A Pessimists Take on the Scottish Referendum

A recent article in The Economist highlighted that two Britains are emerging one cosmopolitan the other communal. The Scottish cry for independence is the loudest communal voice in Britain right now. Politicos are predicting that the SNP are the beginning of a Communal revolution. I take a less optimistic view on the vote.

“As ever, political tectonics are following socioeconomic ones. Just as England is splitting along lines perpendicular to its traditional divisions, so its two main political parties are tearing along their middles. Mr Parris’s column and the reaction to it neatly depict the debate within the Conservative Party. A very similar conflict is playing out in Labour ranks, too. In both, communitarians have come to blows with cosmopolitans.

The communitarian argument, as the responses to Mr Parris indicate, starts with the claim that Britain’s political disillusionment stems from the haughtiness of liberal metropolitan elites. In particular those of this outlook cite immigration and the EU, but other bugbears like MPs’ expenses, big business and purported NHS privatisation also play a role. London-bashing often features, too. Thomas Friedman, a New York Times writer, describes the political expression of such concerns as “the olive tree”—the outlook that most venerates that which is rooted and has existed for generations.

The cosmopolitan argument, by contrast, takes London as its starting point. In this philosophy, the capital’s success lies in its liberal-minded embrace of open markets, immigration and globalisation in general. Though the London-bashing communitarians are reluctant to admit it, successful English towns and cities beyond the M25 exhibit the same characteristics. Milton Keynes and Swindon, for example, are similarly pro-development. Manchester shares the capital’s knack for integrating a single urban economic area. Leeds has a pro-finance creed that has served it well. Coventry has made promising steps towards a post-Fordist manufacturing world. As Mr Friedman would put it, these places are embracing the “Lexus”—that which is disruptive and modern.”-The Economist, Clacton Versus Cambridge

The article goes on to conclude that a political party that fully embodies the ‘cosmopolitan’ principles will dominate Twenty First century politics. Despite being a thought provoking and original article, I would argue the The Economist is wrong in it’s conclusion. I would argue that despite being the dominant ideological vision of our time. The neoliberal cosmopolitan vision is being slowly washed away by a tide of popular nationalism.

The Scottish vote will soon be upon us, at the time I am writing this article the verdict is far from certain. As is to be expected political commentators are already forecasting the wide ranging implications of this important event. Whatever path the Scots decide, the result will be monumental for the future of British political life. However in my opinion the enormous fun of futurology must make way for the undoubtedly somber reality of British political life.

There has been talk already of a ‘secessionist revolution’. A notion that in the wake of an SNP victory aspiring states across Europe and perhaps further afield will clamor for their own independence referendums. Even in the event that Alex Salmond is defeated there will be a significant constitutional shift in the UK towards ‘Devo- Max’, in such a circumstance it would be difficult to see how even if the no campaign wins it could be considered a complete victory.

One of the most interesting aspects of the independence campaign Scotland is that it is primarily a ‘working class’ campaign. Alex Salmond’s agenda is decidedly left wing and writers on the left have keen to stress the proletarian credentials of the Scottish cry for independence. Arguably UKIP represents a similar phenomenon albeit the popular appeal of Mr. Farage’s throng of supporters lies in much different areas than the SNP.

So why the pessimism? Surely the success of the Nationalists in Scotland and the disquiet UKIP caused in the local council elections shows that the winds of change are blowing through Britain. Ultimately there is little doubt in my mind that the status quo will remain. It would seem that among pro-independence supporters in Scotland one of their main gripes with the union is that England is dragging the rest of the UK down a neoliberal cosmopolitan path against their will. A point I happen to sympathize with. Yet if Scotland decides to secede from the British Union little will change for both countries.The political energy in Scotland and the rest of Britain is directed into the existing political system representing an internal quarrel rather than a revolution.  Arguably the nationalist convulsion that is pulsating through Britain is unlikely to have a lasting impact.

