Beyond the normal: why the technocrats won’t set you free

“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on” is an odd rallying cry for a national movement.

It is not a “free or a desert” demand to cast off oppression, and it doesn’t contain anything of the claims to blood-right and purer heritage that have coloured the character of nationalisms the world over. It certainly does not imply a revolutionary moment of liberation. It is simply a claim to the right to be normal.

Uttered by the charismatic Winnie Ewing when she stunned the British political establishment with her by- election victory in 1967, it remains the founding statement of modern Scottish nationalism.

Of course, In the intervening decades, the world hasn’t stopped. But ever since that night of electoral sensation in Hamilton, Scottish nationalism has weaved a path from the fringes to the mainstream. Unlike so many other national movements, it has been prepared to duck and dive in order to try and circumvent the problems of all of this relentless global change, earning a hard won flexibility that is key to its resilience. Rather than seeking to provoke insurgency, it has instead attempted to one day nestle into an opportune niche on the international stage, in the hope that the nation, despite overwhelming odds and sporadic popular support for statehood, might decide to become sovereign again.

Right up to the present day this effort has seen several false dawns, ideological manoeuvres, changes of tack, emphasis and rhetoric, and the occasional moment of bitter recrimination. Andrew Wilson, once an early noughties poster-boy for a dynamic, thrusting free-market post-nationalism within the SNP, has outlined the latest discernible shift in the recently published Sustainable Growth Commission, Scotland the New Case for Optimism. This represents the latest instalment in the long running saga of how Scotland might establish itself on the scene as, in the report’s terms “a normal independent country.”

The pitch contends that Scotland can become an easily integrated sovereign nation, in an ever-more globalised world, if it plots a steady course and sticks at it through the building of broad non-partisan support for a set of specific economic policies. Wilson, at the behest of his party’s leadership has outlined a “toolbox”. But he’s done so without demonstrating any clearly defined vision of what these five million people might want to build with it. That, of course, is part of the point of the exercise: the vision part, we’re told, can be filled in once Scots have found the confidence in their hearts, and accepted a credible balance sheet in their heads. After independence they can then vote for whatever party makes the best case in the first election to the Scottish Parliament. The tools are presented as benign, impartial, rational and non-partisan, simply the best way of doing things, carried out by the best people. In a riposte to the populism of Brexit, the report claims “Scotland, we think, has not had enough of experts.” Essentially the new country must be hard-wired by technocrats at its birth in order to flourish, by agreeing to pursue the goal of prosperity and credibility in one of the most financialsied economies on the planet. Leaving the UK, without a process of economic disentanglement, is the key aim, to be followed by an economics of national unity: “A cross-partisan collaborative approach to policymaking against the long-term national strategic framework should be institutionalised.”

But credibility doesn’t come cheap and unity on core policy and strategy is fraught with risk. This was something that the tottering Scottish state discovered at the dawn of financial capitalism in the years leading up to 1707. United behind one-true enterprising scheme of national salvation, the Scots had the historic capacity for cross-partisanship, pulling together and the shared sacrifices. But in becoming enamoured of what were then the latest financial tools on offer, Scotland lost everything in an effort to show it was a credible global player. The world didn’t stop in response to Darien and the great powers strangled the wee upstart venture as they were always bound to: the power of capital and the ruthless pursuit of national interest made that outcome inevitable.

In a world in which imperial trade wars are back on the agenda, it might seem more sensible to see the local as the starting point for any kind of economic sustainability, let alone renaissance. Framed in order to depoliticise the economics of independence and to mitigate against the prospect of capital flight, the Wilson report provides a string of answers to a host of questions, none of which address the realities of a rapidly changing world economic order. Can we really look at the financial services sector, with its criminality and enormous social irresponsibility, and say that being locked in to a monetary arrangement determined for the City of London is a good thing? What the Growth Commission singularly fails to achieve is any kind of serious acknowledgment that the whole point of independence might actually be about establishing a new paradigm, in the wake of global crisis. After the experience of 2008, would we really take Ireland’s grossly inflated GDP over an actual project of rebuilding post-industrial communities?

