James Meadway looks at a new book that argues that the Scottish independence referendum has the potential to transform politics, both North and South of the border
The referendum on Scotland’s independence takes place on September 18th this year. The stakes, for all of us in the UK, are immensely high: the consequences for the UK’s international position, for its economic standing, and not least for the left across these islands will be, in the event of a positive response, enormous. The British state faces one of it’s most significant internal political challenges since the Miners’ Strike – potentially more significant, even, than the immense mobilisation against established authority of the anti-Iraq war movement a decade ago. Its main nuclear submarine base is under threat of closure. The pound’s reserve currency status can appear suddenly wobbly. A state that has existed in its current form for three centuries, through the industrial revolution, two world wars, and social upheaval on immense scale, could be on the verge of breaking apart.
That the British state’s managers have, through a combination of arrogance and short-sightedness, turned what could have been treated as the minor, local inconvenience into something with the dangerous glimmer of existential crisis adds a certain piquancy to proceedings. There was no compelling reason, on their side, for the referendum to be held on this date and with this all-or-nothing question. The SNP’s gradualist leadership would have settled for an extension to the current range of devolved powers in the referendum, the so-called “devo max” option, had that choice been on offer. Salmond floated the prospect of second referendum question asking only for an expansion of existing powers. This was refused by Whitehall. As a result of this miscalculated intransigence, extended into the “Better Together” campaign, Whitehall have ended up in a fight for the future of the British state as presently constituted – and one they are not entirely guaranteed to win.
Yet those not in Scotland may, at least until recently, be forgiven for missing this significance. With the striking (and significant) exception of the Financial Times, coverage of the issue by the London media has been woeful. Its tone has barely pitched away from a mawkish sentimentality about bonnie Scotland, leavened with a familiar parade of stereotypes: tartans, bagpipes, kilts, ginger hair, and all the rest. The question of independence, for English and Welsh consumption, has been reduced to a foible of Salmond and the claque of crazies who surround him. Scotland? Independent? The very idea!
As the opinion polls have edged closer, this has been replaced, often, with naked hostility. Salmond, it turns out, is not a clown, but a terrifying combination of Mugabe, Milosevic, Kim Jong Il, Mussolini, and Hitler. Fair enough, I suppose: a man who waves a Saltire at Wimbledon is clearly a monster. There is an anti-English mood abroad in North Britain, apparently, with the SNP, like Ukip to the south, leading a peevish nationalist mob. The closer the polls inch – and it seems fair to expect the gap to continue to shrivel – the more virulent this rhetoric is likely to become.
Gone, in the ballyhoo of the London media, has been much sense of the different politics within the campaign for independence. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), launched in November 2012 at one of the biggest political meetings Glasgow had seen for years, followed up by a still larger conference last year, is a critical player within this. Pete Ramand and James Foley, two young Scottish socialists active in RIC, have written in Yes: the radical case for independence what amounts to a manifesto for the left to support Scottish independence. It is short, punchily-written, closely argued, and convincing. It will, no doubt, end up with a wider readership in Scotland than the remainder UK, but it should be considered as essential for socialists across these islands.
No case for No
First, let’s dispense with one argument, too often presumed to be the clincher. There is no convincing economic case against Scottish independence. There never has been. Continual efforts by Whitehall and Fleet Street’s finest minds have, over the last 12 months, failed to pull together a credible or even notably coherent case. Not one of the grand claims made against independence, whether keeping the pound or the incredible vanishing North Sea oil reserves, stands up to scrutiny.
The weakness of the argument has, itself, acted to expose the gap between the governing and the governed, revealing much of the British state’s presumed consensual authority to rest on surprisingly shaky grounds. The most senior civil servant at the core institution of our state, the Treasury, had his (usual hidden) advice to George Osborne presented to the world: a post-independence currency union was to be “ruled out”, declared Permanent Secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson. This was an extraordinary breach of protocol (“Permanent permanent Treasury rules,” writes Samuel Brittain, “No disclosure of advice given to Ministers by officials”) that, to work, relied on the majesty and mystique of Whitehall’s mandarins when providing their considered advice. Alas, many of the natives were unimpressed by these patrician tones: quite how Scots would be prevented from using the pound after independence, if they so wished, was left entirely unclear – bag searches at Edinburgh Waverley? checking the glove compartments of cars heading up the M1? – for the simple reason that no such bar could be implemented. Support for independence has continued to rise.
