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Why the English left should not stand in the way of Scottish independence

After Boris Johnson’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic and a hard Brexit, Scotland has every right to go it alone. 

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“To me...” wrote the German socialist Eduard Bernstein, “the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.” You could keep millions of workers in a state of high expectation with a dream, but the actual delivery of it looked too risky, he figured. Better to make small changes and risk nothing, preserving socialism as a long-term aspiration, which excites a people but never actually happens.

Until this year the leading lights of Scottish nationalism appeared to have adopted the same logic. The independence issue was a permanent grievance, handy for suppressing class politics, entrenching a mildly progressive centrist elite, and killing Labourism, but never likely to reach a conclusion. 

But that is changing, and the panicked rhetoric of the Tories this month shows they know it. According to a recent Savanta ComRes poll, 57 per cent of Scots now want independence, while polling for the party list system puts the SNP and the Scottish Greens, both of which support independence, on a combined total of 54 per cent. Slice those figures generationally and an overwhelming majority of young Scots want independence. The only question is whether it will be achieved in this decade or the next. 

This clear and rising majority for independence has been hard won. It has been boosted by Boris Johnson’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic, by repeated Tory majorities at general elections, and by the UK’s pursuit of a hard Brexit policy that is, even as we speak, putting the Scottish fishing industry out of business. But if I was Scottish, and a nationalist (I am neither), I would count the current polling – up 12 points from the 45 per cent achieved in the 2014 referendum – as a moral and intellectual victory.

But the point is approaching at which the old adage of the bar-room brawler begins to apply: don’t talk about it, do it. There are plenty of other issues to occupy democratic time and space: climate change, technological control, biosecurity, global instability and the abject unworkability of capitalism. I respect the view, among the radical left supporters of independence, that nationhood is Scotland’s route to dealing with these challenges more efficiently and equitably. In which case, get on with it.

[See also: Gordon Brown on how to save the United Kingdom

The constitutional expert and Cambridge professor Marc Weller laid out, in an article for the Scotsman, a perfectly valid constitutional route to independence, even if the Westminster government withholds permission for a second referendum under Section 30 of the Scotland Act.

Holyrood would legislate for a referendum and challenge any Westminster veto in the courts: first at the Scottish Court of Session and then at the UK Supreme Court. Weller argued that, under the principle of self-determination, recently affirmed in the Chagos Islands case by the International Court of Justice, the Scottish government could demand the right to hold a second referendum. 

The fact of the first referendum establishes that Scotland has a constitutional right to secede. The threat by the Scottish Tories to boycott any referendum would, says Weller, make no difference to its validity under international law. Two electoral cycles will have passed, together with a material change in the UK’s trading and diplomatic position due to Brexit, so the argument that it is too soon might not convince the judges – especially as the Pacific island of New Caledonia, an integral department of the French republic, was allowed two independence referenda in two years (both of which, held in 2018 and 2020, failed).

If these legal arguments are tenable then, provided the SNP forms a solid majority government in the May elections, Nicola Sturgeon should name the date for a referendum. Her opponents – both in the Tory and Labour establishments – have produced nothing but vagueness and conjecture. Gordon Brown is to lead yet another constitutional head-scratching exercise for Labour; Michael Gove is to be sent up the A1 to convince the liberal Scottish middle classes that the Tories are woker, greener and more progressive than the SNP.

There is a logic to these new approaches by the main Westminster parties: nothing they’ve done so far has worked. Even now an intelligent, detailed, cast-iron federal offer, leaving Scotland in charge of everything but defence and foreign policy, and a Scottish Treasury co-owning the Bank of England might just persuade a section of the Scottish electorate to think again. But I doubt Labour has the nerve to propose it, nor the Tories to accept it, above all because their party support bases in Scotland are firmly unionist, not federalist.

[See also: Why Richard Leonard's resignation won't end Scottish Labour's woes]

But on the pro-independence side it is also time for clarity. With the UK’s debt-to-GDP ratio at 99.4 per cent, and with its 2020-21 budget deficit forecast at £394bn (19 per cent of GDP), the calculations underlying the SNP's 2018 Sustainable Growth Report are now fictional.

