In the UK, the year of the referendum has passed and the year of the general election has come. Another year lost to politics, some are probably wailing to themselves. Does it have to go on and on like this? There is a feeling that the Scottish independence referendum settled nothing, and nobody is happy about the outcome. Those fighting for independence are furious that they were so close but didn't achieve their long-sought dream, and the unionists are livid that the matter has been turned into a union-wide issue of political representation and power. UKIP is a specter haunting the Tory strongholds of Middle England, Plaid Cymru and the Greens join in on the edges, and Labour faces decimation thanks to its dependence on Scottish seats. The politicians are probably the most furious at this situation, for it appears that now people are actually going to take out their frustrations at the ballot box and on them, a concept that the whole "back to business as usual" tone of the Better Together referendum campaign tried to prevent. The grumbling acceptance of the imperfections of a binary choice (Labour or Tory) has been replaced by acceptance of nothing. Everything is up for grabs and for once that is directed from the bottom toward the top and not the other way around.
This fact appears as deeply partisan exchanges in opinion columns and on social media, some of it little different from what was thrown back and forth in the poorer moments of the referendum campaign. What has been lost, for certain, is the decorum with which deep and complex discussions were held, among friends and family, in pubs, everywhere. I remember that even on the day of defeat, when bitterness could have prevailed, there was still a feeling from from the passing Glasgow vox populi that the referendum campaign had raised issues that had never seen the light of day. Ordinary people who had often been disenchanted with politics all of a sudden had a choice that was beyond the scope of ordinary political dichotomies. That was the experience of most Scots, and it seems that the rest of the UK wants to have the same discussion. The difference is, the Scots had two years of debate and the Yes vote and No vote did not cleave cleanly down lines of ideology, class, party, age, or religion. Their choice was about which broad direction an entire country was to go and all the benefits and uncertainties of either way. In contrast, this year's general election, even though it is being fought on the terms of the referendum and its immediate aftermath, is a narrow, partisan event that many expect to deliver what even a deeply democratic experience as the referendum could not.
Things aren't working and they need to change -- that's the feeling across the UK. In Scotland, the contest is largely down to the Scottish National Party versus Labour. The latter is hamstrung by its collusion with its very Parliamentary enemies in the Better Together campaign and by the fact that they can no longer effectively say that unless Scotland votes Labour, there will be a Conservative government in Westminster. That trope has played out, nobody believes it anymore. The SNP, on the other hand, looks as if it could be the power broker in a hung Parliament. It would probably be willing to make a coalition with either the Tories or Labour in exchange for leverage over Scottish matters, that much is plain:
Labour paints this in the traditional terms of the SNP being "Tartan Tories," but they miss the point. The SNP has always been a big tent with one purpose: independence or anything just shy of it. All other policy -- its courting of big business, its supposedly social democratic heart -- has, is, and will be secondary. Whatever deals with the devil the SNP would have to make with the Tories (or Labour) to get what it wants is perfectly in keeping with its conception of itself. And what's worse for Labour is that many of the SNP's nearly 100,000 new members know this. The party is a means, not an end, and an institutional party like Labour can't see that.
Yet from this emerges the conventional wisdom that Scottish independence is inevitable, that by determination and seizing opportunities it can be forced to happen. This belief is strong among SNP supporters but also many of the third groups involved in the Yes campaign that continue on: National Collective, Radical Independence Campaign, Women for Independence, etc. They are trying to organize, entrench their newfound position in Scottish society, and redouble their efforts in new and more sophisticated ways. There is also an explicitly pro-independence newspaper in Scotland now, The National, which has outperformed even the venerable Scotsman and equalled the Herald in circulation. By these signs, independence seems alive and well. But this should not be confused with the actual chances for Scottish independence, in the near or somewhat distant future. Or, said differently, this flurry of political activity and engagement by an ever-more significant section of civil society should not be confused with actual efficacy in the political arena. Just because many many Scots are working hard at independence or devolution, just because the SNP is a phoenix from the ashes, and just because the Westminster establishment is threatened on all sides by the politically disaffected, does not mean that there can be a true political answer, clear and final, to Scottish independence. The very nature of modern society and politics makes that almost impossible, for that would require power. But there is no real power remaining in modern political life, not as a crystallization of vision, will, and definitive action.
