National Collective’s weekly editorial will be published every Sunday.
Independence is stuck in the mud. The polls are currently sliding in the wrong direction, the Yes Scotland campaign has been burdened with a disappointing launch and a spot of minor cyber-controversy, and those who see the UK as better together are growing in confidence. The efforts of the pro-union campaign so far have been repeatedly panned by gleeful nationalists, but unfairly so. They’ve played to their opponents’ weaknesses, highlighting minor inconsistencies in the arguments of the Yes campaign and using those to imply that the entire idea is fundamentally flawed. They have preyed on the economic insecurities of the Scottish public, exploiting the currency issue at a time when people are all too familiar with the dangers of a malfunctioning monetary system.
The idea that the SNP are still framing the debate on their terms is losing credibility. The big, exciting ideas about independence are being sidelined by depressing statistical pedantry and questions of legality. Anti-independence campaigners know that if the idea of independence stays within the stale world of partisan political nitpicking, the uninspiring but safe status quo will triumph. They know, too, that if the debate is engaging and constructive, Scots will be tempted by the opportunity to put their newfound dynamism into practice with the creation of a new, independent state.
The SNP, in their scramble to answer questions over currency, NATO and the monarchy, have illustrated a vision for independence that currently lacks any kind of transformational potency. It’s easy to make the case that the SNP will not necessarily be in charge after independence – so does their vision matter? Yes, and to a greater extent than many on the Left like to admit. They will be the government that conducts post-referendum negotiations, and will have the strongest claim to overseeing the formation of a new state. That process of national creation is an enormous opportunity, and must not be sacrificed at an altar of caution that has claimed the lives of countless radical ideas.
During the 1960s, the USSR and its imitators behind the iron curtain began describing their economic and political systems as ‘Really Existing Socialism’. In his epic history of the 20th century The Age Of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm defines this as ‘an ambiguous term which implied or suggested that there might be other or better kinds of socialism, but in practice this was the only kind actually functioning’. The term took on a sad, wilting irony as the oppressive, dysfunctional and disempowering nature of those regimes became clear; Communism’s utopian dream had failed.
A similar journey – from audacity to paucity of hope – can be seen in the ascendancy of the SNP’s modern-day leadership. The flowering careers of Salmond and his cabinet colleagues took many of them from the republican socialist ideals of the ’79 Group to their present-day position as arch-‘modernisers’, masterfully explained in Ben Jackson’s Renewal essay ‘The Moderniser: Alex Salmond’s Journey’. The independence issue was neutered by the promise of a referendum to make room for more populist policies, but the continuing lack of public support for the party’s central goal has led to that too receiving the ‘modernisation’ treatment.
Keir Hardie’s ‘home rule’ has been yanked from its roots in radical democratic socialism and planted in a shiny new pot of composted neoliberal ‘social unionism’. The monarchy, defence, sterling and tax cuts for big businesses have obscured the issues of equality, political reform and localism in an attempt to appease lingering affections for UK institutions. Polls stay the same, and show no indication of shifting. We are being offered ‘Really Existing Independence’, where any hope of radical change is consigned to the fringes. Which leaves many pro-independence and open-minded voters asking: what’s the point?
With the launch of the pro-union campaign tomorrow, support for independence will not grow without a new way of looking at what Scotland can achieve with a Yes vote. ‘Pragmatism’ and small-c conservatism cannot inspire; ambition and a vision for radical change can win. It’s time to change the debate.