Gerry Hassan: Argument to deliver some detail for a change

Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow

Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow

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IT HAS been another fast-moving week in Scotland’s constitutional conversation – even leaving the comedy controversies aside.

There was Dennis Canavan, chair of Yes Scotland, distancing himself from SNP policy in suggesting Scotland should have its own currency; while the House of Commons foreign affairs committee made the startling observation that independence will involve shaking things up for the UK.

Then there was Alex Salmond’s announcement that an independent Scotland would not have a central bank. This is proof that Scottish nationalism is a form of unionism; just as unionism is a form of nationalism – British state nationalism – the latter in denial of this. Mr Salmond’s new-found unionism has become so pronounced that Scotland will continue in monetary union with the rest of the UK.

There are several levels of this ongoing debate. There is a superficial appearance in the Yes/No debate and campaigns that this is a choice of fundamental and opposing absolutes.

Underneath the Yes/No debate, and even within parts of the Yes and No campaigns, a completely different set of realities is informing matters shaped by the dynamics of the late modern world. This is an environment of a differentiated global ecology of political and legal capacities, where political authority is split and shared between different levels.

This is a world many of us know and are comfortable with, based on the multi-layering of political identities, institutions and sovereignty. Yet for appearances sake both sides have to pretend that this is some 19th-century duel to the death when it isn’t.

This Janus-like set of characteristics of the debate can be witnessed in the contradictions about where, geo-politically, an independent Scotland could sit.

There is a sizeable part of Scots’ opinion that aspires to be shaped by the values of Nordic social democracy, informed by an understandable revulsion at the excesses of Thatcherite/Blairite debasing of public goods, life and values.

This Scottish desire to be a bit Nordic is thus based on the desire to reject something we know doesn’t work, and to be positively different. However, it doesn’t take into account the fact that the Nordic nations no longer feel themselves social democratic Eldorados, but under attack from the same market determinism. And if we wanted to be a little more Nordic, the Scottish Government has it in its power now to start making some of the intricate networks of collaboration and partnership we see in our friends in the north.

Yet, at the very same time, the version of independence on offer from the SNP and elsewhere is about realities beyond the Yes/No debate: concerning shared authorities, common competencies and a fuzzy, messy sense of sovereignty.

This is the inter-independence of the modern world and the SNP, which is fine and proper, but, when it crosses over into monetary union and the virtual continuation of large parts of the British state, it reduces the options for shifting Scotland geo-politically.

The Salmond strategy is based on making the big vote not about independence but greater self-government. What would contribute to this debate is a better thought out version of inter-independence with all the shared bits and sensibleness, but which spoke to Scotland’s desire to be different. That would allow the debate to progress and examine the limits of further devolution which require acquiescence and agreement at a British level (and eventually British reform and democratisation at its centre, which we will wait a long time for as things currently stand).

If the next 16 months are to offer some kind of tangible choice and debate, there has to be a challenge to the safety first, minimal choice Scotland, found in the conservatives of all hues, and supported by radicals who say that nothing substantive can be debated this side of the big vote.

The majority of Scots have consistently indicated that they oppose the Thatcherite/Blairite consensus, but if this is to be meaningful its influence north of the Border, unstated, unsaid but everywhere, in the SNP, Labour and public life has to be noted. This would entail stopping the pretence that we can be progressive and cut corporation tax, embrace the Laffer Curve and advance deregulation.

Instead we have to get explicit about how we want to be different: in our public realm, in our ethics of modern life and society and in imagining the ways we could go about economics and business differently from the wreckage of “Bubble Britain”. That has to be about more than maintaining what we currently have, whether it is free tuition fees or OAP bus passes, but grasping the thistle of what a Scottish “good society” would look like.

There will be many surreal comic moments along the way. This week some of the SNP took umbrage at the Foreign Affairs Committee daring to suggest that independence would lead to “reputational damage” and “loss of prestige” for the UK. Surely this would be no bad thing given the state of the UK and we can safely say that it isn’t the job of independence to look after the existing union.

Yet we also have to bring centre stage the problem of the power vortex of London and the South East, the character and nature of the British state, and the long-term problem of the Treasury and Bank of England which have embedded short-term thinking and economic uneven development at the heart of UK policy making.

There is, at the centre of UK politics, from Tory and Lib Dem to Labour and Ukip a desire for restoration: for a return to the certainties of Britain pre-crash with its consumer, property and banking fetishes. It is a myopic world view that independence should have no truck with and has the courage to take the moral high ground on and challenge the devolutionists to explain how they will change.

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