Thoughts on the Scottish independence referendum

On September 18, 2014 Scottish voters were asked to vote “Yes” or “No” on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”[2] The “No” side won, but the vote was close, with 2,001,926 (55.3%) voting against independence and 1,617,989 (44.7%) voting in favor. The turnout of 84.6% was the highest recorded for an election or referendum in the United Kingdom since the introduction of universal suffrage.

Nationalism is center stage this week.

In Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, IRA chief in Derry at the height of the civil conflict in the 1970s, said in response to news of the death of the Reverend Ian Paisley, that Paisley had been his “friend.” He and Paisley had led their diametrically opposed parties into a power sharing government for Northern Ireland in 2007.  Paisley, the most resistant of Unionists, who had called the Pope the Antichrist, had constantly reiterated a refusal to share the government of Northern Ireland with Catholics, and had arguably fueled a bloody conflict that, without him, might have been over much sooner, ended up being the bridgebuilder.  It was an astonishing reversal.  At a meeting in Washington, DC, in the autumn of 2007, when large numbers who had participated in the Northern Ireland peace process gathered to hear the new Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister speaking together on the same platform, the man standing beside me summed it up for us all – “We are all here just to see with our own eyes if it is really true.”  Only  Paisley could have pulled the extreme Unionists in – his credentials were impeccable.  History will remember him as the naysayer who learned to say yes.  In spite of the myriad ways Paisley deserves criticism, he leaves us with hope that the most determined irredentist can have a change of heart.

In Ukraine, the Kiev government agreed this week to self rule for areas in the east, close to the Russian border, that have been conducting a Russian-assisted rebellion. Will this concession be enough? Spokespeople in Donetsk have already said no.  Nationalism is one of the best examples you can find of the “genie out of the bottle” phenomenon.  Once it is allowed some recognition, its appetite is never appeased until it achieves its fullest possible expression. Nationalism grows when it is offered a reward, and grows when its aspirations are denied. It is a handy tool in the hands of opportunist politicians who wish to turn a situation to their advantage, then takes on a life of its own, easily pushing a population towards decisions that are seriously against their economic advantage.

And then there is Scotland.

During the 1990s as we tried to understand the sudden bloodbath of the Balkans, a formulation was widely adopted that there are two kinds of nationalism – civic and ethnic.   Civic nationalism was the good kind, built on attachment to civic (and democratic) institutions; ethnic nationalism was the problematic kind, making claims to a blood connection, to emotional rationales for loyalty that invited irrationalism and irredentism, often supporting authoritarian regimes and xenophobic behavior.

But in Scotland this distinction is not clear cut.  Passions associated with shared historical traumas, with songs of yearning and loss, with bagpipes and tartan, may play a part.  The nationalists enthusiastically campaigning for the yes vote have shown some of the ugly emotionalism that is associated with ethnic nationalism by demonstrating aggressively, defacing the posters of their opponents and acted in other ways that undermine respectful debate.  At the same time, Scottish nationalism has a right to describe itself as a civic nationalism, because it has well developed institutions, most particularly in its legal and education systems, that support egalitarianism and participation.  A core argument of the nationalists is that Scotland is really a left-oriented society, more like the Scandinavian countries than it is like England or for that matter the United States.  Its natural instincts are social democratic.

Most important to understand is that Scottish nationalism expresses something that we are all feeling right now – that in the twenty-first century the anonymous face of globalized capitalism gives the lie to our need as individuals to feel we have a say in things; that we are dissatisfied by a world that fails to give enough recognition to our particular, localized character and needs; that we aspire to see a democracy that actually is an expression of the will of the people it says it serves.

Moreover the dis-ease of the past six years, since the near collapse of the global financial system and the subsequent recession, have made people search for a culprit and grasp hold of apparent solutions.  For Scots for whom the recession brought one more cycle of lost jobs and economic frustration, the potential “solution” of independence was waiting in the wings, ready to be picked up and touted.

At its best, and I am not necessarily saying we have seen it at its best during this current campaign, Scottish nationalism expresses a desire for a new maturity in all of us, where our values and experiences are more congruent with the way we conduct our personal and political affairs.  Scots are tired of presenting their identity as the comic ruffian making jokes about haggis and what underwear, if any, is worn beneath a kilt.  In the eighteenth century, Scotland contributed significant thinking to the development of democracy; in the nineteenth century it became a hub of the industrial revolution; but for a series of reasons, Scotland experienced the twentieth century as a time of decline.  The Scottish spirit is attempting to find a new expression of itself, to make use of its collective identity to further the needs of its people and to pioneer an approach to more responsive democratic government.

The big question is whether this admirable vision can proceed without being pulled off course by the conservatism of the nays or the bravado of the ayes.  Those of us emotionally connected with any part of the United Kingdom feel a surge of tension as we contemplate the decision being taken tomorrow.  It is hard to imagine that we will get through this week without having to consider a change in the way we think about ourselves.  But whatever happens on September 18, the debate opens up new space for a discussion about responsive democracy and equality of opportunity in hard times.  That debate is ongoing in a number of places in the world.  Wise Scots should hope that this is the principle reason the world turns its gaze to Scotland this week.

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