One year ago today, people across Scotland – a remarkable 86 per cent of those registered to vote – were filing into polling stations to vote in the independence referendum. For me and for many others (and, I would suggest, for the long term future of both Scotland and the wider British and Irish isles) it was a hugely transformative moment: life changing, even. And that despite the fact that the result (which I will discuss in more detail tomorrow) went against my own choice and hope.
For me, the story starts some four years earlier, when I moved to Scotland as someone who had been born in England and who had lived for 52 years south of the border. Instinctively, I guess I was an incremental devolutionist (having frankly given the constitutional settlement embodied in the union little thought). I tended to regard the SNP as a sectarian party. I little understood the distinction between progressive, civic national aspiration and toxic, ethnic nationalism. Overall, as I soon discovered, I had a huge amount to learn about the varieties of Scottish culture, society, belief and politics in the land of my settlement.
If you had told me back in 2010 that I was going to vote ‘Yes’ to Scottish self-government on 18 September 2015, I might have been a little surprised. Now, a year on from that momentous poll, I feel that I have crossed a Rubicon. I could not be won over to, or back to, a political party or movement that wanted less than for people living in Scotland to have the democratic opportunity to fully shape their own destiny.
In addition, I could certainly never belong again to a political organisation that backed austerity economics and the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Those remain bottom lines. So while I welcome the type of shift represented by the ‘Corbyn surge’ across England – a momentum which owes a fair bit to the political awakening that has taken place in Scotland – I cannot see Labour as a live option here. Instead, the SNP has become the largest and most effective social democratic party north of the border, and the radical wing of electoral politics needed to embolden it and to call it to account lies in the Greens, in Common Weal, in the trade unions, and in the vibrant social and movements and intellectual initiatives strengthened or built by the ‘Yes’ campaign (and notably absent on the ‘No’ side).
What of independence as a continuing means of galvanising and solidifying the case for change? Well, alongside deep-rooted socialisation of the economy, a new foreign policy, the priority of combatting climate change, a fresh approach to migration, a citizen’s income and a rediscovery of the imperative toward health, education and social security for all, I remain convinced that a new political and constitutional settlement is vital for the future flourishing of all the people who inhabit these islands – and that Scotland can show the way in this regard.
The more I examine it, the more I see that the ‘United Kingdom’ is a fractured and tired political order – one dominated by imperial hangover and the interests of global capital gathered in the City of London; one remote from the needs of the regions and nations that make up these islands, and one suffocated by a Westminster culture and system which is as increasingly crumbling and ill-fitting as the fabric of its architecture. Something new and reforming, built upon the radical and egalitarian traditions that still exist across these islands, is needed.
The future, I would suggest, lies in some type of confederal arrangement for the British isles that entails self-government for England, Scotland and Wales; an agreement for collaborative democracy in the north of Ireland; further devolution to the regions; a revival of genuinely accountable local governance; cooperative arrangements for security and international relations held in a shared multi-national assembly, and active participation in European and global projects that put people and planet first.
A positive, socially just, peaceful, outward looking and internationalist Scotland is what drove the commitment of hundreds of thousands of people (1.6 million in the final vote) to work and campaign for independence. It wasn’t about isolation, separation, narrow nationalism, or spite towards neighbours – as many of those seeking to defend the status quo kept wrongly trying to suggest. Instead, it was about the birth of a huge movement for social change: the belief that “a different world is possible”, starting with the determination to claim and use the powers closest at hand to help reshape the future.
Independence for Scotland rightly conceived – self-activation within a framework of international interdependence – is not about ‘me first’ or the romanticisation of identity. It is a way of galvanising and spreading change, starting with the reachable. For example, a Scotland that has the ability to decide against Trident can in the process help to rid all of these islands, and our continent, of nuclear weapons. A Scotland that has the power to pursue policies of greater economic and social justice can thereby strengthen the cause of all those in England and Wales who are told by the Westminster elite that “it can’t be done”. A Scotland that can be a self-sustaining world leader in renewable energy can assist neighbours and friends in the urgent struggle against carbon poisoning and global warming. The idea of a true “family of nations” can become far more of a reality through genuine subsidiarity - a key principle in both modern European thinking and Catholic Social Teaching.
The ongoing ‘Yes’ campaign needs to remain practically affirmative. It is not a rootless dream of an unrealisable idyll. Rather, it is a way of achieving an ever-deepening democratisation of society. It is about learning the skills and outlooks needed for community building. It flows from a recognition that collective decision-making needs to be brought as close to people as possible. It is part of an acknowledgement that in a globalised world, power is required within manageable geographic units to resist the dominance of huge corporations, to achieve the economies of scale required to make affordable governance possible, and to provide the proximity necessary to ensuring popular accountability, participation and representation.
For all those reasons and more, a self-governing Scotland makes real sense as an exciting, viable, livable project towards the aspiration (a word simultaneously beloved and denuded of value by the political elite) that “another world is possible – starting here.” As one of Stewart Bremner’s striking pro-independence posters makes clear: “We want a Scotland that cares about others, everywhere, as much as it cares about its own.”
Two points about that last phrase. First Scotland’s “own” are not defined by birth or blood, but by residence and hospitality. That is crucial. At one public meeting I spoke at during the referendum, a questioner launched into an attack on “narrow nationalism” (a term I had not used, and that formed no part of my argument for self-government for Scotland) while complaining that it was unfair that I should have a vote, because I was English, whereas her aunt, who lived in France, should be able to cast a ballot, because she was Scottish. The deep irony of castigating “separatism” while advocating ethnic voting was apparently lost on her, even when I pointed it out – and reminded her that the Scottish Government’s white paper had explicitly stated that Scotland was not just for “the Scots”, but for all who made their home here. That is the very opposite of “narrow nationalism”.
Second, while borders can be very significant in resisting the predations of international capital and establish boundaries within which particular decisions about economy, welfare, nuclear weapons and the environment can be enacted democratically, national territories do not and should not determine human empathy and solidarity. On the contrary, our concern for our neighbour should have no instrumentalised limits.
So, one year on, how do I look back on the independence campaign? It was undoubtedly one of the most significant political moments of my life. I have never seen, experienced or participated in such an inspiringly positive movement for change. The vote was lost, but the momentum for creating a better, more just society continues to resonate.
The Green surge, the huge political shift in Scotland, the revolt within the Labour Party, the upswing in alternative thinking about economics, the 'refugees welcome' initiatives, the increased self-organisation of disabled people, and growing public opposition to austerity – these are not yet signs that the forces which have delivered successive conservative governments at Westminster, battered Syriza in Greece pressed privatisation and produced TTIP are yet on the run. The orthodoxies of neoliberalism are being threatened, but they still predominate in our social, cultural, political and economic life.
Nevertheless, there is leverage for change growing from the grassroots and extending into aspects of our institutional fabric. Insofar as the Yes movement has played a part in galvanising such hopeful resistance it is important not just for Scotland’s future.
* More on Scotland before, during and after the 2014 referendum: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/scottishindependence
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is written in a personal capacity.