Robin McAlpine: The impact of the virus on the independence movement

“I am sick to the back teeth of independence, a cause very dear to my heart, being kicked around the gutter in a game of image management.”

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and then rebuild when it’s over. Today – Scottish independence.

I THINK finally everyone understands that this virus will have a serious impact on everything – for good or ill. This is yet one more crucial moment for the independence movement and we need to get it right this time.

The case against independence is rooted deeply in the ideology of the economic order which is now in existential crisis. Supporters of the Union will try hard to frame any talk of independence as being tantamount to treason. Pay no attention.

Because every nation must look to the safety of its own citizens – especially as the severe limitations of the idea that things get fixed ‘globally’ becomes transparent – the way people think about nation-states will change, for good or ill. It isn’t resilience when Westminster says it, yet selfishness when Scotland does the same.

The independence movement must be alert to all of this and prepare accordingly. Toryism and unionism aren’t taking a break and nor can we.

The crisis can bring independence – if we find a new story quickly

The breakdown of an economic system and the inevitable London-first, Tory-led handling of the crisis will open many opportunities for Scottish independence. I look at the contexts and the factors which make this the case below, but let’s cut to the chase – we need a new story about independence, a new pitch for Scotland’s post-virus future.

I don’t believe we have a story about independence any more – if there is one, I’m not sure what it is other than ‘democracy’. But the old narratives about why independence is a good idea are from another era.

There is a very clear agenda which could lead Scotland from economic devastation into a major Green New Deal while implementing an industrial strategy which rebuilds our economy for the better; that rapidly builds a proper system of welfare for all citizens and creates the local democracy and other aspects of national resilience which are so clearly missing now.

In the last five years the indy movement has been browbeaten into believing that any form of radicalism will just scare away Edinburgh unionists (a gibberish analysis). However, this is now unquestionably the era of radical. Everything from here out is going to be radical, no matter what; infact, it already is. Every action so far is accompanied by superlatives unthinkable a month ago.

It’s not ‘safety first’ versus ‘a better future’ any more – it’s Dominic Cummings’ radicalism or a radicalism for Scotland.

That is the only story now. Common Weal is working its socks off to produce a major and wide-ranging recovery strategy which transitions into delivering the Common Home Plan. I am utterly convinced that this is the story that gets us to independence, because it will show what we can do with power, not what we can do if we don’t use power too much.

We will get it published as fast as we can. I believe the movement must look at it very seriously, and that we should all get our shoulders behind it.

London financial markets get protected again – be angry

A recap of what I’ve suggested so far: we should have put the economy into hibernation for three or four months, provided a Universal Basic Income to keep people going, suspended mortgages, debt and rent and acted immediately to secure food supplies and created proper guidance and support for communities to self-manage the support people need (I explained it here and here.)

In that scenario, the banks would still have got their money but it would be delayed, while everyone else could have got by in reasonable comfort.

That’s not what happened. In fact, we’ve ended up with what is functionally a bailout not of people but of banks. If you are employed you’re being given just enough money to give to the banks and the supermarkets. Virtually every penny of the public spending so far will end up in the profit accounts of banks and corporations. Essentially, it’s just another hidden banking subsidy.

The banks meanwhile have so far been asked to carry no share of the pain. One more time, the UK believes that the financial industries are the foundation on which society is built, and so saving them comes first.

You should already be pissed off that the money is being targeted at the people who have debts to banks and not at people who are financially insecure. Not enough of you are yet – but I promise that you will be.

Because every time London opens its purse, it saves the City of London first.

The independence frame will change

The anti-independence narrative has always adhered to the logic of globalisation; it assumed that the world was big and open and you needed to be one of the ‘big boys’ if you wanted to ‘compete’.

Everything will now rebound rapidly in the other direction. Borders will be tightened or closed, protectionism will (quite rightly) be the order of the day, domestic interests will not unreasonably be put first, food security will become a major plank of national policy, and so on.

Quite how far we get into that frame will depend on what governments round the world do next – but the signs are that they will exacerbate this problem. The EU has been nowhere in all of this, and the European Central Bank has got no further than protecting banks.

Germany is already making clear it’s not going to pay for Europe-wide rebuilding. International cooperation will not end, but it will change. National self-sufficiency will become not only a widespread demand but an absolutely sensible demand.

Long supply chains made corporations a lot of money – but they are vulnerable and their failure brings devastating consequences.

I don’t like selfishness in global politics, but I’m not that keen on self-sacrifice either. Scotland is a resource-rich nation capable of producing much more than it consumes in food, energy and construction materials.

Globally the frame will more from ‘openness’ to ‘resilience’. The independence movement must understand this early.

‘Cling to London’ may look more liability than opportunity

The kinds of economy on which London is entirely reliant are based in the globalised long-supply-chain model which may now be at risk. When you rebuild you need to do it by investing in production, not speculation. Economies which produce will be resilient, while economies that don’t may need to be propped up.

London doesn’t really make very much. When food supplies get interrupted, no-one says “quick, get me an advertising executive”. Spending which pays for itself will be a feature of places that produce, while spending which is bail-out subsidy – taxpayer money that won’t be returned – will be in places that rely on speculation.

This week, next week, next month – it’s just a matter of time before banks discover the assets on which their speculation is based are now all greatly over-priced (a result of the last bailout). This week, next week, next month – they’ll be demanding a bailout or predicting the collapse of the economy.

The shape of London’s problems is yet to be seen – but they’re inevitable.

If only the Scottish Government had a clue

As I’ve pointed out previously, ‘Herd Immunity’ is the order of the day for the Scottish Government. So far Nicola Sturgeon has basically abdicated responsibility for this crisis to London. Her only really strenuous effort has been to read out Boris Johnson’s speeches before he does.

