Why Scottish independence isn't the progressive choice

There is little to be gained from defining problems on Clydeside as 'national' issues but problems on Merseyside as 'economic' ones.

Scots, it is frequently stated, are progressive or radical, even left-wing. This, on some readings, gives independence a radical potential. Posed slightly differently, independence is deemed necessary to preserve a welfare state that is cared about here in Scotland but, by implication, not elsewhere. "We’re different up here" is the assertion. But who are we different from? And how different are we?

Given much of current debate around independence is predicated around the idea that there is a gulf in attitude north and south of the border, this is no small matter. Many will assert that we are seeking a progressive future through independence to escape the politics of a UK simultaneously proclaimed to be moving to the right and incapable of change. (In such narratives the oft stated enthusiasm of the SNP to keep levels of corporation tax below those set at Westminster and their intention to grow the financial sector as a share of the Scottish economy seldom get much of a hearing.)

If the comparison is between Scotland (population: five million) and England (53 million), it’s no real surprise to find some diversity of views. Yet even here, a Nuffield Foundation report in 2011 concluded that in terms of being "more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best". In what, perhaps, should serve as a warning for those who would conflate constitutional and social change they also note that "like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution."

But what if a less disproportionate comparison is used? A Study for the Red Paper Collective of British Social Attitudes Surveys going back to the mid-1980s examined not the difference between Scotland and England but rather between Scotland and our 15 million closest neighbours, the three northern regions of England.

Looking at a range of measures that might indicate some level of progressive opinion (e.g. role of government in tackling unemployment, support for taxation to fund services, attitude to benefit claimants etc), Scots are no different at all. It can, of course, be argued that during much of this timeframe Scotland operated largely within the same political and economic environment as the three regions sampled, so a degree of congruity is to be expected. This would be to miss the point. It is not simply that Scottish opinion was and is the same as these places – it is that Scots reacted in the same way to the same issues.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, our problems of unemployment, industrial decline and exploitation are much the same. Yet many are increasingly content to define Scottish difficulties as being a national question while issues in the English north are an economic question.

Such an analysis ignores the realities of the political and economic power wielded by business and capital. Much of the Scottish economy is owned and controlled at a UK level. But for the north of England as much as Scotland, 'the UK' in this context is really a synonym for the City of London. (See Richard Leonard in The Red Paper on Scotland 2014 .)

In this context, insisting that progress for people in Scotland depends on independence is saying that those with similar problems and outlook to our own must be written off as partners in building something better. Despite problems on Clydeside and Merseyside having similar causes and people feeling the same about them, the response, put bluntly, is a statement that "Connection with you is holding us back".

Those who advocate such a course seldom show any signs of having considered how Scotland’s retreating from tackling issues on a UK basis, in pursuit of a (quite possibly illusory) sectional advantage, will impact on those they wish to leave behind.

Some of course are explicit in advocating a lifeboat scenario, saying in effect, "It’s all terribly sad for the Scousers, but it’s nothing to do with us". This attitude suffices for nationalists, who, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, don’t really care about anyone’s country but their own. But for those who would claim to espouse any sort of politics of the left - this is an inadequate response.

The question of whether or not Scotland leaving the UK would be a progressive move depends of course on a range of factors far wider than the convergence of opinion between Scotland and the north of England. But that congruence of attitude is not trivial either.

Their issues of lack of accountability and economic democracy, the consequences of financialisation and external ownership are our issues too. They feel the same way about these things as we do. In such circumstances, surely the burden of proof lies with those who would argue for putting a political divide between us. They should show, rather than simply assert, how independence would improve, or at least do no harm, to our capacity to jointly confront our common problems.

Stephen Low is a member of the Red Paper Collective

A poster at the Scottish independence campaign headquarters on November 21, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.