You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Debate: Should Scotland Vote for Independence? Musician Billy Bragg vs. Historian Sam Wetherell

StorySeptember 17, 2014
Watch Full Show
Media Options

Scotland is set to vote Thursday on whether to become independent from Britain for the first time since 1707. The question on the ballot will ask simply: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Polls show the referendum is too close to call, but many British politicians fear voters will choose independence. On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned voters that separation would be a “painful divorce.” We host a debate between British musician and activist Billy Bragg and British historian Sam Wetherell. Bragg just published an article titled “Scottish Nationalism and British Nationalism Aren’t the Same” in The Guardian. Wetherell’s article, “Exit Stage Right: The Case Against Scottish Independence,” appears in Jacobin.

Related Story

StorySep 23, 2022Climate Strike: Mikaela Loach on How Capitalism, Colonialism & Imperialism Fuel Climate Crisis
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Scotland, which is set to vote Thursday on whether to become independent from the United Kingdom for the first time since 1707. The question on the ballot will ask simply, “Should Scotland been an independent country?” Polls show the referendum is too close to call, with a large number of voters still undecided. With just days of campaigning left this week, a stream of British politicians have visited Scotland urging a “no” vote. In a final plea on Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned voters in a speech in Aberdeen that separation would be a “painful divorce.”

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: “It’s my duty to be clear about the likely consequences of a “yes” vote. Independence would not be a trial separation, it would be a painful divorce. So this is our message to the people of Scotland: We want you to stay. Head, heart and soul, we want you to stay. Please don’t mix up the temporary and the permanent. Please don’t think: I’m frustrated with politics right now so I’ll walk out the door and never come back. If you don’t like me, I won’t be here forever. If you don’t like this government, it won’t last forever. But if you leave the United Kingdom, that will be forever.

AMY GOODMAN: If Scots vote to secede Thursday, Britain would lose an estimated 5.3 million residents, more than 8 percent of its population. The campaign backing the no-vote is known as “Better Together.” The pro-independence campaign is led by Alex Salmond, head of the Scottish National Party, which won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011. This is Salmond campaigning in the capital, Edinburgh.

ALEX SALMOND: I think, yes, “yes” does mean yes, absolutely. I agree with David Cameron on that, and I agree that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is what people in Scotland have. I mean, he says there’s no going back. Well, you know, recently in Scotland, we had the hugely successful Commonwealth Games, 71 independent nations and territories around the commonwealth all gathering in Glasgow for what is generally regarded as the most successful Commonwealth Games in history. Most of these countries became independent in the last 50 years from Westminster. Yes, they’re not going back, because they’re flourishing and working as independent countries. Nobody goes back. This is a one-time-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And the evidence is that more and more people in Scotland are wanting to put Scotland’s future into Scotland’s hands.

AMY GOODMAN: If the referendum passes, Scotland’s independence would take effect March of 2016, followed in May by its first parliamentary election. England would have to move its four nuclear-armed submarines based on the west coast of Scotland, though it’s unclear where the weapons would go, since it lacks a deep-water port far enough from populated areas. The Scottish government has also said it would negotiate for membership in the European Union.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, Billy Bragg is with us, yes, the British singer-songwriter, activist. His song “Take Down the Union Jack” supported Scottish Independence as far back as 2002. More recently, he’s written in support of a vote of independence in the upcoming referendum. His piece published in The Guardian Tuesday is headlined “Scottish nationalism and British nationalism aren’t the same.” And another piece he wrote looks at “how an independent Scotland would help England rediscover its radical heart.”

In London, Sam Wetherell is with us, historian of the late 20th century Britain, and he’s a freelance writer. He was recently in Scotland in advance of the referendum, where the “yes” campaign’s presence was pervasive. His latest piece for Jacobin magazine is “Exit Stage Right: The Case Against Scottish Independence.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Billy Bragg, let’s start with you. You’re usually there, but you’re here right now.


AMY GOODMAN: Going to be singing at the City Winery tonight and tomorrow night. Why are you for Scottish independence?

