Scotland decides - The Possible Diminution of Greater Greater Brockley (Part 2)

In Part 1, we covered the costs of independence - now on to the stuff that really matters. Or at least, to the possible benefits against which, the costs need to be weighed.

When the status quo is being one of the most prosperous, stable and powerful countries in the world, the onus is on supporters of independence to make their case. So what does that case rest on?

Firstly, identity. 

Any visit to Scotland leaves you in no doubt - Scotland is a different country. Its culture, lifestyle and iconography are distinct from any other part of the UK, while its institutions, its legal system, education system and media means that things work differently. Britain can be accused of many crimes, but suppressing Scottish identity ain't one of them. Culturally, Scots punch above their weight within Britain and use the British stage to good effect to project international influence. That was, after all, the point of the Union in the first place.

Scotland has the scale, the infrastructure and the resources to function as an independent country. To pretend otherwise is stupid. Scotland can be an independent country. For some people, that's enough. If it can be, it should be.

Personally, I like living in a big, diverse country. I like the fact that the British Olympic Opening Ceremony took hours to tell our country's story and only just scratched the surface. By contrast, I found the Commonwealth Games's reductionist equivalent thoroughly depressing ("We've bagpipes and there's castles, there's monsters in our lochs"). Who wants to live in a place that can be summarised so neatly and tidily? We see the desire to carve areas up into ever smaller pieces in some of the debates about Brockley. Some people want to define themselves by the station they can most easily walk to. I prefer to live in Greater Brockley and I prefer, on balance, to live in Great Britain - to share my home with peoples of all kinds. I like the argument and friction that comes from living alongside people of different political hues and I can't abide an echo-chamber.

This is of course a matter of personal taste. Many people want the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a more coherent tribe. That instinct is totally understandable, but it's called nationalism - “a proxy” for an answer to “alienating, dislocating industrial, economic and social change” as Gordon Brown argues.

Nationalism embarrasses many Yes supporters and instead, independence campaigners protest that their's is a very different argument, about nobler, more enlightened principles. So let's examine those arguments, without which, the independence movement would remain a minority passion...


Who knows how to govern Scotland than the Scottish people themselves? There are strong arguments for local democratic decision-making and there is no doubt that central government in a large country becomes detached from the communities it is meant to serve. There is such a thing as a Westminster bubble of unreality. The Washington DC bubble is even bigger. The Edinburgh bubble would be smaller. Some better decisions would be made.

But it is clearly untrue that local decision making always delivers better outcomes. Who knows how to govern Birmingham's schools better than the people of Birmingham themselves? Who knows how to protect the children of Rochdale better than the people of Rochdale themselves? London wasn't better off when the Councils all developed policy locally - we had to introduce a mayoral system, because sometimes we get better policy outcomes when we centralise decision making.

If Scotland joins Nato, the EU and other supra-national bodies, it will surrender some of its decision-making powers in exchange for the advantages that come with pooling resources, expertise and responsibility. So why not do the same with the UK, and argue for a greater level of devolution than Scotland already possesses? If greater local democratic control's what you want, the last two decades have shown that progress is achievable within the UK system, without the costs of independence.

But if you believe that Britain's entire political system is fundamentally broken - that only separation can deliver true reform and a purer form of politics, then independence makes sense. A smaller country might have an elected second chamber and a written constitution, but there is no particular reason to think it would deliver a less corrupt government and it would be more vulnerable to pressure from outside interests. The nation state is the best defence against global market forces.

The desire to rip it up and start again seems to have less to do with a new-found passion for constitutional reform (Scotland voted no to AV) than it does to do with a decline in trust in traditional sources of authority - they're all bastards. The trouble is, this isn't unique to Britain, it's a global cultural shift that affects every western democracy and every walk of life. The UK system has its problems, but it is hard to find anywhere around the world that's any better and there are plenty of places that do it much worse. So sure, start again, but get ready to hate the new lot just as much.