The Growth Commission proposed that Scotland be allowed to leave the UK debt free, and suggested that by slashing defence spending and growing its population, an independent Scotland could eventually reduce its debt to 50 per cent of GDP and its budget deficit to 3 per cent. It would remain part of a sterling economy, handing its monetary sovereignty to the Bank of England for a transitional period, before adopting its own currency.

That was greeted with dismay by radical left supporters of independence, who pointed out that it was a recipe both for long-term fiscal austerity and monetary vassal status. But in any case it is a non-starter now.

The SNP’s vision for an independent Scotland makes sense if the “three Ps” – population, productivity and participation in the workforce – can all rise steadily and significantly in the decade following independence. That would need high inward investment, a comprehensive industrial strategy and a lot of luck. Essentially, it’s a strategy to transform an economy ravaged by 40 years of neoliberalism into a working replica of Denmark or New Zealand within ten years.

But as the UK emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, with a scarred economy and unprecedented peacetime debts, the economic future the SNP has been selling to Scottish voters looks chimeric.

In a parallel universe, with independence already achieved, Scotland could have entered the pandemic with the benefits of a people-centric economy, an open immigration system, a competent state and a strong European orientation. Instead it will emerge just as damaged as the rest of the UK, while competing with the politically mesmerising English “Red Wall” for government investment.

In these circumstances, it is best to level with voters: the eventual benefits of adopting a Scandinavian model will come, but the state will bear a debt burden that – despite historically low interest rates – can only be offset by aggressive redistribution and an expansionary monetary policy specifically targeted at stimulating investment, not an asset-price boom.

For that Scotland will need full monetary sovereignty from the first day – and in turn that probably means inheriting, and learning to bury, a chunk of the UK's debt.

In short, even if Scottish voters want to adopt a small-country Scandinavian model in the medium term, the route to it looks a lot more state-led, state-owned, redistributive and, frankly, socialist than it does in the brochure. That makes it tricky to apply for EU membership in the short term, and even trickier to remain an appendage of the British monarchy, whose lands, titles and elite patronage system would have to be swept away.

It’s time for those advocating independence to level completely with Scottish voters: do you want a republic or a monarchy? Do you want a defence industry or not? (Nukes or no nukes.) Do you want a market-driven economy burdened with high debt and deficits, or a state-led one that’s going to make you as unpopular in Brussels as it will in London?

There is no doubt that there would be a UK-Scottish border for trade in goods, with customs posts bisecting four A-roads and a motorway. Scotland would either have to re-enter the EU, deregulating business to become the new Luxembourg or the new Ireland – or make radical inroads into the wealth and power of the top 10 per cent of Scottish society and start taxing major corporations to redistribute wealth.

If Scotland continues to advance towards independence, the job of the English left is not to stand in its way  still less to collude in yet another, flimsy last-minute offer of federalism that evaporates the day after the vote. 

But if Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, then it's time progressives in Scotland stop dangling independence as a kind of long-term Neverland and re-engage with the politics of opposing the Tories on a pan-UK basis, up to and including government.

If Scotland secedes, the English left will have three imperatives. First, to recalibrate its electoral strategy around a progressive alliance project, with clear electoral agreements between non-Tory parties. Second, to be unflinching advocates of the right to national self-determination in the face of an English nationalist backlash. Third, to stop giving elderly white racists a veto over what we can and cannot advocate.

And yes, I know there are calls for the left to adopt a “progressive English nationalism” – it’s just that I cannot imagine concocting it out of Oliver Cromwell, William Blake and Robert Blatchford.

It is beyond doubt now that, after the great defeat of organised labour in the 1980s, it was the English left that was most marginalised. While the rising Scottish generation can at least dream of a social-democratic, green future, in England every political step is dogged by the need for deference to the baby boomers and nostalgia. On present form a majority of English baby boomers appear likely to go on voting for a government that is killing them with incompetence, so long as it protects the statues of white colonial murderers. 

If Scotland achieves independence it will be by constructing a coalition that outvotes elderly conservatism, rather than assuaging it. There’s a lesson in that.

[See also: Will Scotland vote for independence? Our poll tracker]

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.