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Thank you Scotland - and, hold your nerve

If the world could only follow Scotland's example, peace would break out and democracy would spread. The powerful are terrified.

Dear Scottish voters,

I am starting this letter to you the day after a poll suggested for the first time that most of you will endorse independence. For reasons I will come to, I still assume that you will vote No, though hoping very much it will be Yes. But I want to express my gratitude in advance for everything that you are doing to make my own country, England, a better place. Not that this should be your first concern!

Thanks to you, some terrific things are taking place. By the simple act of your discussing carefully and seriously your membership of the Westminster system you have done more than show up its all too familiar decay. It is not news that its resonant tones of self-importance sound profound only because they reverberate in the echo chamber of their own hollowness (Boris Johnson’s blather in today’s Telegraph is a perfect example). What is unprecedented is the contrast between Westminster’s bombast and your local meetings and debates. These are telling all of us that we don’t have to be resigned to its empty fulminations and it really is possible to escape the old regime. That British regime's representatives and pollsters have been telling us for years that lack of participation, falling turnout, abstention and loss of trust are a ‘growing problem’. Here you are heading for an eighty per cent turnout after massive participation and engagement on both sides of the argument, and oh my God, panic stations! It was not meant to be like this. For Westminster’s leaders your opportunity to participate was supposed to mean: to doff your cap, tidy your kilt and kiss their arse.

Historically, people across Britain worshipped parliament. When it spoke, the world listened. It meant something. And therefore enhanced us all who were represented by it. Now, it diminishes us. What kind of assembly abolishes its keynote, defining forum, Prime Ministers Questions, to scrabble off because voters want to reject its rule? All this illustrates is a collapse of self-belief, not self-confidence.

In his sensational resignation from the Conservative Party, to join UKIP and force a by-election, Douglas Carswell MP said:

“they talk the talk before elections. They say what they feel they must say when they want our support. But… they never actually make it happen…. They seek every great office, yet believe in so little…. They don't think things through. They make one glib announcement after another – and then move on…. It's all about not changing things”.

That last judgment which I have emphasised made him quit the Tories. I have been privileged to meet him and read his book, The Plan. He is exceptional for an MP not only because he honestly means what he says (there are quite a few with integrity even if this disqualifies most of them from the front benches) but also because in a restless way Carswell trusts voters and wants people to decide things for themselves. Maverick alert! In today’s Westminster such conviction confines you to the realm of protest.

On 18 September you, however, have earned the chance to really decide something in the calm of the voting booth. It has been a huge achievement to get to this point. The fact that you have seen through the “glib announcements” shows the rest of us across the UK that given the chance we too, "the regular folk "as Obama calls us, can take possession of our politics. I envy you your opportunity.

Your dignified process also shows up the role of the London papers, now describing your deliberations in hysterical terms. To be sure, the attack dogs of the London tabloids are rude about Parliament too. The Sun and the other Murdoch papers, as well as the Mail, the Telegraph and their Sunday sisters, all assault the Commons for its corruption. Yet they trade on its weakness like parasites, contributing to its illusions with their own pretension that they represent free speech not corporate power. Had the press been true critics of Westminster they’d welcome the actual prospect of your blowing the whistle on its charivari. At the very least they would be hugely sympathetic. Instead, the media are an integral part of the British political class, sharing the same panic and rage at the possibility that you might say, "Thank you very much but no thanks", and walk away to become (but please do not use the word too much in our company) a democracy. What horror is that?

Even better, after three hundred years, you have finally elevated the principle of self-government into British politics. True, you might be intimidated into rejecting it over the next ten days, in the name of wisdom naturally. But it has arrived back in these lands – yours and mine – of its seventeenth century birthplace.

The reason we don’t like going on about democracy down here in England is that the British version of democracy is something our elite manages for us on our behalf, i.e. it is not democracy at all. As Enoch Powell told the Guardian back in 1982, “If you… put us into the jar labeled ‘Democracy’ I can’t complain: I can only tell you that you have understood very little about the United Kingdom”.

The absence of any democratic spirit of self-government in the 'British case’ hovers over Alistair Darling's argument for the ‘No’ campaign. The feeling that he has suffered from charisma extraction isn’t personal. There is no hope in the ‘No’ message, no sense of taking the future into our own hands in so far as we can. The only judgment it can call for is to leave making judgment to others. Even everyday risk minimisation has a greater sense of adventure about it than the ‘No’ campaign, for it is about taking risks. The ‘No’ campaign simply stress how unwise it is to take any ‘risk’ whatsoever with independence. “Who knows what will happen?”, Darling complained, as if the Westminster state he wants you to remain governed by was far-sighted. Whereas, of course, tying yourself to the British state with its enormous trade gap and towering debts carries its own special risk of pension default and the property bubble bursting. If the ‘Yes’ campaign wanted to go negative it could point out that so far as the UK is concerned the safer course is to get out when you still can.

The other peculiarity of Alistair Darling’s rhetoric that contributes to its psychic lethargy is the unspoken concession that lies at its heart, as unspoken as the admission that being governed by another country is the best that can be hoped for. Making risk the main drawback concedes that the outcome would be desirable without it. "It’s the Promised Land!", says Moses. "Watch out we may drown in the River Jordan" says Darling in reply. But note, he does not deny it is the Promised Land. If you are not obsessed with being part of a great power, as Gordon Brown is, it would be very nice for Scotland to govern itself. If it is ready to do so, if you can be confident of the benefits.

