Is Covid-19 Changing Our Approach to Independence?

by Simon Barrow

See also: Eds. Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow, Scotland After the Virus (Luath Press, 2020).

One of the many things that the COVID-19 pandemic has done is to bring into the spotlight some major trends which we need to take on board as we continue to press the case for independence.  Here I will briefly highlight four of them.

1. COVID has further exposed the dangerously dysfunctional and degraded nature of the UK state, and why we need to move away from it it.

First, we can see clearly how the UK is becoming an ever-more extractive, crony state and a kleptocracy as well as a plutocracy. The contracting out of PPE and Test and Trace to corporate cowboys and Tory donors is both deeply corrupt and a further exercise in asset-stripping alongside the stealth privatisation of the NHS – part of the creation of a rentier economy that benefits the landlords, the capital-controllers and the landowning classes.

Second, the Tory Government is even willing to break the law to assert its top-down control and strip away further devolved powers from Scotland through the Internal Markets Bill. It will undoubtedly use Brexit to weaken labour, agricultural and environmental regulation whenever it suits it to do so, too. Meanwhile, the City of London operates as a virtual city-state (and money-laundering centre), dominating and distorting regional and national economies in the rest of the UK.

Third, the current UK Government has made it quite clear that it wishes to limit the restraining powers an independent judiciary, to move away from an impartial civil service, to limit the right to protest, and do away with the Human Rights Act. This is a massive threat to democracy.

The probable future of Scotland as part of the UK is not a particularly pretty one…

2. COVID has shown how the climate crisis, the dramatic loss of biodiversity and the likelihood of future pandemics are all linked to our failure to nurture the environment as a priority, and to the rapacious nature of neoliberal capitalism.

The simple fact is that the case for Scottish independence has in the past hinged to a significant extent on oil. It can do so no longer. We need a rapid and effective transition to a non-carbon future. The good news in that Scotland has some 30-40% of Europe’s on- and off-shore renewable energy potential. The bad news is that we’re not moving nearly fast enough, we lack the economic and borrowing powers necessary to make the really big shift, and UK governments of whatever hue are never going to make this a priority in a way that really benefits Scotland.

A high-tech, green, collaborative Scotland is the future. But we need that future in our own hands, and in particular control over AI, robotification and automation. (That raises serious questions, in and beyond the SNP, about corporate capture, the nature of the Scottish ruling elite, and ‘continuity Scotland’, by the way – something signalled to us by the forces behind significant parts of the Growth Commission. It also reminds us, as does the uneven impact of the pandemic, that class as a shaper and feature of outcomes has not gone away.)

3. COVID has shown us that we need renewed interdependence, as well independence, to shape Scotland’s future – both within and beyond these islands.

To put it quickly and simply, leaving the UK doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean abandoning all the social, historical, cultural, family and other ties that exist within these islands. What both unites and divides us as nations has become especially clear during this pandemic, with the so-called Celtic nations diverging from England but overshadowed by what is effectively an English government. An independent Scotland has the opportunity to develop consciously positive relations with Wales and both parts of Ireland, to help open up a different political path in England by choosing its allies there, and to argue for a commonwealth of self-governing nations and regions to replace a crumbling and broken unitary UK state.

This is important for our campaigning, because the ‘separatist’ and ‘isolationist’ accusations against Indy (and the socialism-against-nationalism trope) are not only wrong, but tug hard at the soft ‘no’ voters we need to win over when not challenged and reframed – as well as those bits of the left that mistake solidarity among people (workers, particularly) for the preservation of an archaic British state that actually works by divide-and-rule.

4. COVID has reminded us that the political is personal (as well as the other way round), and that this can and should have a profound impact on how we campaign. 

A better Scotland and a better world are possible. But we cannot build them on the back of acrimony and division. The First Minister has often reminded us that the pandemic requires us to demonstrate kindness, love and solidarity. Part of that – and this is my last point – is about understanding how other people (especially the great majority who don’t spend all their time thinking about politics!) look at things differently to us, and responding appropriately. This is about handling feelings well, and not just thinking that rational argument will be sufficient to progress.

Voters choose on emotion. We need to be visionary in setting out in practical ways how Scotland can be better for all of us when we start to take decisions for ourselves. But we have to be pragmatic and realistic about the fact that the path isn’t all plain-sailing, too. We also need to address people’s fears and suspicions when it comes to the referendum. That includes being clear that we want to carry a majority with us, both democratically and legally. It entails acknowledging that being seen to force the levers of constitutional change too abruptly during a pandemic is unlikely to convert waverers. In fact it could do the exact opposite. Patience is a difficult virtue, but it is essential to successful politics – as is being ready and prepared when the time comes to seize the moment. Those are difficult strategic judgements, of course; part of a much longer political conversation.  

My main point here, however, is that the left needs to learn how to use soft power and persuasion much better, as well as to recognise how to conduct political operations against the hard power of organised capital. For make no mistake, capital is organised and will be waiting for us.

Simon Barrow


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