The ‘radical’ proponents of Scottish independence dramatically overstated its potential to transform Britain’s broken political economy

Over three months have passed since Scottish voters opted to remain within the United Kingdom at the Scottish independence referendum. Looking back, James Stafford argues that the Yes campaign erred in presenting the potential for independence to bring about a fairer society, and to move away from the structural problems which face British society and its economy. 

Throughout the debate surrounding Scottish independence, social democratic defenders of the Union suffered from what Ben Jackson has described as ‘cognitive dissonance’.  Across many parts of the Yes campaign, powerful arguments were advanced, many of them familiar to readers of this blog, critiquing Britain’s broken model of ‘Anglo-liberal’ capitalism and urging a shift towards a more coordinated and socially responsible system.  This left social-democratic defenders of the Union, Scottish Labour foremost among them, wondering if their efforts to save the UK also entailed obeisance to its failing economic system.

With hindsight, it seems clear that the Yes campaign’s claim to the soul of social democracy was tenuous at best. Rather than seeking to overcome the challenges that have led to social democratic retreat, it largely ignored them.  In the first instance, it evaded or denied the constraining influence of international political economy on the progressive ambitions of individual states.  The Yes campaign, suffused with images and metaphors of national self-confidence and determination, seemed to suggest at times that the ‘sovereign will’ of radical Scotland’s imagined community could conquer all.  The concrete mechanisms through which Scotland might actually break free from austerity were conspicuous by their absence.

Substantively, the Scottish National Party leadership put its faith in Blairite supply-side reforms – cuts to corporation tax and improved childcare – to generate additional Scottish employment.  Serious redistribution or expansion of demand was effectively forestalled by the proposal for a tightly regulated currency union with the other nations of the United Kingdom.  The Scottish Greens, the Radical Independence Campaign and Common Weal, meanwhile, advocated economic policies that would have been impossible within any realistic interpretation of the SNP’s proposed macroeconomic framework.  The incompatibility of these competing visions was only rarely – and then very quietly – acknowledged by Yes supporters.  The dominant strategy was to smother deep tensions under a blanket of optimism and reassurance.

Secondly, the campaign failed to address substantial sections of Scottish society which were not receptive to its confused brand of social democratic revivalism.  This was not for want of trying.  The SNP’s conservative prospectus for independence was the outcome of a process of policy revision more total than that which brought New Labour into existence.  Alex Salmond himself, a scion of the radical 1979 Group within the SNP, is an exemplary case of the dilution of youthful socialism under the twin pressures of business and public opinion.  Even this, however, was not sufficient to win the support of the large class of affluent property-owners required to secure an absolute majority in a Scottish referendum of this nature.

In the weeks since the result, the pro-independence parties have enjoyed massive spikes in party membership, but the benefits have disproportionately flowed to the SNP.  By the same token, there is no reason to believe that the governing authority of Alex Salmond would have been reduced by an upsurge in radical politics following a Yes vote.  For advocates of Scotland’s ability to revive social democracy, an uncomfortable truth has been revealed.  Only the weak performance of the Scottish Conservative party conceals the essential identity of Scottish political culture with that of the UK as a whole.

It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the Scottish electorate’s scepticism about independence as the product of supine acquiescence in the existing, iniquitous economic order of the United Kingdom.  It might equally be viewed as a reflection of how the Yes campaign’s attitude to economic risk was always inconsistent with its professed social-democratic aims.  One of the key factors that historically distinguished revisionist social democracy from revolutionary socialism was its respect for the economic security of the peoples it sought to enlist and govern. That such security could conceivably exist under an appropriately regulated capitalist system was one of the crucial insights of Eduard Bernstein and the early leaders of the German and Swedish Social Democrats.  While this naturally led to advocacy of more public ownership alongside improved benefits and working conditions, it also produced, in the long run, a kind of conservatism, concerned to avoid needless and damaging fluctuations in employment, investment or prices.

For all the Yes campaign’s accusations of Labour betrayal and decline, Labour’s aversion to economic risk is, therefore, a clear point of continuity between the Wilson-Callaghan and Blair-Brown eras, as well as with the deep history of the European social-democratic tradition that Salmond routinely claimed as his own.  One of Ed Miliband’s few effective interventions in the independence debate was when he observed that ‘nobody claiming to be a social democrat’ could support independence without having a solid answer to the currency question.  Ordinary people, not capitalists or financiers, ultimately bear the costs of periods of economic crisis and instability, such as those engendered by currency crises.  The rich, mobile and powerful will turn such situations to their advantage, as commentators as diverse as Naomi Klein and Colin Hay have highlighted in contexts ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-9.

In short, for social democrats deliberately to attempt to engineer a fiscal, monetary and constitutional crisis within the UK is to flirt with disaster, harking back to the old Leninist call for the sharpening of capitalist contradictions at any cost.

Erstwhile supporters of independence can fairly counter that some kind of radical disruption was necessary to tear the UK away from a seemingly endless trajectory of economic decline and social retrenchment.  But, if the left’s temporary alliance with Scottish nationalism was really tactical, rather than doctrinal, in its origins, then now is surely the time to face up to the evident limitations of Scottish statehood as a means to social justice – at least within the bounds of the moderately reformist politics espoused by nearly everybody in the Yes campaign.

The rejection of Scottish independence preserves the Union as a common political space for economic regulation and redistribution, while creating strong pressure for democratic renewal and institutional reform across the whole UK. Now, as in the past, it is not as a separate ‘progressive beacon’, but as the leading element of a pan-British progressive coalition that Scotland’s constitutional agitators are best placed to achieve the change they desire.

This piece originally appeared on the website of SPERI – the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute – under the title ‘Social democracy and Scottish independence’ and is reposted with the permission of the author

Note: this piece represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

image_normalJames Stafford is Commissioning Editor of ‘Renewal: a Journal of Social Democracy’. He is also a PhD candidate in History at the university of Cambridge.

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