The referendum in two weeks is a critical political event for our generation, for the current conjuncture. Studying politics for me in the last four years – in particular, the three years I have spent in Edinburgh – has been an experience in learning to cope with despair at how utterly wrecked our world is, and also a little bit of hope and solidarity with the many who are fighting back.
Global warming? Summit after summit of absolute failure.
Capitalism? Since 2008, the bankers seem to have won. Governments worldwide have simply been lending them money at no interest and have refused to arrest or hold to account any of the criminals who destroyed our collective wealth.
Civil rights? The police tactics in response to our justified outrage at these crimes, and the many others of our ruling classes, have been nothing short of brutal. From Wall St to Tahrir, from Gezi Park to Connaught Place, from St. Paul to Ferguson – the right to assembly has been suspended. What the cops want to do is make us terrified from ever standing up to authority ever again.
The list goes on. Women’s rights? Wage inequality remains and “rape culture” is an adequate descriptor of popular culture’s approach to the question. 35% of all women experience sexual assault in their lifetime. In a recent piece, Zizek astutely notes the international phenomenon of a remarkable rise of systematic violence against women, “violence that transmits a precise social message”. Representation in many walks of life remains largely male.
Education? UK universities are rapidly being privatised, with tuition costs being raised. Social policy? State welfare is being cut with nothing to replace it, important housing and infrastructure development is not taking place – in London, it appears that urban planning is entirely in the interest of its wealthy. Health? NHS privatisation continues apace. International peace? No need to rehash the depressing news of this past summer and the past few years.
On every critical political question then, our political class has failed us. This is no coincidence. The ruling class is not “enlightened”. They prove that every day with baffling pronouncements on the right not to be surveilled, on “when genocide is permissible” , on how the presumption of innocence needs to be suspended. We no longer live in the age of J. S. Mill, the admirable if indecisive liberal. We live in the age of Pinochet, Thatcher, and Obama. The latter two powerful apologists for a deeply broken society. Voting is largely an empty choice between nearly identical political-economic outlooks. Witness how proudly Brown and Labour displayed their “austerity credentials” in the past election. At the same time, political movements with a coherent, mass-base and a meaningful outlook on these questions have not yet emerged. We don’t yet have a Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi. We don’t have anyone to vote for, but we also don’t have a movement that could represent us in the votes and thus pose as an alternative. Thatcher’s children have done their job: at present, there is no alternative.
This is where Scotland steps in. More to the point: Scottish independence. Scotland is an alternative. It was in Edinburgh that I came to learn of how terribly wrecked our society is (not just British society, but Indian too), and that too was no coincidence. The spirit of social solidarity and desire for justice that I have witnessed in Edinburgh is unmatched anywhere else. Admittedly, I have witnessed little so far in my ripe old age of 22, so perhaps that does not mean much.
In any case, as far as I can tell, the Scottish voter simply does not share the values of the English voter. The NHS here is a beloved institution, as is the principle of a free and fair education – both of which have been hollowed out in England in the last fifteen years. When Farage comes into town, the locals invariably hound the hateful clown out in numbers that often show up in support of UKIP south of the border. Unlike England, the ethnic communities in Scotland live happily with each other, with anti-immigration sentiment quite rare. Most Scots are likely not sympathetic with the UK Home Office’s efforts to make it more and more difficult for highly-skilled or indeed any immigrants to enter the British Isles. This summer, when Gaza was ravaged by overwhelming Israeli force, it was the Scottish Kirk and later, the Scottish Government that made a stand denouncing the occupation and Israel’s “disproportionate violence” – the latter welcoming Palestinian refugees and demanding a UN investigation into the war crimes.
Now you might reply that the English broadly share these values too, it is more that the English political system – Thatcher, New Labour and a conservative Parliament and judiciary – which is responsible for the failures in political imagination of the past decade. Precisely. This, again, is where Scottish independence comes in. Independence is a unique opportunity to fashion a new polity with the radical changes necessary for the present era. Devolution could never achieve the same because it would always be limited by the Bank of England’s influence on monetary policy, and Westminster’s control of defence and foreign policy. The former would insure that Scottish social policy would remain beholden at some level to London’s demands, while the latter would have Scots furthering a rather interventionist and post-imperialist international agenda.
