Chris Bambery argues that, despite the No vote in the referendum last month, the British state remains mired in a deep crisis with no obvious way out
The crisis of the British state has taken a major jump forward in the last month or so. All the elements of this crisis flow from the irreversible decline of British power, which the ruling class has not been able to stem let alone reverse in over a century.
The first element is one which has only sprung to the fore in little over a decade – the possible break up of the British state. It seems a lifetime ago that the independence issue in Scotland was the pursuit of a minority; just over a quarter of the electorate, at most, supported independence until quite recently. The UK elite might have dreamed prior to 18 September that a No vote to Scottish independence would bury the constitutional issue but that has proved wide of the mark.
Firstly, the unionists must be well aware the No vote only won a majority among the over-55s – time is not on the side of the Union. The working class base of the Yes vote means the independence issue can easily become tied up with social unrest, opposition to austerity or war, for example. Doubts will grow that the issue of independence is not done and dusted, casting a long term shadow over belief in the stability of the UK in Washington, Brussels and beyond.
In addition, their referendum victory came at a cost. Gordon Brown’s last minute promise of more powers for the Scottish parliament was matched by David Cameron’s questioning of why Scottish MPs at Westminster should vote on English matters. At the Tory Party conference he then promised “English votes for English laws”. How any of this is going to be delivered remains unclear at best.
Tactically, in the short term Brown was thinking of preventing defeat and Cameron of strengthening his position in relation to Ukip and his own backbenchers. But in the longer term it opens up the possibility of a federal Britain. In ruling class circles that must be seen as a further weakening of the British state – if not a stepping stone to its break up.
The second element of the British crisis is the European issue. Since 1945 the British ruling class has been divided on Europe, although a majority favours EU membership, recognising that it’s the UK’s biggest trading partner.
In the 1970s, after a Tory government under Edward Heath secured membership of today’s EU, the argument seemed most polarised within the Labour Party and on the left. After Harold Wilson was re-elected premier in 1974 he decided to call a referendum on British membership, calculating a win for Yes to EU membership would isolate his left wing critics, principally Tony Benn, who opposed the EU on solid democratic grounds. That’s what happened, but the decision of the Labour left and their Communist allies to block with right wing anti-Europeans like Enoch Powell meant the No campaign was fought on the terrain of national sovereignty. That helped ensure the debate on Europe ever since has been dominated by right wing arguments.
That was reinforced as the European issue became increasingly fractious in the Tory Party under Thatcher. It effectively wrecked John Major’s 1992-1997 government, continued to fester during their thirteen years in opposition and has re-emerged full force during Cameron’s tenure in office. The emergence of UKIP means that this issue is not going away. In the week before the Scottish referendum Chatham House released a poll saying voters in London and Scotland would opt to stay in the EU if a referendum was held but the rest of Britain would choose to quit. Nicola Sturgeon, set to become Scottish First Minister, has said she favours another referendum in that event.
Its hard to see Cameron winning next year’s Westminster election, certainly not outright, but its hard to get excited by the prospect of Ed Miliband winning the key to Downing Street. He’s pledged not to call an EU referendum, but success for Ukip could alter that. If his premiership relies on Scottish Labour MPs that opens another can of worms.
Britain’s economic decline leaves it ever more dependent on finance and financial services, to a greater extent than even in 2008 when the banks crashed. High levels of investment abroad is accompanied by low investment at home resulting in low productivity. Britain is a low wage, low skill economy as a result.
Despite George Osborne’s hype about economic growth, domestic debt levels are high, the budget deficit has grown on his watch and there’s no export boom. When polls began suggesting the Scots might back independence Sterling fell because of doubts over the financial position of UK PLC if it lost oil revenue from the North Sea. In other words the British economy is trapped in decline. The current property boom can pop if overseas investors decide the UK is not stable enough for them to park their money and the economy is very exposed to further financial turmoil.
Lastly there is something pathetic about Britain’s involvement in a fresh Iraq war. It’s committed just six ageing warplanes, less than Denmark. Yet Whitehall clings to the belief it’s Washington’s “special” ally in a delusional way. As we saw in the Scottish referendum campaign, it matters to the UK elite that Britain is still regarded as a “power.” But that relies ever more on clinging on to the USA’s tail. Iraq and Syria form one morass into which this new “coalition of the willing” is being drawn. Obama and Cameron have both said this will be a long – and costly – war.
Already unpopular, a long military campaign against a background of continuous austerity, with no recovery in living standards in sight, can only add to the problems facing Britain’s rulers, and reignite opposition to war. Over the last few months the pro-independence campaign in Scotland and the protests over Israel’s assault on Gaza show how quickly movements can erupt.
The crisis which faces Britain will become intertwined with the whole issue of Scotland’s position within the UK. Of course things will play out in separate ways north of the border but the intensification of the British crisis will impact in varied ways. For the radical forces involved in the referendum campaign its crucial to stay together in order to resist war, austerity, Westminster going back on the Home Rule pledge and much else – because the deepening crisis of the British state in which we remain for now requires us to organise and resist.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.