This is what Jean Baudrillard, the iconoclastic French thinker, contended in much of his philosophy, but in particular his work The Divine Left. In the book, Baudrillard analyzes the Left in France in the late '70s and early '80s. While Baudrillard's portrayal of French politics and especially the French left does not translate directly to the situation in Scotland, his observations about political institutions and the people that adhere to them are still, thirty years on, unfortunately very true. Take, for example, his characterization of the French Communists:
Again, this does not translate directly to Scotland, for which is "the Party" in Scotland now, Labour or the SNP? But it is true in a certain way. The SNP obviously is still in power in the Scottish Parliament, but that is not its purpose. The Scottish Parliament can grant itself nothing more than it already has, and so long as the SNP does not have the power to create and govern an indepedent Scotland, it is indeed in political unemployment. But the party is doing a fantastic job of dispelling this fact with a brave and jovial face. Perhaps out of necessity, it has become "anti-depressant" and "hormone-injected" in the wake of the referendum defeat. In late November, the SNP held its very own "Tour" at the Hydro in Glasgow, replete with musical acts and cheering fans with foam fingers. Was it a rock concert or sporting event? It hardly matters, for politics must now necessarily be indistinguishable from the rest of society. However much people might decry this subjection of all life to the political, this emergence of politics-as-entertainment was a natural response to all those disaffected Yes voters looking for meaning and a home in the wake of September 18. People who had six months ago said, "I don't like Alex Salmond but I'm voting Yes" have been signing up as SNP in droves. The SNP provides structure for those faced with the bewildering apolarity of a society they thought they knew but which voted No. And they are welcomed, no matter whether they are non-partisan voters coming to politics for the first time or long time devotees, perhaps of the other "Party," the newly moribund Scottish Labour. The latter once filled the role of the SNP for the disenchanted, especially in the wake of Thatcher, and it is now experiencing that the political unemployment line is just as cold and biting as the ordinary one.
This critique is not to discount what the SNP stands for or what independence supporters want in joining its ranks. But this view is necessary to make sense of the fact that that often defeat brings about a sort of cognitive dissonance about one's future chances:
Consider, then, that even though the SNP could make huge gains in the general election next year, the third largest political party in the UK still does not have a broad, majority appeal. It is still a minority of Scots who are interested in outright independence. In the general election, the SNP could for once find itself on the winning end of the first-past-the-post electoral system -- the Unionists remain divided, adhering to their party loyalties, whereas independence backers, even if they are not party members, will vote SNP tactically, as it's the only party to come out of the whole indyref with its image untarnished. The Yes vote will go to the SNP on the expectation of results by the Nationalists. Yet the expectation that the Nationalists could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament assumes that the main political parties own lust for power and hatred of their traditional opposition would trump fears of SNP demands on devolution and future referendums. Labour, the Tories, and the Lib Dems closed ranks once on the issue of Scotland -- they could certainly do it again.
Yet the issue of what party sends the most MPs to Westminster in May is really a distraction. However people vote, the referendum already gave the best indication of what the Scots prefer when it comes to their political options. Even though the referendum was 55% No and 45% Yes, it was only in latter weeks that it was in that range, and Yes only breached the 50% for one poll. For much of the campaign, independence often polled less than 40% -- that is, perhaps sixty percent of Scots preferred to keep things as they were rather than change them. Of course, a Yes vote did not necessarily mean a fundamental and immediate change in political power in Scotland. But it offered a chance to make something more contiguous with the small population of Scotland as opposed to the unwieldy Union. It was a chance at having Scotland governed by its own reflection. But that was not what Scots wanted.
However absurd Westminster and its brand of politics is, the majority of Scots still wanted it on September 18 and probably will still tolerate it today. When Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg dashed north of the border to beg and plead for Scotland to stay, many commented it was like an episode of The Thick of It. It was a hyper-real event, in Baudrillard's terms, where the simulation of an event suddenly becomes the model for what actually happens. But even if people saw through the charade, they still voted to keep it. For as much as they liked to gripe about "broken Britain," the Schadenfreude of the political classes alternating between arrogance and pandering to the masses at the drop of a hat was too good to resist. The entertainment of what passes for reality is better than taking the droll responsibility of actual reality into your own hands.
