I like the Yes People. Who wouldn’t? They’ve got a fantastically daring vision, and they’re unafraid to upset the status quo in favour of creating a society that’s more just. They seem like builders. With all their zeal to engage the world as a blank slate rather than an inherited order, I think I’d like most Yes People quite a lot.
It’s just too bad the size of their dream is so small.
Building a new, independent state is no small feat, but it is a small, unradical and unprogressive dream. The Westphalian nation-state – really? An old-fogey fetish that fortifies and glorifies an ancient concept of ethnicity, defining itself against others, dividing itself from common cause across many nations? Why are Yes People, from Scotland to Quebec to Catalonia, so obsessed with gifting the world another thing as horrible as this?
It seems funny. Yes People express a fantastic, radical positivity about what politics ought to be, but the anachronistic solution of nationalism is just so poor. Recognising that the old order is corrupt and elitist and impossibly out of touch is one thing – the prospect of carving out a unique island of self-reliant justice, though, smells like something else.
Nationalism, but the good kind
The coincidence of nationalism and social democratic optimism has always seemed uncomfortable to me. Because to choose the former as a means of achieving the latter does suggest something contradictory, and a bit awful – that one people are actually inherently more just than another. That the borders once drawn up by monarchs, generals and ancient elites continue to be valid boundaries for whole ways of thinking and looking at the world. While Yes People are relentlessly progressive in some senses, they’re also basing the separatist project on the implicit assumption that those across the border aren’t capable partners in making a fairer world. We, the exclusive we, are fairer by design.
If that itself sounds unfair, I’d welcome the counterargument. To me, the big positive dream has to be bigger than drawing new lines between ourselves in the naive hope that our most familiar neighbours are fairer than the rest – the big positive dream is to say that borders themselves represent the worst of the old world, and that something more interdependent, and more social, and more purely civic can be built on top of the kingdoms of centuries gone by. Let’s get a dream going that we can all rally round, regardless of race, language or geography.
Dreaming bigger dreams
What are some examples? The big one that Yes People recognise is that Westminster itself is deeply, deeply flawed. I mean deeply. It’s upper house is a gaggle of unelected partisan hacks and millionaire donors. It seems to govern for the whole country on odd days and for London and the South East on even days. And, when political crises hit (like, the very Scottish referendum itself), it suddenly lurches planlessly into ad hoc distributions of powers, spraying them against the squeaky wheel in a mad, oily, last-minute panic. Let’s be honest – the Mother of All Parliaments is a letch and a dunce and it needs a good kick up the backside.
So a fairer, federal, devolved, de-Westminsterised country is in order. Let’s do it! We can federalise the country into English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with regional authorities commanding meaty constitutional powers. We can decimate the Lords (not literally – we’re not monsters, after all) by cutting the upper house to a tenth of its size and ensuring all future members are elected by region – mixed-member constituencies, shall we? We can cut the Commons by half, too, since half their work will be run by the regions, and we could field out half the civil service to the regions as well. Bring authority as close to people as you can, draw it up in a written constitution, and proceed as a country that works as a proper, future-orientated democratic concert of powers – not as a chew-toy for the Bullingdon Club.
That kind of reform sounds like a big, mad,impossible dream. But a dream, I think, that’s suitably big for the energies of the Yes People.
Some think that the UK is just an irredeemable thing, and that carving ourselves into ethno-bits is the best approach for everyone. George Monbiot, in classic contrarian form, is one English advocate of Yes, though he too is dreaming the smaller dream. In wondering how a modern, independent Scotland might vote in a hypothetical referendum to join the UK, he says that no nation in any healthy condition would ever volunteer to cede power to a larger polity. I’m a social democratic pro-European, so I obviously think he’s missed a pretty big point. Just as I want the UK to stay together, I do want the UK to then also plunge more deeply into the European system – not because we’re a desperate country, and not because I like the EPP politics of Barroso and Juncker, but because Europe needs more social democrats. We’re obliged not to simply fold our arms, slink off and leave Brussels to it – and so I’d say the same to the Yes People. Get in. Muck about. Change things for the better, not the smaller.
If only CEOs were on the ballot…
My biggest fear about the big dreams of the Yes People is that the thrill of nationhood is the real driver, and that disenchantment with how the UK functions is just the cloth within which to couch a more basic, brute form of face-painted nationalism. Admittedly, there’s something a bit underwhelming about committing to long-haul constitutional reform of the UK, and indeed the whole of Europe, as compared with the sheer excitement of celebrating an Independence Day for its own sake.
But in a world where Toyota has more economic clout than the Czech Republic, Independence Days are increasingly expensive vanities. However unaccountable Westminster looks from here, transnational corporations are most certainly worse. Better off for people to pool our powers within a big, muscular, interdependent, multinational democracy than to cut ourselves into little bits – or it won’t just be the annoyances of a too-distant capital that will nudge at our local sensibilities, but the companies without capitals, able to bully and coerce the small states at will. United, as they say, we stand.
Going Real Proper-like Big
So, Yes People, let’s go bigger than Scotland. Let’s work to change the UK and the whole of the EU, as an active, confident member of each. Driving reform, forcing fairness, equality and investment in people, and pushing for a system that people are actually happy to vote for. Anyone who thinks it can’t be done, I hate to say, isn’t really a proper Yes Person at all.