Alex Salmond’s White Paper, presenting the case for Scottish independence, has been infected with the malaise of British politics. His argument has become reductive and staid, a discussion of percentages, be they numbers of swing voters or packages of national debt. The Yes and No campaigns have presented rival Phillips machines, calculating the precise financial benefits to each Scot should they vote for their respective position. The drab options presented are those of a political culture unused to meaningful debate and substantial thought.
Meanwhile, the people of Ukraine have taken to the streets to define their geo-political position. Recent Ukrainian politics has been a discussion about belonging; is the country closer to Russia or the European Union? Economics comes into it, but it is an impassioned debate about the long-term future of the nation. In recent years, countries like Moldova and Georgia have considered similar issues, realising the seriousness of defining a course for the nation.
In Scotland, and the United Kingdom more generally, the debate seems diffident. The two sides scrap over the few deciding voters, meaning neither can show ambition – although an ambitious argument for the status quo is hard to make. The pressure is on Salmond and the SNP to make the meaningful arguments for an independent nation; their opponents’ job is to shoot them down. So far, the policies of an independent Scotland are lacking in ambition. Opposing the “bedroom tax” is popular, but hardly transcends the economic conditions to speak of a Scottish agenda. The Yes campaign seems scared of offering a different Scotland, even a better one, for fear of scaring swing voters. Such timidity renders the exercise close to useless – if you can’t be ambitious when creating a new nation, when can you be?
There is the potential for enormous positive change for both Scotland and the rump UK left behind in the event of independence. An independent Scotland would be in a far better position to tackle the Welshian poverty of its inner cities, far closer, and harder to ignore, for Holyrood than Westminster. Scotland, with its total, consistent, rejection of the Tories has the chance to reimagine itself as closer to the social democratic Scandinavian states it resembles far more than England. The similarities exist even on a popular cultural level – the detective novels of Ian Rankin are more similar to the Nordic Noir of Henning Mankell or Jo Nesbø than the twee Home Counties mysteries of England. A Scottish realignment within Europe would be beneficial for Scotland – and pose serious questions for the remainder of the UK, questions that have been avoided for decades.
The current precarious position of Britain within Europe, with further potential referenda, raises the prospect of Scotland re-entering the EU as the rump UK leaves. Whilst this would offer a fascinating insight into the pros and cons of the European system, it would also ask interesting questions about English nationalism and identity, and its ability to evolve and adapt. As with Ukrainian independence and self-determination, it is a case of colonialism coming home, as places considered by the English and Russians as part of their nations identify as independent. This is post-colonialism in the back yard, a recognition that empire began far closer to home than many would care to admit. It is this desire for independence as release from a forgotten empire that should be embraced, self-determination for reasons of identity and the creation of a new imagined community, rather than for the sake of percentages of national debt or other economic measures.
In order for independence to be lasting and meaningful, it needs to transcend the mundane and the everyday. The bedroom tax will be long forgotten after 50 years of independence. The £100 saved would be spent. Long-sightedness is required, or the independent nation will be rudderless, wondering why it bothered. The Yes campaign needs ambition and vision. It seems to have underestimated the historical forces it is playing with. It is about more than yes or no – it is about realising what it would mean to independent. A momentous step requires broad vision to see where it will fall. Alex Salmond has uncorked the genie’s bottle. Underplaying its power won’t limit its potential. Scottish independence needs to be respected, and the consequences understood. At the moment, its summoner is underselling it.