Despite polls showing those intending to vote No in the independence referendum hovering at around 50% and those intending to vote Yes at around 30%, last week’s article by Joyce McMillan goes a long way to explaining why the middle ground is shifting towards a Yes vote and why it will continue to do so unless the No camp comes up with a positive vision. Joyce McMillan writes:
“I am not a political nationalist of any stripe, and never will be. I care for democracy and social justice, and I do not care for any creed which seeks to divide people whose economic interests are fundamentally similar . . .
“Yet what I see at Westminster is not an alternative politics that avoids the pitfalls of nationalism, but an instinctive, backward-looking British nationalism that is even worse: a farrago of double standards about Westminster and Holyrood, and of reactionary nonsense about the nature of national identity in the 21st century, combined with a complete vacuum of progressive policy, and an instinctive willingness – on the part of the Labour Party – to side in this debate with what is perhaps the most privileged and reactionary government the UK has seen in a century.”
In contrast, a positive No campaign would begin with the recognition that all Unionist parties need to genuinely commit to more powers for the Scottish Parliament. But the chances of the No’s uniting around a positive rather than a fear driven campaign currently look slim.
However, while the Yes campaign focuses on remaining upbeat and positive, the same can’t be said for undecided potential Yes supporters.
Polling suggests that – with the referendum taking place only a few months ahead of the next 2015 Westminster election – fear of another Conservative led Westminster government could dramatically up the Yes vote to 52%. And it is this, combined with the SNP’s track record of confounding the opinion polls in 2007 and 2011, that suggests that when it comes down to a straight choice between voting for more social democracy and voting for more of the same from Westminster, people will continue moving in the direction they’ve been moving in 2007 and 2011. (Or have people stayed in the same place while first the Conservatives and then Lib Dems and Labour moved rapidly right?)
This may lead some social democratic Yes supporters to hope that the Conservatives are strongly placed to win the 2015 UK election, but really what we need is a choice between two positive alternatives:
On the one hand we need a renewed Lib Dem Party reasserting a non-nuclear energy and defence policy, Home Rule and federalism, and a Labour Party genuinely going back to its roots of seeking to establish equal opportunity not only in the ways it sought in the 1990s – on the basis of gender, ethnicity and sexuality – but also in the way it so spectacularly refused to seek to explicitly establish: by seeking to ensure that children born into poor families are enabled to have as good a chance as those born into wealthy families.
On the other hand we need an independence movement moving away from the neoliberal ‘centre ground’ the SNP increasingly seeks to occupy, one that is willing to stand up to the economic growth machine that is rapidly driving us all towards ecological destruction by trampling the ecologies and societies of the global poor. Real independence would seek to enshrine in a new constitution not only the political independence of a new nation state but also economic independence from an obsession with growth. But such a move away from subservience to the economic powers that be, and towards acknowledging ecological and social interdependence, is far more likely to be possible if we can first show ourselves we are able to reject the fantasy of powerlessness, by rejecting the story that we cannot decide for ourselves.
But if a Yes vote is achieved, will it be through the SNP’s current strategy which is eerily reminiscent of Blair’s repudiation of Clause 4 and his pulling Labour to the right? And would a Yes vote on that basis lead to even greater disillusion with politics in Scotland?
Many people thought that once in power Labour would reassert a commitment to social justice and a peaceful internationalism. When instead Labour Ministers declared themselves “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, and Blair overrode the huge protests and embarked on the Iraq War, the process of disengaging people from politics accelerated.
The real disagreement in politics is rarely between opposing positions. The question is not which side of the debate you are on; it is what debate you are having.
Are we debating who can continue the status quo better – the Unionist parties and the Westminster government, on the one hand, or the SNP and a Scottish independent government on the other?
Or are we debating how best to shake off the fantasy that we can all get rich and that nobody will pay the price – through a renewed social democracy in Labour, the LibDems and maybe the SNP, or through an independent Scotland leading the way in reasserting our fundamental social and ecological interdependence? Better together after independence, but with a ‘together’ that doesn’t stop at the shores of these islands.
A positive choice between renewed UK-wide social democracy and a radical vision that can actually see and talk about the elephant in the room is what we need. But as things stand, Joyce McMillan speaks for the many who have no interest in nationalism but every interest in democracy.