Meanwhile, assorted government agencies and branches of various universities have been found staring into the murky depths of the North Sea, and deciding that – contrary to previous expectations – nary a barrel of oil could be found. No oil means no oil tax revenues. No oil tax revenues means the fiscal case for independence – that Scotland could still pay for its public services, and more – looks wobbly. Now, far be it from me to suggest that the decision of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), an independent body set up by George Osborne, to revise downwards its forecasts for North Sea oil revenues this year might be anything other than a scrupulously fair assessment of the fiscal picture. Such expressions of doubt can be left instead to oil economist Prof Alex Kemp of the University of Aberdeen, who called the OBR predictions “pessimistic on all fronts” and “contrary to evidence from the industry”.
Nor should the staggering historic mismanagement of North Sea oil by Whitehall be ignored. The contrast with Norway is instructive, and depressing. Norway used tax revenues from the newly-discovered fields to set up a social fund, which now provides solid pensions for the whole population. Thatcher’s governments, by contrast, took £166bn in taxes from the North Sea, and used the money to fund mass unemployment. In any case, the oil revenues, whilst nice to have, should hardly be decisive: oil revenues account for around 15% of Scottish tax take. There’s 85% of other stuff going on, and, like everywhere else, Scotland’s future will depend on not depending on fossil fuels.
Amongst the increasingly erratic squawking from the No camp – former NATO secretary general George Robertson’s “forces of darkness” waiting to strike after independence being a particular highlight – it is becoming hard to discern the core arguments. The reason is simple. An independent Scotland would be a small, north European country, with a population somewhat larger than Norway but somewhat smaller than Denmark. It would be rich, with a GDP per head comparable to Finland. Scotland had a long history of self-rule, right up until the Act of Union, maintains distinctive legal and educational systems, and has now had 15 years of relatively popular devolved government in Edinburgh. There is no reason why such a country, post-independence, should not prosper, and plenty to think it would do well. Against this, the Better Together campaign can do little more than fearmonger and doomsay.
This small country vision, in outline, is the SNP’s case for the Yes vote: that independence would be simply a burnishing of an existing success story, another small step along the road towards a happy Scandinavian future. For all that any nationalism promotes common myths, this has markedly little in common with the nationalisms on the rise elsewhere in Europe, the SNP long ago having ditched its own blood-and-soil wing, despite smears to the contrary. Indeed, Salmond and others in its leadership have gone out of their way to praise and welcome migrants, and some evidence suggests migrant and ethnic minority communities are more inclined to independence than white voters. Its leadership have sought, until very recently, to play down as far as possible the scale of the change involved, with independence as little more than a minor constitutional tweak – a redirection of tax revenues from Whitehall to Edinburgh, with the Queen still as head of state and the pound still as the Scottish currency.
It is credible outline of the future. It just isn’t particularly exciting: if independence is such a tiny step – why bother at all? Its pedestrian qualities, outlined at ponderous length in the Scottish Government’s White Paper, have hobbled the official Yes campaign: it has, for much of the last year, ended up with a mainstream debate too often established around No’s scaremongering, however feeble. If it was intended to assuage the fears of those with a stake in the current set up, it has not worked: amongst the wealthier end of Scotland’s society, as Jamie Maxwell has recently noted, the official Yes campaign has failed to convince in the credibility of its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it arguments.
Where the campaign has established a real momentum – and as the polls suggest, it has done so – it has been due in no small part to a stress on the need for change and a break with the past. It is no surprise that the greatest support for independence lies amongst those who have the least to lose from the status quo: simply, the poorer you are in Scotland, the more likely you are to support a break with the UK.
