists, as they do with such opinions expressed by Scots.
If Scotland can say no to a staid consensus and yes to its own brand of democracy and social justice: we will all reach a fork in the road. It will not be the tragic divergence of two estranged partners. Rather, it will be the realignment of two very close nations that even arch-unionists like Walter Scott never thought would merge into one.
Like the head vs heart approach, it’s popular for unionists to point to an existential/utilitarian divide in Scottish nationalism. A strange distinction to make, given that the movement has only been effective when the two seem inseparable. For the real existential battle in the Scottish debate is not about ‘nationhood’: that’s been a given for some time (though perhaps some in England graft their own nation-status insecurities onto Scotland).
The battle is for social cohesion, for anything that could properly be called a society in the neo-liberal desert. For many on the right, locked into a view of the nation-state as militaristic corporation: virulent opposition to the end of Great Britishness makes perfect sense. To those on the left, it’s increasingly hard to see how a desolate Labour party, lurching to the right whenever it can, offers anything other than the most mundane of tribal loyalties. That decline of a Great British left (much like the decline of the British state as employer and provider) is a cross-border issue that only independence can address.
That’s why the people of England need their own white paper: just as we need to continue writing and documenting aspirations and ideas for better government in Scotland.
Scotland’s Future is not a great leap forward. It’s simply the codifying of a long, slow, trajectory in Scottish politics in recent decades: which grants the electoral heights to those offering the clearest alternative to Westminster. The document’s purpose is to simply demonstrate that Scotland is, as Scott Hames put it, “that good and natural place for power to return.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that many on the left in England are lending their support to the idea of independence. Certainly, the incessant voice of Scottish Labour, who know they must eventually square Holyrood policy with their more powerful colleagues in Westminster, won’t be as pervasive in the south.
However the clear sightedness of these brilliant voices of dissent, is the result of something bigger. For they also realise that a process of dismantling and rebuilding is in the interest of all the remarkable places that power could return to in these isles. London poet Robert Somynne, for example, has no doubts in this regard:
Until people look at the systems, institutions and structures little will change. Until we apply liberty in relation to social justice and our common ownership of the nation nothing will change. This is what is happening in Scotland.
As they work out what’s really happening: English voices may yet influence how Scotland votes. It is conceivable that many on the English left are able to understand that disillusionment with the union is as complex and interesting as Scottish history itself. A closer look at that history shows that the smaller polity on this landmass has managed to show the way forward for its bigger neighbour before. There is no reason why, with a democratic shot in the arm, we can’t do so again. Removing trident, writing a constitution, sacking the lords, and rolling out universal childcare seem like reasonable starting points.
Personally, I take great comfort that those switched on in England and listening in know that ‘the Scots’ or their Scottishness, stopped being the issue a long time ago.
Those Etonians on the other hand…