Alex Salmond, David Cameron, Democracy, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Agreement, European Union, History, Marxism, Nationalism, Opinion, Politics, Scottish Independence, Scottish National Party, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Sovereignty
The Westminster and Holyrood governments have together agreed to hold a legally-binding referendum on Scottish independence before the end of 2014. On Monday, David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the “Edinburgh Agreement” at St Andrew’s House. As predictably as anything in the British media, there was an immediate consensus that this agreement was nothing other than “historic.”
Salmond has himself proclaimed the agreement to be “a watershed moment in Scotland’s home rule journey.” Professor Tom Devine told readers of the Scotsman that: “Today is the most important date since 1707 Act of Union,” although he did concede that there was stiff competition from the storming of the Bastille. Newsnight anticipated “something that could echo down the centuries” – an ear-splitting constitutional howl – whilst The Herald fancied that Salmond had forged a “Date with Destiny,” which sounds almost like he will end up in front of a firing squad.
The Edinburgh agreement is certainly good for Edinburgh. The future of the United Kingdom – once the world’s greatest imperial power – will be decided in our city. Edinburgh will provide the stage for a drama and controversy which will captivate international audiences. More importantly, it will knock the pathetic, pointless messing about of the London Olympics into a cocked hat.
On the other hand, there are serious concerns that the independence referendum might overshadow the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. The Edinburgh agreement is not at all “historic,” other than in the sense that anything from the past is historic. As in when James Boswell “went to the street, picked up a big fat whore, and lay with her upon a stone hewing in a mason’s shade just by David Hume’s house,” it was a historic meeting.
In a ruthlessly unflattering sequence of events, September 11th saw over a million people march through Barcelona to demand Catalan self-determination, whilst fewer than 10,000 people trooped through Edinburgh on September 22nd in the name of Scottish independence. The Edinburgh agreement so far scarcely registers outside of media/political circles. It is not remotely a talking point – merely something which is presently contained within the political class, with the potential to one day spill out into the lives of ordinary people.
The Edinburgh agreement in many respects runs counter to the course of British history. In the past, the survivors of the British Empire and of Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe had achieved self-determination by establishing their own sovereign nations. Democracy was typically seen as the most obvious or natural means of self-determination. In Britain today, however, the idea of democratic sovereignty has been steadily devalued both at home and abroad. This is not necessarily due to any sort of conspiracy; it is simply the inevitable fate of democracy under conditions of maturing neoliberalism.
The UK government frequently intervenes in the affairs of foreign nations to offer paternalistic help to what it sees as the hapless natives. The little brown people cannot be expected to deal with a problem as gross as Saddam Hussein by themselves. Within domestic politics, the natives have been similarly relieved of the burdens of sovereignty. Successive governments have been willing to abdicate ever greater quantities of legislation to the European Commission, so that by 2010, almost half of Britain’s new laws originated in Europe.
Whilst governments retain a broad control over policymaking, the implementation of policy is increasingly outsourced to private companies. Henceforth, for those campaigning against cuts to disability benefits, the buck invariably stops with the sinister multinational IT firm Atos, who have been awarded £3 billion by the coalition government in exchange for taking the stick for implementing government policy. Politicians can consequently pose as distant, powerless middle-managers, rather than as democratically accountable policymakers.
With Scottish independence now on the cards, one might look to Alex Salmond for a general defence of democratic sovereignty. After all, he will personally benefit from the empowerment of the Scottish government. After signing the agreement, Salmond claimed that, “We will have the power and the responsibility to find our own solutions to the challenges we face…The people best placed to take decisions about Scotland’s future are those who choose to live and work in Scotland.” By “Scotland,” he meant, of course, “Europe.” The fact that so many Scottish laws and regulations are now made by the European Commission renders Salmond’s commitment to “independence” virtually meaningless.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) purportedly retold the story of the same city in which Salmond’s agreement would be sealed. Jekyll was as smooth and urbane as Edinburgh’s New Town; Hyde was as nasty as the medieval Old Town. With a similarly dramatic alteration in personality, Salmond is charmingly amenable to EU rule in Scotland, leaving the UK government to witness his ugly side. From where can we find some rational explanation for this political – or even moral – schizophrenia?
