Democracy itself is on the line in today’s referendum.
Today, the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on independence. What’s at stake in this poll? Many will say it’s obvious: the Union between England and Scotland, instituted in 1707, is at stake, and it will be either preserved or done away with by the choice Scottish voters make. But we at spiked think something even more important than the Union, something of even greater worth and meaning, is on the line today: democracy. What we’re really witnessing is a battle, an as-yet unspoken battle, between democracy on one side and the narrow, regressive, parochial politics of identity on the other. That is why we want Scottish voters to say No to the so-called independence they’re being offered, as a way of saying yes to democracy.
Reading the frantic press coverage, and the statements of increasingly panicked British politicians, one could be forgiven for thinking the referendum is a straightforward clash between Unionists and nationalists. But that doesn’t add up. The Unionist side isn’t particularly Unionist, as evidenced by its inability to say anything remotely inspiring about the Union and its reliance instead on the politics of fear to try to get Scots to say No to independence (‘Your economy will tank’, ‘Your welfare system will fall apart’, etc). It is a strange Unionist lobby that tries to secure a No vote through promising to grant Scotland greater powers after the referendum – that is, through signalling that it will water down the very Union it claims to be protecting. And on the other side, the SNP and its left cheerleaders make deeply unconvincing nationalists. Far from wanting to carve out a new, confident, free nation, their plan seems to be to create a supernanny state of heightened lifestyle policing and diminished human autonomy that will offer itself up for remote management by the sovereignty-disrespecting overlords of the EU. It’s a peculiar nationalist set that has an urge to strangle at birth – or to invite Brussels to strangle at birth – its sovereign independence.
So the idea that we’re witnessing a fight between diehard Union defenders and Braveheart-like nationalists holds little water. Rather, this utterly unnecessary referendum has come about as a consequence of the political establishment’s inability to hold the line on constitutional and national matters and to do that most basic job of holding together the territory over which it rules. It is a profound weakness at the centre of UK political life, a loss of nerve among those responsible for governing this Kingdom, that has unleashed the referendum process, not the swagger or strength of the so-called nationalist side. This clash over the future of Scotland is best understood as a product of the moral and political disarray of the British state, which has led to a situation where even 300-year-old constitutional arrangements that ushered in modernity as us Brits understand it can become negotiable commodities, almost accidentally up for grabs.
Yet even though this is no big war between clear-eyed Unionism and plucky nationalism, there is an important clash of values taking place. But it’s a muted clash, one which can be hard to see in the mush of all the inappropriate historical claims being made. It’s a clash between the ideals of democracy and the politics of identity; between the value of popular sovereignty and the anti-democratic instinct to retreat from political life in favour of nurturing one’s own identity and pursuing one’s own narrow interests. The Yes campaign represents the nadir of contemporary identity politics, being driven by an urge to flee the tough terrain of popular politics in order to carve out a newer, smaller space for the pursuit of what in America they call pork-barrel politics: the desire to cultivate one’s own backyard with little regard to the needs or beliefs of the broader demos.
Stripped of its People Power pretensions, the Yes campaign is stunningly anti-democratic. It is driven fundamentally by a feeling of disgust for the voting habits of the majority of the British masses, and more importantly by an illiberal instinct to cut itself off from those masses by creating a new pseudo-state in which they will have no say or impact. Its starting point is that the national political terrain can never really be changed – presumably because huge sections of the electorate are incapable of thinking reasonably – and so a section of the terrain must be cut loose in order to divide and weaken the authority of the mob. It is fuelled by political cowardice (‘How could we possibly ever change British people’s minds?’) and fatalism (‘Given they will never change, let’s strike out on our own’), giving rise to a new form of political sectionalism that is seriously illiberal.
But here’s the thing: the Scottish nationalist lobby is not alone in embracing this urge to regress, to withdraw in the face of the difficult task of rethinking politics and reigniting a genuinely public debate. Across the board today, identity-fuelled sectionalism is taking precedence over the universal value of democracy. You can see it in everything from the calls to set up a women-only Feminist Party to the morally superior identity posturing of new political movements like environmentalism and lifestyle anti-capitalism. The left has for 20 or 30 years been throwing its lot into local politics, in an attempt to escape the thick Thatcherite hordes of the national plebiscite. And our leaders, now posing as defenders of the Union, give a green light to all this identity-based separatism, through their obsession with devolution to the nations and regions and their cultivation of religious and community spokespeople in lieu of having much to say to the rest of us, the rabble. The potential siphoning of Scotland represents the logical endpoint to a broader crisis of democracy and corresponding rise of the self-regarding, self-protecting politics of identity.
This is why spiked wants Scots to say No today. Not because we are British nationalists (far from it) or because we think a defeat for this particular brand of identity politics will magically breathe life back into the politics of democratic engagement. But because we believe that anything that can be done to reassert the virtues of universalism, of the public, of ‘One Man, One Vote’ and fighting hard to win that man’s vote, can only be a good thing. We don’t want to burden Scots with any more pressure than they’re already feeling, but there really is something profound at stake today: the ideal of democracy itself, of politics being about more than one’s own narrow cultural interests and instead being something that concerns us all, and which therefore should be determined by us all. Say No today, Scotland, and let’s all say yes to more democracy tomorrow.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
Picture by PA images.