Fear and Change in Scotland

“May no new things arise” – a Spanish blessing. “May you live in interesting times” – a Chinese curse. Notice something, something rather important? The Spanish blessing assumes that it is good to live in unchanging times, times of consistency. The Chinese curse actually assumes the same thing, or rather the obverse, that it is bad to live at a time when things are changing. Recent research reinforces ancient proverbs. People are nervous of change, they like stability and need a strong incentive to move them to support change. There is a similar effect in economics. People are more motivated by the thought of losing what they have than the thought of gaining something new. Does this matter? It does if you are campaigning to end the Treaty of Union and create an independent Scotland.

There are those of us who support independence, there are those of us who are firm admirers of the British Union, and there are those of use that have not quite decided yet. For the purpose of the independence campaign it is the latter group that matters. I will be voting independence. I will do so because I believe that that is the only way I can ever hope to see the kind of society I believe in exist in Scotland. But what of the undecided third, what will make them vote for independence? Well, given what I have written in the first paragraph, certain concepts can be excluded. Offering more of the same can be excluded. We are a safe pair of hands, we can run councils, we can run devolved Scottish Parliaments, this too can be excluded. The latter may encourage people to vote for the SNP in council and parliamentary elections, but not to vote for independence. If people are more frightened by what they might lose then more of the same offers no incentive to overcome that fear. To overcome the fear of change (a fear that exists to a greater or lesser degree in us all) undecided voters must be offered a vision that excites, exalts and encourages dreams of all that should be. Is this how the SNP is running its campaign? Is it offering a campaign that encourages people to dream of the kind of Scotland that we might build after independence?

But can the SNP survive a referendum defeat following an insipid campaign? If the referendum is lost and if a large section of the membership believe that we lost the referendum because we failed to push the policies of social change. what then for the SNP?

Gaurdian, 24 May 2012: “It [support for the monarchy] is less marked in Scotland – where 36 per cent say the country would be better off without the Windsors – but even there a solid 50 per cent feel the opposite way. Support is stronger among the older, and especially among Conservative voters, in whose ranks it reaches 82 per cent.” Only 50 per cent support the monarchy, with the greater proportion of that 50 per cent coming from the solid unionist camp (and that in a year of almost constant monarchist propaganda). That does not tell us that supporting a republic will damage an independence vote, though it might suggest that supporting a monarchy will do nothing to improve that vote. If fewer than 50 per cent of those who might support independence support a monarchy does it not make sense to debate the issue? The SNP leadership is distancing itself from the long-held policy to hold a referendum on the monarchy. By doing so they remove some incentive for any undecided republicans (no, not all republicans will vote for independence) to move to independence. More importantly, they also close down an avenue for debate. An independent Scotland may be a monarchy, it may be a republic. Heat and interest can be generated in that debate. If we want to excite people about independence we need to excite them about the possibilities. If we avoid the challenging debates then we will not generate that interest.

Never mind the nukes, feel the civilian casualties. In 2009 Colonel McNally released details of Afghan civilian deaths. He was promptly arrested. NATO does not want people to know precisely how many innocent people have been killed in the conflict, and even less do they want known how many civilians have been killed by NATO and their rather brutal allies. Three years later, in 2012, The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan reported the following “The ‘2012 Midyear Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’ states that during the first half of the year, conflict-related violence led to 1,145 civilian deaths and 1,954 injuries… UNAMA documented that pro-government forces were responsible for ten percent of the civilian casualties, down 25 per cent on the previous year… Despite these reductions, the use of airstrikes continues to cause more civilian casualties, particularly women and children, than any other tactic used by international military forces”. NATO forces have a long tradition of spreading havoc in the civilian population via airstrikes. In Bosnia and Serbia the civilian population is still suffering illness and death as a result of NATO’s use of depleted uranium weapons. In Fallujah an entire city of women have been told not to become pregnant – a direct result of NATO members using radioactive weapons within the city. It is difficult to find out how many died when NATO members launched their attacks on Libya. And none of this – none of it – is done for democracy, decency or morality. When Saudi tanks rolled into Bahrain there were no airstrikes, there are no airstrikes against the Afghan warlord allies of NATO (every bit as brutal as the Taliban), no airstrikes when Tawargha was ethnically cleansed by the new powers in Libya. (As a small aside I do object to nuclear weapons, a good reason to object to NATO membership, I simply do not think that it is the strongest reason to oppose membership.)

