It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Two years ago, when the campaigns for Scotland’s independence referendum began, conventional wisdom held that support for independence would plateau at 40%. Someone miscalculated. Over the past ten days, polls have consistently shown that the end of the United Kingdom is now within the realms of the possible, not just the imagination. By Friday morning, Scotland might just have voted to become an independent country.
Three issues have converged to get us to this place. First, the Better Together campaign has failed to articulate a positive vision of the UK or of Scotland’s place in it. ‘No’ is an intrinsically negative position, but the Better Together campaign has taken that to an extreme. Surely no country decides its future based on what currency it will use. And yet, the No campaign has been obsessed with currency arrangements in an independent Scotland. Technicalities are important but vision beats detail.
Second, Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign have been disingenuous. They ignore reality. They seem confused about what independence really is. They promise a rosy future of a wealthy, confident, just, and fair Scotland. Oil money will keep the country afloat. Scottish culture will make the country punch above its weight. And Scottish society will be based on social justice once those nasty Tories and/or English are out of the equation. But the Nationalists’ economics are “flawed”: oil will run out, the banks will clear out, and demographics are not in favour of long-term social spending such as that promised by the SNP.
Never mind that the process of separating over 300 years of Union will be messy and complicated. Much of the Nationalist campaign’s predictions of a glossy future are premised on having the wind behind their backs in negotiations for a post-referendum settlement. Yet, as Martin Wolf writes, “A Yes vote will launch Scotland…into years of uncertainty.” The longed for Nordic-like future is undoubtedly possible for an independent Scotland, but it is folly to suggest that independence is a panacea.
Third, but most critically, few people see Scottish nationalism as a negative. But nationalism is inherently divisive. It is about separating people, about erecting borders, about saying that people would rather look inwards than be part of a cosmopolitan, open, and multi-national society. It matters not how innocuous and fluffy Scottish nationalism might appear: the argument of Scottish nationalists is that Scotland is only for the Scottish.
Nationalism says that organising and governing a particular area is best done by people who share a similar ethnicity, similar attitudes and a similar culture. Nativism and otherness are essential. Nationalism in Scotland is just as ugly as nationalism in the Balkans. Mark Blyth writes that “Nationalism, like most forms of identity politics, thrives only in the face of a foreign other.” Yes campaigners have used the politics of identity to blame the Tories, Westminster, and the English in general for what ails Scotland. It is ugly and narrow-minded.
The most successful societies and states in history have been those that champion cosmopolitanism and openness. Scotland is on the verge of saying that insularity, smallness, and national identity is of more importance in a globalised world than being part of a multinational society. Yet, as Philip Stephens’ writes, “prosperity and security in an age of great power competition belongs to those comfortable with multiple identities – the ones who bind themselves together in shared endeavour.”
Cultural confidence is to be celebrated. That Scots have a distinct identity from other parts of the United Kingdom is a good and positive thing. Where it becomes a negative is when that cultural and national identity becomes the definition of statehood. Common identities transcend borders; an accident of birth should be less important than the identity that we choose and build for ourselves.
Alex Salmond is a bully, but he has won the emotional argument regarding Scottish independence by building a vision of a hopeful and different future. Yes, an independent Scotland could undoubtedly be successful in the long-term. It would, provided the right decisions were taken, be able to build an economy, provide for its citizens, educate its young people, and care for its sick. But it is deluded to think that this can be done better in a state defined by its Scottishness.
The world is not binary. Why seek to divide yet further? A vote for Scottish independence merely solidifies the desire of some to divide based on culture and identity. It is saddening to think that, after the horrors that nationalism has wrought, people can still build a positive vision for the future around so insular an idea. Scots face a decision on what kind of values and principles they place more faith in: those of openness and diversity or those of narrow cultural identity.