On July 1, 1940, The Times published an editorial that read, “… The European house cannot be put in order unless we put our own house in order first. The new order cannot be based on the preservance of privilege, whether privilege be that of a country, of a class, or of an individual.”
The Times editorial was written a year into World War II. Even a year earlier an editorial like this in a national newspaper of record would have seemed outlandish, even subversive. But in 1940, it was presented as calm reason. It symbolized a shift in ideas, the beliefs and even the social values that held sway. It was a shift in the power of one political ideology over another.
In Scotland, we are about to decide on the future political order of our house. In effect, we will decide how we want power to be organized and shared.
During the war, the United Kingdom depended on working class men and women, and many of them were deeply disenchanted with the prevailing social order. By 1940, the ideology that had justified insecurity, inequality, and poverty by appealing to the market or the "natural order" of things was no longer sustainable, and the debt that the political establishment owed the working class was gradually being acknowledged. The Times editorial was this acknowledgement, and a signal that power had begun to "change sides."
Have we seen this same kind of shift of power amongst the political establishment in Scotland? Arguably, no. The many diverse faces of the Yes Movement are very visible on social media, but they are nowhere to be seen in the majority of mainstream coverage. The idea that there is a popular movement for a yes vote, very different in nature to the top-down centrally planned No Campaign, gets no recognition. Bar the Sunday Herald, no major newspaper is supporting a change in the relations of power in Scotland, despite the independence movement being ahead in the polls—a clear sign that the ideology of the old order remains unchanged.
Old orders don’t change very willingly. Institutions, once they exist, will always try to perpetuate themselves. Supra-organizations like the European Union, the Council of Europe, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United Nations will always seek to self-preserve. Likewise the British state, the House of Lords, the existing establishment, their members, and their employees will always seek to re-establish their own power. How the political parties, their Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and members line up in this debate exemplifies this process. As we monitor the debate, we are watching power’s attempt to endure.
The ballot paper on September 18th could just as well read: would you like to be governed by technocrats, none of whom are experts in democracy, or would you yourself like a larger share of the power? Democracy is actually that radical. In any political shake-up those in power risk losing their own status when power is shared out more broadly. In terms of their own self-preservation, it seems natural and justifiable for establishment employees to work against an increase in democracy.
Why do big power shifts occur? In 1945, power shifted after a small recognition by the political establishment of their debt to the working class. In the aftermath of WWII, a political will materialized which wanted to alter the existing economic relations—the institution of poverty was in question at the highest level. It began in 1942 with the Conservative-led government’s request for a review of UK social insurance provision.
What followed went further than Churchill intended, and the publication of Beveridge’s report brought about the welfare state. Pensions increased by 160%, local authorities took over care of the elderly, and benefits for sickness, industrial injury and disablement rose greatly, and unemployment benefits increased. The National Health Service (NHS) was established and it guaranteed free access to general practitioners for the first time. All were entitled to free secondary schooling and subsidised school meals.
The thing is, ideology doesn’t usually shift—and we, as individuals, are not persuaded easily. Writing on this topic in the 18th century, the German philosopher Hegel wrote “the Owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk.” The idea of his famous tagline is that a society can only act with wisdom after a serious crisis that threatens the whole of society. Only then do we as a whole come to our senses, only then is there a shift in ideology. The story of the birth of the NHS after WWII seems to be evidence of that.
The Scottish independence referendum is not coming on the back of a crisis of civilization. In 1945, we were able to legislate for the good of the whole society, but right now our political classes lack the will to repeat that success. There is little evidence of a shift in ideology in the current debate: the newspapers still favor the economic freedoms of one class over another, despite rising inequality, and the UK's capital class, (the top 1%) don't seem to have responded positively to the idea of more democracy in Scotland.
However, our situation is different to the situation Hegel had in mind in one very marked respect. Crucially, we do not require an elite shift in ideology to be able to legislate for the general good. This is because the result of the referendum will decide. On September 18th, sovereign power will be in the hands of the electorate from the opening of the polls until their closing; the political will of the elites will be irrelevant for that time only. For a wise decision on the 18th all that is required is that we gather some courage from reason, and a certain amount of belief in ourselves, so we are sure our opinions have not been simply guided.
On that day we can choose more democracy or less. Where you place your X, as trivial as it may sound, sets us all on a path toward one type of society or another. One of these future societies, although not recognisably different from the outside, will have the potential to grow democratically and the other will lack that potential. The two options on offer are sketched below.
The first model, our current model, has been inherited from the 18th century political theorists Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, and it accepts the Hobbesian or Lockean assumptions about human nature: people are individualists who want to maximise pleasure. Bentham and Mill accepted that the threat of starvation was the only incentive for the majority to work. In other words, they thought it necessary to continue economic and political inequality. Mill was only interested in expanding democracy if it would serve the interests of capital. He ranked the economic freedom of elites above the political freedom of the majority. In this model, democracy, “is simply a market mechanism: the voters are consumers.”
It is a model which uses the party system to limit political participation to voting in mass elections. It is more oligarchic than democratic. In this system, “there are only a few sellers, a few suppliers of political goods, they need not respond to the buyers’ demands as they must do in a fully competitive system.” We could argue this is not really a democratic system at all.
As C.B. Macpherson, quoted above, recognized political parties actually reduce democracy—they restrict our political choices. Unless you consider apathy a viable option, we have no choice but to buy from the limited political goods that they sell. Macpherson seems to favor a different model of democracy in which citizens are required to participate in more forms of economic activity. In it, economic relations—which are understood as determining social relations—are not merely formal discussions of capital markets. This model, called participatory democracy, discusses economic relations openly; they are not censored from the ideas markets by mass electoral liberalism.
Macpherson’s idea of participatory democracy, however, is not on offer on the 18th. What is on offer, the second model, is a Keynesian type social-democracy, a model which does not aim to devolve as much political power as possible to the markets, and is more responsive to the needs of the worst off.
Importantly, a social-democracy is open to further democratic reforms while the first model is much more rigid, restricted and un-representative of the people it claims to represent. If we happen to vote yes on the 18th our democracy will reorganize itself to become more local and more representative; with unionist ties cut it will be free to do this. With a Scottish representative democracy, where our politicians prioritize Scottish interests before those of a capital class based in London, there will be an increased chance for an ideological change at the top and a gradual shift away from oligarchy.
In short, when you come to vote please do bear in mind that one choice favors preserving the economic privileges of an elite class, and the other choice represents a good chance for a more equitable distribution of power—that is, more democracy.
On September 18th, and potentially only on the 18th, you decide. Give power away, or keep it?
Europe, Philosophy, Scotland, United Kingdom