The next great experiment in reinventing democracy gets its airing in Scotland’s independence vote on Thursday. It’s been almost four years since Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution stoked the appetite for more direct forms of democracy. The resulting wave of occupations swept across North Africa and the Middle East, barrelled through the squares and plazas of Europe, made landfall in North America in Occupy, and has continued to fire up public protest in the streets of Istanbul, Kiev, São Paulo, and Bangkok. Unlike most of these others, the debate among Scots about their future hasn’t taken the form of mass, open-air demonstrations. Yet it has monopolized conversations in every pub and living room, and is an expression of the same hunger for free and meaningful participation in political life. And, in this case, the deliberation might just result in a new kind of nation state.
Many Scots of my generation, including myself, left the country in 1979 after the failure of the first national referendum on devolving power to Edinburgh. Who could blame us for viewing the vote as a vindictive strike back at the London-bound political class who conspired to manipulate the franchise requirements for that ballot? (Instead of a simple majority, it was decreed that 40 percent of the electorate had to vote Yes for the result to stand.) Indeed, many inattentive commentators have seen the recent rise in support for the nationalists’ Yes campaign in the same vein—as a vengeful, and therefore purely emotional, populist revolt against the “Westminster elite,” who have been failing to represent the political views of the Scottish electorate ever since.
Certainly, alienation from the centers of power in Southern England runs deep, and helped to drive the successful vote for a devolved parliament in 1997. But the push to leave the 307-year-old Union no longer derives its energy solely from visceral opposition to Tory (and New Labour) domination from London. David Cameron played into this creaky belief, and struck entirely the wrong note, when he travelled north of the border last week to plead the populace “not to use the poll to give the ‘effing Tories’ a kick.” In the past several months, as a registration drive has captured a staggering 97 percent of the electorate, Scottish sentiment has tapped into a swelling reservoir of belief that an opportunity has come along to create something genuinely different. When was the last time that ordinary people believed their votes could make that kind of change?
Yes, there is a lot of history involved in the three centuries of common statehood, but the multinational scaffolding of the UK has long been a teetering construct, held together by moldering institutions like the House of Lords and the legacy of imperial presumption. Better that it fall apart through the impact of Scottish secession than perpetuate itself through occasional cosmetic makeovers. The outcome, both south and north of the border, will be a great leap forward for the cause of constitutional change in Britain, where the concept of “reason of state” is a slippery doctrine.
Younger people all over the world have never seen the good side of government, only the grisly face of neoliberal policymaking. Not surprisingly, they have lost their faith in representative democracy, and among the politically active, the revival of anarchism has led them to believe that another world is possible through commoning and mutual aid rather than through public provision. Impressive as these small-scale cooperative efforts can be, it is difficult to see how we can transition to a low-carbon future, or guarantee equitable delivery of education and healthcare, without strong state action.
That’s what is so stirring about the prospect of a freshly-minted Scottish state, with a mandate to do much more than stop the erosion of public services, evict the nukes, and oppose austerity politics. Let’s see what twenty-first-century government power can produce in a country that introduced the principle of popular sovereignty (the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath was the first to cite the consent of the people for rule), and then invented the concept of civil society (after the terms of the 1707 Union left intact its legal, educational, and religious institutions). There’s no reason not to expect bold innovations in citizenly practice and they may well be needed if Scotland is to shake off the resource curse that often afflicts small countries heavily dependent on oil revenue.
No police squads have been sent to quell the would-be secessionists, but the No campaign has been able to draw on a fierce consensus involving every pillar of the establishment—from the heavy artillery of the major parties, united across the political spectrum, to the unrestrained opposition of the UK media, likewise almost univocal; from the cocksure censure of the financial kingpins to the special pleading of illustrious footballers, rock stars, and TV personalities. When their combined fear mongering failed to move the poll numbers, the bribes were wheeled out. The threats seem to have backfired, but it may not be too late for the sweeteners. And they are being offered, not in the kind of currency that Robert Burns scorned—“We’re bought and sold for English gold”—but in the form of more extensively devolved powers.
If the Nos squeak by on Thursday, then Westminster will have to cede more authority, and the break-up of Britain will proceed on a slower, but still inexorable, schedule. If the independistas prevail, Scotland will be forging a new democratic pathway for the citizenry of small, stateless nations. Either way, nothing will be the same.
Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. His most recent book is Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal.