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The prospects for real democracy in an independent Scotland, Interview with Andy Wightman

Categories: Features Interviews

Lucy Brown speaks to writer, researcher and leading land reform activist Andy Wightman, and asks: what are the prospects for democracy in an independent Scotland?

LB: You responded to the launch of the Yes Campaign with #yesauchtermuchty and a series of tweets on local democracy. What could the decentralisation of power mean for Scotland?

AW: I’m very interested in this whole debate because I think it’s a reflection of that fact that Britain, and Scotland, is one of the least democratic countries in Europe, and I think a lot of the stuff around the referendum is posturing and tribalism.  It’s a fairly shallow debate and certainly hasn’t engaged people, and most of the reason for that is probably that it’s still two years away.  I’m of the view that politics has become trivialised in Britain… and we look at things like independence referendums as just another talent contest.  And I think the hollowing out of local democracy is a real problem and kind of an unfashionable cause at the moment.  A lot of people poo-poo it, but it’s strange that no other European country has done what we did and abolish local government, and it’s strange that none are wanting to do it… If you look at the parliamentary records of 1972, 1973, the Wheatley Commission, it’s a really animated debate – very high levels of engagement by citizens and people arguing against the abolition of town councils, because they really felt a sense of ownership of them.  And [the town councils] were a bit nepotistic and corrupt in places – but then government is.

At the heart of a lot of debates we have at the moment is we don’t live in a democratic country.  With a second chamber that’s not democratic, with a head of state that’s not democratic and with no real democratic institutions in which people can participate in a meaningful way.  The Jimmy Reid Foundation did an interesting report called ‘The Silent Crisis’, the lead off of which is a German academic based here at Edinburgh, with a series of interesting tables.  One of them was the percentage of people who actually have stood for election – and in a lot of countries it’s like 1 in 400, 1 in 800 have actually stood – and here it’s like one in a quarter of a million or something, it’s just ridiculous.  If you don’t engage with political activity, you don’t understand what politics is about; you don’t understand its potential, its transformative potential – and you become apathetic.

LB: In And the Land Lay Still, James Robertson tells the story of a nation in flux; a nation whose emergent identity is shaped by the vagaries of the post-war period.  How does the land lie in contemporary Scotland?

AW: And the Land Lay Still is a wonderful book, I really enjoyed reading it; I think that it’s very well-crafted and I like James Robertson as an author.  But I do not recognise that Scotland as much more than a minority interest during the period he’s talking about and he’s been criticised for that, and that’s fair enough – he doesn’t pretend that it’s anything other than that.  But the nationalist cause post-war was a tiny, tiny, tiny little cause.  And yes there was a flame burning if you like, and for those adherents this was something that would come to life eventually, and he captures that very well.  But post-war Scotland was a very consensual place… well it’s difficult to compare now with then, it certainly was not as portrayed by James Robertson I don’t think.  It was a very statist, quite an elitist place – quite a conservative place.  I mean, a lot of those attributes still apply I think.  I think the big change was when Thatcher came along and, you know, some people commend her for this and I think there’s some ground for doing so – I mean, she elevated the individual in terms of its political relations and particularly its economic relations to the state in a way that had never been done before – she was a genuine revolutionary.  And that, I think, has changed the character of Britain as a whole quite considerably.  And then her economic liberalisations: the ‘big bang’, globalisation, the rise of neoliberalism under her watch and Regan’s – it has really led people to believe that actually the polity doesn’t matter very much because as long as they can do well for themselves and their families, in essence that’s all that matters.

I think contemporary Scotland is still living in the shadow of Thatcher’s revolution, whereby – and this gets back to my earlier point about local democracy – really, it’s what you do for yourself that matters…  A lot of the political discourse around just now is focussed again on the individual: Alex Salmond, up or down; what did so and so say.  You know, you watch the political discussion programmes like Question Time, questions are asked by the audience which are not direct, you somehow have to ask some question which seems to come in from the side and Dimbleby has to interpret it and more often than not it’s about what somebody said, you know, ‘Ed Miliband said something, do you agree?’  Well, frankly – who cares?  It’s the issue that matters.  On things like land, banking, finance and money – all the stuff that’s kind of structural, architectural, it’s the foundations of society – you don’t get any meaningful discussion.  Well, actually, banking’s a bit different.  If you go into any Irish pub now, far more of them are clued up about economics than before… [but] I think contemporary Scotland is still characterised by what characterised post-war Scotland: it’s conservative, it’s elitist – but it’s also much more individualistic.

