DUNCAN MACLAREN. Scottish Independence: a new start with a fresh vision

Dec 29, 2019

I am currently visiting friends and former colleagues from Australian Catholic University in Australia, having cast my postal vote for the SNP before leaving Scotland. Since then, two excellent articles by George Monbiot and John Carlin have been published in Pearls and Irritations on the disastrous General Election result in England which has given Boris Johnson, branded as a liar, narcissist and racist by those close to him, an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons.

Both George and John (by the way, John, Scottish National Party, i.e. party of a nation, not the ideologically-tainted Scottish Nationalist Party) recognise Scotland took a very different path and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is now seeking a second independence referendum so that Scotland can return to the European Union which it voted 62% to remain a part of. Why do the Scots want independence and what might it look like?

See below an article written in Australia before I returned to Scotland for the 2014 referendum illustrating the reasons, published in September 2013 in Open House, a Scottish magazine with a faith and current affairs mix similar in spirit to Pearls and Irritations. Its content is still relevant.

September 2013.

When I was a teenager in Clydebank, the Heath Government, one of the many British governments rejected by the Scottish people in the post-war era, closed John Brown’s shipyard, devastating the lives of thousands of families and extinguishing all hope of a job, a decent living and a future in their own country. Some insist that the level of deprivation in the Glasgow area even now dates back to this time and was added to by Mrs Thatcher’s Schumpeterian economic experiments later. Outside the shipyard gates, I remember two billboards being erected. One said ‘Emigrate to Australia’ and the other said ‘Join the British Army’ which meant in sectarian-wracked Clydebank being sent to quell the troubles in Northern Ireland – either an act of sheer imbecility or of cruelty on the part of an uncaring and ignorant Government.

My uncle and aunt with their five children took the advice to emigrate and decamped to a shipyard town not in Australia but California. Other Bankies followed the advice of the other billboard and joined the British army with their deeply-ingrained Orange prejudices intact. The Clydebank Press reported how one youngster who had joined up was dragged through the streets of Belfast by a fast IRA car after he had shot a Catholic. There wasn’t much left of him to bury.

Those two billboards and the hapless misery they represent are silent witnesses to the reasons why Scotland should leave a Union that is well past its sell-by date and join the world as an independent nation, adding its identity as a society with a tradition of the democratic intellect allied to a belief in social justice to the creative nations of the world.

I was brought up in a family which felt Scottish, not British. My Communist maternal grandfather, a caulker in John Brown’s shipyard, with my father, a printer, father of his trade union chapel and a member of the Labour Party, stood in the tradition of John MacLean, David Kirkwood and James Maxton. It was a social justice tradition which had its roots in Scotland but looked out to a world they wanted to free and not to an elitist, dying Empire which some sought to maintain. On the cultural side, my paternal grandfather, from a Gaelic-speaking Perthshire background, lamented the loss of our language and encouraged me to learn it. My maternal grandmother came from rural Aberdeenshire and spoke the Doric but told me to speak ‘proper English’ whenever I said “Aye”, the result of a couple of centuries of a culture being undermined through derision. My mother was the most articulate of all in the debate about Scotland’s right to self-determination but it was Winnie Ewing’s Hamilton 1967 victory which gave them all the confidence to translate their identification as Scots into support for independence based on a deep distrust of the British state and a desire for a more democratic and authentic Scotland. Our identity was never something that excluded which now British identity seeks to do but was always understood as inclusive. I inherited that legacy with my mother’s milk and to this day remain bemused by the Scots’ defence of a Union that had an ignoble genesis and a pretty shameful recent past.

Teaching development studies to my Burmese and Australian students, they are aware that many of the world’s woes, from ethnic and religious conflict in Nigeria to the current wounds in the Middle East, are rooted in British Imperial incompetence and an overbearing sense of racial and moral superiority. My Karen students will never forget the reneging by the British of the promise of ensuring their autonomy in an independent Burma after giving their lives in the struggle against the Japanese in the Second World War. That betrayal led to the longest-running civil war in the world between the Burmese junta and the Karen people. In more recent times, we have experienced the lies of the Blair government that resulted in an illegal invasion of Iraq that has killed a million of its own people and unleashed bloody, sectarian chaos. Now, we have the rise of the UKIP which wants to cut us off from Europe and Boris Johnston, maverick mayor of London and would-be Tory leader, telling the EU to “stuff it” if they don’t like the result of the upcoming EU referendum. While Scots may have colluded in imperial adventure, do we really identify with the rhetoric of such “leaders” if the Union groans on?

Those against Scotland having an independent future say it will lead to the break-up of the UK. Well, there is not that much left to break up. Most domestic legislation is dealt with by Edinburgh. Brussels is more important than Westminster for defence, foreign, social policy and matters such as agriculture and fisheries in a forum where small countries are recognised as serious, cerebral contributors. Denmark, similar in population size to Scotland, used its Presidency of the European Council to lead reform in the Common Fisheries Policy. As Alex Salmond [then First Minister] has said, “The EU is an organisation where negotiation trumps ultimatum; where the strength of your ideas can matter more than the size of your population”. Yet Scotland is excluded from raising its voice not only on EU or foreign affairs but macro-economic policy, taxation, trade and defence.

