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Common Weal: The people's plan for an independent Scotland

The independence referendum has unleashed new political forces that will shape Scottish politics in the near future.

Last updated: 15 Jul 2014 08:38
Niki Seth-Smith

Niki Seth-Smith is an editor for openDemocracy and a freelance journalist. She is also a co-founder of Precarious Europe, a media project on young people, democracy and nationalism.
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The Scottish independence referendum is scheduled for September [Getty Images]

With less than three months to go until the Scottish referendum on independence, the titans of the Yes and No campaigns are throwing their last punches. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), is playing the Europe card, warning the pro-EU Scottish that the UK is on a fast track to exit. For Better Together (an organisation campaigning for a no vote in the referendum), UK Prime Minister David Cameron has combined yet another emotional appeal - independence would apparently "break his heart" - with a vast bribe to the country's largest city, Glasgow, to the tune of 500m British pounds ($850m). But beneath the air war, the movement for independence is slipping ever further away from the control of the Scottish government or the official Yes campaign.

On July 6, on a rarely glorious sunny Sunday in Glasgow, an all-day festival celebrated the launch of Common Weal, a project that has emerged from the independence movement outside of government control. The launch follows the publication of a book by the tiny trade unionist Jimmy Reid Foundation, bringing together 50 policy papers crowd-sourced from writers, academics and economists across the country. Common Weal comes from the old Scots term meaning "wealth shared in common". It has gained extraordinary support from a diverse alliance of Green, Labour and SNP supporters, socialists, trade unionists and peace campaigners, who aim to push the Scottish government into adopting a social-democratic agenda after independence.  

Threat to the Scottish government?

Common Weal pools ideas from across the world to reimagine Scotland's social and economic policy. Although its proponents say the agenda would also work in the event of a No vote, it would only really be achievable in an independent Scotland. Its main inspiration is Norway, where a high-wage, high-tax economy has worked for a nation with a similarly small population aided by oil wealth.

Like the SNP, it proposes that Scotland rejects the London government's demonisation of the welfare state along with its pandering to anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment. But supporters of Common Weal go much further. Key proposals are the introduction of a four-day week and a citizens' income, to be paid for and supported by higher taxes on land, the rich and cutting defence spending and nuclear weapons. A national investment bank capitalised at 5bn British pounds ($8.5bn) would help rebalance the economy away from finance and towards investment in industry.

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Common Weal has been welcomed by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, as part of a "dynamic and positive date that is encouraging people in Scotland to consider a better future". In private, however, the Scottish government is holding panicked meetings on how to contain this potentially dangerous new political force. They are right to be worried. The SNP's own councillors have unanimously endorsed the Common Weal agenda, the non-party umbrella group, the Radical Independence Campaign, is supportive, and the Scottish Green Party has welcomed the paper's environmental proposals.

This movement has been building since the SNP won their majority in May 2011 and it became clear a referendum was on the cards. If Scotland votes Yes, they will not be satisfied with the government's brand of "independence-lite", which plans to keep the currency, the queen and membership of NATO, while retaining the foundations of the current banking system and cutting corporate tax.

Prefiguring new kind of politics

No political party in Britain could gather 600 people together on a weekend in the silly season to "celebrate" a policy paper. Yet this kind of turnout is now the norm for the independence movement, who are holding meetings, rallies and festivals up and down the country on every day of the week. Willie Sullivan, head of the Scottish Electoral Reform Society, sees the Yes movement as having "prefigured a new kind of politics" for Scotland that is re-engaging non-voters.

The Scottish government knows that non-politicians are best placed to engage with this missing demographic, which makes up roughly half of the population, but did not bargain for the shift in power to extra-parliamentary groups. Robin McAlpine, head of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, has called Common Weal "the single biggest re-imagining of a nation state in modern history" and "the most interesting democratic project in the developed world", adding that many in the SNP who would like to see it all "put back in the box".

The last collated poll put the Yes vote at 43 percent, with No at 57 percent, excluding the undecided. However, statistics also show that those least likely to be polled - the young, the unemployed, and those in low-income groups who are less likely to have voted before, stay in one address or have a land line - are also more likely to vote for independence. So is Scotland's biggest ethnic minority, Asian Scots.

The use of plain English by non-politicians is actively reaching out to the "missing million", the vulnerable and the excluded from Scottish society. While London's government prepares another round of cuts to public services, and the opposition commits to meeting the same targets, Common Weal offers the prospect of a very different independent Scotland that promises to protect and strengthen social security, provide more affordable housing and re-nationalise extortionate energy and public transport companies.

Scottish independence debate amps up

The landslide victory of the SNP in 2011 was a shock to the British establishment, as the parliamentary system was purposefully built to prevent such a majority. The referendum result may yet be another surprise. That austerity has given new urgency to calls for self-government can also be seen in Catalonia, which holds its unofficial referendum on separation from Spain just months after Scotland votes.

The rule of the new politics must be to expect the unexpected. At present, this is working in the favour of the Scottish government. However on 18 September, the SNP's Salmond may get more than he bargained for.

Influential figures behind Common Weal want to form a political party in the event of a Yes vote, to stand in Scotland's 2016 general elections. At present, the agenda is too piecemeal and over-ambitious to become a party manifesto, and "professionalising" might fracture the movement and kill its spirit. It's also possible that a successful Common Weal party could emerge as a significant force pushing the SNP to the democratic left.

Looking at the next two years of UK politics is a little like staring into an abyss. By 2016, Britain may no longer exist; whatever we choose to call England-Wales-Northern Ireland may have left the EU; UKIP may have continued its ascendancy. Under those conditions, Scotland will emerge as a very different nation: pro-European, pro-immigration, and having fostered a democratic and civic movement that will push for more change making use of the powers gained.

The Scottish National Party, having won its referendum, cannot carry on as the only show in town. If there's one slogan that unites the independence movement it is "Another Scotland is Possible". They're certainly right about that - the future is wide open for this nation at a crossroads. Whatever unfolds, the demand for "wealth shared in common" will remain the benchmark by which the Scottish government will be held to its promise of democracy by the people, for the people. 

Niki Seth-Smith is an editor for openDemocracy and a freelance journalist. She is also a co-founder of Precarious Europe, a media project on young people, democracy and nationalism. 

Follow her on Twitter: @NikiSethSmith

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