“Who are the Scots?” (21st Century Edition)
“Who are the Scots” is the name of a classic book by Gordon Menzies in which he traced through archaeological sources the ethnic and cultural roots of those whose migrations and conquests eventually comprised the medieval Kingdom of Scotland just in time for the Wars of Independence in the 13th and 14th Centuries.
And I’m asking the question again today partly as a result of having just got back from a whistle stop reading tour of the Czech republic, Solvakia and Poland, where I along with 30 other “Scottish” writers were invited by the Brno based publishers Větrné mlýny to give an account of ourselves and what, jointly and severally we think are playing at. What is going on? they were good enough to ask. Who are you Scottish people anyway?
Now, there is a liturgical answer to this question we’ve got used to giving in this campaign to do with a civic identity, that those who live and work in Scotland – those who contribute to it and depend on it – are those, we on our side of the referendum campaign would contend, who ought to have the governing say in who runs the place. These are the electorate both for the future and for the current campaign. These are the people we say are “sovereign” – to be entrusted now and in future with our political decision making.
That is, we contend that : –
a) Scotland constitutes a “polity”, a political entity, and that
b) democracy is in principle and practice the best way to run a polity.
c) we ought to have an elected parliament in Edinburgh that can actually take the decisions on taxation and welfare and war and peace that the parliament of any other, “normal” political entity should expect to do.
We believe that if one accepts that Scotland is a real country, and that democracy is the best (least worst) form of government, then, within that definition v a Yes vote is logically the inescapable choice to make. We are, perhaps unreasonably, bewildered, frankly, that anyone thinks differently.
To vote No on September the 18th you have to contend either that Scotland does NOT constitute a polity or that democracy is too good for it.
Normality? What’s that when it’s at home?
We in the Yes camp argue, that is, from a position of what we perceive as “normality” – not that Scotland is a BETTER place than anywhere else, but that it is most definitely a “place” and that those of us who live here ought really, normally, to make the decisions as to what happens here.
Our problem is, of course, that our current political situation is not “normal.” Normality is not normal. It doesn’t exist yet. We are caught, possibly with fatal results to the campaign, to arguing “as if.” That “as if” is both the strength and weakness of our position. The No campaign are able to argue from the basis of what already exists , however incoherent and eccentric, and to say that “it isn’t that bad, really.”
We on the Yes side are assuming a “sovereignty” (to put quotation marks around 19th Century word) that we do not actually have yet. We are acting “as if” the power of political choice, of the pooling of our autonomy as individuals into the autonomy of the political unit we collectively choose, were already a fact.
The truth is, of course, that we are currently subjects and not citizens. The Queen is the sovereign, as her ministers and soldiery will gladly confirm. The people of Scotland will only be sovereign in Scotland only if and when they take that sovereignty. Sovereignty is being loaned to us for 15 hours on September 18th. The choice before us, as Jim Sillars put it so memorably at the beginning of this year, is whether we choose to give it back. Whether we choose, having had a wee keek at it, that we the power to decide our own destiny really isn’t for us. It has been the confident expectation of the powers that be in the UK that this is exactly what we could be trusted to do. We were Turkeys who could confidently be expected to vote for Christmas.
(This was quite hard to explain to Czechs and Slovaks and Poles…each of whom has their own culture of identity and history of self-determination to deal with. On one hand, they asked why a nationalist wasn’t wearing a kilt? On the other they asked what’s been keeping you all this time? None of them expressed the opinion that the forces of darkness would celebrate a Yes vote or that civilisation would in any way be threatened, by the by.)
The No campaign has notoriously entirely failed to put forward any positive argument. But then, they never expected that they would have to. They treat “actually existing conditions” and “normality” as the same thing. What has really, decisively changed in the course of campaign, is where this “normality” locates itself. I think that people are beginning to look at “how things are” in a very peculiar way.