Human Dignity and the Common Good

For me, the central point of the pro-independence campaign is not economics or even culture but human dignity and the exercising of the common good. Dignity will flow from being able as an independent country to contribute as equals and make budgetary priorities which dovetail with Scottish and global needs and which will establish both the kind of society we believe in for ourselves and a just global society of which we will form an integral part. Everything else flows from these two central principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

Scots in their DNA believe in a communitarian society where decent public education is preferred over private, where there is nigh-unanimous support for the NHS, where a healthy civil society holds Parliament to account and where jobs are not cut through adherence to an economic experiment regardless of the consequences on the lives of human beings as happened under Thatcher. The SNP Government has restored some of the self-confidence of the Scots by showing how the country could be run efficiently, combining effective economic management with social justice and legislating for an inclusive, progressive society. We need this in all aspects of government not just in those areas devolved to us in an Act of the British Parliament.

At the local English council elections in May this year [2013], Labour gained 29% of the vote, Conservatives 25% and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) 23%. Known for their insults against “these foreigners” in the European Parliament, the UKIP has gone from being a laughing stock to a serious political force in England whereas in Scotland they managed less than 1% in the Holyrood elections of 2010 and have never retained a deposit. In addition to taking the UK out of the EU (and Scotland with it even if it votes for staying in the EU), their policies include curbs on immigration, the shrinking of the state, vouchers for state or private education, the scrapping of investment in renewable energy (yes, they are climate sceptics) and they may reduce the powers of the Scotland Act if the Scots get too uppity. The UKIP’s electoral clout is forcing David Cameron’s hand and he has now declared a referendum on EU membership for 2017.

The election of a UKIP-cloned Tory British Government could not only rescind the Act but lead our society down a path we have rejected so many times before. If there is an economic risk to independence (and remember it was revealed in 2005 and 2006 that the Scottish Office and Whitehall had accepted the SNP’s economic analysis), there is no guarantee that there would not be economic meltdown if we remained in a Union which was cripplingly insular and anti-European.

Scotland needs to continue the good governance started in an SNP-led Scottish Parliament by aiming for the amount of independence it is possible to have in the globalised world of today. That means taking on responsibility not only of for our own welfare but militating against what Pope Francis has called “globalised indifference” for the sufferings of others. Our main obstacle to this challenge for a fresh start is the Scottish cringe, that fear of responsibility and the abiding colonial thought we are not really capable, currently being manipulated by a Machiavellian British state.

A Fresh Vision

In the post-colonial era, it is given to few nations, especially one as ancient as ours, to be allowed a root and branch rejuvenation rather than just a change of government. This is what a yes vote in the independence referendum in September 2014 will usher in. It will be the catalyst that will delink us from a servile past and blaming the English for Scottish faults (or, if you believe the Unionist rhetoric, end the dependency of Scotland on our neighbours). It will unleash new ideas in entrepreneurship to provide jobs in new and relevant industries based on our skills, talent, environment, water resources and strategic position in Europe. It will enable us to continue to explore what has been called ‘deliberative democracy’, one which is more than voting but engaging the populace much more directly in the political process so that decisions are as participatory as possible and rational and more legitimate decision-making results. It will mean starting innovative partnerships in everything from cultural exchange to trading links with our many friends around the world and dealing directly with the new economic giants of our era and the smaller “economic supermodels”, in The Economist’s parlance, the Nordic nations, that consistently top the UN’s Human Development Index.

It will mean the removal of nuclear weapons which had been placed heartlessly by Westminster within 25 miles of our largest city. It will give us the means to tackle the enduring legacy of an endemic poverty that has stunted generations of our people. It will mean showing hospitality to refugees whom we need to achieve sustainable economic growth in a society with an ageing population. It will mean a vote for inter-generational justice where, following Norway’s example, we would set up a fund from the remaining oil and other resource wealth to provide opportunities for future generations and not just spend it on our generation. It will mean active participation in the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the European Union not just for those issues which concern our particular economy and society but for those which contribute to the wider debate on ridding the world of dehumanising poverty, working for peace in countries wracked by conflict and bringing Scotland’s tradition of the democratic intellect to bear on global problems.

Within my lifetime, great swathes of Africa, Asia, Oceania and Eastern Europe have become independent. From tiny Kosovo to dirt-poor South Sudan, their people have chosen in referenda to take the step the Scots will be asked to take next year. And if you ask the people of any of these countries whether they would like to return to being part of a greater whole, the unequivocal answer from the majority is ‘no’ because, beyond all economic benefit, what has been restored to them is their dignity as a people, able to use their resources for their own priorities, to fit their decisions to their own needs and to contribute as free agents to a better world.

The late, great Seamus Heaney wrote in his ‘The Cure of Troy’ after Sophocles,

History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

Next September [2014] is the Scots’ chance of making the hope of a more socially just, poverty-free and internationally-engaged Scotland rhyme with its democratic and intellectual history and its future as a state representing social justice, good governance and acceptance of ‘the other’. It has to be grasped with passion.

Dr Duncan MacLaren is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University where he taught International Development Studies and Catholic Social Ethics and writes in a personal capacity, mostly from Glasgow.

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