Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, a Labour party without answers, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself.
-Published in Slate
-Glasgow, September 2014
Something strange is happening in Scotland, and it has little to do with nationalism. On streets that are normally lined only with chain shops, budget shoppers, and retail workers, there are now noisy crowds with drums and megaphones, impromptu dancing, and trestle tables stacked with political literature that keep shedding leaflets into the wind.
The trestle tables are everywhere: rickety, colorful little embassies of something messy, grounded, and different, all parked haphazardly below the giant identikit glass-fronted retail windows that are the familiar backbone of every British high street, and all drawing crowds. They are run by groups with names like Women for Independence, Scottish Pensioners for Independence, and Scots Asians for Yes. Security guards keep coming out of the shops and politely warning those manning these stalls that their banners and volunteers are encroaching on what is technically private land. Those in the street take no notice. They are too many in number, and too high in passion, to be corralled back into sanctioned spaces now.
The story of Scotland’s forthcoming referendum on independence, which takes place on Thursday, is about many different things—the majority of which have received very little attention from a mainstream press determined to interpret the debate through a tired prism of establishment parties, establishment politicians, and establishment narratives. One of those things is about what happens when big, nominally social-democratic political institutions—in Britain’s case, the pro-union Labour Party—sign up to the prevailing economic orthodoxy, leaving those who feel excluded by a doctrine of free-market fundamentalism with no one to represent them. Another is about the cracks that open up when an era of widespread, popular disillusionment with authority coincides with a vote in which almost every organ of authority—be it political, financial, or editorial—is advocating on one side of the argument, while all the popular momentum lies with the other.
Perhaps most importantly though, it’s a story about the emergence of a generation that has big and radical thoughts, at a time when all the ideological questions that matter are supposedly long-settled and when big, radical thoughts are distinctly out of fashion. To the alarm of just about everyone else, it’s a story about a generation that displays little instinctive faith in the status quo.
“We've changed the terms of engagement,” said Scottish hip-hop artist Darren “Loki” McGarvey, when I asked him why the highest-support for a yes vote to independence is consistently found among the youngest, 16–34, age bracket. “We no longer have to apologize for looking at life through a moral lens. We no longer have to apologize for having our own ideas about how society works. We’ve stopped thinking like consumers, and started thinking like citizens.”
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From Glasgow’s Queen Street train station, the X19 bus wends east through the city and out onto the M80 motorway. From here, the busy thoroughfares of the town center melt away and are replaced by wide-open spaces dotted with neat grids of pebbledash-terraced housing and the occasional clump of residential tower blocks. These traditionally working-class areas are the Britain that Thatcherism left behind; from their streets the dizzying “success” of the City of London, the United Kingdom’s citadel of high finance, looks pretty distant, and the warnings of division from the independence no camp sound pretty hollow. “Britain’s already divided between rich and poor,” says John Daley, a 57-year-old fisherman working at the Barras Street market in Glasgow’s East End. “You drive toward the edge of any major city and the place is a desert. On my way up to the lochs to fish, all I can see is just one ruined industrial estate and one ruined farm after another.”
People like John Daley were once Labour Party voters, and places like Easterhouse, where the X19 ends, were once Labour party strongholds. As one of the country’sstatistically poorest neighborhoods, residents here are accustomed to being used as static backdrops for government policy announcements on welfare and social mobility, but the carefully staged visits of big-name politicians have done little to persuade locals of the merits of formal politics. At the last elections, barely one-third of eligible local voters turned up at the ballot box.
On the day I went to Easterhouse, though, it looked very far from apathetic. Flags and posters for the referendum campaign filled house windows—from a pretty unscientific survey, I’d say the ratio stood at about 10-to-1 in favor of independence—and a Yes Scotland public meeting at a local community hall was so full that people were squeezing in to stand at the back. I found Robin McAlpine, who was due to speak at the event, sitting on the hood of his Vauxhall Astra in Easterhouse station’s parking lot. Between frantic bouts of activity on his phone he waved me into the vehicle and apologized for the wrappers and crumbs littering the seat. “I’m a feckin’ shambles!” he grinned, as we drove off for a coffee.
