Pete Ramand and James Foley, authors of a new book putting the radical case for independence, explain why a victory for the Yes campaign in Scotland's referendum will cause a political earthquake
In September Scotland chooses between two, and only two, futures. One preserves the British state, in its current form, for the foreseeable future. The other dismantles three centuries of Union, and with it, the United Kingdom’s world-power pretensions.
There is no third way. Progressives across Britain must opt for the risks of independence over the guarantees of the status quo.
British politics and the pull to the right
Many socialists insist that changing constitutions will not change society. This view has an honourable heritage, and deserves due respect. But ignoring the obstacles in British democracy, which pull debate rightwards regardless of public opinion, presents major problems.
Contrary to prevailing myths, British people are not conservative. A recent Yougov poll showed Britons are 12-to-1 against NHS privatisation; 67% in favour of a public Royal Mail; 66% backing rail nationalisation; and 68% for nationalising the energy companies. But no party represents these views: not now, and not in any Westminster future. Hence systems, not voters, make UK politics right-wing.
By their nature, British elections silence minority voices. Left of Labour candidates face the absurdities of first-past-the-post in the Commons, and party patronage in the upper house. This precludes long-term gains for radical parties.
But the system also exerts a constant right-wing pressure on Labour. Without challengers from the Left, they compete on the same grounds as the Tories, the Liberals, and UKIP. They can forget about the alienated millions in housing estates, because their participation makes no difference. All calculations rest on middle class swing voters; and this secures UK politics in its overwhelming conformism.
While this continues, British people are denied the right to hear alternatives. And as a result, by ignoring constitutions, English socialists face perpetual exclusion from mainstream debate. If they wish Scots to stay, when other options are available, they must outline workable plans for changing Westminster.
Hope vs despair
But we doubt realistic plans will emerge. In reality, only one thing will stop Scots voting Yes: pessimism about social change.
For English socialists to encourage despair, for the purposes of electing more Labour governments, is misguided. We would propose, instead, that the break-up of Britain could re-energise democracy in England, Wales, and Ireland; among socialists in general, and trade union leftists in particular. In this spirit, constitutions are not irrelevant; constitutions matter, for everyone in the UK.
In calculating the risks of independence, socio-economic factors also apply. Some insist that Scotland and England achieve more together; but united, we have achieved, in past decades, an unheard-of regression in equality and social justice. Britain today is a haven for tax exiles and a European bridgehead for predatory finance.
True, Scotland, in many respects, mirrors these developments. Our bankers are bywords for casino capitalism; our millionaires live sheltered lives in gated communities while sending their children to private schools; our land ownership is the most concentrated in Europe. But large parts of Scotland remember Thatcher’s “reforms” as an undemocratic imposition. These same Scots are the leading voices for independence, while elites oppose it with near unanimity.
In most elections, we have no choice. Now, for once, we do.
A break from austerity and war
In this referendum, Scottish identity will not prove decisive. If Scots vote Yes, it will be a vote of no confidence in Westminster, and the venal neoliberal order it represents. Scotland’s course after independence, of course, depends on class and political struggles. But again, this crisis should present a major opportunity for socialists and radicals in the rest of the UK (RUK), if they embrace it, to revise the consensus assumptions.
While these factors are persuasive in isolation, for us, the most compelling reasons for voting Yes are international. In earlier centuries, British unity meant piracy, slavery, gunboat diplomacy, and colonialism. Throughout this period, Anglo-Scots rulers kept their workers in squalor and misery, repressing trade unions and smashing down wages by force of iron.
One hundred years ago, the First World War began, and Britain exited a weakened power; its decline would continue for generations, as rival superpowers emerged. For many, Britain still stands for Empire. But in reality, UK politics is a sideshow, since the UK state became a client of US-style globalisation.
While Turkey and other client regimes will occasionally rebel against their Pentagon masters, British democracy has never, in post-War times, been anything but subordinate. This matter is a cross-party consensus, whether the government is Labour or Tory, right-wing or socialist. Westminster votes have never shaken Atlanticism, and never will, barring an unforeseen global crisis that would dwarf 2008.
This referendum is the first time in generations that democracy has intruded on Britain’s geopolitical alliances. By September, we could be on the road to disarming Trident nuclear missiles. Beyond this, Britain will be forced to review its expensive and destructive military-industrial complex.
As internationalists, we believe pacifying the British state, and removing its imperialist influence from the UN Security Council and similar institutions, will benefit the peace cause. By contrast, a no vote in September allows both Labour and Tory to cling to American power, the arms industry, and what remains of post-colonial influence. If another Westminster government defies public opinion to join in an invasion of Iran or elsewhere, we will know we could have stopped it.
A choice of futures
As such, a no vote carries risks, and certainties. We can be certain that, all things remaining equal, the next generation of British citizens will endure the worst inequality in Europe.
With similar confidence, we can predict that speculation and global finance will dominate UK economic policy. The risks are that, in an unstable world of resource competition, Britain finds itself dragged into conflicts that make Afghanistan and Iraq look minor by comparison.
So, though we have no illusions in the SNP, and we know the risks of statehood, we prefer independence to a no vote. We prefer breaking up the UK to the deceptions of British nationalism. And we urge progressives in England, Wales, and Ireland to show solidarity, and help us reclaim democracy from UK PLC.
Pete Ramand and James Foley are activists in the Radical Independence Campaign and authors of new book, Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence
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