Not Independence: Self-Government!

“The people of Scotland do not need independence. What they do need is full self-government. Responsible autonomy and interdependence. We are capable of self-determination, working together in collaboration with others” argues Colin Kirkwood.

In the 1960s the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, developed a concept he called limit situations, which he believed can evoke limit acts. Limit situations are experienced initially as blocks in people’s lived reality, which seem insurmountable, like walls. But as their confidence grows and their investigative and creative capacities develop, Freire argued, people can come to realise that limit situations are not places where possibilities end, but rather where new possibilities begin.

I argue that in Scotland (and also in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) many people have out-of-date, rigid and impoverished ideas about what is possible. This results from the absence of real democracy in their societies, an absence which is perpetuated by the hostility of many of their elected representatives to such an outrageous notion.

Specifically in Scotland, the concept of independence has been promoted as the legitimate objective of our political endeavours. To me this concept is vague and verging on the unintelligible. It serves as a block to real creative thinking, as I shall explain in a moment.

The SNP, of which I have been a hopeful member for forty years, since the launch of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, has increasingly come to resemble the old British Labour and Tory parties: conservative, centralist, with hierarchical command structures, excessive admiration for national leaders, and over-reliance on a narrow circle of advisers.

Another helpful Freirean concept is the idea of submergence, and the need for people to emerge, so that they can perceive more accurately the culture, assumptions and values in which they have been immersed. I argue that Scotland, its people, its institutions and specifically the SNP and some of its leaders are still unconsciously immersed in the old British political culture of hierarchy and central command, and unconsciously reproduce these long-established norms of British culture and society in their thinking and action.

I argue that we, the people who live and work in Scotland, need to emerge from these age-old centralist, authoritarian norms which generate cowed, authority-dominated cultures and mind-sets through all four countries of the Union. We do not need a Scottish centralism, with Edinburgh as its imperial headquarters, and Alex and Nicola as big Daddy and big Mummy who manage the show and occasionally fall out (which of course causes deep distress to the children).

What we need at the centre is certainly confident, competent and above all visionary leadership, with an emphasis on vision, not behaviour management. And alongside that we need real decentralisation to personal, local, community, district and regional levels, throughout the country, where new ideas can be tried and new initiatives can be taken.

The current system of local government is overly hierarchical and now also technocratic and informatic, though still grounded in the antique fantasy of the crown-in-parliament. It has been modified more times than I can remember since John Mackintosh’s The Devolution of Power first emerged in 1968. In each of these successive waves of restructuring, the underlying rationale has always been about larger units, efficiency and streamlining, making me wonder whether these objectives might be better achieved by simply abolishing the population, as Dean Swift once imaginatively proposed.

What is needed is not restructuring: we need re-orientation, and re-vision.

We must gently shunt aside and replace these carapaces, and do so in the present, not in some post-independence paradise which will always remain as out-of-focus as it is now. Let us enable and empower ourselves as citizens, conceived of as persons in relation, in every field of enterprise, service and endeavor. I am old enough to remember the energies released by the cross-party initiatives of Task Force and Young Volunteer Force Foundation in the late 1960s and 1970s. And don’t tell me there are no such initiatives happening today. Think for example of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, based on the Isle of Luing, and reaching out across the world.

The people of Scotland do not need independence. What they do need is full self-government. Responsible autonomy and interdependence. We are capable of self-determination, working together in collaboration with others. This is also what the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland need. I see no good reason why the people of Scotland should not lead the way. There is not need to wait for the UK government’s permission. The tired old edifices of Westminster could rapidly be converted into houses and community learning centres for homeless and unemployed people. This is not an invitation to the SNP to abolish itself, but to convert itself into an inclusive and creative popular movement. If not now, when?


(This essay was stimulated by reading James Mitchell’s Sceptical Scot piece of 17 May 2020, entitled Leadership, learning and knowledge: lessons from COVID-19.)


Comments (6)

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  1. gahetacicl says:

    First of all, props to Bella for finally publishing something that strikes a discordant note to the SNP’s comms strategy over what is pithily and rightly sent up as the hyper-banality of “the falling out of the prospective Mother and Father of the nation.” But which is actually the falling out of two career politicians with exactly the same power-driven pattern of inevitability as Blair and Brown, Trotsky and Stalin, Garibaldi and Mazzini, you name it. We should all be hearing a lot more, not about the Virtues of the Dear Leader but about how we the Scottish public must not, if we’ve got a smidgen of intellectual self respect, allow politicians’ egos to interrupt the independence timetable – period – regardless of the question of whether one ego is to blame or two.

    But as often with Marxist critical theory, the Frere references all sounds great as rhetoric, but flounders in the As Bs and Cs of practical power implementation.

