It’s fair to say – along with the not-so-gentle student arm-twisting of a newly elected representative for the South of Scotland region – that the veteran SNP grandee Jim Sillars is responsible for my current political identity.
His concept of independence-in-Europe, articulated in his mid 80’s book Scotland: A Case For Optimism – and still on the SNP website – was the first time I’d heard a truly sophisticated argument for Scottish independence: about reconnecting to the wider world, not just chippily tilting against our largest near-neighbour.
Somewhere in my personal archives I have a piece of campaign literature from the 1992 SNP campaign, arguing for “The New Union” for Scotland – that is, the European Union, with Scotland as integrated but independent nation-state within it. I also remember seeing Jim at a conference about 10 years ago, arguing with great vision about how an independent Scotland could contribute to the creation of a “strong European feel”, which would help legitimate and bolster a European governance that was certainly facing its challenges at that time.
This is personal, too: back to 1992, I shared an SNP Snappy Bus on Jim’s last, desparate day as a Govan MP during that years General Election. My admiration for his commitment to, and sympathy for, ordinary voters hasn’t diminished from that day to this.
But I have to say, quite clearly, that Jim’s current advocacy of what he’s calling “independence-lite” is fundamentally wrong – by which I mean the wrong political strategy for a majority SNP government, and an independence movement, readying itself for a momentous referendum.
In his Scotsman article, Jim clearly outlines what he thinks this revised vision of Scottish independence is:
an independent country in international law which has a kind of confederal relationship with England, in which the latter continues to carry out cross-Border functions like the DVLA, perhaps pension and social security payments, and a BBC with beefed up Scottish representation at Trust level. One which engages us in a quasi-Nato relationship on shared defence and security against terrorism, with Scotland paying its share of costs of those functions, plus our share of UK debt, from its sovereignty over all taxation including oil, and perhaps offsetting some of those costs by leasing the Trident base for a long period
What is noticeable, instantly, is the absence of the European Union from this picture. Does this mean that independence-supporters are giving up on playing their part in the policy-forming councils of Europe? Particularly when the general thrust of European policy – on social welfare, on environmental regulation, on urban development, on education – is still much more in line with the Scottish consensus than anything coming from Westminster? This seems a bizarre “Little Britain” horizon to impose on a politics of Scottish independence.
The next trouble-zone is Sillars’ check-list of “cross-Border functions”. This is one area which requires detailed and vigorous debate among independence supporters, and certainly not some imposed fiat from the high command of the SNP. I guess I’m revealing myself as a “fundi” – and maybe a Green fundi – in this debate, as I find myself unwilling to think that there are any of these functions that wouldn’t benefit from a maximum degree of Scottish control.
On what would seem like a minor matter of the DVLA: of course we can organise European-continent-style, cross-border ease of mobility and registration – we have the systems to make that easy and possible. But in a low-carbon era when the regulation of personal transport will become a big issue – and where incentives to cleaner kinds of vehicles might need to be applied – again, do we leave this entirely to Westminster which is, cross-party, environmentally static, if not regressive? Why should we surrender our governmental imagination here?
Relinquishing sovereignty over “pension and social security payment” systems also bespeaks a puzzling failure of nerve. Jim is keen to point out how polling support for independence is in the low 30’s. I would also like to point out that 50% of the possible Scottish electorate did not even bother to vote in this great democratic moment. Surely we should realise that such citizen apathy is partly explained by the socio-economic deprivations, and psychological exhaustion, of large areas of “forgotten Scotland” (about to burst onto our screens again with BBC Scotland’s The Scheme)?
We must not lose the confidence to think of how we could integrate the boom-time of the “green industrialisation of Scotland” with the need to rebuild the essentials of community life in large areas of this country – and that won’t just happen under a cascade of apprenticeships for lads and lassies o’ pairts.
We should give ourselves the latitude to think creatively about what social support means in a sustainable Scotland – for example, looking at some of the agenda for shorter working weeks and co-production of services that think-tanks like the New Economics Foundation are suggesting. Again, why should we relinquish policy autonomy over that area, when the current reality is so underdeveloped and ineffective?
Maintaining the BBC with “a beefed-up Scottish presence at Trust level”? This is a real collapse of will-power. In a multi-channel, multi-device, expanding-bandwidth media world, it is not beyond the wit of an independent Scottish media public regulators and institutions to cut licensing and permission deals with the BBC as a content provider, such that the televisual component of the “social union” is easily accessible to anyone in Scotland.