But few, if any, Scots will admit that. For almost as soon as the referendum hangover had dissipated, the cameras turned back to this impending general election. And those Scots who had the chance to deliver an opportunity for change but still voted No, are going on and on about kicking out the Tories and bringing about justice in Britain. Once again, Baudrillard has predicted this:
The infatuation with the Left, with its undercut, oversold notions of change and justice, is the only constant among the Scots that could have swung the referendum to independence. This idea of the Left has no actual bearing on how things function in the UK, as the Left as the Left has not been in power in a very long time (New Labour does not count). And yet it remains somehow a possibility in people's minds, just one election away from happening. And it can only happen in the form of the United Kingdom, or perhaps it should only happen in that form, the people adhering to some sort of unwritten commandment that defies all explanation. So these left-leaning unionist Scots ignored the admonitions of the very people who fought for them and voted No this past September: they slagged off the jolly and bombastic Robespierre of Salmond who fought the bedroom tax and kept free university tuition, and delivered Scotland from the brink safely back into the hands of Cameron/Miliband in order that they, ordinary people, may return to the comfort of a fight that they subconsciously know they'll never win. The Left shies away from being the Left in power because it does not actually want it, Baudrillard says. It can't have power in the UK, but it could have had power, real transformative power, in Scotland. But the left-sympathetic masses did not take it. And nothing could make them. You can't make someone want what they don't want.
So where does that leave us at this sort of end-of-history reckoning with Scotland's choices and future? The only practical conclusion is that, if Scotland gains its independence, it will not be through the expected channels of elections, debate, referendums, constitutional wrangling, et cetera. Nobody wants to, nor can, take control of such things. No, independence will come only because the internal impossibilities of the British state will render the Union pointless and more costly to maintain than the benefits reaped from it. The owners of the UK mansion will not be evicted by a mob of angry peasants; no, the grand old house will simply be foreclosed on because no one's living there any more. Make no mistake, the Scottish independence movement, the democratic awakening of the referendum campaign, and the role of the SNP in that long process will have made all of it possible in the end -- they raised issues that no one else could have, issues that are here to stay, across the UK. But the politicians, those invested with real authority, will be mere bystanders or accessories to the act. The dysfunction of the whole system prevents any of them from being the prime mover, the arbiter of the break-up of Britain or the keeper of its bonds, no matter how much electoral support they have.
When Scotland's independence comes, then, the question will still be, as it was in the indyref campaign, "What sort of country do we want to live in?" But if there is to be an answer, it must come from a realization that much of what the Yes campaign fought for, a better country, a socially just country, whatever you want to call it, was and will be impossible. How can Scots expect to deliver sweeping societal change if politicians themselves can't even deliver what they were elected to do? How can there be a well-funded welfare state, an equalitarian and inclusive society, a progressive tax system that both supports the economy and funds the state, et cetera, if the very vehicle for those goals -- independence -- is beyond the reach of even the most concerted political efforts? We can support parties like the SNP or the Scottish Greens, yes, but is the paradigm in which they must necessarily operate really what Scots want in a new country? Independence is inextricably linked with indistinct iterations of the Left, of social democracy which is, in broad form, little different from what mainstream UK parties preach. Should that same paradigm be repeated because Scots think that changing the flag outside Holyrood will make their own ideological preferences will finally work? To find an answer to all this, Scots must begin to examine why the very system of modern politics is as it is, why it functions this way, a question which then demands a reconsideration of the modern mind which, intentionally or not, built the system.
For Scotland to be the country Scots want it to be, there must be a revolution of thought to accompany any political revolution involving independence. Anything less is to keep running around and around in this interminable cul-de-sac, the hyper-real feedback loop that Baudrillard shows we're stuck in and which keeps people and nations thwarted. Revolution is a strong word, though, and one of of thought sounds particularly extreme, indeed, impossible, because our Enlightenment determinism has told us this is the right path and we should have already been there by now. That must be overturned. And I find such an act possible, though not yet plausible, for Scotland, as a small country but also as Scotland. After all, Scotland shaped the Enlightenment in ways far beyond its population size or economic power. But there's no point in dwelling on the past -- the Enlightenment and its heirs are dead and gone. They built the system we face now, a paradigm working itself out to its logical conclusion. That paradigm cannot go on and, if we're free to see that, we shouldn't let it. That is the quality of the moral choice we must make, to make independence worth it. To make being Scotland as Scotland worth it. How? Let Scotland do what it does best and reinvent things as we know it.