Scottish independence: fiscal identities and the wealth of nations

By Pablo de Orellana and Claire Yorke:

Scottish independence

As Scotland goes to the polls tomorrow to determine its future in the United Kingdom, a number of contending identities have been at play in the referendum campaign over the past few weeks. The idea of self-determination is an emotional calling. It speaks of the need to achieve state-level independence, it speaks of freedom, and therefore it also refers to the hope of a better future free from the constraints of a dominant other. The dynamics of identity that make this such an unusual independence campaign should be explored. This analysis argues that claims about national narratives and identities are conspicuous for their absence, and have been replaced by the newly dominant logic of Western politics: fiscal solvency and economic imperatives.

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The debate about the independence of Scotland has been marked by the rationale that dominated of the 2010 UK General Election: fiscal responsibility and sustainability. In keeping with the dominant battlegrounds of British politics since the 2008 financial crash, debates centre on questions about how Britain can “pay her way in the world” and whether the current level of state spending is sustainable or not. Remarkably, arguments based on historical narratives of injustice and emotional appeals to emancipation from repression are mostly absent from the Scottish referendum campaign. The contestable political space has been reduced to only one area worth considering – that of the most effective route to economic success. This, however, is part of a wider trend and an all-British problem.

The dominant narratives that have emerged in the Yes campaign are of a stagnant Westminster that (by intent or accident) is content or incompetent in the face of rising inequality and unable to offer progressive alternatives. Alex Salmond, the head of the Scottish National Party (SNP), speaks of a Scottish desire to progress and protect welfare, redistribute wealth, and adhere to a model of social democracy akin to that found in the Nordic countries. These components form a defining vision of Salmond’s Scotland and Scottish identity – one that can only prosper under independence. Even in 2012 he spoke of Scotland as closer to the Scandinavian countries, sharing a consensus on progressive politics and social democracy that is destined to remain unfulfilled due to Tory recalcitrance. Independence, he argued, is the means ‘by which Scotland can take its rightful place as a responsible member in the world community; and by which the Scottish people can best fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations.’ In short, Salmond posits a narrative of prosperity against stagnation. It is marked that the debates have focused on areas that in other national struggles would appear of lesser importance: the longevity of North Sea oil, the affordability of the NHS, higher education, and business prosperity.

Contrast this to more common discourses of identity at times of emancipation. Examining other claims to independence, comparisons would draw on the Corsican, Breton, Basque or Kurdish experiences. In these cases, each respective group’s native languages are actively repressed or banned from schools –in no case are they considered a first language. Their culture –and by extension a key part of their identity is actively repressed. Mustafa Kemal, the first President of modern-day Turkey, sought to cultivate the belief that Kurds did not exist, they were “Mountain Turks” and as such, were not recognized by the state. In Scotland the bases of Scottish identity and nationality have not been actively repressed in recent history. Indeed, in the last hundred years, they have largely been embraced by the collective identity of the British Isles. Scots can be Scots in Scotland and the UK. This might account for the surprising lack of appeal to historic narratives of repression and resistance in the current campaign.

In the Scottish debate, the identity in danger is not cultural, linguistic or traditional; indeed those aspects of identity can coexist according to Salmond, who proclaimed in his 2012 speech that ‘the social union which binds the people of these islands will endure long after the political union has been ended’. There remains, however a kernel of emancipatory claims; they are, after all, why one would have an independence referendum. The case put forth is that a progressive Scottish political identity (permanently progressive) is stifled by a (permanently conservative, stagnant, unequal) UK political identity.

On the one hand, Salmond is playing within the goalposts of the dominant discourse of British politics since 2008, that financial responsibility is the only major legitimate political game. On the other hand, he is creating the possibility of an independent Scotland that is better off than hitherto, all whilst remaining within the narratives of progressive politics and financial responsibility. This is an identifying characteristic of the Yes campaign – it is empowering and positive, but hardly uniquely Scottish. One reason many Britons are frustrated by this referendum is that these questions apply to all in Britain. Newcastle, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Cardiff can equally claim that the Tories have left them out in the cold since the 1980s, and that they are marginalised by London elites. This points to concerns regarding the limited redistribution of wealth from the capital to other parts of the country, rather than a need for independence.