Political change has rarely consisted of great leaps in Scotland, it’s not the way things tend to get done here. But the one great unlooked for moment in recent Scottish history, in 2014, did not take place because the great and the good got together and convinced the markets they wouldn’t rock the boat. By defying, rather than petitioning the world and those who run it – from POTUS on down – something changed in Scotland that could not be put back in its box. People rediscovered their own power, and decided to create their own political reality, despite the risks, the threats and the propaganda handed on down from the very same people that the Growth Commission is designed to placate. A people does not decide to form a new state because Standard & Poor’s give them a nod, they do it precisely because certain political truths are held to be more important than the interests of capital, out of a revulsion at what went before, and a need to start all over again. They never decide to create a new country on the basis of continuity.

In the run up to the last vote, as long as there was a polite and contained approach to winning independence, in the form of an essentially anodyne official Yes Scotland campaign, the polls were consistently dire. Yet when it became apparent that centralised control and a narrow prospectus could not win the day, a sea change began to take place. A cluster of visions about what Scotland could be took precedence over the politics of triangulation and richer/poorer self interest. This rested squarely on the notion that, having tried everything to save the core decencies of a social democratic post-war Britain, independence might be a vehicle to resurrect and resuscitate them. The timing was crucial. Post-2010 austerity made the quiet dismantling of that social settlement explicit, where it had long been taking place in coded terms. The 2010 UK government, formed on a non-partisan basis in the “national interest”, began an unprecedented shrinking of the state. Every member of that sorry crew did so citing one reason and one reason only: the markets demanded national unity. Politics could wait.

2014 was in no small part a response to this moment of utter failure for centrist politics, often driven by those who had seen the damage up close. Scotland was not, in this moment, normal. It seemed to be claiming that social democracy could be saved, perhaps even extended, just as it retreated all over the continent. What was happening to the NHS,  the obscenity of Trident and military interventionism, older traditions of protest, dissent and sheer awkwardness merged.

The writing of a business plan for Scotland PLC might be the most important missing link for a certain strata of people in Scottish society, just waiting for that opportunity to jump ship as Brexit Britain sinks. But it does not speak to, or even assist, the telling of a new story in a scene already so different four years on – when the world is on fire, democracies are crumbling under authoritarian rule and protectionism is back on the agenda once again. Even in such a precarious world in which there is a lot to defy, and not much to settle in to, Middle Scotland will not move an inch from its comfortable perch. The Scottish Government seeks to promote that comfort, telling the world that “Scotland is Now” – citing baby boxes, equal marriage and the V&A to imply that Scotland has somehow already arrived at its historic moment to shine. There is no longer a future to be won, just a present to be preserved, and made certain: hence the lack of any transformative vision from the Growth Commission.

Our habitual hand-wringing about social justice in Scotland often looks with neo-Victorian horror at the schemes and the high rises that those with power never visit. We seldom take a trip to consider the other side of the coin: the home-owning suburban Scotland, and ask why they would give up a fraction of what they have for the sake of change, having shown a consistent and deep reluctance to ever do so. Best to sit tight with a disaster like Brexit coming down the line.

Stephen Maxwell, that most incisive of Scottish nationalists, noted in his 1991 essay ‘The Scottish Middle Class and the National Debate’: “in recent decades, as Scotland’s circumstances have undergone rapid and dramatic change , the Scottish middle class has managed only a stuttering, hesitant and ineffective response”

A quick look at the map of Yes/No results in 2014, and at how establishment Scotland lined up to vehemently reject independence as toxic, reveals the astonishing prescience of Maxwell’s note that: “If the Scottish middle class is peculiarly defective in its capacity for national leadership the implications for Scotland’s future are grave.”

