Pat Kane: Optimist puts the case for Scotland

Sillars is wrong to champion 'independence-lite'. The bold visions generations of Nationalists have set out must not be diluted

IT'S fair to say that the SNP grandee Jim Sillars is largely responsible for my current political identity. His concept of independence-in-Europe, articulated in his mid-80's book Scotland: A Case For Optimism, was the first time I'd heard a truly sophisticated argument for Scottish independence: about reconnecting to the wider world, not just chippily tilting against our largest near-neighbour.

I also remember seeing Jim at a conference about 10 years ago, arguing with great vision about how an independent Scotland could contribute to the creation of a "strong European feel", which would help legitimate and bolster a European governance that was certainly facing its challenges at that time.

This is personal, too: back in 1992, I shared an SNP Snappy Bus on Jim's last, desperate day as a Govan MP during that year's general election. My admiration for his commitment to, and sympathy for, ordinary voters hasn't diminished from that day to this.

However, I have to say, quite clearly, that Jim's current advocacy of what he's calling "independence-lite" is fundamentally wrong - by which I mean the wrong political strategy for a majority SNP government, and an independence movement, readying itself for a momentous referendum.

In his Scotsman article, Jim clearly outlines what he thinks this revised vision of Scottish independence is: "an independent country in international law which has a kind of confederal relationship with England, in which the latter continues to carry out cross-Border functions like the DVLA, perhaps pension and social security payments, and a BBC with beefed-up Scottish representation at Trust level. One which engages us in a quasi-Nato relationship on shared defence and security against terrorism, with Scotland paying its share of costs of those functions, plus our share of UK debt, from its sovereignty over all taxation including oil, and perhaps offsetting some of those costs by leasing the Trident base for a long period."

It's worth taking this paragraph line by line. What is noticeable, instantly, is the absence of the European Union from this picture.

Does this mean that independence-supporters give up on playing their part in the policy-forming councils of Europe? Particularly when the general thrust of European policy - on social welfare, on environmental regulation, on urban development - is still much more in line with the Scottish consensus than anything coming from Westminster? This seems a bizarre "little Britain" horizon to impose on a politics of Scottish independence.

The next trouble-zone is Sillars' check-list of "cross-Border functions". This is one area which requires detailed and vigorous debate among independence supporters, and certainly not some imposed fiat from the high command of the SNP.

Relinquishing sovereignty over "pension and social security payment" systems bespeaks a puzzling failure of nerve. Jim is keen to point out how polling support for independence is in the low 30s. I would also like to point out that 50 per cent of the possible Scottish electorate did not even bother to vote in this great democratic moment.

Surely we should realise that such citizen apathy is partly explained by the socio-economic deprivations, and psychological exhaustion, of large areas of "forgotten Scotland" (on our screens again with BBC Scotland's The Scheme)?

We must have the powers to integrate the boom-time of the "green industrialisation of Scotland" with the need to rebuild the essentials of community life in large areas of this country. Some of that will happen under a cascade of apprenticeships for lads and lassies o' pairts - but new employment isn't the only measure that will heal the scars and distortions of generations of neglect.

We should give ourselves the latitude to think creatively about what social support means in a sustainable Scotland - for example, looking at some of the agenda for shorter working weeks and co-production of services that think-tanks such as the New Economics Foundation are suggesting. Again, why should we relinquish policy autonomy over that area, when the current reality is so underdeveloped and ineffective?

Maintaining the BBC with "a beefed-up Scottish presence at Trust level"? This is a real collapse of will-power. In a multi-channel, multi-device, expanding-bandwidth media world, it is not beyond the wit of independent Scottish media public regulators and institutions to cut licensing and permission deals with the BBC as a content provider, such that the televisual component of the "social union" is easily accessible to anyone in Scotland.

But we should, firstly, be able to spend what we actually raise in Scottish public broadcasting, and secondly, take the chance to amplify the Scottish voice within and outwith the country. We should seek the power to create public digital channels that properly serve our imperatives in say, education, business development, arts and culture.And even in terms of big-ticket investments in quality television and film, are we really able to make clear-headed decisions about this, when the ultimate gravity of decision-making still rests in Wood Lane?

On Jim's suggestions of pooled defence and security arrangements, Nato-friendliness, and acceptance of Trident, we come to a position which will easily split the community of independence supporters and activists right down the middle.

Of course, Scotland's military posture always been the elephant in the room of independence. Listening to leading SNP politicians "defend Scotland" and its rights to UK military investment in hi-tech engineering, or local military bases, has always been a thoroughly unedifying and incoherent spectacle.

But surely in a post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan, post-Black-Watch Scotland, we should be maintaining our ambivalence about Scottish armed forces being readily dragged into the adventurism (and energy opportunism) of larger nations at the fag-end of Empire. This means a proper separation from Nato, at best United Nations involvement, and appropriate (but well-monitored) collaborations on terrorism and security.

Does "independence-lite" mean tolerating the sheer waste of intellect and expertise of significant sectors of Scottish engineering being consumed with aircraft-less aircraft carriers, at a time when we should be shoving our productive clusters full-speed towards renewable energy development? And for many of us who came into independence politics from the left, the idea of nursemaiding Trident for two decades - soothing the ex-superpower traumas of post-imperial Britain, in return for confederal autonomy - is the point at which we exit.

Finally, the question of keeping a bruised UK Westminster government "onside" in negotiations for independence is, to me, wrongly posed.

Cock an ear to current debates within the centre-left in England, particularly around the Compass group in the Labour Party, and their presumption is that a Scotland heading for independence will be a catalyst for all kinds of coalitions in an English polity: a new realignment between Labour and disillusioned Lib Dems (maybe around full PR), and an overdue grappling with English identity that takes it away from defensiveness or big-power angst.

Our movement towards independence is actually assisting the rise of a post-British England, which growing numbers of Southern progressives want the chance to explore.

On the share of national debt and revenue from hydrocarbons, I'm reasonably confident that our resident phalanx of patriotic Scottish energy economists and lawyers, armed with global references and precedents, will get a good (if not ideal) result.

But at exactly this moment - when demonstrable Nationalist competence in government, with a motivating vision for the future, has gathered significant support in Scottish life - it seems weird to suddenly reduce our ambitions, and give up on campaigning for the necessary prize of full and effective nation-state independence.

Federalism or confederalism are coherent, legitimate Unionist options, which should be compressed into a second option in a referendum, and put to the Scottish people. But to blur the clarity of independence's powers over crucial, and even morally urgent, dimensions of Scottish self-determination, is to me profoundly mistaken.

As the constitutional expert Robert Hazell said at the weekend, "Defence, macroeconomic policy and foreign affairs are key features of statehood.

Does the SNP want Scotland to be independent or not?"

Over to you, Jim.

l Pat Kane is a writer, musician and runs the Scottish ideas-blog Thoughtland (www.thoughtland.info).

Back to the top of the page