Horizons for independence

This review first appeared in the Old St Paul's White Rose magazine.

Debates about next year's Scottish referendum tend to be curiously dry affairs, choked by statistical back and forth about the economic viability of independence.

But How Can Scotland Blossom?, a discussion at the Radical Book Fair a few days back featuring journalist Lesley Riddoch and former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, was a welcome exception: an inspiring exploration of the possibilities Scottish nationhood would afford for designing a new political framework that might encourage much greater civic participation. Indeed both speakers have recently published books suggesting principles that might guide the development of a new Scottish state.

Devolving power downwards

Riddoch opened the evening by summarising the essential themes of her book, Blossom, an exploration of the correspondences between the Scottish and Nordic political cultures. She didn't dispute the common observation that the Scottish outlook is rather closer to that Scandinavia than that of the much of the rest of the United Kingdom: essentially social democratic, strongly supportive of the principle that society should exercise collective action - through effective government - to design a stable and socially just economic and political framework.

But while respectful of the value and achievements of Scottish social democracy, Riddoch argued that the Nordic model differs in crucial respects. The structure of Scottish government is notoriously top-heavy, with a chronic tendency to concentrate power centrally. Remote administration of well meaning public programmes breeds political apathy, infantilises citizens and forms cultures of dependency. The Nordic countries have done a better job of fostering trust in the efficacy of government through the devolution of political power downwards towards local councils and community groups. This wider and more localised distribution of authority has facilitated much greater political engagement. Riddoch hoped that independence would offer an opportunity to develop a more supple, decentralised and democratic political system.

A secular state

Richard Holloway cautioned that an independent Scotland should take care to guard against another danger of an over mighty state: the persecution of minorities.

Summarising the argument in his booklet A Plea for a Secular Scotland, Holloway said that humans long ago conceived the necessity of developing community to provide some security against the harshness of atomised life within a pure state of nature. But the inevitable requirement for doing so was the entrustment of power to government, which has proved ever susceptible to the temptation of arrogating power to itself at the expense of citizens, and minority groups in particular.

One chronic issue has been the tendency of governments through history to favour one religious group or another, generating cycles of persecution that were ended only by the emergence of the secular state, which has evolved over the past 200 years through the acceptance and adoption of two crucial Enlightenment principles: first, that religious leaders should only be allowed to exercise authority within their own faith communities; and second, that the state should maintain an equal distance from all religions.

Holloway noted that the difficulty of maintaining neutrality was highlighted recently here in Scotland by the gay marriage debate, the government coming under intense pressure by religious organisations to grant particular concessions regarding the application of the new legislation. Indeed religious leaders went further, lobbying to seek to ensure that their own understanding of marriage continued to be the only one permissible for society as a whole.

Conservative religion poses a special challenge for government, Holloway said, because it can't in good conscience recognise the primacy of secular over divine authority: it is incumbent upon the believer to prioritise God's revealed law over secular legislation.

Reading from his book he argued:

That is why, as the pace of social change quickens in Scotland, we must reassert the founding principle of the secular state and claim it anew for our nation. In the name of that principle we will continue to extend toleration towards institutions that are themselves intolerant; but we will not permit them to export their institutional prejudices in the secular sphere. They may continue to discriminate against and women and gays in the sanctuary; but we will not permit them to do so in the public square.

All in all a refreshing discussion about the possibilities rather than dangers of independence.