On Thursday, voters will decide whether Scotland will secede from the rest of the UK — a union that has lasted several hundred years. Although this doesn’t seem too important for people outside the UK, there is the potential for great change (or disaster?) following the outcome of the poll.
While some South Africans have (rightly) been fretting about Thuli Madonsela (and the Stalinist attempts to quash her role in affirming our democracy) or Oscar Pistorius, I have been glued to the British broadsheets and dailies. There are very few moments in the history of the modern world where such powerful displays of democracy have taken place. For South Africa, April 27 1994 was one such moment. September 18 is Scotland’s contribution to the history of bold exercises in democracy.
Scotland’s referendum isn’t about political parties. People from across the political spectrum will be asked to vote “yes/no”, and the respective campaigns have managed to draw support from all corners. I dare say that Scotland’s vote is far more affirming of democracy than traditional elections because it is breaking down political barriers and inviting people to make a decision about the future of their country.
But how does Scotland’s vote affect us? And why should South Africans care?
1) “Economic doom”
The economic prophets of doom have already stated that the ripple-effects of an economically and politically free Scotland could be devastating on the world’s economy, with some suggesting it would lead to a second Great Depression.
But this statement is problematic because it recognises capital as more important than the democratic choice of voters. (For all its faults, the Enlightenment didn’t promise us “life, liberty and profits” — sometimes I think the economists forget that.) It would have been outrageous for people to suggest that South Africa’s transition to democracy be postponed to suit the market. Similarly, the democratic right of Scots to choose their own future ought not to be based on economic forecasts, which are, at the best of times, alchemic, uncertain and hardly set in stone.
2) A different world?
Scottish voters tend to be far more left-leaning than their counterparts in the rest of the UK, with the overwhelming majority of members of parliament elected from Scottish constituencies being Labour Party members. An independent Scotland has the potential to pursue domestic policy that challenges the UK government’s insistence on austerity and budget cuts (something that has become standard practice across the globe). In other words, an independent Scotland could challenge the economic status quo.
Moreover, an independent Scotland could serve as a progressive voice in Europe, at the UN and beyond. The unipolar political voices that have promised so much but only delivered us successive economic crises, the resurgence of political violence, and growing religious fundamentalism ala-Isis, could be challenged by Scotland’s independence. This would allow for a new plurality of global political and economic voices.
The global consensus, with its uniform analysis and policy, can certainly be challenged by a small nation that stands up to it — through democracy, no less! British writer George Monbiot argues: “If Scotland becomes independent, it will be despite the efforts of almost the entire UK establishment. It will be because social media has defeated the corporate media. It will be a victory for citizens over the Westminster machine, for shoes over helicopters. It will show that a sufficiently inspiring idea can cut through bribes and blackmail, through threats and fear-mongering. That hope, marginalised at first, can spread across a nation, defying all attempts to suppress it.”
As Monbiot points out, Scotland’s potential independence could be a major blow to the establishment. This could be a great opportunity for more voices to be added to the debate about how the world works — something that can only benefits us. And if Scottish independence succeeds, it could serve as a blueprint for greater citizen participation and democratic activism against the parts of the system that just aren’t working in other countries.
On September 19 we might just wake up to a different world — one with a new nation that challenged the very basis of its relationship with the rest of the world.
It might just be the best story you’ll hear all week with Isis and Ebola dominating the headlines, and economic prospects not looking up.