An extract from a new collection of essays on generational politics in Britain: Resist! Against a Precarious Future, edited by Ray Filar. The compete book can be downloaded here.
What I’m about to argue shouldn’t be controversial. Namely, that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the most important political event yet for my generation of young people in Britain. Not only that: it was a harbinger of the kind of politics we can expect for the future, not only in the UK but also Europe-wide. The independence campaign was movement-based, created alliances across political tribes and the vote was direct democracy in action, if not of the radical kind. In a country whose political system has been dying of slow suffocation – with the average voting age rising and increasing numbers turning their backs on the ballot box – it re-engaged the ‘missing million’, including 80 per cent of under thirty-fives. The majority of these young people voted for independence. In fact, without the country’s pensioners, who voted against by 77 per cent, Scotland would now be an independent country. The ‘impossible’, the end of Britain as we know it, very nearly happened, falling short by a 10 per cent gap.
A movement for democracy
I was lucky enough to be staying in East Lothian, near Edinburgh, in the three months leading up to Scotland’s referendum on 18 September 2014. Nothing prepared me for walking the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow during that time. This was not a campaign controlled by Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), as much of the coverage coming out of the London-based media would have had us believe. The independence movement was a broad alliance, overlapping but not dominated by the ‘official’ Yes campaign (itself a cross-party body but, as you might expect, heavily steered by the Scottish government). When asked about the party ‘breakdown’ of the movement, it would be fair to say it was mainly SNP, Green, Scottish Socialist Party and some Labour supporters, but this would be missing the point. A staggering number of people in Scotland took some part in the referendum campaigns, from either side, although the Yes campaign’s activist base was far larger. Reflective of the general population, the majority of these ‘activists’ were not party members and did not self-define along party lines.
I am not going to deal here with the many and complex reasons why, as a young English woman, I voted ‘Yes’ to Scotland breaking away from the British state. You do not have to agree with my position to recognise that the kind of politics the referendum generated can be placed in a continuum with other movements for democracy and political rejuvenation over the last half decade, movements that have been clearly framed as ‘youth politics’. Why not the Scottish referendum? The fact that it carried the spirit of the 2011-2012 wave of social movements, including Occupy, the Indignados and what was then called the Arab Spring, should have been clear from the start, and not simply because a significant number of young people voting ‘Yes’ in Scotland described their political journey explicitly in those terms.
Crucially, the referendum gave young people the chance to challenge the nature of the democratic system, not just to place an X in a box. Again, we won’t dig into the arguments around how deliverable this promise was. Suffice to say that those voting ‘Yes’ were backing more and deeper democracy. This was most obvious at the national level; they sought to bring power closer to the 5 million people living in Scotland and to boot out the Tories that Scotland never voted in. But the independence movement outside of the SNP also emphasised the opportunities for delivering more radical proposals for local, decentralised decision-making. An important example is Common Weal’s ‘people’s manifesto’, a key document for the wider movement, which advocates for policy to be driven by mini-publics, through mechanisms such as citizen assemblies and deliberative polls. If the referendum had been about a narrow nationalistic ‘right’ to home rule, a silence would now reign over Scotland. Instead, in the fortnight after the ‘No’ vote, both the Greens and SNP’s membership tripled, while Common Weal and the Radical Independence Campaign are realigning their strategies for the May 2015 General Elections. Building a genuinely politically engaged citizenry required only one action: asking a question with genuine consequences for people’s lives. It was something that my generation of young people in Britain had never experienced.
When it was announced that sixteen and seventeen year-olds would be given the vote, the first polls confirmed the idea that Scottish teenagers would vote to stay in Britain. Alex Salmond had made a big mistake, the commentators said: of course, young people were against ‘nationalism’, ‘separatism’ and the nostalgic, romantic idea of ‘freedom from the London yoke’. Even Ian Bell, columnist for the Scottish Herald, the only newspaper in the UK to support independence, published an apologetic letter to ‘Young Scotland’ after the vote. ‘I had assumed that you don’t fight a referendum with kids’, he admitted, ‘But they were, always, the best of us’. Commentators across the board profoundly misunderstood the independence movement, which won over these teenagers, ending with over 90 per cent registering to vote, and 71 per cent voting ‘Yes’. I don’t believe they would have been brought over if my generation, Generation Y, had not led from the front, using social media and ‘boots on the ground’, events and direct action, to engage this younger demographic. Back in late 2013, Ipsos Mori brought out a report on what they called the ‘Independence Generation’. They found that Generation Y, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, were far more likely to vote for an independent Scotland. By referendum day, nearly a year later, this generation had been joined by the sixteen and seventeen year-olds, newly given the vote, along with those aged between thirty-five and sixty-five. Pensioners, consuming anti-independence newspapers and TV and largely absent from social media, were just too difficult for the independence movement to reach.