BILLY BRAGG: I think you’ve got to see Scottish independence as a rejection of the way Westminster does politics. Over the last 30 years, there’s been a convergence between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party to the situation where Labour at the next election will promise to implement the same spending program as the government. That’s not really a choice for our democracy. The Scottish National Party are offering a different way of doing things, a more localized way of doing things. And I think this is a pretty good response to globalization. As our economies become broken down, people search for some kind of identity within their own national borders. I think it’s an aspiration certainly for the Scots. It’s been an aspiration for many, many years. And they have devolution. They have devolved power from London. But they want their own spending powers. They want fiscal autonomy. And this could have been an option. The Scots wanted a third option, which people refer to as “devo-max,” “devolution max.” It really means fiscal autonomy. The government refused to allow them and made them make this binary choice of in or out, and are surprised that people are looking—well, it could be very, very close anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: Sam Wetherell, why are you opposed to this vote tomorrow, to Scottish independence?

SAM WETHERELL: Well, I think that there’s increasingly a sense that independence is the automatic position of people who are progressive or people who are on the left-wing side of a political spectrum. I occupy that position myself, and I am very much against independence, for many reasons that I think are very progressive and left-wing in themselves. I think that the progressives in Scotland are making what I call a Faustian pact in signing on to Scottish nationalism as a solution to many political problems in Britain. On the one hand, they have hitched their star to a nationalist movement, which often carries a lot of the uncomfortable baggage that nationalism has.

But perhaps more importantly, and this is something that’s not discussed as much in these debates, Scotland will become the world’s newest petro-state. Basically, Scotland’s future political economy, if it goes independent, will depend on taxing large oil companies who are drilling in the North Sea. A lot of that money now goes to London. Alex Salmond claims that 91 percent of it will be used in Scotland and will be able to do things like kind of shore up Scotland’s welfare state. I am anxious for both environmental and political reasons about Scotland’s high dependence on oil, both in the sense that—you know, obviously, the environmental arguments don’t need to be spelled out, but the political arguments of having large oil companies, such as Ineos, who are a big Swiss company that own entirely the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland, pose a big risk. They already have a lot of influence in Scotland. Their influence is—would definitely set to increase under an independent Scotland.

And what’s more, I think that there’s an argument for those on the left that this would kind of, you know, be a nice blow to a kind of a Westminster elite that’s in thrall to a particular kind of high-finance, high-banking political economy, the kind of economy that blew up in 2008. Well, according to a recent report, Scotland’s financial services sector could end up being as much as 12 times its own current GDP in an independent state, which would leave Scotland extremely vulnerable both to kind of the same pressures that destroyed the British economy and the global economy in 2008, but also to kind of big banking elites that I think will be a kind of problematic political force in Scotland. So, I think an independent Scotland, at best, would be reactionary and, at worst, would be both reactionary and kind of malfunctioning and catastrophic.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg?

BILLY BRAGG: Do you think it would invade Iraq? Do you think it would, you know, take part in illegal invasions of countries? I mean, all the things you’ve just said, the British state does. It’s a petrochemical power. It’s in hock to international finance. I mean, the real point about what’s happening in Scotland is not really about nationalism, it’s about self-determination. It’s about the right of people to decide what sort of economy they want to live in, what sort of state they want to live in. And the great British project, perhaps the greatest thing that the British people ever achieved, is our National Health Service, free healthcare. And that is being chipped away at by Conservatives. The Labour Party aren’t really committing the sort of financings that should be there for it. And the Scottish people have said that they want to do things differently. And our political class in Westminster don’t know how to deal with that.