LB: You mentioned the banking crisis, and I see that you were recently in touch with the Met Police alleging fraud by Barclays.  What could independence mean for monetary reform?

That’s a difficult question.  Independence is a less scary notion, it’s a more normal thing and lots of countries have become independent in the last forty years or so – still it’s a big, big change.  How you manage your money and how you relate to the rest of the world financially is one of the really big questions, because money in and of itself is worth nothing – it’s merely a means of exchange, and it’s the thing that oils the wheels of exchange. Some countries with a different history get this, like Germany, which although it’s got one or two feral banks at the top like Deutsche Bank, by-and-large understands that money is merely the means by which Germans can set up factories to make things and sell them in the marketplace – whereas Britain has fetishized financial services to the status of the protected national industry.  The Germans protect their engineering and car sectors, the French protect their agriculture – we protect financial services.

Statements about the Bank of England and Sterling and currency unions are all very well, in fact probably given the global nature of capital, if you’re going to become independent the last thing you want is a flight of capital – so you want to reassure people so you say ‘we’re going to stick with Sterling’ or ‘we’re going to move into a currency union’, that’s all very sensible politics for the moment if you like.  But it’s not actually practical I don’t think, because I don’t think the rest of the UK is going to agree to a currency union, I mean they’re just looking across the Channel and seeing what currency unions do.  Without a currency union, without a formal treaty, Scotland can continue to use Sterling but it can’t have any influence over the Bank of England.  So I think that’s one of the biggest debates to be had…  It’s going to be hard work, it’s going to take a lot of effort, so if you’re going to do it you have to be wholehearted about it, not half-hearted.  If you’re going to have currency unions, Sterling unions, keeping the Queen, all this kind of stuff – that’s half-hearted and I don’t think people are going to be persuaded.  And I think it’s dishonest politics as well, because basically it becomes a marketing job by one group in society – the SNP – who want independence and are working at a marketing strategy to persuade everyone else to vote for it.

Given that we basically invented modern banking in Scotland, we set up the Bank of England and all the rest of it, we have massive expertise in the financial sector in Edinburgh – I think we could invent something quite different, quite progressive, quite revolutionary for our country’s banking system.  I think it’s possible.  And I think the Scottish financial sector is distant enough from the casino banking in the City of London; most of Scottish banking money has made its name from Scottish Providence, Standard Life, life assurance, insurance – funds which we trade on the notion of long-term stability and long-term prudence.  It’s not the kind of derivatives get-rich-quick schemes which have been the downfall of the global financial system, so I think we’ve got the potential to do something quite smart.  But people have to start talking about what that’s going to be – and they’ve barely started.

LB: In your book The Poor Had No Lawyers, you describe how the Scottish commons ended up in private hands.  Does independence provide the opportunity to right some wrongs?

AW: I think independence, if it’s full-hearted and people are up for it, I think the kind of energy it might unleash might be directed at sorting out some of these issues – or it might not.  Who knows?  Independence in and of itself is not really going to do anything for the land question in its broader sense, particularly because virtually all the powers to do anything about these issues already reside with the Scottish Parliament – and they’re not using them.  If what’s happening just now is a reflection of the political priorities – well the priorities of the political class – then independence is not going to change that, unless accompanying independence is a strong desire to do things differently.  But that strong desire again will be in conflict with what Scottish society has grown up with, which is again this individualistic culture where we can all get materially better off year on year on year, at the same time as ignoring the 20% at the bottom whose lives have not improved any bit: ‘who cares because they don’t vote’.  I don’t necessarily see that independence offers an opportunity for big change unless it’s accompanied by that determined agenda to do something about poverty and inequality.  If it’s accompanied by that, then the combination of the powers that exist just now and the powers that would then be available in an independent country could transform Scotland.  And I think Scotland’s kind of the right size.  You can conduct a transformative political project in a country the size of Scotland: it’s big enough, and small enough.

LB: Because of your research, we know who owns Scotland but, turning to the role of class and power, who rules it?

