I’m not one to get excited about anything these days but I am starting to get the odd tingle about the independence referendum in Scotland. Momentum currently lies with the Yes campaign, and Britain’s establishment is now in line for what we Ulster Scots speakers call “a quare gunk”, that is, a most unexpected and unwelcome surprise.
From this side of the Irish Sea it’s hard not to look on with envy at a referendum campaign that has democratic empowerment as its main concern instead of subjection to neoliberal rule, a referendum that stems from genuine popular initiative rather than dictates from on high. A referendum where the momentum lies with the side concerned with preserving the public institutions that deliver a decent quality of life, not destroying them. And, by contrast with the recent Fiscal Treaty referendum in Ireland, the momentum on the Yes side seems driven by optimism and a sense of possibility of a better country, rather than fear and resignation.
The No campaign in Scotland’s independence referendum has dealt in plenty of the same tactics used here in Ireland, presaging catastrophe, isolation and an upsurge in racist atavism and nativist nationalism. But it hasn’t worked. It’s all too obvious now to many Yes voters that Westminster politicians do not represent them. The sudden surge of concern for their interests and the sentimental drooling about cherished common bonds fail to convince because decades of neglect tell a far truer story.
In a recent piece in the Guardian, Douglas Alexander, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, said that the Yes campaign had valued attacked Alex Salmond as being worse than Thatcher in the way he had ‘divided our nation’, and calling for rejection of ‘a politics of grievance and blame’. Again, distinct echoes here of the approach taken by Ireland’s political and media establishments in successive referendum votes on Europe. But this has little purchase with disillusioned Old Labour voters in Scotland, and none at all with young people from deprived areas who are voting for the first time. The life experiences are different and so is the scope of the referendum.
The political credibility of the British State is lower than I can ever remember it, and I don’t see how Humpty can be put together again. All of the three main parties at Westminster are so severed from the real life experiences of ordinary people in Scotland, and so entwined with the priorities of the City and big business, that no amount of manoeuvring on devolution is likely to prove satisfactory in the long term. The blue of Scotland is still on the Union Jack, but the flag looks different now.
The response from official Ireland so far is silence. It is hard to know what it is thinking, if we can concede that it thinks. If people in the North, whether unionist or nationalist, feel they have a lot in common with people in Scotland, Dublin is more inclined to cast its eyes towards London. Official Ireland may be more concerned with the prospect of the UK leaving the European Union than the implications Scottish independence might have for politics in Ireland. Even if the end result is a No, and that appears less likely as days pass, a moment of rupture seems to have happened.
And I think the implications of that for Ireland north and south are immense. Consider the outlook of Northern unionists. If you ever get into a debate with an Ulster unionist on the point of the United Kingdom, you may find that their argument doesn’t add up to much.
Few nowadays are likely to say that they want Northern Ireland to be part of the UK because they don’t want to be ruled by Rome. Not too many, beyond Orange Order brethren will refer to civil and religious liberties either. They are more likely to argue a purely conservative case (changing things will only make it worse), a largely nonsensical economic case that it is good to be part of a large national economy (as if everyone living in large economies lived more prosperous lives than anyone in smaller economies, and as if Northern Ireland were not an economic basket case), or, what I think most likely nowadays, a cultural and identitarian argument. To wit: we unionists feel a special affinity with the rest of the UK, and we do not want to see that endangered or diluted in any way.
A large part of the time this argument is couched in the same glittering generalities about ‘Britishness’ that issue from the two main neoliberal parties in Britain: Labour and the Tories. Crucially, however, it is the bond with Scotland in particular, because it is so close geographically and because of the historic links and also because, well, the people there are recognisably similar to people in Northern Ireland in many respects, that lends weight to this cultural argument. These cultural arguments are an effective substitute for any sort of political argument, any detailed consideration of just what kind of society you aspire to live in. And this is fine for people who want the neoliberal status quo.
But what happens when the weight of the cultural argument -and I’m not just talking about hypothetical debates here but rather the things unionists tell themselves about who they are- suddenly dissipates? That is what would happen if Scotland voted for independence, and even if it doesn’t, it will happen to some degree anyway. Would the unionist mindset become more like that of people in Gibraltar? What kind of flags would get flown from Belfast City Hall if the blue of Scotland no longer figures on the union ensign? How would this affect the relation between the unionist parties and their electorate? Just what is it that the unionist parties would now claim to preserve and protect? Would this not be the end of Ulster unionism as we have known it?
And what about Irish republicanism and nationalism? I get the feeling that Scots independence in and of itself will change the complexion of how republican and nationalist arguments are made. All the main parties in the south say they want Irish unification, but based on consent and guided by the assumption that you have a million or so unionists who under no circumstances want unification, and therefore the matter must be eternally put on the long finger because 50+1% in the North is assumed to be an intensely volatile state of affairs. The threat of a return to the dark days of the past is a control mechanism used to maintain the status quo. That is why both Ian Paisley Jr and Lucinda Creighton have voiced it in recent days. But what happens if unionists can no longer be the unionists they once were?
Well, given that what has been foremost in the Scots independence campaign has not been exclusivist tribalism but democratisation and the sense of possibility that comes with people debating and deciding matters of life in common for themselves rather than allowing career politicians to do it for them, and given the likely absence of such volatility in the Scottish example, and given a large chunk of unionism’s raison d’être falling away as I sketch out above, doesn’t that empty the southern parties’ all-Ireland nationalism of any credible content? To put it another way, doesn’t it inevitably undermine the cultural-identitarian character of Irish nationalism and clear the way for a debate about the kind of political institutions and the kind of society that people on the island need and actually want?
In sum I think the prospect of Scots independence is a major opportunity for a more democratic political regime in Ireland. Whether people know how to seize it is another matter entirely.