Scotland’s independence vote has been cast, and its citizens chose overwhelmingly to remain part of Great Britain. But this historic vote should be studied by all those who want to affect political and economic change around the world, because there are important lessons to be learned. They include:
1. Strength and unity are needed to resist the growing power of large corporations.
This is the point Robert Reich was making when he made the following Facebook comments about the upcoming Scottish vote:
“The only real beneficiaries will be large global corporations. They’ll have more bargaining leverage over a separate Scotland. Global corporations like separatism and ‘devolution’ (a fancy term for pushing responsibility down to state, regional, or provincial governments) because both allow them to play governments against each other with ever bigger tax breaks, subsidies, and favorable regulations. In the United States, for example, states are in a frenzy of corporate gift-giving to attract and keep corporations and jobs.”
That’s Takeaway #1: “Divide and conquer” has been an increasingly successful corporate strategy. But it’s equally important not to overlook some other factors at play here.
2. Large democracies are increasingly beholden to corporate interests.
The problem with the first conclusion, as accurate as it is, is that the inverse is also true. Large electoral governments like those of the United States and Great Britain are increasingly governed by politicians who serve corporate interests and the wealthy.
Here is the US, a landmark study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded that our government is almost entirely responsive to the wishes of the ‘oligarchical’ class, to the exclusion of the majority’s will. (Unless, of course, that will coincides with that of the elites.)
As a result, there have been many cases where neither party has advocated policies which are in the economic interests and wishes of the majority. Whether it’s expansion of Social Security, prosecutions of crooked bankers, a higher minimum wage, labor rights, increasing millionaire and corporate taxes, job creation – there are dozens of ways in which the majority’s will is being thwarted by a two-party consensus which shuts out certain policies that serve the majority
In Great Britain, the Labour Party’s tack to the right – spearheaded by Tony Blair, first touted as “Britain’s Bill Clinton” – has led to a similar situation. Takeaway #2, therefore, is that we must learn how to resist the “divide and conquer” approach without succumbing to cumbersome electoral processes driven by expensive large-market “media buys” and other cost-intensive features that freeze out ordinary voters.
Publicly-funded elections would be the ideal solution.
3. We must reconcile identity politics with the need to act collectively against the forces of global corporatization and accumulation of wealth.
In the age of wealth concentration which Thomas Piketty described so well, together with the rising impulse toward new forms of self-identification, we may need a new version of the old slogan: “Think globally, act locally.”
The new version? “Think locally, act globally.”
Identity politics is a growing force worldwide – and in US politics, especially with “the rising American electorate” and the fracturing off of anti-Federal, Tea Party “red state” voters on the right.
The Scots who voted for independence were expressing both pride in their heritage and a desire for self-determination. Older leftists were and are naturally sympathetic to the impulse, since it drove most of the major anti-colonial movements of the 20th Century.
Reich also wrote this about Scotland:
“We are witnessing a reversion to tribalism around the world – in which language, religion, blood, and belief take prominence over nation states, which have grown less relevant as technology connects everyone and everything. America’s new tribalism is seen most distinctly in politics, with one tribe (liberals, progressives, and Democrats) holding sharply different views and values than the other (conservatives, Tea Partiers, and Republicans) … If Scotland can separate from England, will blue and red America eventually separate from each other?”
Some people may find this idea attractive, but the result could be chaos, oppression of minorities, and even crueler forms of economic injustice.
But, while “tribalism” is bad, the desire to control one’s own destiny is not. Tribalism is the perversion of this impulse, and its domination by dark and negative influences. It’s true that we must learn to address key issues on broader national and global scales. But the search for individual and collective identity is a basic human instinct, and it contains much that is positive and affirming.
Takeaway #3: We need to reconcile the natural human desire for autonomy with the need to think and act on a large scale. Which gets us to the next point …
4. The Scottish independence movement appears to have achieved a major victory.
In order to stave off a secession vote, the leaders of all three British parties pledge to do more for Scotland. As a result, we will hear much about “devolution” in the weeks and months to come. That’s the model in which regions are granted additional autonomy in return for remaining part of a larger nation-state as an economic and political entity.
It’s possible that these leaders will renege on their promises, of course. But, assuming they don’t, Great Britain may soon lead the globe in finding new ways to reconcile local autonomy with national unity. Developments there should be followed closely, as they will have a large impact on the future of the “think locally, act globally” movement.
5. Global elites have failed — and they’re worried.
Neil Irwin makes this observation in the New York Times:
“Scotland’s push for independence is driven by a conviction — one not ungrounded in reality — that the British ruling class has blundered through the last couple of decades. The same discontent applies to varying degrees in the United States and, especially, the Eurozone. It is, in many ways, a defining feature of our time.”
It’s an excellent point. We’ve a rapidly increasing globalization of the economy, together with an increasing economic and political dominance of individual nation-states by plutocratic elites. As a result, discontent with the status quo is rising.
This discontent has not cohered into a broader trend the way that resentment of colonialism did in the 19th and 20th centuries — at least not yet. The end result is therefore still unknown. It could lead to a balanced, positive outcome, as may prove to the case in Scotland. It could also lead to extended periods of instability, xenophobia, and demagogic political movement.
The Western political consensus which has served global elites so well is breaking down. The question is, What will replace it? Powerful people are clearly concerned. Otherwise we wouldn’t have seen all three British political parties responding in unison. But what comes next?
6. People vote when they feel they have a say in their own destiny.
The United States has historically experienced low voter turnout, with roughly 60 percent of those eligible voting in Presidential elections and roughly 40 percent participating in off-year Congressional votes.
Scotland had seen its voter participation rate fall to near-US levels in recent decades, especially for European Parliament votes. But with an estimated 85 percent of the electorate participating in this vote, it’s clear that people will come to the polls if they feel that the election will have an impact on their own destiny.
In a year when voter outcome could decide the shape of our national government, that’s a takeaway which all politicians – and Democratic ones in particular – should consider carefully. Can they convince voters that the outcome of November’s election will affect their lives in a real and personal way?