This momentum is due in no small part to the activities of the organised left. Overwhelmingly, the left in Scotland now supports the campaign for independence, with RIC as its leading organisation. Far from a minor constitutional tweak, independence can be the opportunity for a grand, nationwide conversation about the kind of country Scotland could be. A question, in other words, not just of efficient management, as the official Yes campaign would like, but of social and economic concerns alongside the constitutional. With the Scottish left otherwise fallen into an extraordinarily vituperative fratricidal war, RIC has performed a minor miracle in bringing together the various strands of radicalism, from greens to left nationalists, around shared values and a clear political objective.
This matters, because the left is, in the words of veteran nationalist George Kerevan the “wild card” of the campaign. “If the anti-austerity left can convince young people that independence means genuine change,” Kerevan notes, “all political bets are off”. RIC branches have been set up across the country; it is RIC that has organised the mass canvassing of working-class estates. Turnout is critical: support for independence is highest amongst the poorest; so, too, is political abstention. With the vote in September likely to be close, every extra door knocked and undecided voter convinced matters.
Foley and Ramand present, in a little over a hundred closely-argued pages, the case for left support for independence. It begins with a damning critique of the British state and polity, alongside the plentiful failings of Scottish capitalism. It ends with a detailing of the first steps an anti-neoliberal Scotland could take, post-independence, from the nationalisation of natural resources, investment in green energy, to participatory budgets for local councils. No doubt assorted socialist votaries could be found to carp at this point, indulging in one of the left’s favourite pastimes – radical policy top trumps: why nationalise only the oil companies, comrade, when you could nationalise 200 monopolies? Why only 200, when you could do 300? …and so on, the prize apparently falling to whoever can argue for the most batshit crazy proposition with the straightest face.
It’s a tribute to just how distant much of the left is in the UK from even the glimmer of a whisper of a hint of implementing anything at all that this sort of rodomontade receives any attention. It is a tribute, conversely, to the seriousness and salience of the Radical Independence Campaign that Foley and Ramand can instead provide the practical argument for a popular, anti-neoliberal policy. We are, unfortunately, a very long way from being able to declare ourselves for the implementation of socialism – the sheer scale of the defeats suffered by the left here weighs heavily against us all. But we might, in the meantime, start to pull together a credible alternative to the grind of neoliberalism. Foley and Ramand do just that, give or take some finessing of the details.
Why should the rest of us care?
This is all fine for Scotland. But does any of it matter for the rest of the UK? The answer lies in the first half of the book, with Foley and Ramand’s excoriation of the failed British state.
Their characterisation of the UK as an economy based on “banks, bullshit, and bombs” is entirely apposite. British capitalism really has very little else to offer the world. It has imported more than it has exported for the last three decades, relying on borrowing from the rest of the world to make good the difference: as the graph shows, the UK’s external debts, at over 400% of GDP, are the fourth-largest in the world. Its historical investments abroad, once a sure-fire source of income, are producing dwindling returns.
The manic promotion of corporation tax cuts, trumpeted by both New Labour, and then, with still more enthusiasm, the Coalition as a the key to unlocking business investment has seen instead the hasty entrance of enthusiastic shirkers of taxes – and the collapse of investment spending. The privatised industries are run by nationalised concerns from across Europe. Corporate welfare, in the form of outsourcing, now accounts for over £95bn a year – or more than half the government’s spending on goods and services each year. Poverty pay at the bottom of society, with half of the UK’s 13m living in poverty also in work, is subsidised through tax credits. Productivity has slumped, and real wages continuing to fall, something unprecedented for generations.
Britain’s sole remaining economic advantage in the world, the one trump card it holds, is its immense financial system. Yet this can only be sustained at enormous cost to the rest of society; whilst taxes taken from financial services, during the fools-golden years of the 2000s, totalled £196bn, the cost of the bailout after the crash was £289bn immediately, and then £1,1900bn in additional support thereafter. A subsidy, in other words, from the rest of society in order to sustain Britain’s swaggering financial system. And with its liabilities now reaching a truly extraordinary 1,364% of GDP, the costs of mopping up further crashes in the future will also be immense. (We can rest assured, of course, that such a crash will occur; the pressing question is only how big it will be.) This is the dirty secret at the heart of austerity: Britain’s debt problem is not with its government, which sits at roughly 105% of GDP, but with its financial system – yet it is government debt, and therefore social spending, that is being targeted for action.