Salmond remains dependent upon independence, so to speak, because it licenses the survival of the curious political coalition which has assembled under the title of the Scottish National Party (SNP).Whereas the SNP had previously aspired to government in the cause of Scottish independence, it now exploits the cause of independence in order to glue together a government. That the SNP is now Scotland’s only party of government remains the enduring legacy of the other parties’ failure to invest in Scottish politics. After the novelty of devolution wore off, the Scottish electorate realised that they had been left with a motley bunch of second-rate politicians. Glamorous superstars such as Gordon Brown, Charlie Kennedy, John Reid, Malcolm Rifkind, Ming Campbell and Alistair Darling scarcely ever set foot in Edinburgh. Holyrood’s Labour-led administrations emitted a distinct whiff of local government.
Devolution had created the opportunity for a new political class, and this gap had been gradually filled by a single party. Only the SNP offered the Scottish electorate the courtesy of skilled politicians and policies which were tailored exclusively for Scotland. Indeed, if the Yes campaign triumphs, it remains unclear whether the established Labour, Liberal, and Conservative parties will remain in Edinburgh, or whether they will flee to the English Embassy for a Fall-of-Saigon style mass evacuation. Scotland will most likely become a one-party state; Salmond already looms over the political landscape like a genial Stalin. Indeed, he is only missing the moustache.
The brain drain from Edinburgh has been so dire that the “Better Together” campaign is now forced to assemble under the inspiring leadership of Alistair Darling, who has installed himself in Edinburgh as a sort of visiting ambassador from the Scottish elite. Punished for their lack of faith or even interest in the home nation, Scotland’s ruling class have invoked the curse of Scottish independence. There is more than a little justice to this revenge.
Yet the SNP cannot be expected to fondly embrace the spectre of independence themselves. The SNP has hitherto resorted to Scottish nationalism to add credibility and colour to its aimless neoliberal government. The cause of self-determination provides a government which does not otherwise stand for anything with a heritage, an identity, and a greater historical destiny. All political parties do this: Labour exploits its socialist heritage for electoral advantage, when Labour governments are never remotely socialist in practice. Conservative governments are these days no more conservative than Labour ones, but there is still a general conspiracy to believe that they stand for the Family, the Queen and the Police.
The SNP’s raison d’etre – that fund of identity which distinguishes it from the other political parties – is less punitive than the ideological mortgages which underpin Labour and the Tories. Labour’s actions in government will be forever weighed against its supposed ideal of social equality; the Tories cannot escape being judged in the light of their “traditional values.” The SNP, on the other hand, can chase populist left-wing policies on welfare, and populist right-wing policies on law-and-order, without violating any mythical founding philosophy and enraging their “natural supporters.”
But independence is still waiting. The SNP remains in debt to this ideal and by 2014 that debt will have to be repaid. The SNP have been scrambling to pay in instalments – a third of SNP supporters still want to remain in the Union, whilst the SNP initially lobbied to include “Devo Max” – a sort of low-calorie independence – as a referendum option. The Scottish Secretary Michael Moore scoffed that Devo Max was “really a brand without a product, a concept of more powers for Scotland without any detail about what that entails.” Yet such a description applies much more readily to Scottish independence itself, which is presently just a tissue of slogans, with no vision of a functioning nation or any coherent programme of government behind it.
We will now have to witness a nation being literally invented from scratch. Amusingly, whenever SNP politicians are invited on to Newsnight, the interviewers will demand to know what a new Scotland will look like, what powers it will have, and how its economy will work. We have yet to see Salmond admit that he has no more idea than the rest of us.
The forlorn quality of this self-determination is captured in Salmond’s continued refusal to concede that an independent Scotland might have to renew its membership of the EU. In other words, even if Scotland is liberated from Westminster, Somebody Else still has to be running the country. The independent Scottish parliament will offer merely a different if possibly more subtle flavour of devolution. This may create history, but, unlike Boswell’s adventures, not the sort of history which anybody will want to read about.