On the Scottish referendum


On the 18th of September, Scotland has voted to stay in the United Kingdom after voters rejected independence: in overall the 55% of the electorate opposed the proposal compared to 45% who supported the initiative. This result – which relieved London, the markets and the leaders of the European parliament (who seemed ready to move heaven and earth to defend the Union [1]) – was somehow expected. From the first day the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012 was signed and paved the way for the referendum, opinion polls showed that only 30-35 % wanted independence. From that time and until September 18th, all the polls give a big lead to NO with only a few exceptions. What is, however, the real challenge of this historic initiative? In order to provide a concrete response to such a broad, but crucial, question, a number of other critical issues have to be discussed: a) which political forces supported such a move and why, b) what would a possible secession of this country from the rest of the UK (now entering an unprecedented political, economic and social crisis) practically mean  and, c) what does the victory of NO indicate and how can we determine the flow of political developments on the morrow of the result?

At prime facie, the historical conflict between the English and Scots is known to almost everyone, as well as the military-political role of England in the British Isles and Ireland. From 596 AD up until the 16th century northern Britain suffers from bloody conflict between the two peoples, with the numerous and overarmed English prevailing in most battles (with grave consequences for the defeated Scottish: heavy taxation, serfdom and asymmetrical repression). The War of Scottish Independence (1296-1357) and the Rough Wooing (1544-1551) are some of the most important moments of this historical division. But in 1603, when England and Scotland formed a “Personal Union” as King James VI of Scotland took the throne of England, the conflicts temporarily paused, until the breakout of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the 17th century and the Jacobite rebellion. As a consequence of these historical events, where the people of Scotland were most of the times forced to be humbled to the superiority of the English, the passion for independence, for ‘the overthrow of the English yoke’ remains partly alive in a country where the future looks rather dark as unemployment affects a large proportion of its population (mainly of Glasgow and Dundee where poverty has become a permanent ill). For all this, and of course for the undeniable fact that Scotland is lagging behind England in every sector (infrastructure and economic development), the Scottish nationalists (rightly to some extent) choose to put the blame on the government of London. For them this reality is a reflection of a never-ending submission to England and its ruthless prosperous aristocratic families. This diachronically self-victimized nationalism – which sometimes reproduces intense social-chauvinism, pastoralism and isolationism while in other cases adopts a republican rhetoric (nevertheless, the most claustrophobic and ethnic tendencies do not express the majority and are not the basic stake of the YES campaign) – certainly constitutes one of the reasons why the voices for independence gradually multiply.

It is not, however, appropriate to argue that this historical conflict is the only cause of aversion to anything British, leading more and more Scots to seriously consider secession. Besides the deterministic Foucauldian genealogical interpretation of history as history-of-ideas (in fact, a product of the anti-modernist fashion of the ‘80s) is utterly myopic and simplistic, as it ignores other aspects of the modern social prattein (which it crudely and pretentiously seeks to equate with an imaginary that travels unchanged through the centuries). Thus, the deep past, no matter how it forms the conscience of this nation, cannot be considered as the only factor that forces the Scots (maybe not the majority, but a large part of them) to support secession. If this was absolutely true then we should expect from them an upsurge of nationalism not with left-republican characteristics (of the kind invoked by the SNP – which among other things, campaigns against racism and for the rights of immigrants, for social benefits and rights, at least ostensibly) – but leaning closely to the extreme laissez faire ideology (like the United Kingdom Independence of Nigel Farage who condemns the YES and proposes even more drastic cuts than the Conservatives, and do not hesitate to mock the Scots for supposedly as ‘the scroungers who decide to live by state benefits paid by the “hard-working” English taxpayer’), given that the Scottish Enlightenment constitutes one of the most liberal component of this philosophical current (see. Adam Smith, David Hume) [2]. Instead, the Scots not only did not support UKIP in the European elections (which in England was the big winner, while in Scotland only 10% of those who went to the polls that day – that is a very small number of voters, and given the high abstention – chose this reactionary party) but over time were opposed to the Thatcherite policies (and even at a time when the Iron Lady had on her side a vast majority in most areas of England), while the SNP rejected the tripling of tuition fees for British universities [3]. Thus, for those Scots who oppose the austerity measures imposed by London (such as the notorious Bedroom Tax, reductions in state benefits and the obligation of all unemployed to work for free in department stores or in community placements) the exit of Scotland from the UK seems to be the only way forward [4]. Perhaps this explains the gradual rise of YES compared to two years ago, and the unequivocal support of leftist parties for the initiative.

