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Yes to Scottish Independence — and to the End of British Neoliberalism

The coming referendum may not bring about an independent Scotland, but the fight reminds us that rejecting the political status quo is possible.

by Natasha Lennard
Sep 9 2014, 9:27pm

Photo by Emutold

The year is 2085. Your great-grandchild is scanning her iHand, browsing for cultural artifacts from the olden days. Befuddled, she watches a clip from 1997 of the Spice Girls performing at an awards ceremony. "What's that lady wearing?" she asks, pointing at Ginger Spice. You reply: "Darling, that is a dress made from the Union Jack flag. It was the old flag for Great Britain, when Scotland was united with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It's a very old flag; it's not used anymore."

Fanciful future hypotheticals aside, Great Britain now finds itself at a moment pregnant with historical significance but lacking the bloodshed and war-waging typical of events we call "history." The Sceptered Isles face a point of existential reckoning that many thought would never come. On September 18, the people of Scotland will be asked to answer one question: Should Scotland be an independent country?

It is an ancient question, battled over "thro' many warlike ages," as Scotland's favorite son, poet Robert Burns, wrote more than 200 years ago. It is a question weighted with issues of sovereignty, identity, realpolitik, ideology, and money. But on the day of the Scottish independence referendum, this complicated question will be stripped of nuance and answerable in only one of two ways in the ballot box: Yes or No.

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For the first time, and to the surprise of politicos and pundits, the most recent YouGov poll has put the Yes to independence campaign ahead of the No by two points (51 percent to 49 percent). Polls are imperfect predictors, and it's worth noting that another polling company, Panelbase, still has the Better Together (No) campaign ahead 52 percent to 48 percent. If I were putting money on it, I'd probably take my cue from gamblers. The British betting exchange Betfair still gives the unionists a 72 percent chance of victory. Referendums are unruly beasts to predict, but I imagine that come September 18, the status quo of the United Kingdom will prevail.

I hope I am wrong.

If I were facing the terse binary posed by the referendum, my answer would be Yes, Scotland should be an independent country. But I support Scottish independence in a manner appropriate to the reductive nature of a yes/no referendum. Most simply, I support a nation accessing its own sovereignty. It is an imperial archaism that a country's primary legislature remains based outside of its borders.

Sir Walter Scott made this very point in 1707 when two parliamentary acts united the kingdoms of England and Scotland. He wrote, "I ken, when we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament — men o' our ain, we could aye peeble them wi' stones when they werena gude bairns — But naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon [London]."

In short, and updated: The people of Scotland have less power to influence and hold accountable a government based in London than one based in Scotland.

It is an imperial archaism that a country's primary legislature remains based outside of its borders.

Referendums are blunt instruments. They don't address the work of hashing out a detailed picture of independence should the voters choose Yes, and they don't explain what continued unity should entail in the wake of an impressive but failed push for independence. The final run up to the vote is steeped in emotion; such is the nature of national identity. But what about, to borrow from the Scottish Play, "when the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won"?

If Scotland emerges independent, the banalities of governance in a world of global capital will soon supplant any utopian dreams of freedom and independence. (And the Queen will remain Scotland's monarch — some archaisms just won't budge). Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, will not oversee Scotland's swift transition into an egalitarian socialist otherworld, fed comfortably by North Sea oil, à la a Scandinavian petro-state. Scotland is no Norway; it has no vast sovereign wealth fund. And Norway is no paradise either.

The kicker, too, is currency, as the unionists are emphasizing in their campaign's final throes. Haunted by the lessons of the Eurozone, the Governor of the Bank of England has made clear that a currency union in which Scotland could continue using the pound would not be an option. It's a fiscal "Fuck you" from England's central bank, as a fiscally independent Scotland would likely struggle to gain access to capital markets without any history of debt issuance. These are the vagaries of nation statehood in the globalized world; they have little regard for Celtic spirit. William Wallace didn't have to negotiate for drilling rights in the North Sea.

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Much of the separatist campaign has admirably articulated a rejection of neoliberal British politics, stretching back to Margaret Thatcher, through New Labour, to Cameron's austerity assault on Britain's social safety nets. Perhaps the best part of the Yes campaign has been the way it has said "No" to the current politico-economic order. And, while Scottish independence would remove Scotland's valuable leftist contingent from Westminster, the presence of these politicians in England has done little to mitigate Britain's rampant inequality, overseen by an elitist and corrupt corporate-parliamentary nexus in London. I share the Yes campaign's grim diagnosis of modern Britain, but I don't think they have the antidote.

I'm no statist. And I think nationalisms of any variety are problematically and inherently based on systems of inclusion and exclusion. But the possibility of Scotland breaking from its 300-year-old union carries a message of independence beyond any dewy-eyed nationalisms. The referendum is a reminder that independence from a political status quo is possible.

It was, after all, a woman wearing a Union Jack dress who urged, "Spice up your life!" When the Chancellor of Scotland, the Earl of Seafield, signed away Scotland's sovereign independence in 1707, he said, 'There's ane end of ane auld sang.' There's the end of an old song. The fight for Scottish independence should rouse the orchestra again, not necessarily to blare "Flower of Scotland," but to play a powerful dirge for neoliberal hegemony. 

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Wikimedia