The referendum campaign is about much more than nationalism.
This week’s vote on Scottish independence has lit up the political landscape in Europe, encouraging the left and prompting panic in the halls of power. If the “Yes” side manages to beat the odds and win on September 18, new possibilities will arise on a political spectrum which seemed to be shrinking by the year.
But it didn’t always look like this would be the case. When the referendum campaign began, the leading force for a Yes vote, the Scottish National Party (SNP), promised what could best be termed independence light. Staying were the pound, the Queen, NATO and even the economic model, buttressed by a “competitive” corporate tax regime to rival free-market Ireland. This appeal was nationalist in its purest sense – social questions would remain untouched and only the flag would change.
It didn’t work. The independence campaign languished 20 points behind in the polls. The business interests Alex Salmond had tried to woo turned out to be relatively content with the Union. Separation on national lines from a society with which Scotland shares much in common, in the context of a globalizing culture and economy, proved unattractive.
Then around the beginning of August the polls began to narrow dramatically – and by the beginning of this month some even showed the Yes side in the lead. What had changed to produce this rising tide for Scottish independence, something that confounded the expert opinion of Britain’s political pundits?
The surge in Yes support in Scotland comes from two main sources, a swing toward independence by Labour voters and a massive increase in expected turnout among the disillusioned. The number of Labour voters – many of whom have been abandoned by the rightward-turn of the party since Tony Blair – breaking ranks to vote Yes has almost trebled, from 13 percent to 35. This has been supplemented by 300,000 voters added to the register since the last Westminster election and an expected increase in turnout of over 20 percent.
These two categories share in a phenomenon: Their interests have been excluded by the narrowing spectrum of official politics, which has reduced political choice to Coke or Pepsi, neoliberal Labour or neoliberal Tories. The abandoned Labour voters come from a social-democratic tradition that once represented the interests of the working class in places like Red Clydeside, but now is more reliably on the side of business and finance. The so-called “missing million” of voters who had disengaged from the electoral process were not part of a tradition, but they are disproportionately from deprived areas and are similarly disinclined to offer their support to a political establishment whose priorities and way of doing politics they feel no affinity to.
The regular appearances of figures from that Westminster establishment in people’s daily lives since August, telling them what to do and what was in their interest, has allied with a grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign by groups such as Radical Independence to produce an axial shift in the debate. Scottish independence is no longer simply about self-determination and autonomy from Britain, but from the ruling political establishment.
The highlights of the Yes campaign in recent days – from the chasing of Labour MPs around Glasgow with the Star Wars imperial march theme blaring to Alex Salmond’s exposition of the BBC’s partisanship to the schadenfreude of the party leaders’ panicked trips north – have been about mocking and delegitimizing that establishment. Grassroots activists have shown the confidence to undermine Westminster’s right to rule. The response of the No side in reaffirming the political establishment’s united front, its willingness to blackmail the people it means to represent and its commitment to traditional forms of political influence has entrenched this narrative further.
In this way, the Scottish independence campaign forms part of a picture of the dominant current in post-crash Europe – anti-politics. In a myriad of ways, people are rebelling against long-standing political establishments which no longer represent them and asking questions about how the right to determine their futures might be won back.
This phenomenon manifests unevenly, but what’s happening in Scotland shares more in common with what’s happening in Spain with Podemos and Greece with Syriza – a rhetoric of citizenship and republicanism, swelling ranks of former social democrats and the politically excluded, a defence of public goods, preposterous attacks by big finance and the mainstream media – than it does with nationalist-populists like UKIP or the Front National. That owes much to the independence movement’s aims of disestablishing, rather than reaffirming, one of capitalism’s historic blocs.
Yet, in recent years, nation-states across Europe have degenerated into debt collectors for finance and disciplinarians for capital. And the history of independence movements is littered with the re-emergence of old power structures under new names. It is clear that political independence will not be enough.
Contradictions between membership of NATO and aspirations for an end to imperial wars, a low-tax economy and a renewed welfare state evidence the battles ahead. As Scottish-born socialist James Connolly warned those looking for fundamental change in Ireland during the 1916 rising, “those with whom we are fighting today may stop before our goal is reached.”
If it wins the battle for independence, this new movement would still have to win the battle of independence – a fight to define what that concept means. How deep does the referendum go? How much is up for question?
But regardless of how the vote itself ends up on September 18, it will be difficult for the ruling elites to restore uncontested power. Ordinary people in Scotland have been invited to participate and ask questions about what kind of society they want – and they have taken the chance in huge numbers. There is a sense of hope, a feeling that change might be possible. That won’t be satiated by Westminster’s politics.