Those living in parts of England that are strangled by austerity, are well aware of this. Thus, British citizens and residents without any hope of social advancement, had no reason but to support the YES as well (small gatherings took place in various parts of England in favour of Scottish independence, thereby imparting a flavor of paradoxical internationalism to the campaign) while those who passionately dislike the Conservatives and their policies (without, however, supporting Labour who sided with NO) saw the ΥES campaign with sympathy, which denotes that the movement for independence does not merely express a social-chauvinist imaginary of self-victimization (national-liberationist fanfares are never absent from secessionist movements); in addition, the public sphere was not dominated by divisive voices, which are misleading as they seek to distract our attention from the main (and common) problem, the hierarchical social structure and the exclusion of citizens from the management of power, which generates, reproduces and perpetuates de facto inequalities of any kind. The YES campaign reflects deep unresolved problems with humanistic, material and political roots, as well as great political and social deviations between the two peoples, without however projecting an isolationist imaginary or a divisive logic. This becomes clear through the nationalist narratives of the YES which, however, preclude the xenophobic hysteria reproduced by a big part of Unionists (in particular of Tories and UKIP), inviting immigrants and minorities to vote for the initiative. In fact, a large part of immigrants and minorities endorsed the YES for many different reasons: the most important is the rise of UKIP in many parts of England, which forced the Conservatives to adopt part of the UKIP agenda in order to prevent voting-swing to Farage. Thus, the social democratic and republican demands of YES are approved by many immigrants in Scotland, while the SNP, the YES party par excellence, would not want to lose the support of a large portion of the population which under no circumstances could defend the policies of the British Right. This concerns mainly the European immigrants who are constantly under the fear of an impending withdrawal of Britain from the European Union in order to put an end to the free movement of labour from the countries of the south. Muslims, Asians (also known as Asian Scots) and Africans migrants had no other option either, while the Jewish populations of Scotland seem divided: Could the Scottish Independence escalate anti-Israel in case the SNP backs the anti-Israel boycott? This is what most conservative unionist newspapers reproduce, investing on the good relationship British Jews always had with Conservative Unionists (see Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s first Jewish Prime Minister). They certainly ignore that the Jewish element is deeply rooted in Scotland and is an integral part of Scottish folklore, and when the local government of the SNP first took command, funded student visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in view of the Lessons from Auschwitz programme sponsored by the Holocaust Educational Trust with additional funding of £500.000.

None of this implies that the YES campaign is ideal (and to avoid misunderstanding, Scotland is far from a paradise for migrants). Nevertheless, we must recognize its positive points (which make it preferable to the NO in any case), such as the call for the creation of a state that will at least adopt a neutral stance, like the Swiss or Irish model, in foreign policy rather than participate in unjust wars [5], but above all, the most important demand of the initiative is democracy in itself: although it is basically a pure parliamentary pseudo-democracy (although open and inclusive in all its forms), however we recognize that this move will relieve the Scots from the lifetime powers of the royal family and the House of Lords (who are neither elected by the people, nor exercise accountability), a key step to claim further civil rights towards direct democracy and autonomy in general. Therefore it is of utmost importance to focus our attention on this aspect of the YES campaign, which sees independence not as a national but as a deeply political issue, as well as on those who embrace it as they oppose the austerity policies of the Tories, or the Labours in the future, who, having been the first to implement cuts will not hesitate to impose the same measures as the Conservatives; cuts that gradually remove basic social rights won through bloody political struggles over the past two centuries, rights that can only be guaranteed by political participation (in other words direct democracy) that is to say complete control of public goods by the citizens themselves (if they themselves wish to do so). We must also reject the pronouncements of the SNP for full inclusion of Scotland in the European Union because this move has nothing to offer but a pseudo-change of bureaucratic nature: the exit of Scotland from the UK may well mean a release from the crown, the repulsive aristocracies and the Bank of England, but at the same time transfers part of political power to EU institutions, to the unelected technocrats of Brussels (also known as Eurocrats), a mechanism that cancels every democratic right if it is inconsistent with the “sacred” laws of the market (see, Ireland and the Referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon).