Indeed. Andrew Wilson’s report speaks to a section of Scottish society who don’t require change, have no interest in leading it, who dither and equivocate as they are confronted with a new constitutional crisis and democratic deficit once again.

Contrary to what the Growth Commission implies, the tools used to construct a new state are inherently political: the method defines the outcome. To claim otherwise represents a displacement and deferral of basic truths about how we might live. The toolbox is the sovereign people, who create Scotland’s wealth, claiming ownership of it.

Comments (14)

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  1. Michelle Shortt says:

    I could accept all Christopher’s points IF I didn’t personally know several poor, disabled, working class people who voted no in 2014 because they didn’t wnat to lose what little they had. Yes we need a vision we also need to put forward a case in financial terms that people understand & can live with.

  2. Redgauntlet says:

    Exactly, Christopher, well said.

    The Growth Report is philosophically flawed in trying to woo the kind of person already affluent and comfortable enough under the Union, people who have no reason to vote for any kind of change…

    The Scottish aristocracy sold the national sovereignty in 1707 for material gain, the Scottish bourgeoisie declined to risk their wealth again in 2014 and opted for financial security under a corrupt Unionist elite…

    These are unpalatable facts certainly, but they amount to the reality of our circumstances…

    To draft a report appealing to these very people, in their language, on their terms, is philosophically unsound… to put it mildly…

    If Scottish independence ever happens, it will be as a result of a societal change coming from the bottom up and it will be in response to a deep crisis, which Brexit is shaping up to be….

    But I simply cannot envisage the current SNP leadership connecting with the social discontent which Brexit will probably lead to, and transforming it into independence… any doubts in that respect have been erased from my mind with the commissioning of this fanciful report which, as we have seen, has turned off a certain section of the indie movement…

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    This article, like many which Mr Gerry Hassan produces, is strong on critique but completely deficient in suggestions of possible ways forward. It is the stance of the tutor in a university seminar. It relies on the ‘straw man’ fallacy, the ‘worst case ‘scenario’; and the ‘perfectionist fallacy’ to present a picture of a Scottish people who are really ‘no very good’.

    He begins by elevating a soundbite quote by Mrs Ewing 51 years ago at a moment of electoral euphoria to a strong principle allegedly underpinning Scottish ‘nationalism’. He knows as well as anyone else what a dog-whistling, baggage lade term this is. He takes a sentence regarding the valuing of ‘experts’ (a riposte to Mr Gove’s philistine, disparaging use of the term) and extrapolates this to a presumption that Scotland will have a ‘technocratic government’ (again, reminding us of and implying the dreadful treatment of the Greek people.) We DO need experts – every government, business, social enterprise, etc. does – but this does not imply consent to giving them dirigiste powers unconstrained by parliamentary politics.

    Mr Welsh’s report is a starter for a debate. In the period since 2014 things have changed significantly. Those of us who want independence have to recognise that we have to take cognisance of the things which made many not vote for independence. However, digging up and decontextualising old quotes denigrating middle class people in Scotland (of which I am one; and I am also a septuagenarian) is unlikely to predispose them to change their votes.

    As well as Mr Welsh’s report we also have the excellent proposal from the Common Weal. In Common Space, its editor is actually engaging with Mr Welsh’s report in a robust way, but it is the kind of insightful position which, in the changing circumstances of Brexit and other international matters, will facilitate arriving at a position which in the circumstances of the time, might prove sufficiently attractive to a majority of the electorate. Ben Wray and Robin McAlpine actually have proposals.

    I consider myself to be a democratic socialist and would like to see an independent Scotland which embodies such humane principles (such as the baby boxes, at which Mr Silver sneers pace Kaye Adams.) However, While I accept his point that particular decisions now will have implications for post-independence, the debate can explore the ramifications.

    PS I hope, Mr Small, I have not been rude here! I do try to be respectful and considerate, but sometimes attempted robustness is understandably interpreted as abuse. The responsibility is entirely mine and I am always prepared to apologise if hurt is caused.