Why did this generational dynamic come as a surprise? My theory is that, on a fundamental level, young people like myself are presumed to be ‘global’ in our outlook and thus uninterested in the ‘national’. Anyone under thirty-five has grown up during an era of slow and apparently inevitable dissolution, with the ‘nation’ weakening along with national democracy. Why would we care about either? During our lives, trans-nationals, NGOs and international governing bodies have expanded their powers, as has the European Union, without strengthening its own forms of democracy. The system of representational democracy has become increasingly unstable and compromised, but nothing has been seriously proposed to replace it. Yet, as we saw with the 2011-2012 social movements, despair at the democratic system can lead to engagement with changing this system. Is it so inconceivable that the same trend might apply to national politics? Yet we find it hard to accept that young people might be interested in redefining and redrawing their national political communities. Rather than seeing this as the next step of endeavouring to claim agency over our national democracies, we at once cry ‘nationalism’, presuming to find patriotic sentiments of racial and cultural supremacy underlying such a politics.
Young people and the ‘death of the nation’
It is clear that Scotland’s young people are not, all of a sudden, majority ‘nationalists’ in the sense described above. In fact, polling in the week before the vote found that those voting ‘No’ cited ‘national identity’ as one of their three main reasons for doing so, while identity did not appear in the polling of those intending to vote ‘Yes’. This indicates that a weakening of ‘British’ identity could have been more of a factor for those supporting Scottish independence than a strengthening of ‘Scottish’ identity. In turn, this reflects a broader UK-wide trend that has seen younger demographics identifying less strongly with ‘Britishness’ over the years. Leaving aside Northern Ireland with its sectarian divisions along Republican and Loyalist lines, young people in Scotland and Wales are more likely to identify as only Scottish or Welsh, not British. Perhaps more surprisingly, under thirty-fives in England are more likely to want more powers for England.
Through this framework, the picture of young people’s relationship to the nation within the British Isles takes on a new shape. Much has been made of a recent Ipsos Mori report that appeared to find that Generation Y was less supportive of the welfare state than older generations. But the report explicitly warns against such a conclusion, pointing out that there has been a cross-generational fall in support for spending on welfare, while the most marked generational difference is over the statement: ‘the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements’. Eighteen to twenty-five year olds were the least likely to agree with this, while very high levels answered ‘don’t know’.
This could be read as lack of support for the welfare state, or ambivalence towards the ideas of ‘Britishness’ and of ‘British pride’. Last year, research by the Economist Intelligence Unit into the democratic health of countries across the globe concluded that Britain is ‘beset by a deep institutional crisis’ with ‘trust in government, parliament and politicians at an all-time low’. As the same Ipsos Mori report found, this is particularly true of younger generations, who ‘tend to value personal choice more, and traditional institutions less’. To say that this marks Generation Y as a ‘selfish’ or ‘individualistic’ generation is to confuse the traditional institutions of the British state with effective, benevolent bodies that accommodate the desires and needs of all British citizens, or indeed that treat the citizens of all nations in any way equally.
To put it bluntly, us ‘Millenials’, ‘Thatcher’s children’, ‘Generation Net’, have little concrete experience of Britain as a functioning national community of politics and solidarity. Falling party and trade union memberships have marked our political lifetimes: institutions that once linked politics across borders. We have grown up under a devolution settlement, watching the post-war consensus of the welfare state and public services being dismantled, shrunk, asset stripped or sold off to the private sector. Many young people in Scotland and Wales observe what is taking place in England with horror, and see their national politicians struggling to use their devolved powers to soften the sharper edges of austerity. While Thatcher never dared to touch the health service, the NHS of England and Wales is now divided between state and private service providers, making creeping privatisation one of the key fears pushing people in Scotland to vote in favour of breaking away from Westminster. The drift between the nations of Britain is set to continue, regardless of the ‘No’ vote in the Scottish referendum.
Over the next decade, it will become increasingly important not to get trapped in a London mentality, which sees movements for self-determination in Britain’s regions and nations as ‘nationalistic’ (meaning patriotic and supremacist) or ‘parochial’. British identity is far stronger in London: the capital and Birmingham are the only regions in the UK where over 30 per cent of people identify as only British. A strong feeling of ‘Britishness’ is now the exception, not the rule, particularly for young people. This does not only concern Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but England too. The think tank IPPR has done a lot of work on the emergence of a politics of Englishness over the last two years and the way in which the Scottish independence referendum has reinforced this trend. The majority of people living in England now want more powers over their country, with polls suggesting younger generations feel slightly more strongly about the need for English democracy. In The Politics of English Nationhood, Michael Kenny explains the rising support for reforming English democracy as linked to ‘a return across Europe to forms of belonging associated with historic forms of national and regional identity’. But are young people articulating a stronger sense of identity and ‘belonging’ than older generations? The general trends common to Generation X and Y might suggest that this is more to do with power and voice: in other words a democratic demand.