Along with the banks, the tanks. Britain, a small island with a medium-sized population, sustains the world’s fifth-largest military spending; and it uses that military with shocking frequency: for my entire adult life, this country has bombed, invaded, or occupied some other place in the world, generally as noxious side-kick to the US, and increasingly in the teeth of public opposition. A war over Syria was, thankfully, avoided; but with commitments to spending stretching into the future, from Trident to a new generation of aircraft carriers, the aggressive military posture is preserved.
This large, warlike state is becoming increasingly detached from the promises it once offered, via social democracy and the Spirit of ‘45: of a redistribution back towards its workers, a reasonably secure standard of living, and a social safety net of “cradle to the grave” protection. Austerity is completing a process begun by the Thatcher governments in this respect, pushing far beyond the point she ever dared to – or was able to.
Some 80% of projected spending cuts are still to come, neatly set up to arrive after the election of 2015. Yet all the main Westminster parties subscribe to them, including the one which established the parameters of the post-war settlement, Labour. If backed into a corner, Labour’s leadership support the priorities of the status quo, even above preserving the basis of their own support. British capitalism, it should be clear, now lives well into the shadow of its imperial past; the legacy of that past, in the form of the City of London and its military, allow it to punch above its weight globally in world increasingly less centred on older Western capitalism. But the costs of that external posture are rising inexorably for its own domestic population and, in any case, will amount to little more than the not-so-steady management of decline for the foreseeable future.
It is against this failed state that Foley and Ramand base, at heart, their demand for its radical reconstruction. Independence in Scotland offers the prospect of shocking break with that status quo and, therefore, the opportunity to create a different form of politics.
The British labour tradition, and its nemesis
Their case is antithetical to a longstanding argument within British socialism on the necessity of strong, centralised state. Labour has historically been the party of centralisation; historically, at least, it was the Tories, the old Unionist party in Scotland, that was more inclined to support devolution as a bulwark against a “socialist” Westminster. How times change!
The left argument for a powerful unitary state had a clear logic: centralisation allowed redistribution, the state taking from the richer areas and the richer people, and spreading wealth more evenly. The unity of the state would be matched, in this vision, by the unity of the working class across national borders. More generally, a powerful, central state could act as a bulwark against capitalism on a world-scale: and, for those so inclined, the biggest, strongest central state of all was the old USSR, removing (it was claimed) a decisive one-sixth of the world’s surface from the depredations of capitalism. The Communist Party of Great Britain was formed precisely on this basis, with socialist hero John Maclean and his calls for a “Scottish Workers’ Republic” removed from the scene early on.
Today, this argument is perhaps best expressed by the improbable combination of the MP for Bradford West, George Galloway, whose one-man Just Say Naw tour has been mounting a rearguard defence of the historic Labourite case – and former PM, Gordon Brown. Brown’s somewhat anguished attempts to construct a “progressive” British identity are rather spoiled by his own record in office, in which the obsequies he paid to high finance while Chancellor were followed with the dim reactionary sloganeering of “British jobs for British workers”. If such a progressive case for Britain existed, as bulwark against globalisation and defender of the majority, why didn’t he attempt to implement it whilst holding the highest political offices available in that same state? It was, rather, the British state that helped engineer the financial boom; the British state that bailed out the banks; and the British state that now imposes austerity to deal with it, threatening every last progressive achievement as it does so. Brown’s argument has a gaping hole in the middle, where evidence, rather than mealy aspiration, should lie.
From Stafford Cripps’ arguments in the Socialist League of the 1930s, through to some of the lines pursued by Tony Benn in the latter 1970s, the presumption was that, if the organised working class were to come to power in Britain, via the ballot box, it could wield Britain’s uniquely unrestrained state power to its benefit. Lacking a written constitution, lacking the checks and balances typical of modern states, the British system allows an extraordinary degree of freedom to governments. This power could, therefore, be used to strike a mighty blow against capitalism here. The tradition of Parliamentary socialism, now retaining little more than a vestigial existence, had this argument at its centre. Any weakening or fragmentation of the central state, in turn, would undermine its capacity to deliver on redistribution.