The biggest liability to the Scottish independence movement of the crisis so far is that the supposedly independence-supporting first minister really does seem to believe that, in a crisis, the Union is the thing to cling to.

I’m trying to think of so much as a single significant thing they have done differently, have criticised in the UK approach or have asked or demanded which was more than was already being given. I’ve tried, but all I can come up with is that for a week they seemed to think Scotland’s landlords needed more protection and its tenants less protection than those in the rest of the UK.

Cry freedom, eh folks?

Health is devolved: Scotland could have followed the more successful strategies of Germany or South Korea and emphasised testing. The law is devolved: we could have followed many countries into earlier lockdown (or at least been an awful lot more prepared for it). But we followed London and London alone.

There is no distinctly Scottish response, and the longer this goes on the more we’re going to hear anti-independence voices claiming this shows that the Union is an omni-solution to Scotland’s problems.

If the Scottish Government continues down this road, I suspect that the Scottish Government will leave London to do the rebuilding too. It’s almost as if Sturgeon wants to engender a kind of post-war British nationalism.

It’s not a civil war – but the SNP needs BIG change

This is not a result of the virus but is happening at the same time; the aftermath of the Salmond trial leaves ‘facts on the ground’ which cannot be dodged. I’m aware of the detail of what information will go into the public domain next and it will reflect badly. But unless those responsible fall on their sword it has to come out, and it will.

For now, I will simply illustrate by sticking to what is in the public domain to show that it is already untenable for people to cling to jobs. It will get much worse.

First, the key senior officials in the SNP were presented an accusation of serious sexual assault. The only legitimate action was to report it to the police. Instead, it is clearly on the record that they withheld this information with the aim of ‘deploying’ it later for what is effectively political blackmail.

That is exactly the same scandalous behaviour which forced the Liberal Democrats to expel David Steel and for him to have to leave the House of Lords. There ain’t no finessing of this – the only reason those involved have not been expelled from the party is that they control the process of expulsion. This is an absolute outrage.

Another fact in the public domain is that there is clear evidence Nicola Sturgeon absolutely did know what was going on well before she claimed she did when making a statement in parliament. Misleading parliament is not a small thing.

I was told reliably in advance that the leadership strategy was to organise its proxies to try and create a ‘civil war’ in the party by fermenting more discord on social media so that this is framed as two camps in disagreement and not a small group of people acting in a manner which would be considered utterly unacceptable in any organisation, from a corporation to an sewing bee.

This is not a civil war. It is a machine which has one badly corrupted cog. That cog has caused all the other cogs in the machine to grind and grate. Take the corrupt cog out and the rest of the machine will, I believe, go back to working just fine.

Does this group need to be dragged out kicking and screaming and doing even more damage to the machine than they already have, or will they do the decent thing now and go?

They’re finished either way. The only question is how much they are willing to destroy through their hubris.

Do you believe me about the Suicide Commission yet?

There was an extended period where the SNP hierarchy was campaigning desperately to save the Growth Commission and on the other side of the debate was Common Weal and not much else.

People who instinctively had doubts were encouraged to believe that this just showed Common Weal must be wrong and was not to be trusted. This was mainly an ad hominem attack; we repeated over and over a series of questions which were simply not answered in favour of a ‘who do you trust?’ approach.

One of those questions (the one I led on every single time) was ‘what would happen if Scotland was caught in a global crisis under the Growth Commission plans?’. No answer has every been forthcoming.

So let me just run you through it now; Scotland would be facing the Coronavirus with no money supply. London would already have stopped providing us with Sterling. We’d have no actual money, as well as no central bank, no monetary policy support, no ability to bail out a dinghy never mind the economy. We couldn’t borrow.

I believe that Scotland would have been begging the IMF for emergency support within days. We’d be much like a third world country that was entirely and totally incapable of protecting itself in any way. In fact I find it hard to believe Sturgeon would not need to go to London and ask to be readmitted to the Union. It really is that serious.

On the day of its launch, I described the Growth Commission as a suicide pact. It was, it is, it always will be. It has to go now, immediately, no more delay. A country can’t live without its own currency and all the spin and party management in the world won’t make that true.

Independence has to stop being a punchline

I’ll be honest about this; it’s been kind of embarrassing to be part of the independence movement of late. Independence is becoming a punchline to a bad joke.

This revolves around the myriad pretences which spill out from the one big pretence – that we’re nearly at a referendum. It has never been anything more than a ruse to buy a failing party leadership time.

I think I’m pretty certain that no-one ever believed there would be a referendum in 2020, but still it was punted again and again and the cringe mounted each time. So step one in the crisis was to use it as a transparent cover for abandoning a referendum everyone knew was imaginary while trying to sound like it was statesmanlike and not desperate and cynical.

I am sick to the back teeth of independence, a cause very dear to my heart, being kicked around the gutter in a game of image management. Our leaders have clearly not been treating the cause of independence with even a hint of seriousness – so why the hell should voters?

Things that weren’t possible might be now

It is still early to judge the scale of the fallout from this crisis but it’s not going to be minor. I have generally been of the view that possible paths to independence were closed unless circumstances change.

Oddly enough, when asked to give an example I would said ‘the prospect of an extended economic depression resulting from a virus pandemic’. If it looked like the best way for Scotland to rebuild was to have all the powers, then opinion could swing rapidly.

I’m not saying that in a ‘great depression’ Scotland could or should be declaring unilateral independence. I’m saying it might be possible.

Next up: the wider world