A vote to watch in Scotland

The positive momentum generated by the ‘Yes’ campaign demanding Scottish independence is winning hearts and minds, and perhaps even the race

September 16, 2014 01:38 am | Updated May 23, 2016 04:03 pm IST

The 'Yes' campaign's salient feature is its tranformation from being a movement solely of Scottish nationalism to one that is characterised by a demand for genuine and radical social democracy. Picture shows 'Yes' campaigners outside the BBC Scotland Headquarters in Glasgow.

The 'Yes' campaign's salient feature is its tranformation from being a movement solely of Scottish nationalism to one that is characterised by a demand for genuine and radical social democracy. Picture shows 'Yes' campaigners outside the BBC Scotland Headquarters in Glasgow.

“But if you unscotch us you will find us damned mischievous Englishmen” — Sir Walter Scott in a letter to the British parliamentarian J.W. Croker in 1826.

More than 300 years after the Act of Union bound Scotland and Wales to Britain in 1707, the Scottish people are going to decide if they want out of the United Kingdom, or remain within it but under expanded powers of self-rule. The September 18 referendum — in which nearly 4.3 million Scottish residents will answer the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” — will mark a historic turning point regardless of whether the vote is “yes” or “no.”

From just a 25 per cent approval rating in a poll taken soon after the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012, the “Yes” campaign has built its constituency steadily, reaching 39 per cent in August this year. By September, “Yes” support jumped to 49 per cent, and is at present neck-to-neck with “No.” An ICM/Guardian poll says 42 per cent will vote no to 40 per cent for yes, with 17 per cent undecided yet. The undecided will clinch the outcome of the referendum. Survey data suggest that the 65-plus and 16-24 age groups are polling for the Union, and the poor for independence, as they have nothing to lose.

Consequences of Yes and No

The “Yes” campaign comprises the Scottish National Party (SNP), Labour for Independence, the Green Party, the Scottish Left’s Radical Independence Campaign, and many independent campaign organisations such as Common Weal, the National Collective, Women for Independence and Lawyers for Independence. Its supporters include celebrities like Sir Sean Connery and fellow Hollywood actor Alan Cumming, film director Ken Loach, Scotland’s national poet Liz Lochhead, and comedian Frankie Boyle.

The “No” campaign includes the official Conservative/Lib-Dem/Labour “Better Together” coalition, along with Unionist groups, and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). It has a large celebrity backing including author J. K. Rowling, and a majority of newspapers and media.

In the event of a “Yes” vote, a new country will emerge from a democratic process that has few parallels in recent times. While the contours of the alternative political paradigm envisaged by the campaign and its workability in an independent Scotland are still hazy, the campaign has won popular support for a sharp critique of Westminster policy and governance. A “Yes” vote will have profound implications for movements for autonomy and independence throughout Europe — and beyond.

The consequences of a “No” vote will be transformative too. The major political parties backing the Better Together campaign have promised substantial devolution with the Labour Party, which has lost a big section of its support in Scotland to the pro-Independence side, offering to devolve income tax, social security and the work programme, not just for Scotland but for Wales as well.

Writing in the Sunday Observer, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband acknowledged “the thirst for democratic and economic change that has been heard from the people of Scotland,” that will lead to “change throughout Britain after 18 September.” He said that Scottish Labour has set out a “clear timetable” for further devolution of income tax, social security and the work programme, not just for Scotland but for Wales as well.

> Read: Scottish question, from the vantage point of a border town

What are the factors that underline the spectacular increase in the support for the “Yes” campaign?

The “Yes” campaign’s salient feature is its transformation from being a movement solely of Scottish nationalism to one that is characterised by a demand for genuine and radical social democracy. The debate on self-determination is happening at a time of deep economic crisis. The erosion of incomes, of jobs, and of health and housing benefits lie at the heart of popular discontent. Scotland’s current problems started with the devastating impact of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policy, which intensified a decline in manufacturing and heavy industry from the late 1970s. The New Labour government essentially continued that policy, which was subsequently inherited by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

“This Scottish debate of discontent will thunder all across the U.K. — in Manchester and Birmingham and the Northeast,” said Gerry Hassan, author of Caledonian Dreaming: the Quest for a Different Scotland. “People are disgusted with the food banks and the poverty, the excesses of the rich, and the inequalities in Scotland, where 432 private individuals own over half of all private land.”

The Red Paper on Scotland 2014 argues that Scotland’s manufacturing economy, level of research and development, retail trade, financial sector, and the historically large public sector are shrinking at a pace faster than seen in the wider British economy. “Most measures for poverty and that for life expectancy have been consistently worse than the British average, probably reflecting the prevalence of long-term unemployment, low pay in work and casualised employment, coupled with a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.”

It is not surprising therefore that First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond’s offer of free and universal childcare, free university education, better pensions, withdrawal of the hated “bedroom tax,” ending the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, and keeping the National Health Scheme in the public sector has found widespread response, especially as it comes with assurances that Scotland will have the economic resources to underwrite these subsidies.

His promises on welfare, however, sit rather uncomfortably with the Scottish National Party’s economic policy perspective, which advocates cutting public expenditure, promoting deregulation, lowering taxation on “high net worth individuals,” and reducing corporation tax to attract companies from elsewhere.

> Read: The ‘undecided’ hold the key in Scotland

For the present, however, this contradiction has been papered over, and the SNP has adopted the agenda for independence set by the strong Left presence in the “Yes” block. The socialist left on the “Yes” platform sees the referendum as an opportunity to craft a Scottish road to socialism through the creation of a welfare state. Alex Mosson, a Labour for Independence member, is representative of this swathe of opinion. The former shipyard worker and Lord Provost (the equivalent of Mayor) of Glasgow from 1999 to 2003, said, “We are a small country but with the ability and skills to create a fairer and more just society.

“We will undo the privatisation of the NHS and give healthcare at the point of need. And we don’t want to be part of illegal wars.” Despite differences with the SNP, Left groups in the Yes campaign believe the party and its leader Alex Salmond must be given the chance to deliver. Joanna Cherry Q.C., a lawyer activist in the Yes campaign, argues that the SNP is “a very broad church” of disparate groups. Mr. Salmond, she told The Hindu, has promised to involve people from all parties and walks of life in the negotiations for a new Scotland if Yes wins. “The Scottish government has produced an interim constitution to guide us through the stage of negotiations,” she said. “There will be broad representation, including people from the No camp, in the constitutional convention set up to draft a constitution.”

Pitfalls in Scotland

The positive momentum generated by the “Yes” campaign — its spread, organisation and earnestness of purpose, is winning hearts and minds, and perhaps even the race. The heady atmosphere of expectations created by the pro-Independence campaign combined with popular disenchantment with the three mainstream parties has, however, masked some of the sobering realities of the independence option. These concerns highlight the pitfalls of a small country with a radical social welfare agenda going it alone in the new global order.

The big decline in the last three decades in Scotland’s industrial economy, with employment dropping from 650,000 to 179,000 in 2012, was accompanied by “a massive shift in Scotland’s manufacturing base from Scottish and rest of UK ownership to overseas ownership,” according to the Red Paper on Scotland. If this has been the impact of globalisation thus far, it has been argued, a strong and politically reconstructed union would be better positioned to resist the pressure of global capital than a state weakened by a split.

In any event, for the Better Together campaign to win, it will have to gain ground among young, newly enfranchised voters and voters of working age. It will have to go beyond the idea that size matters — “the bigger the union the better” — in the era of globalisation. It will have to persuade the Scottish people that the U.K. of the future will be, for Scotland, a different entity from the Thatcher-era Westminster.

parvathi.menon@ thehindu.co.in

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