Like so many of the activists pounding the streets in support of a yes vote, McAlpine—who is one of the figures behind the Common Weal project, a series of reports exploring what a different kind of Scotland, with a different kind of politics, could become—has nothing to do with the Scottish National Party. Despite the repeated framing of the referendum as a slugfest between the SNP and Westminster, one of the most startling aspects of the yes campaign is how much of it has been waged outside of formal political structures. McAlpine, who has spoken at nearly 250 public meetings and clocked up to 1,000 miles in his Astra, calls the grassroots yesmovement a “butterfly rebellion,” armed with little more than infographics, humor, and personal contact. “What happened is that outside the realm of what would normally be called permitted political discourse, without any permission, of any description, by any institution, we have just headed out and done it anyway,” he claimed.
Some of the support picked up by the pro-independence campaign in places like Easterhouse can be traced back to growing working-class disillusionment with the Labour party; in 2011, Labour recorded its worst election results across Scotland in 80 years. Having largely accepted the neoliberal paradigm—before she died, Margaret Thatcher called Tony Blair’s New Labour Party her “greatest achievement”—Labour leaders have been left with little room to maneuver in the battle to persuade voters that there is a road within the union that leads to a reduction of inequality and meaningful improvements in ordinary people’s lives. On this reading Labour’s drift to the right has simply left a void in the political spectrum for SNP leaders to occupy and style themselves, however opportunistically, as warriors for social justice—ferrying “old Labour” voters toward nationalism in the process. As Alex Bell, chair of the renegade Labour for Independence group told me, “[Labour leader] Ed Miliband came up here a month ago and said this referendum will be fought on Labour values. It is, and he’s going to lose.”
But although that might explain some of the yes momentum, on its own it doesn’t account for the bigger picture: all those public meetings, all those trestle tables, the organic flowering of political discourse from below. Something else is going on here too, something that speaks very specifically to the political configuration we are living under, and its vulnerabilities.
Neoliberalism, in Britain and elsewhere, has not just hived off collective resources into private hands; it has also hollowed out liberal democratic governments, placing large areas of political debate under the sole purview of dispassionate, spreadsheet-wielding technocrats, beholden only to the markets. The result is an ever-shrinking arena for the rest of us to thrash out ideas. Under this type of politics, most of the political landscape becomes ossified and uncontested. We can squabble over whether the government should implement temporary energy price freezes, but never ask why energy production shouldn’t be in public ownership altogether. We can ponder the finer details of banker bonuses, but never discuss why it is that a mammoth, rentier financial industry is allowed to gamble every day with the world’s economic future—pocketing all the profits when it wins and socializing all the risk when it loses. Amid an orgy of material choice, our political horizons have narrowed to near zero.
The message of the pro-union Better Together campaign—which started out with a seemingly insurmountable poll lead, before hemorrhaging support in recent months—has been grounded firmly within those narrow horizons, concentrating on fear of the unknown and the amorphous risk of structural change. While initiatives like Common Weal were going around asking Scots “if you could do anything, what would you do?” slogans on the other side have included “I love my family, I’m saying no thanks,” and, “If you don’t know, vote no.” It’s a narrative calculated to appeal to an electorate uncertain of their capacity to change the world around them, a population content to allow those wielding power under the existing political model to define the safe, limited routes to change within it. “Their whole campaign has been predicated on the idea that
Crucially though, that’s not how things have panned out—which is why the pro-union campaign have had to change tack at the 11th hour, insisting, somewhat unconvincingly, that a vote for no could actually be a vote for radical change after all. The three main party leaders in London have now all promised a fresh round of devolution to Scotland if independence is rejected—transferring more powers to Edinburgh, including some control of taxes—and even signed a joint declaration on the matter which appeared on the front page of a Scottish newspaper on Tuesday morning. The yes camp claim it is a sign of panic, and that no one in Scotland will buy into this last-ditch effort.
The fact is that Scots have been asking lots of questions for themselves and gettingclued up in the process—grappling with the implications for energy, currency, international treaties, and constitutional reform. With those questions has come a steep decline in deference toward those who claim to speak with expert authority on such matters. Each dire warning of financial disaster issued by a major bank, business leader, or politician seems to have only hardened support for independence; last week, when Deutsche Bank declared that a yes vote could trigger another Great Depression, many Scots I spoke to literally laughed. The irony—of financial institutions who exploited the current system to cause economic doom, now doom-mongering themselves over any prospect of systemic change—was lost on no one.
