Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Yes Scotland's biggest lie

At the core of nationalism is the idea of a people in a given territory are bound together by a shared culture that demands the boundaries of the state should be the same as the nation in order for this to find its true expression.  One has been struck by the way how little of culture, in the sense of language, literature, art and music, has featured in this debate at all.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that what cultural differences there are, we enjoy these this in the mix of a wider British culture, which in turn is part of a bigger still trans-Atlantic culture.  'Friends' has had immeasurably more influence on the way young people speak than Burns.  Like, totally.  The other more important reason is that no-one could seriously claim that Scottish culture has been oppressed by membership of the Union.  What self-respecting dictatorship wouldn't have Alan Bissett shipped off to a gulag to give him something to complain about?

Rather, the dominant idea in this referendum is the notion that the national culture that has been held back is a political culture.  Britain has locked left-wing Scotland into a neo-liberal constitutional prison and we need only put a cross in a box to liberate us from the cold-hearted Thatcherites south of the border.  That's the narrative we're being sold so it's worth asking two questions: how left-wing is Scotland and how left-wing is an independent Scotland likely to be, should it be Yes on the 18th?

If being disinclined to vote Conservative is left wing then Scotland certainly is but I'm increasingly convinced that this is not necessarily so.  It's something that goes beyond the observation that Scotland does not vote as a homogeneous block (more Scots voted for the coalition parties than the SNP in the 2010 Westminster election) and neither does England nor, of course, Wales.  There has been a tribal hostility to the Tories in my part of Scotland for as long as I can remember.  It was never the epitome of rationality but at least it was based on the politics of class and party.  Now it has taken on an ethnic tinge that should worry everyone.  I'm increasingly wondering if tribalism is all that's left of it.  One aspect of this is the social attitudes of Scots to things like Europe, immigration and welfare that are not as nearly as different to the rest of the UK as the flattering self-image of ourselves that the nationalists like to sell.*  There's some data here.   One in five Scots want to quit the EU altogether and a further 40% want to stay but repatriate powers.  Only 11% seem committed to 'ever closer union'.  

Perhaps part of this is attitudes to immigration.  The irony is the notion that an independent Scotland could do with a different immigration policy to the rest of the UK is one of the few policies of the SNP that makes any sense.  Their problem is, as the data shows, it wouldn't necessarily be welcomed by the Scottish electorate.  Nearly half the population fear that greater immigration from Eastern Europe or by Muslims would pose a threat to national identity.  One could only imagine what these percentages might be if we had immigration anything like on the scale of the south of England.  

A similar pattern can be seen in attitudes to the unemployed.  More than half of Scots think unemployment benefits are too high, twice as many as think they are too low.  

The reason Scots don't have traditionally left-wing policies is that people in Scotland don't vote for them, not because we are in the Union.  It certainly is not the position of the SNP.  This point cannot be stressed enough.  They have not enacted one single redistributive policy in the last seven years.  The obvious response to those who cite free prescriptions, university tuition and elderly care is that the point of universal benefits is everyone gets them.  I tend to favour some of them on the grounds of efficiency but the point is, if they are redistributive at all, it tends to be towards the median voter.  Some sharper nationalists have been candid enough to acknowledge attitudes to the welfare state in Scotland are an indication of our conservatism as a nation, at least as much as our supposed socialism.  There's a whole bunch of people going to vote Yes because they want things to stay the same, not because they want change.  

So how left-wing would Scotland be if it were independent?  If your idea of left-wing is simply having a larger, more generous welfare state, not very, if Scottish social attitudes are anything to go by.  But there's another dynamic, which one might call the Slovakian paradox.  I'm wondering if there's lessons in the break up of Czechoslovakia that neither side in this debate wants to hear.  There was in Slovakia, as in Scotland, a fairly widespread discontent with the neo-liberal path being taken by its bigger neighbour.  While the break-up is described as a 'velvet divorce', it had in its initial stages some features that Yes Scotland are desperately insisting are inconceivable in their plan for a seamless, almost imperceptible shift to independence: bank runs, borders thrown up practically overnight, and a currency union that lasted only thirty-eight days.  

However, the initial disruption did not prove to be a lasting disaster.  Both countries joined the EU and adopted the Euro and the borders were brought down.  The Slovakian economy recovered and even closed some of the gap in terms of income per capita compared to the Czech republic.  But here's the paradox; it seems to have done so in part by adopting the very kind of neo-liberal policies that its electorate were largely hostile to.  Nobody knows what's going to happen in Scotland votes Yes on the 18th but something like this neo-liberalism out of necessity is quite likely.  The currency issue is a bit of a distraction from the fact that regardless of its monetary arrangement, an independent Scotland is going to have to run a tighter budget than has previously been the case in the context of the UK, especially so in the (hopefully unlikely) event that we opt for the lunatic dollarisation and default option that our First Minister seems to be seriously considering.  It is, in other words, completely unrealistic to think that if Scotland hit its target for being an independent state in March 2016, it would be able to announce in April that it had extra money to splurge on public services.

