Pro-independence campaigners say that the referendum is a life changing opportunity; the biggest decision in 300 years, as if the drawing of a new national border is somehow more significant than all of the revolutionary social and political changes that have taken place in this time. Their argument serves only to mask the real divisions in society and lends itself to a narrative that the colour of your flag or pride in people you’ve never met is the most important part of your political identity.
Independence campaigners try to sell this as a revolutionary change. This is the same tired tune that nationalists around the world have been singing for centuries. Just vote yes and everything will be better.
But Scottish nationalism is different. It is “civic”, whatever that means. “I’m not a nationalist but” is the line that is trotted out by people who have argued for Scottish independence their entire political lives. No doubt many of the people who say this are sincere and have latched onto the yes campaign for a variety of political reasons. But to go a step further and claim that this means the movement for independence is not a nationalist one, or is some kind of special nationalism, is wrong.
When Labour politicians are denounced as anti-Scottish and told to go back to England, that feels like every other nationalism. When no voters refuse to put posters up in their windows because they’re afraid they’ll get a brick through them, that feels like every other nationalism.
When you point this out the typical response is that both sides are equally bad. It is certainly true that there are number of horrendous people on both sides of the debate, but the attitude of leading figures of each campaigns to these unacceptable elements is striking. Better Together and Jim Murphy have denounced the likes of the Orange Order on multiple occasions, whereas many of the supposedly progressive figures in Yes act as apologists. Robin McAlpine of the Common Weal foundation mounted a stirring defence of the vile Wings over Scotland, calling Yes campaigners not to criticise the worst elements of their campaign and focus on the important issue: nationalism.
This is problematic when much of the claims that Yes will lead to a better Scotland rely on the movement being a progressive one; on all the yes campaigners dropping their Saltires and picking up red flags on September 19th. The simple fact however is that most people do experience the campaign as a fundamentally nationalist one with anti-Tory sentiment springing not from a class-based understanding that right wing politics is fundamentally harmful to working people everywhere, but because “we didn’t vote for them”.
Firstly, unless you live in an electorate of one person you won’t always get the government you vote for – after all a majority of Scots voted against the current SNP government. But more importantly, this is a narrative that places artificial national boundaries as the highest plateau of political identity, calling on people to unite not to resist oppression, but as a nation. It says that the problems in society are not caused by capitalism or exploitation, but from the fact that English people are included in the same electorate as us Scots.
The left wing of the yes campaign are hardly any better. They fail to understand neo-liberalism as the global phenomenon it truly is. They are happy to enter into a currency union, in order to sooth people’s fears, despite the fact that such a union means that much of Scotland’s economic policy would be controlled by a foreign government, with no democratic input into the decisions taken.
The SNP, which will be carrying out the negotiations for independence and writing a Scottish constitution, have no intention of seriously empowering working people. They couldn’t even bring themselves to vote for a living wage for the workers their government employed. Dreaming of a better society is easy but this doesn’t require a yes vote or an independence campaign to do so. It’s making those dreams a reality that matters, and a vote to embrace nationalism, cut corporation tax and engage in a race to the bottom with the rest of the UK is not the right path.
The no campaign and no doubt this article will be accused of being negative. I’ve never fully understood why there is an extraordinary burden on the no side to provide a campaign that matches the close-your-eyes-and-pray positivity of the Yes camp. Scottish independence will deny the electorate of Scotland democratic input into key decisions about how the economy is run, will replace genuine solidarity of working people with a false national consciousness, and lead to a politics that is more nationalistic and less able to bring about genuine change. These alone are reasons to reject it.
[Owen Mooney, chair of Glasgow University Labour Club]