What the Scottish independence referendum has exposed, unexpectedly but enthrallingly, is not so much a vein of support for nationalism, or even for independence in its own right, but rather a vein of political imagination that upends everything we’re usually told about politics today. It’s exposed a rejection of gradualism in favor of more ambitious, and even radical visions of change. As young musician Becci Wallace puts it, “it’s opened up so many people’s minds and given them a voice they didn’t even know they had.”
The hope for many is that regardless of the referendum outcome, this mental gear shift could seep across the border; as indicated by the rise in England of the self-styled “anti-establishment” U.K. Independence Party, which tacks firmly to the right, a hunger for alternatives to the political status quo can be discerned right across the British Isles. “The campaign for independence is actually about reconnecting people to decision-making and breaking a political consensus that’s not just more right-wing than I’d like, but fundamentally doesn’t serve the common good,” Patrick Harvie, a member of the Scottish parliament for the pro-yes Green Party, told me. “It serves big business interests, the City of London. I think we've got a broken political system, I think the connection between people and power is broken, and the same outrage and anger about that exists north and south of the border.”
Should a yes vote prevail, it seems highly likely that an independent Scotland would boast a political center to the left of Westminster. Many of the decisions that the country could take, like removing the U.K.’s Trident nuclear weapons program orrenationalizing the postal service, would inevitably prize open meaningful debates in the rest of the U.K. as well; desiccated swathes of the political landscape could suddenly become sites of battle once again. “I honestly believe an independent Scotland—proving there’s another way than neoliberalism—is going to produce a political earthquake across these islands,” insists Alex Bell. “Dreams are back on the table.”
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On one of my final days in Scotland, I managed to push through a scrum of television cameras on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street to reach John Reid, a former New Labour minister and leading light of the Better Together campaign. He had spent hours fielding questions on currency unions, capital flight, and national credit ratings. When I asked him whether the real story of this referendum was the story of Labour’s failure to offer an alternative to neoliberalism, he did a double take before reeling off a quick-fire list of Labour achievements in office. “That’s not a failure of social democracy,” he concluded, as his media handlers ushered him away before I could ask a second question.
A bit further down the hill, a massive throng of yes voters had gathered to sing songs and make each other laugh. Three teenage girls, just old enough to go to the polls on Thursday (the eligible voting age is 16), had set up microphones and guitars and were providing the entertainment. “I don’t see a reason to vote no,” said Margaux Durand-Watson. “People say independence is a risk, but why?” added her friend, Vendela Gebbie. “We’re a rich country, but most of the kids in my class are on free school meals, and that’s not right. I don’t trust the politicians, and I don’t trust adults who tell us we’re too young to be involved. We look things up. We research the issues for ourselves. We’re used to the way things are now but no one has told us why the way things are now make sense.”
Whether the yes camp triumphs on Thursday or not, Scotland’s independence referendum has brought into sharp relief the generational chasm between John Reid on the one side and Margaux and Vendela on the other. For the latter, who were born after Tony Blair came to power and have never associated the Labour Party with left-leaning politics or progressive change, passively accepting the contours of political debate that have been handed down from above is simply not an option.
Regardless of Thursday’s vote, Margaux, Vendela, and dozens of other young people and activists I spoke with in Scotland have used this campaign to probe a different sort of politics—and that, rather than Tartan flag-waving or increased cross-border financial transaction costs is what custodians of the old politics fear most of all. The pro-union strategy was designed to exploit the cramped nature of democratic thinking under neoliberalism; instead, among the Scots who have the most to lose or gain from independence, it has only revealed and exploded the limitations of such thinking altogether. “The books we read as we’re growing up always tell us that fortune favors the brave, and optimism usually wins the day,” observed 21-year-oldyes campaigner Josephine Sillars. “Why did they ever think we’d be afraid of ourselves?”When it came to independence, they might have been persuaded to support the union if someone, anyone, had tried to make a positive, forward-looking case for it. But Better Together never bothered to do that; the pro-union strategy was projecting fear of the unknown, and John Reid’s message is that the best way that Margaux and Vendela can fight for social justice is to vote for Labour once every five years. It’s a tired and paltry vision of change, and set alongside the possibilities that independence might throw up, it comes across to the teenagers as no real vision at all.