The clash of these economic identities does not justify a referendum taken as a business proposition, a divorce that could be either costly or prosperous. There is little passion to be found in financial arguments. Most importantly, these arguments entirely fail to provide a coherent vision beyond the opportunity of breaking free from an economically unequal and unsatisfying state of affairs. To change the plight of so many on this island who no longer or have never ‘had it so good’ is a cause with which many would agree, and would have as a national debate, not a question for which nationalism has an answer.

What the current debate is missing (besides some folklore) is an articulation of how the last three centuries have constituted a new society, brought new opportunities, and benefits, in spite of its problems and past tribulations. The Better Together campaign would have been well advised to celebrate the positive developments enabled by this symbiotic relationship. Finding clear evidence is easy: the Scottish Enlightenment set the tone for Western thought for centuries; it was David Hume that provoked Immanuel Kant into his most famous text. The rise of progressive politics, led by the intellectual revolution of Hume and Adam Smith, was birthed in Edinburgh and nurtured throughout the UK. Scotland’s industrial and engineering past are mythical, with the Clyde producing a vast fraction of world shipping for over a century. Scotland is an undisputed cultural powerhouse, yet the festivals are as British as they are Scottish and benefit and indeed depend on the common political, social and also cultural space provided by the Union. These examples show how difficult it is to separate British achievements over the last three centuries into Scottish and English ones.

Nationalism (of various degrees of hostility) as a response to economic crises is by now a traditional response in European politics to insecurity, poverty, and financial instability. In the late 1800s nationalism helped Bismark’s generation scupper liberal dreams of democracy on the continent by focusing on the birthrights of the mythical Germanic volk. In the 1920s and 30s identities returned as the ultimate mark of segregation between those with rights and those without. National birthright again determined the economic rights of a people. In both cases identity was linked to birth, to a narrative of origin and history, and to claims about the present and future. It is a mistake to return to the concept of a nation and the rights of its children (literally and figuratively in the case of the Yes Campaign) as the basic determinant of economic future.

Instead, this entire island sorely needs political, social, and economic progress. The debate about a better future at the heart of the referendum is one for all the countries of the Union to have. If this referendum can spark a discussion about how Britain can be more fair and prosperous, and can scare all political parties into engaging with the public on this, then this campaign would have served a grand purpose. Let it not be at the expense of a most successful partnership.

Pablo de Orellana is an Editor at Strife, as well as a Doctoral researcher at the War Studies Department, King’s College London. His interests include diplomacy, critical theory, nationalism, partaking in democracy and contemporary fine art.

Claire Yorke is a Doctoral researcher in the War Studies Department at Kings College London and a member of NATO’s Young Leader’s Working Group. Prior to her PhD Claire was programme manager of the International Security Research Department at Chatham House in London and worked as a Parliamentary Researcher in the House of Commons. You can follow her on Twitter @ClaireYorke.

3 thoughts on “Scottish independence: fiscal identities and the wealth of nations”

  1. Interesting analysis of the main narratives from the perspective of political elites. However, it may be worth noting that at the level of public debate, nationalist narratives have been far stronger, with many members of the public simply distrustful of economic arguments, no matter which side they come from. It is after all far easier to discredit competing economic arguments as the ‘spin’ of political elites than it is to debunk vague yet compelling nationalist mythologies. The debate amidst public commentary, far from evoking ‘little passion’ as I agree the financial arguments have done, has been far more emotionally driven, even abusive at times. In fact, one reading of public commentary might be that the emotional appeal of nationalism remains surprisingly strong. Certainly many online commenters in rUK have asked the question of whether voters can put aside the emotional and vote on economic matters, as if once the spell of nationalism is broken, cold hard economic reality will bite and that clear head rather than ‘brave heart’ will win through. This may be overly optimistic for ‘no’ supporters. However, I agree that if persuasion, as Aristotle claimed, benefits from emotional, rational and moral appeal, the absence of emotional appeal from the No campaign has been a mistake; the Yes campaign far more impressive.

    1. In a very real way, however, it is almost impossible to coach the ‘No’ campaign in emotional terms. Little can be offered to counter the emotional impact of concepts which are used in the relevant discourse by the ‘Yes’ side, concepts like ‘liberty’, ‘self-determination’, etc, concepts which ultimately are as effective on the emotional level as they are used, overused and abused in any political context. What non-pragmatic argument can be put forward that would not sound like someone whining because his/her high-school sweetheart decided to move on?

      Nikolai Gourof, KCL

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