That is, I think that people on both sides of the argument already recognise “the people as sovereign. But only one side is following through the logic of that recognition. Nonetheless, curiously, it is the Yes Campaign’s perception of our current constitutional eccentricity and the “normality” of popular sovereignty that has absolutely prevailed. There is only one version of reality we agree upon, even though our votes remain divergent. The “independence paradigm”, as it were, I would argue, has already come to be shared across the board, even by those who argue against its political manifestation.
If it ain’t broke, you don’t need to vote to fix it.
The No campaign have been have been entirely flummoxed when asked questions based on positive first principles as to “What are the benefits if we stay in the Union?” and have been reduced, more or less, to a repeated litany of variations on a theme of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “why take the risk of change?” or “don’t rock the boat”.
These positions are of course rather undermined when one points out the level of child poverty in Scotland, to give only one example. Or by our disabled people being subjected to the agenda of “austerity plus terrorism” regime currently run by the now hateful government departments charged with their welfare.
“But who is to say that any of that would be better with independence?” they demand, to which one replies,
“Well, WE, the Scottish electorate, would have a say. If we elected then re-elected a government that did this to our people, then hell mend us. The point is not WHAT we would choose, but the fact that WE would have the choice. And if it we found that a government wasn’t to our choice any more, we could vote against the government whose cruelty and incompetence and hatred were doing all this to us…and, unlike now, it would make a difference. The government would actually change. We can’t do anything right now other than complain about it in the pub. This is getting annoying for everybody, including the rest of the UK. Hence we are looking for the political power to make our opinions count.”
Democracy too dangerous
The only real argument on the No side, then, given that there is no case they can really make against the principle of democratic choice is that democratic choice is too dangerous for us. The real powers in the world will punish the disruption wee Scotland will cause if we insist on our self determination. In terms of trade, the EU, the currency…all that…a newly independent Scotland will find itself more less at war with the rest of the world..and we’d lose. Underlying almost all of project Fear is this very specific injunction that we mustn’t vote “against” Britain, we mustn’t vote “against” the neighbours because otherwise “they might hurt us”.
This seems to me to be a very negative opinion to hold of the character of the “neighbours” if you really think that their response to our expressed wish for self-determination and adulthood and no longer depending on them will be one of vengeance and spite. Apparently it’s not the nationalists who have a low opinion of our cousins, if the No side threatens us with their hostility and ill will. It doesn’t make much a positive case for the status quo. It has an even lower opinion of your own country, though, to hold that democracy too risky for it – that we aren’t a “real” enough country for it. That, uniquely, we aren’t good enough.
It ought to be obvious, then. Independence ought to be, and I believe will be, the obvious choice. The normal choice. Yet the No side maintains its lead in the polls. And there will be time for reflection indeed if we decide to turn down self government on September the 18th. We will have some serious questions top ask of ourselves. I believe that if we say No to self government, it will almost immediately seem an absurd thing to have done. This is because regardless of the product of the referendum, the process of the referendum campaign has established popular sovereignty in Scotland once and for all . The new “normal” that has emerged during this campaign redefines “the Scots” as what, by any real criteria, does indeed constitute a polity or nation. I don’t believe that a No in September constitutes the foundation for anything like a sustainable political settlement. I think from philosophical first principles of democratic practice it is an accident waiting to happen.
Autonomy/self-rule/sovereignty – What’s in a name?
To reiterate from first principles, then ; we, as free individuals, autonomous, “sovereign” individuals if you will, choose to pool that individual autonomy at pragmatically chosen levels of administrative convenience and democratic accountability. We do this in cities, regions, nation-states and associations of nation states. It has already been conceded that those powers already devolved from Westminster (where the Crown is sovereign in parliament) become democratically accountable. That’s what happened in 1999..twenty years after the question for democracy was first put in 1979.
The question before us now is whether we think it’s time to extend that democratic and fiscal control. Do we remain as subjects to an authority who lends us power occasionally within very strict limits, or do we assert that as autonomous individuals, we choose to pool our authority how we choose and in the size and extent of polity we choose.
