I was never a dyed-in-the-wool independence supporter. Growing up in Fife in the 1980s and 1990s, I always thought self-determination had an attractive ring to it, but what would it look like? What would Scotland do with independence? Pro-independence voices often bore a sense of grievance or sounded anti-English. And that never did the trick for me. Still doesn’t.
How times have changed. One of the most exciting things about the referendum in 2014 is how the debate is shaping up. Because it is not just about independence. Not for its own sake. It’s about what we might do with it. In particular, there is a lot of talk among those supporting a Yes vote about Social Democracy. And that’s what I want to look at here.
First, it’s worth noticing that it’s serious talk, which I’d say is reason for optimism in itself. For most of my life “Social Democracy” sounded like it came from a foreign language and was no more than a joke in Westminster. But it’s not a joke any more, at least not in Scotland. The independence referendum has seen social democrats with energy and passion, ideas and know-how come to the fore. Much of the impetus comes from the Common Weal and Jimmy Reid Foundation, whose policy proposals rest on the social and economic research they have published online, and who are attracting broad-based support. Their vision for the future is (a) radically different to what the UK offers socially, politically and economically, and (b) being communicated clearly and effectively so as to spread information among their supporters.
I think this is great and I’ll tell you why. The referendum has focused minds across Scotland, with undecided voters moving towards yes or no, and people who were bored with politics getting engaged. Maybe it’s because we’re being asked what we want, and because this time, for once, the politicians have really made it count. Maybe it’s because we are going beyond independence to talk about the kind of society we want. It’s brought my mind into focus, too, but in a surprising way. Of course, I’ve been thinking yes or no, but it’s not just that. What with the openness of the debate and everything that’s at stake, the referendum question has brought home to me who I really am. I’m a Social Democrat.
“What will we do with independence?” is now the key question and it is the reason this vote is so meaningful. In addition, while this is primarily about Scotland, it’s actually much bigger than that. While it could reshape politics throughout the British Isles, it’s bigger than Britain, too.
For the last four years, I’ve moved between Scotland and Spain for work. I was living in Barcelona in 2011 when a political movement called the Indignados set up in the city centre, in Plaça Catalunya. Theirs was no flash in the pan protest and it wasn’t just Barcelona. The Indignados turned city centres around Spain into 24/7 festivals of political activism and brainstorming. They lived and ate and worked on those squares and they were in place for months (eight months in Barcelona) before the authorities finally sniffed weakness and brutally expulsed them.
The Indignados were protesting against the widening wealth gap and the government’s use of public money to rescue banks and criminal financiers while it cut key services and attacked civic democracy. They were protesting not just the failure to create jobs but the increasing numbers of working people who found themselves in poverty. Does that sound familiar?
Yes, they were angry but the Indignados were also sincere and civic-minded. Their protest was partly inspired by the Arab Spring of 2010 and it was overwhelmingly constructive and creative in tone. On October 15, 2011, they called for a day of global protest, which was when it kicked off worldwide. Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London, Occupy Edinburgh and Glasgow, you name it. Occupy was Phase II, protesting the same broken system, the same neglect that governments display for their own citizens, the same economic injustices. Occupy used the same methods as the Indignados, emphasising cooperation and generating solutions to problems, and the same social networks for communication. They even had matching slogans:
People before Profit. We are the 99%.
Find out about Common Weal politics if you haven’t already. The parallels are easy to spot and I think they tell us something very important indeed: what’s happening in Scotland is not happening in a vacuum. People all over the world are seeking solutions to the problems caused by governments who are too far from the people and too close to global finance. The Indignados, Occupy and the Common Weal: all share the same indignance and all support similar means of challenging the injustices and problems that we face.
Broadly speaking, that’s what I mean by Social Democracy. There is a palpable appetite for a meaningful change in politics and there is no shortage of ideas about how to make it happen. A change that puts people first, instead of money. Right now it is most visible in Scotland. But the desire is present UK-wide, Europe-wide and worldwide.
