A mighty wind
So now we know. Scotland really *wasn't* desperate enough to embrace the uncertainty and change of full independence. The English powers that be may, as The Good Wife star Alan Cumming wrote in the New York Times, be patronizing and disrespectful, but they're not parking tanks in St. Andrews Square, burning down churches, or abrogating freedom of speech.
In July, in Edinburgh, it was difficult to find anyone terribly interested in the upcoming referendum. This week in Glasgow, a pair of days before the vote itself, it was everywhere. (I will admit to having provoked some of the conversations). My small, skewed sample held more Yes votes than Noes or Undecideds, but: small, skewed, unrepresentative, of Scotland as a whole though not of Glasgow in particular (since Glasgow voted Yes). One thing everyone agreed: both campaigns sucked, though the No campaign sucked more.
The Yes campaign has been criticized for vagueness about what an independent future might look like. It's an understandable complaint and yet uncertainty is at least somewhat honest: no one can have any idea how Scotland will really fare as an independent country until (or unless) it's put to the test over a century or two. On Monday night, on an extended edition of Newsnight, academics batted figures back and forth comparing how much of a funding gap an independent Scotland would have to fill. The No voter cited the withdrawal of funds from Westminster; the Yes voter cited contributions made by Scotland to Westminster and the EU. You would think facts would provide greater clarity - but in politics somehow they never do.
One thing we really can learn from the Scottish referendum is that people will turn out in droves - 97 percent of the population registered to vote, 85+ percent showed up at the polls - if they have something to vote about that they believe matters and offers the prospect of real change. (Even if that vote is ultimately to avoid change.) Politicians wittering on about electronic voting to improve citizen engagement are utterly missing the point: it's not *how* you vote that matters but whether you think someone at the other end is listening to your opinion on a subject you care about. Add up the various financial crises, bank bailouts, and resulting austerity measures, and is voter alienation any surprise?
Exactly how to reverse that isn't clear. The temptation, for an American observing the ability of British political parties to ram policies through like elected dictatorships, is to think that greater power for local government is at least a partial solution. In turn that requires local areas to have their own tax-raising powers. In the UK, control inevitably tends to revert to the center because the tax structure ensures that any power local authorities have is delegated by central government and can be withdrawn at any time. On the other hand, if local councils are using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act as an invitation to snoop on people suspected of minor infractions, greater local power is clearly not a complete answer to the kinds of issues net.wars frets about.
In one of my Glasgow conversations, someone suggested that an independent Scotland would have to dial back on surveillance because it wouldn't be able to afford the cost. Sadly, the reality is more likely the other way around: having built the infrastructure to comply with UK and EU law since 1999, a small, newly independent country might not be able to afford to reengineer its systems to rip the surveillance structures out. And even if it did: a quick glance at the map of submarine cables shows the truth: as long as England holds Cornwall it holds the key entry and exit points for the entire island.
It remains to hope that the promises David Cameron has been making for the last few days - greater devolved powers not just for Scotland but for the other parts of the UK - will find some reality. The utterly anti-democratic passage of the DRIP Act shows how badly *some* kind of change is needed to counteract the complete arrogance and contempt with which large portions of all three major parties are now treating their constituents. I mean us, the people who pay their salaries.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.