When I wrote before of the Scottish independence movement as it headed toward the referendum, there were signs of positivity on the horizon, though a long way to go. But all that has changed in the last few weeks, and the global significance of this event is becoming real.
Time ran an article about the possible impending 'exit' of Scotland from the UK should the independence referendum return a 'Yes' vote. News outlets and blogs outside the UK are beginning to play catch-up and talk about how Alastair Darling, the leader of Better Together (the 'No' campaign), practically melted down during his second debate with First Minister Alex Salmond, even conceding to Salmond the one point -- that an independent Scotland could continue to use the pound sterling -- that he had resisted and ridiculed for months on end. Palpable panic has been setting in over the past week in the UK establishment. David Cameron continues pleading with Scots to vote No; Better Together has put out a series of advertisements that range from sexist to asinine; and even Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party, disgruntled Middle England's knight errant against the EU, has said he'll come to Scotland in order to inject positivity into the 'No' campaign. And all the while, as the important people with the important titles beg and warn and offer veiled threats, the number of Yes voters ticks upwards. I have seen Tweet after Tweet about people converting to a Yes vote after a long period of casual inclination toward No and equally as many about passionate Yes voters making converts to their side. People are out there, talking and making decisions for themselves, and that has the establishment terrified. The rulers have been used to sowing wind for centuries, and now they are about to reap the whirlwind.
Where else in the world is having a democratic moment like Scotland? Nowhere. And has there been anything comparable in the last few decades? Hardly. Some might point to the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement as similar instances, but those are instances of protest. They gathered steam quickly, raged against the status quo, and then faded quickly when the establishment decided it had had enough. But the democratic spirit of this independence referendum does not come from mere dissatisfaction taking to the streets. Rather, it is a culmination of long political involvement, competition, and eventual success by a long-established independence movement, one that has taken both party and non-party form over nearly a century. In particular, the very willingness of the Scottish National Party to persevere in political contest, despite the many setbacks of contending with a very difficult system of political representation in the UK, has legitimized independence not as some sort of temporary emotional outburst, as the No campaign is wont to characterize it, but as a natural extension of politics as usual. Discounting the divisive figure of Alex Salmond, many of the politicians involved in the Yes campaign are not just running the devolved Scottish Government in Edinburgh but also hold seats in local government as well. They didn't get there by appointment or nepotism -- they got there because they were elected. There are enough people out there to want them in charge and now they are responsibly delivering what they said they would.
Then perhaps it should be no surprise to those of us looking from outside the UK, that the independence referendum has awakened, at least on the side of Yes, a sense of positivity and opportunity. For the Yes movement is led not simply a bunch of cranks spouting narrowly nationalist vitriol, but by competent leaders in politics, the arts, academia, media, and business. Yet while these leaders frame much of the discussion, they do not offer absolute answers. Many #indyref campaigners have, seemingly of their own accord, been willing to put foremost the uncertainty of independence and address it without fear. Indeed, they almost seem to relish in recognizing it, for it compels answers to be given. But there is no line to toe. Watch the film Scotland Yet and you will see how open the dialogue is and how everyone seems to know that independence is just the start -- all their heterogeneous ideas may make Scots vote Yes, but only because it is a Yes vote that makes those ideas a practical reality.
And those ideas will have to contend. Without a doubt there will be a tension within the politics of an early independent Scotland between the centralizers and the localists. There are those on the Scottish left who, though wishing to leave the centralized Westminster system, want a redistributive state for Scotland. Their proposals for what that would look like are as multiform as the groups proposing it, from Radical Independence Campaign to Commonweal to the Scottish Socialist Party, even to Labour and SNP supporters who want a Scottish state based on a Scandinavian model. This would require a great amount of power set in Edinburgh thanks to the taxation and administration necessary to a welfare state. But a great many Yes voters, on the left as well as of other political orientation, are more interested in communities. The writer Andy Wightman, concerned with land issues, has given the following explanation for his qualified Yes vote:
The centralizers may find that their vision for a quasi- (or overtly) socialist Scotland stymied, be it in the creation of the written constitution or in the politics of an early independent Scotland. This democratic moment may take things in a more confederal direction. Or the country may, as SNP critics contend, end up friendly to business and industrial interests and find itself an independent but comfortable part of the capitalist Anglosphere. Nobody really knows. These are the matters that will divide Yes voters in the future. And I'm sure that many know that. But it is their future, and there is only one way to get there. And so they embrace those different from them, in the classically Jeffersonian model of the people: the many versus the few.
For what politicians rarely understand about those they ostensibly serve is that it is not pure emotion or rationality that drives the decisions of ordinary people. You can't always scare them with the fear of the unknown, especially when they have a pretty good idea that the known isn't very rosy. And you can't throw an endless barrage of statistics and reports and experts at them, because who leads their life based on numbers and probability? Ordinary people operate off of something far deeper, off of intuition or tacit knowledge. They gather the bits and pieces of their experiences, of their relationships and conversations, and, once that has all composted for a bit, a decision emerges. And, once again, this is what the politicians and the No camp fail to see. For if we lived in a perfect world, there would be no need for decision, even to choose No and change nothing. Decision emerges from a recognition that time has outrun our patient endurance of the imperfections we know. We choose one or the other, but there is no not choosing. And if a person sees an unknown but one with potential, one in which they can play a greater role, versus the same old thing that they've always known, requiring that same old exhausting, patient endurance until the end of one's days, then it makes complete sense why people will join with others in an open and adventurous choice.
At a personal level, I am extremely grateful these past few weeks and months for what is happening in Scotland. The idea of Scottish independence has been something that has long appealed to me, even though for a long time I didn't really know why. I can remember being in my flat during my brief time living in Edinburgh, trying to start arguments with my roommates about independence and nationalism, standing up for this thing that I knew so little about but felt such an affinity for. I remember being back in America the next year, sitting alone in my apartment, listening to the Scottish Parliament elections on the BBC and cheering on the SNP as they took twenty seats at Holyrood and formed a minority government. It mattered to me, for some reason, even though it was not my country, not my fight, and I could contribute almost nothing to it. But since the referendum date was set in stone and the rhetoric began to build, I began to realize perhaps why I had gravitated toward this implausible thing. And now, as the groundswell of Yes support becomes greater by the day, I can see it for a fact: that in this sordid age of power and profit, of ideology and repression, of instability and transformation, there is still the possibility of people taking matters into their own hands and working for something better. Not just on a whim, not as a reaction, but because people take up a movement built by many who came before but did not live to see its fruition.
What will come of Scotland, who knows. But it is worth watching, and closely. For in the particular lies a bit of the universal, of the things that are true for all of us wherever we are. Watch carefully for Scotland yet, whatever yet may be.
P.S. My fortunes have changed and I've been blessed with the opportunity to go to Glasgow for the week of the independence referendum. A long-hoped for dream come true. I will report back with everything I saw and felt in due course.