John Harris

Journalist & Author

If I had the vote I’d grab the chance of Scottish independence | John Harris

The debate so far shows there’s potential for at least one part of these islands to reject the consensus and seek something better

To borrow a phrase from a politician he loathes, Alex Salmond feels the hand of history on his shoulder. On Tuesday, his SNP government will launch its white paper on Scottish independence – to hear some people talk, the most significant political document in his country’s history since 1320’s Declaration of Arbroath. A day in 2016 has been set for formal secession from the UK: 24 March, the anniversary of both 1603’s Union of the Crowns and the Act of Union of 1707. In its own way, news from the “no” campaign only underlines the sense of momentous times: on Saturday, like Banquo’s ghost come to alert Salmond to his hubris, Gordon Brown materialised in the Daily Record, warning that an independent Scotland would be “worse placed, more vulnerable and less, not more, in control of key economic decisions”.

In England, the intensifying debate north of the border is still met with a great sigh of indifference. Perhaps our news discourse has become so trite that it can’t cope with something of such importance. Or maybe this is more proof that London so dominates the supposed national agenda that anything that happens this far away will be overlooked – and that in any case, 14 years of devolution has left English and Scottish politics hopelessly estranged. In addition, large parts of the establishment seem to think that with polls showing less than a third of Scots supporting independence, the referendum can be thought of as a momentary tantrum on the Celtic fringe, and ignored. As evidenced by recent warnings from the new Scottish secretary, Alistair Carmichael (who last week tried to “put the fear of god” into the cabinet), such thinking is misplaced, but more of that in a moment.

What’s particularly striking is that averting one’s eyes from Scotland seems to be particularly prevalent on the English left. Independence, we know, is synonymous with a deep fear of eternal Tory government, so grave that there seems to have been a collective resolution to not even think about it. As proved by an ongoing reluctance to think about their own country, too many left voices in England still get queasy about matters of nationhood. The fact that the Labour party is inevitably the prime mover in the “no” campaign only furthers the sense of shutdown: with Ed Miliband having somewhat raised the hopes of the left and a general election looming (which, let’s not forget, would be thrown into chaos by a yes vote), too many people are once again assuming that the first progressive duty is to mostly do whatever Labour tells them.

In reality, though, something very exciting is afoot. In England, the spectacle of mainstream politics frequently suggests a world gone mad: heated debate about whether schools should employ unqualified teachers, varying degrees of nastiness towards immigrants and people on benefits, white men with expensive educations endlessly frothing about “social mobility”. In Scotland, by contrast, within a political culture firmly fixed on the centre-left, the possibility of independence has sparked a snowballing conversation focused on just about every issue that gets picked apart on this site, and a common understanding that politics as practised in SW1 no longer works.

The best highlighting of this was recently put on the Open Democracy website by Robin McAlpine, a yes campaigner, and the director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, an organisation now focused on nudging Scottish politics towards the idea of the Common Weal (or, as its blurb puts it, “mutuality and equity rather than conflict and inequality”). On the subject of independence, he addressed his English readers thus: “The big irony … is that you think this is something to do with identity. But Scotland crossed that bridge ages ago … We’re talking about raising tax and nationalising energy generation. If you fall into the trap of writing us off as ethnicity-based gripers, you will not only miss the best political debate Britain has had in decades, you will play a part in quashing it. Come up, offer your expertise, help us build. If we succeed, finally you’ll have the proof that Thatcher wasn’t right with that ‘there is no alternative’ stuff.” The Reid Foundation calls what Scotland must escape the “London orthodoxy approach”.

Of course, it is easy to get carried away. On the face of it, the SNP wants to frame the independence debate in terms of a social-democratic renaissance, but it remains a rather Janus-faced set-up, with some of its high-ups also clinging to the distinctly London orthodoxy-ish politics of low taxes and light-touch regulation. We shall see what ensues on Tuesday, but the yes campaign is far from cutting through the no camp’s clear messages on everything from an independent Scotland’s currency to its defence arrangements. Moreover, for millions, a grim economic context will take a lot of getting over. As one Scottish friend of mine put it: “It’s easy to scare people who are already afraid.”

On that subject, over the weekend I spoke to a yes campaign insider who said that internal polling suggested an electorate divided into thirds. Hardened no voters, he reckoned, tend to be concentrated in higher socioeconomic groups. Those who will definitely vote yes are a more mixed bunch. The third group are undecided and, he says, are disproportionately found at the lower end of the class hierarchy. They are prepared to at least consider independence because the status quo isn’t helping them, and they have relatively little to lose. If these people are to vote yes, he told me, they will need a degree of reassurance so far absent, though he seemed confident it would arrive.

But here’s the crucial point. They and millions of others in Scotland know that 30 years of what some call neoliberalism has done them few favours, and that the current Westminster government – indeed, Westminster politics across the board – is making things worse. For all the complexities of independence, given the chance to forever leave behind the Conservative party and a rotten London establishment by voting for secession, you’d surely forgive them for grabbing it while they can.

All of which is a circuitous way of saying that if I had a vote in Scotland I would, with a mixture of trepidation and enthusiasm, vote in favour of independence. Hope rather than fear, and all that. But also something much more fundamental: a chance for at least one part of these islands to exit a decayed consensus, and beat a path towards something better. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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