Nationalist and institutionalist horizons in (post-)referendum Scottish politics.

Author:Introna, Arianna
Position:NOTEBOOK
 
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During the referendum debate on Scottish independence, Gordon Asher and Leigh French drew attention to the rhetoric of progressiveness that defined the Yes campaign. This rhetoric, according to Asher and French, was responsible for closing down debate on social justice while co-opting its struggles. As a result, 'what could be an opportunity for dialogue [was] instead functioning as a process of closure, where independence [was] posited as ipso facto "progressive"' (Asher and French, 2014a, 1). Post-indyref, Asher and French's argument is all the more relevant: both the independence movement and its relationship to the legacy of the referendum have not become emancipated from 'consensualism' and 'forced positivity'. Instead, they have become translated into a commitment to conceptualise the independence movement as defined by a radical impetus. However, this impetus, manifested in democratic renewal, a concern with social justice, and grassroots organisation in the run-up to the vote, cannot be approached in isolation from the nationalist and institutionalist dynamics that framed it. As Asher and French suggested in a later article, any independence movement by definition naturalises 'the national-state as a naturally pre-given form' rather than as 'a historically contingent social construct' (2014b).

Jodi Dean's concept of horizon is helpful in thinking about both the rhetoric of progressiveness and the institutionalist and nationalist pressures operating in the independence movement. Drawing on Bruno Bosteels, Dean engages with the idea of a horizon 'to designate a dimension of experience that we can never lose, even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it' (2012, 1). On the one hand, the radicalism associated with the pro-independence campaign may confirm Dean's conviction that the horizon that frames much contemporary politics is that of communism, whether as a threat feared by the right, as a loss mourned by the left, or as the spirit powering twenty-first century social movements (2012, 53). According to Dean, within the communist horizon 'the field of possibilities for revolutionary theory and practice starts to change shape' and 'new potentials and challenges come to the fore' (2012, 11). Yes supporters and sympathetic commentators have consistently identified similar dynamics in the independence movement. On the other hand, if Dean's horizon constitutes 'a necessary dimension of our actuality' and 'the fundamental division establishing where we are' (2012, 2), nationalist and institutionalist discourses and structures possess a valid claim to fulfilling this function in the context of the Scottish independence movement, defined by the pursuit of independence or, failing this, increased powers for a Scottish state. In what follows, I will explore the changing, if persistent, relationship between progressiveness, nationalism and institutionalism as it emerges from post-referendum accounts of the independence movement before and after the vote.

A 'festival of democracy'

The progressive ethos of the independence movement has become identified with the democratic renewal the indyref is perceived to have enabled. In his post-referendum memoir Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland, Iain Macwhirter declares that the referendum debate was 'a festival of democracy' (2014, 14). On the one hand, accounts of the pro-independence progressiveness that generated such a festival have been concerned to dissociate it from nationalism. For Chris Bambery, 'we need to repeat again and again that the 45 per cent vote for independence was overwhelmingly not for nationalism but for greater democracy' (2014). On the other hand, intensified political engagement has been put forward as proof of the departure from twenty-first-century post-democracy stimulated by the indyref. Macwhirter points out how the 'festival of democracy' that was the referendum debate 'defied the conventional wisdom of political scientists and opinion pollsters who say that we live in an age of comfort, political apathy and retail politics' (2014, 14).

Indeed, the Scottish political context contrasts with scenarios defined by lack of democratic engagement. For Colin Crouch, 'democracy thrives when there are major opportunities for the mass of ordinary people actively to participate, through discussion and autonomous organisations, in shaping the agenda of public life' (2004, 2). Instead, 'unambitious democratic expectations of liberal democracy' and an electoral debate transformed into a 'tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals' are conducive to what he calls 'post-democracy' (2004, 4). The independence movement afforded an opportunity 'for the mass of ordinary people actively to participate', and its activists asserted the right to shaping 'the agenda of public life' in ways that that Crouch identifies with a thriving democracy. For Susan Evans, Policy Unit Director of Common Weal, the indyref demonstrated that in Scotland 'the vast majority of people care about politics ... if they believe their votes and other actions can make a difference. The myth of apathy has been dispelled' (2014).

Narratives of a 'crisis of democracy' therefore do not resonate with the experience of people involved in the referendum debate and its aftermath. In a recent lecture, Nancy Fraser has suggested that an administrative aspect and a legitimation aspect form the political dimension of the crisis of democracy we are experiencing. The former is rooted in the failure of 'institutionalised public powers ... to take and enact binding decisions in the public interest and impose them on private powers'; the latter develops in the 'public spheres' where 'those who are governed must be able to scrutinise alternative policy proposals, while also clarifying their own interests and needs' (2014). For Fraser, awareness of and reaction against a legitimation crisis 'can lead to the sort of deep-structural transformation of the financialised capitalist order that is needed to resolve in an emancipatory way all the strands of the multidimensional crisis complex' (2014). In the independence movement, similar discourses have been mobilised to critique the managed politics and austerity policies promoted by Westminster: the independence movement has indeed been energised by its reaction against the administrative and legitimation crisis of the UK government. However, the 'deep-structural transformation' the movement has aimed to achieve has not been addressed to 'the financialised capitalist order'. Rather, it has been oriented to establish, or gain more powers for, a Scottish state imbricated in that very same order.

This has resulted in a nationalist and institutionalist bias whereby the focus on Westminster has shielded Holyrood from scrutiny--before and after the referendum. Reflecting on the failure to discuss 'the constraining influence of international political economy on the progressive ambitions of individual states' and 'the concrete mechanisms through which Scotland might actually break free from austerity' in relation to a future, independent Scottish state, James Stafford has recently questioned the democratic credentials of the pro-independence campaign. For Stafford, 'with hindsight, it seems clear that the Yes campaign's claim to the soul of social democracy was tenuous at best' (2014). This should come as no surprise if Dean's criticism of left movements that 'name their goal democracy' is borne in mind: Dean reminds us that struggles 'specifically' conceived as 'struggles for democracy' are not synonymous...

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