Panic and unity have hit the Westminster elite. The referendum narrative will be remembered by many as the people versus the British state
In recent weeks we have seen a combination of panic and unity in the political forces desperately trying to provide a buttress against the decline of the British state. Panic has been expressed most vividly by Cameron’s confused intervention into the debate. From the Olympic stadium his plea was not to the people of Scotland, but to the English population. They were to convince their Scottish counterparts on an emotional basis to stay with the UK. What has been missed from much of the mainstream analysis of this speech, is the intellectual weakness of his argument. The upper class, especially those who have been schooled from an early age to become future leaders, are usually brimming with confidence in their political prowess. Not so in this case: no ideas, no energy, a somewhat pathetic pleading.
But when the argument cannot be won on its own merit, establishments often resort to other measures. The normal divisions of politics are put to one side in a show of national unity against a bigger threat. Party lines blur – if they were not already blurred enough – to make what is conjecture appear like indisputable fact. The currency question has become a point of British political unity. The arguments they use are coordinated, consciously, with one another. The BBC’s Nick Robinson reports: ‘…the three rival Westminster parties were working together to end any doubt that after the next UK general election one or other of them might do a deal to let an independent Scotland use the pound.’
The rights and wrongs of currency union are really not the issue. The core of the matter is that the elite in Westminster have lost control of the argument, feel like they are slipping behind and must resort to a bulldozing strategy, drawing on their most precious resource – that everyone at Westminster wants the same result on September 18th. John McTernan, for example, is a great bulldozer. He repeats lies loudly and clearly, and relentlessly seeks to paint the opposition as an extreme fringe. He is the perfect Blairite spin doctor, but people like him are running out of arguments and they are not as invincible as they like to project.
Underlying all of this is the need to maintain the current order at any cost. The British establishment is a very old one. The people change, but just as the labour movement has a history of struggles that we remember and learn from, so to do the establishment. Westminster is a university for the ruling class. The political institutions that interact with the economic elite in the City only partially live on an election to election basis. The system itself is permanent, and while managed by different political actors for largely the same, neoliberal ends.
The post-war boom, and the reforms of ’45, so well encapsulated in Ken Loache’s ‘Spirit of 45’, are a distant memory. In the 1970’s the average pay gap between the worker and the boss was 1 to 30, today it is more than 1 to 300. The wealth of the top 200 individuals stands at a staggering £318 billion – an eight fold increase since 1989. This is by design. Inequality has led to trillions of pounds in personal debt as to buy goods people have to take more from the bank to offset their stagnant wages. Loans have never been about helping ordinary people, they have been about ensuring an upwards flow of capital. The Labour Party have been part of managing this overall picture of decreasing living standards and increasing inequality, and are thus bound to the overall decline of the British polity. Clear for all to see is the impossibility, short of a split in the Labour party, to generate a mass challenge to the status quo.
Because of the rigid acceptance and implementation of neoliberalism since the end of the 1970s, the Westminster parties are paralytic ideologically. It is not that they only know one way, it is that the system they represent demands it. Defending the union on its own ground is an extremely difficult task for even the most cynical spin doctors. In the last decade the British state has seen a rapid and historic erosion of trust. The great institutions of Britain are widely seen as dishonest, self serving, and as the No campaign are doing a good job of illustrating, intellectually bankrupt. This is a referendum in which the wider context of the ideology and meaning of what passes for British democracy is central to understanding the forces and the interests involved in maintaining the British establishment. Tony Blair’s alliance with George Bush radicalised and alienated a generation of people from the formal political process. The war on Iraq, too obviously about geo-strategic interests and too patently outside international law, awakened millions of people to the reality of modern British politics.
The crisis of the regime
Such mass controversies are augmented by the handling of the economic crisis. Like every good capitalist, the establishment have spotted opportunity in crisis. It is worth reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine to get a grip on this. But suffice to say the assault on our services is ideological and lasting. Resistance to the establishment is to be crushed. Boris Johnson’s call for water cannon to disperse potential anti-austerity protests is well within the tradition of the Tory ruling class. Note the concern is not for the growing economic hardship of the people, but about how their discontent is to be managed.
In the general strike of 1926, the establishment of the day sent a warship to Newcastle to quell the uprising. They infiltrated and demonised the strike movements of the 1970s, and infamously terrorised the miners. They published the pictures of the poll tax rioters, and intimidated the student rebellion of 2010 with a brutal show of state power. In this month’s Tube Strike a striker was detained, only to be released with the following conditions:
The City and Westminster elite may look polished on television. But at the parties of the elite they deride the mass of working people who are seen merely as a natural resource for the system. Those are harsh words, but deliberately chosen, because it is the reality when you remove the sugar coating of the Daily Politics. It is why young working class people are used as cannon fodder whether it be for WW1 or the invasion of Iraq. It is why they cannot understand why so many find workfare abhorrent, and indeed, why the Tories cannot fathom why the bedroom tax is so hideous. When our side says spend the money on services not Trident, they can only think of the damage that would do to British imperial power.
In a recent article, Owen Jones writes that radicalism based on Scottish independence is depressing as it reflects the lack of class struggle. But Scottish independence is part of a broader struggle against exploitation and imperialism that is crystalised in the British State. Independence is not the end game of developing an entirely different infrastructure to the miserable present, but it is part of that process. The Westminster elite have said clearly now: vote No or we are your enemy. Fine. We don’t need a corrupt status quo to assist in the founding of a socially just Scotand – far from it. They have nothing but declining living standards, cuts and privatisation to offer the people of England, never mind a newly independent Scotland. We have the chance to work out how an independent currency could benefit the people of Scotland.
We should build strength in our own argument that puts a Yes vote not just at the heart of politics, but widely viewed as part of a strategy to displace the present order, and replace them with an alternative so discordant with their world view that it causes ripples of panic to flow through the corridors of political and economic power in Britain. It is in that spirit that we stand in the tradition of the many rebellions and movements against the Britsh establishment. September 18th is a referendum on the history of the British regime. It is the fulcrum of everything that has past: the wars, the crushing of strikes, neoliberalism. And it can be a rejection of everything they have planned: “perpetual austerity”. As the panic and unity of the Westminster elite intensifies, the referendum narrative will be remembered by many as the people versus the British state.
This article was first published on Bella Caledonia on 13 February 2014.
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.