AW: I think Scotland is a very elitist country, it always has been.  We’ve never had the democratic revolutions that have swept Europe; in 1975 we got rid of any local government at all… Local government has nothing to decide upon, apart from how it’s going to allocate its budget and spent money…  It is a very elitist place, a very conservative place –and that’s a toxic roux really.  So that means there are certain things that will never really happen, no matter how hard people push for them.  And that’s the same in Britain as it is in Scotland, it’s not a uniquely Scottish thing – it’s a British thing.  If you’re outside that kind of bubble, then your hope of achieving much influence is greatly diminished unless you’re organised.

Even the Scottish Parliament hasn’t really provided.  It’s provided some oxygen, I mean remember I’m involved in land and stuff – so when the Scottish Landowners’ Federation had to come before the first committee hearing before the Scottish Parliament back in 1999 or 2000, I remember I was there – it was gobsmacking.  These were people who had been used to just picking up the phone and asking Lord such and such to sort something, and they fixed it in the House of Lords.  Also that was on the back of an era when, under the Tory government from 1979 to 1997, every Scottish Office had at least two or three Ministers of State who were landowners, so they didn’t even have to pick up the phone to their pals in the House of Lords, they just picked up their phone to the Earl of Mansfield or Sir Hector Munro or Lord Strathclyde or…  Half these people are still around.  That went, and they had to come forward to the Parliament and make a case in a way they’d never had to make it before and that was scary for them.… I’ve a fair inkling that this applies to other vested interests as well – the way they’ve adapted is to seek to capture the political elite, and they’ve done a bloody good job of it…  That’s what these elites have done; they’ve successfully captured the political process… [P]olitics has become corporatised, and again that’s not a uniquely Scottish thing but it is I think something that’s easier, it’s easier done in a small country, a small conservative country like Scotland where we don’t have a very active political participation.

LB: I think these vested interests tend to be seen as somehow more benign in the Scottish context, too – there’s the narrative of ‘consensus politics’ and the notion that policymaking isn’t subject to the same degree of lobbying as at Westminster, so it’s assumed corporate power isn’t effected – but it is, just by a different means.

AW: Exactly, I mean for example, one of my interests is land reform, and there was the Land Reform Act and that is heading to review because it’s frankly not working very well and they’re intending to set up a review group… [which] will have a member from what are now called the Scottish Land & Estates, the Scottish landowners’ union.  If it does, then well what’s the point of that?  When Nelson Mandela came to power, he set up a big land reform programme, but there wasn’t a single white landowner on any of his groups.  Their interests were taken into account, because you can’t have a reform programme that doesn’t take into account the interests of the existing elites, you have to sort of stop them feeling so aggrieved that they will take up arms and stuff, you have to recognise at the end of the day they are human beings who are not individually responsible for the politics they’re exploiting etc etc etc – you’ve got to deal with them in a very sensitive but very clever way, but you certainly don’t let them in the door into the heart of decision making about reform, because they’re just going to block it.

I think we’re kind of a bit of a product of the Enlightenment, we think that we need to think through problems rationally, come up with solutions, and then we present them to the powers that be and they will then look at them and consider them objectively and if they’re good ideas they’ll be taken forward and sometimes there’ll be a law passed for the better.  But that’s not how social change works, never has been…  [R]eal social change happens in revolutionary moments, with a small ‘r’ – and because of our conservative disposition I think we’re far too reluctant to be revolting.

LB: You were challenged on Twitter for using the language of ‘class’.  Why is it relevant to talk about the ‘landed class’?  And what does class mean in contemporary Scotland?

There was a piece in the paper there, in the Guardian about how Marx is coming back into fashion and about how sales of Marx’s Capital are really on the rise – mainly in response to the financial crisis and people want to understand what the person who analysed this system we call capitalism thought about it all, and he’s obviously got a lot of telling insights into it.  But to my mind the important thing about class is that it’s a way of differentiating people on the basis of certain attributes, traditionally wealth and power.  Unless you have a truly egalitarian democratic society, then those divisions will always exist.  In many societies, the fact there are those divisions doesn’t matter much because they’re fairly modest and they’re attenuated, but in a society like Britain where the gap between the rich and poor is growing – as in Scotland, in Britain and in the world -where resources are coming under increasing stress – freshwater, hydrocarbons – and where democratic governance has become much more opaque and corporations, banks etc are effectively making far more decisions on our behalf than our elected government, then class becomes that much more important in order to identify those places where power and wealth exist in certain forms – to differentiate, and then to understand the power relations that exist.

