The High Road

Scotland Debates the Commonweal

On the day Scotland was voting in a constitutional referendum on independence, I drove through the western part of the country to visit my sister in the hospital. Multiple sclerosis has deprived her of all mobility apart from a slight movement in her right hand. Yet she had insisted on putting the cross on the postal ballot paper herself. I wept with pride. I then drove on to Glasgow to see a friend, now in her eighties and still active in hosting seekers of asylum in her home and standing by them in court. She too had voted, walking down a steep hill to the polling station but needing a friendly agent to drive her home. On my way back to Edinburgh, a car drew alongside me, UK flags flying from its windows in support of a “No” vote. The smartly dressed young man in the rear passenger seat made an obscene gesture on seeing my “Yes” bumper sticker, which was my only way of declaring my support for independence that day, as a non-resident Scot without a vote. I cannot say it had the desired effect.

Scotland voted “No” to independence by 55 to 45 percent. But my referendum-day journey provides a clue to what was happening in Scotland in the summer of 2014. My sister in the hospital was not alone in her determination to vote: turnout was 85 percent. My friend of the friendless was not alone in her reasons for voting “Yes” to independence; for many “Yes” voters, the question was not one of nationalism or separation from the rest of the United Kingdom. It was about the kind of society Scotland wants to be in the twenty-first century, not least for the ill, the immigrant, and the poor. Independence was seen as a means to a greater end, a fairer society. And the obscene gesture from the young man on the highway? It was a rare episode of bad behavior in a campaign widely acknowledged as civil, peaceful, and celebratory, and remarkable for involving many thousands of people who had never before participated in public life or even registered to vote.

I witnessed this renaissance of democracy firsthand. In late May of this year I organized a civic-arts tour with some of the country’s leading artists, writers, and singers. Our “Bus Party” traveled around the smaller towns in poorer, more remote parts of Scotland in the run-up to the referendum, asking the question, “What kind of Scotland do you want?” Most of those on the bus supported independence, while others opposed it, but all strictly observed the Bus Party’s official position of neutrality, for the larger purpose of fostering dialogue with local communities through readings, music, and songs. Instead of expressing our own views on Scotland, we listened intently to the hopes and concerns of local people. Our hosts welcomed us into their community centers, arts centers, bookstores, parish churches, public libraries, even a public high school and an interfaith institute run by the Xaverian Missionaries, confident that we were there to perform and listen, not to campaign.

In that convivial atmosphere of cultural celebration and civil conversation, we invited people to record their thoughts on the future of Scotland on a long scroll of paper we carried from place to place. Our “Scroll of Thoughts” eventually stretched more than two hundred feet and recorded some four hundred contributions, each no more than a phrase but all pregnant with meaning. The scroll will be donated to the Scottish Political Archive as a historic document, capturing a country thinking aloud about a momentous decision at one moment in time.

What is striking about those comments is their consistency. They are all about public flourishing, not personal gain or loss. While the official “Yes” and “No” campaigns made much of whether people would be financially better or worse off with independence, the citizens we met across Scotland were concerned about something else: the common good—or, as we call it in the Scots language, the commonweal. Here is how the people we listened to described the sort of commonweal they want, compressed from their many thoughts into this one “Thought for Scotland”:

We want a confident, compassionate, caring, tolerant, diverse, rooted, outward, peaceful, energized, educated, enlightened, equal, sustainable Scotland without poverty, where hopes and dreams are realized, children fed and cherished, government is decent and dignified, all voices heard, all faiths welcomed, all parts belong, decision-making is local, people’s lives mirror the beauty of our landscape and no one is left behind.

Of course such statements can be dismissed as the Scottish equivalent of mom and apple pie—who wouldn’t want such a society? But that is to miss the point. These are the considered thoughts of a small nation in the face of the new politics of austerity in the larger United Kingdom. Rather than succumb to the UK government’s policies of welfare cuts for the poor and tax cuts for the rich, many Scots saw their independence vote as an opportunity to create a more equal economy and society through greater political autonomy.

