If there is one especially lazy characterization among the many about Scotland’s independence referendum, it is the description of the Yes movement as motivated by ‘atavistic ethnic tribalism’ or the like. Toss a pebble at the UK commentariat and you will come across it soon enough: from the Guardian to the Financial Times, the argument is the same. Britain is the outward-looking future, an independent Scotland a reversion to the barbaric past.
Taken literally, the idea of reverting to a period before Scot and Englishman jointly exported the apparatus of colonial power and racial supremacy they forged in Ireland to the rest of the world does not seem at all regressive. One can scarcely imagine an Indian or Ghanaian, for example, objecting to the move on these grounds. In the same breath as condemning the Yes campaign’s alleged ethnic tribalism, Unionist commentators give as their prime reason for retaining the UK its 300 years of success. Of what, in large part, does that success consist? Why, expanding into other territories and enforcing a hierarchy by which the indigenous inhabitants were plundered of their resources and denied self-government on the grounds of their alleged genetic or cultural inferiority. A textbook case of ethnic nationalism, you might say. One might think that someone celebrating centuries of such behaviour would baulk at condemning the ‘tribalism’ of others.
There is no insincerity in such condemnations. We can have no doubt that when Sir Jeremy Greenstock says of the referendum:
in this complex, unpredictable and sometimes threatening environment, the instinct to return to the tribe is understandable. Yet it is creating momentum for global chaos.
he believes it. So profound a substratum is British nationalism that men such as these, its prime beneficiaries, cannot see that their tribe – easily identified by its common modes of dress, speech and rituals of adolescent sequestration – dominate all the institutions of the British state and therefore articulate their interests as universal. Were a Kenyan of Gikuyu heritage, or a Syrian of the Alawite faith to do the same, we can imagine what would be made of her.
The contradiction becomes most evident when discussion turns to the potential post-independence status of Scots. Thus John Major (apologies to younger readers who will have no idea who this person is) is shocked, simply shocked, at the notion that Scots – his friends and relatives – would suddenly become foreigners. This leaves us in no doubt that being a foreigner is Very Bad Thing. Aside from being patent nonsense, the notion that Scots and English people would be subject to border controls at the Tweed reveals an unspeakable status anxiety: that Britain treats those it perceives as foreigners very badly. Major and others are terrified of falling into the category of those British citizens whose friends and relatives are already treated with disdain, bureaucratic suspicion and institutional racism. It is a strange internationalist, such as Ed Miliband, who can at once invoke global working class solidarity to defend the UK and threaten armed border guards should an independent Scotland adopt a more humane immigration policy. For those Britons whose colour of skin and choice of travel destination threaten their very status as nationals, the response to arguments such as Major’s will surely be a hearty shrug. But in the eyes of the defenders of the British state these are the wrong kind of foreigners. After all, there are foreigners and then there are, you know, foreigners.
Once one uncovers the banalized ethnic nationalism at the heart of Unionism, the entire framing of the debate appears bizarre. UK politicians and their media chums, having convinced themselves that independence is a battle of ‘heart versus head’ – parse that dichotomy when you have a free weekend – accost themselves for not being atavistic and emotional enough. The result is the spectacle of the ‘No’ campaign being the Saltire-waving loons, and every Unionist address beginning with an unbidden affirmation of how patriotic a Scot the speaker is.
To be sure, the Yes campaign has its smattering of the woad-daubed and the monomaniacal. What the No campaign miss is that the ‘head’, by which they mean rational economic calculation, can think about more than how much shopping at Waitrose costs, or the effect on mortgages. It might, for example, linger on the question of why it is better to remain in a state where a few are grossly over-endowed with property assets in which to consume their Waitrose goods, while many trudge home from Aldi to accommodation not fit for humans.
Indeed, this is the kind of public reasoning that the referendum has called forth. The No campaign is relying on the fear and weariness with democratic engagement that springs from a particular neo-liberal subjectivity. The referendum is not a battle of atavism against progress: it is one of politics – of the salience of the political – against post-politics. The great advantage of the No campaign is precisely the notion that politics, rather than being a matter of public reason, is a business of technical management of the day-to-day affairs of a society. No major party now questions the proposition that those affairs are to be left to appropriately skilled persons paying close attention to the holders of economic power: or to put it in the words of the Better Together campaign material itself, ‘it’s too early to talk politics, eat your cereal…if you don’t know, vote No’.
After spending a long lunchtime in Scotland offering what was supposed to be a positive case for No (Scotland receiving the right to vary income tax upwards, and having greater control over attendance allowance benefits) the leaders of the UK main parties quickly reverted to type, relying again on financiers and retailers to frighten voters with the prospect of expensive supermarkets becoming more expensive or banks headquartered in London moving their headquarters to London. The Yes movement is certainly not an anti-capitalist one, although its ethos is broadly social democratic. Its gains, however, come from face-to-face argument with voters, especially in poorer areas: not Full Communism, but something like a bourgeois democracy with an active citizenry. One would have thought that intellectuals who mourn the hollowing-out of liberal democracy would be in favour of this, but very few have caught on so far.
What a desperately glum place a post-No UK would be. The constitutional principle that businessmen’s opinions about their own profits matter more than a democratic movement would have been explicitly established. Scotland would join the bestiary of threats to the true-born Englishman’s national jouissance: like Muslims, foreigners, benefits claimants, people of whom any slander can be claimed without riposte. The headlines that UK politicians care about would demand revenge, and get it. Scotland would wallow again in self-deluded torpor: nobody would take responsibility for voting ‘no’ and 2014 be remembered not as a surge of democratic possibility, but as the low-point in a mawkish catalogue of grievance. Who would risk that?