Commiserations to the people of Scotland. The ironic doppelgänger of that big word ‘Independence’ that will flash like a painful strobe light when UKIP cut deeper into the political landscape of this undeniably divided kingdom next year will no doubt be a bitter and cruel pill to have to swallow. Whilst the queen will have been left happy that the care of the grounds of her holiday home will still be in the hands of her subjects, the ‘historic event’ of the referendum – as it will be endlessly called by the BBC (through the skin of their smirking teeth) – has narrowly missed its eventality, which must now remain latent in it.
Like in the case of Ireland, nationalism is a different word for Scotland to what it is for England and the Britain that believes itself to be ‘great’. For the latter the word carries so many overtones of imperialism, which – the empire having lost its burly and uncompromising might – now finds its most concentrated dilution in the consciousness of defence leagues and bloody nasty people fighting (imaginary wars) on the national front. For the former, however, it has to do with a recent history of exploitation without proper political representation, such as in Thatcher’s trial of the poll tax, or in the determination of the Tory party to retain the union for its own financial benefit, and to govern Scotland despite the fact that the Tories have no chance of being elected there. Indeed, Ireland’s centuries-long oppression was at the hands of an imperial Britain that hated it as much under republican as under monarchical rule. The situation is of course not the same in Scotland; the country is not militarily controlled by the English, nor are its national identifiers and pastimes banned, as Ireland’s were, but its main government – the government that its government ultimately has to answer to – is that of the United Kingdom as a whole, run by the Conservatives (the Lib Dems’ input into the so-called coalition not quite scratching the surface of being even tokenistic), which a quick glance at the 2010 general election results will show is in no way representative of Scotland’s political outlook. With an exception that proves the rule Tory blue stops before the border on the map of that election’s results.
As Kunal Modi put it: ‘for the first time in the life of any UK national under 40, t[his] referendum offer[ed] a real, tangible alternative to the centrist monotony of politics as dictated from on high by the moon-faced neoliberal twat parade currently housed in Westminster.’ Indeed, it was not only the idea of independence, but the referendum itself that offered a real, tangible alternative. The panic of the three main parties – bound in a tightknit hegemony – scurrying to make concessions to Scotland in the days running up to the referendum are testament to the referendum itself disrupting the usual order of political discourse. In the philosopher Jacques Rancière’s terms, the referendum shifted the ‘distribution of the sensible’; that is, the way that the discourse of power allots perceivable, fixed places to political entities. In the run-up to the referendum, these co-ordinates were disrupted. Scotland itself was no longer situated in a place comfortable to power, and moreover, the people themselves suddenly became a different political force: everybody knew the turn-out would be high, and that many more young people (including 16 and 17 year olds) would be voting. It is true that the SNP were leading the Yes campaign, but this was no guarantee of an SNP government after independence. Indeed, much of what was so exciting about the prospect of a Yes vote was the total unknowability of what might have come after. It was likely, of course, to be another liberal parliamentary democracy (though one markedly more equitable, socially democratic and less warmongering than the one Scotland is now stuck with), but such was the intense engagement here in politics that other political formations – based on such widespread direct engagement with democracy – became potentially possible.
It was in the face of a much wider, more truly democratic politics that the three main parties had to make such huge concessions. They had to pay lip service to this truly democratic possibility in order to close it down. Sadly it seems to have worked. There is no guarantee that their ‘vow’ will be upheld (both the Tories and the Lib Dems have broken major, abstract promises they made before the general election). This vow, even as it stands, ensures that the new distribution of the sensible will be returned to its previous co-ordinates. The vow ensures the continuation of liberal parliamentary democracy, ultimately controlled by Westminster.
The challenge now then is to ensure that the new political subjectivisation and new political experiences of the Scottish people remain open, that the co-ordinates remain redistributed, outside of the authority of the political elite. Even with a no vote this moment of democracy can be kept open precisely because the people as a whole engaged in it. If that political engagement can be sustained, then the discourse of politicians – now held much more directly to account – must also radically have to alter. The redistribution of the sensible can alter politics just as much as nations and peoples. This will be a hard task though. Already the media, the government and big business are moving to restore the old order of things. We are immediately told that this no vote was justified because it has stabilised markets. The message here is ultimately, and as it is perennially: ‘don’t get too democratic in future because the markets might crash’!