A Choice of Paths
Iceland’s Smári McCarthy writes on Scotland’s ‘possibility space’. Book here to hear him talk this Saturday at Summerhall in Edinburgh on ‘Crowdsourcing the Constitution – Lessons from Iceland’ (pay what you can system in place).
Reykjavík is pretty small, but it’s still one of my favorite cities. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for with a vibrancy of culture. Because it’s a capital city of an independent European state, it attracts the same kinds of events in arts, sports, politics and science as any other capital city. The scale of course is smaller, but for me in practice this odd interplay between scale and importance has meant that nothing halfway interesting can pass through Iceland without there being a fairly substantial chance that I can get involved, and there is a constant gush of wonderful things going on.
This distinction gives rise to possibilities. The Icelandic people are in a very real way the masters of their own fate. Even with the ground underneath our feet slowly ripping itself apart, the weather tearing at our homes, and the political and economic realities of the early post-industrial era forcing us to make a lot of hard decisions, the space in which we can act is broad and wide.
This space is the space of possibilities, it is the scope of everything that is under our control. Possibility space. It has many dimensions: population, language characteristics, tax rates, government budget, quality of schools, overall happiness, cost of transportation, level of centralization, level of individual liberties, degree of respect for human rights, amount of money spent on warfare, number of people killed by our society through wars, poverty, curable diseases, negligence, indifference – or even natural causes.
At any point in time, our society is a point in this space. As a society, we move around the various axis, at varying speeds, depending on the actions we take. There are places we can go which are desirable, there are places we can go which aren’t.
Every society has such a space. Scotland, too, has its own possibility space, within which it moves. But currently Scotland’s possibilities are limited to whatever lies within the scope of British reality. Scotland moves around with an England chained to it, often pulling in the other direction.
One of the ways this manifests is in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen being relatively minor British cities instead of being major centers of culture, arts, sports, and politics. Decisions made in grand old London change the world on a regular basis, and even tiny little Reykjavík has had its fair share of global impact.
A Stroll through Possibility Space
It is true that the devolution of powers into a separate parliament and de facto self-governance over a large set of policy areas gives Scotland some added flexibility, but it’s important not to confuse a larger garden with a park. There are things that Scotland cannot currently change. But imagine if it could?
When Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944, it was a third world country by most measures. A significant portion of the population lived in turf houses, electricity was common in towns but not in the countryside, and the economy was almost entirely based on exports of salted fish. Alcohol was tightly regulated, you needed permission from the government to take money out of the country, and the governance structure had been built to serve the needs of 19th century Danish bureaucrats.
Today, Iceland is one of the most highly developed countries in the world. It ranks with the richest, the most liberal, the happiest, and the best educated. It has an excellent track record in human rights, it is an active member of the global political scene, and its economy is dominated both by traditional fishing and by more modern knowledge industries in software and genetics as well as tourism and aluminium production.
Sure, it’s not always been pleasant: it took until 1989 to legalize beer, until 1986 there was no TV on Thursdays, and we had that big banking crash in 2008 that you might have heard about.
The crash took Iceland from being a global powerhouse in banking to being a place where bankers are given dirty looks. Capital controls have been reinstated, although not quite to as annoying a degree as last time. And although the Icelandic public made an admirable attempt to write a new constitution for the country after the crash, a last minute blast of conservatism and fear of change meant that Iceland still has a governance structure made by and for 19th century Danish bureaucrats.
But Iceland is just one example of many. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Croatia are all examples of countries that are thriving as a result of their independence. They may be small, but they are mighty.
Scottish independence could mean a great many things. It could adopt a more modern system of civil law. It could reform land ownership. It could adopt more liberal immigration policies, and even join Schengen like any reasonable European country.
But more realistically: education reform, voting reform, an independent foreign policy. A more robust local economy, helped in part by Scotland’s massive natural gas and oil resources in the North Sea – value which could be used to strengthen economy instead of being filtered through Westminster into the pockets of relatively few relatively wealthy global corporations. It could even be used to finance a national conversion to renewable energy, or set up a national “retirement fund” like Norway has.
Scotland’s possibility space is vast. It could align with the Nordic region and become a global power, home to the greatest minds of the next generation. It just has to dare to try.
Taking the Plunge
Of course, the politics of a small country are quite provincial. Without a common understanding of the need to hold people to high standards, there is a risk that the national debate will dissolve into petty bickering. Perhaps this Hobbesian caricature is the greatest fear. We have been told for centuries that we cannot self-govern, because we are imperfect and unenlightened, so we must be ruled by our betters. Which is obviously bullshit. Nonsense peddled by the ruling elites of each age to discourage dissent.
The ultimate form of dissent is not just to declare independence as a country. It is to declare independence as a people. Scotland has within its grasp the potential to not only change its own destiny, but to completely alter the way democracy is practiced globally.
There is an interesting corner of the possibility space where lies the realm of participatory democracy, where decisions are made by those who are affected in every issue, and by none other. Where towns have the liberty to choose their own path, and where each individual has a vast possibility space of her own. Using modern communications technology and new understandings in social choice theory, this can be done.
But this cannot be done without first taking the plunge.
The first step, of course, is for Scotland to rid itself of its limitations and to understand the scope of its potential. Good luck.