This line of thinking was always dubious. Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, published in 1968, argued that it was not Labour capturing the state, via Parliament; rather, it was Parliament, and the state, that had captured Labour, extinguishing its more radical potential. And as Benn found out, whilst Industry Secretary in the mid-1970s, attempts by an elected Cabinet minister to implement more radical policies would be derailed, thwarted, and otherwise kicked into touch by an innately hostile senior Civil Service. It was this experience that precisely drove Benn and much of the Labour Party itself further to the left, recognising the need to build alternative sources of power.
It took, however, the steady disintegration of the other coefficient of the Labourite equation, the traditional working class, to finally undermine the case for British reformist socialism. De-industrialisation, against which Benn had fought, had begun to accelerate from the early 1970s, the UK’s manufacturing workforce peaking in the mid-60s. The struggles of the 1970s marked a high point, perhaps most especially in Scotland where the “work-in” at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, threatened with closure, forced an embarrassing climbdown from Heath’s proto-Thatcherite government and made household names of its leaders.
The discovery of North Sea oil struck a further blow against British Labourism in Scotland; not enough, it turned out, to quite break the hold of the Labourite centralism in the 1979 referendum on devolution, but the damage had been done. The windfall of North Sea oil revenues was utterly squandered, as noted; the recommendation of Benn (and expert opinion) to establish a Norway-style social fund was overruled by the Labour Cabinet of 1975. Revenues would go straight into direct government expenditure. Thatcher’s governments inherited this set up, but extended privatisation still further, turning the North Sea into a veritable Wild West for the oil majors, including both bitterly anti-union attitudes and a shocking disregard for safety, as 1988’s Piper Alpha tragedy made appallingly clear. The tax take – a slender slice of the oil majors’ earnings – and the boost to the value of the pound occasioned by oil exports were both used, perversely, to further disintegrate British industry and, with it, the working class in its traditional mould. As noted, Thatcher earned £166bn from the North Sea over her time in office; the over-valued pound, a delight to financiers but a curse to those seeking to export, drove mass redundancies in manufacturing industry, some 2m jobs disappearing over Thatcher’s first term in office alone. With unemployment pushing 3m by 1984, it was the North Sea that kept her neoliberal ship afloat, paying for mass de-industrialisation.
Set-piece defeats of well-organised workers, most notably the miners over 1984-85, sealed the fate. The older working class, centred on private manufacturing industry and with perhaps the strongest and most militant sectional organisation of any Western European country was replaced by a newer class, centred on service industry, largely non-unionised if in the private sector but retaining a largely dormant organisation in the public. Strike days taken fell to the lowest levels since official records began.
The economy was restructured over the heads of, and very largely against the wishes of, the majority of its occupants, under the guise of there being no alternative. For industrial Scotland, long dependent on traditional sectors like mining, shipbuilding, and steel, the blow was particularly severe. A succession of Tory governments, perceived (with justice) as profoundly indifferent to Scotland sealed the argument. Labour had been won to devolution as a means of securing its own base of support, and as part of what became, pre-election, New Labour’s attempts to modernise the British state into a more suitably European mould. (It is forgotten now that Blair was a huge enthusiast for the euro.) A 1997 referendum on the question delivered a decisive vote for yes, with the Scottish Parliament opening for business two years later.
New Labour, of course, had close to zero interest in any of the traditional metrics of Labourism. It had swallowed the neoliberal happy pill; a major part of its appeal, from Gordon Brown’s “prawn cocktail offensive” to Blair’s fawning and scraping at Rupert Murdoch’s private island, was exactly that it truly believed in the market, and could be trusted to responsibly administer British capitalism. In power, it allowed the spivs in the City of London off the leash, symbolically turning the Bank of England “independent” as its first major act, and, after a prudential four years of sticking to Tory spending plans, it slightly increased public spending, delivering real terms boosts to health and education in particular. This was all combined with a “Third Way” drive to modernise the archaic features of British society: the introduction of New Public Management techniques across the public sector, building on the Tories’ own efforts to transform the state; public-private partnerships to deliver investment; and efforts to reset the constitutional settlement somewhat closer to the presumed modern norm, with a Human Rights Act, some measures of proportional representation, devolution, and reform of the House of Lords. New Labour would deliver to a déclassé society the necessary tools with which it could govern itself around a neoliberal consensus politics.