You will notice that though these arguments seem tend towards a Yes vote, what they guarantee is that the choice is in our hands. Power begins with the individual and radiates up and outward into such other associations as we see fit. That could be expressed as the “choice” to remain in Britain, the choice to pool our sovereignty in Westminster and accept Tory governments we never vote for as the price of some kind of “safety” (I obviously think that such safety is a pretty spurious prize for which to pay so heavy a price.)
Nonetheless, that would be our sovereign choice…What is profoundly wrong headed about such a choice seems to me to lie in the aforesaid constitutional eccentricities.
Having come into existence as a sovereign people in the course of this campaign, we would, in effect, be voting to cease to exist. We would still be constituency voters, of course, but we would have voted “Scots” as such back into the Celtic twilight from which we have so recently and surprisingly emerged.
Remember, Cameron’s idea is to settle…silence…squash…the Scottish Question. For a generation. Even those who vote No, even if they REALLY hate Alec Salmond, should pause and think what that means. That we would have voted away our only power of negotiation, and handed our destiny to whoever wins in 2015 or 2020.
David, Boris or Teresa. Choose now, because you will have no choice whatsoever in future.
Here is the thought experiment I urge on my fellow subjects. Start “as if” you were not subjects, but sovereign, autonomous individuals. As if it were your choice to pool that autonomy so that you could get things done on welfare, health, education, housing, war and peace? In a blind test, in a “veil of ignorance” as Rawls has it, would you choose the past (with its familiarity) or on the principle of that autonomy, for the future?
Will a No vote kill independence “for a generation?”
My main point here is, of course, that even if we do vote No, we can’t do that. A No vote will not “kill” sovereignty any more than devolution “killed ” independence no matter how much anyone hates Alec Salmond. A No vote will not kill our sense of place and self and or negate our now felt and established and inalienable right to govern ourselves. Even those who vote No don’t think or feel that.
Because even if we do choose to pool that individual and collective sovereignty with Westminster, we from our side, will still retain that sovereignty, while in strictly legal and constitutional terms, we will have abjured it. We will retain a sense of being entitled to choose, even if we have voted against that right. It won’t hold. It won’t serve. It doesn’t make sense any more. What was eccentric will have become incoherent. If it happens, it can’t last. It will be unstable and unsustainable.
This is why the convinced “nationalists” among the Yes camp (I’m not one of them) are so serene about the prospect of losing the vote in September. Alec Salmond’s sense of history made him sanguine about calling a referendum he always expected to lose.
The Nats never expected (when sober) to win this referendum. But they know that the asking of the question changes everything. Having the choice makes us sovereign in FACT if not in fact. Forever. Once the question of sovereignty is posed is asked, it cannot be un-asked.
The process of the campaign, and especially the huge popular swell of enthusiasm and hope and purposeful dreaming it has unleashed all over the country and in every special sphere has entirely confirmed that perception. Entirely due to this campaign, something like a positive vision of the future has re-entered British politics. It is so unfamiliar as hardly to be recognisable. It is blinking uncertainly in unaccustomed light. But it is here and here to stay. Nothing can ever be the same.
Everything has changed.
Everything that goes wrong or right with Westminster politics, for us, will be now and forever an evocation of the border question. An Tory electoral alliance with UKIP? Further austerity? A vote to leave the EU? Everything will be about the border. Therefore, right now, before the vote, “Separation” is already a fact. Our experience and understanding of UK politics is already and irreparably “separated”. British institutions like the BBC and the Labour party, for both of which we once had true love, are now irreparably contaminated and structurally undermined. Our print media is despised as never before.
Our cultural distinction as Scots is now entrenched not in tartan and shortbread but in how we read and experience the world every day. The commonality of this viewpoint within Scotland and its distinction from perceptions held elsewhere is now established. Independence is already, as Neal Ascherson pointed out the other day, here already.No in September cannot mean no. It only means “not yet”.
We are a nation. Not “again” but for the very first time. A nation in the 21st century. Who are the Scots? We are. And we are not climbing back in the bottle.