Supporters of the union like to talk about this, and they will doubtlessly continue to do so in the run-up to September. They say that because the problems affecting us are global, we absolutely need to stay in the union. But apart from the illogicality of this position (since all countries face the same problems and they are not in the union) the problem is that the union they defend does not even begin to address that basic and widespread desire to see people treated with dignity and respect. Instead, the UK has dragged us all in the opposite direction. Again and again, Britain’s role in the world is to exacerbate the problems caused by neoliberal economics, not to find solutions to them. If we vote No in September, we continue to support this.
The other problem is that, at the moment, the situation in Scotland is not quite the same. The Indignados and Occupy were limited to protest, but as of September the people of Scotland are not. People in England, Wales and NI who want meaningful change are limited to protest, but the people of Scotland are not. As UK citizens, people living in Scotland are limited to protest, but on 18th September and maybe after that date, we are not.
Now don’t get me wrong, protest is crucially important. But it is also completely basic and condemned always to react to events that are already taking place. Occupy and the Indignados came and went (although the 2014 European elections took a telling turn in Spain: more of that shortly) because despite their ideas on how to improve society, all they could do was protest. I say we take the right to protest and move on, because what Scotland has in September 2014 is much rarer. We have the opportunity to take action to shape all of our futures, and contribute at the highest level, and we have the opportunity to do it now.
The Arab Spring in 2010, the Indignados in 2011, Occupy in 2012 and Scotland in 2014. Is that too far-fetched? A series of movements worldwide demanding governments that put people first and stop caving to the demands of global finance? Is Scotland the next place where people will stand up and seriously address the issues that appear to be local but are in fact completely international? Except in the case of Scotland, it won’t be through protest but through nation-building? Without a hint of violent struggle, with just a slew of crosses on bits of paper on 18/9?
Before we get carried away, let’s remember that there is counter-talk. Cautious and sensible voices on the left point out that an independent Scotland is not set to become a Social Democratic nirvana by default. And they are right. They say the Scottish electorate is no more radical than that of England, and again they are right: Labour, the Lib-Dems, the Conservatives and the SNP are not radical voting choices. If you’re angry at social and economic injustice and fed up of the neo-liberal consensus at Westminster, they say, then why not stay in the UK and stand and fight together with left-wing groups in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Why not vote No and work together?
Well, apart from the above, I don’t have a definitive answer to that. I would dearly love to see England become a more balanced society, both socially and economically. And I’m right behind my friends there who feel the same way. But is it really going to happen? Especially if Scots vote No and support the union on September 18th? Let’s remember that many left-wingers in England and Wales are enthusiastically supporting Scottish independence (Billy Bragg is one example). The UK makes us all weaker, in their view, and cooperating with English voices inside the UK to petition a parliament that tries to run four different countries at once is just too slow and complicated. Maybe we could cooperate better internationally. It didn’t stop the Indignados.
My instinctive feeling is that they are right. It’s my view and I don’t expect anyone to go on that. But what I do know is that independence does not mean turning our backs on people outside Scotland. Depending on what we do with it, it could mean the very opposite. In the recent EU elections, the UK and Germany and France all swung wildly to the right. Low earners and the poor across Europe have paid for a financial crisis they did not create and they are disgusted. Spain was different. It swung to the left. The new party that sprang up in May 2014 is now a serious contender and the main parties are caught off-guard. It is a Social Democratic group called Podemos (Yes, We Can) which explicitly seeks to implement the vision of the Indignados. Its members carry the flag of what was then the most advanced Social Democracy Europe had seen: the Spanish Republic of 1931-1936. So a 2011 protest movement that many dismissed as idealistic dreamers, in the end, are on the march with their representatives in the corridors of power in Brussels.
I don’t know whether an Independent Scotland will follow the same path and implement socially just solutions to the enormous challenges it would face. But I do know that the indignance that has mobilised creative and hopeful protest worldwide since 2008 is totally justified, and that the same indignance and hope is now playing into the Scottish independence debate. I know that the eloquence and sincerity of the Indignados, Occupy and others who seek social justice is reflected in the grown-up manner in which the Scottish referendum debate is being conducted. I know that Scotland is not alone. And I know the eyes of the world will be on us on 18/9.
The Common Weal
Billy Bragg on Scottish Independence
Image from sweetenough