There’s another issue, as well, which is the democratic deficit within England. In the devolution settlement that gave the right to the Scots to vote for their own parliament, England got nothing. We live, in England, in a very centralized state in which the city of London, because it’s the financial powerhouse of Europe, has a negative effect overall on the economy of the rest of the country. If, in the settlement that comes after Tuesday, because it seems that whatever the status quo is, it’s not going to be on the table, there will be a post-devolution settlement if the Scots vote “no.” Then the English really need to declare their self-determination, as well. And you can’t just dismiss these people as nationalists. You know, 97 percent of the Scottish electorate have registered to vote. Can you imagine that sort of turnout in the United States of America? I mean, we don’t get it for our elections. The last election in the U.K. was 65 percent. I mean, people are taking control of their future. And I think in a globalized world where high finance, as we’ve already mentioned, high finance does have too much power, this is a real evidence of people power. And our political class, based on focus groups and lobbying groups, don’t know how to deal with it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion, but we have to break first. Our guests are Billy Bragg, here in studio in New York, and historian Sam Wetherell. His piece in Jacobin magazine, “Exit Stage Right: The Case Against Scottish Independence.” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Take Down the Union Jack” by Billy Bragg, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re joined by Billy Bragg right now, not singing in our studio, as he was singing that a while ago. That song, what, came out in 2002?


AMY GOODMAN: Something like that.


AMY GOODMAN: But here to argue for Scottish independence, a historic vote that’s taking place tomorrow. And joining us from London right now is the historian Sam Wetherell. He is a historian of the late 20th century Britain, freelance writer, recently in Scotland ahead of the referendum, where the “yes” campaign’s presence was pervasive. And we’ll link to his piece at Jacobin magazine called “Exit Stage Right: The Case Against Scottish Independence.” Respond to what Billy Bragg both said right before the break and what he sang, “Take Down the Union Jack.”

SAM WETHERELL: Well, I think one of the weird things about this referendum is that for almost every single political issue, Billy Bragg and I would be on the same side of a debate. I’m sure we participated a lot of the same antiwar marches in the past. I think our diagnosis of a problem that’s affecting the United Kingdom is very similar. We both agree that the U.K. is engaged in kind of problematic, imperial excursions overseas. We both agree that the kind of Westminster elite are kind of corrupt and ossified. And I think we both agree that that kind of neoliberal economics, the economics of privatization, has led to growing inequality and a kind of—you know, kind of various social problems in the U.K.

Now, the difference between Billy Bragg and I is, I don’t see independence as a solution—Scottish independence as a solution to that. I think that if we’re going to be as idealistic as imagining a future state for Scotland, if we’re going to be engaged in idealism, then we can do a lot better than Scottish nationalism. You know, we can do a lot better than the creation of what will effectively be a petro-state. We can do a lot better than tainting ourselves with kind of nationalist politics—


SAM WETHERELL: —which often belong to an early—sorry, let—

BILLY BRAGG: Sam, do you not see any difference between the British National Party and the Scottish National Party? Can you see no difference?

SAM WETHERELL: Of course. Of course, I can. Yeah, yeah.

BILLY BRAGG: One is a neofascist party, a whites-only party. The other is a civic nationalist party.


BILLY BRAGG: And I object to the fact that you sit there in favor of the union and tell me that I’m a nationalist. You know, you’re expressing British nationalism. You are indulging in identity politics in the same way that the Scots nationalists are. You can’t avoid this issue of identity politics.

SAM WETHERELL: I am absolutely not engaging in identity politics in the same way the British National Party are engaging in identity politics.

BILLY BRAGG: No, not in the same way. No, no, not in the same way. But just in the—you are standing up for the British union.

SAM WETHERELL: Well, OK, I read your piece in The Guardian about, you know, making exactly this point. You argue that there are different forms of nationalism and that not every nationalism is the same. And I fundamentally agree with that, right? I fundamentally agree that nationalism is a very capacious category, that the British National Party is very different to, say, people who might want Palestine to be an independent state, which I support, or people who would be involved in kind of Irish nationalism of the early 20th century, which I would have supported.

Scottish nationalism is different to that kind of nationalism, because, well, on the one hand, it’s based on, as I keep saying, a political economy that’s going to be environmentally destructive, based on oil, and potentially unsustainable. But also, it doesn’t come out of the same historical context of oppression and violence that other kinds of—you know, that these other kinds of national identities, which are progressive, have come out of.

