Finding a new ‘third way’ between independence and unionism

Neil Findlay lays out the case for a third option in any future referendum.

Tony Benn famously set out five questions of democracy and urged all of us to ask them of those in power: What power have you got; where did you get it from; in whose interests do you use it; to whom are you accountable; and, how do we get rid of you? I have used them to ask people to consider four fundamental questions on the future of Scotland: What type of country do we want to create; what powers do we need to create it; where should those powers lie; and how do we deliver them?

If we survey the political and constitutional landscape of Britain, we see a shambolic, hotchpotch of district councils, parish councils, unitary authorities, boroughs national and London assemblies, parliaments, metro mayors, police and crime commissioners, the Lords, the Commons and god knows what else. The COVID crisis has exposed the often competing and incoherent ways in which these different bodies and their political leadership works. Who can forget the incredulity on the face of the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, as he gave a press conference about negotiations with the Government on lockdown support for his region only for an aide to show him a mobile phone message of what the Government was going to impose on the region he is supposed to be accountable for.

COVID and Brexit have exposed the crisis in our local democracy and decision making. There is a palpable feeling across the country that decisions must be made more local and more accountable. Our towns and cities, regions and nations have their own distinct regional and cultural identity. Regional foods, accents, words, customs, art, humour and music are what makes our local communities unique, lively and vibrant. We are rightly proud and protective of them. We have connections with and affections for the history, the landscape and the idiosyncrasies of them. In so many ways, they survive in spite of the system not because of it. It is only because of human resilience, a driving sense of injustice and the organisational abilities and determination of different communities of people that the grotesque failings of capitalism are resisted and at times rebuffed and our identity protected from bland homogeneity.

This brings me my answer to my first question. COVID has brutally exposed the failings of the neo-liberal system. Across the world even the most right-wing governments have been forced to accept that market economics could not answer the biggest question posed since WW2. What would have happened if there had been no state intervention to try to defeat COVID? Unemployment would be into the tens of millions, families would have been left literally starving and destitute, businesses would have closed in every sector, workers would have been left unpaid and, in such circumstances, there would have been a serious threat to the complete breakdown of society and law and order as desperate, abandoned people tried to survive.

Government was forced to adopt policies that run completely contrary to the philosophy. Massive state intervention shored up the economy, paid wages to workers to stay at home, sector after sector had tax payers’ money pumped into it where previously they would be left to go under. Projects were funded to feed the hungry, computers bought to help home educate children and subsidies paid to transport operators running empty buses and trains. In short, the government resorted to a socialist, interventionist approach to deal with the crisis. This, therefore, begs the question if we can adopt a more socialist, caring, compassionate and inclusive society where the state steps in to support those in real need at a time of crisis, why can’t we do this in normal times to create the better society?

I want to see a society of full employment, where no one goes hungry, and every child has the same opportunity to learn and flourish, where public services are funded and supported to meet community needs and where we protect our environment for future generations. One where political power and decision making are returned to local communities with councils re-empowered and funded and no longer seen as just an administrative layer to take the blame for cuts handed down from above. I want a planned, regulated economy where human endeavour is applied to meet society’s needs not to pursue the ‘holy grail’ of wealth accumulation.

What powers do we need to create it and at which level should these powers lie? The basic principle on which I would answer this is based on this belief – that all powers be devolved to the lowest possible level unless there is a logical and overwhelming reason not to do so.

Let’s take two examples. First, drugs. To our national shame, Scotland has the worst rate of drug deaths in the developed world. It is, therefore, logical that all policy headings related to drugs be fully devolved to Scotland to address the crisis here. Why would we not do this? Scotland, Wales, Merseyside and every other English region should equally be able to develop policies to meet their local needs, pressures and circumstances. We can then hold government and public bodies to account for their decision making and measure the success or failure of policy without them having anyone else to point the finger at.

Let’s look at another area: the border. We live on a small island nation with a well-developed internal trading market with free movement of goods and people within our borders. No one with any sense is arguing that this should end but we need to ensure that we maintain and develop the highest possible standards in areas such as food production, employment rights, consumer protection and environmental standards. So, I would argue that it makes no sense to erect internal borders between the regions and nations of this island and that control of the border remains reserved at a UK level but we have the flexibility necessary to meet our own specific national and regional needs including immigration.

These are just two examples but if we systematically work through all powers then we can see the natural level of government for each power to rest. There will be debates and disagreement about where a minority of powers should lie, these can be resolved through negotiation.

Finally, how do we deliver these powers? I have long argued that we need a third option in any future constitutional referendum – one that is neither the status quo nor independence. That option should be based on the maximum practical and beneficial devolution of powers to the most appropriate level, subsidiarity, as it used to be called. This option isn’t a cop out or fudge. It is the most logical, practical and beneficial proposal for Scotland’ long term economic, social and political well-being, with the potential to transform our country.

Some argue a multi-option referendum is impracticable and is just a ruse to prevent independence and others argue that it is a cop out to nationalism and would divide the anti-independence vote. It is neither. I would not be associated with it if it were. Professor James Mitchell explains in the Red Paper on Scotland (January 2021) exactly how multi-option referenda have been used across the world on over one hundred occasions and how it could work in the Scottish context.

Having answered my four questions, I hope readers will see that whether they are supporters of independence or Devo-Max that there is much more that unites us than divides us. We can build on that by coalescing around a campaign for a multi-option referendum. In the 1990s, some nationalists and socialists were are able to set aside their differences and come together in the ‘Scotland United’ campaign for a multi-option referendum. It is my belief that this is what is required now. It needs us to set aside tired hostilities and put down the boulders we have been lobbing at each other for decades and work on a set of common principles that build unity around that call. It is clear that Boris Johnson has no intention of conceding a referendum to the SNP and that it has no credible plan B. However, faced with a cross-party, united call for a multi-option referendum, Johnson would be in a much more difficult position. My final question is whether our leaders will rise to the occasion or retreat into the trenches and reach for more boulders.

Neil Findlay is a Labour list MSP for the Lothians. This is a slightly abridged version of Neil’s contribution to the Red Paper (January 2021).