The new word for socialism … independence

The new word for socialism … independence
Herald Scotland
29.05.11

 

HERE’S tae us, wha’s like us.

 

Alex Salmond’s “two nations” speech to the Scottish Parliament last week was criticised by some as an exercise in smug small-country chauvinism. The First Minister contrasted Scottish values of fairness and equality, with English individualism – “the braying tones of people who claim to know best”. Perhaps there was an element of self-congratulation here, but take a look at the text and you will see that this was not the speech of some wistful romantic. Salmond was laying down a challenge to his ain folk to see themselves as others see them. It’s as powerful a statement of values as you are likely to see from any UK politician.

 

The First Minister took his compatriots to task over the related evils of sectarianism and booze culture. He condemned the “old hatreds and pustulant sectarianism [that] sweeps across our land … a pointless cause pursued by the pitiless”. Not a lot of complacency there.

 

As for our love affair with the bottle, Salmond delivered an equally eloquent reproach: “I think we have confused our appetite for fun with a hunger for self-destruction. We tolerate a race to the bottom of the bottle, which ruins our health, our judgment, our relationships, our safety and our dignity.” Wheesh! If an English politician had said that, there would have been howls of anguish from the internet guardians of Scotland’s image.

 

Nor was this speech simply a declaration of independence for independence’s sake. “Constitutional change,” said the First Minister, “is not an end in itself but a means to a better nation … the people come before the powers, the community before the constitution, the children before the state.”

 

OK, he may have become a little carried away with his own rhetoric here, but I think this is an important statement for a civic nationalist to make. It isn’t about reaching some “constitutional finishing line” but using political power to create a more just society.

 

Above all, Salmond was seeking to avoid equating national liberation with the celebration of ethnic identity, which has been the defining characteristic of other racially-based nationalisms. Scots deserve to have control over their own affairs, not to celebrate their virtues but to address their deficiencies.

 

It was intoxicating stuff, if you’ll excuse the pun. Whatever you think of Alex Salmond, this was not the speech of a tartan chauvinist. It was intended in part to answer the question that has been raised by many people since the SNP landslide: What does independence mean in the modern world? What is it for? His answer is that self-government is only justifiable to the extent that it furthers a fair society.

 

“In Scotland, the poor won’t be made to pick up the bill for the rich,” he said. “When we control our natural assets as a sovereign power, the profit from the land shall go to all.”

 

Easy to say, of course – and this presupposes that Scotland is an inherently socialist, or left-wing, society, which a number of people have disputed.

 

Political analyst Professor John Curtice has pointed out that on issues such as taxation and public spending, attitudes in Scotland are converging with those in England, though more Scots oppose private education and healthcare and support redistribution of wealth.

 

A survey by the National Centre for Social Research in 2003 found that almost a quarter of Scots describe themselves as either “very” or “a little” prejudiced against other races. Scots bankers seem just as keen to get their snouts in the trough as English ones. And it is surely an irony that our delinquent Scottish banks had to be bailed out by government money largely taken from English taxpayers.

 

BUT the First Minister should be given credit for offering a coherent and positive vision of the kind of society that independence is supposed to create. This is a nationalism based not on hatred of England, nor on the grievance culture, but on a commitment to social progress. Leaders of national independence movements always promise to improve the lot of the people, and they rarely do. But the SNP’s incremental nationalism does at least seek to move ahead by concrete improvements in what Salmond called “the social wage” – free tuition, free prescriptions, care for the elderly and so on.

 

It is another matter whether he can actually deliver these objectives while at the same time giving a jobs-for-life guarantee to public-sector employees. Reading Salmond’s speech you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in Scotland works for the state, when of course the vast majority do not, and are excluded from public-sector privileges.

 

Moreover, there is an obvious contradiction between imposing a freeze on council tax and seeking to cut corporation taxes on business on the one hand, and implementing the social wage on the other. Fiscal autonomy is fine, but do you want control of taxes in order to cut them to promote enterprise, or raise them to meet ambitious social objectives? You can’t do both

 

Before the financial crash, there was a tension within the SNP between the Celtic neo-liberals, who sought to emulate the bank-led market economies of Ireland and Iceland, and the Nordic social democrats who take their lead from high-tax, high-spending countries such as Denmark and Finland.

 

But the sovereign debt crisis has ended all that. It seems to me that, right now, the centre of gravity of the SNP remains firmly to the left. The pressures of office and the difficulty of paying for the social wage at a time of financial austerity may change this orientation – after all, a movement like the SNP is neither left nor right, but Scottish.

 

All the more important then, that groups in Scotland such as trades unions, churches, charitable trusts and others who support social democracy should press the SNP Government to stick to the values statement. Otherwise, the advocates of a neo-liberal, small-state, business-oriented nation may well prevail. If the left refuses to engage with the SNP, it will only have itself to blame if the nationalists start to veer to the right.