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  • Published in Book Reviews

Neil Faulkner welcomes a powerfully argued case for a yes vote in the coming Scottish independence referendum

Book Cover

James Foley and Pete Ramand, Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence (Pluto Press 2014), 160pp.

‘Banks, bombs, and bullshit’ (p.25) is a neat summary of what British capitalism amounts to in the early 21st century. Manufacturing industry was decimated by Thatcher in the 1980s and has never recovered. British capitalism’s centre of gravity is now, more than ever before, the City of London. The Tory Party gets 50% of its funding from the banks.

The rise and rise of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is an exemplar of the new economic order. This parasitic predator had amassed assets of £1.9 trillion before the 2008 Crash – more than the UK’s entire annual GDP. RBS boss Fred Goodwin was duly knighted for his services to casino capitalism. The neoliberal political elite – Tory, Liberal, New Labour, and SNP – cheered him on.

Meantime, Scottish society was being reconfigured by levels of social inequality and exclusion not known since the 1930s. Manufacturing employment in Glasgow collapsed from 23.2% to 7.4%, while services employment rose to 87%. The haemorrhage of relatively well-paid jobs in traditional unionised industries meant soaring poverty, ill-health, alcoholism, violence, and suicide on many blighted estates.

Glasgow reflects the national trend. The ascent of the super-rich and the immiseration of the poor begun under Thatcher and has continued unabated since under Major, Blair, Brown, and Cameron. Britain’s richest one thousand now have £250 billion more than a decade ago, while 3.5 million British children, one in four, endure relative poverty.

Financialisation

The scams of the rich – and the collaboration of the political elite – are blatant. Take the example of Edinburgh’s new Royal Infirmary. Priced at £148 million, the corporate profiteers who landed the PFI contract to run it are being paid £1.26 billion by the taxpayer. Overall, according to a House of Commons report, profit rates for PFI schemes average 50%, making them ‘significantly more expensive to fund over the life of a project’.

That, of course, is the intention: financialisation means redistributing wealth from society as a whole to the banks; it means turning taxes levied on workers’ wages into state handouts to the corporations. PFI schemes are a perfect mechanism for achieving this.

Such manufacturing as survives is heavily skewed towards armaments. Around 10% of British manufacturing is arms-related, making Britain the second largest producer of arms in the world, with military-hardware exports worth £11.4 billion in 2013. The belligerence of British imperialism over the last two decades – in the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East – is in part a sales pitch for British-made kit. This also helps explain the bullshit.

Take this gem from the supreme master of British bullshit. ‘Century upon century it has been the destiny of Britain to lead other nations,’ intoned Tony Blair. ‘That should not be a destiny that is part of our history. It should be part of our future’ (p.11).

All the lies about Britain’s ‘special role in the world’, about ‘humanitarian intervention’, about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and ‘the war on terror’, all of them have their root in the peculiar configuration of the British economy and state in the early 21st century; the hollowing out of its old manufacturing base, the continuing importance of arms production, the disproportionate size of the military, and the role of the City of London, the world’s greatest tax haven, in shaping policy. The long-term decline of British capitalism leaves Britain’s rulers clinging to a niche in the global order defined by ‘banks, bombs, and bullshit’.

The Yes campaign

One of the many great strengths of James Foley and Pete Ramand’s excellent book, arguing the case for a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum later this year, is the way it contextualises the whole debate. Their frame is British capitalism, British nationalism, British imperialism, and the British state. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that these are the main enemy, and than anything and everything that weakens them should be supported.

Each of the detailed political arguments raised in the referendum campaign is explored with reference to this wider context. Scotland’s industrial malaise, the rising poverty on the estates, the invisibility of British nationalism as an issue (as opposed to Scottish nationalism), the authoritarian neoliberalism of all three Westminster parties, the baleful influence of ‘Middle England’ on the Scottish Labour Party, the vacuity of the official Yes campaign, all this and much else are framed by one central argument: a no vote will strengthen the British state and all it stands for, whereas a yes vote will weaken the grip of the neoliberal elite, generate popular expectations of change, and create space for advancing radical alternatives.

This argument is unanswerable. It is confirmed by analysis of both the social base of the two campaigns, and by the relative dynamism of the Yes campaign, especially that of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), with which the authors are closely associated.

The No/Better Together campaign is a right-wing united front formed of the three Westminster parties backed by big-business money. ‘A strong No vote in 2014,’ say Foley and Ramand, ‘could open new opportunities for this united front, allowing a new right to emerge in a hopeless vacuum’ (p.77).

The SNP

The Yes campaign is, of course, dominated by the SNP. That the SNP is a bourgeois nationalist party is not in question. Yet it stands to the left of Scottish Labour on all major questions, and the traditional class basis of voting in Scotland (as in Britain more generally) has to a very large degree broken down.

Only 10% of those polled in 2005 felt that Labour strongly protected working-class interests (down from 46% in 1987). By contrast, 57% of SNP members consider their party to be ‘left-wing’. As early as 1997, left-leaning Scots were as likely to vote SNP as Labour, and by 2003 a clear majority of Scottish voters considered the SNP – not Labour – to be the country’s ‘progressive party’. Among younger working-class people, the eclipse of Labour as the party of the Left is even more marked. The rise of the SNP reflects an uncoupling of class and voting behaviour, and the vitality and excitement around the Yes campaign owes much to the attractiveness of the SNP’s left face to young voters.

That means, of course, that the SNP is riddled with contradictions; divided into left and right, reformists and neoliberals, fundamentalists and gradualists. These contradictions will open up if the Yes campaign wins, since rising expectations in the wake of independence will then collide with the pro-business allegiances and instincts of the mainstream SNP leadership.

What are the implications of this? Foley and Ramand avoid giving a direct answer. The book has been written and published with commendable speed. Despite this, it is exceptionally clearly argued and well written: a first-class summary of the case for Scottish voters to break with the British nation-state. But the authors are looking in two different directions at the same time – or rather, addressing two different audiences at the same – and the result is a degree of obfuscation.

Is the book a statement on behalf of the Radical Independence Campaign as a whole – which embraces left-reformists as well as revolutionaries – or is it a statement of the authors’ own firmly anti-capitalist politics?

Left-reformism or anti-capitalism?

The unresolved problem becomes acute in the final chapter, ‘Scotland vs. the 21st century: towards a radical-needs agenda’ (pp.90-117). The authors present an attractive range of policies for post-independence economic, social, and political reform. They would be resisted by the banks, the corporations, and the neoliberal political elite. The attempt to implement them would therefore require the mobilisation of mass forces to confront and defeat these vested interests. And this, if successful, would in turn pose the question of power in society and thus, potentially, generate a revolutionary crisis.

Or so it seems to me. For I do not believe that there is a Keynesian/left-reformist solution to the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. I doubt the authors do either, yet they make reference to other, more successful, ‘small-nation’ capitalist economies like Sweden, and to anti-neoliberal regimes which have rejected market models and implemented social-reform programmes in Latin America.

Is the radical-needs agenda a left-Keynesian programme for turning Scotland into a niche ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy with strong public services and social protection? Or is it a set of ‘transitional demands’ capable of mobilising the mass of ordinary Scots in a struggle for change that will culminate in the overthrow of finance capital?

This question is not posed, let alone answered. ‘As socialists,’ the authors conclude,

'we reject unequal wages, inherited property, and imperialist rivalries on basic principles of justice. But we also accept that these are divisive principles. What Scots can unite upon is the unsustainable direction of British capitalism. If we vote no, we all but guarantee more decades of austerity, privatisation, and warfare. We will miss our chance to contribute a working model of environmental sustainability. We will assume, with utmost complacency, that Labour governments are capable of reforming Westminster, despite all evidence to the contrary. Let us not repeat our mistakes of 1979, and resign ourselves to more Thatcher decades. Our vote counts. By our actions we can restore hope, assert co-operation and tolerance, and deliver a message: that Scotland will never again submit to the administration of mindless cruelty’ (pp.123-4).

The problem here is that voting yes will not end ‘austerity, privatisation, and warfare’, nor will it deliver ‘environmental sustainability’. These things are not achievable in the context of a capitalist Scotland. Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence provides an excellent critique of the British nation-state and a compelling case for voting yes to break it up. It also offers an inspiring list of social reforms that would, if implemented, transform Scotland. What it fails to do is to spell out clearly what would be involved in making that second transition – from independence to socialism.

Tagged under: Scotland
Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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