Much of this was pretty half-cocked: reforming the House of Lords managed to replace a semi-appointed, semi-hereditary second chamber with an Upper House whose functioning members were there by dint of party patronage: a brown-nosers’ charter, with rare exceptions. For the Lower House, the ludicrous First Past the Post system, the legacy of rotten boroughs and a plutocrats’ franchise of times past, existing in defiance of elementary democratic logic, was left untouched, both main parties finding themselves comfortably ensconced on the green benches through its machinations, even as the sheer oddness of the system was steadily exposed by the spread of proportional representation across other elections. And devolution, intended by Labour Party managers, following a rather crude calculation, to neutralise the nationalist irritant in Scottish politics, delivered instead first a minority Nationalist administration in 2007, and then (exceptionally) an outright SNP majority in 2011.
The tools of rich
It was the centralised state that made Thatcher’s restructuring possible; the shock of neoliberalism could be so severe precisely because the state, against wider society, could be so strong; it lacked the elementary restraints that those countries closer to the capitalist norm enjoyed. There was no separation of powers. A notionally independent judiciary was deeply politicised for the ruling class, as J.A.G. Griffith’s classic The Politics of the Judiciary made abundantly clear. A government with a Parliamentary democracy enjoyed, in Lord Hailsham’s phrase, an “elective dictatorship”. The strength of the party machines further acted to restrain and silence dissent. Far from providing the means by which an insurgent working class could seize power and transform society, the centralised state was the critical instrument by which an insurgent working class was demobilised, broken – and rebuilt.
This point is worth stressing, since much of the left has accepted the neoliberals’ own case – that the combined forces of “globalisation” and technological change made all of this inevitable. As the experience of 2008 demonstrates, however, with the most neoliberal institutions on the planet, the major banks, bailed out by their respective states; neoliberalism needs the state, and it always has. Philip Mirowski’s recent polemic, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste, makes the broader point brilliantly: whatever the rhetoric, neoliberalism in power required the state to transform society. It is the major states that made the world neoliberal, through deliberate political action; it was never the “inevitable” force of the market, and still less was it (pace Fukuyama) History itself coming to an End.
And of course much of this, too, restates a standard radical case, made precisely by Lenin’s State and Revolution, that the capitalist state is not a tool for enactment of socialism, but a tool of oppression. But we need here to focus on the specifics: it was the specific features of the British state – its archaic centralism and the immense capacity to act without typical restraint that has given the neoliberal assault here its unusually virulent character. Britain has moved, on Thomas Piketty’s figures, from being close to the most equal society in Western Europe in the 1970s, to the most unequal today. Its working class, as noted, has been transformed from the most militant to the amongst the very meekest.
Take, for an outstanding example, the manner in which local authorities within the UK have been progressively denuded. Thatcher led the charge on this, imposing “rate-capping” restrictions on local authority expenditure, imposing “compulsory competitive tendering” to force market values onto local authority procurement, centralising the setting of local authority taxes, removing the ability of local authorities to borrow, and peremptorily closing down London’s own authority, the old Greater London Council, through a single Act of Parliament. Local authority housing was decimated through right-to-buy, in which council housing was offered to tenants massively below market rates, perhaps the single biggest blow in favour of the neoliberal order. The end result was an extraordinary strengthening of the neoliberal centre against any possible local sources of resistance, with New Labour’s very minor reforms doing little to shift the balance of power outwards, at least in England. Local authorities today, under the tender ministrations of Secretary of State for local government, Eric Pickles, have been squeezed harder than almost any other single item of government expenditure over four years of austerity.
Where there has been a genuine devolution, in Wales and (especially) in Scotland, a different form of politics has emerged. For Scotland, the SNP has assiduously positioned itself as a bulwark in defence of an existing social democratic settlement, removing prescription charges and university tuition fees, and providing free nursing care. A major part of their argument for independence today is exactly based around the need to strengthen that defence.
'Britain is for the rich, England can be for all of us'?
