In the 1990s, Tony Blair’s “New Labour” turn—which included sidelining unions and embracing private enterprise (and invading Iraq)—alienated left-leaning Scots. Today, the Yes Scotland side attracts many a fallen Labourite (though the Labour Party officially backs the ‘no’ vote). A recent Guardian/ICM poll shows that 42 percent of Scots who voted Labour in the last general election will vote ‘yes’ on Thursday.
This figure reflects a conversation I had over and over again in Glasgow this summer, while reporting on the independence campaign. “I voted Labour most of my life, but I don’t believe the Labour Party is a socialist party anymore,” a retiree named Andy Callahan told me. Saffron Dickson, a 16-year-old ‘Yes’ campaigner, said, simply: “Labour broke my dad’s heart.”
However fanciful the ‘Yes’ side’s economic vision might be (and the ‘No’ team has spent two years arguing that what ‘Yes’ says ain’t so), the cause of independence has undeniably appealed to the working class. This referendum is not a proxy class war—but class is an important indicator of Yes/No allegiance. In general, the poorer the Scot, the more likely she is to vote ‘yes.’ The Economic and Social Research Council found that 46 percent of low-income Scots support independence, compared with 27 percent of high-earners. It’s no secret that the Highlands high rollers are largely voting ‘No.’ “The buggers are out to get us!” one “pre-eminent” duke told the Tatler, referring to ‘Yes’ campaigners. Mark Diffley, director of Ipsos MORI Scotland, has described the relative wealth of a voting district as “the variable that really explains what’s going on.”
The Yes Scotland campaign argues that the Scots and English are inherently the same, but have alas gone their separate ways. Scots maintain free university tuition, free personal and nursing care for the elderly, and a wholly public healthcare system. The English “cosset bankers or project [their] might around the world with nuclear missiles and foreign wars.” ‘Yes’s underlying conceit is that it’s England that has changed—and Scotland that has stayed true to Britain and Britishness.
This should be a familiar gripe to American liberals and/or working class persons. What remains of the social welfare state is crumbling. Both political parties are thoroughly corrupted by Wall Street. What recourse do we have, then? In Louisiana, like Scotland an oil-rich region embroiled in frequent disputes with the national government over the spoils of those riches, we've flirted with a similar secessionist cri de couer. You can only complain about a system that perpetually crushes you for so long before destroying the system itself becomes a viable option.
This is what's motivating the Scots.
What distinguishes the current moment is that discontent with the way things have been going is so high as to test many people's tolerance for the governing institutions as they currently exist.
The details are, of course, different in each country.
In the case of Britain, a Labor government led by a Scottish prime minister (Gordon Brown) and his Scottish finance minister (Alistair Darling) supported the financialization of the British economy, with the rise of global mega-banks in an increasingly cosmopolitan London as the center of the economic strategy.
Then, in 2008, the banks nearly collapsed and were bailed out, and the British economy hasn’t been the same. Their failures ushered in a conservative government in 2010 that is even less aligned with the Scots’ preferred policies, bringing an age of austerity when the Scots would prefer to widen the social safety net.
So it's easy to sympathize. On the other hand, it's easy to worry. Apart from just the intervening financial chaos, the long term result of the divorce would likely be a poorer Scotland and an even more conservative rump UK. It's difficult to understand how anyone is better off in such a situation.
Independence may be romantically appealing. It's a catharsis for people who feel like they're going to remain underfoot anyway so they might as well break the whole edifice apart. But the prospects of building a better nation from a third of the ashes of the one you've destroyed are not good. Seems like a dismal set of choices to me. Either way, people are going to suffer.
The bad news is this is all nihilism. The worse news is the nihilism might be rooted in reality.