Scotland’s Democratic Horizons

Scottish independence achieved mass support because it gave ordinary people the sense that they can control their own destiny.

Lawrence OP / Flickr

Scotland’s independence referendum was drawing to a close, and the British establishment was in full panic mode. A Yes victory, once so unlikely, suddenly seemed possible. Threats of massive capital flight, eleventh hour offers of further devolution, clichéd invocations of queen and country, spread from elite circles throughout the country.

The Yes campaign, once the sectarian property of a bourgeois civic nationalist party had transformed into an idealistic grassroots movement that transcended and eluded the torpid electoralism of British politics in more ways than one.

On election night, areas like Angus and Moray, strongholds for the Scottish National Party (SNP) at both Westminster and Holyrood, decisively voted “no.” Meanwhile a majority of voters in Labour areas like Glasgow and Dundee turned their backs on the Unionist cause. In the last month of the campaign alone, support for independence among Labour voters rose from 17 percent to 35 percent.

Young people, derided as apathetic in every democracy, turned out in droves to campaign for and support the Yes side. A snap survey following the vote found that among the 109,500 voters aged sixteen to seventeen, empowered with the ballot for the first time ever in the UK, an overwhelming 71 percent favored secession. Voters aged twenty-five to thirty-four also backed independence by a majority of 59 percent.

The referendum’s turnout, a remarkable 84.6 percent (which surpassed 90 percent in some areas), exceeded that of the last UK general election by almost 20 percent. Disaffection with Westminster, the National Health Service (NHS), and other cuts to public spending were overwhelmingly cited as the paramount issues by Yes partisans.

That the Yes campaign eventually attracted an astonishing 1.6 million votes despite the formidable forces mobilized against it is a testament to the authentic democratic energies it helped galvanize. Of course, the observation that Scotland’s political center of gravity is to the left of an increasingly neoliberal Britain is hardly novel. But the story of its near independence is also a more complicated story of an emerging political cleavage that has been decades in the making.

“New Labour,” declared the 1997 manifesto of a political party that had once offered a radical alternative to capitalism, “is a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology. What counts is what works.”

What happened next is well known.

Under Tony Blair’s leadership, the essential tenets of the Thatcherite revolution were consecrated as the new normal: market-based reforms were introduced into the health and education sectors. The City of London was deregulated to encourage runaway financial speculation. Tuition fees were introduced. Welfare payments were cut, and Labour’s spending commitments in its first term proudly and openly matched those of the Tories.

Keynesianism and public ownership, once mainstays of British social democracy, were finally and fully abandoned in favor of neoliberalism. The UK developed an increasingly panoptic surveillance state complete with citizen ID cards. As a final indignity, a Labour prime minister embraced George Bush’s “war on terror” with an almost evangelical enthusiasm.

Britain’s working class — once proudly assertive at the highest levels of political decision-making — continued its long march toward a spartan postindustrialism of precarious work and high unemployment, now serenaded by the chauvinistic refrains of a right-wing tabloid culture facing no significant cultural opposition. Critics of such developments, particularly those within the Labour Party and the trade-union movement, were variously dismissed as dinosaurs and reactionaries.

In short, Blairism helped complete the Thatcherite dream of transforming the British state into an apparatus for facilitating neoliberal avarice and neutralizing any force opposed to it.

As it turns out, Blair’s prediction of a post-ideological Britain in which the old categories of left and right were no longer relevant contained an unintended shred of truth.

Seventeen years after New Labour’s first election victory, the class politics of earlier decades is almost nowhere to be seen at Westminster. In its place an ossified technocracy prevails, and the mainstream of political debate largely concerns how best to administer an increasingly unjust social order. All three major parties have welded themselves to the same deficit-warrior fetishism and practice a short-sighted, focus-grouped electoralism aimed at courting the nebulous mass of professionals and managers found in “middle Britain.”