While everywhere else, students and workers of our age – Buzzfeed’s entitled and nostalgic “90s kids” – have been terrorised by overbearing force at protests and simply ignored in mainstream politics; in Scotland, a broad-based coalition of youth are taking the reins to make the argument for independence. This is extremely heartening. This is not to exclude citizens of other ages. Debates of what kind of independence Scotland wins will include voices from all ages, ethnicities, and creeds, and these debates are only likely to occur if Scotland votes Yes. Devolution so far has been led by the political parties, but independence can be and I hope, will be, led by the engaged, idealist Scottish citizenry. We must remember that a Yes vote is only the beginning of a long process by which Scottish society will decide what kind of nation it wants to become, and what kind of powers that it can wrest away from the reluctant grip of Westminster. At few points in world history however, does an entire society – not just the elite – but ordinary voters, from those in small islands to the urban working-class, get the chance to have a say in what its nation-state will consist of.
Finally, a brief consideration about the “economy”. This is a deeply conservative talking point: “Why are you voting on adolescent ideals? What about the pound?! We have no guarantee of Scotland’s prosperity as an independent country!” Indeed, we have no guarantee of Scotland’s prosperity within a deeply regressive and unequal United Kingdom either. The SNP’s current plan to remain in the pound for a transitionary period is sound – that is precisely how Ireland managed their transition to independence in 1922.
On questions of scale, Scotland’s GDP comes to $248 billion and its population is at a small 5.3 million. An exact scale comparison is Finland with a GDP of $250 billion and a similarly larger population of 5.4 million. But Finland might have richer natural resource deposits than Scotland. Then let’s look at Singapore – it has a population of 5.3 million and a comparable GDP of USD 275 billion. Singapore has based its success on a highly educated population and its place as a centre of exchange for world trade. If Singapore, Finland, and Iceland can all be successful independent countries, I see no obvious reason that Scotland cannot. Scottish ingenuity knows no bounds, as the history of the United Kingdom can tell us (read “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” by Arthur Herman for more). I have little doubt that the next great European inventors, thinkers, and politicians will all be Scottish, and they will be even more inspired when working for a larger social project that they have a stake in (rather than that of anonymous international capital). Finally, Finland, Iceland and Singapore retain independent control over their currency, and I believe that eventually, a Scottish currency managed by a Scottish central bank would be a great boon for the Scottish economy. Cheaper exports will boost the industrial and technology sectors, while cheaper costs of living could invite tourists from all over the world – you don’t need me to tell you how life-changing a trip to Skye, or Edinburgh, or Stirling can be. In fact, people like me will promote tourism to Scotland for free!
The exact shape of the Scottish economy will be negotiated, fought for, and shaped by the debates and decisions in the coming years. It is no use looking at the historical statistics of Scotland within the UK to try and predict how an independent Scottish economy will fare – because an independent Scotland might or might not share many features of the current economy, we still do not know. What we do know is that independence need not mean an end of economic interdependence with the British Isles – if England tries to raise import duties on Scotland, it will be violating EU norms. Of course if the UK leaves the EU by then, it will be a different question altogether: do we want to be stuck in a eurosceptic United Kingdom, or forge ahead with deeper international relationships?
A Yes vote right now would begin a process by which everyone in Scotland will be able to substantively contribute to the shape and priorities of the Scottish nation-state. This contribution will likely take years of effort and perhaps many defeats along the way, but it is more than what can be said about the ability of an American citizen or French citizen, or anyone else in entrenched neoliberal democracies to influence their own government to have a radical change of direction.
But why cut and run? Why not fight for a more just United Kingdom as a whole? Given the moribund English left, and London’s famous institutional inertia – this is a fool’s errand. Furthermore, the opportunity to create a new just polity is simply not there in the UK. In the age-old question of reform or revolution – Westminster is likely to stifle reform; an independent Scotland could herald something closer to a revolution.