The former US president Bill Clinton has entered the independence debate, calling for “respect” from all sides. “How honestly you try to listen to other people and then come to the practical conclusion,” he said, “is sometimes as important as the decision that’s made.”
This is something many Scots have noted, given the litany of scare stories in the press – and from pro-Union sources – about the consequences of independence. But there is little awareness on all sides that the debate is changing Scotland in the process and altering some fundamental perceptions that the UK has about itself.
As things stand, Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party and pro-independence forces look likely to lose the referendum on 18 September 2014. But they and Scotland will be changed utterly. Until May 2011 and the SNP’s landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament elections, independence was thought of by many in Scotland outside the SNP as marginal, or even irrelevant. This is still true when it comes to Westminster politics.
Yet whatever the limits of the SNP’s vision, independence is being normalised by being debated, discussed and challenged, and that, in turn, is having all sorts of consequences. On one side, we are witnessing a crisis of confidence of pro-Union opinion. Once progressive, proud and sure it was creating a shared future, it now seems reduced to a set of grumpy old men warning of the dangers of separatism on every aspect of life, from the lights going out to Scotland being an easy target for terrorism.
By contrast, the SNP’s argument has become much less risky. Salmond is able to present it as a politics of continuity by attempting to reinvent the honourable Scots tradition of “unionism-nationalism”. At the centre of the First Minister’s version of independence is a commitment to the pillars of the British state: Crown, currency, Treasury, Bank of England, even the British welfare state.
What is being offered at the moment by mainstream politicians is two versions of home rule: one side (the SNP) doing so tactically, the other (the unionist parties) in retreat and making concessions. But both sides are acknowledging that beneath the binary nature of much of the debate, there is some shared understanding, and recognition of the complex modern world.
Scotland’s public life increasingly resembles that of an embryonic state rather than the “stateless nation” of old. North of the border, debate now centres on the extent to which that state becomes formally self-governing and how it cooperates with the rest of the UK.
The Scottish debate is a way of asking what kind of country people want to live in. This is influenced by revulsion at the direction of British politics – not just under the coalition but also under Blair and Thatcher before them. It is a reaction to the UK being the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, with power concentrated in London, a redoubt of the global elite.
To talk about Scottish independence is a way of expressing optimism for a different kind of politics, not only for a different country. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, that change in mentality is likely to stay with us. It is history in the making for Scotland and the UK.
Gerry Hassan is the co-editor with James Mitchell of “After Independence: the State of the Scottish Nation Debate”, to be published by Birlinn in August