Glasgow, Scotland—Thursday’s Scottish referendum vote is often framed in terms of the politics of nationalism—and the desire of a people for self-determination. And of course there have always been, and there still are, impassioned Scottish nationalists.
But the reality that becomes overwhelmingly clear in the last hours before the referendum vote—which polls suggest will see an exceptionally high turnout and a close finish—is that this process is being shaped by the politics of austerity.
This is highlighted by the campaigning of supporters of a “yes” vote and, increasingly, this is being acknowledged in the last-minute promises being made by British Prime Minister David Cameron and the most fervent foes of a Scottish break with the United Kingdom.
The politics of Scotland has long been at odds with the politics of Britain, as my Nation colleague D.D. Guttenplan has ably explained. The Conservative Party has ruled the United Kingdom for the majority of the past sixty years. Yet the Tories last finished first in a Scottish election in 1955. And as Britain has moved to the right, not just under the right-wing leadership of Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher but also under the neoliberal leadership of Labour Party prime ministers such as Tony Blair, Scotland has felt increasingly isolated politically.
This isolation has a huge economic component, as Cameron has implemented an austerity agenda that threatens the National Health Service and broader social services, undermines trade unions and communities, and deepens inequality. Despite the devolution of some powers to a Scottish Parliament over the past decade, Scotland is still governed in many of the most important senses from London—even though less than 17 percent of Scots backed Cameron’s Conservatives in the last election, giving the Tories just one of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats in the British Parliament.
So it was that the posters on sound trucks rolling through the streets of Glasgow Wednesday shouted: “End Tory Rule Forever.” The energetic Radical Independence Campaign was putting up posters with an “X” over Cameron’s face and the promise that “Another Scotland Is Possible.”
This is not about nationalism in some old-fashioned sense, tweets Radical Independence Campaign activist Cat Boyd; this is about democracy is a very modern and practical sense. “It is 59 years since Scotland returned a Conservative majority and half of that time we have [had] a Conservative government,” she notes.
Author and activist Tariq Ali, who appeared with Boyd at a forum in Glasgow just before the election, agreed, explaining that the referendum is “all about giving the people the power to determine their own future—rather than to have it determined for them.” Ali traveled from London to Glasgow to support the “yes” campaign, arguing that bringing governing power closer to the people changes the dynamic of the austerity debate in Scotland—and in other places around the world. “The symbiosis of big money and politics is not just America’s problem,” he said. “It has now spread to Europe in a big way.”
The notion that Scottish rule will change the circumstance has been at the heart of the broad-based “Yes Scotland” campaign, which says a “yes” vote will mean
We can use Scotland’s wealth to build a fairer nation.
Scotland’s NHS [National Health Service] will be protected from creeping privatization.
We spend money on childcare instead of Trident missiles.
A lower pension age and higher pensions.
The end of Tory governments we don’t vote for.
Decisions about Scotland will be made by the people who care most about Scotland, the people who live here.
A radical notion?
David Cameron no longer seems to think so.
The prime minister was in Scotland on the eve of the voting to promise that if Scots vote “no,” he and other British party leaders will push for the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament—which is all but certain to be led by the left-leaning Scottish National Party. This so-called “devo-max” approach would afford Scotland far greater control of its own affairs—with greater authority over taxation and spending shifted to Scottish leaders—while maintaining the basic outlines of the United Kingdom.
Critically, the “devo-max” promise, at least to the extent that it is understood at this point, would allow a Scottish Parliament to steer a different course from the British on issues of social spending and the broader austerity debate.
Cameron, his governing coalition partner Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democratic Party and Labour Party opposition leader Ed Miliband actually signed a vow—published on the front page of the Scottish Daily Record—to work together to give the Scots more of a voice in their future if the independence vote fails. “People want to see change,” Brown said. “A ‘No’ vote will deliver faster, safer, and better change than separation.”
Of course, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, termed the promise from Cameron and the other leaders a “desperate offer” that only came as the British leaders recognized Scotland might vote “yes” for independence.
With the polls so close, it is certainly possible that the “devo-max” gambit will tip the balance toward the “no” camp.
But even if that happens, this remarkable democratic debate over independence has forced an admission that austerity is a vital, perhaps definitive, issue in Scotland—and beyond. The only question then is how best to stop the cuts, stop the redistribution of wealth upward and begin shaping fairer and more humane policies.