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Brave new world?

Gerry Hassan sees Scotland at a crossroads.

Scotland is heading for a historic date with destiny - September 18th 2014 - when it will vote on the proposition of whether it wants to be an independent nation.

It is exciting to some, bewildering and frightening to others, and to most Scots, a mixture of all of these containing elements of ambiguity and confusion about something most people north of the border have spent much time thinking about.

Some argue that Scotland has ended up in this situation by accident - by dint of the SNP's 2011 victory and mandate. That's not quite true; instead it is a mix of accident and design - the design being that the political contours of post-devolution Scotland were obvious from before the Parliament was opened. Further, the SNP as the principal opposition to Labour, because Labour had never won a majority of the Scots vote, the likelihood the SNP would win an election and office, and eventually hold an independence referendum. What is accident is the timing. No one including the SNP leadership thought it would occur so quickly, something which has caught everyone a little off guard.

Scotland is a different place from the rest of the UK. It is a statement of the obvious because it always has been. Increasingly over the last couple of decades it has worn that difference in more pronounced ways. We have a decade of survey evidence from the Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys which show that in policy preferences and values the Scots aren't that different from England or the rest of the UK. Yet what these surveys have never measured is that unstated sense of difference, which defines everything in Scotland even when public opinion isn't that different. Take the welfare debate or immigration. Scots opinion isn't that progressive but the debate, codes, nuances and language used is a world apart.

The independence debate is defined by many factors and has many dimensions. One is a modern, progressive, centre-left Scottish nationalism, which shapes much of society, civic life and politics, and which the SNP is only one part of. Labour supporters who berate the SNP's embrace of neo-liberal economics and the catch-all nature of the party's appeal, should pause and reflect on the characteristics of New Labour at its peak or Scottish Labour at its height and at the least judge their party by the same yardstick.

Then there is the Scots emphatic rejection of the Conservatives, Thatcher and Thatcherism, which they came to see accurately as a form of British nationalism. This legacy poses problems for the pro-union forces, for while Scottish nationalism is 'out' and acknowledges what it is, unionism rarely if ever concedes that it is in fact another name for British state nationalism and therefore isn't 'out' as a nationalism. This denial and lack of insight on the pro-union forces limits the argument of the pro-union case, and prevents radicals of all persuasions from arguing that a debate between two forms of nationalism is a prescriptive one, and that the debate needs to be broadened out to include social democratic, centre-left voices focusing on what kind of future Scotland people want to live in.

A significant part of the independence debate boils down even more to the animosity between Labour and the SNP which helps neither but particularly disables Labour. Put simply, there has been a powerful Labour entitlement culture which has grown north of the border over the fifty years of Labour dominance which can be seen in Westminster Scots Labour MPs' view of the Scottish Parliament ('an upstart Parliament', 'not a real Parliament').

Despite the SNP being a permanent feature of Scottish politics for over 40 years, despite them being centre-left and progressive, and despite them being close to Labour on everything bar independence, Labour have never been able to accept them as a legitimate part of politics. It is because of all these factors, and because Labour's entitlement culture has been threatened. Watch any episode of First Minister's Questions in the Scottish Parliament between Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour leader. Whatever your views of Salmond (and he attracts and repulses opinion) Lamont's approach is revealing. She cannot for the life of her disguise her contempt for the man and his cause. It is beyond rational differences, and doesn't do Labour or its rationale any good.

Labour people will throw anything at the SNP's version of independence, with lots of the left harking on about corporation tax cuts which the SNP support post-independence. It is ground, Labour claim, the SNP share with David Cameron, but also of course, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Many suspect that while for some on the left and the STUC this is a genuine divide, for others it is just a totem to justify their anti-Scottish nationalism.

