The sense of both direction and purpose of the independence movement become far clearer near the end of 2013. The Radical Independence Conference of over 1000 people achieved unity among diversity. The Scottish government White Paper, Scotland’s Future, answered the key questions and provided a sense of direction for many. These developments brought clarity to how the referendum campaign will develop and, most crucially, how Scotland can change after the referendum. With 2014 set in motion, what opportunities could 2015 bring and how does this reinforce the case for independence?
It is worth reconsidering at this crucial juncture ‘what Scotland we seek?’
For the Yes Campaign independence is ‘a means to an end – the opportunity to build a better society.’ But what ends and how will we do it?
This premise divides into a thousand flowers of aspiration ranging across democratic, social, economic, military and international reform of various shades. Yes desires ‘a more prosperous Scotland and a fairer society’. Yet as map-makers Rory Scothorne, Amy Westwell, Cailean Gallacher, Dan Paris, Thomas Coles, Christopher Silver and previously Pat Kane highlight, sentiment is not enough. Soundbites are not strategies; and if Yes campaigners do not have a strategy for beyond the referendum they will quickly find themselves enveloped into someone else’s.
In my view, this is why aspects of Radical Independence and the Common Weal agenda have been up-lifting. There is a sense of strategy for 2015 and beyond. In most quarters – for instance – there is a nuanced understanding of the referendum. A Yes vote is significant, but is it not enough to make Scotland better. For independence to lead to substantial social progress – such as the reduction of wealth, gender, health, and educational inequalities – there must be a plan to change Scottish politics after the referendum. This growing democratic wave must translate into a coherent political strategy to improve Scotland’s democracy.
That process, I found, was most clearly expressed by Robin Mcalpine in 5 points, which set out the immediate priorities of an independent Scotland. I have presented them below with my own interpretation.
1) Writing a people’s constitution for our democracy
The composition of a written constitution will set the political boundaries of an independent Scotland for at least a generation. It will enshrine our rights and liberties as citizens. Crucially it will also define and distribute power. This is why it was the topic of my undergraduate dissertation. It offers one of the greatest opportunities to reshape our political values that we will ever have.
What has happened so far? The Scottish Constitutional Commission has led civic research into this topic. Elliot Bulmer, building on John McCormick’s work, presents a decent starting point in a Scottish context. The referendum has sharpened the debate with the Scottish government taking a two-pronged strategy: firstly, calling for a civic, constitutional convention to draw up the constitution; and secondly, advocating progressive-sounding appeals to enshrine social rights and anti-nuclear statements within the constitution.
The SNP have acted maturely. They have taken the constitution seriously, yet haven’t attempted to enforce a set text. This is vital as everyone – including opponents of independence – will be involved in constructing a constitution after independence.
What position should Yes supporters take on the constitution?
Personally, I have concerns that social rights are essentially a dead-end when it comes to creating a better Scotland. Universal legal rights do not create good services or active citizens. Instead a written constitution is an opportunity to improve our democracy and promote citizenship. The core issue for me is reforming the balance between the power of parliamentarians (representative democracy) and the power of citizens to make and influence decisions (republican, participatory, deliberative and direct democracy). It is the later which is better placed to respond to issues of social inequality and political apathy.
Improving the structure of decision making should be the priority for everyone in Scotland after a Yes vote. There is a real danger that Scotland would continue to imitate the worst aspects of the Westminster system – which is centralised and focused upon the rights and powers of parliament above the people. Ireland’s President Michael Higgins aired this regret in regards to his nation. Following independence Ireland failed to enshrine the values of a republic in political, administrative and communitive power. Scotland must consider localism, the accountability of both public organisations and private corporations, as well as the national democratic structure in its constitution.
My dissertation proposal was to involve more citizens in the committee system or – to be more ambitious – create a second chamber that involves citizens like jury service. Let citizens view and judge the laws.
Whatever the variety of proposals, allowing an open dialogue through a constitutional convention will be vital in creating a new, lasting and improved democratic settlement in an independent Scotland.
2) Negotiating an independent state
The negotiations from September 2014 till March 2016 between an independent Scotland and the rUK government in Westminster will determine the direction and capacities of an independent state.
As I’ve investigated separately, Scotland would be entitled to around £109 billion of UK assets. This includes a share of all MoD military equipment, all UK international embassies, and a share of the few remaining state enterprises that the UK government has a stake in.
The decisions during and after such negotiations include crucial questions such as ‘what assets should Scotland take?’ This will shape Scotland’s military, international engagement and even fiscal policy for a decade into the future.
So before deciding, for instance, where Scotland would desire embassies, there needs to be strategic thinking about where Scotland would want to engage diplomatically. If Scotland receives a windfall from our share of UK aircraft carriers and Trident submarines, will that money be reinvested in social services or military equipment? Or will a deal be struck that reduces the amount of national debt that Scotland inherits as a result?
These are important questions, questions that are too important to be left to politicians or a narrow group of ‘civic leaders’ alone. The sharpest minds in politics, academia, the trade unions and business will contribute to Scotland’s position in such discussions. Yet public consultation – listening and engaging with the views of citizens – is equally vital to the legitimacy of such negotiations. This is where campaigners can promote democratic accountability and scrutiny of both sides, while promoting the new priorities of an independent Scotland.
3) Building distinct and successful Scottish institutions
Independence is primarily concerned with improving domestic governance. To do this Scotland must develop the institutions and apparatus of a fully formed state. These include Revenue Scotland (for taxation), Access Scotland (for immigration and asylum), Social Solidarity Scotland (for social security and pensions), Scotland International (for diplomacy and relations), a Scottish Defence Force (for naval, air and land security) and Civil Service Scotland (for the workings of government).
This process presents choices which will shape the nature of Scottish government long into the future. How should these institutions operate? From what principles do they stem? To what extent will they replicate the functions of their Westminster counterparts?
These are huge questions that the Scottish government is grappling with. To take a few shorthand examples – Revenue Scotland aims to simplify the tax code; the Scottish asylum system will be more humane; the Scottish Defence Force will remove nuclear weapons and cooperate with NATO.
These are significant political choices – how the tax system seeks to tax, how the military seeks to operate, how social security will care for people.
In my view there has not been enough academic engagement with these issues. Substantive proposals have largely been left to the Scottish government. This has created a false prospectus where independence is presented by the media as a pre-determined version of society today with SNP tweaks. Alternative models for these institutions are possible and this should be explored.
Fortunately, the White Paper does leave flexibility in this regard. The nuts and bolts are yet to be tightened on the structures of these institutions. But that window will only be open for a short period. The transition period – running until March 2016 – will mean that such decisions will be central to the independent Scottish election in May 2016.
The development of alternative models in these areas will form crucial planks of different party manifestos in May 2016. This in turn will develop Scotland’s post-independence democracy.
Yes campaigners and others will be well placed to engage in this process to a far greater degree after the referendum. Participation in this process ensures that public institutions serve the needs and interests of the public rather than being swallowed up by vested interests in the way Westminster government operates.
4) Who will be the architects of the new nation?
These three challenges are specific: constitution, negotiation, institutions. The overlapping question is ‘who will lead and participate in these processes?’ Who decides?
Robin Mcalpine challenged those present at the Radical Independence Conference to return in October 2014 as the architects of the new nation – essentially to organise and build a platform for social change beyond the referendum.
Undoubtedly the current Scottish government and its White Paper approach will be influential. However, a new green-left coalition (including some currently within the SNP and Scottish Labour) can become the second political force in an independent Scotland.
To an extent, this network already exists: the Green Party, the SSP, the ISG, CND Scotland, Bella Caledonia and RIC links with trade unionists, academics and artists, form a credible platform. But there are many challenges. These groups would have to move beyond often engrained reactionary politics and the left’s culture of petty infighting. That is a basic starting point for building an alternative program for government.
The Common Weal project, within the Jimmy Reid Foundation, is developing a serious policy program that such a network or party could adopt. Reid’s words to the UCS work-in are worth remembering: “the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity.”
If this network achieves further growth and persists with deeper cooperation, it could achieve the greatest ever democratisation of Scottish politics – beyond the 1945 Labour Government, the women and workers’ movements of universal suffrage or the 1886 Crofters’ Act. The opportunity is that great. We stand at the cusp of a democratic wave united in support of economic, social and cultural democracy. But much is still to be done – most importantly reaching out beyond activist circles to A) persuade more establish figures in Scotland of a new approach and B) develop stronger networks among the communities that remain underrepresented in Scotland. Such a network must aspire to reach and include all of Scotland.
This agenda would provide a strong counter-weight to those who emphasise the continuity of independence. While changing the flag, we can change the country.
5) Maintaining unity amid diversity
With the stakes higher than ever, it is crucial that these organisations maintain a form of unity and solidarity if they are to have any success. They would, after all, face tough political realities in an electoral campaign. There will be other parties. There will be amplified corporate lobbing from both domestic and international sources. There will be unwelcoming and antagonistic voices.
Unity has rarely been a strong point for groups on the left of centre. Yet the recent RIC Conference demonstrated promise. Discipline may become custom. In any case it will be a prerequisite for any meaningful impact beyond the referendum.
These opportunities reinforce the importance of a Yes vote for independence. Without that, all these ideas may be scuppered for a generation. As Macalpine made clear, we must first get out and win a majority for independence in the next 9 months. It’s vital. It’s the number 1 priority for those who advocate social change in Scotland.
As a result of this referendum, Scotland has already changed and will continue to change. It is advocates of independence that are leading the thinking on social progress. This is itself a symbol of why we need independence – to empower social progress. However, it is important to remember that whatever the referendum result the challenge to create a better Scotland will continue and perhaps intensify.
For the opening of the Scottish parliament Edwin Morgan asked for “thinking persons as open and adventurous as [the building’s] architecture” and stated that the Scottish people were yet to cast a judgement on our common future. This year the people will speak. New voices can be the ‘architects of a new nation’. Now is the time to open the doors and begin – begin to build that nation.
— Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) January 22, 2014