It is understandably worrying to the political establishments of our countries that young people’s politics may not be as ‘global’ in outlook as it first may seem. Occupy, certainly in its British manifestation, fitted a particular narrative that can be seen as running parallel to that of neoliberal individualism: that of individuals empowered by technological innovation, in global leaderless networks (just like markets), fostering a kind of borderless form of political identity that left no institutional legacy that could have allowed it to build beyond this. I felt myself to be part of, and am supportive of Occupy, and of course it was (and is) something more than this. The 99 per cent slogan is one of trans-national solidarity, recognising that economic inequality and exploitation, exacerbated and brought into sharp relief by the financial crash, is a global problem requiring a global solution. This is not only a correct analysis, but the only possible moral response to the state of the world today. This does not mean that the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ in Hong Kong, drawing heavily on student politics and initiated by a group called Occupy Central, cannot advocate global solidarity while focusing its agency on the Chinese and Hong Kong political systems. Would this be any less a movement with a global consciousness and outlook, if it were to advocate the separation of Hong Kong from China as the only way to ensure free and fair elections of nominated and directly elected candidates without interference from the Communist Party of China?
A politics for the future
To take a step back, the politics that emerged around Scottish independence should be seen alongside so-called ‘networked’ and ‘globally-minded’ social movements like Occupy in its many manifestations. There is less contradiction here than there might at first appear. The independence movement put great emphasis on a ‘Yes’ vote as the internationalist choice. The removal of Trident was a reason in itself to many voters, but a ‘Yes’ vote was also positioned as heralding a move away from foreign aggression and militarism. In the longer-term, breaking away from Britain would guarantee that Scotland would remain in the European Union. The internationalist vision of the ‘Yes’ movement was a powerful rallying call for Generation Y, many of whom were politicised by the 2 million anti-Iraq march in 2003 and its dismissal by the Blair government. Across Britain, Generations X and Y are more pro-European than older demographics, and have arguably more to lose with the prospect of an end to free movement across European borders and the ability to work, live and study on the continent with comparative ease.
In a recent article, the journalist and author Paul Mason calls Scotland and Catalonia ‘straws in the wind for the whole of Europe’. He points to recent OECD predictions for the next fifty years, which see the economies of European countries slowing and stagnating unless two main changes occur: mass inward migration to balance ageing populations; and state-directed innovation that ‘ideally solves the energy problem’. He argues that big states will find this difficult to do, hence the rationale for small-state separation. ‘It is not just that big states are unwieldy’, he says. ‘Old developed countries such as Britain and Spain have political elites aligned with economic interests that do not favour state-funded innovation, high immigration or sustainable energy’. The SNP’s White Paper, their ‘blueprint for independence’, placed a great deal of emphasis on encouraging skilled migrants to settle, while their economic programme promised state investment and the development of a ‘new green economy’. Much of the wider independence movement went further in proposals for more radical environmental policy and the further opening of Scottish borders. Whether you agree with the ‘Yes’ campaign or not, that it presented a long-term vision for the future cannot be denied. It is not surprising that young people should vote for the promise of a politics that is vocal about combatting long-term problems and preventing future crises, which they may see in their lifetimes.
Much fun has been poked at supporters of Scottish independence through comparisons between Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage (both are strong, charismatic figures, both want state autonomy and the repatriation of powers). However, many ‘Yes’ voters saw independence as a way to break free from a country defined by UKIP’s vision of the future. UKIP, an anti-immigration party, reliant on a battalion of grey votes, with its pathological hatred of wind farms and all things ‘green’, is short-term politics at its most dangerous. The Westminster political class are at once fascinated by UKIP and over-willing to bend over backwards to bring back their older voters, exacerbating a vicious cycle of youth disengagement. The fact that young people are in general repelled by UKIP’s politics of ethnic nationalism – reliant on nostalgia, intolerance and the desire for ethnic and cultural purity – is a reason to be hopeful for Britain’s future.