If the people of Scotland truly want to become autonomous and self-legislating, then they have no alternative but to undertake the management of power, abandoning a) all tendencies of nationalist self-victimization b) any idea claiming that London is the only guarantee of stability and c) any assignment of political management to bureaucratic institutions (such as the SNP). Moreover, just as self-victimized nationalism is reprehensible, so unionism (that is, the British – liberal or reactionary – nationalism of the One Nation campaign) is equally unacceptable. The first because it connects the popular sovereignty with geopolitical freedom while the second assigns governance to a centralized and authoritarian government that makes decisions in absentia (as will happen with the promise of an independent Scotland’s accession to the EU). Both forms of obsessive nationalism overshadow the whole relations of exploitation within the country itself that only political equality – id est, citizens councils (aka direct democracy) – has the potential to reverse. But how far are we from that? How far is impoverished Scotland from turning to projects of self-organization, especially after the humiliating defeat of YES? Undoubtedly, the victory of NO does not automatically mean that everything is lost. At this point, the right- and left-wing fans of conspiracy theories continually condemn the media intimidation (id est, how the journalistic intelligentsia managed to manipulate the Scots in favor of NO). In fact, no one denies the vulgar stance of the British media and the rest of the political elite (who claimed that if the independence campaign wins jobs will be lost and the Scots will be forced to flee). However, we must bear in mind that (as aforementioned) the YES barely became a majority only in the last two weeks, and only once in the two years it managed to come out ahead by two points in a single poll. Moreover, even many supporters of the YES were sure of their electoral defeat and it would be wrong to attribute this to the media-terrorism. The Scots themselves are well aware that the only time of prosperity they experienced was when the country was united with the UK, so we cannot rely entirely on the role of the media, nor a two-year campaign can undo founded historical facts that play an important role in the public opinion. The fact that the YES managed in two years to climb from 30% to 40% indicates that the only obstacle was time. In conclusion, the YES was defeated as everyone expected and, precisely, nobody knows if after September 18 pro-independence supporters will be reconciled with the idea of the Union, abandoning every effort in the future, if they will break into a thousand fractions, if they will be incorporated into other campaigns or will continue until they get something out of it. It is encouraging, however, that for the first time in Scotland such a serious issue was discussed almost everywhere, in all public places in Glasgow and Edinburgh, in Aberdeen, Inverness… For the first time, Scots (and immigrants) abandon apathy and come into contact with political reality. While the path to social emancipation is long, any attempt that contributes to the creation of a public sphere should be recognized as a positive starting point. In the end, the next few months and the upcoming developments in the rest of Europe are expected to critically determine the political landscape of the UK as well.

[1] The reactions of the euro-conservatives once the percentages of the YES increased do not come as a surprise; many spoke about the negative impact it would bring to the rest of Europe in the event of an exit from the UK, whilst Barack Obama just 11 hours before the referendum voiced support for the Union. In addition, a public proclamation of the queen urged the Scottish voters to reject the idea of independence and at the same time called the leaders of three major British parties (Conservatives, Labour and Liberal) to support the Union and to campaign in favour of the NO.

[2] Here we should consider another fact: Scotland, after its union with England in 1707, has experienced unprecedented growth. The local aristocracy was overcome by a strong rising bourgeoisie. The end of feudalism resulted in Edinburgh and Glasgow being transformed into industrial zones, playing an important role in the economic life of Great Britain. Therefore, the days when the Scots used to see themselves subjugated to the interests of London seemed a distant past. Scottish financiers during the imperialist expansions had equal participation with their English partners in the export of power. But despite this capitalist development which transformed a rural country into one of the major urban centers of Western culture, the ideology of laissez faire was never a core component in the country’s modern political scene (especially if we consider that during the mid-war period and after the Scottish economy was in a state of permanent decline, with only a few exceptions). The Conservatives almost always constituted a minority (even in the 2010 elections they hardly managed to come to the fourth place, gaining only one seat, with Labour winning by far, while at the same time their rates plummeted in the rest of England. Finally, the SNP came second, whilst the third place was occupied by the Liberals.

[3] In most universities in England, the undergraduate tuition fees amount to £9.000 per year, while undergraduate courses in Scotland cost 1,820£ only, (of course many exceptions apply per university).

[4] In addition, citizens of the traditionally pauperized Glasgow (a city that has suffered enough from the cuts) voted in favour of the initiative (54%), while the wealthy Edinburgh turned its back on the YES campaign.

[5] When the Glasgow Airport in the summer of 2007 was targeted by Islamists, the pro-independence supporters raised the issue of neutrality, that is of withdrawal from the military operations in the Middle East.

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