There are a number of reasons why the Czechoslovakian experience does not quite fit a putative break-up of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK but the most important for me as someone for whom this is not primarily about economics is that the Czechs and the Slovaks did not have to endure a divisive referendum.  There are some on both sides who think this debate has been, regardless of the outcome, a jolly spiffing energising experience.  This isn't a feeling I share.  It has, apart from anything else, shown some of the worst features of modern politics - personalisation of abstract economic issues and unbearable short-termism.  "It's not about Alex Salmond!", cry people who want to break-up the Union on account of a government that may not last beyond 2015.  And what has featured in this short-termism has been the biggest lie told in this campaign.  This is not a national independence movement that requires any struggle or sacrifice but rather one that promises that nothing and everything will change.  Keep the Queen, the open border, the currency - you'll hardly notice a thing, except your wallet becoming a bit fatter.  It is the lie of painlessness and that it is so widely-believed is storing up trouble for the future for this country, regardless of the outcome.  For who do you imagine the nationalists will blame if they're denied this decaffeinated national rebirth, or if they get it  and then realise it isn't how they were told to imagine it?  Certainly not themselves.

*I'm taking 'left-wing' policies to be those that are conventionally designated as such.  But I'm aware that there are good reasons why, for example, membership of the EU isn't everyone's idea of a left-wing position.

Correction: As pointed out by one commentator, whose comment I deleted by accident, Slovakia joined the Euro but the Czech Republic did not.


Al said...

Scotland may not be a hotbed of radicalism - but I wish anyone commenting on these social attitude surveys would compare like with like (i.e what is the Scottish rUK split on a range of key issues). You might find some differences there. Can you imagine Cameron or Miliband campaigning for more immigration?

I don't know many people prepared to vote independence simply to keep the Tories out next year. My impression is that people are sick of the whole system.

Al said...

Also, why assume that a more egalitarian society is dependent on high borrowing and/or a large centralised state? This criticism applies to the thinking nationalists as much as anyone. It would be good to see some more imaginative thinking over how this can be accomplished (not to say that there are not more radical elements within the yes campaign). Of course this is one of the main attractions for voting Yes - it offers hope where the possibilities of part of a continued union don't. And if the Union offers hope that has been making the case? Certainly not the No camp.

You might laugh at the desire for 'hope and change' balanced against the difficulties and risk associated with going independent. Of course it won't be a walk in the park and there will be a difficult period of adjustment. But it is hard to take seriously the apocalyptic scenarios from the No camp. isn't it terribly short-termist to focus on the costs of adjustment rather than the longer term potential?

Shuggy said...

Forgive me if this is a cliched blogger's response but you really do give the impression of not having read what I wrote very carefully.

I didn't say that I thought equality was a function of big state welfarism; this is the view of Yes Scotland. The point on short-termism is related and central to the argument in the post: the lie of painlessness is the delusion that the journey to independence is cost-free, even in the short-run. I certainly do not imagine the disillusion to be short-lived. I don't imagine I'll live to see the day where any problems an indy-Scotland has are not attributed to the raw deal we both know is going to be blamed. If you do, you must be a young thang.

Finally, if you've read anything I've written with any care, you'd understand I'm not finding there's much to laugh about in any of this. Regardless of the outcome, I find this god-awful exercise in nationalist plebiscitary democracy heart-breaking.

Shuggy said...

Sorry, meant to include point in immigration. Implied that Scottish attitudes to immigration wouldn't be so very different if we had it on anything like on the scale of England. Given that the figures for favouring immigration were 78% for England and 69% for Scotland, I think there's good reason to think this is a valid point.

Shuggy said...

That should say 'favouring a reduction in immigration'.

Al said...

If you read my response with any care you can note that I say the criticism on big state welfare applies to the nationalists as much as anyone. But the criticism also applies to those on the No side (e.g independence is pointless because a currency union would curtail the freedom for big spending). But more broadly, what I find dispiriting are the knee jerk reactions from many on the left (mostly south of the border) against contemplating any positive possible outcomes from what will be the biggest shock to the establishment in a long time. You seem like you are of a naturally conservative disposition, so don't take this as a personal criticism - it applies primarily to those on the left who identify themselves as beyond the political centre.

I think you underestimate the intelligence of voters if you think they are going into this on the belief that independence will be a painless process. On the other hand many rightly find the more apocalyptic warnings from better together laughable. The reality is that Scotland is a very productive economy and there are no real reasons why it cannot continue to be a very productive economy in the future.

Differences in social attitudes between Scotland and England may not be particularly large, but they are differences none the less. You might find similar attitudes on many issues across most European steps. That doesn't make the case that we should merge into a European super-state. The fact remains that running on a pro-immigration platform would be suicidal for labour or the conservatives - but this obviously isn't the case in Scotland.

And of course the largest differences between Scotland and rUk are in national identity. Committed unionists like yourself are small minority on both sides of the border, with the default identify either Scottish or English, not British. The reality is there is not much holding the UK together in terms of national identity, and can any country function properly without a somewhat coherent shared identity?

