Jonathon Shafi looks at the corporate takeover of the UK state, and how Scottish independence threatens to break up this corrupt monopoly
The state is not a neutral actor in society. It is not a referee between competing interests, nor does it arbitrate contending forces and ideas without interest. The state represents, in concentrated form, the interests of British capitalism. The British State is an old one, steeped in a history of entrenched power. They are a well schooled establishment with experience of foreign occupations and of domestic coercion. From day one, individuals who turn into future political leaders inside the British establishment are trained in public speaking, hardwired into networks of power and given a sense of entitlement. They are confident in their political and intellectual prowess. As this (real) Eton exam question shows, they are prepared to rule:
‘The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister.
Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.’
This elite is born to rule, and they are widely seen to oversee a polity which is corrupt and self-serving. The bail out of the banks has not been forgotten; neither has cash for access, or MPs expenses, or the ties between this government and the Murdoch media empire. But the degree to which corruption is intrinsic to the operation of the British state is unknown to the public at large.
Westminster is the political wing of a state apparatus that weds elite economic concerns to strategic geo-political management. Its political parties all function with the same basic state ideology: neoliberal consensus. The ways in which this is maintained are instructive, and there are some important examples of this which are worth discussing.
‘TheCityUK’ at Westminster
Westminster has built around it an army of lobbyists, business networks and think tanks. Big business operating in Britain work under ‘TheCityUK’ umbrella which ensures that Westminster works as the political arm of the corporate world. Its advisory council makes this self-evident. To name just a few: the Managing Director of Ernst & Young, Managing Partner of KPMG, Co-Chief Executive of Goldman Sachs International, CEO of Deutsche Bank UK, CEO of Canary Wharf, Managing Partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The list goes on. Organised; well funded and with a tight relationship with the institutions of political power.
It is not just that corporations bribe, or pay money to win policy positions and influence Westminster. They do this, as was exposed recently by Panorama in the case of Patrick Mercer MP who took money to lobby for Fijian business interests at Westminster. But the reality is that most of the cosy relationships between big business and parliament are about convenience and about ideology: ‘getting business to run things is common practice so why stop? And in any case, who else are we going to get to do it? Certainly not the public sector.’ Add to this that the individuals at the top of the public and private sectors are constantly shifting from one to the other – senior civil servant one day, on the board of a corporation the next – then you can see why there is so little disquiet about the corporate capture of Westminster.
This is not rhetoric. The complex intersection of Westminster and corporations is empirically identifiable. For example, ‘Monitor’ is the name of the group set up to help oversee and enforce the entry of the private sector into the NHS. Out of the 6 members on Monitors senior management board, two worked for KPMG and two for City consultancy firm, McKinsey. Both firms have previously won contracts for previous private finance schemes, and are winning big contracts as a result of NHS reforms. Companies are dividing up the NHS for private profit, and it is government policy to do so. 142 peers linked to companies involved in private healthcare were able to vote on the health bill that opened the way to sweeping outsourcing which McKinsey helped draw up.
The Medical Research Council, which disburses research funds for the preservation of life, is chaired by a man who ran a company specialising in weapons technology. Sir John Chisholm was the civil servant in charge of privatising the government’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. While doing so, he bought a £129,000 stake in the company. The value of this stake rose to £26m when the new defence firm, QinetiQ, was floated.
The Office of Rail Regulation is run by current or former executives of National Express, BAA, Rolls Royce, National Grid and Thames Water. No passenger interest groups, no unions, no consultation.
The most eloquent and articulate summation of the corporate corruption of the British State is expressed by Seamus Milne:
…the real corruption that has eaten into the heart of British public life is the tightening corporate grip on government and public institutions – not just by lobbyists, but by the politicians, civil servants, bankers and corporate advisers who increasingly swap jobs, favours and insider information, and inevitably come to see their interests as mutual and interchangeable. The doors are no longer just revolving but spinning, and the people charged with protecting the public interest are bought and sold with barely a fig leaf of regulation.
Decline and Divide
One of the key intellectual tenets of this neoliberal age is that commercial transactions and interpersonal relations (including of the corrupt kind detailed above) have washed away any real ideological questions. There is a false, but in some circles fashionable notion, that ideology is not important anymore. The old battles have been fought, and now we live in a society where fundamental differences in world-view are irrelevant The pragmatic facts of a market society are supposed to reinforce Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’.
But, of course, history has not ended. It came back with a bang when Lehmann Brothers collapsed in late 2008, which kicked off an economic crisis that shook the capitalist system to the core, and continues without an end in sight today. These are anything but stable, politically ‘smooth’ times. They are fraught with uncertainty, opportunity, tension and possibility.
The time-old strategy of divide and rule has therefore been back in full force, as when the system cannot provide an ideology which unifies people behind it, it must find scapegoats to blame to account for its weaknesses.
So the right wing press fills their pages with stories of ‘benefit scroungers’ to create the idea of a deserving and undeserving poor. They sow division on the basis of race and religion, and utilise, as they always have done, fear of immigration. The political attacks on the most vulnerable are acutely driven by the question of class. No one, but no one, is to blame for the situation we find ourselves in, apart from one section of the working class or another. Forget the political and economic system, the financial institutions and the corporations.
But the right-wing press operate in a broader historical context; one of economic decline. Bitterness and hate are necessary to rationalise falling living standards and fading aspirations for the basics of a decent life: social and economic security. It is no wonder that the No campaign focuses on generating fear as a strategy as this links with
The ‘immigration vans’ are a good example of the British state and the right-wing press mutually reinforcing one another. The political spectrum in Westminster has moved steadily to the right on immigration, and continues to do so. The attack on the Muslim community, is indivisible from the foreign policy of the British State. We need to look at the whole picture, rather than getting frustrated at one aspect of the system: the dots need joined.
The policy of divide and rule will only intensify, as will the sensation created around the royal family, and other events such as the commemoration of the start of WWI next year. This reflects strength on one hand, but on the other, nostalgic attempts to challenge decline. It is no wonder that the No campaign focuss on generating fear, as it cannot reconcile a message of hopeful alternative, with the current output of austerity and division from Westminster.
A future without the British State
You don’t have to be a supporter of Scottish Independence to oppose the operation of the British state, neoliberalism and divide and rule. But let’s be clear: a yes vote is a rejection of all of the above. Why? Because a No vote will re-energise the British State. They will claim that people voted for the status quo, that it shows people think they are stronger under the domain of the corporate elite, that they feel more secure with Trident and imperial foreign policy. They will say that despite the worst attacks on our communities in more than a generation, the people of Scotland would rather not cut ties with Westminster, all of whose main parties are committed to austerity.
A Yes vote opens up many more possibilities. We will say that we wanted to oppose the corporate stitch up, scrap nuclear weapons and seek an alternative to austerity and privatisation. The accusation is that we stand for ‘narrow nationalism’ is farcical when the forces which dominate the British State are as narrow as possible: millionaires with Eton educations and close friends in the world’s most powerful corporations.
But along the way we need to emphasise the power of people and their communities, and resist the corporate mobilisation that will emerge after a Yes vote. In the event of a Yes vote, the political terrain is open to new ideas about how our society can work. Even throughout the referendum process, we are seeing a glimpse of the sort of possibilities that can emerge economically and socially. That is why this coming year is so vitally important for those who are concerned with moving beyond the neoliberal consensus and a state that builds into society the sort of division and decline we see today. In short: another Scotland is possible.
Jonathon Shafi is organiser of the International Socialist Group (ISG) Scotland. He has played a long-standing role in anti-cuts and anti-war in Glasgow and a founder member of the Radical Independence Campaign.