Scotland’s ‘radical’ identity is imaginary. Thanks to a new and changing world of ideas, we’ve got a chance to make it real.
During the unification of the Italian city-states in the 1860s, the novelist, artist and statesman Massimo d’Azeglio wrote: “Italy has been made; now it remains to make Italians.” Italy remains deeply divided, and d’Azeglio’s words have grown in power as a reminder of the complex relationship between statehood and identity. It’s no surprise that politicians struggle to talk about it, as Ed Miliband did with concepts of Englishness and Britishness, because identity is a deeply subjective idea. As Mike Small of Bella Caledonia points out, if I want to describe myself as Scottish, English (I’m half-and-half), British or all three in a post-independence Scotland, it’s entirely reasonable for me to do so. Americans have happily been Irish, Scottish or German for years despite having only the most tenuous of familial or geographical links with their chosen heritage, and it’s only the most petty of geopolitical scrooges who seeks to deny them that pleasure. Identities are flexible.
But the derision that greeted Miliband’s brave but clumsy attempt to define a left-wing English civic nationalism betrayed a complacency about our own national identity that is yet to be properly examined. Too many Scots still look to left-wing heroes like Keir Hardie, Jimmy Reid and James Maxwell as proof that we are a profoundly ‘social democratic’ nation, with a political culture far to the left of England’s. The ‘we’re more left wing’ argument remains the foundation stone of the left’s rationale for independence, and the SNP are equally guilty of propagating the delusion that independence is the magic spray that’ll repel the bloodthirsty midge of Thatcherite Conservatism once and for all.
Anybody who’s had the pleasure of dealing with those tiny carnivorous tyrants (midges, not Tories, though it works for both) will know that no matter how much you douse yourself in Avon Skin So Soft (trust me, it’s the best there is), they still won’t go away. There’s no magic spray for the left, no easy way out for those who’re sick of the Daily Mail and Theresa May and rampant consumerism and rocketing inequality and greed and banks and the monarchy and UKIP and Eton and Blairism and people who still use the phrase ‘socialist yahoo’ like it’s an insult. With independence, those things aren’t going to vanish. Sure, some of them would cease to be features of the UK and become features of whatever a post-Scotland entity would be called, but that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. Over the course of our coexistence with the British nations, we’ve played a significant role in shaping the nature of the union and we bear some of the burden of what we’ve created. We can’t sweep Britain’s shared challenges under the border and forget about them – regardless of whether you feel British or not, you should feel bound by the simple fact of your humanity to strive for a better life for those with whom you’ve shared a history.
In fact, some of those things would become problems that we would actually have to deal with ourselves, in our own parliament, putting trust – god forbid – in our own politicians. The idea that the Scottish people will automatically vote for the radical government needed to tackle the problems Scotland faces is a dangerous one. John Curtice and Rachel Ormston’s paper ‘Is Scotland More Left-Wing Than England?’ tackles the issue head-on, using Social Attitudes Survey data to show that while Scots do display a slightly more social democratic mentality than the English, with higher levels of support for redistribution and greater equality, this has been in decline since devolution. More powers have not made us more radical. Those who believe that independence will automatically result in progressive, egalitarian policies should take note, now. The belief in ‘magic spray’ independence is an excuse to let the ends justify the means. I’ve argued before that a nation is forever defined by the nature of its creation, and we must not allow ourselves to follow the SNP down the road of appeasing small-c conservatives in order to win a Yes vote that would ruin our right to be radical. That’s why the Greens are right to openly criticise the way Yes Scotland is being run.
Despite all the above, Scotland can be radical. The problems we face today can be boiled down to two things: concentrations of wealth, and concentrations of power. Throughout the 20th century, the ascendant theories of liberalism hoped to harness the deeply competitive side of human nature in democracy and economics. Through democracy and its checks and balances, sociopaths could no longer manipulate and cheat their way to absurd levels of power thanks to their own sheer disregard for ethics and their fellow humans; but through the modern, perverse reimagining of Adam Smith’s free-market capitalism, opened up to pure competition, those same apostles of amorality could wield an equal or greater influence over the people they employed and the planet they destroyed. In his book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’, the philosopher Michael Sandel argues that the free market encourages a degree of antisocial behaviour amongst its executives and elites that has been morally and socially damaging to a frightening extent. After all, it is profitable to use advertising to make people think that buying a big, gas-guzzling range rover will give them more status and happiness: those who can afford nice things get trapped into a spiral of unfulfilling consumption and environmental degradation, while those who don’t have the cash become increasingly insecure about their own status as they see the material wealth of those happy, attractive and prosperous families in the adverts.
Thankfully, ideas are changing. At the end of the 20th century, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed ‘the end of history’ as liberalism triumphed. By the end of the 2000s, ‘liberal’ markets and democracies across the west lay discredited and depressed. Across the political spectrum, concentrated wealth and its accompanying inequality is condemned, while the concentrated power of centralised governments and corporate lobbies is mistrusted. In Scotland, the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s report ‘The Silent Crisis’ sets out a radical new vision for local government which has the potential to redistribute political and civic power from central government. It is also the UN’s International Year of the Cooperative – an increasingly popular business model that redistributes economic power from dictatorial executives to workers and consumers. The emerging disciplines of behavioural economics and positive psychology show a new way of thinking about humans as complex, often irrational beings motivated by human interaction more than money. Decaying theories are being challenged by a paradigm whose time has come – one that says that we are people, not robots, and we work best when we work together.
Like it or not, Scotland has been central to that old, dying model of the western world. From Adam Smith to Fred Goodwin and Gordon Brown, we’ve been one of the leading lights of a discredited way of doing things. With independence, we’ve got the chance to redeem ourselves. There is a new way of doing things, one that is bubbling under the surface, looking for a vent through which to spill into the international political consciousness. In leaving the United Kingdom, we wouldn’t be leaving just any old country – we’d be deliberately and determinedly withdrawing from one of the main offenders of 20th century psycho-capitalism and beginning again at a time when there are new, truly progressive ideas about what a nation is for and what it can do. Those ideas will be at their most powerful in the next few years, as Europe struggles and the UK sinks, and they will undoubtedly play a central role in the foundation of a new Scotland. The UK is chained to the past, and no matter how hard it tries, it won’t be able to make it out of the last century before it’s overtaken by other, nimbler states. An independent Scotland must chain itself to the future.
We may not be as left-wing as we’d like to be. We may not be as British, or as English, as Ed Miliband would like us to be. But we are in a unique position to reforge ourselves as a nation in the heat of a new and inspiring world of ideas about what we can be. On October 6th, National Collective will attend the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow, where these ideas can be shared and developed among leading figures of the Scottish Left. It’s an opportunity for us all to look at the radical national identity we’ve been imagining for decades, and do something with that energy. In our minds, a radical Scotland has been made; now it remains to make radical Scots.