    He is coming close to demanding that every dot and comma of Day 1 of Independent Scotland be set out in detail and this will enable the Alistair Darling of the next Better Together to say, “What is your Plan B and C and D and E and F ad infinitum.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

        The author of the recent growth report.

        PS I’d like to thank you for make a determined effort to explore the ramifications of this report and I hope that you will include people who are favourably disposed towards the ideas within the report so that we can dissect the ‘knotty’ issues, like ‘sterlingisation’.

    1. Redgauntlet says:

      Alasdair:

      If you look at the history of independence movements throughout the world in the last 150 years, most of them have come about due to an alliance between the Left – often the Revolutionary Left – and the indigenous middle classes, disgruntled by their own aspirations being blunted by the big decisions being taken in foreign capitals, as well as their local culture being slighted and even exterminated by the imperial power …

      But Scotland and the Union is not a classic colonial case, although there are certainly colonial elements to it.

      For example, the aspirations of the Scottish middle class have, arguably, been furthered by the Union with England, certainly it’s hard to argue they have been frustrated. If the Scottish bourgeoisie had been treated as badly as their Irish counterparts,there would have almost certainly been a Scottish national uprising a long time ago.

      Which leaves the Left and the Scottish working class to lead an independence movement forward. The only problem being that, while neo-liberal capitalism is in crisis, the Left has lost its overarching vision of a new society, not just in Scotland, but everywhere. The Left knows what it doesn’t want, but has no clear vision about what it actually wants…

      It’s like Zizek said, the Left has not come up with a blueprint for society to seriously challenge capitalism, which we all know, is unsustainable in the medium term even…

      So, you have two choices left to fuel independence. One is culture, which is the Catalan route so to speak. But the SNP have opted to do nothing with Scottish culture, when it is already a devolved power. But certainly, the Catalans have succeeded in politicizing culture and education to such an extent that half the population now wants to leave Spain… the SNP have done nothing here at all.

      The other thing is to wait for one of the inevitable crises which appear every so often in the Union with England and be ready to seize it, and if you look back, they happen every 25 years or so…

      We just got handed one, an unprecedented one, on a plate, which is Brexit. If I was an SNP strategist, I would be devising strategy around maintaining an independent Scotland in Europe, and I would be campaigning actively on the issue, with a clear date for Indie Ref 2 before the transition period ends…

      If it has to be a pledge to keep Scotland in EFTA, so be it. I would prefer the pledge to keep Scotland in the EU, but tactically speaking, you bag more voters by going EFTA… no pro EU supporter is going to vote against joining EFTA…

      In any case, I see no grounds, historical or actual, for believing that the Scottish middle class are going to vote for independence based on a Growth Report….

      1. Alf Baird says:

        Much to agree with there Redgauntlet (and in Christopher’s article), especially the absolute importance of culture which is the ultimate determinant as to how an individual votes on the rather fundamental matter of their choice of national identity and citizenship, which is essentially what independence is asking voters to do. First thing the very first SNP government should have done was pass a Scots Language Act, however that is not even on the agenda a decade later. As Christopher suggests, a key problem is a predominantly conservative and unionist Scottish middle class who have always tended to benefit from the union, however I would add that a very large proportion of this middle class, if not the majority today, is not Scottish in terms of culture or heritage. Further, prevailing census trends boosting the cultural No vote constantly weaken the prospect for independence.

        1. Doghouse Reilly says:

          I do hope you’re not blaming immigrants for the out come of the 2014 referendum Mr. Baird

  4. Steve Cairns says:

    Much as the middle-class may love it and much as your argument requires them to: Status quo is not an option. In the event of a hard Brexit the GC Report offers them a blueprint for greater continuity by leaving the UK than could be achieved by doing nothing.
    It acknowledges the reluctant yes, and indeed the civic no, as part of a new nation. A 50ish % that need reassuring that the zealots will not ignore or punish them. for daring to not be as daring as those with nothing to lose.