In the past the SNP opposed both the bombing in Bosnia and the Iraq war. The party has a strong record on opposing armed conflicts. Yet now, as we enter the independence referendum debate, the SNP appears to back off from its traditionally ethical view of armed intervention. What signal does this send potential independence supporters? Is joining NATO really the beacon of hope? The leadership argues that there are polls supporting NATO. There are no polls showing Scottish support for NATO in Afghanistan, there are no polls showing support for the (predominately NATO forces) war in Iraq, there are no polls showing support for nuclear weapons. Is not NATO the perfect ground on which to fight an independence campaign: “Do you like NATO? Do you like what they do?” Time to stop running scared of the debates and start fighting them.

Over the past thirty years the gap between the rich and the poor has grown. It did not matter whether there was a Labour government or a Tory government in Westminster, the gap grew. The effects of inequality (as against poverty) are well known and well researched. Oddly, I first came across material on the effects of inequality in New Scientist which has, over the years, reported a stream of research projects all showing the same results. A summary of the decades of research is brilliantly provided both in The Spirit Level and The Globalization of Addiction. There is no room for doubt; more equal societies are healthier (rich and poor), safer, and less stressful. There is equally no doubt that reducing inequality can only be done by tackling both ends of the spectrum, bringing up the bottom and bringing down the top. In the devolved parliament we lack many of the basic powers required to improve the conditions of those at the bottom, though the government’s introduction of the living wage, free education and enhanced benefit advice all help to raise the standard of living at the lower end, all help to reduce inequality. However, to reduce the upper end requires control over tax levels – we need redistributive taxation.

We also need to reverse the cuts to the HMRC brought in by Brown and Blair, and close the tax loopholes. Yet where is the independence debate on the £80-odd billion a year lost in tax evasion and tax avoidance? The UK is not poor. Scotland is not poor. It is not a question of poverty, it is a question of what we do with our wealth. Do we continue to allow it to be amassed by the few, or do we ensure a more even division? Is this question not fundamental to the kind of Scotland we want to see, does anybody really believe that fundamental reform will come through Westminster? Here is a central debate, here is the discussion to excite, to ignite. Will the CBI like it? Who cares – listen to Adam Smith (from Wealth of Nations): “but the mean rapacity, the monopolising spirit, of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be, the rulers of mankind, though it cannot, perhaps, be corrected, may very easily be prevented from disturbing the tranquillity of anybody but themselves.” Of course debating new tax laws will upset some, but the vision that can be offered in this debate is just that vision which will excite people to vote for independence.

What colour should be Scottish flag ? I vote for not deciding. Let us be the only people on earth who do not quite get round to deciding the exact colour of their flag. As for the anthem – ‘A man’s a man’? The only problem is that we do appear to have settled on a flag colour (Pantone something or other), so how about the tax rates, and tax evasion?

There seems to be an idea going round that we should have a big tent campaign, nobody should be left outside. But how do we excite people if we risk offending nobody? How do we present a vision of Scotland if the vision has to suite both the CBI and those who believe in a fair and just society? How do we persuade people that Scotland might take a different path internationally than to stay in NATO? How do we convince people that we have the courage for constitutional change but cannot have a referendum on the monarchy?

I believe in independence because I believe in social change. After 300 years of Unionist conservatism I see independence as the route to a radically restructured society. A society which does not engage in foreign oppression, which seeks to build equality, which protects public services, which realises that people do not serve economies but that economies serve people. This is a common theme for nationalist supporters of independence, be it Gandhi, Gervasio Artigas, or Rodriguez, the linking of social change to political change is a central theme of nationalist movements. There are great empires that no longer exist because the Gandhis and Bolivars dreamed of a better world. This theme is common among members of the SNP; independence frees the people of Scotland to build a better nation. In government, the SNP has shown itself to be committed to social reform, free prescriptions, free tertiary education, attempts to replace incarceration with more effective (and humane) punishments, ending PFI, keeping private money out the NHS. But what happens to the SNP if this social reform agenda is forgotten during the referendum campaign? Will there be a referendum on the monarchy? Inside or outside NATO? Will the railways be taken into full public ownership? Will there be redistributive taxation?

Following 1979 the party hit a low from which it took a long time to recover. But this is not 1979; devolution was not the raison d’être of the SNP. The stakes for the SNP are higher, far higher this time. If the referendum is won then all is rosy in the SNP garden. If the referendum is lost following a courageous campaign that excited talk in the cafes and bars about what Scotland might become then most activists will very likely be inspired to fight on. But can the SNP survive a referendum defeat following an insipid campaign? If the referendum is lost and if a large section of the membership believe that we lost the referendum because we failed to push the policies of social change, the policies that drew them to independence in the first place, what then for the SNP?