‘The World is too much with us’: Scotland & Britain After the Referendum

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September 22, 2014 by Andrew W M Smith

The principal figures that emerged from the debate with their reputations enriched were not callous youths, but wizened campaigners. Salmond led a campaign that seemed to energise and undermine political engagement in equal measure. By drawing people into the Yes campaign, he created a surrogate for traditional civic institutions. Inclusivity drove engagement with the cause and activated a core of the electorate previously not well kent to the ballot box. The ‘45%’ cannot be merely a forum for sour grapes, nor a vehicle to pursue narrow old prejudice in a new vernacular (CF Jeanette Findlay’s trumpeting of Irish Republican slogans). Neither can those who voted No revel in a staid Britishness that equates Ulster with everything in life (CF the violence in George Square which marred the Referendum’s conclusion). Scotland is not Ireland, North nor South. The sooner that many recognise this notion, the better.

Perhaps the lesson of the campaign is that active participatory identity can be wrought from new institutions. If Britishness (and by that I mean the collective identity deriving from the union) is to thrive, it must have a participatory core. If there is no part to play, nor cause to contribute to, then there is no question that constructed identities can wither. Gordon Brown was the other figure that came alive during the Referendum debate. His impassioned speech on the eve of the decision was a genuine milestone. It seemed to me that his resolve rested on a belief in the strength of the Union and its potential to drive future engagement from all its constituent parts. He advocated a need to create, and not to destroy. He seemed to advocate a new participatory revolution arising from the constitutional debates that continue today. Playing a part in Britishness and Scottishness could rejuvenate these old national identities.

His speech to constituents on Friday morning showed that he will have a hugely important role in Scotland’s future. It looks as though he will remain an MP, though he looks every inch a candidate to contest the next Holyrood election at the head of Scottish Labour. Perhaps these things will change in time. Yet, for now, his words in Dalgety Bay offer a glimpse of the way forward. Brown outlined the means by which this divisive campaign could be driven forward. Crucially, the promised change (‘The Vow’) will be secured and guaranteed by interlocking commitments. Some have criticised the speed of these reforms, though this seems a result of impatience rather than reality. Wheels, it would seem, are turning. I was taught to drive by a former steel man from Ravenscraig, who told me that there were two ways to achieve something: the quick way, and the right way. Constitutional reform needs to be done correctly more than it needs to be done quickly.

In particular, Brown’s focus on civic institutions was an old solution to a new problem. His reading of the challenges of globalization is cogent and perceptive: there is much to be won and lost in modernity, but that development must be accented and controlled. As Wordsworth wrote, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers”. Independence was sought most strongly where the wages of modern economic trends have paid most poorly. The transformation Brown outlines is not new – de-industrialization is less a discovery than a lingering reality. Yet in towns like Glasgow and Dundee creativity and industry cannot be written off. The core of the Yes campaign lay in those that fostered a new active and creative engagement with national identity. Being Scotland, performing Scotland, and imagining Scotland were the motors that drove many to say Yes. These activities need not stop.

In many ways, this debate mirrors that of Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky in Germany over a century ago. They debated the merits between evolutionary and revolutionary change, seeking to win a progressive settlement for ordinary folk. Bernstein wrote in 1909:

“The point at issue is between the theory of a social cataclysm and the question whether, with the given social development in Germany and the present advanced state of its working classes in the towns and country, a sudden catastrophe would be desirable in the interest of social democracy. I have denied it and deny it again, because in my judgment a greater security for lasting success lies in a steady advance than in the possibilities offered by a catastrophic crash.

And as I am firmly convinced that important periods in the development of nations cannot be leapt over I lay the greatest value on the next tasks of social democracy, on the struggle for the political rights of the workingman, on the political activity of working men in town and country for the interests of their class, as well as on the work of the industrial organisation of the workers.”

The fact that 45 per cent of the electorate grasped for an ill-defined promise of change at any cost must be acknowledged. It must serve as the fulcrum on which to leverage change. Yet the desire for catastrophic change remains, and the onus is not on the disenchanted to disavow it. Brown counsels the renewal of civic engagement by the rejuvenation of old civic bonds. His riposte to a world that has become too worldly is to blow the wreathed horn of social solidarity. Rebuilding civic institutions in this air is the key to developing new politics. The world may be too much with us, but salvation does not lie with the ‘pagan suckled in a creed outworn’. Rather it lies in the constructive, imaginative space that the better angels of our nature have nurtured on across the debate. Change is a positive force, late and soon, it does not demand destruction.

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One thought on “‘The World is too much with us’: Scotland & Britain After the Referendum

  1. Correction – Brown’s speech was on Saturday morning, apologies!

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