Whatever happens in Thursday’s referendum, the campaign has cast a grim spotlight on the venal and corrupt British state that so many Scots are eager to escape from. Having spent much of the last two years complacently assuming that it could take the results for granted, the British political class has collectively set out to terrify and browbeat the Scots into remaining in the Union through a relentlessly negative campaign that has focussed for the most part entirely on the risks of independence, and which has relied on every dirty trick in the book to exaggerate these risks.
None of this is surprising. After all, threats and prophecies of doom have become the bread-and-butter of British politicians who increasingly use the prospect of the even worse to justify the continuation of the already bad. But boy, have they excelled themselves in the last two weeks.
Emails from Cameron requesting supermarkets to make statements about rising prices; leaked reports on banks threatening to pull out of an independent Scotland following pressure from the Treasury; visions of national bankruptcy and currency collapse and the end of the NHS; rising mortgages; border guards along Hadrians Wall; warnings from Deutsche Bank that independence will trigger a ‘modern Great Depression’ – all these dreadful possibilities have been presented before the Scots, in one of the most blatant and shameless acts of political manipulation in British history.
Barack Obama, Jose Manuel Barroso, Asda, David Beckham and Niall Ferguson have all joined in the NO chorus. Only the Pope has so far failed to pronounce against independence, but there are still two days to go, so it may still happen.
Despite the NO camp’s sudden love for the Scots, their campaign has been a somewhat inglorious spectacle. The hilarious spectacle of 60-odd Labour MPs trooping pathetically through Glasgow followed by a lunatic cyclist playing Darth Vader music and shouting ‘Welcome to our imperial overlords’ will not easily be forgotten by Scots or anyone else. Nor will the sight of David Cameron oozing fake humility as he told a gathering of Tory activists in Aberdeen in Edinburgh – a true gathering of the damned – that he would not be around forever as an argument against independence.
That is a tempting argument, to be sure, which might just lure some Scottish voters to vote NO, but it isn’t the most ringing endorsement of our common island home, particularly when accompanied by the hastily put together bribes of more devolution the government has desperately cobbled together.
Yet it is difficult to imagine, even if the NO vote wins, that many Scots will be any more enamoured with the Labour Party that so many have deserted as a result of the flying of the Saltire by Labour councils, or by Gordon Brown’s fearmongering posters proclaiming ‘it’s not worth the risk.’
Many may have noticed that the Labour politicians who now insist that the NHS is only safe within the Union voted for the government’s 2012 Health and Social Care Act, which opens the door to privatisation. Others will also have wondered why the Labour Party has yet to oppose the attempts to include health care within the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The NO campaign has also relied heavily on a gaggle of millionaire celebrities, who have come forward with their hands on their British hearts to plead with the Scots to remain in the Union with sentimental paeans to 300 hundred years of shared history and identityetc, etc, as if the Scots were so dumb, shallow and infantile that a few words from Bob Geldof or a threat from Piers Morgan threatening to return to the US would turn them back into gooey-eyed Unionists.
The Queen has shown the same condescension towards her restive subjects, warning Scots voters to ‘think very carefully’ before deciding. But if the referendum campaign shows nothing else, it demonstrates that Scots have been thinking very carefully for some time about the kind of society they want, and that it is because they have been thinking about it that so many of them have opted to become part of an independent Scotland rather than Great Britain.
Alex Salmond is entirely correct in highlighting the’extraordinary democratic debate’ that has been going on in Scotland over the last few months as a result of the referendum process. 97 percent electoral enrolment; debates and discussions in virtually every institution across the country and even within families – what is happening in Scotland is that rare, almost unprecedented phenomenon in British politics – a genuinely public and passionate national debate about what kind of society Scots want to belong to.
Even more astonishing, the society that many Scots seem to want is one that British politicians have effectively abandoned: a social democratic model based on strong public services, economic and social equality, and the old-fashioned values of social solidarity and community that the Labour Party was supposed to represent.
Whether independence can deliver this possibility is certainly questionable. But even these mildly left-of-centre aspirations appear almost radical and revolutionary in a British state whose main political parties and institutions are all wedded in one form or another to the neo-liberal model of the last three decades.
Faced with these aspirations, the British media has universally reacted with the same horrified condescension as the Westminster establishment, whether ratcheting up the fear factor or accusing Salmond of propagating hatred and division. The liberal media has also joined in. Last Saturday, a Guardian leader argued that ‘the Union deserves another chance’, in which it described the referendum campaign in the following terms:
‘In city and village, discussions have been well attended and vigorous. Many will remember this campaign all their lives. Exciting as it is, though, the campaign should not be uncritically romanticised. Politics can never be like this all the time.’
How sweet of the grown-up Guardian to remind those silly romantic Celts what politics is really like. In fact British politics is never like this any of the time. In England the closest thing in recent memory would be the build-up to the Iraq War, when thousands of people across the country spontaneously mobilised in an attempt to prevent a foreign policy decision that they recognized would be a disaster.
The YES campaign has mobilized and energised millions of Scots to take part in a debate about the broader future of their country, yet the reaction of the British political class and much of the media to these developments has been no less disdainful and dismissive.
The Guardian argues that ‘Nationalism is not the answer to social injustice’, while the Observer‘s Will Hutton has described the break up of the Union as ‘ the death of the liberal enlightenment before the atavistic forces of nationalism and ethnicity – a dark omen for the 21st century.’
I doubt if many Scots see nationalism as the ‘answer to social injustice’, but many of them clearly don’t see many prospects for achieving it within the British state. And as for Hutton’s hyperbole, well nationalism can take many different forms. In the UK, it takes the form of UKIP – a hateful and depraved John Bull-ism which owes its appeal almost exclusively to ‘immigration’ and a phony rebellion against the ‘Westminster elite’ that its leaders are desperate to become part of.
The movement for an independent Scotland embraces progressive egalitarian ideals that have all but vanished from mainstream British politics, and which are very different from the great power nationalism inherent in the idea of ‘Great Britain’, with its ‘island destiny’ and the dismal desire of its ruling elite to ‘punch above our weight’ that has kept Britain riding shotgun with the United States for more than half a century.
All this is seen as so entirely normal and desirable, and so essential to our collective national identity that is rarely ever questioned. Yet when the Scots have the temerity to dream of writing their own constitution, or forging a mildly left-of-centre alternative to the cult of neo-liberal austerity and ‘there-is-no-alternative’, the sky falls in, the four horsemen of the apocalypse come looming up over Inverness, and Alex Salmond is portrayed as some kind of Hibernian Milošević.
Perhaps if some of those who are now professing their love for the Scots had raised their voices about the wars that British elites have fought; about the transformation of the UK into one of the most unequal societies in the developed world; about the ‘bedroom tax’ or the callous brutality of a society that persecutes its most vulnerable members and forces the sick and dying into work; about a democratic system in which governments can deliver huge majorities, as Thatcher once did, with less than 44 percent of the vote – perhaps then many of those who are now voting YES would not have considered it.
But that didn’t happen. And now it seems that many, perhaps the majority of Scots don’t want a future of fear, threats, cuts, inequality and austerity. Whether they can achieve a different kind of future remains to be seen, but at least they’re trying. And even if they fail, and the scaremongering persuades the don’t knows to vote NO, they have shown genuine courage, commitment and imagination in daring to imagine – and construct – a different kind of society, and these are qualities that have not been present south of the border for a very long time.