Which brings us to the heart of the argument. Can Scotland flourish as an independent country within the EU, trading with England and the wider world, taking in students to its famous universities, selling oil, and attracting investment? Of course it can. There is no doubt about it. It does not even need North Sea Oil to be as good as many other countries roughly its size, provided, that is, the rest of us said, ‘Good luck to you’. Here is the proof. What would the referendum outcome be if Westminster says that if Yes is the choice of the Scottish people then of course we will help make it a success? And at the same time if the EU says what an honour it would be to have Scotland as a member just like Slovakia, should it ask? And if the international institutions that went out of their way to embrace the small countries of the old Soviet bloc offer the same facility to Scotland? Obviously, if the world was happy to welcome an inventive, new yet experienced nation state, there would be no question of its success.

The risk that Darling and the ‘No’ campaign are channeling is entirely a risk created by the wider world to frighten Scotland into saying ‘No’. All of the problems it poses are easily solved.

So what’s up with the world?

In June, Ben Riley-Smith, the Telegraph’s Political Reporter, wrote, “Alex Salmond suffered another rebuttal on the world stage on Tuesday after China’s premier became the latest international leader to urge Scots to reject independence.” He continued, “The comments come just days after Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both urged Scots to reject separation and Pope Francis said that 'all division' worried him”. (The Pope was a touch more nuanced than the Americans as the Vatican had supported the break up of Yugoslavia when it suited the Catholic agenda).

Obama’s advisors had apparently debated whether he should speak out, and thought it best for him to add, “ultimately these are decisions that are to be made by the folks there", to forestall a backlash. Despite the point made by Salmond, that with Scotland independent, America would have two good “friends and allies" in place of one, the USA made its mark. Naturally, he was following in the footsteps of a bolder leader. President Putin has been asked in January about Scotland’s decision. "I believe that one should not forget that being part of a single strong state has some advantages and one should not overlook this”, which according to the Spectator means, he made it clear with his ‘single strong state’ remarks that he favoured the unionist side. Apparently, Itar-Tass reported that "Putin’s intervention was indeed prompted by a request from people in the UK Government”. They had also pleaded with Obama.

The EU President Jose Manuel Barroso, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to join the EU, citing the case of Kosovo (and forgetting the more relevant history of its welcoming the states of Yugoslavia, as well as the Slovaks after they separated from the Czech republic).

If this was not enough, the very paymaster of all these political masters of the planet, Goldman Sachs itself, came out against Scottish independence on 3 September.

You can share their point of view. Just imagine if all the smaller countries of the world that wanted independence were to be offered a peaceful transition like yours - and voted ‘Yes’! Why Tibet would be free and millions of Buddhists could travel by train through China to hear the Dalai Lama genuinely thank his brothers in Beijing. Kashmir would be autonomous and Indian and Pakistan would no longer be at war. The Ukraine would not be invaded, Chechnya would govern itself, the Baltics could relax, Georgia would be safe. The Kurds would have Kurdistan, thus rectifying one of the great sins of the Treaty of Versailles. The Palestinians would be able to form their own state and peace would break out in the Middle East. Puerto Rico would be a flourishing Caribbean country – or a full state of the USA if it preferred. Independence can generate problems, as we are witnessing in South Sudan, but if everyone could follow a Scottish example and vote without violence for self-government why… peace would break out around the world. Think of the appalling consequences for the arms industry. What would happen to greatness?

No, no, no, as Margaret Thatcher would have said, bless her. The rulers of the world and their unelected bankers and hedge funders, who have failed to stop climate change, collaborate to protect tax havens, and are overseeing an explosion of inequality, all agree: it is a very bad idea for Scotland to break away from a great power to govern itself. Suppose you experimented in new forms of democracy, or show us how power might be more accountable, or rid yourselves of nuclear weapons and make the world a modestly more equal place?

What can they do to stop you now? Threaten us, for it will be ‘contagious’ with a ‘mortgage meltdown’, describe your town meetings across your country as a ‘blitzkreig’ - as if you are attempting to bomb London! - and above all go for the pensions.

The coordinated, international pressure to force you into saying ‘No’ will be immense in these next few days, now ‘Yes’ is a real possibility. The most willing participants in this spine-bending exercise have been identified as those whose backs are already weakened with age. Mike Smithson points out, “Older people aged 55+ are now the only age group where No voters are in the majority – 49% say they intend to vote No compared to 31% voting Yes.” So, they'll put them up against the wall and threaten the integrity of their pensions. But an outcome that swings on the grey vote will give a new meaning to gerontocracy, or rule by the old. My advice to those of you who, like me, have grandchildren and would do absolutely anything for them, is to abstain if you are inclined to vote No. Just give them the chance to choose their country for themselves. What better gift could there be?

And the rest of the world? Don’t be afraid. Once you have made the call to go independent, they are not going to damage themselves by punishing you. Millions everywhere will smile with gratitude, wish you luck, come to visit you as tourists, buy your whisky and drink to your health.

The ‘British’ will have an acute problem, long deserved. For this some of us will express a special gratitude straight away. The rest will follow once we have sorted out the English question down here. Then, we the English, will gain our own self-government and to coin phrase, we will be better together! So thank you Scotland and hold your nerve.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness


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