The Opportunities of Independence

The issue of Scottish independence continues to divide anti-capitalists, just as it does mainstream political parties. With the mooted second referendum on hold, we ask contributors to consider the bread and butter issues that surround independence. Writer Gabriel Neil argues a new constitution and status quo would benefit radicals seeking change in society...

For those of us convinced that radical change in economics and society are necessary, the question of how to achieve that is frequently a kind of Gordian Knot. We know we can't simply will changes into being, and that support from below, from the street often, is necessary, but the moments when that is possible are hard to predict and cannot really be forced.

Historically, the times in which major changes have occurred have been moments of crisis: economic crises, geopolitical crises, even ecological crises. Usually, these events come with a large pile of dead bodies and countless recriminations for decades or centuries after. However, the left in Scotland, as in some other parts of Europe, are faced with an enormous opportunity – the potential to create a critical moment and influence the formation of a new state peacefully and consensually. If a regular crisis comes along once in a generation, this is an opportunity which may never come again.

I’m of course talking about the potential contained within the movement for Scottish independence. It's quite common in the independence movement to hear people say that the ambitions of Scotland amount to a desire to be a “normal” European nation state. This idea of normalcy is largely based on what are in effect slightly less callous neoliberal states with slightly more state ownership. And while that would certainly be an improvement on the current situation in the UK, I’d like to think we would aim for something more than a set-up which has seen a growth of wage stagnation, the gig economy and, well, Emmanuel Macron. 

What the ruction of Scottish independence would create is an opportunity to steer the foundations of a new nation. A new constitution would need to be set up, creating a new set of norms and a new set of precedents to inform decision making for decades to come.

Now don't take me as naïve here: I don't believe independence and a decent constitution are going to usher in a socialist utopia. What I do believe is that constitutions and myth-making around the construction of new nation states is enormously influential in creating in people's minds the possibilities for that country.

We only need to look at Spain right now to see how the method by which their post-Franco constitution was created has had a huge impact on the situation in Catalonia. The contents of that constitution were heavily influenced by the forces of right-wing Catholicism, a fascist state apparatus, monarchism, the military and conservatism. As such, it’s a legal framework which precludes radical change.

We know that constitutions don't regularly change. Even in Iceland, where there was enormous support for a new constitution and a public collaborative effort to create one, their new constitution still hasn't been enacted. In the US, their constitution is often treated as a holy, immutable document, despite the many changes it has in fact gone through. The way in which a nation's constitution is set up can have incredibly far-reaching effects culturally, in terms of the kind of changes that are deemed possible.

So, to smooth the way to more radical changes in society, to make challenging capital and oppression easier, the left must be deeply invested in the process of creating the new norms and precedents of an independent Scotland.

I have written before about why decentralisation should be important to the left, and my own position is that an addition to this process would be to campaign for local democracy to not only be enshrined by any new constitution, but entirely firewalled against central government. Create within a new constitution a strict divide between the powers of central government and the powers of local (at many different levels) with significant taxation and borrowing powers ceded to the local level.

A national assembly of councillors could be created to coordinate local government issues best settled at a national level (i.e. the forms of local taxation councils can use, or wealth redistribution between councils), and crucially, this assembly could have a veto on any constitutional changes without a referendum. The key thing being that this is a constitutional division of powers, not devolution; no central government acting within the constitution could remove or dilute local democracy unilaterally, and no one political party could change the constitution without overwhelming support across the country.

This is just one suggestion for what Scottish independence could do, but the opportunities are endless. Make no mistake; they will require an energised left with strong roots in working class and radical communities to push for a new kind of state, but this presents a historic chance for the left to shape what a nation can become. We should not be aiming to create a “normal” nation state, that's what got us into this situation. Scottish independence allows us to consider new forms the state can take – better, more decentralised ones, where ordinary people's voices can be heard. That’s not an opportunity we should throw away.