For all the hours of broadcast coverage and acres of newspaper print devoted to the Scottish independence referendum, you’d think that the yes voters were nationalistically motivated nostalgists, not a diverse group of forward-thinking individuals keeping pace with global trends in immigration, demographics and economics. You’d think that Scotland was pining for the days when the world used a different kind of atlas and that a yes vote would make independence not just a mistake but an anachronism.
Yet it’s this kind of thinking that is anachronistic. If the Scottish referendum has achieved anything, it is to demonstrate that none of us can rely anymore on musty navigational charts handed down to us by the Establishment. We must all engage in some alternative political cartography of our own.
The referendum is taking Europe into new and uncharted political territory. In an era of supposed political apathy in Western democracies, 97 percent of the eligible population — about 14 percent of whom are not Scottish citizens — has registered to cast a ballot on Thursday.
And yet most journalists and commentators analyzing the campaign sketch out the contours of rival political parties and big-beast personalities, following grid lines laid down by international financial markets and relying on a legend drawn up in Westminster. Plotting the referendum and its possible outcomes using these maps makes the prospect of a tight finish look bizarre: Britain’s banks, business leaders and political party bigwigs have all labeled a yes vote madness. What reason could there be for Scotland to risk economic Armageddon by breaking up the most successful political union the planet has ever seen?
Restricted to covering safe and familiar land, these maps can point only toward a regressive tartan populism that deploys the rhetoric of division rather than cooperation and seeks to throw up yet more borders in a century when national problems and solutions increasingly seem to transcend them.
But to understand the pro-independence movement, we need to think beyond these borders.
People say this is all about tartan nationalism because they want to avoid the real issue.
co-founder, Radical Independence Campaign
A good place to start is at Oran Mor last Friday evening, a 19th century parish church in Glasgow’s West End now converted into a beautiful mural-laden auditorium. Below blue LEDs and painted neon rainbows, speechmakers and singers queued up to take to the stage and call emphatically for a yes vote. One was from the Greek anti-austerity coalition Syriza. “I feel at home tonight!” she shouted, grinning into the microphone, prompting wild cheers from the crowd. Another was Palestinian, and after he spoke, chants of “Free, free Palestine” echoed long around the nave. “This is a true, radical and in many ways revolutionary movement for people’s change, and the British establishment just don’t get it,” concluded one speaker. “Forget nationalism. I’m an internationalist, standing not just with the people of Manchester and Liverpool, but of Karachi and New York as well.”
Anyone trying to get by with the old maps would have struggled to make sense of all this. In the passionate pro-independence audience, there were few Scottish Nationalist Party members or Alex Salmond supporters to be found. Niall Ferguson, the Glasgow-born pro-union conservative historian, has declared himself “rather baffled” by the late surge in yes support; given his belief that pro-independence sentiment is being driven by some sort of anti-cosmopolitanism in Scotland and how blatantly that contrasts with the messages emanating from places like Oran Mor, you can understand why.
“People say this is all about tartan nationalism because they want to avoid the real issue,” Jonathon Shafi, a co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign, which was hosting the Global Scotland event at Oran Mor, told me. “The real issue is that the increasing support for independence comes from people realizing that for decades they’ve been living in a political and economic system that serves only the interests of a tiny minority, and they are planning to vote on principles of social justice. What we’re finding is that despite all of the scare stories, despite the entire British state and all of its associated forces being ranged against this movement, not only is the movement continuing to thrive, but it’s continuing to broaden.”
Friends and family
For yes voters such as Shafi, the debate over independence is really about something much, much bigger than nationalism and separation — which is why those with their hands on the levers of power have been so keen to reduce it to a question of exactly that, framing the narrative in such a reductionist way that it bypasses what is happening in places like Oran Mor altogether.
“Why would we take one Great Britain and turn it into separate, smaller nations?” demanded Prime Minister David Cameron in his final appeal to the Scottish people on Monday. “It’s about dividing people, closing doors, making foreigners of our friends and family.”
But what if Shafi is right and many yes voters are supporting independence not because they want to make foreigners out of their friends and family but because they want to pry open cracks in a model of power that has already divided Britain, brutally, between rich and poor? What if for them, the British state mainly represents a disconnected political establishment and the entrenchment of elite-driven economic exclusion, just at a moment when both blind faith in establishments and popular deference to elites have never felt more fragile? What if the movement for Scottish independence is part of a global struggle by marginalized communities to recapture power from governments committed to corporate oligarchy. What if a yes victory could spark a reimagining of democracy from below in many other countries — including the rest of the U.K. — in which citizens feel deeply estranged from any notion of genuine democratic sovereignty? In those circumstances, the fault lines of Scotland’s referendum begin to look very different indeed.
As many of those in the Radical Independence Campaign were determined to underline on Friday night, independence alone is no panacea for the myriad ills of economic inequality and political elitism that characterize our age. If a yes vote is secured, it will have done little more than puncture a few holes in the confidence of those promoting the old ways. A few cracks in the system, though, are better than none at all. And from those cracks, people and ideas could emerge onto the political map that could not be found on them before. “I’m not a statue. I’m not a certainty,” sang one performer wistfully at the end her set at Oran Mor.
That refusal to remain passive in a status quo that demands passivity from us — that, more than anything to do with passports or borders, is what is going on in Scotland at the moment. Whatever the result on Thursday, we must all update our maps accordingly.