 

THOUGH SCOTLAND DID NOT vote for independence, the question has not been settled. Scotland and England entered into a parliamentary union in 1707. Scotland retained a large measure of civic autonomy through its own legal system and national church while taking full advantage of the British Empire. It was not until the British state began to play a more intrusive role in Scottish society in the modern era that support for self-government within the United Kingdom grew. The end of empire and collapse of Scottish heavy industry accelerated this trend, culminating in a Scottish Parliament for domestic affairs in 1999. At that time the case for independence won only minority support. What then led to the 2014 referendum vote?

In 2007, the Scottish National Party (SNP), a self-styled “social democratic party committed to independence,” became the largest group in the Scottish Parliament. It proved so competent in government that it was re-elected with an absolute majority in 2011 on a manifesto that promised a referendum. To its great credit, the British government agreed to hold one. To their great disappointment, most Scots did not get their preferred option of more devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament on the ballot—the UK political parties could not agree on which powers to devolve. But, confronted by late polling showing a lead for “Yes,” UK party leaders hastily published a joint vow to implement a fast-track timetable for increased powers for the Scottish Parliament. Did the vow stop the summer surge for “Yes”? Perhaps, but initial analysis of these trends suggests “Yes” might have come much closer to winning had the vote been held just days later.

All along, the Unionist parties assumed they would win. Given the Tories’ deep unpopularity in Scotland, it fell to the Labour Party to defend the Union. It had a pragmatic reason for doing so: its Scottish members of Parliament swell the party’s ranks at Westminster. But Labour also argued on principle: The UK gave Scotland the best of both worlds, allowing it to share in the resources and enjoy the security of a larger state while running its own affairs. The most eloquent Labour voice was former prime minister Gordon Brown. Significantly, he made much of his Presbyterian roots and values as the moral source of his Scottish identity. Brown even quoted me in support of those principles, but not for long: John Calvin soon gave way to Calvin Klein as global celebrities were enlisted to plead with Scotland to stay in the UK.

However, the “No” campaign, rather than make a positive case for staying in the UK, stoked fear by emphasizing the economic risks of separation. The “No” party leaders adamantly rejected the Scottish National Party’s proposal of a currency union, in which the pound and a central bank would be shared with the rest of the UK, claiming it was unworkable. In turn, the Scottish government leader Alex Salmond stuck by his view that the “No” campaign was bluffing. A currency union would be conceded in negotiations after a “Yes” vote. One anonymous UK government minister admitted as much to the press. Yet almost all the Scottish media and senior business leaders used dire threats of currency chaos, rising costs, lost pensions, and relocated companies to oppose independence. A former Scottish head of NATO even warned a Washington think tank that the breakup of Britain would tip the world into the abyss. “No” campaign insiders called their strategy “Project Fear.” It is extraordinary that, despite all the fear-mongering, 1.6 million Scots nevertheless voted for independence. Why? The answer lies almost fifty years earlier.

In November 1967, I made my first political journey to the west of Scotland. As a teenager, I stayed up into the early hours to watch the result of a parliamentary by-election on television. In the rock-solid Labour seat of Hamilton, a young woman lawyer won a sensational victory for the Scottish National Party. Winnie Ewing’s campaign slogan for independence was “Stop the World, We Want to Get On.” She captured the zeitgeist of my generation; it was all of a piece with the images that tumbled onto my television screen a few months later in the fateful year of 1968: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Prague Spring that was followed by the Soviet invasion. A single idea linked these seemingly disconnected events: Ordinary citizens could change the world. Civil-rights campaigners, dissidents, women, and youth were all stopping the world to get on.

That world has now changed beyond recognition. The political order that prevailed from 1945 to the 1960s, with its mixed economy, welfare state, middle-class prosperity, and Cold War spheres of influence, has been replaced by globalization. Even for left-wing parties like Labour, the prevailing view is that the social liberalism of the ’60s must now be combined with the economic liberalism of the ’80s—free love meets the free market. This has resulted in some strange bedfellows. During his tenure as chancellor in charge of the British economy, Gordon Brown, a disciple of Christian socialism, brought Alan Greenspan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, to pay homage to Adam Smith in Smith’s native Kirkcaldy. Then, as prime minister, Brown promoted an American style of patriotism, but the reticent British body politic rejected his fly-the-flag approach. All the while, those civic activists of the 1960s kept on marching, through the movements against apartheid and for human rights, and eventually became today’s social entrepreneurs and green networkers. This time technology is on their side. Social media has allowed the millennial generation of younger citizens to create, communicate, and connect cheaply, swiftly, and widely. All of this came together in Scotland in the summer of 2014, turning the country into a festival of democracy.

