2007 - 2022

A Choice of Paths

smarichoiceIceland’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.

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  1. Auld Rock says:

    How nice to read this person of vision and forward looking. This should be sent to Darling, ‘WEE’ Lamentable, and Brown et al!!!

    Auld Rock

  2. Dr Ew says:

    Visited Reykjavik for the first time las year. Prices give you a nosebleed, but the confidence of the place, the confidence of the people, was truly impressive. Their financial meltdown was arguably greater than any other’s except perhaps Greece, but they told their banking elite to take a hike and elected a stand-up comedian, Jon Gnarr, as Mayor of Reykjavik – and he was brilliant. He shook up the political establishment while the people got on with rebuilding their economy. Gordon Brown huffed and puffed about the “money Iceland owes Britain”, but Iceland said – sue the bankers. Come after them. Buggered if we’re shelling out for shysters. It was the banks, not the people.

    I’m oversimplifying, of course, but that’s what you can do when you are a nation amongst nations.

    “It was the banks, not the people.” Let’s remember that.

    1. Auld Rock says:

      Hi Doc,
      Aye and they also banged up a load of their dodgy bankers. We should have done the same except they would have had to build a new prison for that corrupt, thieving lot in the City of London, LOL.

      Auld Rock

  3. Clootie says:

    I just like the idea of “What if….” Instead of the same old policies from Westminster regardless of who is in power. They make a lot of noise at PMQ’s or at elections but in the broad detail they are going to follow policies that keep the elite comfortable and London as the centre of their political World.

  4. Dan Huil says:

    Thank you,Smári Mccarthy. An uplifting article. Iceland has the confidence and the cajones to survive, even after a devastating financial crash. An example for us all.
    Great name BTW.

  5. benmadigan says:

    Reblogged this on the [email protected] and commented:
    This is a lovely article. It makes you feel good just reading it|

  6. manandboy says:

    A CHOICE OF PATHS by the ‘NO THANKS’ Team managed by Alistair Darling.

    No Thanks says BT to Independence and self-determination.
    No Thanks to a prosperous and fair society.

    But a big ‘Yes please’ from Better Together to another 5 years of Tory government starting next March.

    ‘Yes Please’ to a minimum of 25 Billion pounds of cuts to services.

    ‘Yes Please’ to another increase in the national Debt.

    ‘Yes please’ to paying £50 million per day interest on the debt. That’s £91,250,000,000 over 5 years.

    That’s £91.25 billion pounds in interest over 5 years to be paid by the UK taxpayer.

    George Osborne can’t pay the interest on the debt
    never mind the debt itself.

    Scotland’s share is 8.4% which is £7,665,000,000.

    Yes Please to £7.665 billion pounds in interest for Scottish Taxpayers

    Yes Please to another 5 years of lying to Scotland about its oil and gas wealth, all of which goes to London.

    Yes Please to a massive increase in the activities of Dart Energy – fracking and drilling everywhere and especially in Scotland so as to extract as much of Scotland’s under soil gas wealth as soon as possible.

    These are just some of the massive, massive costs to Scotland of Better Together.

    Dear Readers, our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will CURSE this generation if a No vote prevails in September.

    The idea that future generations of my offspring
    will HATE me for what I’ve helped pass down to them
    makes me sick to the core.

    NO THANKS – no thanks.

    (Also on Wings)

    1. ian foulds says:

      Nice One – Hope YES SCOTLAND asks to use these statements

  7. George Gunn says:

    As we enter the last 100 days of Britain it is clear that what the unionist politicians and their big business backers fear is democracy itself. Britain is undemocratic because no-one actively participates in the political process and this is they way those in power retain power. The media are complicit because they are part of this dominant structure. It is interesting to see the increasing hysteria within the BBC as the penny drops that the end of Britain is the end of their lazy hegemony. Each day their contempt for Scottish democracy increases. The price of beer in Iceland may make your nose bleed but the cost of giving up on democracy which a No vote means will congeal the political blood of all of us. The joint declaration by the unionists as to what they will do after a No vote is a manifestation of exactly what they will not do. What are lies but twisted truths? To see the truth just turn everything they say around then you will see that if the Tories have their way nothing will be better for the Scottish people. They are a continuation of medieval robber barons and those who do not comply will be punished. That is the twisted truth behind Project Fear. Iceland, however imperfect, can to a great extent, fashion its future. Scotland, at present, cannot.

  8. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    The only limitation is our imagination. We can be what we dare to choose to be; not exactly an exercise in pure mathematics. As a people, as a nation Scotland has been open to influences from beyond her borders. Much more so than than our sometimes aloof and culturally inward-looking neighbour which, lest we forget, was acquired and inventoried by the Duchy of Normandy and has remained effectively in the ownership of its descendants and those of a sequence of monarchs belonging to a variety of foreign dynasties ever since (Ref. Norman Davies). The influences of the classical renaissance and the enlightenment reached our shores earlier such was the easy traffic of ideas from the continent. However this thing is about us, not them. We are stuck in a deep rut familiar and tediously routine. The wise amongst us have known that for many decades. Independence is the engine to release us, with inevitably some kicking and screaming, from it. Where the engine takes us will be a measure of our will to succeed and reinvent and renew ourselves as a people and a nation. Enough rhetoric lets get to it!

  9. Jude says:

    Scotland is debating the better future for themselves just us “colonist’ did back in 1776. Stay with England and be part of a great nation with limited potential and a subservient but safe role. Or take the chance, the risks of going alone – fighting not just in terms of wars but fight to assert one’s self in the world economy, in education, in culture, in environmental survival. The easy path is letting England & London continue to call the shots and set the course. The harder path is going it alone. Just like it is easier for the child to stay at home with the parents telling them what to do & spoon feeding them what they need. There comes a time when you are an adult and you make the choice to take care of yourself. It is hard at first but in the end, it is the best thing to do. Scotland is beyond the teenage years and big enough to “sit at the adult’s table”.

  10. barakabe says:

    Although I agree with most of the article- & whole heartily with the basic premise of independence as a possibility catalyst- I cannot agree that Glasgow & Edinburgh are not major British cities; yes they may well be marginalized to a significant extent in the most centralized nation in Europe, but Glasgow, in particular is a cultural powerhouse (even in European context never mind the UK)- to compare Reykjavik & Glasgow, which is a major European musical & artistic ‘capital’ is a bit of a misnomer. Just a minor point- otherwise it’s a great article.

  11. Tony Philpin says:

    As someone building a turf roofed house I ought to correct the implicit misapprehension in this article than this is old technology. It is a supremely clever way of using local materials, insulatiing and integrating buildings into their surroundings. Not all old or traditional ways are wrong. Much else to agree with here but Glasgow and Edinburgh are WORLD class cities, already culturally vibrant but capable of even better futures with vision, good planning (not quite an oxymoron), and quality architecture (might be more oxymoronic than the planning but we have to be optimistic)

  12. diabloandco says:

    Thank you!
    I just loved that refreshing view.

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