By nature, I'm something of a switherer. I could try to paint this as a virtue, suspicious of the verities of one side and open to alternative arguments, but it makes for a damn predicament when critical moments of choice come along. And for a nationalist, the question whether or not we should incorporate a second, devo-something question into the independence referendum is one of those moments of choice. A few months back, I felt flatly in favour of a yeah or nay vote, independence or not, and then I wobbled.
I’ve been trying to discern why. Not, of course, that my say so or nay so matters a jot, but it’d be nice to see clearly through the constitutional fog, for my own sake. The polls are obviously part of the calculation. On the best evidence we have before us, most Scots do not currently favour independence, being partial instead to a reformed Union which nobody is offering, and a Scottish Parliament with extensive new powers over taxation and welfare which hitherto, all of the UK parties have stridently resisted devolving. As someone with democratic sensibilities, it would be churlish to ignore those demands, whatever your political persuasion. As Duncan Hamilton recently wrote in the Scotland on Sunday, in a significant piece from the former MSP and Salmond aide:
“The campaign is clearly for independence but, as gradualists, most independence supporters (like me) also see the merit in working with the majority opinion, which is currently overwhelmingly in favour of a second question on the maximum devolution short of independence. We want Scotland to move forward united, and if that means accepting a slower pace towards independence, so be it.”
On the other hand, the polls show that we’ll be accepting “a slower pace towards independence” by significantly diminishing support for independence in the process. Of course, the polls may yet change before 2014 – upward or downward for either side – but we’re in the process of framing this referendum now. Its legal basis will have to be in place at the very latest in the first quarter of 2013. While it is a fond thought that come 2014, Cameron may find himself pitched into panic as YesScotland succeed in aligning mistrust of Westminster and political suspicion of Tories into support for independence, no late changes to the number of questions posed in the referendum will follow. This just wouldn’t be practicable. No, we’ve got to decide on the final formal shape of the poll over the next few months, on the current best evidence about the state of public opinion. So what’s to do and why to do it?
The calculating nationalist might consider recent political parallels. Take the abortive reform of the electoral system. In 2011, the Alternative Vote referendum was defeated by a margin of 32.1% to 67.9%. While we may debate whether the whole process represented a set-back or a knee-up for the causes of electoral reform in the longer run, in the short and the medium, it has largely been construed as a triumphant reaffirmation of the first past the post system, a fillip for comforting Britannic narratives of parliamentary sovereignty, “strong” government, and the solidity of Westminster’s creaking edifice. The idea that the referendum presages a shift towards a more proportional electoral system deserves a black laugh.
Now consider the national question. Imagine you are a nationalist who is pessimistic about the likelihood that Scots will embrace independence by 2014. You are understandably keen to secure the best outcome possible in terms of Scottish self government, and the greatest reign of power for Scots institutions. What do you do? A hefty “yes” vote in the referendum might do the trick, but if the dominant story is “independence defeated”, with no alternative tale to tell about Scots’ dissatisfaction with the status quo, why should one expect that the Unionist parties will be minded to make concessions to a defeated Scottish Nationalist party?
For those who favour a single question, and who are pessimistic about the consequences of a “no” vote, the vista is simply bleak. No obvious route to more devolution. No independence. Nowt. For folk like Gerry Hassan, we’re putting it all to the touch, to win or lose it all. He’s written supportively of a single, crisp referendum question. In a recent discussion on twitter, Gerry was also critical about unilateral federation in these islands. Can it be legitimate for Scotland to try to use concepts of national self-determination to enforce a more federal structure on the rest of the United Kingdom? Surely you cannot unilaterally seize federation, but have to come together, all of your constituent parts, properly to constitute one? Constitutional buccaneers are likely to be impatient with this, and to dismiss it as an unnecessarily abstract council of woe or an excess of political scrupulousness, whose upshot is nothing less than self-denying political paralysis.
If unilateral Scottish action – through a devo-something question in a referendum, for example – seems the only way to secure what the majority of Scots seem to want, and a powerful pan-UK campaign for federalism cannot be expected and will not materialise, then damn the niceties and confound the cavils! Press on with a campaign to secure devolution by employing nationalist language and arguments. The outcome will crown the work, and if some folk find that conceptually messy, I’m sure they’ll get over it come the day Holyrood takes over its taxing and welfare powers. That’s the argument, anyway.
For the Devo-Buccaneer, a second question is absolutely necessary. For him, it won’t answer that Holyrood hasn’t the power unilaterally to deliver a much-enhanced devolutionary package of powers: this is politics, the stuff of persuasion – and putting the fear of God into your enemies. If this is the only conceivable way to make the slack British political establishment snap to, and deliver further, substantive powers – so be it. Critically, these picaresque devolutionary adventurers are likely to be sceptical about Westminster’s reaction to a “no” vote in Holyrood, absent a strongly-endorsed alternative answer to the question of Scotland’s powers. If independence is posed alone, loses, and loses big – say the order of defeat the AV vote went down under – the political impetus will be away from more devolution, not towards it without another question. It is not in Britain’s nature to reform its centre. In the absence of a clear, noisy, democratic endorsement of change, its servants and politicians may be expected to kick against the pricks, advance at best at a brisk Calman dawdle, and do everything in its power to compromise and equivocate, to avoid change.