It is, then, against the drive of state-led neoliberalism that Ramand, Foley, and the Radical Independence campaign more generally seek to position themselves. They are not presenting, directly, an argument for socialism; rather, they offer an argument for an anti-neoliberal politics that of necessity poses the linked questions of state power and economic development. It runs against the grain of the post-war British left in that it does not treat the current constitutional arrangements on these islands, with its unitary, centralised state, as a given parameter, incapable of change. Rather, it directly addresses the urgent need to break up and reconfigure both that state and its polity as a central priority, if any social progress is to be sustained. That means a break not only with the existing Westminster parties and the Westminster-City nexus, but a break with some of prior assumptions made by so many of those seeking to reform (or even transform) British society since the Second World War.
Antonio Gramsci peeps out from the programme. The cultural and historic resources of Scotland, as a separate nation, allow for the construction of new kinds of popular politics. RIC’s slogan, “Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be for all of us” brilliantly summarises the case. No doubt something similar could be said for Wales. But what of the major part of Britain, England, where the majority of its population live? The question of a radical English identity has attracted some attention of late; a memory of the English radical tradition needs preserving and sustaining. There are historic and cultural resources that can be drawn on in the construction of a new radicalism: witness the steadily increasing attendance at the historic Durham Miners’ Gala. And direct experience of a City-centred economy, with its naked inequalities, is pushing demands for decentralisation.
However, it was an English identity that itself was formed by its direct relationship to the imperial power. As the largest component of the United Kingdom, England and English elites always dominated its polity; the imperial capital was in London, the dead centre of its power and its influence. Neoliberalism has, as we have suggested, merely reinforced that centralising tendency, and drive towards the elevation of London, or at least London’s wealthy – economically, politically, and culturally – at the expense of the rest of the country. An assertion of “English” identity, by itself, has little appeal to Britain’s minority communities – in stark contrast to the appeal of Scottishness. “Britain is for the rich”, perhaps; but it is today harder to see how “England” can be so easily for “all of us”.
Rather, if there is a case for a popular, anti-state radicalism, it needs in England to push below the level of the nation and towards the regional and local. The case, along similar lines to that made by Ramand and Foley and, in less radical register, by the current Scottish government, for the sustainable reindustrialisation of much of the country is compelling, not least given Britain’s decaying international balances. An effective anti-neoliberal policy here will require the decentralisation and dispersion of power, at sufficient level to break the grip of the Westminster-City nexus, but not so dispersed as to leave that nexus effectively unchallenged. New Labour fouled up its proposed Regional Assemblies by attempting to force them into a neoliberal box: and who, exactly, would vote for another layer of pointless and costly semi-bureaucracy, with limited powers and an explicit pro-business mandate? The voters of the north-east did not, roundly rejecting the proposed Assembly there by referendum in 2004. But the demand for meaningful regional power, with the capacity to deliver explicitly anti-neoliberal demands, should form part of an anti-neoliberal political project for England more generally. That would mean tax-raising, borrowing, and spending powers, at least, along with a less poisonously anti-democratic voting system than First Past the Post.
In typical fashion, the Labour leadership has absorbed some of this agenda, promising limited measures of devolution once in power. But remaining tied, as it is, to the Westminster-City nexus, it is unlikely to deliver much beyond the offer made by New Labour back in the 2000s. The need for an anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal national politics, north and south of the border, remains critical.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum – it is likely to be close, either way – the constitutional questions it raises will not go away, even if a few more devolved sops are offered. They are liable, if anything, to simply become more pronounced, and to spread across the rest of the country: Bank of England governor Mark Carney has argued for a ballooning of the City of London’s “assets”, with all that this implies for the wider costs to society. The grip of a very slender part of British society over its politics, economy, and culture looks set to tighten as inequality worsens. There is a pressing need for the left and for progressives to come to terms, properly, with how British society has been reshaped over the last thirty years. What the Scottish independence referendum has done, and what RIC and Pete Ramand and James Foley have made explicit, is to force the left in Scotland to address these issues. As austerity deepens, and with the grim prospect now of a Labour government implementing those cuts after May next year, the left elsewhere in the country needs to recalibrate its own strategy to match. Foley and Ramand have provided us with an excellent, brief guide as to how this might be achieved.
Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).