The referendum on Scottish independence is, obviously, the biggest news story in Scotland at the moment, but also in the UK, and it is important for the whole of Europe as well. Like most people I assumed until recently that, in line with the opinion polls, the outcome would be a clear vote against independence. Now, again according to the opinion polls, the vote will be very close.
The debate about the vote is inextricably bound up with economics and business. Issues such as whether an independent Scotland would be able to use the pound, and if so how substantive would independence be; whether businesses would re-locate away from Scotland; whether businesses would price goods differently; what would be the future of the oil industry have all been endlessly discussed.
For out and out nationalists, it hardly matters: and independent nation trumps all other considerations. But this throws into sharp relief what meaning attaches to ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’ today? The interconnectedness of the global economy, and the associated institutions such as the EU, IMF, World Bank, UN and so on make it difficult to sustain a narrative of national self-determination.
Yet self-determination clearly has purchase. In contrast to the often apathetic view of politics in the UK and elsewhere, the referendum has galvanized an enormous political energy in Scotland, with 97% of the population registered to vote, and turnout predicted to be between 80 and 90%. People care because this vote matters.
The main reason why it matters is because Scottish public opinion is to some degree to the left of UK politics as a whole. It remains a Labour Party heartland, but it is not neo-liberal New Labour that it supports, it is the social democratic ‘Old Labour’ Party of trade unions, workers’ rights and welfare. The New Labour project was predicated on the idea that its traditional vote would have nowhere to go except Labour, which could therefore tailor itself to floating voters in marginal English constituencies and if it got those votes and added them to the captive heartlands a majority could be secured. This is exactly what brought Tony Blair three election victories.
So what is happening now is that traditional Labour voters in Scotland are switching to independence on the basis that a UK Labour government will never reflect their views, whereas an independent Scotland could become governed by a Labour government that did not accept the neo-liberal position of New Labour. That is not entirely unrealistic – in contrast to the aspirations of those Old Labour voters in England who are switching to the Thatcherite UKIP for the same reason but with absolutely no realism at all. If I lived in Scotland, I’d be tempted to do the same. But I hope that the Scots do not vote for independence because the consequences for the Left in England will probably be calamitous: the end of the Labour Party and a permanent neo-liberal majority, although it’s also true that the shock waves of Scottish independence might re-configure English politics in unforeseeable ways.
New Labour took the Labour Party into a cul-de-sac, with the most likely consequence being no Labour at all. In retrospect it looks completely unnecessary: by the time of the 1997 election any alternative to the Tories would have been voted in. But its short–term electoral success gave it justification. The consequence has been to eviscerate social democracy in the UK, an outcome which would be cemented by Scottish independence. That is not just a matter of parochial concern, since, without Scotland, the UK is far more likely to leave the EU, and what happens in the EU has inevitable, if unpredictable, repercussions outside Europe, as, for example, the people of the Ukraine can testify.
What this suggests is the global connectedness is a two-way street. Nationalist appeals to sovereignty may be increasingly meaningless because of global connectedness, but global connectedness means that nationalist sentiment can have effects well beyond national borders. The only people to have a vote in the Scottish independence referendum are those currently living in Scotland; the effects of what they decide will have consequences around the world.