KENNY MACASKILL IS one of the reasons I’m wary of the chorus denouncing the Alba Party. Steeped in socialist tradition, but not in contemporary “leftist” groupthink, MacAskill is one of Scotland’s most important and provocative public intellectuals. Often, I agree with him; and where I don’t, as with his recent contemplation of “Home Rule” to break Scotland’s political deadlock, I still make the effort to listen.
Because while disagreeing, I sympathise on an emotional level. Nobody can deny that the constitutional divide stultifies political debate and reproduces an intellectually sterile elite on both sides of the aisle. “Indyref2 remains the main debate yet has been rejected by Westminster and deferred indefinitely by Holyrood,” he observes. “Something needs to be done to break the logjam and move the country on, as the weekly cycle of ‘we demand it’ and ‘you’re not getting it’ is doing no-one any good.”
Equally, the core questions of a sovereign state are precisely those that the SNP leadership refuses to answer. What currency will we use? How will we maintain open borders with the EU but also our biggest trading partner, England? Can Scotland even join the EU? Is denuclearisation compatible with NATO membership? There are no convincing answers to what Stephen Maxwell may have called these “wicked issues”. It’s thus far easier for the SNP to inflame grievances with Westminster; to develop patronage networks around the devolved state; and to use pork-barrel identity politics to insulate themselves against critique.
However, I am unconvinced that another extension of powers will solve this logjam. It’s not as if leftist projects are booming elsewhere. For all that neoliberal capitalism has collapsed, the old elites are in power in Europe and beyond. While more devolution would allow for some tinkering and perhaps widen the parameters for opposition on policy grounds, it’s likely that the same political divide would reassemble. “Home Rule” effectively means kicking the can down the road. (In fairness, unlike Labourist advocates of this programme, I doubt MacAskill has many illusions on this front).
It’s endlessly frustrating when constitutional division works to reproduce the status quo. All the more galling when the benefits accrue to such a dubious bunch. Thus the last election somehow produced both a pro-independence majority and an overwhelming sense of dejection in the independence movement. Clearly, we need some mechanism to break the vicious cycle. Having failed with Alba, it’s admirable that MacAskill is thinking outside of the box and looking to new alliances.
But frustration can lead to lashing out in the wrong directions. I’ve argued before that the core questions raised by independence are those of agency, democratic accountability and sovereignty. Projects for more devolution, presented as reasonable compromises to a toxic divide, actually risk inflaming these same problems, particularly if they emerge as a top-down “solution” from civic Scotland.
In terms of covid recovery and questions of equality, our problem (globally) is how to revive political mobilisation after a year of lockdown. But the formula of “Home Rule” seems engineered to demobilise perhaps the biggest social movement in Scottish history. It’s tragic how badly that movement has been misled, and how toxic it has become. But it remains by far the biggest mobilising engine in Scottish and probably British politics: protest groups around Palestine and Kenmure Street are admirable but ephemeral and cannot match the mobilising heft of independence.
Sturgeon’s hegemony didn’t cause the problems of devolution: it’s a symptom. Insofar as devolution adds layers of “governance” to the relationship between people and power, it leads to perpetual crises of accountability. Westminster blames Holyrood; Holyrood blames Westminster; local government blames everyone; everyone shits on local government.
This problem transcends Scotland and Britain. It’s the basic formula for how the neoliberal state disempowers popular investment in democracy. Layered, devolved and pooled sovereignty all have the same effect. “Post-sovereignty” in general allows state power to evade responsibility and permits elites to channel protest into harmless division. It’s what Peter Mair called “the void”, the great chasm of our time separating people and power.
With some regret, I’ve reached the conclusion that there’s no happy medium; there are only compromises that deepen the misery of the status quo, or independence with all its inherent risks. Yet for all my disagreements, I applaud MacAskill for reckoning with the challenges, where he could easily exploit a divided society for a comfortable career.