On 18 September voters in Scotland will choose whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom or becomes an independent country. I am approaching this choice from the perspective of how best to democratise political and economic power and for me, the past 40 years of British politics and the recent financial crisis informs this choice. During this period the UK has undergone a massive transformation in the architecture of political and economic power.
As James Meek argues in his new book, Private Island. Why Britain now belongs to someone else, in a little over a generation the bones and sinews of the British economy – rail, energy, water, postal services, municipal housing – have been sold to remote, unaccountable private owners. In a long essay in the Guardian on Friday, Meek argues that,
“By packaging British citizens up and selling them, sector by sector, to investors, the government makes it possible to keep traditional taxes low or even cut them. By moving from a system where public services are supported by progressive general taxation to a system where they are supported exclusively by the flat fees people pay to use them, they move from a system where the rich are obliged to help the poor to a system where the less well-off enable services that the rich get for what is, to them, a trifling sum. The commodity that makes water and power cables and airports valuable to an investor, foreign or otherwise, is the people who have no choice but to use them. We have no choice but to pay the price the toll-keepers charge. We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here.”
All of this was forecast by Jimmy Reid in his famous rectorial address – Alienation – in 1972.
“Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. it is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. it is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies. Many may not have rationalised it; may not even understand, may not be able to articulate it. But they feel it.” (1)
Little has changed. Were Jimmy Reid to be alive today, much of his diagnosis would still stand. Despite the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the much good work it has done, the bigger picture remains one of elite capture of the democratic process, the alienation of the citizen, the cynicism of the ruling class and the impoverishment of the public realm. The threadbare democracy that passes for the UK Parliament is now in terminal decline – in hock to the hopes, fears, aspirations and prejudices of small numbers of voters in marginal constituencies. The ambitions and policies of the main political parties are now compromised by this narrowing of this bandwidth of political discourse.
In the film Scotland Yet a succession of speakers lament the failure of the Labour Government of 1997-2010 to use its majority to democratise Britain – to abolish the House of Lords, the aristocracy and the Monarchy, introduce a fair voting system, decentralise governance, and democratise the economy. Instead, the UK continued on a path where political and economic power is now no longer in the hands of the people but is exercised instead by unaccountable private interests of the kind identified by James Meek. The UK is now the most unequal country in the EU as the graph below illustrates (source: Eurostat Bulletin 29/2014).
In December 2011, at an EU summit in Brussels, the UK refused to back a new EU treaty to enshrine new rules on deficits and debt to chart a course out of the Eurozone crisis. As the novelist, Ian Rankin, noted in an acerbic tweet, the City of London exerts a disproportionate influence in political choices.
I believe in the capacity of people and communities to organise themselves in a manner that best addresses their needs. This potential has, for decades been crushed and demeaned by those who, on sunny days, pose as reforming politicians.
Readers of this blog will know of my interest in democratising land, the economy and society. These goals are what inform my choice on 18 September.
The referendum campaign, as highlighted in the Scotland Yet film, has energised wide swathes of the electorate. Whatever way the vote goes, this desire to play a more active role in how we are governed will not die. But there is a danger it may slowly wither away.
I want a Scotland with radically greater democratic control of land, economic affairs and politics. But I have no great faith in the state to deliver this. The nation-state is a relatively modern invention and, as I highlighted at the outset, it is increasingly irrelevant to the challenges we face in communities and around the world. Indeed, it could be argued that, given the ease with which it can be captured, it is actively hostile to genuine democracy.
And that is why the choice of yes or no doesn’t adequately addresses the great challenges of our time – peace, environmental degradation, human rights and social justice. The era of the nation state is, in my view over. It is a redundant idea. But it is not going to disappear in a hurry and thus I am interested in any opportunity that provides an opportunity to completely rethinking governance.
In an ideal world I want to see power located at a local level with authority for confederal relationships at regional and national levels being derived from the people themselves rather than through the apparatus of state power. These ideas are encapsulated in the political theories of libertarian municipalism and democratic confederalism. (2)
Confederalism, in particular, is a far more realistic framework within which challenges such as climate change can be addressed since it proceeds from the principle of co-operation and mutual interests rather than individual state interests. In the medium term, the future for the British Isles is in strong confederal relationships. Ditto for Europe and the world.
But confederalism is not on the ballot paper on September 18th. The choice is a binary one between independence and the status quo. It has become clear to me that the means by which to build a society within which economic and gender inequality can be reduced, where citizens can be empowered, and accountable, efficient and democratic organs of governance created – is by voting yes.
It should not need stated, of course, that such ambitions are not guaranteed by voting yes. But it is more likely that they can be advanced with the powers of independence than by sticking with the corrupted state that calls itself the UK. The only way to tap the energy that has emerged during this campaign is to provide it with the channels along which it can flow freely.
That is why I will be voting yes.
(1) Alienation. Glasgow University Rectorial Address by Jimmy Reid, 1972. Copy here (1.3Mb pdf)