What the campaign of the next year has to focus on is the missing ingredients in the SNP vision of independence, and critically, beyond all the obsessions with different versions of Devo Max and Devo Lite, the missing part of the pro-union argument; what kind of plausible route map is there back to a progressive, inclusive United Kingdom? One that deals not just with the pitfalls and limitations of the current Cameron government, but the longer term trends and dynamics which have made the UK one of the richest and most unequal countries in the world, a land the world's tax avoiding oligarchs head for, but which is shaped by millions of children, pensioners and adults living in abject poverty.

The SNP Government's version of independence entails all kinds of continuity - the retention of the sterling currency, monetary union and the role of the Bank of England and Treasury which could be criticised as being problematic for the Scottish economy. Then there is the issue of EU and NATO membership for an independent Scotland. All of these pose elements of risk, unknowns and uncertainty. There is little doubt that an independent Scotland would retain EU and NATO membership, but this along with such contentious issues as what would happen to Britain's so-called 'independent nuclear deterrent' Trident situated in the Firth of Clyde, touches on anxieties and doubts about what would happen in the brave new world of an independent Scotland.

Then there is the challenge to progressive Britain. Writers such as the Guardian's Polly Toynbee have implored the Scots 'not to leave us on our own' with the peril of a 'permanent Tory England'. This is a powerful fear in the debate. Whereas before there used to be a palpable sense in Scotland that Scots could not govern themselves, now this fear is expressed by English progressives about England. Surely an independent Scotland would offer some prospect of radical change in England and the rest of the UK, rather than the continuation of the neo-liberal order?

The pro-union forces have a problem about the state of progressive Britain which will have an impact north of the border. Since 1945 there have been thirty years of Labour Government in four distinct periods which have clearly done much good. But what they didn't manage was to challenge the institutions of privilege of 'the conservative nation'. It is not just down to Thatcher and New Labour that the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the rich world.

The myth of 1945 might be evocative in a Ken Loach film or an Owen Jones view of the world, but it has grown threadbare north and south of the border. Scotland's place in the union was always contingent and in Labour's version was about the union as a means to an end of a fairer Scotland in a more equal Britain. That version of Scotland (and Britain) is no longer plausible, leaving Labour in the dangerous terrain of arguing for the union as an end in itself.

Where Scottish Labour are is still attempting to accept their 2007 and 2011 election defeats to the SNP. There have been individual reflective voices such as Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander who has come to terms with the fact that the old Scottish Labour story is no longer viable. In his most recent and thoughtful speech, Alexander has suggested that if Scotland votes 'No' in 2014, that pro-union opinion needs to be pro-active, and constitute a Scottish-wide Convention, which would establish a new consensus about further devolution.

This is the wrong territory for Labour and pro-union forces. Apart from the fact that devolution is a narrow set of political processes, Scotland cannot go on revisiting the triumph of the Scotland Act 1998, which heralded the Scottish Parliament and was a set of reforms 'made in Scotland'. This cannot continually happen, as eventually continued reform north of the border has wider British consequences and necessitates British reform. In this sense, there is a British dimension and veto over further devolution.

The Scottish domestic debate is presented by both pro and anti-independence supporters as being about different versions of continuity, rather than radical change. The SNP pose self-government and independence as the logical conclusion of devolution, whereas Labour pose it negatively as 'the end of devolution'. If only the latter were true, and a radical, red, green, post-nationalist, self-governing Scotland were on the agenda.

Scotland is heading, whatever the result in 2014, towards greater autonomy and self-government, whether independent or within the union this will pose huge challenges to the unreconstructed, rotten political order at the core of Britain, and the neo-liberal culture of self-aggrandisement which supports it.

Progressive opinion north of the border whether 'Yes', 'No' or currently agnostic needs to find ways of making common cause in the battle against the forces of reaction and free market vandalism. Centre-left opinion outside Scotland has to recognise that our debate has been driven not by old-fashioned nationalism, but Scotland's desire and aspiration to be a modern European nation: democratic, inclusive, compassionate and humble, and turning our back on the post-imperial delusions of 'Great British Powerism'.