Colin McInnes: Future not green, red, blue or orange

Dogmatic views on green energy are as limiting as arguments for continuing to use carbon fuels. Picture: PADogmatic views on green energy are as limiting as arguments for continuing to use carbon fuels. Picture: PA
Dogmatic views on green energy are as limiting as arguments for continuing to use carbon fuels. Picture: PA
Being wedded to ideological views from the past, argues Colin McInnes, inhibits creation of a radical new Scotland

As a party political agnostic it’s often difficult to get under the skin of those who align themselves with a single, often narrow world view. But ideology seems to be a hard-wired human trait, as evidenced by the lasting historical imprint of many radical political thinkers. This same ideologically driven thinking can often be glimpsed in the contemporary debate over Scotland’s future. These views range from a visceral belief in the historical destiny of Scotland as an independent nation, to those who strive for a red-flagged Socialist republic or even a green-flagged environmental utopia.

Clearly, Scotland has seen ideologies rise and fall, from the struggle of the Red Clydesiders to the more recent experiments of the Thatcher-era. But a post-ideological Scotland need not see the replacement of conventional politics with bland managerialism, or indeed the petty moralising over personal behaviour which now often takes the place of big ideas. A post-ideological Scotland can be a home for radical thinking on what constitutes a better future, whether part of the Union or otherwise. But to do so, we need to ditch our preconceptions as to what constitutes genuinely radical thought.

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For example, the Left often cites the Nordic states as a clear vision of a better future. It’s supposed that the Swedes, Danes and others have a higher tax take by government, greater public spending and measurably less inequality than the UK. Appealing to traditional Scottish collectivism, this is used as an argument why we should part company from our ostensibly more individualistic neighbours to the south. But while the higher taxation of the Swedes may indeed be true, the Economist recently pointed out that Sweden offers insights into a “post-ideological future”.

For all the high tax and spend cheerleading, the Swedes clearly are not on the traditional Left. While government does indeed recycle substantial tax income into public services, such as healthcare, a surprisingly large proportion of the delivery of that healthcare comes from the private sector. Similarly, more than half the fire service provision in Denmark is delivered by Falck, a private firm. Up close, our Scandinavian cousins are beginning to look decidedly free-market. And who cares for traditional ideology, if their post-ideological thinking delivers efficient, universal public services?

But for some, a future independent Scotland simply wouldn’t dare to mix public and private in this manner. In order to maintain the ideological purity of a national healthcare system, the idea of a provider other than the state would be unthinkable. And therein lies the problem with the constraints of blinkered ideology. It ties our hands, blinds us to genuinely new innovations and keeps us rooted in the past.

Similarly, while Scotland proudly pursues a Green, nuclear-free future, and strives for state-mandated national renewable energy targets, our Nordic neighbours Sweden and Finland are both firmly wedded to low-carbon nuclear energy. How odd then that a smart, successful and forward-looking Scotland chooses to prohibit one of the key technologies for the 21st century.

But what’s more disturbing is the future offered by some self-styled radical Green thinkers. Here, the vision of a better future is one which largely dispenses with the idea of economic growth. Whether through local energy production or small-scale agriculture, a less materialistic future is offered which is claimed to be more equitable, sustainable and resilient. But again, this isn’t radical thinking, it’s intensely conservative thinking which mistakes inefficient economic localism for sustainability and would deliver a shared permanent austerity instead of real social justice.

So while Scotland debates its constitutional future, we should be sceptical of arguments which are all too ideologically-driven. The key driver of the global future will be unconstrained, free-thinking innovation which will impact in ways we can scarcely imagine.

For example, it’s clear that automation in both production and services will accelerate, culling jobs from manufacturing through to call centres. And as it does so there is every possibility that the fruits of such sharp productivity gains will flow to capital rather than labour. So if we’re serious about a future of shared prosperity we would do well to ditch out-dated notions from the past. When production is delivered by machines that work a three-shift day and don’t ask for benefits, traditional labour relations, including trying to unionise the shop floor, become redundant.

Similarly, while we take a massive national punt on renewable energy, partly driven by misplaced notions of resource scarcity, it’s clear that innovation is already overtaking us. The technology for efficiently extracting hydrogen-rich methane from deep shale bed rock, as pioneered in the Umited States, is set to diffuse across the globe at a pace. And it is the increasingly rapid diffusion of ideas and innovation across national boundaries which is pulling ahead of both conventional national politics and the certainties of traditional ideology.

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But while ideologies are typically born of particular historical circumstances, most of us can at least agree on common principles, such as a future of liberty and prosperity for Scotland. For example, consider philosopher John Rawls’ simple thought experiment. Rawls asks us to consider choosing the level of inequality in a society into which, blind-folded, we are to be randomly positioned. Choosing a highly unequal society would yield a small chance of being king, but a much greater chance of being a slave. A society of equals risks all being equally poor. Rawl’s choice is therefore inequality which is sufficient to maximise overall prosperity, and in particular ensure the welfare of the least advantaged. If we use such general principles as our guide, then we can be unconstrained as to how we strive for a prosperous, post-ideological future. In contrast, rigid ideology often represents a set of limit-setting constraints, whether the state as monopoly supplier of services, enforcing social norms, or as a gatekeeper prohibiting the use of key technologies.

Given then that the future is likely to be driven by innovation, rather than ideology, we could ask if a newly confident, independent Scotland could again become a power-house of ideas, changing the world as thoroughly as we did through the 18th century Enlightenment. And if we decline separation, then perhaps we need some candid introspection, and ask why it’s necessary to wait for the redrawing of a constitution to push ahead and start delivering a progressive and prosperous future. In any case, we should be mindful too that, historically, the nation state itself is a relatively recent construct, and is in the end no more than lines on a map. The state is arguably an idea born of pragmatism, emerging from the 17th-century Westphalia agreement to help end the brutal 30 years of European war. And it is an idea which in future may well outlive its usefulness. It would be strange indeed if we fret and fight over the partition of the small islands on which we live, ultimately to see the lines of human geography dissipate, as it’s increasingly global citizens realise that life is about living, and that in the end nationhood is ephemeral. The future flag of Scotland may be neither blue, red or green, but ultimately the unmarked flag of a world which has quietly moved on from the idea of the nation state itself.

• Colin McInnes is an academic at Strathclyde University. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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