Why Scotland looks like the canary in the independence coal mine

September 16, 2014


Scotland’s drive to independence has been interpreted by many as a throwback to ancient identity politics – but many of the trends on display in the Scottish referendum have more to do with the politics of the future than those of the past.

The polls show that this week’s vote is too close to call. There is still a chance that the “No” campaign will ultimately prevail – something that I dearly hope will happen both for the sake of the Scots and the rest of the Britain.

But whatever the result of the vote, I think we must recognize that the “Yes” campaign has done more to shape the agenda of Scottish politics. And it is the forces it tapped into that will also change politics around the world.

So far, the commentary has focused on whether a Yes vote in Scotland will have resonance among other minorities in search of statehood – from Catalonia and Flanders to Taiwan and Quebec.

But the truth is that the political trends in Scotland are also reshaping many nations that do not face imminent break-up – from America to Zambia.

I would point to four trends in particular:

1. Self-government will increasingly trump economics 

The Unionist ‘No’ camp have stressed all of the economic benefits of being part of the union as well as the uncertainty about the future of a Scottish currency as well as Scottish membership of the EU and NATO. This week has been full of talk of dangers to Scotland’s financial services industry from independence (several banks just announced that they would relocate their headquarters to London). The UK treasury estimates that Scots received between 14 percent and 16 percent more in public spending per head than people in the rest of the UK.

However, many of these arguments pale into insignificance when compared to the power of their pro-independence ‘Yes’ camp’s argument that Scotland has not voted for a Conservative government since 1935 and yet has spent more than half of the last century being governed by Conservatives (at the last election, David Cameron’s Conservative Party won only one out of 59 seats in Scotland). As Owen Jones argued in the Guardian, “to most Scots, living under a Tory-led government seems absurd, like being forced to live under a hostile foreign occupying force.

These sentiments are increasingly felt across the world. Despite casting ballots, people still feel unrepresented. In the European elections, populist parties from the Front National in France to Syriza in Greece argued that though people could change the government, they can not change the policies that shape their larger world. It is a feeling applies to all countries that feel battered by uncontrollable global forces, however valid elections may be in their own backyards.

2. Nationalism will increasingly clad itself in progressive clothing.

Rather than proclaiming far-right ideas, pro-independence campaign videos paint a picture of Scotland’s future as a socialist utopia – a British version of Sweden. The campaign video counterposes Scottish fairness with Britain’s growing inequality; Scottish public spending against British austerity; Scottish opportunities against the tyranny of English privilege; and Scottish internationalism with the ‘illegal wars’ of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Britain. For the “Yes” campaign, the yes box on the the ballot paper does not just imply that Scots will be free from Tory government – it is an invitation to join in building a socialist paradise north of the border.

The power of the Nationalists argument is that it is only partly powered by historic grievances and the nostalgia of Braveheart kilts, tartan and the Gaelic language. This path has also been followed by many other nationalist parties in Europe that are seeking to rebrand themselves in order to widen their appeal. The success of these campaigns, according to pollster Peter Kellner, is that they are a political expression of the economic trends highlighted by Thomas Piketty in his best-selling book Capital. They are an effort to stave off the spiraling growth of inequality.

3. Elites are not as persuasive as they used to be.

At the beginning of the campaign, most thought that the ‘No’ camp would benefit from the fact that all the mainstream parties in Westminster and most British businesses oppose independence. Rather than fighting each other, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party have worked together to pour cold water on the idea of independence and narrow the political choices available to the Scottish National party.

This has spanned from joint statements that Scotland would not be able to use the pound as its currency to a decision last week to cancel Prime Ministers Questions in order to allow all three parties to campaign in Scotland.

But, as the campaign has gone on, it has become clear that the “Yes” campaign has drawn a lot of its energy from opposing this elite consensus. They have argued that the “No” campaign has colluded with vested interests to spread fear and talk down the Scottish people.

The leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, has been able to present himself as a defender of the Scottish people against the British elites. His arguments have added force because so many successful Scottish people have chosen to make their careers in London – allowing the Nationalists to become the spokespeople for those who have been left behind.

The dynamics of the Scottish campaign are increasingly true of many other democracies where established parties huddle together to defend the current order from insurgent political forces that paint themselves as popular tribunes in the face of entrenched elites.

The idea of “One Nation” is dead.

Whatever the legal decision of the referendum, Scotland is already de facto independent. It has been striking that none of the (English) leaders of the mainstream parties in Westminster have been seen as legitimate voices in Scotland’s debates. The most powerful arguments for the Union have come from Scottish politicians.

This is not surprising given the fact that the Scottish have consumed different media from the rest of the UK for a number of years, and that their political arguments have long been different from those in other parts of Britain.

In many ways, the cultural and intellectual secession of Scotland from the UK has been going on for a number of years. And it echoes The Big Sort that has seen people in many established democracies clustering into like-minded groupings that live and work and pray together while consuming media that reinforce their bias and preferences.

