Governments too can lose social license – just look at the Scottish referendum
This Thursday’s vote on Scottish independence is historic. Whichever way it goes, things will never be the same again. It is only now – as the opinion polls have tightened – that the English establishment seems to be realizing this. Alex Salmond’s (the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party) offer to pay the bus fares for each of the major UK parties to come to Scotland to fight to retain the union speaks to reality that all three are now a liability for their own cause. If there ever was a deal to be done on greater devolution, it should have been two years ago not a few days before the vote. If Scotland votes to leave the UK, then David Cameron will go down in history as the British Prime Minister who presided over the destruction of Britain – largely because “devolution max” was not an option allowed on the ballot paper. He bet that when given the stark choice of “in or out”, the Scots would retreat from the brink. However on Thursday Scotland might just call his bluff, and if they don’t this time the vote will be close enough to make another independence vote in the next ten years likely.
One of the most articulate commentaries I have read over recent days is from my friend and colleague the author Salil Tripathi, whose recent article in the Indian press gives as close to an objective assessment as is possible. He concludes:
“Whether what unites them—a shared history, intertwined lives, and common imprint on the world—is strong enough to overcome the atavistic longing of an imagined community, which in Benedict Anderson’s memorable phrase all nation states are, will be known on Thursday night.”
You might wonder why I have chosen this as the second case study on a website focusing on the “social license” – we are not talking about a business activity of any kind? Well, I argue in my book that governments too need social license for their activities and that the three main UK party leaders have in many ways lost their social license in Scotland. This is most true of David Cameron and the Conservative Party which is almost unrepresented in the country, but during the past two years has become increasingly true for the Liberal Democrats and Labour as well. This is partly due to “identikit” nature of the three party leaders; Cameron, Clegg and Miliband can all sound similar to the Scottish ear (naturally more communitarian and Nordic in outlook). The issues that most Scots care about – healthcare and education – have increasingly moved to market-based systems in England under all three parties. This whilst the English nationalist – Nigel Farage (working under the strangely misnamed “UK” Independence Party) beats the drum of Mordor in the background and pushes all three party leaders to make crazy statements on issues such as immigration and Europe that none of them believe in. The “Russian doll” perfect storm of Scotland leaving the UK, and then the what remains of the UK voting to leave the European Union in the next five years, destroys two identities at once for those of us who have thought of ourselves as being British and European above that much less inclusive and progressive category of Englishness. This is no small thing.
On the positive side, the independence question has done wonders for the social contract within Scotland. If Jean-Jacques Rousseau was to be transported 250 years to be walking the streets of Glasgow or Edinburgh this week he would be delighted – reminding him perhaps of his ideal republic where decisions where made not be elites but through the participation of citizens. Predictions are that the turnout will be above 80% – unparalleled in nearly every democracy where voting is an issue of choice. Scotland will be an interesting and exciting place to think about social license and social contract for years to come.
So intellectually, a Scottish vote for independence would be very interesting and if I were living north of the border I would be very tempted to vote ‘Yes’. However as a hybrid, half Scottish – half English, and with no right to vote – I can’t help hoping that my British identity will not be destroyed in three days time. I remember all the former Yugoslavs I worked with in the 1990s who had Serbian, Croat or Bosnian identity forced upon them through the events of those years. The Scottish vote is a peaceful act of self-determination, but don’t let the absence of bullets obscure the fact that we are moving into unchartered waters.