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Understanding the Scottish vote
August 04, 2014
I promised something on Scottish independence in this edition – not to be too political about it but to perhaps see what might be going on. Though I do need to declare an interest as someone who grew up in Scotland (my parents moved there when I was 8) but who has lived his adult life in England. There is no doubt that I would be very sad if the Scots voted yes and would feel that something had been taken from me, namely my British identity. I also think it would be bad for the rest of the UK and perhaps worse than for the Scots who will need to learn some harsh lessons about how life is but once learnt, then they could begin to fly.
Anyway, that is not what I want to say. Rather, it is to explain something about my understanding of political history – about the rise and flowering of the Whig tradition in Great Britain. This was the radical movement against the Tory landed establishment of over 200 years ago, which gave us the industrial revolution and where one of its greatest thinkers was the Scot Adam Smith. Whiggism was based on the radical idea that progress came from people being free and this can best be achieved by parliamentary democracy (one man one vote, women came later of course) and by using the power of free markets against protectionism and vested interests. By 100 years ago this tradition was challenged by the collectivist idea that only the state can ensure progress for the majority and in so doing, the Whig tradition was incorporated into the modern Conservative party – which has two opposing origins. These are Tory and Whig and you can still see this creative tension today.
One very powerful Whig idea that has stayed very strong in the British body politic is the radical idea that the individual is paramount over the state. That in fact the state has no power or even separate identity that is not first conferred on it by the individual. And this tradition is still strong in the Labour party despite its collective instincts. But for sure it does not exist in Europe. The European tradition is that the state has a separate identity and rights over the individual and as this inter alia led to Nazism, war and repression, is why the EU was created – as a force to counter nationalism and the power of the state.
Now to the Scottish independence vote and the paradox that lies at the heart of it. The rhetoric of the yes supporters is very anti Tory and pro collectivist. That Scotland, if independent could create a more collectivist society with the state more powerful. It is a rejection of Whiggism. The irony is that only the Whig tradition (which the yes voters do not recognise and would barely understand) where the individual was paramount would ever have allowed this vote to take place in the first place. No other country (not just in Europe but anywhere I suspect) would allow itself to be destroyed by a simple majority vote by a small part of that country. We are in a situation now where 2 million British voters (ie 50% of adult Scots) can irrevocably break up a country of over 60 million.
Truly this represents the triumph of individualism over the group.
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