Shuggy said...

I don't disagree there are differences. Scots are indeed more favourable towards immigration and Europe but not to the extent it has been suggested and not in anyway that necessitates a different state. It will be interesting to see, should Scotland end up controlling her own borders, how far a pro-immigration line gets any party at the ballot box. Now it forms part of the nationalist 'we're not like the English' narrative.

I don't think I'm underestimating voters' intelligence because I don't think views on this have anything to do with intelligence, really. Most people - for understandable reasons - aren't that interested in economics normally but now in the context of the debate people have tried to familiarise themselves with the issues. The problem is in the context of this debate, many economists themselves have gone tribal so it's unsurprising that they don't know who to believe.

But I really do think a lot of people are convinced that they're going to be better of quite quickly and this isn't stupid people by any means - I'm thinking of many of my colleagues who are by the nature of the job all graduates.

I don't agree I'm in a minority. Sure, people see themselves as primarily Scottish or English. So do I. It's only natural that the most proximate identity comes first. It's those who identify themselves as 'Scottish, not British' that are in the minority. It was around 20%. I don't have time to look for the link right now but it's on John Curtice's 'What Scotland Thinks' website somewhere.

Shuggy said...

Niall Murray - that was an interesting comment. I'm terribly sorry but I went to publish it and deleted it by accident. If you see this, could you possibly post it again?

Shuggy said...

Ah, hang on - by the power of email.

Niall Murray said: "Interesting perspective, at least to me as a Scot living in the Czech Republic. I had always viewed the decision not to have a referendum as a disgrace, but after the bitterness of the last few months, am questioning my beliefs. The split of the Czechs and Slovaks was also run by two parties in power that wanted to split. There was no serious opposition, as we see in Scotland.

A small point, but the Czechs did not join the Euro (though the Slovaks did). They still use the Czech crown."

Niall Murray said...


donnie said...

Hello Shuggy,

Bit rushed, but I've a few thoughts on why an independent Scotland might be more left wing than social attitude surveys suggest.

First. As you say, social attitudes aren't that far left of the UK average. But, as you also say, voting patterns are and that's not going to change over night simply by calling the Scottish Tories something else.

Even if it does, proportional representation would be likely to keep them away from power - the SNP, the LibDems and Labour are all more natural allies and would risk loosing a lot getting into bed with Scottish Tories.

Second. Constitutional arrangements matter. There's fairly persuasive evidence that there's a link between how countries transitioned to democracy and levels of inequality now. Countries that had a revolution and kicked out their elite have lower inequality than countries where the pre democracy elite had significant influence on constitutional arrangements after the transition.

Now, obviously Scotland isn't having a revolution. But the UK is definitely isn't in the revolution category and is highly unequal. At the same time the proposed constitution isn't being drafted by the UK establishment. I think's it's hard to argue that the proposed constitutional arrangements (which include PR) aren't more closely aligned to the interests of the people.

Third. Oil wealth is easier to redistribute than financial wealth because it can't run away and is more obviously the nations wealth, rather than a persons.

Fourth. Scots will still take pride on being to the left of the tories in the rUK.

Shuggy said...

Out of these I reckon four might have something in it but the rest I'm not too sure about.

On one, I just don't think the SNP are a leftwing party. I mentioned it only briefly but they haven't enacted one single redistributive policy in the last seven years. As it is their platform is for no change in income tax and cuts in corporation tax. The answer to the objection that people won't necessarily vote for them - maybe but I personally don't think they're going anywhere.

I'm not sure about the second point at all. Where does the US fit into this model, for example?

I'm not by any means an oil economist but my understanding is that its value is primarily about having an asset that would help secure a nation's credit worthiness. Energy production is a small portion of Scotland's GDP now. I have no idea how much of it is left but a country can't just pump it out and splash the prodeeds about. This is what economists refer to as 'Dutch disease', I believe.

But my over-riding concern is that an iScotland is going to have to adopt policies traditionally associated with the right from necessity, not choice. Cuts in corporation tax are pretty much inevitable, I'd have thought - as is converting Scotland's fiscal deficit into surpluses. I'm not arguing that this is unequivocally bad in itself. There is, for example, a fair bit of evidence that shows business passes on the cost of taxation onto their workers. It's just this isn't what people who are voting Yes think they are getting.

Laban said...

"Nearly half the population fear that greater immigration from Eastern Europe or by Muslims would pose a threat to national identity. One could only imagine what these percentages might be if we had immigration anything like on the scale of the south of England."

One traditional role of the Scottish politician has been to point and sputter at the dreadful racism of the English. As Churchill put it in the 1940s, "in countries where there is only one race, broad and lofty views are taken of the colour problem".

Over the period 1992-2001, net immigration to the UK totalled 875,000, while there was a net outflow of 41,000 people from Scotland. And although post-2005 I see a fair few Polish staff manning the hotels of Arran and Speyside, Edinburgh and Glasgow still seem to be Scottish cities, whereas London and Birmingham have ceased to be English.

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