Sunday, April 26, 2015
English French German Spanish

Drop The Dead Shark! (August 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Scotland has a chance to join the small states that combine entrepreneurial flair with social-democratic responsibility.


Alex Salmond's white paper on Scotland's constitution starts with the drum-roll of Parnell's "No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation." My own preference would be Edmund Burke's "No reluctant tie can be a strong one." Or, with an eye on on the tabloids, Woody Allen deadpan: "A relationship is like a shark. It's got to keep on going forward. What we have is a dead shark."

It is still early days yet, but Mr Salmond's time in office, since the Scottish election of May 3, has been exhilarating. The sound of the people imagining and discussing their future is, in Seamus Heaney's words, "the music of things happening". Just when the golden coaches of the Brown economy turn back into pumpkins (reminding us that when Thatcher went, John Major was similarly popular) the Scottish conversation is likely to get more purposive.

Economics, not Braveheart emotion, has been Nationalism's doppelgänger. A self-governing Scotland has been on the programme since the SNP's forerunner, the National Party of Scotland was founded almost 80 years ago on June 23, 1928. This followed the attempts in 1926-8 of the Labour MP, the Rev James Barr, to pass a bill giving Scotland the same "dominion" status as the Irish Free State: a response to Scotland's war effort in 1914-18 - and its aftermath. The conversion of the Clyde to armaments production probably saved the Allies in the crisis year of 1917, but was succeeded after 1921 by a slump - 20% unemployment, 10% emigration - which all the power of imperial Britain could not mitigate.

We stand at a similar moment, as the financial might of the United Kingdom of London reveals itself as an overblown property-retail-speculation bubble. As Instruction to Deliver, by New Labour's progress-chaser Michael Barber reveals, Tony Blair regarded "all this devolution stuff" as a totally alien implant in his ultra-centralist régime. He was quite right.

The story since May - the end of unionist government, the Scottish Parliament getting into its stride - has made the Scots begin to see what's possible. No-one is content with the status quo (Gordon Brown, who kept on saying he was, has changed his mind). The Scottish Government wants to lead this conversation, because it believes that independence, followed by free agreement with our neighbours, offers the best means of reversing years of relative decline, enabling our country to play a demanding role in a troubled world.

What Salmond has done in the white paper is to present and analyse the options before the Scots. He has set his competitors' projects, Gordon Brown's "reformed union" and the Liberal Democrats' federalism, in the flow of events as well as in their economic and social context. As you would expect, he finds them wanting.

Brown's "British" themes have positive elements: any attempt to get beyond the cabals and hype of New Labour's centralising excess can only be an improvement. But it's at best an attempt to stabilise London, its dynamic inequality and exploitation of a servitor underclass, alienated and resentful. This is miles away from the Scottish democratic tradition, and from responsibilities which lie immediately to hand ... and the miles increase as Brown's disastrous transport policies take their toll.

The Liberal Democrats' federalism is at least "grass-rooted" in its schemes for fiscal autonomy and symmetrical regionalism. But as the failure to start regional assemblies in England in 2004 showed, the road is too long and winding. In my Labour Party days I published a Fabian Tract Number 484: Against Metropolis (1983) proposing a German-style federation for the UK. It got nowhere, because no-one was interested. We can't hang about and wait for Mercia or Wessex to evolve, or quickly create the complex intergovernmental organisations of German "co-operative federalism" because we're not an ethnic or cultural unity, but different national communities, sharing two islands.

So options which may appear to be "moderate", turn out to be both complex and impossible for us as citizens to control. We in the SNP believe it's better - for everyone concerned - to nerve ourselves for the challenges and chances of self-government, for the following reasons:

One: Scotland has a window of opportunity to use the remaining North Sea oil revenues, increasing through the approach of Peak Oil, to bankroll the investment needed to recreate ourselves as the renewable energy dynamo of Europe. At a forecast stabilisation price of $182 a barrel, the success of this, to a great extent, means tethering a Scottish petro-pound by investing in England.

Two: We are a high-maintenance society which has taken a battering from globalised capital and its indifference to human outcomes, and from bureaucracies and interest groups for whom power and patronage has been more important than democratic reform. There is much latent or misapplied wealth that can sort this out, and if we allocate it rationally, this can pay a powerful social dividend.

Three: We have better ways of making ourselves useful as world citizens than by fighting for US-UK imperial ventures, from Halliburton to Qinetiq, and housing a new generation of expensive, useless, and dangerous Trident submarines.

Four: Scotland has an ideal of the democratic intellect which is dynamic, civic and integrative. This can be used to reverse the tendency towards the unequal, ageing and inward-looking parochialism that marks British metropolitan culture, and the decline of its institutions into manipulative hype. A very dead shark indeed.

Five: Scottish constitutional ideas have a vision of the free co-operation of the nations of these islands which can reinvigorate our international links and responsibilities, in the European Union and importantly in the Commonwealth. The latter is an Anglophone, multiracial international still remote from Wall Street and the White House: an alternative future to Ben Barber's deadly duo of McWorld and Jihad. This will multiply, not restrict, the synergy of the British Islands.

Enthusiasm for Scottish independence has fluctuated. Though on balance it has been increasing, it has sounded from time to time like William Dunbar's famous Lament:

The state of man does change and vary
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
Now dansand merry, now like to die:
Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Global warming gives that last line a grim reality, but being in government has shown the SNP the power and manoeuvrability of Burke's "little platoons": the small states which combine entrepreneurial flair with social-democratic responsibility: rather different from a UK in which inequality has massively increased.

The point about the "national conversation" followed by a referendum that Alex Salmond proposes, is that it focuses argument on what's practical for the country as an international actor, then obtains consent through consultation.

The Scottish government can then go forward, without always having to look over its shoulder to see if the voters, are still with it. It has put its case and proved its competence. It is for them to decide. Which is what democratic nationality is all about.

Home > Comment > Drop The Dead Shark! (August 2007)