It would be worse than a mistake, a crime, to hazard that (freedom and security) for an independence that can bring nothing better. (John Lloyd book*)
The case for the Union depends on the increasingly fanciful notion that a Labour government that’s truly progressive (in Scottish terms) could get elected south of the border and stay in power long enough to make fundamental changes to Britain. (Lesley Riddoch blog**)
Week 12 of the pandemic-induced lockdown and the continuing binary terms of the Scottish independence debate have hardened two implacable views. Either the devastating economic impact of Covid-19 on the UK, allied to that of a No Deal Brexit and Westminster’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, have rendered the Yes case even more unassailable.
Or, the very same factors, plus evidence that the Scottish economy will suffer even more grievously than the UK’s and would effectively collapse without Scotland’s share of huge UK Treasury spending/borrowing, have made the case for the Union a no brainer.
Lloyd’s book (written pre-pandemic) is sub-titled The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence and rehearses the well-trodden political economy case against #indy: going it alone after 300-plus years of Union would impoverish the economy, bring huge dislocation and, via the recipes of the Growth Commission, usher in a prolonged period of home-grown austerity through measures to slash the current account deficit and inherited/self-created debt.
The author (whom I’ve known off and on for 50 years) is a Scot, born and raised in Anstruther, whose journalistic career has taken him from the Scottish Daily Mail via London’s alternative media in the 60s/70s to the New Statesman, Financial Times and Reuters School of Journalism. Politically, he’s transitioned from the CPGB to the Fabians and New Labour.
What marks the book out is Lloyd’s personal transition from a relatively happy Fife of the 1950s/60s to virtually self-hating Scot in the modern world. This is not just the regular Unionist assertion that Scotland is too wee, too weak, to cut it as an independent country but a visceral assault on “Scotland’s self-serving, self-pitying, self-obsessed keening about others, mainly the English, stealing their birthright and smashing their culture” or “moral superiority.” Scottish writers and intellectuals, epitomised by MacDiarmid, Kelman and Tom Nairn, are subjected to especial loathing.
Surprisingly (to me), this is combined with an unduly sympathetic reading of Englishness and dismissal of any notion that this is rooted in imperialist, xenophobic nostalgia. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg (“a free-marketeer, not an imperialist”) and Margaret Thatcher emerge pretty well unscathed while the SNP is constantly taken to task for its “concentrated hatred of England, the English and Westminster” and “need for a detested enemy.” (At least, Lloyd does not fall entirely into the trap of equating the SNP with the nativist/fascisant AfD or Rassemblement National.”)
Equally surprisingly, for a self-confessed Remain voter, Lloyd shows little or no intuitive feel or understanding for the “European Project.” His positions – e.g. the nation state is the ultimate protective sovereign, the European Union is in a “political swamp” but seeking to be a coercive federal state– are barely distinguishable at times from those of Brexiteers and he is excoriating about the SNP’s “independence in Europe” stance. His analysis ignores the way the EU embodies core values and policies that are set against both US and Chinese hegemons. And the tangible if sometimes incomplete benefits nations as diverse as the Irish and Hungarians continue to draw from membership. Ireland, indeed, as it approaches its centenary as an independent state, owes its current self-confident status not least to 47 years of membership.
This is not to say that the SNP case and that of other pro-EU bodies for Scottish membership has been convincingly completed. Far from it as I have argued elsewhere. The embeddedness of the Scottish economy within the UK market as well as the future currency and absence of an independent central bank are unresolved issues among many. Right now, there may be some sympathy in the EU-27 for the Scots given their pro-EU voting record but no appetite for new members, let alone for a nascent nation state emerging from the UK.
Equally, the case for Scottish independence is far from complete. The problem of a ballooning budget deficit and/or debt cannot, as it often is, simply be brushed aside as one inherited “from the English” or wished away via modern monetary theory or easily overcome by “structural socio-economic change.” The Irish example, warts and all, shows how transformation can take decades, not just years. And, willy nilly, the havoc wrought by the pandemic, including the sheer scale of Treasury borrowing, has rendered the Scottish economy significantly weaker. And the SNP should, as Lloyd suggests, more openly square with the voters on this. in the run-up to the 2021 Holyrood elections it is slated to win with an absolute majority.
Yet, what are the prospects on the other side? Like Scottish Labour in its latest constitutional statement, Lloyd talks of a “re-imagined” Union whose contours remain seriously sketchy – though with a vague federalist outline when nobody has defined what a federal UK would look like. Scottish Labour fondly believes that it could somehow bring about “democratic advance” and a “fairer, reconstructed and rebalanced” economy (Tommy Kane) while the Tories likely remain in power in Westminster for the rest of this decade. Undeliverable in the current constellation.
Lloyd says the Union is “a more deeply civic experience than a nervy nationalism” but the truth is that, in that constellation of bullying Brexit/British nativism, asset/income inequality, pending re-imposition of austerity, incompetent handling of a public health emergency et al, the Union is increasingly unpalatable and even noxious. For a growing number of Scots, it is the “great mistake.”
* Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot, John Lloyd, Polity, 210 PP, £19/20
** A national delusion?, Lesley Riddoch, The Scotsman, June 8
Further reviews: Colin Kidd, New Statesman; Ian Jack, The Guardian; Rory Scothorne, London Review of Books
Fraser Cameron says
Good review. For anyone on the Left who wants a fairer society the question is whether you are more likely to attain this goal in an independent Scotland, which may take time and not be a smooth ride, or in an outdated and highly unequal U.K. political and economic system that ignores its imperial history while dreaming of an illusory Global Britain.
Keith Macdonald says
You rightly refer to the ” the embeddedness of the Scottish economy within the UK market” and this has always been one of the fundamental problems with the SNP campaign for a complete constitutional break. It lies behind their endless changes of mind over the currency. It means that any departure from the UK would crucially depend on the withdrawal terms negotiated and that the UK would have much the greater power in those negotiations.
You expect the SNP to come clean about these problems and tell us how they would deal with them. There is no chance of that while they can hide behind the magic word “independence” which suggests that none of these is, in fact, a real problem and that there is an easily obtainable form of life for Scotland in which other countries (especially the UK, and excepting Europe) hardly feature.
The truth is that there is no such thing as a wholly independent country and all countries relate to others in a way which is a mixture of independence and interdependence according to circumstances. I would argue therefore that the word should only be used in a specific context – we are already independent on schools, we should be more independent on migration, we can never be independent on climate change.
Can I make one more point? You refer to the SNP being slated to win the 2021 Holyrood election. Surely no one knows the outcome? All we do know is that these elections are vitally important. A win for nationalists will mean years of constitutional wrangling with a highly unpredictable outcome. The alternative could be a Scottish government better focused on issues like education and the economy. The important thing is that we all think about this very deeply and consider all possibilities.
We are not independent on schools or health etc as long as Westminster holds the purse strings. How can you be independent when the money you have to spend is dictated by how much Westminster decides to spend on schools?
David R Drysdale says
I have not read Lloyd’s book, but was intrigued by the description of the Union as a more deeply rooted civic experience. I wonder how many people, across the UK, feeel this is true of Scotland? While not an SNP supporter I have always drawn something of a blank when trying to identify Britishness. I think there is an argument that English colonialism also extends to the attempt to establish a cultural hegemony called Britishness, but it is not one I think most living in Scotland easily identify with.
Keith Macdonald says
Has what happened about the statues of Edward Colston and others not made us think about common assumptions about our past and what it means for our present sense of identity? It is obvious that the role of slavery in the development of Britain has been neglected. This has given us a false picture which can mislead us about our current position in the world.
What if there isn’t much that is Britishness (or Scottishness for that matter) that isn’t based on commonly held but mythological assumptions? What if we were to recognise that Scotland and the North of England, for example, were in pretty much the same position economically, that the people who live there are basically the same and that it made sense to work together rather than put a border between us because there was one 300 years ago?
Work together – a very fine sentiment. But what does it mean when one partner belittles and steals from the other partner. What does it mean when one partner deprives the other of any democratic rights. What does it mean when one partner controls the media and uses it to attack your culture and your self worth.
Les Reid says
In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum Alex Salmond touted the idea that secession from the UK would make every Scot worth £300,000. He arrived at that figure by taking an estimate of the value of all the oil beneath the North Sea and dividing it by the number of people living in Scotland. It was a despicable attempt to buy votes, but it did not work. Canny Scots recognised a crock of snake oil when they saw one and voted by a clear majority to stay in the UK.
Oil has gone as the way to fund independence. Under Sturgeon the SNP has been looking instead to tourism and the hospitality business as the way to make an income post-secession. The SNP Government has poured millions into tourism projects and a slew of quangos to promote the same. But the wheels have come off that strategy too. The covid crisis has brought that whole sector to a halt and revealed what a weak foundation it would be for any future state. Even when we emerge eventually from the covid crisis, there is still the problem of climate chaos and the need to reduce CO2 emissions. Cheap flights, cruises and long journeys by coach or car will stoke up those emissions and run counter to our efforts to prevent climate chaos.
A different way to set the economy on a sound footing is to invest in education. Young people with a good education are a valuable resource. They are the entrepreneurs and the skilled workforce of tomorrow. Which is why the decline in Scottish educational attainment as measured by the PISA ratings is a worrying development. The SNP Government have been in charge of education for the last ten years and under their stewardship Scotland has fallen from being in the top five to being in the mediocre 30s. Mark that as a fail.
The SNP’s own Growth Commission Report predicted years of austerity following secession from the UK. The covid crisis has made the likelihood of deep, prolonged austerity all the more probable. Why anyone would vote to take a leap into the unknown in these circumstances beggars belief. A majority of Scots proved themselves too canny for the guff last time round. I suspect they will do so again next time round.