I have begun to use it because I think it is important, because you see the role of the Scottish landowners for example is just to say ‘we’re just ordinary people, we’re just going to own some land and we’re doing a good things with it and what’s really the problem?’  If you think the problem is just about getting people to behave themselves and stop committing the worst excesses, kicking people out their homes at no notice or whatever then that’s fine, that’s what it’s about.  But if you think the problems are structural – to do with the fact that a small number of people own a hell of a lot of the country’s resources – then you’ve got to analyse it as a class problem.  The other reason I do it is, frankly, because I think it’s important to introduce an element of political economy into debates which are otherwise devoid of any political values, it’s just kind of about policies where it’s like ‘what do this people do and how can we all get on together?’  The problem with that, that idea of ‘consensual politics’ – a politics which has been mastered by this current government – is that it disguises the fact that there are different interests, there are vested interests, there are people who are poor, there are people with little power, and the only way to expose that is to expose the divisions that exist within that wealth and power – and class is the best way to do that.  It also wakes up those vested interests in my opinion, it wakes them up to the notion that a lot of what we’re talking about isvery political, because it’s to do with power – and they don’t like that.  If nothing else, it winds them up, because that is territory on which they do not want to fight.  So if for no other reason, I’m introducing that terminology simply to undermine their comfort levels – because inequality thrives where the powerful are comfortable.  You’ve got to make them uncomfortable.

LB: What about corporate power? What are the implications of Salmond’s ties to figures like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch, for example?

AW: I think most of it is simply a reflection of the fact that corporate power now exists, in a way that it didn’t in the past.  The way we tried to do it post-war was ‘we the state’ captured corporate power – we became the corporation.  So we had state corporations for gas and electric and coal and ships and railways and everything – we nationalised.  In fact I struggle to think of anything we didn’t nationalise after the war.  And I think that kind of huge grab of power by the state was understandable at the time, but I think it’s been one of the things that has undermined our democracy because state power in itself doesn’t respond well to democratic impulses.  It took a revolutionary, Thatcher, to dismantle much of it in a very, very short space of time, and that in itself is destructive and destabilising and it leaves the citizen rather bewildered, so the citizen is told to go and buy shares in British Steel or British Gas, a company which the day before the owned so why should they spend any of their money buying it, but in those circumstances weird things happen.

So corporate power is not something we’re unfamiliar with, it’s just that corporate power is now in a different place.  It was, to a big degree, with the state; it’s now if not equally big to a larger degree with the private corporations often operating transnationally.  In a small country like Scotland that isn’t independent at the moment, it can’t really punch above its weight internationally even if it wanted to.  You are at the whim of these corporate power structures, and any sensible politician needs to recognise that.  And if you fight against it, you’ve got to fight it in a very clever way.  I think part of what Salmond’s up to is positioning for the referendum: you don’t want to offend corporate power, because in the 70s it was corporations and big business who said ‘if Scotland becomes independent we’ll flee’ – you know, jobs, money everything – and of course fleeing is now much easier, you just shift your headquarters and all the rest of it.  So I think part of it is just pragmatic politics.  Part of it is that Salmond as an individual is someone who is very familiar with corporate power because he worked in a bank and he is an economist, and I think he just likes it.  And it’s always very, very interesting and fascinating to be in the midst of power… I think part of that is what appeals to Salmond, part of it is positioning about independence, part of it is pragmatic politics.  But I don’t actually see anything more sinister than that frankly.  Which is not to say that it hasn’t led to serious lapses in judgement.  I think Trump was a classic error of judgement… but that happens in small countries that have limited economic power.

LB: What do you think about the SNP’s various appeals to social democracy and the Nordic model?

AW: I think they’re very interesting, but I think they’re contradictory.  If on the one hand you want to cut taxes, but you want to ring-fence the NHS and have a wonderful level of free education that’s unrivalled anywhere in the world – you’ve got to pay for it.  At the moment the bill is being paid for by North Sea oil.  But then you look at Norway, and how does Norway deal with North Sea oil?  Well it’s got a state oil corporation – it actually owns the oil itself.  Whereas all we get are taxes from oil extraction, that’s all we get.  Norway set up a state oil company and an oil fund, so if the SNP’s rhetoric about the Nordic model – about which it doesn’t say a great deal to be fair – was to be consistent, they’d be advocating the nationalisation of North Sea hydrocarbons and a Scottish oil corporation, and they’re not.  Or they’d be arguing for quite significantly higher taxes, which they’re not.

