There is a theme which binds together the phenomena of Trump, Farage, the UK Tories, this week’s Labour conference and much more. It is the dominant political and even existential notion in these amazing and bewildering days. It operates at many levels: the national, community, family and the individual.
It is the idea of agency.
Successful politicians and parties today are, and will be, those who can help people have control – or at least believe they have some measure of control – over their own destiny. Trump speaks to those disinvested white production workers in Rust Belt USA who have seen jobs go abroad and ‘outsiders’ benefit from different work ethics and government programmes which seek to make society fairer. The Tories in the UK speak to citizens in Kent and Sunderland frightened for their jobs and safety in the face of what they are encouraged to believe is a tidal wave of Poles and Kosovans out to destroy their way of life.
In times of plenty, globalisation was a relatively easy sell. For now, Labour’s tepid effort defending the UK’s EU membership reflects the traditional and understandable trades union reluctance to embrace free trade and movement on the basis that, for obvious reasons, they tend to bid down the price of actual labour within the UK. These are not times of plenty, so for now naked populism and the fears upon which it is built will have their day. This populism doesn’t offer true agency, of course, but rather pseudo-agency built on comforting lies. In the UK, the Tories court populism of one sort – the electable sort. Labour courts a different kind of populism with largely middle-class folk of the left, and studiedly do not seek the electable kind. The Tories will remain in the ascendant in government, but people on the further left will also enjoy their own very special kind of comfort in powerless opposition.
And yet, in Scotland, people have not, on the whole, opted for insularity or for populist extremes. And they have scope for agency not available to to people in England or Wales. Moderate English Labour and Liberal Democrat voters who despair that right wing Tories will now be in power for a generation and that their lives will be beset by the risk and pain of Brexit feel – and are – powerless. In Scotland, people of similar mind have the power to retain their own agency in a comfortable and well-organised social democracy. In Scotland, those folk on the further left who applaud Jeremy Corbyn but understand the impossibility of Labour government in either England or Scotland can also make the same obvious choice to assure their own agency and work in Scotland for the kind of society they want to live in.
Unionism in Scotland today is essentially a conservative project. Actual Conservatives seek to exploit the base populism, the pseudo-agency, which has made them the pre-eminent party in England for a generation. For non-Conservative unionists, unionism signals their simple refusal to accept that old assumptions no longer hold and so nor can the simple enmities they have built their careers and lives upon.
But the unionists are becoming weaker, shriller and more panicked by the day, because they understand that theirs are the voices which seek to deny Scots agency. They tell Scots not to try to control at least what they can of their own lives. But when agency is the dominant motif of the era, as it is, they are bound to fail. This is why, after 40 years of telling Scots that they cannot base a constitutional argument on an extreme price of one volatile commodity, they are reduced to doing precisely that. It is why they tell Scots that open borders would be impossible upon independence while telling the Irish the opposite. It is why they exaggerate Scotland’s deficit to reflect its presently shackled constitutional state, rather than openly conceding what they of course accept private – that Scotland is no less viable as a nation than any other successful, small European state.
Scots of the left and those of the centre see the world differently, but their desire for agency over their lives will lead them to vote for an independent , modern, social democratic state that is not in the grip of rampant, right-wing populism.
Agency is, in its essence, fundamental to human dignity. Scots will vote together for the agency and dignity of independence in Europe because we can. And because, right now, nothing is of greater political importance. What may come after that is up to Scots and Scots alone.