With terrifying effectiveness, neoliberalism has reduced British democracy to a state of degenerate atrophy in which ideological categories are barely represented in the political process. As a consequence, the space for meaningful political action — for the genuine expression of popular discontent or to reform unjust economic arrangements through the ballot box — has steadily vanished.

With politics effectively reduced to a form of post-ideological administration, left and right, at least in the traditional liberal democratic sense, have lost their meaning. The state is no longer a forum for politics at all but rather the promoter, beneficiary, and chief guarantor of a managerial antipolitics.

Given the ubiquitous social and economic pressures exerted by neoliberalism, we might expect the public to be more or less okay with such developments. The reality is quite the contrary.

A recent opinion survey suggests that a majority of the British electorate, including a majority of Conservative voters, want higher taxes on the rich and believe utilities like rail and energy should be brought back into public ownership. In this regard, the average citizen stands markedly to the left of what passes for respectable conversation at Westminster and Whitehall, or on the BBC. That such views remain so marginal within mainstream political discourse in spite of their apparently cross-partisan appeal is deeply revealing.

In the face of a state whose aims are so antithetical to democratic sentiment, some channels remain open for political expression.

Many simply stop voting. Tellingly, the average voter turnout in UK elections has dropped since the 1970s, reaching a nadir of 59 percent in 2001 (Tony Blair’s second election as leader of the Labour Party). The widely resonant and much publicized calls for electoral abstention by comedian Russell Brand suggest that many people regard their non-voting as a kind of political act.

A much smaller number have turned to parties like the Greens who lack significant parliamentary representation. In recent years the British right and far right have also enjoyed a moderate renaissance with UKIP — fronted by the privately educated ex-banker Nigel Farage — being only the latest vulgar iteration of organized parochialism and xenophobia.

All of these options suit the British establishment just fine, since they offer no real opportunity for effective democratic resistance to its technocratic antipolitics. More likely, they foster alienation and atomization. And if people blame immigrants, foreigners, Muslims, or public spending for a catastrophe wrought by bankers and their allies in the political class, all the better.

The Scottish referendum offered a marked departure from this habitual narrowing of popular agency. Democratic resistance could be organized around a single ballot question with one possible outcome that had the potential to radically alter the status quo.

As the campaign wore on and elite hysteria reached a fever pitch, the stark antagonism between the wishes of the British establishment and the possibilities of an independent Scotland became abundantly clear. Amid the threats of capital flight, NHS collapse, and market chaos, the very New Labour technocrats who had helped entrench Margaret Thatcher’s legacy suddenly appeared to issue sanctimonious calls for a “united front” against Tory Britain.

What frightened Britain’s elites most in the referendum’s final days wasn’t so much the idea that Scotland would become its own nation state. It was the genuine possibility that even a small section of its population, when given an opportunity at the ballot box, might actually refuse a diktat handed down from Westminister.

In effect they realized what so many young Yes voters already understood: that the vote had become a vote of confidence in the establishment itself. Only by making last-minute concessions and securing the help of a few high-income SNP voters and people over the age of sixty-five did they narrowly escape defeat.

In his 1972 rectorial address at Glasgow University Jimmy Reid, a former communist and later Labour Party member who joined the SNP before his death in 2010, immortally summarized the sensation of political alienation:

Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. . . It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.

Scotland’s referendum result demonstrates that in the face of such alienation, there may be hope as well as despair. Thanks in large part to a generation that has grown up knowing only a Britain defined by neoliberal austerity and airbrushed antipolitics, the Yes campaign grew from the “narrow concern of a bourgeois civic nationalist party” into a confident assertion of Britain’s radical political conscience.

Confronted at every turn by the ostensibly ineluctable truth that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism, and by the intransigent insistence of elites that the future is just a horizon of austerity, antipolitics, and alienation; that social solidarity is a retrograde indulgence too expensive for the competitive, individualistic twenty-first century; that access to decent employment, healthcare, and education should be acquired privileges rather than inherited birthrights; that democracy is a trivial inconvenience; Scotland’s younger generation responded last week that an alternative does exist, and is theirs for the taking.