Making sense of Scotland the brazen

That so many Scots voted in favour of independence highlights the toxic and painful legacy of British neoliberalism.

Scotland voted 55:45 to remain in the UK, but the very fact that the vote was even close was a serious shock to the political establishment in Europe. UK Prime Minister David Cameron had originally allowed only a Yes or No vote on full independence in the referendum, rather than a three-option poll including the “Maybe” of a greater devolution of power from Whitehall to Edinburgh, in the belief that the No vote would be so resounding that it would terminate the independence movement permanently. The Maybe, he believed, might well have got across the line, when in general he and the Tories didn’t want to cede any power north of Hadrian’s Wall.

So much for that strategy: the Scots seemed quite willing to consider voting Yes, and in the final days before the vote, Cameron offered bucket-loads of devolution in an attempt to stop the dreaded Yes coming to pass.

So why was it so close? In part this was undoubtedly due to what behavioural economists and telemarketers call a 'framing problem'. The vote was put as “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, rather than “Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?”. That gave the secessionists the positive Yes case to campaign for, whereas framing it the other way would have had them campaigning for a negative No vote. And that has undoubtedly coloured the campaign: those voting for independence have been shouting 'Yes' as loudly and happily as pre-election Obama supporters once shouted “Yes We Can”. It’s much harder to shout 'No' and be happy.

But there’s more to it than just good marketing -- or rather bad marketing on Cameron’s part. I’ve only been in the UK for the last two months, and I’ve spent just one day in Scotland so far, but I get the feeling that the unexpected strength of this grass roots rebellion against Whitehall is a vote for empowerment, after decades of disenfranchisement in European politics.

There has been an ironic confluence of two superficially opposed forces here: the EU and Neoliberal economics. The EU began in a flurry of democracy after the darkness of Nazism and War; but the bureaucrats and the economists who designed the EU were actually hell-bent on taking the people out of politics. The motivations here were mixed. Some saw the rise of Nazism as a product of mass politics, rather than an anti-democratic movement that manipulated and bullied its way into power. But many, especially those influenced by conventional economic theory, saw politics as a bad way to organise society in general: better to leave it to the market.

And then there was Margaret Thatcher, and her offspring Tony Blair. Granted they were from different parties and had different hairdos, but the philosophy was common: let the market rip. One of Maggie Thatcher’s advisers once quipped that he wouldn’t be happy when the Conservatives were in power: he would be happy when there were two conservative parties vying for power.

He got his wish with the rise of Blairism, and political choice for them masses was reduced to choosing between a Conservative party that enjoyed what it did, and a Labour Party that apologised every now and then for the unintended consequences of Neoliberal policies.

The problem is that the unintended consequences have been abundant. The Neoliberal agenda was believed in and implemented, not because Neoliberals enjoyed inflicting pain (well, OK, maybe that’s debatable), but because they believed there would be long-term gain from short-term pain.

Instead, there has been long term pain for many, as the closing of industrial employment was not followed by a boom in either alternative work or living standards for the newly unemployed, and as real wages stagnated and fell as Piketty has documented so well. And there have been the little matters of the financial crisis and the Great Depression that Europe is now suffering. The UK has avoided that latter fate, but austerity has nonetheless cut sharply here, and particularly in Scotland.

It’s now a long time since Maggie, and a long time since the Euro began too -- two superficially very different agendas that nonetheless shared the vision of Neoliberal economics, and the removal of the people from politics. Consequently the public has had plenty of time to experience the actual results of these agendas, as opposed to the Panglossian expectations in the ideology that championed them. Much of the public gave it the thumbs down -- but they had no way to deliver their vote, because European political leaders had neutered the public by making it almost impossible to opt out of the Maastricht Treaty.

So there has been no formal political revolt on the Continent. But Cameron let the genie out of the bottle offshore, by giving the Scots a clear Yes or No choice.

That so many Scots chose Yes, despite the economic uncertainty it entailed, is a sign of how fed up the majority of the population is with an economic recipe that promised a 'sweet’n’sour' outcome, with everlasting sweetness after temporary sourness, but instead delivered a permanently bitter gruel to the working class, and much of the middle as well. Scotland’s vote, even though No won, is a long overdue 'up yours' to the successful purveyors of the failed ideology of Neoliberalism.

PS. I copped some flak for a press release from Kingston University where I described the debate’s avoidance of discussing the issue of a currency for Scotland as resulting in a “half-baked haggis”. I stand by that: whatever the results of the poll turned out to be, it had been debated without considering that issue properly. 

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