When the results of the Scottish independence referendum started to become clear last night — a result my head had been expecting but one my heart still held out hope against — my spirits sank at the latest electoral defeat for left-leaning politics. When, I wondered, do we get to win?
Like most people on the left, I saw the referendum as a vote to reject neoliberalism and austerity — a rebuke to the smug elites invested in a status quo that enforces inequality, injustice and precarity. There is the sticky wicket of nationalism, an outdated form of unity that too often sows division amongst working-class people — but those lobbing such accusations at the Yes camp usually failed to apply the same critique to the No side. Arguably, the elites shedding crocodile tears for what might become of the great 307-year old Union — and its legacy of empire, colonialism and Maggie throw-her-up-and-catch-her — espoused a far more insistent — and dangerous — jingoism.
The question, of course, was one of self-determination — and under the parliamentary system that has governed Britain for the past 200 years, nationalism is one of the only frameworks some measure of self-determination is recognized. Throw in the fact that the Scottish people believe in social welfare, public health care, public education and nuclear disarmament, and a Yes vote was an open goal.
But we lost, you know. A poll less than a week before voting day showed the Yes side had pegged back Alistair Darling ‘s “Better Together” campaign and tantalized nationalists with impossible hope. Cue panic from Westminster, replete with histrionic handwringing from Prime Minister David Cameron and the impressive furrowed brows of ex-PM Gordon Brown — but the real No fightback, doubtless engineered from Whitehall, was the chorus of sneering admonitions and augury of doom of what five million people declaring their independence would do to Scotland, Britain, Europe, the world.
The idea that David Cameron, cares one whit about the comfort of a typical young Glaswegian male is patently ludicrous. Cameron spent his time at Oxford as a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club, an all-male drinking club of upper-class toffs who host, in full morning dress, an annual booze-soaked “Breakfast” of lobster, foie gras and suckling pig — accompanied by a garbage bag so that participants can vomit without leaving the table. In 2007, the life expectancy of an adult male in Lenzie, a low-income neighbourhood of Glasgow, was 54. 54!
But no wonder Cameron and his pals at The Telegraph, the Bank of England and the IMF — not to mention his wannabe cronies in the colonies like Andrew Coyne and The Globe‘s editorial board — are so smug. Their strategy of scaremongering and condescending reproach has never failed them. The blessed Union is saved, Alex Salmond has resigned, and global neoliberalism may continue apace.
So, when do we get to win? There are lessons here — first, and most powerful, there is an appetite among regular people for real political change. Most Scots, more than voted Yes, know in their bones that neoliberalism hurts people — and they want to get rid of it. The Yes campaign in Scotland was not built around Scottish culture, like the failed referendums in Quebec, but around progressive politics that united the working and middle classes. “Nos intérêts sont les mêmes,” was the appeal from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the rural surroundings, true then as it was in yesterday’s vote. “Ce que je demande, tu le veux aussi.” Our interests are the same.
Second, that widespread referendum campaigns are poor platforms for political change. The seeds of an independence movement were well planted but the campaign was far too short to radicalize a critical mass of people who, with more time, would certainly have embraced the change they sought. The referendum question itself, while refreshingly direct, still allowed far too much space for the forces of neoliberalism to exploit with fear and uncertainty (a tack all-too familiar to Canadians in our own sovereignty debate): will you keep the pound? will Europe allow you to stay? will the oil last? And so on.
Quebec Solidaire, Quebec’s admirable left-wing party, proposes a series of “constituency assemblies” who will decide what form sovereignty would take at the local level. These assemblies will be made up of an equal number of women and men representative of different socio-economic backgrounds and cultural diversity to conduct a far-reaching democratic process to determine the values, political status, institutional foundations and delegated powers of Quebec. This grassroots political structure mobilizes citizen from the ground-up and answers the disingenuous questions neoliberals will ask of a sovereigntist project from the beginning — and, by the time the vote happens, the answer will no longer be in doubt.
Third — and this is the most important yet most elusive lesson — we are winning. This is a dangerous lesson because it invites complacency and risks disguising the fact that right-wing forces work relentlessly –often successfully — to dismantle the gains we have made. But we need to recognize that our victories are not measured through conservative institutions like referendum votes. Such mechanisms will always favour the status quo (which explains why they are favoured by those who prefer things the way they are).
Our victories are writ both large and small — large, because our scale is historical, volcanic; small because our wins are incremental, subtle, like water pooling on an oak leaf. Another world is nonetheless on her way, to paraphrase Arundhati Roy. The empty promises of neoliberalism are shaking under the weight of its burden and it can’t hold it up forever. Indeed, it hasn’t. Appetite for independence grew from 30 per cent less than a year ago to almost pipping Cameron and his bullies in a game stacked against them. Yes, they have money and media and power on their side — but history abides.
Oh but it would have been nice to win this one. Just once.
Thanks to Nora Loreto for pointing me to Quebec Solidaire’s policy on sovereignty.
Image: Flickr/Neil Winton