I’m a Scot living in Oxford. Every week now I seem to be asked my opinion on Scottish independence. And every time, when I say I support it, this elicits the same response – “don’t leave us”. We all know the arguments: Scotland skews Britain away from the Tories; England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be blue forever.
There are some easy responses: very few Labour governments have relied on Scottish MPs; the Tories have only won a majority of votes in England once since 1900 – it was in 1955 and they won a majority in Scotland too that year. Etc.
Or I sometimes respond that without Scotland, Blair would have won all three elections, but he couldn’t have introduced top-up fees: since devolution, Scottish Labour MPs have been used to impose on the English working classes things they would never allow for their own constituents. Labour has for too long used Scotland as a bulwark against its failure to mobilise the English working class. Independence would force Labour to turn out its winning base, or wither them to the point that a left party would emerge who could.
And it’s too easy to respond in kind: just as Scotland keeps England left, England keeps Scotland right. Independence is the easiest way to end Tory rule. If it is a yes vote in 2014, this’ll almost certainly be why: 52% of Scots(£) say they are likely to vote yes if they believe the Tories are going to win the 2015 election. Independence doesn’t guaruntee more progressive policies, but it gives a much better chance that we will win them. The 52% figure speaks for itself – as does the fact that university is free in Scotland, and our NHS isn’t being sold off. But that’s not why I believe in independence.
I support a yes vote because I believe government should be closer to people. I think each of us should have as much say over the decisions which affect our lives as possible. Democracy ought to be the system where we each get to take part in decisions in so far as they effect us. And if tens of millions of us are all affected in different ways by the same decision, then we each get less of a say. If only five million need to come to a consensus, that’s easier.
Now, for me, this isn’t about national boundaries. Where possible, power should be handed to streets, to villages, to towns. But where a bigger unit is needed, five million is more wieldy than sixty.
There is a word for what happens when decisions about our lives are taken from us: alienation. It is usually used by Marxists to describe markets: workers have removed from them the power to decide what is done with the wealth they create. But I believe the same happens when decisions which are still in theory made through democratic spheres are removed from our communities and handed to distant bureaucracies. We become alienated from them. The reality of our say in them is so remote that it seems to us impossible to exercise.
Now, none of this is to say that we don’t need ways to make decisions across units of many millions of people. If the principle is that we should all have a say in decisions in so far as they affect us all, then there are some decisions which probably ought to be made together, by the people of this island. And there are some which probably ought to be made by the people of our continent, and others which ought to be made by humanity as a whole.
It is clear that a post-independence Scotland will almost certainly end up in the EU* and the UN. No one is saying that there won’t be any decisions which we still make together as the inhabitants of this island. Alex Salmond (though I don’t) wants us all to have the same currency. I am sure we could all get behind the idea of a shared publicly owned Ordnance Survey, with some kind of mixed board. I hope the idea that journeys from London to Edinburgh could be run by a rail company with a cross border public ownership model isn’t too controversial**. The point is this: independence does not mean Holyrood would make all the decisions. And quite right too. We live in an interdepend world, a global community.
So what do we mean by independence? Well, for me, it is about two things. First, it is saying that the people of Scotland should have the right to decide their constitutional future. At the moment, Holyrood’s constitution is an act of Parliament at Westminster, and can be changed at any time by English MPs. Independence would mean Scotland choosing which powers to negotiate sharing with other countries. This is crucial, but it’s boring.
The next question then, is, which powers should Holyrood choose to hold? And which powers are better left at Westminster? It’s a question which leaves most Scottish Labour unionists I have asked stammering.
Here’s my answer: I think Holyrood should have the power over the main economic levers, to set its foreign policy, and decide when to send its teenagers to kill and die in war. I can’t think of any major powers I’d rather have remaining at Westminster, and which wouldn’t better be (and aren’t already) held in Brussels or by the UN (not that the Ordnance Survey isn’t important…).
I think the Scottish government should have power over tax, currency, industrial strategy, and nationalisation. I believe this because each of these is a sensitive lever. It is hard to pull each in a way which is best for the different bits of a large country at the same time: look how Euro interest rates set for Frankfurt have hammered Athens. It is easier to have an economic policy which is successful for Scotland if it only has to be set for Scotland.
I want a Scottish rather than British foreign secretary because I think large, bullying counties are bad for international relations. I think that defence policy is better done by smaller countries because I want a government minister to think that there is a high chance that the soldier she sends to kill and die is loved by someone she knows.
And once a parliament has sovereignty, economic powers, and foreign and defence powers, it is as independent as any state in our interdependent world.
So for me, independence is not about the nationalistic question of the Saltire or the Union Flag. It is about empowering people. It is about a process of handing powers to the most local level possible. And if the left made a mistake in the 20th century, it was our trust in centralisation, and our loss in faith in ordinary people and communities. We need to start a process of handing that power back. It doesn’t end with Scottish independence, but, for people on the northern end of our island, this is where it starts.
* a brief note on this: there has been much scaremongering from unionists about this: if Scotland leaves the union, we are told, it may have to leave the EU. Without getting into the legal debate about this, the argument misses a crucial piece of context: the UK government has promised a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. A majority of British citizens are against. Whatever the question mark around Scotland remaining in the EU if it’s a yes vote in 2014, there is surely an equal question mark over whether Scotland would remain in the EU if it’s a no vote.
** I’d probably vote for something like an elected board with 33% Scottish people, 33% English, and 33% the train workers. But I never seem to get what I want.
Co-Editor of Bright Green Scotland