Dear Mr Benn,
I was in Glasgow Concert Hall on Saturday for your interview, and the preview of the film about your life. And what a life! You are inspirational to many, as the crowd made clear. It’s easy to see why. You talk passionately of hope, of belief in a better future, of anger at injustice. Of engagement and democracy.
You recognise, too, that New Labour became right-wing, almost a second Tory party. You must understand how this played in Scotland.
It’s for these reasons I was depressed and perplexed by your answer to the question on Scottish independence. The question was a good one: would an independent Scotland be more socialist? It’s a question many in the independence movement grapple with. Can we cast off Westminster’s neoliberalism, corruption and corporate greed? There is no answer; no one knows.
Stephen Maxwell dedicated a whole chapter to the question in his book, Arguing for Independence. It will depend how people choose to embrace their new-found independence. We have the opportunity of a new country, a clean slate, a constitution.
As a small country, can we use this to re-build, engage people, and create something better? Many of us sincerely hope so, and the SNP and Yes campaign are trying hard to take us in that direction. But alternatively, we could sleep-walk, disengaged and cynical, either into independence or a no vote, then remain apathetic. In this way, with either result, we would allow politicians, a biased media, and the wealthy to set the agenda and lead.
I would have loved to hear a “Tony Benn” answer, considered and thoughtful. I always imagined, as a Labour MP in England, it would be a Unionist answer: it must be one of the easier questions for a Unionist, given there is no certain answer.
Instead, you offered only the bleak, dismal, all-too-familiar put-downs of the Telegraph and UK establishment – an off-hand dismissal of the right of people in Scotland to decide for themselves; a patronising portrayal of anyone pro-independence as a narrow, dangerous nationalist. And the same nonsense Alistair Darling used some months ago about your mother “becoming a foreigner”.
People here deserve so much better than this. The independence movement is not born from narrow nationalism but stems from those very ideals you cherish: anger at injustice and democratic deficit and hope for a better future. A small country with a close, accountable government, elected in Scotland, making decisions for Scotland. It is an internationalist, outward looking movement, desperate for Scotland to take its place in the world as a real country – because we are a country, not a region – speaking with our own voice within Europe, the UN and internationally.
We watch Borgen, where the government of an independent country of five million souls is able to project a voice for peace on the world stage. And we wonder why Scotland, uniquely, should be different? Incapable, necessitating rule from London with others to speak and decide for us? Decisions such as we will pay a fortune for the privilege of storing Europe’s biggest stock of nuclear weapons on the doorstep of our biggest city: a decision we had and have no say on. Benefits policy created to deal with over-heated London rental prices, which needlessly impoverish people here.
To denigrate hopes, aspirations, ambitions and attempts to deal with injustice as “dangerous nationalism”, then follow up with a phrase like “you’ll become foreigners” is a divisive, small-minded and, in fact, nationalist, argument. It seems in direct contradiction to everything you stand for.
If one of the best politicians Westminster has offered us, of your stature and humanity – one entirely aware of media demonisation of politics deemed “dangerous” to the status quo – is unable to deliver a more positive message and better debate for Scotland, you remove any lingering hope Westminster can do so at all.
It is no surprise SNP support surged after New Labour and Iraq. Labour let down heartlands it has too long taken for granted. This is not unique here; it also applies to Wales and areas of England. And here too, there is a whole debate about whether an independent Scotland could radically change the UK, sweep aside its outdated, anachronistic political structures, and in the process transform England and Britain.
The Yes campaign engages people like no other campaign I have ever known precisely because it offers the chance of real, transformative change. It is the only event on the UK horizon which does. Will it happen? Or will we end up a smaller, neoliberal copy of the UK? The answer, uncertain as it is, lies in all our hands.
This is why I despair when politicians on the left casually dismiss and denigrate us. Change needs people who can embrace opportunity when it arises. There are those who seek independence solely for its own sake, believing any country needs self-determination. Independence is, after all, the natural state for a country. Others swither dependent on whether they believe they’ll be better or worse off. If the referendum is won or lost only by these people, it’s hard to see where the drive for real change will come from.
Cynicism and apathy are self-defeating, creating exactly the kind of result you fear – nothing will change because those who wanted change were so busy hand-wringing that “it won’t change anything” and “England and Scotland will become foreign countries” the chance passes. This is precisely what the Westminster establishment wants: no change.
As you alluded to yourself, change needs some kind of national movement. We had the beginnings of that in Scotland with the Scottish National Party (note, “Scottish national party”, not “Scots nationalist party”). But the independence movement is far broader and wider, encompassing the greens, CND and the radical independence convention on the left, as well as many in business and on the right.
If we do vote for independence, the answer to whether we will be more socially just is a lot more likely to be “Yes” if the left are engaged rather than on the sidelines pouring scorn on the project. Similarly, Scotland and England will remain better friends if those in England are engaged with how change – whether independence or federalism – could work for all of us in creating a new and better country.
So please, rethink the response you gave on Saturday. By all means remain unionist, and fight for a Scotland within the UK. But find an argument that is true to your own ideals, one that provides hope and encouragement to people in Scotland. If you achieve this, a debate between you and, say, Dennis Canavan would be a fantastic contribution to people’s decision making.
If, on reflection, you are unable to find such an argument and Saturday’s answer is the best you can do – or you simply have no interest in the issue – you could be honest and conclude “it’s up to people in Scotland to decide”.
Whatever happens in 2014, it’s ludicrous to suggest you will suddenly become “more foreign” to us. It would be sad to think you would see political independence making us foreigners to you, and sadder still if you really feel that matters.