Friday 23 January 2015

Independence which changes nothing is worth nothing

[I wrote this just before the referendum, but didn't publish it then because events overtook it; I think it's worth publishing now for the record]

The referendum is upon us. I start this essay with fewer than thirty hours to go before I cast my vote, fewer than fifty before polls close. On Friday morning we will know whether we have indeed risen now, whether we shall be that nation again. I cannot think about it, any longer. It is too stressful. It is time to think past it, to the nation we could become.

But first, before that, one thought about the reasons for victory, if victory it is to be. The Yes campaign has been brilliant, a vibrant movement breaking out across the whole country with relatively little political leadership or control. That's undoubted; many commentators have written about it, well. But what's more dramatic is the implosion, the ritual suicide, of Scotland's Labour Party. Peter Arnott wrote about it well, back in July.

His analysis of the disease is, I think, broadly correct, but he could not then analyse the consequences. The consequence has been, it seems, that the people's party has not had the footsoldiers; has not had boots on the ground. And the consequence of that is that they have not done their canvassing. And the consequence of that is that they fear they cannot get their vote out on the day. Canvassing is not something that can be done at the last moment. It means people trudging up paths and stairs, knocking on doors, recording opinions. Not hundreds of doors. Not thousands of doors. Millions of doors. You can't hire an advertising agency or a focus group to do that. You have to get out there on the street, in the rain and the wind, night after night. It takes people, and the one thing that it turns out the people's party has not had is people.

This essay is not about victory or defeat; it's not about the reasons for victory or defeat. It's about what to do with victory if we get it - what the Left should do with victory if we get it. Because independence which changes nothing is worth nothing.

And the SNP vision of independence seems to change very little. We keep the monarchy. We stay in NATO. We keep a currency geared to the needs of the City of London. We tinker at the margins of the tax system, and that, it seems, mainly to attract 'inward investment'.

I'm sorry, that's not good enough. None of that is good enough. If you're going to put the people through the stress and disruption that constitutional change inevitably means, there has to be a prize at the end that's worth taking.

I believe that we need, at minimum
  • Genuine, far reaching land reform involving significant redistribution of land and the creation of large commons;
  • Land tax of some form (I'm still not persuaded that Land Value Tax will break up large estates, but I'm open to persuasion);
  • An end to all hereditary privilege - including to a hereditary head of state - and to aristocratic titles;
  • Greatly increased inheritance taxes;
  • No unelected upper house (I'm not persuaded of the need for an upper house at all, but am willing to listen to argument);
  • Many more local authorities, each covering a much smaller area, with no full-time councillors;
  • A citizens' income, replacing the state pension and most state benefits;
  • Shift in taxation away from VAT to a more progressive income tax with a much higher top rate;
  • Investment of oil revenue not in the money markets but in productive infrastructure.
Some of these are issues for the constitution, some are not. But the next major campaign is for the constitution, and the next challenge for the mass Yes movement is to maintain its energy into the campaign for the constitution. Of course, not all Yes supporters will swing behind a radical left republican approach to the constitution, but I believe that many will. And this is where that collapse of the Labour Party I talked of earlier is relevant. With its dead hand on working peoples' political engagement and representation swept away, there will be room for more engagement, for more ferment.

So that's what we need if we achieve victory: if we win independence.

What if we lose?

Over the past eight years, the SNP has been keeping a steady ship, not frightening the horses, not rocking the boat. They've done it with admirable competence and discipline. They haven't wanted to do anything to scare anyone before the referendum. And that was reasonable: good strategy. But if we've lost the referendum, everything changes. It's time to rock that boat!

As Lesley Riddoch has been pointing out since before this referendum campaign began, we don't actually need independence to achieve deep, radical change in Scotland. Admittedly, it can't be as radical as it could be under independence. Admittedly, some of those things I've listed are beyond us. But a lot aren't.

So if we lose, we start - we start on Friday - campaigning for those demands we can achieve.

  • We can achieve land reform - even radical redistribution, provided we do it by a land tax sufficiently onerous to make sporting estates unaffordable;
  • We can achieve greatly enhanced, more participatory local democracy, by sweeping away the current local authorities and devolving their powers (including the power to levy land taxes) down either to community councils or to a new tier of local government substantially closer to community councils;
  • We can achieve other things from other people's agendas - I'm not pretending my ambitions are the future for Scotland.

We can't achieve a republic or a citizen's income or an end to inherited wealth - at least not at this stage with these powers. I'm not saying we should forget those things. We should not forget those things. We should remember those things, and put them into the planning for the next referendum campaign - which, if the result of this one is as close as it promises to be, is inevitable and not so far distant.

But in the meantime we must not let the things we cannot do hold us back from the things we can do. In the words of the old prayer
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Again, for emphasis: we must not let the things we cannot do hold us back from the things we can do. The things we can do, we should immediately begin to do. But to do them effectively we need some sort of co-ordination of a broad coalition of the left. I am deeply suspicious of the emergence of new, charismatic, egotistical, male 'leaders'. We've had Citizen Tommy. We've had Gorgeous George. They've done tremendous damage to the movement. Let's not have any more of them.

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