2. Nationalism, Economy and Exodus?

1.   Being Norwegian?


22 NOVEMBER 2012, and I’m reading an opinion column in The Herald by journalist and commentator Iain MacWhirter, who is on a visit to Oslo.  “Face reality” says the headline. “We could be as prosperous as Norway.”  And the column goes on to argue that given the many similarities between Scotland and Norway – size of population, geographical position on a warming planet,  huge potential energy resources both traditional and renewable, and broadly social-democratic political attitudes – there’s little doubt that an independent Scotland could aim to achieve similar levels not only of wealth (Norway is consistently rated the richest country per head of population in the world, excluding small tax-haven states like Monaco), but also of social equality and public provision.


The point of MacWhirter’s column is to offer us a positive vision of a future Scotland, based on the Norwegian example; and he makes a fine job of arguing that Norway’s economic and social model – flat income distribution, high taxation, world-class public services free to all citizens, intense multi-layered democracy, and a powerful sense of social solidarity – is actually more efficient, in delivering a successful 21st century economy, than the neoliberal Anglo-American cost-cutting model that has been relentlessly promoted to us in Britain as the way of the future, ever since the late 1970s.  “Norwegians believe that low wages damage the economy,” says MacWhirter.  “And they are right.”


2.  Field Of Dreams (And Nightmares)


All of which makes an interesting starting-point for a debate about the future of one country searching for the right way forward in an increasingly stressed and competitive global economy.  In terms of discourse, MacWhirter’s column is a classic example of the way in which a nation like Scotland – which clearly exists, but is not fully expressed through the institutions of an independent state – inevitably becomes what I would call a “field of dreams”, an idea onto which people can project their fondest hopes, or most nightmarish fears, about potential futures.  In a sense, the debate in the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum – planned for the autumn of 2014 – will be, at its deepest level, about the conflict between dreams of a positive future, and nightmares of a negative one.  Progressive nationalists, who are interested in social justice, will argue that Scotland can become like Norway; Unionists will try to conjure up a counter-vision of an independent Scotland impoverished, excluded from the European Union, running out of oil, and returning to a reactionary dark age of social conservatism, dominated by Free Church ministers and homophobic cardinals.


3. Don’t Be Told Not To Dream: Good Dreams Become Good Policy


In approaching the referendum, Scots therefore need to think hard about both the dreams they are being offered, and the nightmares.  In the first place, it’s worth remembering that not all dreams are what reactionary politicians call “pipe-dreams”, or unrealistic fantasies.  Without a vision of a possible better future, it’s difficult for any human community to organise its activities, or to unleash the creativity and idealism of the people within it; most of the progressive social changes achieved in the UK over the last century, from the NHS to free education, were “pipe-dreams” until people organised themselves, and fought their way through the institutions of power to make them happen.

4. The Country: Right Or Left?


In the second place, though, it’s important to be vigilant against hazily optimistic or essentialist assumptions about what any community is, or might be.  Most nationalists on the centre-left tend to assume, for example, that Scotland is “naturally” left-wing, and that the social-democratic Scotland which rebelled against Thatcherism in the 1980’s, set up the Constitutional Convention to campaign for a Scottish Parliament in the UK, and won that Parliament in 1999, is still there, just waiting for the chance to escape from right-wing London governments.  Yet Scottish people, like everyone else in the UK, have been subjected to a barrage of right-wing media language over the past generation, xenophobic, vaguely sadistic, dedicated to the proposition that a successful modern society is founded on individual competition and a brutal kind of social Darwinism, rather than soildarity and co-operation; and to judge by the surprisingly positive response in some quarters to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont’s recent speech questioning the idea of universal benefits, and traditionally higher levels of public spending in Scotland, there may be growing support in Scotland for that kind of centre-right view.


5. Redefining Wealth: The Big Task Of 21st Century Politics?


Then lastly, in any debate about 21st century forms of government, it is essential to think deeply about the proper goals of a human community in our time, and about what we really mean by prosperity and success.  As Iain MacWhirter argues in his column, it is possible to imagine a sovereign Scotland, in the decade or two following independence, becoming what one international energy expert called “the Saudi Arabia of green energy”, a state which uses its remaining oil and gas wealth to invest in its future as a global hub for the wind, wave and tidal power made so abundant by our geographical position.


Yet we face a century in which material wealth and consumption will almost certainly be constrained by increasing resource shortages, and in which the wealthiest nations will face growing pressure to help those fleeing the stresses of climate change, food shortage, and a still-growing global population.  There’s no doubt that material wealth helps to oil the wheels of political change; and that for nations or regions used to thinking of themselves as “poor relations”, the idea of becoming relatively wealthy can itself unleash many creative ideas about better futures.


Yet Scotland’s campaign for home rule was stronger and deeper in the 1990s, when it argued for democracy and social justice, than in the 1970s, when it simply said, “It’s Scotland’s Oil.”  And it looks as if successful political communities, in the coming century, will need not only sustainable ways of generating and redistributing wealth, but also a value-system which goes far beyond material affluence; one that binds people together in the good cause of a just and compassionate society, and that does so without excluding the stranger at the door, or the needs of an ever more troubled world.


6. Economy Can Influence Our Beliefs; But In The End, What We Believe And Imagine Shapes Economy, In Scotland And Everywhere


Historically, intellectually, socially, even economically, Scotland should have the resources to become that kind of just society, whatever our constitutional decision in 2014.  That possible future depends, though, on people’s continuing capacity to believe that this kind of society is not a hopeless dream but a potential “reality”, as the headline on Iain MacWhirter’s column suggests; and that we can continue to build an economic and political world that reflects our best aspirations for ourselves and those around us, rather than the narrow range of human characteristics – material greed, aggressive competition, and indifference to the needs of others – which are defined as “natural” by the present dominant economic system, and increasingly allowed to shape and degrade our world.  It’s therefore important for everyone to work out what we believe about possible futures, and why; because for human beings, nothing finally matters more than our power to imagine different worlds, and our capacity to work and organise our way from imagination, to a brand new reality.

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