    Better to employ a simpler critique to re-orient ourselves. What has happened to the SNP lately is similar to what’s happened to many other Third Way centrist parties. The party-line rigidity and discipline of the 1990s, which made things like “The New Labour Project” super-effective, has become untenable. Partly due to the pervasiveness of the Internet (“social media”) facilitating leaks and gossip, partly due to the inadequacy of centrism to address the tensions within capitalism after 40 years of neoliberalism.

    Answer: come up with identity-politics based systems of moral purity (everyone in the Awkward Squad is a transphobe and misogynist if in the SNP, or an anti-semite if in Labour) in place of more arbitrary organisational discipline as a means to ensure loyalty, conformity and on-message-ness. These also have the advantage of being externally transparent because they are based on “principles” as opposed to arbitrary discipline and explicit career self interest.

    As far as a practical programme of what to do about the hegemony of centralist parties, the answer is not radical or abstruse, it’s actually baked into the Scottish electoral system. You just vote for a pro indy party which doesn’t peddle feckless centrist ideology and Blairite discipline dressed up as moral panic about “bigotry”. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s still transgressively reading Wings knows (so: pretty much everyone reading this), and especially the comments, when only rogues can tell the truth, it may hand them opportunities. And that’s why Sheridan is angling to pick up the Team Salmond vote; why the not-at-all dodgy Craig Murray is minting it etc. When you don’t debate with the disaffected, when you dogmatize, when you foist moralising crap on people and stigmatize reasonable cynicism as “insane conspiracy theories”, and thus purge political movements of all semblance of pluralism, this is what you may be asking for.

    1. MacNaughton says:

      Does anyone know if the SNP uses New Labour style “focus groups”? Because if we do, we know what that means for democratic politics…

      As for this myth that Sturgeon and her govt have exchanged the desire for independence for identity politics – which is a fabrication by Stuart Campbell and WoS – well surely it fell to somebody in the Scottish press corp to explain where self-identification for trans people came from, and what is the situation in other countries…

      Self-Id is on the statute book in Ireland, Portugal, Denmark and Iceland, and laws are being drafted in Spain and elsewhere at the same time. to achieve exactly the same ends as the Scot Gov is pursuing..

      Why is self-ID on the table all over Europe right now? Because it is an idea which comes from the European Commission in Brussels, which is seeking to normalize the rights of minorities all over Europe…

      1. Bob says:

        You have just compared the political scene in Scotland with independent countries as if they are one and the same thing. They are not. Far from it. What country calling itself a democracy has elections with only one political party actually from that country ( Scotland ) and the opposition parties from another country entirely ( England ) where that other country ( England ) exerts external influence ( on Scotland ) directly from its own parliament to further its own interests.

        That is the position Scotland is in. Factions within the SNP aided by support from its leader and those around her have removed democratic accountability in the party Ruling NEC using Gender Self Id as a means to have elected those they want elected and to remove those they do not want elected. Members no longer have a say in policy with decisions now being made by Nicola Sturgeons inner circle only.

        That has happened, but instead you shoot the messenger and declare nothing to see here.

        This is the reason other Independence parties are appearing now, having revealed the SNP has done nothing to move Scotland towards independence in the last 5 years except to promise a referendum at some indeterminate time in the future and they always make that promise just before an election.

        Those who push Gender Self ID from with the SNP have been shown to place this above independence for Scotland and some have been shown to be part of a group that does not want independence at all ‘Out of Indy’.

        This is the true meaning of ‘Wheesht For Indy’ no matter how many times slogans like this are used to diverted away from it. Independence is never given, it is always taken and through true investigation journalism now published away from the 5 multi-billionaire UK media owners there is no going back because we know we are right.

  2. Daniel Raphael says:

    The significant sliver of truth in this essay, though I think not the author’s point, is that government (“the state”) is never the same thing as self-rule. It is, in fact, a visible indicator that self-rule (also called self-regulation, cooperation, or freedom) exists when and as there is no Other acting as a director, disciplinarian, and brake on the daily affairs of human beings. To the extent that a state exists, people have yet to achieve self-rule. It may be the case (and I think it is, in the case of Scotland) that independence cum national government is still a desirable and necessary goal, but it isn’t the final destination. The point, as I can imagine Marcuse’s putting it, is that for the first time, that final destination will be the agenda for Scots. Thus, it’s a step along the way to liberation and the destiny of a free people to self-rule.

  3. Jenny says:

    Great article. Thanks Colin.
    A delight to be reminded of
    leadership with an emphasis on vision. And alongside that real decentralisation to personal, local, community, district and regional levels, throughout the country, where new ideas can be tried and new initiatives can be taken.

    1. Tommy L says:

      I agree with Jenny.

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