The Scottish Vote & Us

by Michael Sean Winters

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The people of Scotland voted yesterday to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The vote was not as close as some polls predicted, with 55% voting against independence to 45% in favor. There are lessons in the vote for us Americans and, specifically, for us American Catholics.

The most obvious lesson is that people participate when they think their vote matters. Some regions reported more than 90% voter turnout yesterday and, overall, turnout stood at 84%. Around sixty percent of all eligible Americans vote even in presidential years and in midterm elections, like the ones this autumn, less than half the eligible electorate cast a ballot. In 2010, only 41% of Americans voted in that year’s midterm elections. Whatever one thinks of the result in Scotland yesterday, the people there are to be commended for exercising the franchise in such large numbers.

I suppose it is good news that the Scots decided not to break up their 307 year old union with England and Wales (and, subsequently, Northern Ireland). The whole world seems to be disintegrating at times and a Yes vote would have only added to that perception. When people sense that the world is disintegrating, that chaos is growing, desperate appeals become plausible and fanatics can gain traction.

Yet, the arguments against independence mostly focused on the economic downside of breaking up the union. Would Scots still be able to use the pound? Without subsidies from the government in Westminster, what would happen to vital social programs like the NHS? It would have been nice to see a whole people rise up and say that there are things in this world more important than economic things.

I say “mostly” because one proponent of sticking with the UK did insist that there were things more important than money, and his intervention is rightly being hailed as decisive in swaying the undecided voters to move en masse into the No column. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown made the point that nationalism and governance are not synonymous. “The vote tomorrow is not about whether Scotland is a nation,” Brown told a Glasgow audience this week. “We are – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The vote tomorrow is whether you want to break and sever every link.” Brown was almost uniquely placed to make the case that a No vote could be as much an expression of solidarity as a Yes ballot.

My friend E.J. Dionne called attention to Brown’s speech in his column yesterday. As is usual, I find myself largely in agreement with what E.J. wrote but I would only register one quibble. He framed the choice facing Scottish voters as one between the head and the heart. My quibble is not that this is untrue, but that we have permitted it to become true. We have allowed ourselves in the West to believe, and it is merely a belief, that our head must, absolutely must, adopt some of the detritus of Descartes and his Cogito in determining what our heads should demand. I submit that there are rational, albeit non-measurable, reasons for preferring local solidarity to distant, albeit more efficient and even more prosperous, governance. It is more human. It is less impersonal. It is not only my heart that tells me this but a realism about the human person.

In the U.S. we hold our presidents accountable for the state of the economy, even though the state of the economy is subject to forces over which no president can exercise significant control. The Affordable Care Act could not be defended merely in terms of social justice, but in terms of efficiency. And, if you are reading about some troubled part of the word and encounter the word “tribal” or “tribalism” will you not reflexively produce a negative connotation? The narrative is deep and omnipresent – there is a rational world out there, just waiting to be measured and, so, controlled, and slowly, fitfully, secularization, the advance of human knowledge, and the more or less obvious promise of liberal ideals, all will lead us to a better future, less encumbered by tribal concerns, religious inhibitions, and irrational habits. The narrative is false, but it undergirds so much of our public discourse. There is no such Cartesian world. There is no such future. I do not know what the crosstabs will show from the polling in Scotland, but I do know that the fact that this referendum was held, and the huge turnout it provoked, shows that this was no mere matter of the heart. Increasingly, I am of a mind that Catholic social teaching, with its fine, nuanced understanding of the need for both solidarity and subsidiarity, is far more realistic than the interest-driven, logically formal, rights-based, social science-informed polity that animates so much of contemporary liberal politics.

The other day, I was speaking with a very wise priest on a seemingly unrelated topic. We were discussing Catholic higher education and the situation of those schools which have focused more on “academic excellence” than on “Catholic mission.” Given the sad state of so much of the contemporary American academy, I am increasingly of the belief that unless a school focuses on its Catholic mission, it will be unable to achieve academic excellence. The Enlightenment has achieved much, but it has hit its limits, its lack of a firm foundation is increasingly evident, its successes imperiled by its own inability to justify, in human terms, why it believes what it believes and advocates what it advocates. “Justice” and “Equality” become mere slogans. The modern secular academy cannot generate what it needs for its own survival.

Gordon Brown reminded the people of Scotland, and hopefully the rest of us, that there are deeper realities than those debated in Westminster or Edinburgh, that the bonds of nationhood cannot be vitiated by any political vote. (Nor, as mentioned yesterday, can the bonds of nationhood be created by a political maneuver, still less by a foreign invasion, in lands such as those in the Mideast where the boundaries of states bear no relation to any sense of identity.) It is easier to feel a sense of solidarity with someone who is near to me, not necessarily someone who is just like me, and only by claiming that sense of solidarity for the No vote, did Brown make a persuasive case to his fellow Scots, a case that could not be made by the Tory PM David Cameron, and not just because of his accent. As we Americans look at our own political landscape, will we look at the deeper issues? Or will we simply consult the Dow and vote accordingly?





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