“Sae come aa ye at hame wi freedom – Never heed whit the houdies croak for Doom”
These lines from Hamish Henderson’s anthem “Freedom Come Aa Ye” were originally penned more than half a century ago. Sadly, Hamish left us long before the 21st century’s “houdies” – “Better Together” and the massed ranks of the British establishment – stirred in opposition to next year’s referendum on Scottish independence. Yet, his lines could well have been written specifically with those unionist rogues in mind.
Just the threat of a Scotland free from Britain has detonated an explosion of censure from a throng of True-Brit doomsayers that includes peers, politicians, pundits and business people. All of them echo each other in warning of the dire consequences should Scotland dare to aspire to the same independent status as the nearly 200 existing member states of the United Nations.
Scotland, we are told, is too small to manage its own oil and gas resources. It is too poor to pay for the pensions and public services its people need. It has too many old people and too few people of working age. It cannot properly defend itself. Business, capital and jobs will all take flight south of the border if Scots dare to vote yes. In short, without British life support, Scotland is an economic, social and political basket case.
The real world, of course, gives the lie to this alarmist nonsense. More than 80 of the independent member states of the United Nations have populations the same as or smaller than Scotland. Norway, with a population of less than 5 million and like Scotland oil and gas rich, is rated top of the UN’s 2012 Human Development Index. Tiny Liechtenstein, with a population of less than 40,000, still rates above the UK in that same index.
In fact there are 11 small countries – including Ireland New Zealand and Luxembourg – all rated by the UN as having higher human development than the UK. That means that their peoples’ life expectancy, literacy rates and material standards of living are superior to ours. Moreover, with the worst of austerity Britain yet to impact, our inferiority to these small countries can only worsen in the years ahead.
The real and future danger facing Scotland is not breaking with Britain but staying inside a Britain that even today is still in thrall to a Thatcherite consensus. The right-wing myths that too powerful trade unions threaten individual liberty or that only deregulated free markets and private enterprise can guarantee our freedoms and civilised way of life, are now deeply-rooted on both sides of the House of Commons. They are also as utterly wrong now as they were when they first oozed into our politics more than a generation ago.
Scottish independence offers the prospect of breaking with the neo-liberal hegemony that has gripped politics on this island for far too long. Firstly, it will allow us to recover our long lost democracy. So dismal is our record of not getting the government we vote for, that we scarcely notice now when it happens. Only once in the post-war era (1955) has the government elected to run Scotland polled a majority of votes cast in Scotland.
The first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP) is embedded in the British political psyche. It can normally be relied upon to elect governments with working Commons majorities but only minority electoral support. This in turn normally guarantees either Tory or Labour governments. It is in the interest of neither of these parties to allow any change to an electoral system that secures their continuing dual domination of political office.
Even when FPTP throws up the occasional hung parliament, the two big parties co-operate to ensure the survival of their favourite electoral system. Most recently, the Tories found themselves forced into a coalition that involved political compromises with their junior partner. There was never any question of compromising on FPTP. The Lib-Dems were easily manoeuvred into accepting a referendum on a variant of FPTP – the Alternative Vote – that the two big parties then effortlessly saw off to inevitable defeat. The two-party British ship of state sailed on tranquilly.
This deformed form of British democracy allows deeply unpopular policies to be forced upon an unwilling electorate. Tory privatisations of our railways, power companies and oil and gas resources were as unpopular as New Labour’s so-called public private partnerships in hospitals, schools and the London Underground, along with the attempt to privatise the Royal Mail. It did not matter. The Queen in Parliament was the sovereign power in the land. The people danced to parliament’s tune. The people were and still are subject to the will of parliament.
Scotland’s devolved parliament is likewise subject to the will of the Westminster parliament. As Enoch Powell infamously boasted, power devolved is power retained. Almost all of the powers necessary for independent government action are reserved-to Westminster. Control of the NHS in Scotland cannot be genuinely devolved to the Scottish Parliament if the sources of funding for the NHS in Scotland are reserved to Westminster.
If the Scottish Government cannot command fiscal, economic and monetary policy, along with taxes, government borrowing, the exchange rate and the central bank, then it cannot ultimately control the public services that in theory it is responsible for. There was no sadder recent spectacle than seeing our MSPs, nominally responsible for housing policy, impotently debating a” bedroom tax” that threatens 100,000 homes across our country and that they can do nothing to change.
Scotland’s devolved parliament is an integral part of a British system of elite rule that currently allows Westminster to fight illegal wars in our name, to park weapons of mass destruction in our waters, to shackle our trade unions in legal manacles and to wage class war on Scotland’s poor – all without a shred of democratic legitimacy. No amount of tinkering with the detail of what might and what might not be devolved in the future will change any of that.
Independence, of course, may not change any of that either. But it will open up the possibility of change by transferring political sovereignty from the British Queen in the British Parliament to the people of Scotland. The Scottish people will then for the first time in more than 300 years be able to decide for themselves the shape of their own country’s future. Westminster’s two-party politics will be wiped from our collective memory banks. What then happens will be down to us.
The politics of a post-independence Scotland need not follow the pre-independence pattern. A successful SNP is a pre-requisite for the break-up of Britain. After Britain, in a Scotland in which the national question has been settled, a nationalist party by definition will need to re-invent itself. Labour loosed from London control and defence of the union will be free to reconnect with its own radical roots. The Scottish Tories will cease to be the English party in Scotland. The Lib-Dems and other small parties will be able to start again. Real politics, in and of the people, may even start again.
Political ideas long banished from British public discourse as subversive will re-emerge. Work is already being undertaken by radical Scottish based think tanks and publishers that challenge every aspect of the neo-liberal orthodoxy that has dominated our politics for so long. The excellent Scottish Left Review Press is providing a platform for a range of Scottish academics to make the case for a new kind of practical politics that puts social justice, equality, wealth redistribution and environmental sustainability before the lust for profits of giant corporations and the greed of thrusting capitalists on the make.
The case for public ownership is at last being restated in terms that bear no resemblance to the post-war public monopolies that drowned in their own inefficiency and bureaucracy and remained remote and unaccountable to workers and consumers alike. New forms of public ownership that promote both democracy and local participation are explored as alternatives to the organised mugging of consumers by the big six power companies that passes for energy policy in a privatised market.
The equally excellent Jimmy Reid Foundation is already challenging market orthodoxy across a range of policy areas. Its “Case for Universalism” was a necessary and inspirational counterblast against Westminster’s retreat from wealth redistribution and societal safety-nets. Its assessments of NATO and the real security threats to Scotland shredded the case for Trident renewal and nuclear weapons. Its papers on land ownership, local democracy and the future of Scottish Water demonstrate that under capitalism there is always another and better way.
The working class people of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have for too long been imprisoned within a Britain that has never acknowledged or accepted their sovereign right to decide on their own futures. The referendum on Scottish independence opens up the possibility of ending more than 300 years of subjection of the many to the few. When Scotland votes yes workers across this island will have real cause to rejoice.