For my part, I suspect my ambivalence and equivocation on the second question is partly due to my ‘federal nationalist’ inclinations. Biographically, there are plenty of reasons why the concept of sovereignty and even independence isn’t one which particularly fires my imagination. I am a Scottish nationalist, currently live and work in England, and study the greater Europe encompassed by the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. For nationalists, it seems to me essential that the independence debate focuses not on question of national identities, Scottish-and-or-equally-British, but instead on political powers. Who do you wish to make decisions affecting your lives, on taxation, on welfare, on war? By including a devo-something option on the ballot, we tilt the debate more in that direction. Against this, folk tend to argue that devolution and independence are fundamentally different, and to suggest that the two are on some sort of spectrum of Scottish self-government is bunkum, a category error. As the polls show, that is simply not how most Scots currently see the constitutional debate. As a nationalist who will on some level regret Britain’s failure to save itself come independence, I sympathise.
Most of my friends are flown here from every corner of the earth, but many are locals. I do not see myself as a “narrow nationalist” of any persuasion. As someone with a background in critical sociology, I cannot but approach ideas of ethnicity, of nation and nationality gingerly, with a hefty dose of suspicion. Even hailing from what has been a nationalist-leaning family for some generations now, and not identifying as British at all, I’m not immune to the sort of feelings of cross-border connection and solidarity which I’d hazard many of those opposed to independence feel, albeit unburdened with the idea that these are “British” connections, and imply views on Westminster’s jurisdiction to make political decisions effecting Scotland.
I’ve recently completed a long-term theatre project with a brilliant, cheerful, personable group of folk, most of them Oxford natives: decidedly town not gown. It was a marvellous experience for a range of reasons which I needn’t go into here – but as we all sat down together after much work and laughter shared, with food, drink and convivial chatter – a familiar question formed, though not one which regularly suggests itself to me. Wouldn’t we lose something between us if we split, an ineffable tie, difficult to articulate, but indubitably there? The thought hastily qualified itself: we counted an Australian chap and an Irishman amongst the glad company, and the separate statehood of the lands from which they hailed interceded not a jot, to exclude them from the rest of the troupe. Interesting, though, how such thoughts can steal up on you, even when your position on the constitutional question is clear and decisive. A timely reminder – and we often need reminding – that the hard binaries of Unionist and nationalist fail to capture the much more nuanced and compromised spectrum of feelings this debate stirs.
If the UK adopted a radical scheme to de-centre the British state, re-coining a vision of a stable, federal United Kingdom, empowering Scottish institutions, excising its worm-eaten political core, and exorcised the bloody imperial ghosts which haunt its imagination, I can easily envision myself abandoning the independence project altogether. Yet survey Westminster. Note its dominant spirits, their political preoccupations and their rhetoric. Only a fantasist could inspect those green and scarlet benches and see the germinal seeds of an imminent revolution in the way UK politics is imagined and conducted.
Mine is a nationalism more in sorrow than in anger. If I thought it practicable to reform the British constitution better to accommodate Scottish demands for self-government, I’d cheerful adopt it. Hence, I think, Scottish Labour’s rhetoric is essentially “form up for another forlorn hope”. I say it sympathetically, but how many more of the glorious dead must choke the ditches of the Union before we recognise that this is a failed political strategy? I’d rather be cracking on with creating a more just republic for our people, than singing constant requiems for departed hopes, distracting us from the hopelessness of our situation. There is nothing inevitable about independence, but if it transpires, I firmly believe it will be attributable in large part to the unbending sclerosis which paralyses the British political imagination. My feeling is that independence shouldn’t be necessary, but has become so. In some sense, ironic though it is, devolution-max isn’t just a lifebelt cannily packed by the vanquished nationalist to keep them afloat during the coming squall, but can be seen too as raft flung to a floundering, waterlogged Britannia. It appeals to the undecided, and to nationalist folk like me, who cannot but seriously entertain the idea of independence with a pang of regret. Not for the end of Westminster rule, mind you, or abandoning the dismal British political consensus, but for the alternative, unrealised possibility of a better British polity that never materialised, and brought us to this pass.
I began swithering. I hoped by scribbling this up, I’d have hacked my way through this intertwining thicket of sensibilities – and cleared some space in my head – but I swither still. Does it come to this, that in some corner of my mind, I’ve not entirely given up on finding a way out of our predicament without resorting to the radical measure of independence? For a nationalist, this is an uncomfortable, niggling thought. And yet, you don’t throw a life-belt to a drowned man, do you?