Ben Wray argues that Scottish independence needs to get off the back-foot and start exposing backward and reactionary Britain
There is alot to hate about Britain. The Jubilee celebrations created a fragile veneer of national unity, but cracks were appearing before the show was over: the London Bridge scandal – where those on jobseekers allowance were bussed in to steward the royal’s river pageant for free and were forced to get changed in the rain and sleep under London Bridge – was a timely exposition of the brutal exploitation and inequality in neoliberal Britain. Whilst the real drain on the public purse took in the adulation of the crowds, Britain’s poor were blackmailed into stewarding their vile pageant: either they do this for free, or they don’t get the paid work when the Olympics comes around.
It should go without saying that ‘Close Protection UK’ should now be stripped of any government contracts for their indulgence in such savagery; but there’s a more important, deeper point: society is going backwards. The enlightenment traditions of science, reason and egalitarianism are being spurned for patriotism, bigotry and class chauvinism. The coalition government embodies this backwardness: the rule of the wealthy is becoming more concentrated, more indulgent and more reactionary. Concentrated because they represent an ever smaller section of finance capital, indulgent because they openly boost the wealth of their own class whilst impoverishing the rest of us, and reactionary because they do all of this under the auspices of an increasingly rabid, irrational and right-wing British nationalism.
Afghanistan is the most glaring example of British nationalist reaction. The war is, by the account of any sane analyst, lost and irredeemably so. The continuation of the battle with the Taliban has no strategic, economic, social or moral sense, except to protect the political backs of those in Washington and defend oil pipe lines. Because of the overwhelming evidence of the war’s bankruptcy, the argument in favour of it has become increasingly irrational: “We’re standing by our boys”, ‘”they’re fighting for our freedoms”, “they’re defending our national interest” and, the most incredulous, “we’ve got the Taliban on the run” are the hollow statements attempting to stir British nationalist sentiment into action. Any criticism of this is unpatriotic, an attack on the soldiers and helping ‘the enemy’.
In such a climate of backwardness and reaction Britain should be an easy target for those seeking Scottish independence. The lines of attack can vary from war to inequality, monarchy to Tories, City of London to arms deals with the Saudis – all of it revolves around the same notion of Britain being an archaic regime in terminable decline, dominated by an elite that should have long been broken up.
Despite all of this, since the independence debate began it has been a future Scottish state that has been on the back foot for problems that have yet to exist, rather than the existent problems of the British state . The currency question sums up the arguments. The SNP have managed to get themselves into a pickle over attempts to reassure the Scottish electorate over its use of the pound in an independent Scotland. The unionists have made the SNP look weak on the economy as a result, and they think Alasdair Darling looks suitably knowledgeable on the economy to head up the No campaign.
But this is of course all madness. Britain has just re-entered recession, unemployment continues to rise to twenty year highs, the budget deficit is rising not falling because of cuts, and Alasdair Darling was at the helm of the Exchequer when the crisis began! Rather than attempting to reassure people about an independent Scotland the pro-independence argument needs to be based on the idea that things are only getting worse with Britain, and a No vote is a mandate for the British establishment to continue in the same old ways. The case for independence can only be made by being clear about what in Britain we are against.
But the SNP are tying one hand behind their back in this regard, as they attach themselves to the UK through independence-lite politics: have independence, but keep the union on monarchy, on currency, on defence spending and more. The Jubilee should have been a perfect opportunity to stick the boot into Britain, especially since Scots have a very different opinion of the royals than down South, but Salmond’s grovelling to the queen only gave space for the unionists to raise questions over the definitiveness of the SNP’s support for the monarchy in an independent Scotland. And so onto the back-foot again.
Limits to positivity
Much of the concept underlying this approach is the SNP’s commitment to positivity: selling what people want, rather than dour whining about what people have got. This concept was brought into the spotlight after the SNP’s stunning annihilation of Labour in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election. The SNP ran a positive campaign focusing on their record and the council tax freeze. Labour’s Ian Gray continued throwing mud at independence and ignored the Scottish dynamic for a British political focus. Salmond declared in his victory speech that he hoped the result would mean ‘an end to negative campaigning’.
But if the SNP think independence will be assured through the same means as their 2011 victory they are underestimating the divergence in terrain between the two votes. Devolution has created very specific circumstances which are favourable to talking up Scotland. The Scottish parliament has no control over fiscal levers but creates policy over key sections of public services including education and health. Since the Scottish populous has a centre-left consensus on public services, talking positively about their importance to Scotland’s future is always going to be a vote winner. At the same time the SNP are protected from the negativity that swirls around the Westminster scene by their plea that they do not control Scotland’s money and so cannot confront the country’s deep set problems like poverty and housing. Scottish Labour’s mistake in 2011 was to believe that no one really cared about the Scottish parliament, and the election was really about bashing the Tories. Voters look at Holyrood like an institutional reform, there to make progressive policy which can improve our lot compared to down south.
The SNP’s current strategy won’t survive the independence debate, because it incorporates wider issues of immigration, defence, currency, national identity and much more for which the SNP cannot appeal to its record. Negative campaigning will work with many of these issues. Rather than simply rely on the strength of positive visions of the future the yes camp must be prepared to counter attack. And there is a full stock of ammunition to be requisitioned from Britain; the wars, the poverty, the racism, the permanent second class status of women, the stultified class system, the arrogance and snobbery – a list that could go on from now until the day of the vote. Failing to criticise what we seek to break from will alienate natural yes voters – independence lite will attract few in the no camp.
Independence is no longer an argument about Scotland’s constitutional position, it is becoming an argument about society, about the past and the future – it is becoming an argument about ideology. It’s on this terrain that the unionists can be put on the backfoot, as there is little appetite for right-wing, archaic, irrational British nationalism in Scotland. In this battle we cannot rely on Alex Salmond and the official voice of the Yes campaign. The pro-independence Left will have to be the voice of an anti-British ideological sentiment, and there’s not a moment to waste if we are to rise to the challenge.