Saturday 20 September 2014

Scottish independence would have been good for Britain too

Like many English people I observed the progress of the Scottish independence referendum campaign in a rather detached way. Since only the Scots got to vote, it was easy to suppose that it only really concerned the fate of Scotland - their business not mine. Only towards the end when the Yes campaign surged in the polls did it begin to feel real and exciting. And only then did I start to appreciate its significance to the rest of Britain. What if the Scots decided to leave? What kind of political crisis would that create? And what kind of opportunity to reinvent RumpUK as something new and better?

The Scots have made their choice. The British Union will continue. I can understand their hesitancy, their decision to opt for security and an assured place in something that more or less works, rather than to seize their freedom. Especially under the onslaught of love bombing and scaremongering that characterised the last weeks of the No campaign. Under the circumstances, declining independence was a reasonable choice to make. It was moreover the sovereign act of a nation that firmly establishes its right to revisit that choice in future.

As an Englisher though, my interest in the Scottish referendum goes beyond the perspective of the Scots. I was concerned with how Scottish independence might affect Britain as a whole. Not that much it seemed at first. 5 million people and a couple of large cities leaving is not an existential challenge. Losing the labour MPs from Scotland would have meant another decade or more of Tory governments, which would have been unpleasant but not intolerable.

Source: The Economist
The really significant consequences of Scottish independence, I came to realise, concerned political psychology. I was assisted to this realisation by the histrionic rhetoric of The Economist in defence of the Union.

The Economist's editors were particularly concerned with Britain's international stature:  "The rump of Britain would be diminished in every international forum: why should anyone heed a country whose own people shun it?"

Why indeed. I agree with The Economist that Scottish independence would have taken the Great out of Britain. But I think that would have been a good thing!

An end to empire

Great Britain remains a transitional state. We are not an empire anymore. But we still think like one in many ways. We are not yet a normal country.

Our social attitudes and political institutions remain infected with the disease of imperialism. The British Empire's power over so much of the globe corrupted our moral judgement, as power always does. We confuse the fact that our values are ours with whether they are right. We confuse our power to impose our moral judgements on others with the question of whether those judgements are good ones. Hence our pride in being a world player, of still 'punching above our weight' in international institutions (meaning that we have more power than we deserve). We also take inordinate pride in our military prowess, which is still sufficient to beat up little countries by ourselves if we feel like it, i.e. whenever we want to live out our superhero fantasy of swooping in to rescue poor benighted foreigners from each other. At extraordinary expense, we even maintain a fleet of submarines equipped with thermonuclear intercontinental missiles, asserting our power and hence our right to destroy a very large part of the world should our government decide that is the right thing to do.

We mistake the wielding of power for civilisational achievement. Hence our enduring failure to take responsibility as a nation for the appalling evil that was the British empire. The financial basis of our empire was delusionary economics, running the lives of hundreds of millions of people into the ground so that a few politically connected capitalists in Britain could make some easy money. In India, for example, health and wealth hardly moved for 200 years, and there was a mass famine every generation until we left. The political basis was to grant everyone in Britain itself, however lowly, a birthright sense of moral and civilisational superiority over foreigners. Our pride in this seductive collective illusion makes us even now reluctant to question it. But we all know deep down that the emperor has no clothes.

Britain may have lost its actual empire, but we have not escaped the habits of empire. Our governments mistake their power for our sovereignty, hence the bizarre belief of many British politicians that constraints on their power - such as human rights, international treaties and EU institutions - reduce the British people's freedom rather than their own. In a reversal of the traditional style of empire, our governments busily promote to other 'less-civilised' countries the very ideas of constraints on power, human rights, and democratic accountability that they claim British subjects don't need.

It seems to me that England won't be a normal country, like Germany, until it puts aside its imperial legacy (as Germany has done), and it won't do so unless it leaves 'Great' Britain behind. This is where the Scottish referendum comes in. A Yes vote would have been a political earthquake, just the kind of thing that allows a national conversation to diverge from its carefully maintained paths and homilies. The experience of having our quasi-imperial values and institutions so definitively shunned by our own people would have finally shattered our illusions of civilisational superiority and brought about a crisis of national identity. It would have opened the space for a proper honest conversation about what England has been and what we should now be. Should we continue as RumpUK, stewing in our outdated fantasies? Or should we make ourselves into something new and better that we can be proud of?

Perhaps you think this is too optimistic? One reason to think that freedom from Great Britain would have been liberating comes from the Scottish Yes campaign itself, which had to articulate an alternative independent vision of Scottish identity. To a considerable degree this identity eschewed the history of the British empire, despite and even because of the disproportionate involvement of Scots in its armies and administration. The Yes campaign was particularly united in despising British militarism, and the ghastly nuclear arsenal based in Scotland. It focused its policy proposals not on national glory, the power of the state, it's ability to strut about on the world stage. But rather on social justice, the state's role in serving Scots by guaranteeing decent opportunities for all.

I don't doubt that Britain will become a normal country someday. But without the political earthquake that a Yes vote would have triggered it will take a lot longer for us to find our way there.