BILLY BRAGG: Well, thank heavens for that.


BILLY BRAGG: Thank heavens for that—

SAM WETHERELL: Well, of course, yeah.

BILLY BRAGG: —that the Scottish people are able to vote for their own self-determination. This is a civic process that’s happening in Scotland. It’s not a nationalist process. You know, we live in a relatively loose union. I mean, it’s hard to explain sometimes, but the Americans sometimes can’t tell the difference between England and Britain. It’s because we live in a loose union. And Scotland is a nation. Britain is a state. And it’s a state that’s evolved over time, from 1707, when the Scots joined with England and Wales. The Irish joined in the 19th century. Some of Ireland left in the 20th century. The idea of another break in the 21st century is part of our tradition. It’s what makes our country—our state, rather, cohesive.

SAM WETHERELL: Well, sure, but I don’t believe that just because, you know, we have a precedent for Ireland, which was an entirely different political situation, becoming independent, this means that we should hitch ourselves, on the left, to Scottish nationalism as a solution to political problems that I and you agree exist.

BILLY BRAGG: Don’t you see there’s a possibility that we—

SAM WETHERELL: I think that the underlying—the underlying reason why Scotland is having its kind of welfare attacked by a Tory government is not just due to a set of problems that are indigenous to Britain. Neoliberalism is an enormous global problem that can’t be solved by creating your own political constituencies of support and creating kind of gated communities of, like, kind of political interests.

BILLY BRAGG: Well, this is the thing. I totally agree with that, Sam. I totally agree with that. But the problem with Westminster is neither of the main parties there seem to be offering a different way of dealing with globalization. There’s a possibility for the people of Scotland—not the SNP, not the Scottish National Party, but the people of Scotland—to find a different way, through self-determination, a different way to deal with globalization. And I think that’s what’s so exciting for those of us who believe that the real issue in the 21st century is not socialism, but accountability. How do we hold those who have economic power over us to account? And if socialism hasn’t been about holding capitalism to account, I don’t know what it has been about for the last couple of hundred years. And that’s why I see the possibilities there—and a knock-on effect for us in England: The possibility of some genuine devolution for England to have an English parliament or regional assemblies that allow us to rebalance our economy away from the reliance on the financial center of London is a positive, progressive idea, don’t you think?

SAM WETHERELL: Well, I would, if it was the case. But what I worry about is that—where is this constituency of support that you argue for in Scotland? So, 50 percent of Scotland, give or take, are probably going to voting for “no” in the referendum, right? You have Scottish labor, which, you know, share many of the same problems as labor in Britain; the Scottish National Party, who essentially, as far as I can tell, want to turn Scotland into a combination of a petro-state and a tax haven. Where is this politics going to come from? And why isn’t Scotland just going to become essentially a giant enterprise zone, essentially a giant tax haven for oil companies, for kind of banking companies?

The problem—so, a lot of—I want to kind of talk about a particular sociological idea in the 1980s. In the 1980s, a lot of historians and sociologists were considering why a welfare state, which developed in Western Europe, didn’t develop in the United States. And one of the big conclusions of these sociologists, people like Theda Skocpol, was because—it was precisely because of America’s federal system. If you’re—you know, the incentive to create a particular kind of tax haven, if you’re an American state that can lure capital from another American state, is overwhelming. You know, the temptation to create working conditions in one state that can undercut working conditions in another state means that basically it’s very, very hard to create the kind of welfare state that Britain created in the mid-20th century. I don’t think it would have been possible to create the kind of—the National Health Service in a situation in which you have an independent Scotland and an independent Britain—and particularly in the current neoliberal climate.

