On 18th September 2014 the Scottish people will vote on whether Scotland should be an independent country. This referendum itself is a symptom of the big changes which have been taking place in the country over the past years. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has been in government since 2007. Under the able leadership of the First Minister Alex Salmond it gained 69 seats out of 129 in the 2011 elections, and so it managed to demand a referendum on its prime objective, independence. Ideologically the SNP is centre-left and is made up of several strands, from liberalism to social democracy; in the European Parliament it belongs, together with other regionalist or separatist parties, to the European Free Alliance, which is federated with the European Green Party.
The Conservative Party, which enjoyed considerable support back in the 1950s, is now in a terminal crisis following the devastating governments of Thatcher and Major: in 1997 it could not elect a single MP to the Westminster Parliament; in the latest general elections in 2010 it managed to elect 1 MP out of 59, and it has to thank the proportional system for its survival in Scotland. Support for the Liberal Democrats is also declining, as they are being penalized for their role in the coalition government with the Conservatives. As to the Labour Party, it dominated Scottish politics from the 1960s; the recent rise of the SNP has doubtlessly weakened it, but not so much in relation to Westminster (in 2010 it elected 41 MPs out of 59). There is no love lost between the two main Scottish parties, the SNP and Scottish Labour, all the more so as they find themselves on opposing sides on the referendum issue. However, the fulcrum of Scottish politics is slanted left of the centre, and the decisive competition takes place in the centre-left.
Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservative Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats are grouped in the organization ‘Better Together’, which campaigns for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum. The pro-independence organizations are represented in ‘Yes Scotland’, which includes, besides the SNP, the Scottish Green Party, the Scottish Socialist Party (anticapitalist left), Labour for Independence (an organization formed by Labour supporters campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote) and others. Several civil society groups (women, businesspeople, artists and writers) have also come out in support of independence, whereas the trade unions have decided not to take an official position on the issue.
Contrary to what might be expected, however, the issue of independence is not particularly divisive in Scottish society. This very fact gives a new, ‘postnational’ character to the referendum campaign. The SNP has the absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament, but most Scots do not necessarily aspire to slam the door on the rest of the United Kingdom. According to the polls independence gets a little over 30% support on average (but a good 20% are uncertain). In fact, the concept of ‘independence’ has a variety of meanings and implications, most of which have nothing to do with the sense of traumatic rupture or antagonistic confrontation we have come to associate with the term.
Contemporary Scottish national discourse generally shies away from binary contrapositions, does not rule out cultural or institutional ties with the United Kingdom, avoids the rhetoric of ‘identity’, accepts cultural plurality, and is not hostile to migrants (significantly enough, immigration is not an issue in the independence debate). After all Scotland itself, although comparatively small in size and rich in cultural traditions its people are rightly proud of, has a history ridden with painful strife and conflict (religious, social, national, ‘regional’…), a history, moreover, of active involvement with the British state and the imperial project, so that any of the traditional ‘nationalist’ appeals to a unitary identity, ‘shared memories’, a common enemy etc. is bound to cut precious little ice today. Scottish identity does exist, but it is as good as impossible to define it or to pin it down, and very few people actually attempt to do so, or feel bad at not being able to do so.
So what are the reasons for independence today? First of all, resentment at being subjected to decisions which are patently at odds with the popular will in Scotland as expressed in democratic elections and which have been taken by governments elected ‘elsewhere’. Such decisions have taken a heavy toll on Scottish society over the years, undermining or seriously threatening the social state: from public housing (which in Scotland amounted to 70% of the total before the Thatcher years) to a cost-free university education and a non-privatized national health service. In this sense ‘Scottishness’ means defending an idea of democracy and community against a blind neoliberal ‘rule’ from afar, from London and Westminster. In the words of the ‘Yes Scotland’ Declaration,
it is fundamentally better for us all, if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland.
This attitude is also extended to other issues, for example to the Trident nuclear missiles, which are at present hosted in Scotland and the separatist parties want to evict in case of victory – in this way the prospect of independence allows questions to be raised which are outright precluded in other countries. By anticipating overall change the supporters of independence can steal a march on their opponents, who are thus identified with the status quo (and inevitably so, given the sheer heterogeneity of the ‘Better Together’ coalition).
In any case, and pro-Union progressives also agree here, the present institutional arrangements will have to change. Most probably, after the referendum a negotiation process will start which will be the more in-depth and wide-ranging the more support the independence option will get. This may well explain the relative lack of ‘heat’ over the referendum in Scottish society: after all things can only improve and disruptive breaks are definitely not wanted. At this stage issues are raised and debated, and options are arrayed for the people to decide. However, the pre-referendum uncertainty inevitably lends a certain indeterminacy (and inconclusiveness) to issues or discussions: for example, what to make of the SNP ambivalences in economic matters, prospecting both a Scandinavian welfare state and an Irish or Baltic type of taxation? How can this project of renewed democracy, social cohesion and social inclusion overcome all the challenges in a society which is structurally integrated in the present globalized neoliberal order and in which the voter turnout is usually pretty low (39.8% in the 2012 council elections)? Is the language and discourse of independence the most adequate in our increasingly interdependent condition, and if so, how much independence can actually be preserved in relation to the United Kingdom and the European Union?
Take Europe, for example. On the one hand people in Scotland eschew that shrill Europhobia which is often found south of the border; indeed, the rise of UKIP in England and the referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU may well give a major boost to the pro-independence camp because of the distance from Europe that would be forced on Scotland and the risk of having to ‘leave the EU against our will’. On the other hand, there are hardly any references, in the Scottish debate, to the implications of being in ‘Europe’ (or for that matter, to the limits of sovereignty today and what independence would mean in a European context), either in a positive or in a negative sense, to argue either for or against independence.
To be sure, European issues do not command much attention in British public discourse anyway (unless in a crudely nation-centred perspective), and the recent developments within the EU do not encourage those seeking to renegotiate sovereignty on new terms to engage in a frank discussion on these issues. Still, evading them, putting them off to the negotiations after the referendum, is not going to help the Scottish people in the first place, who risk finding themselves eventually in situations determined by others and for which they are totally unprepared – all the more so as major revisions in EU institutions are likely to come about in the not too distant future.
In any case, we should follow and sympathize with what is taking place in Scotland, because it concerns us all. Getting the government you have voted for, finding new ways to exert self-determination in the face of increasing depletion of democracy, rethinking the concept of community by recognizing the internal pluralities and resisting the reduction of citizens to mere economic agents, making our social model fairer, more inclusive and universal, reconsidering the sense and purpose of military defence today, and renegotiating the existing institutional arrangements, if necessary, to make them more democratic– all this is not a matter for the Scots only, but has a bearing, to a greater or lesser extent, on all our societies. In particular it constitutes the crux of questions that have to be dealt with at the European level if we are to relaunch the European federalist project on a sounder basis and give democracy in Europe a new lease of life. It would greatly benefit both the Scottish people and other Europeans if they could engage in a constructive, meaningful dialogue on such issues. Sovereignty (and its limits), self-determination, democracy, community, social justice – you can hardly escape from dealing with all that. Whether you want to (re)build an independent nation or build a European federation.