It was only a few days ago that the debate over Scottish independence was brought into sharp focus for me. As a person born in Dublin of American and Northern Irish parentage, the politics of London – never mind Edinburgh – were at a remove for me.
The idea that Scotland might separate from the UK and form its own tiny country seemed too far-fetched to take seriously. Well, no longer.
But it’s clear to me now that the campaign for Scottish independence is actually a bell-weather not just for the union of Great Britain, or a referendum on the Tories or Labour.
It is a test of how people would rather align themselves: with the big or the small. Contemporary Britain has been stripped of its pomp and circumstance, its power and its glory. Now suddenly it seems too big and unwieldy.
It doesn’t work well in the present, but its colonial past is a cause of embarrassment, rather than pride. What remains is an unconvincing narrative of ‘togetherness’ propagated by diminished institutions and unpopular bureaucracies.
Indeed the ‘togetherness’ idea is undermined by the sneaking suspicion that people all over the world are in fact separating, atomising, retreating into the comfortable confines of social media echo chambers.
Of course the institutions and bureaucracies still perform the vital functions of democracy, but we neither fear nor love them. And I wonder if we have already forgotten what life was like before they existed.
Many see the referendum in terms of Scottish nationalism, which makes sense.
But the strength of the independence movement, whether it wins or loses next week, also taps into an undercurrent of hostility to the idea of “the nation” as it has been understood since the early 20th century.
It seems that many of our fellow Westerners are no longer comfortable being ‘big.’ From San Francisco to Berlin we have grown wary of the monolithic authority structures under whose auspices we have been born, housed, educated and entertained.
It’s no coincidence that recent polls show that voters over 55 are the only cohort still firmly in the No camp. For those of us raised by baby boomers and ‘68’ers, who came of age under the shadow of Reagan and Thatcher and were educated in the narratives of state injustice against minorities, the ties of loyalty to the idea of nation have been irreversibly weakened.
Authority and power are at best viewed with ambivalence, if not outright hostility and suspicion. No matter if the authorities and power structures we live under are, even with their many flaws, the most benign and egalitarian in human history.
Many in the west are rejecting the idea of collective identity in favor of individual choice, even if that makes us weaker in a traditional power equation.
Ultimately, severing ties to the bigger power will probably be too much of a risk for Scottish voters. And here in Northern Ireland, reliance on state monoliths is as strong as ever.
If Peter Robinson has his way, we will be moving closer to the power centre, not farther from it. But the Scottish independence movement has clearly touched a nerve with many people who no longer take it on faith that bigger is better.
Once the ball starts rolling, it’s hard to see where it stops.