The Cultural Case in Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues

We’re honoured to be able to publish an exclusive 1000 word extract from The Cultural Case in Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues by Stephen Maxwell – a book that he finished writing shortly before he died in April, at the age 69. 

The book examines the relationship between politics and culture and presents Scotland as a moral community unable to take full moral responsibility for itself because of its subordinate status within the UK.


Politics as Culture

In a democracy, politics provides society with the most accessible form of that dialogue with itself and the wider world which is the heart of a culture. A vigorous politics, intellectually and morally equipped to identify and analyse the key challenges of the present day and to develop feasible responses, is essential to a healthy culture.

Without independence, Scots cannot feel fully responsible for their own future and for what they can do for the world, for the simple reason that they are not fully responsible. By surrendering their right to decide such fundamental questions as the extent of inequality they accept in their society, or whether their land should be used as a base for weapons of mass destruction, or whether they should send fellow citizens to kill and be killed in military interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan, they are accepting a division between thought and action which weakens and corrupts Scotland’s public culture.

Unionists will respond that this argument is circular because the claim for these debilitating effects assumes that the sense of identity Scots apply to such fundamental questions is Scottish rather than British – when in fact the majority of Scots, while calling themselves more Scottish than British, appear content to contribute their opinions on such issues to a process of decision-taking at UK level rather than insist on decisions being taken in Scotland. Thus as far as high level political decisions are concerned, their moral community is the UK, not Scotland. And they can make a plausible appeal to the historical record. The greatest modern Scottish contributions to world culture – the Scottish Enlightenment of the first half of the 18th century and its Indian summer in the first half of the 19th century – happened under the Union.

But there are some critical qualifications to be entered. During those years of outstanding Scottish intellectual achievement between 1740 and 1850, Britain was the world’s most dynamic society and became the dominant world power. If the Scottish response to the stimulus this provided was particularly vigorous it was in part because Scotland was able to draw on the distinctive achievements of pre-Union Scotland, notably in education, a more democratic national church and a distinctive legal system whose autonomy was believed to be protected by the Union settlement.

The contrast with today is obvious. In its long decline from empire the UK has lost that general confidence in the superiority of its public institutions which was one of the sources of its intellectual energy, and London’s evident self-satisfaction with its role as a global city is no substitute. Meanwhile, the autonomy which Scotland’s institutions were promised by the Union proved a diminishing asset as their dominance in Scottish life was challenged by the growth of UK-wide institutions such as business corporations and trade unions, the central British state in its proliferating roles, and mass media increasingly directed from London. Where the Union was once experienced by many Scots as empowering and stimulating, as the 20th century progressed it began to be felt as constricting and debilitating.

Moral Autonomy

Despite their political loyalty to the Union, most Unionists agree that Scotland is a nation in some sense beyond the merely sentimental. Defining national identity has always been difficult and has become especially so in the multicultural societies of a globalising world. But one underrated dimension of the Scots’ complex sense of nationality is the idea of Scotland as a moral community. That sense of moral community is most widely attached to established Scottish myths of egalitarianism, or of Scotland as a more socially compassionate country than England, or of Scotland as less racially prejudiced and more welcoming to migrants and asylum seekers. The durability of such self-congratulatory representations may draw on a persisting belief with roots deep in Scotland’s history that Scotland constitutes an autonomous moral community with a capacity and a responsibility to determine its own stance on the most fundamental issues facing humankind. In this perspective Scotland is most identifiably ‘in character’ when debating the big moral issues of the day – the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly pronouncing on the ethics of markets, the Catholic bishops condemning weapons of mass destruction, the stuc demanding a Living Wage as part of a campaign against growing inequality, the voluntary sector rallying to Make Poverty History, the Scottish Parliament voting against the replacement of Trident and in support of Palestinian rights.

This sense of Scotland as an autonomous moral community was made unusually explicit in August 2009 when Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill used his discretionary power to release the convicted Lockerbie mass murderer Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi from his Scottish prison on compassionate grounds because of a diagnosis of terminal cancer. MacAskill justified his decision by insisting that it was consistent with the provisions of Scots law and its underpinning values.

Some people in Scotland, and many more in the UK and the US, disagreed with MacAskill’s decision, but few in Scotland questioned the decision with all its international ramifications being taken in Scotland. Margo MacDonald’s Assisted Dying (Scotland) Bill in the 2007 Scottish Parliament dealt with an equally fundamental and complex moral issue. Again, the proposition it promotes is controversial in Scotland as elsewhere, but no challenge has been raised on constitutional or other grounds to Scotland’s right to debate and determine the issue for itself.

In a submission to the Commission on Scottish Devolution, Professor John Haldane urged the Commissioners to give serious attention to the question of Scotland’s ‘moral autonomy’, describing it as ‘more fundamental and more extensive’ than the question of fiscal autonomy (Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2008). His particular focus was a clause in Westminster’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill giving the UK Health Minister wide discretion to permit radical departures from the specified powers without public consultation but he posed a wider question. ‘If education and social services are not reserved [to Westminster], why should broadcasting, abortion, human fertilisation and other matters bearing directly on moral values not also be devolved?’ Or, many would add, war and peace, social justice and the Scottish contribution to international development?

The Cultural Case
 in Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues is now available to purchase from Wordpower Books and Amazon.

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