 

MY REFERENDEUM JOURNEY from May to September impressed on me three new features of this changed Scottish political landscape. First, thousands of young people, women, and residents of poorer communities have discovered their own public voice and political agency, largely through the “Yes” campaign and its self-organizing networks. These were not core nationalist supporters of the SNP. Independence for them was about solidarity at the grassroots, not seats at the United Nations. The Glasgow I drove through on Referendum Day, for example, was festooned with “Yes” posters. This postindustrial city has the highest levels of poverty in Scotland. It is also one of only four local government areas that voted “Yes.” They all have a similar economic and social profile. The poor voted for change, while the prosperous voted for the status quo. This Scottish summer of active citizenship will continue. The networks of women and artists for independence have not closed down with the “No” vote, but see the result as a fresh opportunity for creative forms of political engagement. The pro-independence parties have all seen vast increases in membership since the referendum. The UK parties are under pressure to deliver on their vow to give Scotland more autonomy. As one local community activist said to us on our bus tour: “The genie’s out the bottle and it’s not going back!”

Second, the language of the common good and the commonweal is now part of the everyday vocabulary of politics and public discourse in Scotland. The Scottish Catholic archbishops called on the faithful to vote as conscience guided but always for the sake of the common good. The popular currency of this key term in Catholic social teaching was boosted by a secular initiative during the referendum. The Common Weal think tank generated policy papers and discussion forums that looked to the Scandinavian model of social democracy as the way to a more equal and prosperous Scotland. It was seen as a working alternative to the failed neoliberal model adopted by successive New Labour and Conservative governments. The question of whether Scotland is actually more egalitarian than the rest of the UK was hotly debated. Some commentators argued that it is a myth fostered to maintain the position of a Scottish establishment that hides its own interests behind that virtuous façade. With the continuing resurgence of grassroots politics, there is now a chance that our debates on the common good will involve ordinary citizens and not just the usual suspects, the institutional leaders and lobbying groups of Scottish civil society.

Finally, the referendum has seen the political coming of age of the Catholic community in Scotland. Given the central role of the medieval church in creating an independent Scottish nation, this may seem a strange statement to make. However, the largely immigrant church of the modern era had reason to feel ambivalent about a Protestant Scotland that discriminated against Catholics as recently as the 1970s. My drive-by antagonist is its lingering shadow. Full equality of opportunity in a more secular Scotland has removed that ambivalence to the point where Scottish Catholics now support independence by a greater percentage than members of Protestant denominations. This historic shift found public expression in two iconic ways during the referendum. A full-page advertisement was taken out in a national newspaper by “a cross-section of the Scottish Catholic community,” declaring: “We believe a ‘Yes’ vote in this week’s referendum makes possible a more socially just Scotland.” This statement by prominent lay Catholics, parish clergy, and religious reinforced comments made by Scotland’s premier historian and leading Catholic public intellectual, Sir Tom Devine. He broke his scholarly silence on such questions—“The future is not my period”—and declared himself a “Yes” voter in the final weeks of the campaign. A lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, like many Scots from an Irish Catholic immigrant background, Devine rocked the country with his announcement. As he said in my hearing, it may have cost him his friendship with Gordon Brown. Such personal loss must be set against the public gain of a pluralist nation.

Drama was an important part of our Bus Party tour, with the playwright David Greig on board, reading from his internationally renowned work. He stands in the tradition of Scottish drama that goes back to his namesake, Sir David Lindsay. This late medieval courtier and lay Catholic reformer wrote a morality play that wittily exposed corruption in church and state, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. The main character is an everyman who steps onstage to condemn the oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful. His name is none other than John the Commonweal. In the summer of 2014, his successor stepped onto the public stage in Scotland. She shows no sign of leaving. She is my sister. She is my friend. She is Jean the Commonweal. The future is now in her hands. 

Published in the November 14, 2014 issue: 

William Storrar is a minister of the Church of Scotland, and a visiting professor in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

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