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19 June 2024

Scotland’s renaissance

The Union can be saved by shifting Britain’s wealth back from the private to the public realm.

By Rory Scothorne

Towering over Stirling, 220ft tall, is a Victorian monument to William Wallace. Despite Wallace’s Bravehart reputation as a symbol of Scotland’s independence struggle, many of the monument’s sponsors and supporters were not separatists but what the historian Graeme Morton calls “unionist-nationalists”. They believed that by fighting for Scotland’s independence from England in the 13th century, Wallace ensured that union between the two could eventually occur on equal, peaceful and mutually beneficial terms.

If that monument has a contemporary equivalent, it is the Scottish Parliament. While it might have spent the last 17 years in the hands of the SNP, clashing with Westminster, Holyrood was not supposed to do this. Scottish devolution, and the deep political consensus around it, emerged not as a vehicle for independence but as a bulwark of unionist-nationalism. It was designed to reassert and protect Scotland’s identity and autonomy within a Union that, under Thatcher, had made centralisation into a weapon against the industries, public services, trade unions and local authorities that defined 20th-century Scotland.

Has that protection worked? The most recent census showed that Scottish identity is thriving: since 2011, the number of people in Scotland who describe themselves as “Scottish only” has risen from 62.4 per cent to 65.5 per cent. “British only” has also grown, from 8.4 to 13.9 per cent, which may be the result of new divisions over independence. But the number identifying as “both Scottish and British” has fallen steeply, from 18.3 per cent to just 8.2 per cent. The SNP may be electorally struggling, but unionist-nationalism is facing a far deeper identity crisis.

The distinctive institutions that devolution was supposed to protect have never been more fragile. The venerable national newspapers, which largely backed devolution and opposed independence, are in freefall, reduced to clickbait-driven shadows of their former selves by indifferent foreign owners and online competition. Devolved public services have been devastated by austerity, which has been handed down from Westminster, to Holyrood, and finally local government, whose old, proud autonomy has never been more diminished. Scotland’s industries are facing the same fate as its media: the failed dream of “Scotland’s oil” can be glimpsed in Petroineos’s plans to convert Grangemouth, the country’s only oil refinery, into a fuels import terminal. While fossil fuels burn out, most of the turbines harvesting “Scotland’s wind” are being built overseas.

These signs of decline, and their solutions, are not ultimately cultural but economic. The formative years of Scotland’s modern identity sit between the 1970s and the 1990s – the “second Scottish renaissance”, when writers, artists, musicians and film-makers pioneered new, dissident ways of being Scottish, articulating a nationhood that was at once radical and popular, national and cosmopolitan. They were a product of social democracy: they and their audience belonged to generations that were more educated and more socially mobile than ever before; and that enjoyed more freedom – from the “five evils” of squalor, disease, ignorance, poverty and idleness – to articulate their own identities.

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Now those five evils are back. Incomes are being squeezed. Educational performance is falling. Life expectancy is getting lower. The lesson of Scotland’s last renaissance is that even at the highest cultural level, the country benefits when its obvious wealth is more evenly distributed among its people, giving every Scot the freedom to make their home what they want it to be. The politics of self-determination is part of this, but the surge in self-consciousness that preceded the Scottish Parliament suggests that it works best as an incentive, not a precondition.

In struggling post-industrial communities, the left often talks about “community wealth building”. But what places like Scotland – rich, unequal, but with a strong sense of itself – really need is more like community wealth capture: a means of grabbing hold of the resources that flood in and out, and using them to improve our resilience and self-confidence in the face of capital’s flattening power.

Restoring Scotland’s national media requires public investment in serious, conscientious journalism and culture, and strict regulations on media ownership to reverse the for-profit populist race to the bottom. Building a resilient economy requires a sizeable public stake in industries that support good jobs, especially in areas like renewables, where Scotland is naturally privileged. Secure, coherent local communities cannot coexist with the out-of-control property speculation that hijacks civic identities and strangles the supply of affordable homes. Controlling rents and reforming land ownership would be just the start of this, but it also means empowering and financing local authorities to make them less dependent on influxes of private capital.

This requires more money, and more power, than the Scottish Parliament has. Independence, despite its obvious democratic appeal, would be too fraught with risk and sacrifice to resolve this in the short term. Better, even if you are a nationalist, to use Britain’s resources to build up a level of structural resilience and self-confidence that would make an eventual breakaway as smooth and progressive as possible. What Scotland needs now is the same thing the UK needs: to get its hands on the riches that we see everywhere, flowing around us, dictating our every move, but out of our control. That means, above all, shifting Britain’s wealth back from the private to the public realm, through both taxation and investment: the kind of thing that a Labour government in Westminster is supposed to do, especially with an enormous majority. If it fails to do so, to placate swing voters in England, the case for the Union will only weaken. If it succeeds, Labour has a rare opportunity to revive unionist-nationalism for a generation. But an intelligent independence movement could make the most of that too.

This article is part of the series “How to fix a nation”

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