  5. w.b.robertson says:

    in the last couple of centuries, any successful revolution has needed a leader, a vision, and sometimes a crisis to exploit. So far in post war Scotland I see an armada of telescopes but no ships. The various reports trotted out by the experts boil down to much crystal gazing and sand dancing. Looking around Holyrood, I see no Lenin, or Che G, or Bruce or Wallace. There seems a dearth of officer material to follow over the top. Timidity rules OK. And baby boxes don`t count.

  6. tartanfever says:

    ‘A people does not decide to form a new state because Standard & Poor’s give them a nod, they do it precisely because certain political truths are held to be more important than the interests of capital, out of a revulsion at what went before, and a need to start all over again. They never decide to create a new country on the basis of continuity.’

    How about an example ? I’m struggling to think of a country outside of war, genocide, failing empire’s, or religious conflict that has been formed or claimed independence in recent decades.

    None of these situations apply to Scotland. In reality, if we consider a total political spectrum, the shift from UK inclusive Scotland to an independent Scotland may be small. Regardless of what the author thinks, we will still have to be part of the same institutions and political circles that we presently inhabit through the UK, and that unfortunately will define much of our political and economic geography.

    If we start a new nation and we have to borrow from the IMF and the World Bank, and they demand (like they always do) that any public service (transport, communications etc) be placed into the private sector then what precisely do we do ?

    If we are part of the EU then we have to adhere to their rules and even if we aren’t and we need to trade with them then we will be party to their rules

    And if we loosen connections to some degree with the EU, then we have to deal with the WTO and adhere to their regulations

    The problem is that many of the ills that the author rails against aren’t nation state solvable, they require global action.

    ‘People rediscovered their own power, and decided to create their own political reality…’

    No they didn’t. It’s depressing to see nostalgia set in so quickly after 2014. For as much as the author complains at the lack of vision from an economic report, he then fails to acknowledge the most important and obvious point. The Yes vote lost. There was no political reality, there was no rediscovery of power – there were dreams and hopes and ideas and discussions and as much as you can blame and anodyne Yes campaign, you must also blame the grassroots movement.

    Either the grass roots movement in Scotland in 2014 was effective ( as the author clearly notes with his effusive prose ) in which case it must also shoulder some blame for not delivering a Yes vote, or it had little to no impact throughout the campaign. You can’t have both. Unfortunately it seems the author has decided that the only blame is to be laid at the door of either the SNP or the Yes campaign.

    So while you can moan about the SNP campaign in 2014 or now, if you’re not prepared to criticise the grassroots movement you were an integral part of then you’re going to lose credibility. You can’t simply pass off 2014 as some kind of great awakening – for as much as it may have been personally beneficial for the author, it also put a lot of people off in Scotland who then decided to vote No because they thought those ideas were ‘pie in the sky’.

    1. Scott Macdonald says:

      A functioning social democracy is ‘pie in the sky’? I thought it was the prize worth winning.

  7. Jack collatin says:

    Oh dear.

  8. Justin Kenrick says:

    “having tried everything to save the core decencies of a social democratic post-war Britain, independence might be a vehicle to resurrect and resuscitate them”

    For me, this hits the nail on the head and is why Alf’s fear that Scotland won’t be independent because of a culture shift in population is mistaken, tartanfever’s misses the point that the 2014 grasssroots movement was immensely empowering in terms of our realising social change is possible (even if we lost that battle), and yet we need a very different transformation to the historical ones referred to that require ‘great leaders’, etc.

    The ‘normal country’ we need to be is one defined by people’s needs and ecological necessity, not by trying to fit into a system that’s driving us to extinction.

    Personally I welcome the extent to which the SNP is trying to make a decent social democratic fist in very difficult circumstances, and I see it as the job of those of us in the SGP and other radical parts on the independence movement to make the point that what we need is independence from the UK, yes, but also independence from so much more.

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