But the argument that seems to have done most to fire the independence movement is the desire to be rid of the Tories for good. Politics is tribal and the Tories are an eminently dislikeable bunch, so it's fun to imagine a world without them. But when we've not had a Tory government since 1997 and they look set to lose the next election, it's odd to talk of there being no escape without independence. Scotland got the government it voted for in three of the last 4 elections and it gets the national government it votes for every time (the rest of us don't have that luxury). Leaving because you didn't get exactly the government you want every time is a thoroughly anti-democratic instinct.

Hang on though, that's not what the Yes camp are saying. They're saying that the political landscape in the rest of the UK is so right wing by comparison, that even when the pendulum swings back their way, they don't get a real progressive alternative, just more of the same, in red. It's this difference in values then, which is the crux of the issue. How can two peoples who see the world so thoroughly differently share a government? The centre cannot hold.

Which brings us on to the next part.


Scotland is different. More welcoming to immigration (because it doesn't have immigrants), more redistributive (thanks to the Barnett Formula) and more tolerant (as we have seen these last few weeks). They are pro-European, where little Englanders are hostile.

But the data doesn't back this self-mythologising up. As The FT's John McDermott writes:

"Polls show that Scots have similar views to the rest of the UK when it comes to welfare, immigration, benefits, unemployment and public spending. Summarising the data from social attitudes surveys, Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University writes: “These differences, though generally placing Scotland to the left of England, are not so huge as to signal a fundamental gulf of social values.” Although Scots rightly look enviously at Norway’s oil fund, as a whole they do not seem to want to be outside the EU paying high taxes, as in Oslo.

Policies pursued by the Scottish Parliament have not been coloured by left wing principles - favouring middle class benefits over serious intervention to tackle Scottish poverty.

In this context, the "values" argument looks like another attack on the "other". "Westminster". "The City." "London". "The South East". "The English". They're all versions of the same thing. Those guys are not like us, they don't understand our way of life. They are bad and we are good. We are a rainbow coalition, while they vote UKIP. The bitter irony is that this is the same, beguiling, narrative peddled by UKIP to the disenfranchised English about another great other: "Brussels." Both UKIP and Scots Nats deny that they are insular - UKIP want new links with the Commonwealth, while Scots Nats pine for their Nordic brothers and sisters. They both want the freedom to reach out in to the world - they just have to get rid of those bastards down the road first. It's the same story because it's pushing the same button - nationalism.

There is one more argument though, which can't be reduced to nationalism. The most interesting issue and the least discussed...


Oh, the economy has been discussed all right. In excruciating detail. But mostly in relation to the costs of independence, whether Scotland gets the oil and whether Salmond has a Plan B (when your plan A is basically to be Greece to the UK's Germany, that's a fair question).

But the actual question of what Scotland could do with its new found powers rarely goes beyond the platitudinous: Is it going to be the renewable Saudi Arabia or ruthlessly drain every drop of oil? Redistributive or a tax-haven? Cock a snook at the global economic system or play the game better than dopey old Britain? The Yes movement is happy to be all of these things, because it needs to keep a lot of very different interests in the same big tent.

My own view is that Scotland might be re-energised by independence. It probably can attract back as many ex-pats inspired by the idea of a new Scotland as it loses as people move south in search of new jobs. It could build on its existing strengths in life sciences, cleantech, tourism and food. The retreat of the UK's public sector from its shores might reduce crowding out of private enterprise and the tough choices forced upon it by austerity might create a healthier long-term picture for its finances. A national government might be able to marshall a small country's resources more effectively - delivering education, immigration, trade and infrastructure investment policies that suit it best. If it does pull off this invigorating trick, it will be by adopting policies that many Yes supporters effect to despise. And it will probably take more forelock tugging to the likes of Donald Trump.

But, wandering the streets of Ibrox, it's clear that modern Scotland is not the best of all possible worlds. Scotland could do better. It might not. Long term gain is possible. Short term pain is guaranteed. It is the great hypothetical question on which the rational case for independence hinges. It would be undeniably fascinating to find out what would happen both to Scotland and to the rest of us.

In Part 3, I'll have a go at predicting the outcome.