I share all of the sentiments in John Lloyd’s thoughtful critique of the case for independence, but I recognize that I live in a country that may no longer exist by the end of the week. Even though the UK is one of few working multinational democracies in the world, its 300 years of being ‘better together’ may end up counting for little when people go to the polls on Thursday.

Whatever the result of this week’s vote, I fear we will find that across the world, where people once celebrated their ties to one another, they will increasingly dream of independence.


PHOTO: A boy marches with a flute band during a pro-Union rally in Edinburgh, Scotland, September 13, 2014. REUTERS/Paul Hackett


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Better to be poor and independent than be a slave to British and their royal criminals.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

To summarize, what we’re seeing in Scotland is a manifestation of some of the same forces that we saw work their magic in the Ukrainian Maidan revolution and in the so-called Arab Spring.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

To place a very similar comment to the one that seem to have been moderated out. The picture of an Orange Order march does not go well with the rather sanguine picture you have painted of life within the Union.

Posted by Richied | Report as abusive

As David Cameron said (in so many words), “Scotland is like a rustic peasant girl with bad teeth and a scent that reminds one of putrid fish, who nonetheless got to marry a dashing chap, vastly more sophisticated and charming. ”http://dandygoat.com/a-divided-uk-wou ld-be-a-beautiful-simile-torn-asunder-by -a-stupid-analogy-says-cameron

Posted by SammyStone2893 | Report as abusive

That is a satire site like the onion… Cameron did NOT say that.

Posted by DRCrowder | Report as abusive

It’s not about the money.
And the block grant system is misleading anyway – Scotland’s GDP per capita is 15% higher than that of the UK as a whole.
Scotland is the 14th richest country in the world whilst the UK as a whole ranks 18th.
Scotland contributes far more to the UK coffers than she receives via the Barnet Formula.
It’s about getting the style of government WE vote for rather than the style of government the population of a foreign country apoints for us.

Posted by LeslieGraham | Report as abusive

In a way independence for Scotland seems to continue the rise of historical/ethnic/cultural nation states after the mutual destruction of the European empires by WW 1 and the failure of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to impose a new order.
Scotland can catch up with Ireland, Iceland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, etc; with limited concessions of sovereignty to the EU and NATO.
Not so new a trend, or radical.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

If by progressive – they mean Liberal – then buyer beware.
Liberalism Always Fails!

Posted by Chomp | Report as abusive

That photograph you used of a “pro-Union rally” is nothing of the sort. That’s an Orange Walk. And there’s a world of difference.

Posted by MayaMcNicoll | Report as abusive

You forget about the absurd Labour governments we have had to put up with thanks to votes from the Cuckoo’s in Scotland. Now with luck we will all get what we want & some peace to boot!

Posted by thorpy63 | Report as abusive

Mark, you seem not to have understood the campaign at all. Indeed you paint the campaign in the very terms that you describe as outmoded in your first sentence. The Yes campaign is not cynically “tapping into” and “rebranding” with what you call progressive clothing. The Yes campaign is a grass roots movement that wants a fairer and more representative democracy, while the No campaign has focused mostly on economic challenges. The only nationalism on show comes from you and others in the media, in the form of British nationalism – to their great credit, neither the grassroots No or Yes campaigners have pursued these dead ends. Thank goodness for the internet and the ongoing demise of biased, out-of-touch and anti-democratic voices such as yours.

Whatever the outcome tomorrow, the only certainty is that the mainstream UK media will be a force of divisiveness and discord.

Posted by hopefulmonster | Report as abusive

Nationalism is on the rise worldwide as a counterweight to the globalism of the elites. We Southern nationalists wish the “Yes” forces in Scotland all the best. Check us out at www.leagueofthesouth.com

Posted by MichaelHill | Report as abusive

“Whatever the result of this week’s vote, I fear we will find that across the world, where people once celebrated their ties to one another, they will increasingly dream of independence.”

The global paradigm is interdependence. As soon as you understand the notion of an import and an export – which is, of course, easily explainable to a four-year-old – then the idea of a standalone, autonomous economy seems instantly ludicrous.

If we seek to present a positive vision of the UK in future, I propose connection and prosperity without implicit deference; instead in an atmosphere of conciliation and mutual respect.

Scotland cannot afford, as a small nation, to be insular and isolated. The mindset of the independence movement will turn the UK’s gaze outward rather than its own self-contained doorstep-internationalism.

England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland will emerge blinking into the international community, replacing the notion of ‘foreigners’ with the term ‘people’. It will be amazing how many more people around the world will be pleased to see us as a result.

Posted by PaulKJohnson | Report as abusive

“Scotland’s drive to independence has been interpreted by many as a throwback to ancient identity politics” Ha!!!

People have been fighting for freedom from despots bent on conquering the worlds people since ancient times, would be more accurate.

Posted by GarrettF | Report as abusive