Executive chairman of Renaissance Care and co-founder of the pro-Union group Scottish Business UK, Robert Kilgour maintains that “there is no reason why a group of us in business shouldn’t challenge” proposed legislation enabling the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination. Equally, there is no reason why a group of consumers should not challenge those who use their economic power to thwart the democratic process.
If a number of wealthy people can combine to deny democracy why should not the less privileged combine to defend democracy? If businesses can issue threats such as Kilgour’s, why shouldn’t the customers and potential customers of those businesses respond in kind?
If it is legitimate for business people to form collectives for the purpose of pursuing a political aim then it must also be legitimate for others to collectivise in order to create a countervailing force. Democracy cannot long survive a substantial imbalance of power. If business interests are to be powerful actors in the political sphere then those whose interests are threatened must organise in their own defence.
Those whose sole or primary interest is private profit cannot be allowed to act with impunity. They must know that should they set themselves against the people then there will be a price to be paid. A penalty such as they will understand. A strike against their ‘bottom line’. They threaten our democratic rights. We threaten their profits. That seems only fair.
Not that the economically powerful are interested in fairness. The very business people who consider it perfectly proper that they should organise against Scotland’s cause will be the first to cry foul should the independence movement seek to organise in its own defence. That is the nature of privilege and a vaunting sense of entitlement.
If their weapon is money then ours is the capacity to choke off their supply of money. The boycott has an honourable place in the history of progressive reform. It is a potentially powerful weapon in the hands of the hands of those who would otherwise be powerless. But the potential of the boycott cannot be realised without what Alexis de Tocqueville called the knowledge of how to combine. Businesses have this knowledge. They have a ready infrastructure which facilitates combination. When their common interests are threatened they form cartels to defend those interests. We, the people, have lost the knowledge of how to combine.
That knowledge is not completely lost. We can and do still combine. But we rarely do so as effectively as we might. It’s as if we shy away from the power of effective combination. Perhaps it is right that we should be cautious. As someone once said, with great power comes great responsibility. It is fitting that we should be wary of the power that a mass movement can wield. The knowledge of how to combine must include the knowledge of how to control the power thus unleased.
It is in the area of control that we tend to fall short. Even when we have total agreement on how our combined power is to be directed we have great difficulty in deciding who will do the directing. We want the power to effect change. But we don’t trust ourselves with that power. We distrust power because we have learned to distrust the powerful. We have to get over that obstacle if we are to defend against those who are perfectly comfortable with power.
The boycott can be an effective weapon in the hands of consumers. But it demands a high degree of control. That weapon will remain available but unused until we find a way to control it. Until we find someone we trust to do the controlling.
Robert Kilgour and his ilk are betting that we never will.
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