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