By Stephen Bowman
Last week two cronies of the British Establishment – Gordon Brown and Menzies Campbell – outlined their ideas for further devolution in the event of a No vote in September, while Scottish Labour this week reveals the findings of its Devolution Commission. Discussions over ‘Devo-Max’ and ‘Devo-Plus’ proceed from the assumption that there is an appetite in Scotland for some kind of change to the constitution short of independence, which, if true, means that the Unionist’s were wrong to insist that the referendum only include a Yes/No question: with Alex Salmond’s moderate version of independence the only change on offer, there is every chance voters who would’ve otherwise voted for enhanced devolution will vote Yes to full independence.
That’s why Labour and Liberal Unionists, and now David Cameron, are hinting – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – that a No vote won’t necessarily mean no change. Of course, there are a number of reasons to be sceptical. For one, similar things were said in 1979 and no change was forthcoming. It’s also worth noting that there is significant opposition to further devolution from some Labour MPs. Secondly, any change could result in unacceptable changes to the Barnett Formula.
It’s perhaps true, meanwhile, that a federal system in the British Isles would be a significant improvement on the status quo, but is this really achievable? Westminster seems so stuck in its ways that the idea of there being four national parliaments – for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and a federal parliament seems entirely unrealistic. The British State has become too centralised and reactionary to allow for any meaningful redistribution of sovereignty, representation and responsibility. Rather, it’s apparent – especially in light of a leaked report which suggests Scotland’s economic growth will lag behind the rest of the UK’s if it stays in the Union – that Scotland needs out of the Union. And with Andy Burnham threatening the existing autonomy of NHS Scotland with his wish to extend England’s neo-liberal healthcare system to Scotland, it’s clear that only independence can safeguard Scotland’s publicly-owned NHS. For these reasons, enhanced devolution is wholly unsatisfactory.
There are other reasons, however, for discounting ideas of ‘Devo-Max’ and ‘Devo-Plus’, just as there are reasons to challenge the Scottish Government’s conception of ‘Independence-Lite’. In a debate in which constitutional options are beginning to read like some sort of dieting plan, it’s becoming increasingly important to clarify what words mean. For that reason, I want to outline what I mean when I say ‘independence’. While I fully appreciate the need to reassure voters that, following independence, many things will indeed continue as before, and while I have previously written that independence could result in a de-politicised pan-Britishness, I also think it’s important to define clearly the possibilities that exist for meaningful change.
Such change will necessarily involve a clean break with many aspects of the past. That is to say, in some specific ways, independence must mean separation. ‘Separation’ and ‘separatist’ have become somewhat pejorative terms, but I want to outline some ways in which I am indeed a ‘separatist.’
Scotland must separate itself from the UK in three broad areas, which I’m presumptuously calling the ‘Three Pillars of Independence’, and without which independence is meaningless. The Three Pillars are as follows:
• Taxation and Welfare
• Defence and Foreign Policy
The Scottish Government must have complete responsibility for all money raised and spent in Scotland. For a re-energising of the social contract and an affirmation of the concept of universalism, the wealthiest in society must be highly taxed to help pay for vital public services. This will hault Westminster’s ideological assault on the welfare state and reverse the trend that has seen a massive increase in the use of food banks. Through a progressive income tax, Scotland will protect free prescriptions and free education. It will abolish the unfair Bedroom Tax and ensure that jobseekers are properly supported. Further, utilities and the transport system must pass into public ownership. All of these measures are best served by not entering into a currency union with rUK.
Scotland’s defence and foreign policy must also become separate. This is the only way we can ensure that we do not participate in illegal and imperialistic wars, such as Iraq, and is the only way we can ensure the removal of weapons of mass destruction from our waters. Scotland will develop a defence force suitable for its needs, which include proper defence of its coastlines. Despite Philip Hammond saying that Scotland is safer as part of the UK, it’s worth pointing out that it recently took nearly two days for the Royal Navy to send a warship from the south of England to intercept and escort a Russian naval vessel sheltering in the Moray Firth.
Linked to foreign policy is immigration policy. Scotland needs to separate itself from the UKIP-inspired and dangerously xenophobic approach to immigration taken by Westminster and must instead adopt a progressive and liberal immigration policy that recognises the economic benefits accruing from migration. Only with complete independence are these changes possible, something which the Scottish Government has already outlined.
Finally, an independent Scotland must separate itself from the British State by becoming a republic. Only by removing itself from any monarchical and aristocratic influence can Scotland truly become a modern democracy. The British Royal Family sits at the top of a system of privilege, patronage, political elitism and land ownership. Scotland’s disavowal of such principles will be a practical, symbolic and final act of separation from its own imperial past and from Britain’s imperial present. This is a debate that can be had after independence (but which is highly unlikely to ever be had as long as the UK exists), and would potentially involve a referendum.
While some aspects of these ‘Three Pillars of Independence’ go beyond the Scottish Government’s vision of independence, they don’t go beyond that of others in the Yes movement, including the Radical Independence Convention. Even though a socialist republic won’t be to everyone’s taste, these ideas are mainstream enough to mean that a post-independence Scotland could become a melting pot for political debate and change in whole new ways. Indeed, this newfound political engagement has already begun in the public meetings that have been taking place across Scotland as part of the referendum campaign.
With independence, this process will only continue. In so doing, Scotland will provide an example for the other nations of these islands to follow. Through separation – by going it alone – an independent Scotland can help suggest ways for those in the rUK to distance themselves from the Westminster elite. Whatever the UK is today, however, it is not a place for political debate and change. Nor are the Unionists’ offers of enhanced devolution to be believed nor credited . They offer only ‘politics-lite.’