Scots Aren't the Only Angry Bunch
This week's referendum in Scotland could result in the U.K. losing almost one-third of its landmass, and 8 percent of its population, and, very likely, its present prime minister. In a summer rich with shocks, the breakup of a United Nations Security Council member suddenly seems more likely than the long-predicted fracturing of Iraq.
Most people I spoke with when traveling through Scotland last month expected the battle for independence waged by the Scottish Nationalist Party to have been lost. Recent opinion polls, however, show that almost half of Scottish voters hope to break free of their London masters on Thursday.
Their disaffection was not the work of a day. It has been in the making for at least three decades. Jason Cowley, editor of Britain's leading political weekly, the New Statesman, correctly points out that Britain's Conservative prime minister in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, did more for Scottish independence with her regime of privatization, deregulation and unfair taxation than any Scottish nationalist. By some estimates, the deindustrialization that Thatcher presided over had more devastating effects in Scotland than in England.
That's why Thatcher's Conservative Party is almost extinct in Scotland, and its current leaders, David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson, evoke a visceral hostility and scorn. This isn't just class hatred for privately educated and plummy-accented Tories, or for the axis of Eton College, Rupert Murdoch's News International and the City of London that they embody.
Many Scots are unhappy, too, with the City-obsessed Labour Party, which under Tony Blair, Thatcher's self-proclaimed heir, placed itself in the avant garde of marketization, initiating among other things the privatization of the National Health Service.
Recriminations have now erupted in England as financial markets finally register the prospect of Scotland's secession. But blaming Cameron, who fecklessly called the referendum and limited it to a binary choice, obscures the fact that the Scottish mutiny is part of a larger worldwide trend.
Governments everywhere that are unable to guarantee equitable growth and social welfare have suffered a fatal decay of legitimacy. This has been registered so far mostly by low voting percentages, political apathy more broadly, or drastic upsurge in support for challengers to the status quo from nonelite backgrounds, such as Joko Widodo in Indonesia and Marina Silva in Brazil.
Events in Scotland outline a more radical possibility (likely to be fulfilled in Europe itself in a few weeks when Catalonia may vote to secede from Spain): Disaffected citizens can move very quickly to reject unrepresentative governments by breaking up entire nation-states.
A quick glance at the last wave of self-determination in the early 20th century shows that inept governance and loss of sovereignty, as much as foolish wars and economic crises, can be preludes to swift political fragmentation.
Few people in 1900 expected centuries-old empires -- Qing, Hapsburg, Ottoman -- to collapse by 1918. Yet they struggled to cope with the energies unleashed by the rapid growth of commerce and communications in the first wave of globalization.
Modern education had created a new class of putative rulers and modernizers. The Turkish, Arab and Chinese nationalists who built new nation-states out of the ruins of old empires scorned their old, decrepit rulers as much as they did the foreign imperialists who imposed free trade through gunboats.
For almost a century since 1918, the centralized nation-state has been the world's default political form. Its various experiments in industrialization, urbanization, mass literacy and consumerism have brought more people into public life.
In the past, the extraordinary growth achieved by industrial capitalism had largely enriched a tiny minority. Western governments forced capitalism after its most severe crisis in the 1930s into a new compact with the rising masses.
As George Orwell stressed during the darkest days of the Second World War, Britain had no choice but to become a fairer society; the National Health Service was the centerpiece of the welfare state that Labour Party began to build after 1945.
That world of cohesive nation-states is now passing, more rapidly than we could have imagined. As in the early 20th century, the elemental forces of globalization have unraveled broad solidarities and loyalties.
The revolution in communications, for instance, has radicalized people as much as it has facilitated faster movements of trade and finance. Mobile phones, as I wrote in an earlier column, are as likely to promote secessionist passions as efficient commerce and national unity.
The world today seems full of examples of decayed political systems that have frittered away their legitimacy. They are vulnerable to being undermined rapidly by anarchic revolts from within.
Scotland's referendum will happen at a great remove from the failed or failing states of our time. Whatever its result may be, it has at least alerted us to other possible earthquakes along the political fault lines of today's world.
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