This is a dangerous thing to say given how many staunchly unionist Scots I know, but I feel a certain affinity with Alex Salmond’s SNP. We’re both (sort of) children of the 1980s. Yes, technically the SNP has been around since 1934 and sent its first MP to Westminster in 1967. But really today’s SNP began to coalesce just around the time I was born (1989), largely in response to the perceived callousness of Thatcher’s Tories towards UK citizens north of the border and the inadequacy of the Labour Party’s opposition. And the following year, just as Mrs Thatcher was on her way out of Downing Street, a certain firebrand left-wing economist took over the leadership of the SNP for the first time (and I celebrated my first birthday).
Today, almost 25 years on, the SNP and I share a common goal: that 2014 be the year of independence. In my case, independence means, first and foremost, a place of my own. Like so many of my generation, I’ve spent the last two years since graduating living back in my family home. I can’t complain. I pay below market-rate rent to live in a nice house in a nice part of London, where I get frequent home-cooked meals provided for me and, more often than I care to admit, my laundry done for me. Yet, like the SNP, I have an overwhelming urge to bite the hand that feeds me (or cut the apron strings, or whatever the most appropriate idiom is).
Alex Salmond disputes these figures, but according to Simon Jenkins in The Guardian this week, the UK government currently subsidises the Scots by some £1,000 per head more than the English. And the generally reliable Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that an independent Scotland may need to raise taxes by as much as 9% just to continue as they are (not to mention paying for all the gimmicky give-aways Salmond announced in his 667-page white paper on ‘Scotland’s Future’ this week).
So it’s safe to say that neither I, nor the SNP, will be better off financially if we get what we want. In fact, we will both be quite considerably worse off. At best, we’ll scrape by, having to tighten our belt here and there and accept the odd implicit subsidy from the very authority we’re currently so desperate to be independent of. At worst, we’ll be begging them to take us back in a year or two. So why on earth does this vision of the future still appeal?
The answer has everything to do with pride and identity (and, as hopefully is clear by now, absolutely nothing to do with economic rationalism). The trouble is that the extent to which pride and identity are good things is different for individuals and nations. For an individual, crafting your own identity is a basic aspect of growing up and so long as it doesn’t spill over into narcissism or egotistical behaviour, everyone should be proud of who they are. What’s more, financial autonomy is universally regarded as a laudable aim – just look at how we sneer at and resent people who depend on welfare.
The politics of pride and identity is more morally ambiguous though. It’s a Goldilocks situation – too much of it and you end up a Nazi, too little and you end up undermining democratic politics by so weakening the ties that bind us together in any kind of common life and endeavour. How do we decide then whether Salmond’s nationalist politics are too much or just right?
The truth is, there is nothing inherently right or wrong about Scottish (or any other) nationalism (with a small n). Ultimately, the measure of any politician or political party is what they do not what they say. Nationalism is one of the most common strands of political rhetoric the world over and is almost completely malleable to fit different political programmes – both good and bad. It’s what unites the political rhetoric of Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr – they both tapped into strong underlying nationalist traditions, one to promote the most evil outcomes imaginable, the other to fight for social justice and racial equality.
So the salient question remains whether independence from the UK is a good idea for Scotland or not.
Despite my sympathies for elements of the SNP’s old-fashioned social democratic agenda, my hunch is that on balance Scottish independence is a red herring, a distraction from the debates we really should be having across the UK. Will it make Scotland better off economically? Pretty emphatically the answer to that seems to be no. Will it help to foster a positive sense of national identity and cohesion amongst the Scots? My view (admittedly based entirely on anecdotal evidence and personal experience) is that the Scots are generally not lacking in national pride and the more effective way to boost Scotland’s sense of self-esteem would be to focus on transforming the fortunes of the Scottish rugby team.
As so often when the word independence is bandied about in modern politics, it’s an irrelevant answer to a question nobody posed in the first place. When we look at history, we tend to see the people who fought for independence, often against the yoke of imperialism, as the good guys. But that has everything to do with the fact that the regimes they were fighting against were unrepresentative of the people they ruled over and in many cases brutal and tyrannical.
Today though, the politicians who go on incessantly about independence – the Salmonds and Farages of this world – are generally mistaking an issue of governance with an issue of sovereignty. They are proffering a constitutional solution to a political problem. Just as Gordon “bringing an end to boom and bust” Brown was when he proudly made the Bank of England independent as one of his first moves as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Fat lot of use that did us.
That there are dysfunctional elements within Westminster and Brussels is indisputable, but these are political dysfunctions best fixed from within the system not by declaring independence and starting from scratch, having royally pissed off your neighbours. And whatever you think about the Coalition’s social and economic policies, to say that Westminster is systematically tyrannising Scotland is clearly codswallop.
It’s too late for Alex Salmond to pull back from the brink, and it looks increasingly likely judging from the polls coming out of Scotland that 2014 is going to be a year of political humiliation for him. Perhaps he should have heeded the words of that other great advocate of independence from the rule of Westminster, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence:
‘Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.’
I can’t think of a better way to sum up the current mood of the Scottish people.