Friday 11 July 2014

Taking Responsibility

Those who have followed my previous utterances on Scottish independence will know that I am sceptical of a lot of the rhetoric and claims made by the SNP and the Yes campaign. I don't describe myself as centre-left, unlike, probably, most politically active Scots in that movement. I don't consider myself to be a nationalist, even of the civic variety. I don't agree with many of the claims of either campaign that Scotland will be a significantly more or less prosperous society if it becomes independent. I don't even agree that we will be a noticeably more equal society if we become independent.

A common argument I hear, with which I have considerable difficulty, is the suggestion that we should vote Yes to create a more equal society. We are told that the policies of the Tories, especially on welfare, are strongly opposed by Scotland and that we need to control welfare to build a society that adequately protects the most disadvantaged. It seems superficially attractive. It is true that the two parties Scotland votes for most strongly, the SNP and Labour, do adopt a less hostile attitude, in terms of rhetoric and with respect to some specific policies on the question of welfare than do the Tories. This does not, however, appear to translate into actual attitudes towards welfare. When polled on actual policies, the majority of Scots support welfare to work programmes of the kind pursued by Westminster, would reduce access to benefits for immigrants, have very similar attitudes towards immigration as the rest of the UK and only very slightly register as more left-wing on whether taxation should be higher to fund more public services.

This is important, because central to the rhetoric of the Yes campaign is that we need independence to be able to make different decisions from the Westminster government "that we didn't vote for". If our attitudes towards actual welfare policies are broadly the same as the British electorate as a whole, however, how do they suppose we will vote for different policies in an independent Scotland? Sure, we vote for parties that are more left-wing under the current settlement, but we never think to ask why that's the case given how apparently similar we are on social attitudes.

I think I know why this dichotomy exists. Scots have come to think of themselves as being more left-wing because, as a polity, they have not really been given the responsibility for making decisions about how they respond to global challenges. Whereas many other nations, which by no particular moral reason have come to become our default political communities, have had to face up to the challenges of interdependence and the fiscal constraints that a global market place on what our governments can do, Scotland has not been confronted with those decisions. Its primary experience of global capitalism, of modern challenges to managed economies, and the ability of the state to provide, with ease, for all, has been to see a political elite from outside take those decisions. That political elite never really had to rely on the Scottish political community to address these problems, so Scotland was never really a part of that discussion. It's not just that the Tories introduced unpopular policies in Scotland, culminating in the Poll Tax; it's that in the centralised British state the winning coalition required neither the hearts nor the minds of middle Scotland, whether they were a Tory or Labour administration.

The consequence is that Scotland has identified the blame for the negative consequences of these global forces with Westminster, despite them being phenomena over which any government can exercise only limited control. Scottish politics has, culturally, served to blame the British state, the British establishment, for all the negative aspects of their current predicament. As a polity, we have learned to associate anything that is difficult to solve as being easy to solve if it weren't for a malevolent Westminster. As a nation, as a polity, we have never been confronted with these decisions, and we have never taken the responsibility for the consequences.

In this respect, devolution was only a partial answer. It gave us responsibility for how money was spent, how to run our schools, our healthcare system, our Universities, our transport network, our justice system and the like. On the relative virtues of how money was spent, we got a taste of that responsibility. Yet we continued constantly to compare ourselves to Westminster. "Look at how we don't have tuition fees/prescription charges/expensive personal care for the elderly" we would say, triumphantly. "Look at how this power has meant we don't have to do things like Westminster!".

And in the areas where we didn't have power, especially in welfare, we insist that all of our ills would be solved if only we voted for independence: "we did this with devolution, look what we could do if we get away from Tory governments". We can scrap the bedroom tax! We can be more compassionate! Aren't we wonderful?

All the time, we have taught ourselves to associate everything that is done well with ourselves, and everything that is done badly with the external: that which we don't control. Yet without the responsibility for raising the lion's share of what it spends, the entire culture of the Scottish Parliament in some respects made the national psyche worse. If there wasn't enough money for colleges, it's Westminster's fault because of the block-grant and the Barnett formula. If we didn't have a cancer drug fund, it was Westminster's fault because of austerity.

Seldom does it seem to occur to Holyrood that the reason we might not be able to spend on certain policies is because we have chosen to allocate resources to other things. It seems we are content instead always to find someone else to blame. We abdicate responsibility by suggesting the limits on what we can achieve are external, but only to ourselves and not to governments with just a bit more power. This responsibility deficit that plagues Holyrood may to some extent be mitigated if the Scottish Parliament gets real control over income tax and some other taxes. But in many respects, the cultural damage has already been done.

I often hear a characterisation that Scotland is "too wee, too poor and too stupid" to be an independent country. Ironically enough, I hear it more from Yes supporters misrepresenting the views of No voters than I actually do from No voters themselves. I suspect that if Scotland is too wee and too stupid, it's been helped in no small part by a rhetoric and a political culture that defaults to blaming others for our predicament.

This is one of the reasons I am sympathetic to independence. It has reached a stage in Scottish politics where the only way we can grow up, be mature about the challenges that face us, and to stop blaming others for the ills in our society, is to take responsibility for ourselves. Not because we will necessarily do a better job, but because having to take those decisions for ourselves will change the way we think about how those decisions are made. When it comes to things like welfare, the Scottish debate will actually have to be about our older population, a pensions timebomb, and structural unemployment. No more can it be about blaming the legacy of "the Tories" or "Westminster". We will have all the powers at our disposal so there can be no excuses. When we fail, they will be Scottish failures, and we will better understand ourselves and our society through those failures.

There is a learned helplessness in Scotland. We project our own failings onto the British state because, all too often, we haven't the courage to face up to them. I suspect independence just might change that.