It is this introversion that will ultimately exasperate the currents of change in Britain. Much of the vitality of these civic visions, nationalist or internationalist is directed towards the political center. History shows that the main political parties in the UK are usually able to absorb discontent with relative ease. By lurching the Tory party to the right, Margret Thatcher killed of the National Front which had around 20,000 members in the mid-Seventies. For the popular Nationalists and the cosmopolitan romanticists, their vision is ultimately the same. State power is the same weather in the guise of glistening public works projects with distant completion dates or in the footsteps of hundreds of blue clad campaigners with ‘yes’ plastered across their chests.

The current  mire that the Labor and Tory party find themselves in will be temporary. With the full weight of the mass media and a hopelessly exclusive voting system the dominant party’s seat on the Westminster throne will be difficult to unseat. However I would also argue that for all of those invested in mainstream politics the contemporary mistrust of the establishment won’t improve much anytime soon. For this reason the effects of the Scottish vote and other communitarian movements will be limited. But it will be a similarly dismal outlook for the cosmopolite vanguard.


    1. So let them go.

      As a Scot living in England but visiting Scotland regularly I can confirm that most Scots are more naturally communitarian than the English and this is partly what is expressed in their nationalist sentiment. There are deep historical and cultural reasons underlying this dichotomy, including a larger and more resilient working class and the traditional egalitarianism of the Scottish church and education system.

      English nationalism, by way of contrast, is little more than a puny joke (and of course that’s how it should be).

      So if the Scots vote today to go off on their own to create a brave new nation based on a benevolently Stalinist state, let them go. With the ramped up benefit of oil revenues per head of population they might even have enough cash to make it work. For quite a while, at least.

      Needless to say, I want no part of this socialist Nirvana and find the whole project nauseating. It is no coincidence, in my view, that the most successful Scots have been those who have left Scotland.



  1. The Economist magazine is implying that there are two alternatives – actually there are three. It is NOT the case that we must either have “cosmopolitanism” (where people do not know their neighbours and each person is an “atomised” individual with nothing between him or her and the state) and modern Scots style statist communalism.

    There is also voluntary nonstatist community – civil society. Where voluntary associations and ordinary friendship (not the state) allow people to interact (not be “atomised”). But the Economist magazine (and people such as Mr Parris also) no longer even understand that this alternative exists. To them we are either all atomised individuals (with people who break down in such a nightmare world – dependent on a remote state controlled by “enlightened liberal experts”) or we are in compulsory “communities” (of communalism). The idea of normal life – of local clubs and societies (without any state direction – local or national) or people knowing their neighbours and having a lot in common with them……. All this (what someone like Warren Harding would have called “normalcy” and Edmund Burke would have called the “little platoons” of ordinary life) have become alien to the “liberal” elite.

    No wonder people such as Mr Parris and the Economist magazine also, support the European Union – they are as cut off from ordinary people and ordinary life as Francis Bacon of “The New Atlantis” was (at bottom all of this, rule by an “enlightened” elite, goes back to the Guardians of Plato).



    1. I definitely agree with your comment paul.

      However I did think that the cosmopolitan versus communal debate was an idea I had not picked upon before and thought it was worth commenting on. But yes ultimately the lack of attention most of the media and political class give to voluntary non statist society is rather tragic. This is ultimately why I am so pessimistic about Scotland- weather or not it becomes independant is not going to change much. Either vision will not help us wade out of the ideological swamp of 21st century Britain.



      1. Yes Jordan – I dread being trapped between two horrible alternatives.

        The rule of an “enlightened elite” (Economist magazine crowd – with their endless bank bailouts and global treaties), and mad little “communities” based on force and fear (not voluntary interaction).

        I do not want the FALSE liberalism of statist “cosmopolitanism” – and I do not want “The Wicker Man” either.

        It is like being on the Eastern Front and having to pick between the Nazis and the Soviets.

        I to fear for Scotland – but I fear for England also (already “ethnic nationalism” is bubbling).


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