But we should, firstly, be able to spend what we actually raise in Scottish public broadcasting, and secondly, take the chance to amplify the Scottish voice within and outwith the country. This would be an opportunity for creative and administrative innovation which, I would expect, Scottish mediators should jump at.
Maximal sovereign control of national public media and its regulation also has an impact on Scotland economically and geopolitically. How can our media better support the quality of expert and strategic conversation about possible Scottish futures in this country? In an age of spectrum plenitude, is it beyond us to think of public channels that properly serve our imperatives in say, education, business development, arts and culture? (I argued for this in my submission to the Scottish Broadcasting Commission).
And even in terms of big-ticket investments in quality television and film, are we really able to make clear-headed decisions about this, when the ultimate gravity of decision-making still rests in Wood Lane?
Finally, on Jim’s suggestions of pooled defence and security arrangements, Nato-friendliness, and acceptance of Trident, we come to a position which will easily split the community of independence supporters and activists right down the middle. Of course, Scotland’s military posture always been the elephant in the room of independence. Listening to leading SNP politicians “defend Scotland” and its rights to UK military investment in hi-tech engineering, or local military bases, has always been a thoroughly unedifying and incoherent spectacle.
But surely in a post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan, post-Black-Watch Scotland, we should be maintaining our ambivalence about Scottish armed forces being readily dragged into the adventurism (and energy opportunism) of larger nations at the fag-end of Empire. This means a proper separation from Nato, at best United Nations involvement, and appropriate (but well-monitored) collaborations on terrorism and security. Not to mention the sheer waste of intellect and expertise of significant sectors of Scottish engineering being consumed with aircraft-less aircraft carriers, at a time when we should be shoving our productive clusters full-speed towards renewable energy development.
That Jim can even countenance a 20-year period in which Trident is slowly managed into obsolescence, while still being the useless and exorbitant phallus of UK geopolitical potency, makes me wonder whether this is the same man I knew 25 years ago.
Finally, the question of keeping a bruised UK Westminster government “onside” in negotiations for independence, soothing the trauma of losing their big-power status by allowing them to retain Trident and other visible structures of Union, is to me wrongly posed.
Cock an ear to current debates within the centre-left in England, and their presumption is that a Scotland heading for independence will be a catalyst for all kinds of progressive coalitions in an English polity: driving sections of the Lib Dems and Labour closer together, keeping the door open for a much more proportional electoral system, even addressing what a truly refounded English national identity would be, shorn of the delirium tremens of the post-Imperial hangover.
Scottish independence may indeed threaten “English state interests”. But the view from their end of the telescope may be less obdurately statist, or at least more fluid and in process, than Jim believes. They think we’re militant and strident about self-determination: why give any other impression?
On share of national debt and revenue from hydrocarbons, I’m reasonably confident that our resident phalanx of patriotic Scottish energy economists and Scottish laywers, armed with global references and precedents, will get a good (if not ideal) result. Jim tries to imply a devil’s trade between a reasonable deal on the resource foundations of an independent Scotland, and the retention of large and toxic features of the governance of the British State. I think he’s wrong, and very strangely for him, something of a feartie here.
At exactly this moment – when a demonstrable Nationalist competence in government, and vision of the future, has gathered significant support in Scottish life – it seems weird to suddenly reduce our ambitions, and give up on campaigning for the necessary prize of nation-state independence, however embedded and interdependent that turns out to be.
Even on the level of Brand Scotland (never mind “Team Scotland”), we’ll get one shot to unambiguously and significantly re-appear on the world stage of globalisation. Should we do it in a half-assed way? Are we any less of a national polity than any of the post-Communist nations, who negotiated their independence from a much larger and more pernicious power than tottering, querulous 21st century Britain?
Never mind the last gasp of the Union – is this the last gasp of Scottish inferiorism? And, as I’ve said throughout this piece, much more in sorrow than anger, from the most unexpected of sources? “Jings, crivvens, help ma boab”, indeed.
Jim Sillars was first elected as Labour MP for South Ayrshire in 1970. He held this as a Labour MP until 1976. In 1976 he led a breakaway Scottish Labour Party (SLP) to campaign to secure a Scottish Assembly and held his South Ayrshire seat as an SLP MP between 1976 and 1979. He joined the SNP in 1980 and won the 1988 Govan by-election as an SNP candidate by polling 14,677 votes and winning a 3,554 majority over the Labour candidate Robert Gillespie. He held this seat until 1992.