BILLY BRAGG: But Scotland doesn’t want to be Texas, it wants to be Norway. It wants to be a North European social democracy which puts people before profit. And the people of Scotland, that’s what they think the issue is here, not Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, or the, you know, petrochemical or Rupert Murdoch. They believe that they can do things in the way that their parents did things and their grandparents did things when they founded the welfare state.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the issue of nukes, of nuclear weapons. If an independent Scotland abolished nuclear weapons from its territory, Britain could be forced to look elsewhere for places in which to host its nuclear warheads now based on the west coast of Scotland. But British MP George Galloway said in a BBC interview that Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond’s commitment to join NATO means this would fail to make the world any safer.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: But you’re not rid of them by towing them from the Clyde to the Tyne. Their danger would just be the same. Nuclear explosion doesn’t respect even Alex Salmond’s national boundaries. And Scotland is committed, under Salmond, to immediately join NATO, which is bristling with thousands of nuclear weapons and involved in wars way beyond the North Atlantic. So anyone looking for the peace option is going to have to elect a government in Britain, as a whole, that will get rid of nuclear weapons, get out of military entanglements.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s MP George Galloway. He’s Scottish. He opposes Scottish independence. Billy Bragg?

BILLY BRAGG: He does, yeah. Well, here’s a good example of why this referendum has been healthy for Britain. We haven’t had a debate about nuclear weapons really since the 1980s. And we need to have a debate. Who are our nuclear weapons aimed at? What do we have them for? Are they independent? She would be spending all that money on nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world? We haven’t had this debate. If the Scots do vote for independence, we will have to have this debate, because we’ll have to find somewhere new to keep them. And I think this is a healthy debate to have.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Sam Wetherell, the funding of this referendum vote, can you explain who’s behind it?

SAM WETHERELL: Who’s behind the referendum vote? Sorry, I’m confused a bit by the—

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, the funding of it, that has to do with a lottery.


BILLY BRAGG: That is a complicated question. I don’t—

AMY GOODMAN: OK, maybe Billy knows.

BILLY BRAGG: I think the British government—

SAM WETHERELL: I’m not sure, yeah.

BILLY BRAGG: I think it’s the British government who are behind it. But what about the nukes, Sam?What are we going to do about the nukes?

SAM WETHERELL: Well, yeah, OK, that’s definitely what I want to talk about. OK, so, I mean, there are many, many things that I disagree with George Galloway, the MP who you just played a clip of, you know, that I—many things I disagree with him. This is one thing that I do agree with him. And I’d like to add that it’s very, very likely, in a situation where Scotland will not have its own currency, will be forced into kind of quite emergency negotiations with Westminster after a possible independent state, that the nuclear deterrent, the agreement over nuclear weapons, will go in that debate. I don’t trust the Scottish National Party, you know, to follow through on that particular commitment. I think it’s possible, but I think it’s unlikely that they will. And I think that the chance of, you know, what Billy Bragg called a debate, or the chance—the very remote chance—of removing nukes, while that would be fantastic and while I support that, isn’t worth this Faustian pact with the creation of a new kind of nationalist oil state in Britain.

And I would want to refer to one more thing that Billy Bragg was talking about, about Norway, before. Now, Norway is also, I mean, you know, a petro-state, that the thing that fuels Norwegian social democracy is, as well as a very tight and very restrictive and very isolationist immigration policy, is an enormous amount of oil money. Now, according to calculations, oil reserves are going to start tapering off—this is according to a particular report produced in Britain, which potentially, you know, is—

AMY GOODMAN: Sam, I’m going to have to cut it off there, because the show is ending—

SAM WETHERELL: Oh, sorry. Oh, OK.

AMY GOODMAN: —and give Billy Bragg five seconds to respond.

BILLY BRAGG: I think Sam is a good example of a person on the left who can’t get his head around politics in the 21st century. These things are changing and moving on. And if we are to get to grips with international capitalism, then we’re going to have to allow people to have self-determination. That’s what the referendum is about, not nationalism.

AMY GOODMAN: The vote for Scottish independence is on Thursday, tomorrow. That does it for the show. Sam Wetherell, thanks for joining us. Billy Bragg, thank you.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

Climate Strike: Mikaela Loach on How Capitalism, Colonialism & Imperialism Fuel Climate Crisis

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation