Dr Tom Webster, Historian: An Opportunity To Build A Better Society


I’ve always been interested in politics and I’ve always been an activist. When I was a teenager I was a non-conformist Christian and a socialist. At that stage, with the passionate conviction that sometimes grows more out of fervour than understanding, it seemed an easy step to see myself as a feminist, an LGBT activist and a republican. While I’ve learnt a lot in the past thirty years or so and grasped the complexities and conflicts in political work, those fundamental points of opposition to privilege due to birth, sexuality, gender, race and class have remained.

When I first heard of the referendum I was not especially interested. There were plenty of other campaigns to be involved in and my immediate response was that I’ve always had a distrust of nationalism, associating it with the National Front when I was growing up, with the BNP and with racism, whether in the thuggish version or the more ‘respectable’ patriotism of the Thatcher years as a means of distracting working people from the greater injustices of class. I was interested in the politics of union, more in an academic way; I am a historian of the seventeenth-century and so know a lot about the relations between the countries since the union of the crowns in 1603 down to the Act of Union in 1707 and thereafter. I placed myself on the sidelines with an appetite to point out inaccuracies, probably with a smug pedantry, rather than to contribute positively.

My perception changed once I read more, listened more and had more conversations with other activist friends. While there is, for some, a different, more inclusive civic nationalism as opposed to the ethnic nationalism I abhor, I discovered that there were also conversations and activities related to a much broader understanding of ‘independence’. This was not just independence from Westminster but seeing the referendum as part of a process, looking to ask what ‘independence’ can be, whether that is independence from corporate influence, independence from landed interests, independence from the nostalgia for empire that took us into the wars I opposed and made us willing to act as a parking lot for NATO’s nuclear weapons that I’d always seen as a moral wrong and a waste of money.

In a different way, there were discussions of whether independence meant anything unless it also involved addressing social and economic inequalities reflected in health, social mobility, life expectancy and education. This was a long way from loyalty to the SNP and much closer to my interests. It saw independence as something that included the referendum but also took it further as part of an opportunity to build a better society, something that was more attainable with the systemic change from the limitations of the first-past-the-post electoral system at Westminster along with its unelected House of Lords.

This was also marked by a presence and an absence. While not all the left were on board, many friends and acquaintances working against racism, against the ideological assault on the welfare state, on environmental issues and against the demonisation of people claiming disability benefits were also involved in discussions in the Radical Independence Campaign and Common Weal. Such interests were noticably lesser if not absent from the No campaign, with the greater emphasis being on the fear of change and the scaremongering. Appeal to the status quo ante was, to me, completely ineffective as I have never been a Tory and, like many others, felt betrayed by the Thatcherism-lite of New Labour. The growth of both absolute and relative poverty, the ever widening gap between the richest and the poorest and the criminal necessity of food banks calls for much more than passivity and works against the fear of change central to Better Together rhetoric. When the current directions of social and economic policies are bringing greater inequality, fear of change becomes translated to a desire for alternative opportunities. Without idolising Holyrood or ignoring the few voices at Westminster who offer a more radical challenge, an independent Scotland can become a much more effective forum within which to attain a broader political spectrum where the priorities of social, economic and environmental justice are much higher on the agenda, a possibility confirmed from earlier experience of campaigning.

The more time I spent reading, attending meetings and taking part in discussions on social media, the more the work for independence chimed with my own priorities. I am English and will continue to identify myself as English, despite the fifteen years or so I have lived here. But that was never an issue in any of the conversations I have been involved in. The emphasis has always been much more on the common ground of improving and caring for Scotland, its land and its residents. Of course, there has been the occasional anglophobic remark in debates online but what has stood out more has been the speed and firmness with which the vast, vast majority of contributors disagreed with such assertions and said so.

Similarly, there has been, in my experience, little made of the easy mythology (and frequent historical inaccuracy) of the attractions of Braveheart, the Declaration of Arbroath and Glencoe. The emphasis has always been much more on the possibilities of the future than grudges held from the past. As I became involved with Academics for Yes a lot of the work has been reactive, making it plain that the poor use of precedent in some of the press has been a mixture of inaccuracy and/or irrelevancy. My conviction that a Yes vote is right was enhanced by correcting the palpable inaccuracies of the unfortunate comparisons of young people working for a Yes vote with the Hitler Youth, with Yes voters being described as ‘fascists’ or the graduation address which put Scottish nationalists in the same category as the Golden Dawn in Greece.

There are, it seems to me, to be a couple of needs for clarification, partly because they are reservations that I moved through and partly because they are objections that I have had voiced against my support for a Yes vote. The first is the perception of Utopianism, at its worst the suggestion that we see the success of a Yes vote as the same as a ticket to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Scotland has a diverse population, both socially and politically. The humour of ‘more pandas than Tory MPs’ allows us to ignore the substantial and continued presence of Tory MSPs without even addressing the UKIP voters who benefited from the low turn out in the European elections. While there are differences in allegiance geographically, winning independence from Westminster would not automatically produce a more just society. A broad political spectrum and the presence of dissent is, I would suggest, a vital ingredient of a fully functioning democracy, preferably on a level playing field. But I would also draw attention to the relative failure of the rhetoric of ‘Go Home’ vans against migrants here; consider the fact that the Scottish Defence League depends upon busloads of supporters from the north-east of England to make up the numbers for its demos compared to the greater trouble in reducing the English Defence League to its hardcore racist supporters south of the border. Similarly, the rhetoric of ‘strivers versus skivers’ has been less prevalent in Scottish politics.

While dissent and informed debate is crucial to a democracy it must remain free from scapegoating either from left or right. The achievement of such a political arena is not a given in Holyrood but the combination of an identity that has embraced the wealth of an identity of a ‘mongrel’ nation with an electoral system that ensures a more eclectic political voice makes that more attainable.

Alongside that optimistic realism goes an awareness that a victory for independence is far from the end of the story. After September it would be foolish to passively sit back and wait for the improvement to arrive. There will still be work to be done, but the goals of a more just and equitable society, of a more transparent and accountable system of governance will be more attainable with that achievement. There are many politicians on both sides of the campaign with a vocation for social justice (as well as some with whom I find less common ground) but the crucial step in maintaining the work for a better society is to create a system where politicians cannot hide, where they know that they are not immune to criticism and where they know they will have to answer for their decisions. Once we establish an independent parliament with a better electoral system, in full control of the budget, and much closer to our own doorstep than Westminster that becomes much more possible.

There is an old line among political activists that once ‘everything is sorted out’, we will be able to have a ‘normal’ social life. That will not arrive with independence, for we will have to keep working, keep letting politicians know we have an eye on them and letting them know what their priorities should be. That will be a substantially easier task once governance is taken out of the Westminster bubble and if we can maintain the appetite for political activity that has been generated by the independence debate.

The second reservation that I have heard from people with whom I share a lot of political common ground, is that a Yes vote prevents the display of solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, the oppressed and the demonised, elsewhere. Where this argument could gain some traction is showing solidarity with people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but that became less convincing when I thought about the solidarity I have shown during the work in opposition to Blair’s warmongering and the consequences of Cameron’s selective austerity. Health and education are devolved fields but that has not stopped me working against the sly privatisation of the NHS or Gove’s mission for schools in England and Wales.

The flawed or at least partial nature of the loss of solidarity became sharply clear in a discussion with a well-intentioned Better Together campaigner after the May Day march. In his spiel he suggested that independence not only prevented solidarity with the rest of the UK, but with the people of Palestine, LGBT folk in Russia and sweatshop workers in the east. That was a useful prompt to remind me that it was not necessary to be a South African citizen to work against apartheid, to be a Palestinian to assist Amnesty or a citizen of Bangladesh to campaign against the Primark sweatshops. That is not to suggest that an independent Scotland will automatically address these issues, merely that to vote Yes is not a betrayal of other people and also a greater possibility of adding a governmental voice to their opposition which Westminster has too rarely provided.

Tom Webster
National Collective


About Tom Webster

Tom Webster is a historian who has been lecturing at the University of Edinburgh since 1997, particularly on the seventeenth century, on religion, witches and the philosophy of history. He was born and brought up in Grimsby and, despite a lack of trophies, remains a supporter of Grimsby Town. This background gave him an appetite for supporting the underdog and a willingness to campaign for improvement even when it requires a long hard slog.