A major factor is that Generations X and Y reflect the general trend of a decrease in deference to authority, tradition and hierarchy. We are not searching for a ‘lost Britain’ that we have never known. It is also a positive rejection, in which the Scottish referendum played a part, of a politics of hatred and fear, one that inevitably arises in times of financial hardship and unease. We can’t rely on this forever. The majority of young people in Britain believe they will be ‘worse off than their parents’. Under thirty-fives, disproportionately under and unemployed, with squeezed wages, in rented accommodation and leading precarious lives, could yet prove good hunting ground for Nigel Farage. Surely, this group also needs a scapegoat to explain the sudden change in their fortunes, caused by economic and socio-political global factors that are overwhelming in their complexity? In Matthew Goodwin’s book Revolt on the Right he identifies UKIP’s voter base as built on the ‘left-behind’ social groups. These are mainly old, white, working-class and lower middle-class males. Only 15 per cent of UKIP members are under forty. Yet young people in Britain today also face uncertainties as to their identity and role in society.
This brings us to the overall vision of an independent Scotland as presented by the movement: that of a ‘fairer’ and ‘more equal’ society. Again, we won’t deal here with how deliverable this vision was, but only with the kind of political alliance it inspired, between voters from lower income groups, and voters from lower age groups. Under thirty-fives have suffered disproportionately at the hands of the austerity program implemented following the 2008 financial crash, so younger demographics would inevitably be more willing to take risks with the economy in order to combat growing inequality and desperation, a perspective that would be shared with the most vulnerable members of all age groups. Immigrant communities were also more likely to vote Yes. This aligns loosely with the composition of the ‘precariat’ as set out in Guy Standing’s book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Standing envisions an emerging group with shared interests, spanning the unemployed and under-employed young, the ‘graduate without a future’, the migrant population and communities formerly belonging to the traditional working class. Standing references Occupy within his analysis of an emerging politics of the precariat, but much of this discourse could equally be applied to the movement for Scottish independence. ‘Youth politics’ is not simply a question of the attitudes taken by those people who happen to be aged under thirty-five. Young people are leading the demand for a politics of the future, rejecting the current political and economic consensus as not only unfair but also unsustainable. In Britain, this may well continue to take the form of a re-engagement with the political life of the nations and regions, given that the Westminster establishment has otherwise proved disastrously resistant to change.
Growing up under a particular kind of neoliberal globalisation does not mean that under thirty-fives conform to this way of thinking and being. Constructing identities through consumption of global culture, lifestyle choices, sexual orientations and trans-national political movements, may imply that younger demographics have turned their back on all forms of collective solidarity rooted in place or national democracy. But this is only a pragmatic reaction to a political and social landscape where the nation-state’s power has weakened. It does not mean that the politics of nationhood has become irrelevant. There is now a vacuum, which many different forces, parties and movements are rushing to fill.
Younger demographics in Britain have so far approached the nation on democratic lines. In Scotland, young people have pushed hard to rejuvenate civil society and democracy in their nation, seeking independence in order to ensure greater solidarity with those living in Scotland and beyond its borders, through a return to the moral compass of social democracy and moving against aggressive foreign policy. The referendum in September 2014 led many young people to recognise their shared interests with migrants and the economically disadvantaged of all ages, whether or not they were aware of this in the framework of ‘precarity’ or of a ‘precarious’ class. UKIP approaches the nation on ethnic lines, and addresses the anxiety of an uncertain future by finding scapegoats to blame. The party has thus far not come near the youth vote, despite rising disaffection, disadvantage and resentment amongst younger demographics following the implementation of austerity.
We only need to look across the waters to Europe to see that we can’t take this dynamic within Britain for granted. Independence movements that attract young people as supporters and leaders are not necessarily as clear-sighted and inclusive in their approach as the Scottish ‘Yes’ movement. In fact, it may turn out to have been an exceptional moment. Europe is heading into dangerously unpredictable times. The majority of young people who don’t exercise their vote at the ballot box want real change – not the ‘switcheroo’ of political parties but new forces and movements, constitutional alignments and new states. At the time of writing, Catalonia looks likely to hold an unofficial referendum on independence, again led by young people who have borne the brunt of austerity in Spain, with a 55 per cent youth unemployment rate. Independence movements have emerged or are gaining ground in the Basque country and Venetia in Italy, as well as in Ukraine, to mention some of the most notable. Young people’s precarity, under- and un-employment and uncertain future leave us vulnerable to the appeal of the far right and arguments for a ‘return to the nation’ based on ethnic, rather than democratic lines.
Finally, my generation faces immense challenges that require international cooperation on an unprecedented scale. How we are able to confront these will in part depend on our relationship to the nation-state, whose role is in transition. The Scottish independence referendum showed that, where demands for democratic revival and constitutional change are met with a genuine outlet for expression, young people respond with peaceful, wide-scale and transformative engagement. In Britain, the weakness and instability of the Union, and the detachment of younger demographics from the ‘British’ identity, should not mean that we ignore or dismiss the politics of nationhood. This will be crucial in how we respond to and influence the volatile politics that is set to reshape Britain and Europe, even if our ultimate aim is a borderless world.