It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When David Cameron vetoed the original, proposed three-question referendum (“Yes”, “No”, “Devo Max”), he suggested that the No camp’s inevitable victory would defer to the indefinite future not merely any possibility of independence, but any prospect of the future devolution of powers to Scotland. As he told the world’s press, “Scotland’s two governments have come together to deliver a referendum which will be legal, fair and decisive”. Should Yes win narrowly, you can expect to read a great deal about how “decisive” means “interim”, “temporary”, and “requiring confirmation in a second vote”.
Among the advocates of No can of course be found many defenders of the existing economic and political status quo; what is more surprising has been the willingness of many even on the left to misread the mood that underlies Yes’ so far success. If you look hard enough in the very darkest corners of the internet, you will find those arguing that a No vote represents the principle of internationalism which is always – by definition – preferable to mere nationalism.
The argument is not persuasive, either in general, or looking at this particular Yes campaign. Most of the worst international conflicts of the last 10 years have been capable of justification in international terms, whether that “internationalism” was of former Trotskyists now looking to back Bush, Lebanese Shia fighting for neighbouring Baathist police state, or British teenagers making atrocity propaganda in the name of a pan-national Islamism temporarily rooted somewhere between the artificial borders imposed on the Middle East after 1918.
Indeed a particular feature of the Scottish referendum has been the willingness of the most nationalist voices to eschew, quite voluntarily, the traditionally language of what theorists of nationalism call “palingenesis” (ie appeals to national identity as a factor which when given primacy over class is the means to achieve national rebirth).
The vote has had no ethnic undertone: everyone living in Scotland – British, Scottish or whatever else – has been enfranchised, while those able to claim a Scottishness based on ten generations of proved ancestry (but no present residence) have been told, most politely, to keep out.
The referendum consultation insists, quite counter to ordinary nationalist discourse: “Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated … Much of what Scotland will be like the day after independence will be similar to the day before: people will go to work, pensions and benefits will be collected, children will go out to play and life will be as normal.”
What has held the Yes campaign together has been rather two things:
First, an idea that the adoption of neo-liberal politics in 1979-82 was a choice, and something which can ultimately be overturned. The most effective messages in the Yes campaign’s support have been those which have used London as a short-hand for a society indefinitely in hock to the banks. And the least effective politics of the No campaign have been those strident appeals which have said “voting No will be bad for your pensions” or the pound, when the mood of a key contingent of swing Yes voters (ie people who have voted SSP or Labour in the past) is precisely their rejection of “business as usual”.
In a year where the non-fiction booklists in most countries have been dominated by a book warning of the emergence of new kinds of economic relationships where the rich are able to increase their power exponentially, simply because the system over-rewards the fact of ownership – the Yes campaign has mined a rich seam of goodwill for any politics which confronts the status quo credibly with any suggestions at all of redistribution.
Second, the idea that voting is a meaningful act. A key moment in the second debate was Salmond’s effective use of the language of what he called “a mandate” – ie if people in Scotland vote for independence with the pound, then they will get independence with the pound, simply because their vote will have more authority than the refusals of a cadre of English politicians, for even though the latter may claim the support of the banks and the newspapers, there will be no referendum down South, and by definition a politician equipped with democratic support must overcome one without
The surprising feature of the Yes campaign has been its ability to thrive on the contemporary politics of resistance. It is a gamble in the face of the neo-liberal dogma that there is no alternative, there is no point voting, and any party which stands up to business will inevitably be crushed…
All over the world, these dynamics are turning people against politics – save in a very few places (Scotland, Spain) where a political movement responds to the attrition of democracy by insisting on democracy with ever greater force.
None of this is to invite anyone to suspend the scepticism which our conjuncture dictates. An independent SNP government would cut not raise corporation taxes; there are many supporters of independence (Souter, and now possibly Murdoch) who see a chance to increase their power in what would inevitably be some sort of rearrangement of the present bargain between social labour (ie both wages and benefits) and an independent Scottish ruling class.
Ninety years ago, faced with a different mood of left nationalist revival, an Irish Marxist James Connolly once called on his supporters to keep hold of their guns: “In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.”
In an epoch where access to media, supporters’ lists and meeting rooms counts for rather more than it once did, something like the same advice might hold true. If there is a Yes vote, do celebrate, but do not forget for a second to keep organising.