How to Build (and Demolish) a Country
As the UK slides further into economic and diplomatic farce a new aspect to the cause for independence has emerged this week. Among the hotly contested debate about the ‘when’ of a second independence referendum, the ‘how’ is being ignored.
To the backdrop of unfolding chaos – and possibly tragedy in Catalonia – and amidst a series of dirge-like obituaries for the SNP, a new dynamic is emerging.
In an embarrassing series of articles a number of commentators have signalled the death-knell of the SNP.
Martin Kettle writes painfully (‘Invincible no more, Nicola Sturgeon will have to go back to basics’): “Sturgeon mishandled the Brexit process. Under pressure from Salmond and those who prioritise a second independence vote, Sturgeon constantly upped her demands on Brexit, demanding a seat at the negotiating table, pitching for differential deals for Scotland, claiming a right to veto the final Brexit deal. The result has been a succession of failures, as May has dug in against SNP demands.”
Before signing-off admitting sheepishly: “Don’t write the SNP or Sturgeon off. It is still the main political party in Scotland.”
Kettle’s comments belie a complete misunderstanding of political exchange, but is touching to see him back May ‘digging in’ against ‘SNP demands’. There is no sense or understanding of an elected Scottish government perhaps representing the interest of the 62% who voted to Remain.
David Torrance wrote that (‘The SNP’s political stardust is starting to fade‘): “the conference was deliberately low key and the first minister’s keynote speech purposefully dull”. Before adding “The SNP still suffers (like Labour) from promising the world but inevitably failing to make good on the free unicorns.”
Whilst this is all fairly routine it is disappointing to see paid political columnists failing to engage with actual policy detail.
The idea presented by Torrance that the announcement of a new publicly owned renewable energy company is “to keep those six Scottish Green MSPs sweet” is extraordinary.
In both accounts the ides of the Scottish government being elected representatives is downplayed next to a relentless assault on a single party.
Watching the antics at PMQs today as both sides of the House bay for Theresa May’s blood, the sense of end times is palpable. But at the other end of the country a very different process is emerging.
In the early 1990s Murray Pittock wrote a series of books including ‘The Invention of Scotland’ (reissued 2016), in which he laid out how modern Scotland (re) emerged in the period since 1918. See also The Road to Independence? Scotland Since the Sixties (2008), A New History of Scotland (2003 and Inventing and Resisting Britain (1997).
He argued that in this period key institutions had been devolved or had developed that were part of an inexorable process towards independence.
Scottish Television, Scottish Arts Council, Scottish Opera, BBC Scotland, and dozens more emerged through the sixties and seventies and eighties. We might consider some of them now useless or in need of drastic reform now but that process took place.
He argued that independence was happening behind the scenes – alongside (and sometimes ahead of) – the formal constitutional process. It was a process not an event.
But if Pittock’s detailed account of cultural social and business organisations emerging is worth re-considering to get a long-view of the trajectory at play, announcements of a Scottish National Investment Bank and now of a state-owned energy company in Scotland to offer cheaper power to homeowners with consumers paying “as close to cost price as possible” is of a higher order.
Whilst some of the commentariat offer derision there’s a deeper play at work.
‘Blueprint for a Scottish National Investment Bank’, published jointly by think-tank’s the New Economics Foundation and Common Weal, can be read in full here.
But these moves stand alongside the potential disintegration of Britain as a functioning polity.
In Pittock’s account he outlines the different stages of nationalist insurgency. He asks of the period in the 1970s: “Was the SNP just a tart lever on a British fruit machine? Unquestionably the first SNP surge was in significant part driven by a ‘remember Scotland’ rather than a ‘free Scotland’ agenda”.
If 1970s nationalism was still caught in low aspiration “remember Scotlandism” – and devolved settlement era politics was limited often to declaring “we exist” and glorying in low-key victories – we are now way beyond those parameters.
But if we want to move beyond the sort of deluded politics of ‘March! Just March god damn you!’ – we’ll need to act with purpose and strategy.
The upcoming Build 2 conference at the Usher Hall will be one such opportunity. This is all about practical organising, collaboration and movement building.
It sits comfortably with the process of building institutions, structures and ways of working that lead to independence.
As Sturgeon announces key new institutions – banks, child care and publicly owned utilities we can visibly see confidence eroding in the public institutions of Britain. This is not a see-saw that will inexorably lead to independence. The Brexit settlement is dangerously out of control and can damage the Scottish economy and polarise British society in a way that would make the transition to Scottish independence less likely not more likely.
The coming crisis at Westminster may create opportunity for Scottish democracy, or it may just create economic chaos and breakdown.
But if we see these significant developments alongside the growth of demands for self-determination in Europe we can see the building blocks of autonomy emerging.
A significant shift has happened in that people are no longer content with just existing or being given partial acknowledgement in a dysfunctional union of inequality.
This might have been viable when the UK represented a form of stability, even if it was stability with inherent inequality and hierarchy. It might have been viable when people’s sense of selfhood was low-key or deeply imbued with doubt or shame. It might even have been viable had their not been current examples of movements for democracy, for socialism for self-determination. Now Britain stands exposed as a bankrupt entity driven by the powerful protecting their interests and engaged in reckless self-harm.
So as we are co-creating the building blocks of economic independence we are also being faced with the reality of our existence, the responsibility of taking this on.
As the writer Jim Kelman put it:
“Independence is not an economic decision, it concerns self-respect. How many countries do we know in the world where the people need a debate about whether or not they should determine their own existence. Ultimately it concerns survival. For whatever value our culture has it is ours, and like Sorley MacLean once said about the Gaelic language, even if it was a poor thing, it would still be loved, and those who used it would still have the desire to see it flourish.”
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