Jeevan Farthing he/him
The movement for Scottish independence is an inherently escapist one. It is Westminster, and its corrupt dinosaurs too absorbed in their Eton-Oxbridge privilege to treat Scottish politics with anything other than contempt, from which escape is chiefly sought. But what is an escapist movement actually fighting for? Is it embedded in ideas of social justice? And if not, why not?
These questions must be asked because a fairer Scotland will not automatically manifest itself after escaping the Union. There is a difference between escapist narratives and escapist policies. Escapist narratives, like Brexit (“taking back control”), are vote-winning,n but ultimately meaningless,; they’re simply agendas which exploit the grievances of otherwise well-meaning voters in order to distract them from the real causes of their problems. Escapist policies, like universal free childcare, liberate their subjects: allowing young parents to escape the hardship of having to choose between heating and eating, for example.
Escapist narratives dominate modern politics, but they only work because modern politics so often does not. They also allow politics to continue not to work by absolving those producing them of responsibility. This is because escape is always from something; floundering political actors can successfully blame someone or something else for their own failures. For example, the Tories attained electoral success post-2010 by blaming Labour (the so-called ‘reckless over-spenders’) for austerity. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon convincingly blames Westminster for Scottish injustices, but her administration alone is responsible for devolved competencies and is entirely responsible for failings in health and education. But technicalities like these do not matter, because blame games are fun and easy to get on board with. They provide explanations, even if they are misguided ones. And those providing them are hailed as heroes, because finally, someone gets it.
But blame is only part of the story. Blame games are depressing: their purpose is to provoke collective outrage at the scapegoated entity. The most successful political campaigns are optimistic too (see Tony Blair in 1997, Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, or Boris Johnson in 2019), because they strive to achieve something good and therefore escape something bad. This makes escape exciting. Think of the Brexit referendum: most remain voters were just begrudgingly accepting the narrative of the necessity of the status quo parroted by establishment figures, whereas many leave voters took genuine satisfaction in their rebellious pursuit of something different.
It’s the same with the independence debate. Arguing for ‘yes’ is easy because the narrative assumes that a mere desire to escape will itself exact change, but this represents a flawed approach of seeing politics simply as lumps of events. Genuine escape, for those living and breathing social injustice, is being afforded the dignity of not having to use a food bank, or not having to walk 50 minutes to work because the privatised bus service has been cut again. And sometimes, the best escape isn’t revolutionary change, but the same, just done better. See the debate on Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Universal Basic Services (UBS). UBI may represent a new ‘way’ of administering social security, but does not fundamentally change a system where people’s unequal amounts of financial assets determine their ability to access public services. In contrast, establishing UBS (through which the requisites of our current social order, like transport and housing, are provided freely and unconditionally as the NHS is at the moment), would be far more transformative in its provision of equal opportunities for everyone.
Therefore, if an escapist narrative promoting the benefits of Scottish independence is to mean anything more than a means to manipulate the minds of voters, escapist policies must underpin it. Much of the English electorate are also anti-Westminster, but neither of our unambitious two main political parties, nor our constitutional settlement (we’d all love a republic of Liverpool!) provide for them the same means of escape as that which seems possible in Scotland. The devolved parliament is increasingly autonomous, and represents what could be in an independent nation.
But independence right now is very much in the airy fairy stage of escapism: it is still just a narrative. There’s a source of blame in Westminster and there’s a general desire for optimism, but the looming questions over currency and defence, which hampered the success of the 2014 campaign, still pervade. Promising to free ourselves from the tyrants of Westminster is all well and good, but to do what and with what? There’s real and tangible escapism, such as Universal Basic Services and a fair and just tax system accompanying it
(how many times have you pledged to abolish the council tax, Nicola!). There’s also constructed escapism, fabricated by communications officers and data whizzes analysing the relative persuadability of different degrees of desperate voters stored on a database for cold calling during a campaign. Escapist narratives cannot be socially just without escapist policies. Let’s hope, as the independence movement likely gains traction post-covid, that the need for these policies isn’t simply forgotten.