So I think in the context of the independence referendum, this is all shadow boxing just now.  No one’s really looking at the issues terribly seriously, but that’s partly because we’re two years in, people aren’t really prepared for it yet.  It’s just initial skirmishes to try and map out the terrain, see where people are, see the kind of things that people will respond to – it’s just the early stages of a marketing campaign.  But a marketing campaign like no other marketing campaign in the sense that a lot is at stake for those who are advocating ‘vote yes’ or ‘vote no’…  This is a kind of ‘do or die’ for the SNP: it’s their raison d’être.  It’s what people who’ve come up through that party have been living every day for… This is what I despair about the current debate – anything that supports a kind of partisan position of the yes or the no camp is grasped.  So when the Nordic model suits, we’ll grasp it; when it doesn’t suit, we don’t do anything with it.  We have to get beyond that.  To my mind, the model for Scotland as an independent country is Denmark – not Norway.  For various reasons that we don’t need to go into.  And no one’s talked about Denmark, yet.

LB: How then do we decouple nationalism from the movement for self-determination?

AW: That’s a really interesting question.  Patrick Harvie stood up at the Yes Campaign launch and said ‘we Greens support independence, but we’re not nationalists’.  I think we’ve got to move beyond this nationalist/unionist debate, because actually a lot of people who want to stay within the UK are not unionists, it’s just that’s their country and they don’t see why we should split it up, it’s as simple as that.  And a lot of people who want independence for Scotland are not nationalists, they just think we’d be better off with our own government or ‘I could have more influence here’, I don’t know – lots of motivations.  So we’ve got to move beyond that binary.  When we get beyond that then it’ll get interesting I think.

LB: So looking beyond this binary, what should be the terms of the debate going forward?

AW: One of the BBC debates, it was amazing – one of the audience members said something like ‘would we be better off in an independent Scotland?’ and of course Nicola Sturgeon was very keen to say ‘yes of course we would, we’re the sixth richest country in the world blah blah blah’ and Patrick Harvie said ‘I don’t know – nobody can know’.  Four years ago, if somebody had said the whole British banking system’s going to collapse, nobody would have believed you, so we can’t predict what’s going to happen in two years.  Look what’s happened to the Euro, no one’s predicted that; no one’s predicted the kind of firestorm that’s hit Greece.  You can’t predict anything in the future, so there are no certainties in all of this, no certainties whatsoever.  I think if Scotland votes for independence, it will either be because of a very sophisticated marketing campaign where people have been duped! – or, hopefully, it will be the result of a campaign that explores how best should we govern ourselves.

I think that there’s a strong case to be made for independence on the basis that it will provide better and more responsible governance, that we will have to as a society take more responsibility for what we do here and in the world, in a way that the British state fails to at the moment for a huge number of reasons…  [I]f for no other reason Scottish independence would be a ‘good thing’ because it would get rid of what I regard as a pretty decrepit democratic model and replace it with a better one.  If you want better democracy, which is what independence would give us, you have to want it for a reason.  There’s no point in having it if you then choose to neglect the opportunities that it gives you.  That’s why the radical independence movement could have an important role to play.  It’s not going to be proposing a practical programme, but what it is going to do is be putting out –what the SNP campaign is not doing and what the Yes Campaign is not doing – it’s going to say these are the kinds of things, these are the options; practical options that are available to you, choices…  So that’s the only reason in my view for going for independence is if it’s going to deliver a better society, and if it’s going to improve the democratic participation of people in the future of the country.  If neither of those two things are going to happen then it’s just constitutional fiddling.


Andy Wightman regularly writes on land, power and politics in Scotland online at http://www.andywightman.com/. His most recent book The Poor Had No Lawyers (2010, Birlinn Ltd) is available to buy online here. You can follow Andy on Twitter.

You can read the full transcript of the interview here.

One Response to “The prospects for real democracy in an independent Scotland, Interview with Andy Wightman”

  1. cushy glen says:

    I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that an independent Scotland will not benefit the ordinary Scot any more than the current constitutional arrangement. Why? Because the Scots are too conservative & do not have the stomach for the real change that is needed. The SNP know this & that’s why they propose to retain the services of the Bank of England and the Royal Family for example.
    It will be a very dishonest form of “independence”. It would be more honest to stay as we are until we have the guts to face up to what independence really is – ITS NOT HAVING YOUR CAKE & EATING IT!

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