Friday, 3 January 2020

New thinking on the verge of extinction

The retiring General Secretary of the Scottish TUC, Grahame Smith, has today called on Labour to support, rather than oppose, holding a second independence referendum in Scotland.  He is just the latest in a line of Labour figures in Scotland who accept that it is impossible to argue that winning 48 seats out of 59, under the rules governing UK elections, does not give the SNP a mandate for calling such a vote.  The argument might look a little different under a fairer voting system, but as a member of a party supporting the retention of the existing system he clearly recognises the difficulty in denying the result of the election.  He doesn’t go as far as saying that he’d support a ‘yes’ vote, but there is a key part of what he says with which I find myself entirely in agreement.
He argues that “While the question on the ballot paper may remain: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, the real question is what powers, or what elements of Scotland’s sovereignty, are Scottish voters willing to share and with whom?”, and this very neatly goes to the heart of the difference between the English/ Anglo-British nationalist version of sovereignty which has been driving Brexit and the more internationalist view of Scottish (and Welsh) independentistas.  Many Brexiteers have failed to understand why anyone could argue for being part of one union whilst wanting to leave another, but this question goes a long way towards answering that.
The nationalists behind Brexit appear to have an absolutist view of sovereignty as something belonging to and exercised solely by the people of a defined nation, in their case ‘Britain’ (or perhaps more appropriately, ‘Greater England’).  Mostly, they seem to be against both co-operation internationally and devolution internally, wanting all power to be held in one place.  Are there independentistas in Scotland and Wales who hold a similar view but simply want to draw the boundaries differently, based on a different understanding of nationality and history?  Yes, of course there are, and it would be disingenuous to argue otherwise.  In my long experience, however, they are not the mainstream majority as they seem to be in the case of Anglo-British nationalism, nor do most independentistas have a vision of their nation which implies it to be special, unique, or exceptional.  Mainstream independentistas recognise exactly the point being made by Smith; independence is merely a redefinition of the way in which the people of these two nations relate to, and share their sovereignty with, others - and on what terms.  Absolute independence, of the sort being sought by Anglo-British exceptionalists, makes no sense in a modern interconnected world in which common problems need to be faced and solved collectively.
By posing the question in the way he does, Grahame Smith is much closer to the internationalist view of Labour’s pioneers, to which I referred earlier this week.  It’s just a pity that it has taken the near-annihilation of Labour in Scotland before some of them have felt able to start such a debate, whilst their colleagues in England seem to want to lead their party down the same Anglo-British nationalist route as the Tories.


Jonathan said...

Your post has crystallised for me why Plaid/Wales perform so poorly and have achieved so little. "independence is merely a redefinition of the way in which the people of these two nations relate to, and share their sovereignty with, others - and on what terms."
Well, this is like saying marriage is a contract to share a life and property. Its true, but its not the whole story, is it? Marriage needs that emotional fire of course.
What is it that fires and drives a nation? That sense of exceptionalism, I think. Every nation has its own historical and geographical and political context. I feel the historical pain of Wales, the beauty of the country and the political injustice and folly which blight us. Having married an American, and immersed myself in its politics, I get their version of exceptionalism. They think the history of their Republic (despite slavery, a Civil War and quirks alien to British culture) and their geography allows them to make a distinctive contribution to the world. Which they do. The developed world copied the US political system, not the UK one, and it relies on their wealth and armed forces for world protection. The one which leaves me cold is British exceptionalism. I mean, I get their complicated and contradictory attitude to Europe. In Defence terms they have the puzzle of whether to join Europe or divide it. They have a post-medieval mish-mash for a political system. The English did give me cricket and Shakespeare. The Thames Valley is nice. But I just don't partake in an emotional sense that England/Britain is wonderful/exceptional. Hence I don't get Brexit. But we all feel the English emotion now, and their sense of being exceptional. So if most Welsh politicians lack this kind of emotional commitment to Wales as a country, even Plaid Cymru ones, our underachievement becomes (sadly) very easy to understand.

John Dixon said...

"Its true, but its not the whole story..." I sort of agree, but I think that we are talking about two different things here. You are talking more about the 'why'; specifically why choose Wales as the unit, rather than, say, Pembrokeshire, or Ynys Môn - or even Britain. That choice of the unit is what implies a degree of identity or commitment to the idea of a nation, although it doesn't necessarily imply any sense of superiority. The problem with the word 'exceptionalism' is that it has (in this context) two rather different meanings; the first is a sense of 'difference' (and without that sense of 'difference', is thre any such thing as a nation or nationality?), but that sense of 'difference' is both hard to define and very subjective. The second meaning is one of a particular entitlement to special treatment by the rest of the world, and that is a rather more dangerous one and one which is becoming all too common in the UK.

However, I was talking more about the 'what' in terms of what 'independence' actually means for the relationship between Wales and the rest of the world, and I believe that there really is a distinction, and an important one, between the idea of absolute sovereignty as promulgated by the Brexiteers and a more internationalist view of how it can realistically be exercised in the modern world.

Jonathan said...

What the English/Brits have done is a lunge for control. If John Bull were an animal he would be a maddened, tormented one.So they are worked up about this week's Withdrawal Agreement Bill. They will pass it. And they will roar and paw the ground. They will feel they have asserted sovereignty. But then they will hit the problem you identify, how do you use it? Well they have not worked it out since England separated from France in medieval times. They have not worked it out during 40 years inside the EU. And they will fail to work it out in the next five years "outside" the EU yet tied to it. Because emotion will run into the facts of life, which in the case of Europe are complicated and do indicate very high levels of integration. The English hate "complicated" so the mad tormented roaring will continue.