Joyce McMillan: Democracy will be the real winner

As Yes climbs in the polls, panicked reactions from politicians and business must not dampen the desire for change, writes Joyce McMillan

Better Together campaigners are joined by 100 Labour MPs for a march through Glasgow. Picture: Wattie Cheung
Better Together campaigners are joined by 100 Labour MPs for a march through Glasgow. Picture: Wattie Cheung

The final week of the referendum campaign; and predictably the big guns of the Union swivel their axes, and point firmly at the Yes campaign that has been animating and transforming Scottish politics over the last two years. That the guns are big is not in doubt. They include the whole might of the City of London, which is said to have briefly knocked billions off the value of Scottish-based companies overnight after the publication of last weekend’s opinion poll showing the Yes camp inching ahead. They include various business leaders from companies such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, John Lewis, and BP.

And, of course, they include the UK’s three main political parties, now panicking at the thought of “losing” Scotland, and dispatching their leaders north of the Border to beg, cajole, and persuade. Their talk of risk, and of cataclysmic disruption, is frightening stuff, without a doubt. And there’s no question that as the referendum debate comes down to the wire, many voters – perhaps a majority – will opt for what looks like the safer option of “no change”.

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Look more deeply into the detail of the referendum campaign, though, and it soon becomes clear just why, in the end, a narrow No vote next Thursday will resolve little or nothing in the politics of these islands. That the forces rolled out to defend the Union this week still have massive power is not in doubt; but the problem is that in almost every case, their power is increasingly seen as brittle, discredited, and out of touch with the people.

At one end of this rogues’ gallery there are the Westminster party leaders, who clearly have both a right and a duty to take part in the debate, as elected representatives of the British people. The Prime Minister is the best of them; when it comes to arguing for the Union he sounds genuinely upset at the idea of Scotland’s departure, and avoids scaremongering in favour of love-bombing.

Even David Cameron, though, seems unable to grasp the fundamental insult entailed in Westminster’s bizarre decision to start talking about “devolution max” and federalism just ten days before the referendum, when the Union parties have had three full years to put a credible plan on the table, and indeed onto the ballot paper.

The Prime Minister talks about the ties that bind the Union, in other words, but heads a government and a parliament that barely seems to register Scotland’s existence, except at those rare moments when we threaten the Union with imminent extinction; and to say that this is no way to run a mature and functioning democracy is to understate the case.

The truth is that over the last generation, Westminster has become increasingly unrepresentative of anyone except a narrow caste of career politicians; has become steadily more dependent on funding by wealthy individuals and corporations; has – as a consequence – largely ceased to offer a real political choice between neo-liberal orthodoxy and other approaches to creating a good society; and has been found guilty of spectacular levels of greed and corruption in relation to its own expenses system.

None of these problems will be dispelled by the outcome of next week’s referendum; and if they are not dealt with discontent with Westminster can only continue to increase, in every nation and region that remains part of the United Kingdom.

And then, heaven help us, we have the voices of major commerce and industry, many of them part of that staggeringly ill-managed financial sector which brought to us all the cataclysmic financial crash of 2008. Now, of course, the fact that a previous management of the Royal Bank of Scotland displayed ineptitude and greed on a world-beating scale does not mean that we should ignore the words of the current chief executive, Ross McEwan.

However, even if he had said that he intended to move all of RBS’s head office activities away from Scotland – and in fact he said nothing of the sort – there are questions to be asked about how far we should allow our decisions on Scotland’s future to be shaped by the representatives of what is essentially a failed financial system, now propped up only by taxpayer subsidy taken out of our own pockets.

And not only are those structures still in place six years on, but they are still seeking to impose their failed ideology on ever-larger swathes of the planet. The next scheme, courtesy of global corporate lobbying, is the so-called TTIP, or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an imminent EU/US deal which will effectively forbid governments from running public services, and force them – regardless of the views of voters – to open up all services, including the NHS, for commercial exploitation.

And this is the paradox at the heart of the referendum debate, as we reach its final hours. On one hand, we are told of what are clearly real economic risks associated with independence. Yet, on the other, we cannot help but be aware that those risks are often being imposed, and even engineered, by corporations and structures whose power needs to be challenged – thoroughly, bravely and soon – if democracy is to have any chance of surviving and thriving in the 21st century.

To vote Yes next Thursday, in the spirit of the remarkable grassroots campaign for re-empowerment that has swept Scotland over the last year, is to throw down that challenge and to accept the consequences, whatever they may be.

Even a No vote, though, will only briefly deflect the huge issues of democracy and legitimacy that have brought us to this political moment.

Today, the people who gave us the 2008 crash are still with us, still promoting ever more grotesque levels of inequality, still buying up our political representatives, and still skewing our public debate towards the demands of the hyper-rich.

And over the next decade – whether or not people get the result they want next Thursday – these questions of legitimacy will return to haunt our new elites, again and again.

For as the Scottish referendum campaign has shown, their narrow priorities no longer even begin to match the rich, varied, complex and convivial aspirations of the people; and sooner or later, at Westminster, Holyrood, or both, that truth will out.