It was good to read the news from Scotland in this morning’s Times. While not at all hostile to the idea of Scottish independence, I didn’t think that the details of the proposition, or lack of them, were very promising. Retaining the pound seemed a bad idea; at the same time, this doesn’t seem to be a propitious moment for launching a new currency. (Joining the European Monetary Union would be the worst thing that could happen. I have become a foe of international currencies.) I understand that votes on this issue are decided by ever-closer margins, and that sooner or later they would come out the other way, but I hope that fans of independence will use this time to approach independence more hard-headedly, and less as fans.
The enthusiasm surrounding the party of Yes was on its face disturbing: nothing can be more grave in political life than the assertion of autonomy. I read a short piece by Alan Cumming (an American citizen born in Scotland) which was, not surprisingly, more performance than political analysis. Too many bright people, his age and younger, all around the world, believe that there is some sort of alternative to politics as we know it. On the contrary, the political history of the West tells the story of people slogging their way to the highly unpleasant business of coping with the realities of politics, which are always and everywhere an inevitable side-effect of human nature. The Twentieth Century was afflicted by waves of disenchanted masses (only recently enfranchised) who longed to reverse the march, and to set politics aside. The terrible consequences of this desire notwithstanding, the impulse remains alive. I expect that it is what motivated most youthful advocates of Scottish independence: escape from the sordors of Westminster.
It is not difficult, at least from my perch on the other side of the Atlantic, to imagine ways in which Scotland might part company with Westminster without abandoning the Crown in Parliament. The parliament in question might become the one in Edinburgh, endowed with ultimate responsibility for taxing and spending in the land of the thistle. Westminster would be cleared of Scottish MPs, and the Scottish exchequer would transfer an agreed-upon amount, or percentage of revenues, to British coffers, in the support of common defense. (I wasn’t keen about the creation of a Scottish military, either, by the way. Not because the Scots would make a hash of it, but because we’re passing through a time of military transition, and new models, while clearly under development, are not yet clear.) The main thing is that Scotland could indulge its support for increased social welfare, without the interference of the sons of Thatcher.
It might be a good idea for the royal family to donate Balmoral (and its extensive grounds) to the nation, meaning, effectively, to Scotland. Or, otherwise, in some meaningful way to make the retreat an official Palace. One or two rooms — a great hall, say — might be opened to the public during the the family’s very extensive absences. The monarchy has a Scottish seat in Holyrood House, but this rather diminutive building is no more a habitation than the old Town Hall — the official royal palace — in Amsterdam. What Scotland needs from the monarch is an official, but genuine, residence. The Prince of Wales, clueless twit that he so often seems to be, might be just the man to create it. One thing is certain: a newly semi-autonomous Scotland would have to see more of its king or queen. In winter especially.
The more boring the proposal sounds, the better it probably is. That’s politics. It’s boring.
Well, clearly not to everyone. But to most laymen, politics is as tedious as a legal document. The fluent reading of legal documents seems to require professional training, the instillation of a discipline that, for most students with an aptitude for the law, blossoms into something a good deal less medicinal. I expect that the training of a politically active citizen can be rather less rigorous and prolonged than that for a lawyer, but, still, some training is required. And, if the Twentieth Century taught us anything — the lesson continues in the Twenty-First — it is that democracies cannot afford to leave politics to those with an aptitude for it. Because, as Neil Irwin wrote in yesterday’s Upshot column, this is what invariably happens:
When you get past the details of the Scottish independence referendum Thursday, there is a broader story underway, one that is also playing out in other advanced nations.
It is a crisis of the elites. Scotland’s push for independence is driven by a conviction — one not ungrounded in reality — that the British ruling class has blundered through the last couple of decades. The same discontent applies to varying degrees in the United States and, especially, the eurozone. It is, in many ways, a defining feature of our time.
The rise of Catalan would-be secessionists in Spain, the rise of parties of the far right in European countries as diverse as Greece and Sweden, and the Tea Party in the United States are all rooted in a sense that, having been granted vast control over the levers of power, the political elite across the advanced world have made a mess of things.
Voters may not understand complicated issues, but they can tell when the politicians aren’t doing their job. Politicians, however, living in a bubble of the like-minded (other politicians), cannot. Over time, any political elite, shouldering the hard, boring work of democracy, will develop something close to contempt for voters, who want all of the benefits and none of the burdens of good government.
This is what bothered Thomas Jefferson and Hannah Arendt about American democracy: there was no provision for roping the voter into the political process, above and beyond elections. They were not surprised that voters would regard these precious elections as magic bullets, guaranteed to make political promises bear fruit.
At this point, I might elaborate on what I once somewhat jocularly referred to as a proposed Committee on Public Manners, but have since taken to calling, still with a twinkle but with much great seriousness, the Yorkville Committee on Public Use of Mobile Telephones. But I’m still not quite ready to contend with that whale.
Bon weekend à tous!