Things move very quickly in politics, and old certainties can die suddenly. As a high school student in Edinburgh in the early 2000s, I was taught that the devolution of major government powers to a new Scottish parliament in 1999 was Tony Blair’s masterstroke. Scottish nationalism, I learned, no longer made sense. With devolution, the Scots got meaningful self-governance, while Blair’s “new” Labour Party could look forward to long periods of rule in Edinburgh and London.
This week’s independence referendum and the great surge of support for the yes campaign over the past year are exactly what Blair thought he had made impossible.
Who among the host of politicians, pundits, economists, historians, bankers and activists to have opined on Scotland in the past months will turn out to have offered the most accurate picture of what lies ahead? It might not be the one you think. Nobody bothered to teach me in high school of the warnings made as early as 1994 by then–Prime Minister John Major. He said devolution amounted to tearing the U.K. constitution to pieces and laying the groundwork for secession, but nobody paid much attention.
“What happens,” he asked, “at some stage in the future if the Scottish National Party were to have a majority in a Scottish parliament and asked to leave the United Kingdom? What is the position then?”
This was unthinkable. Everybody scoffed at him. They derided him as a fusty traditionalist, disconnected from new, exciting, millennial political realities. Labour bruiser John Prescott suggested Major was so wide of the mark, he should expect a visit from “men in white coats.” The Scottish National Party (SNP) was a fringe party, with just a handful of noisy MPs. Labour, revived by heavyweight Scots like John Smith, Gordon Brown and the Edinburgh-educated Blair, was the natural party of government in Scotland.
In 2011, just 12 years into the life of the new Scottish Parliament, the governing SNP routed Labour at the polls to win an outright majority despite Scotland’s proportional representation voting system. The SNP’s manifesto included a pledge to hold a referendum on independence. Until just a few weeks ago, it appeared totally unwinnable.
All the analysis, as well as the bookmakers’ odds, still points to a no vote as Scots go to the polls this week, but it will be closer than anyone imagined. There may or not be an independent Scotland after Thursday. Whatever the result, Scotland has reinvented itself. The referendum is the only thing people in Scotland have talked about for the last two years. And during that period there has been a massive swing from no to yes. A 25-point lead has been whittled down to Thursday’s knife-edge ballot.
The national debate has inspired a profound awakening of political consciousness and active citizenship, made evident by the popularity of grass-roots events and the belated emergence of a high quality, disputatious and varied online public sphere for Scotland. An alternative politics with mass appeal now challenges the managerial Thatcherite consensus that has held for the past quarter-century. We may once again be on the brink of national politics structured according to meaningful ideological differences.
The Establishment is ranged foursquare against independence. Outside Scotland, every single U.K. newspaper is urging its readers to vote no. Among the Scottish press, just one newspaper is in the yes camp. All the political parties, except the SNP and the tiny Green Party, are campaigning for no. The swell in support for yes is the result of politics being carried on outside traditional institutional and political parameters.
What has emerged in Scotland is a profound disagreement about the condition of the U.K. in 2014, its position in the world and the kind of political future that people in Scotland want for themselves. Some see the U.K. as stuck in a postimperial, postindustrial crisis in which marketization threatens the very fabric of the society, imperiling its finest institutions, such as the National Health Service and British universities. For others, the country is doing just fine. There is a shift taking place in British politics that has yet to be properly understood. Not since the English riots of 2011, when groups of poor young people stole sneakers and wide-screen TVs from high street shops and left them ablaze, have commentators working within the parameters of ordinary U.K. political discourse been at such a loss to offer plausible explanations for this alarming disruption to the established order of things.
We know that close to half the people living in Scotland now want independence, even though they’re not supposed to. All the assumptions about what constitutes good political sense in the U.K. in 2014 say Scots should vote no out of hand. The stubborn surge of support for yes is a sign that another kind of political calculus has taken root — a way of understanding the terrain of political struggle that is less responsive to the threats of the financial services industry and free-market economists and in which public policy is not merely constructed around an idea of risk, as understood from the perspective of the wealthiest members of society.
Regardless of the result, all political parties in Scotland — not just the SNP — will have to reinvent and reposition themselves after Thursday’s referendum if they are to be effective vehicles for popular sovereignty. A narrow no vote may turn out to be a staging post on the way to eventual separation in 2017, should there be an out vote in a different referendum, this time on the U.K.’s EU membership. Then the new Scotland would surely go on its way, out of the U.K. and back into Europe.
An independent Scotland would be faced with great uncertainties, but the idea that continued union in the U.K. ensures a clear political future is hardly borne out by the U.K.’s volatile and uneven experience of postimperial statehood over the past 70 years. Just ask Blair. At one time he was certain he had settled the question of Scottish independence once and for all with devolution. Instead he turned out to have laid out the basis for a political earthquake.