Of course, it is absurd to claim – as do the more infantile polemicists in the No camp – that Alex Salmond has no vision for an independent Scotland. On the contrary, his vision is very sophisticated and amazingly conciliatory. He is offering a de facto confederation of the British Isles, in which the constituent nations share a common currency, head of state and social institutions managed consensually through sovereign parliaments.
My worry is that Scottish voters don’t see any difference between this and more devolution (ie, “devo max”). That creates two problems. First, Scotland’s cautious electorate has every incentive to vote No next year, preferring a more evolutionary approach to reform.
Second, even radical devolution leaves the ultimate levers of power with Westminster at a time when England is drifting towards isolationism; when the UK’s London-dominated economy remains lacklustre; and when the ideology of both Tories and Labour is a crude neo-liberalism that masks the rise of a new oligarchy of super-rich and the consequent death of social mobility in Britain.
Yet the Scotland that we live in – with its youth unemployment, decaying high streets, universities reduced to corporate affiliates, and poverty in the midst of plenty – is not the Scotland we desire. Devolving Britain is a laudable aim but say it out loud: devolution will not cure Scotland’s ills or give our youth a future. To do that, we must take economic power and Scotland’s resources into our own hands. If we fail, we are no worse off than under David Cameron’s austerity plan. But if we succeed, we can give our young hope and our old folk security.
What sort of new state should Scotland create? It is unfashionable to discuss constitutions as this is deemed a diversion from sorting the economic crisis. In reality, the aversion to discussing constitutional questions in the UK has everything to do with masking the unequal concentration of power and privilege concentrated in the London metropolitan elite – the same elite who created the economic meltdown through its greed and incompetence.
Rightly, most people now reject the authoritarian paternalist state of the extreme left and right, with its bureaucracy and lack of human rights. But the liberal democratic state has its own peculiar defects. To understand this we need to look to the work of the contemporary Irish political philosopher Philip Pettit. He makes the distinction between a state based on guaranteeing non-domination of the individual and one based on protecting individuals from interference with making choices, especially economic ones.
The latter version of “liberty” is now all-pervasive. But as Pettit points out, it is easily corrupted into sanctioning the worst excess of the free market economy while rendering the majority powerless and dependent. Hence the collapse in social mobility. Hence the dictatorship of the City bankers. Hence, even, the buying of our football clubs by foreign oligarchs.
The future Scottish state should be based on the principle of non-domination. Call this genuine republicanism as opposed to neo-liberalism. In such a republic of equals, the institutions of the state would guarantee the individual more than just the freedom to make their own choices (as in Thacherite neo-liberalism). Here the state would also ensure that each citizen is emancipated from the threat of undue dependence – be it economic, cultural, or political.
Such a republic worries about the dispiritedness that affects men and women who lead dependent lives as much as it worries about the rate of GDP growth. This has concrete implications: it requires radical state intervention to protect citizens from monopoly or discrimination. This should not be interpreted as a call for excessive state intervention in the market place, but it is a declaration of war on inherited privilege and vested interests.
The non-domination principle leads immediately to the conclusion that Scotland cannot control its economic destiny or fulfil the potential of its people if it remains tied to the dictates of a failed banking system run by (and for) the City of London. That requires, at minimum, the creation of a separate Scottish currency managed by an independent Scottish Central Bank. Equally, as one of the great historic nations of Europe, independent Scotland will play its part in the European family of nations. But the non-domination principle means we will never bow the knee to Brussels or Berlin, even if it means being outside the EU.
The republic I seek envisages no levelling down, no Stalinist social engineering. Instead, it will favour the lad (and lassie) o’ pairts. But unlike the neo-liberal model, the principle of non-domination imposes on the state the task of nurturing individual talent in the first place.
Republics require symbols of popular allegiance. I can see, in this democratic era, that the daughter of two flight attendants is as eligible as anyone else to be Queen. But the republic I seek demands a more active role of its citizens than reading about Kate Middleton in Hello magazine. Traditionally, Scotland always elected its monarchs. A citizen’s republic should elect its head of state.
Is my republican vision too austere for today’s consumer society? Possibly. If so, Scottish independence is a chimera. Is my vision of the state too abstract for the electorate? If so, democracy itself is doomed except as a fig leaf for the rich. Besides, you don’t vote nations into being by appealing to the lowest common denominator. This is a revolution, not a referendum.