James Meadway: we have an opportunity to crack open our captured democracy, undermine Britain's imperial military power and break up the Westminster-City machine. We should seize it with both hands
The referendum on Scottish independence takes place on 18 September. It represents a profound challenge to the UK’s constitutional status quo, and contains the potential for a thoroughgoing offensive against the pro-market politics that have dominated this country for thirty years.
As such, every socialist, every person who identifies with the political left, should be fully in support of the Yes campaign. Not just north of the border, where the Scottish left now overwhelmingly supports independence, but also in England and Wales.
There are three reasons for this. First, the case for No is, at heart, a shambles. As SNP leader Alex Salmond’s trouncing of Alastair Darling in this week’s TV debate demonstrated, the “Better Together” campaign has little going for it beyond fearmongering and bluster. Its strongest card, playing up to supposed uncertainties about a post-independence currency, turned out to be a bluff, Darling admitting that “of course [Scotland] can use the pound”. Nobel prize-winning economists like Joseph Stiglitz and James Mirrlees agree. Scotland can use whatever currency it chooses in the event of independence.
Its next-best claim, that North Sea oil is simply vanishing, does not stand up to serious scrutiny. North Sea experts like Prof Alex Kemp and Donald Mackay have made abundantly clear, as have the oil companies’ own investment plans, that billions of pounds’ worth of oil remains beneath the waters.
Nor are the SNP the “Tartan Tories” of some English progressive fantasies. The SNP has, under Salmond’s leadership, positioned itself as unabashedly to the left of Labour, offering to defend the gains of the post-war settlement – the NHS, the welfare state – against Westminster’s neoliberalism. They opposed the Iraq War, support Palestine, and want rid of Trident. They have adroitly used the powers granted them under devolution to remove Scottish tuition fees and abolish the Bedroom Tax. Salmond’s best argument yet has been to insist that a vote for independence will ensure the defence of the NHS against creeping privatisation.
The SNP’s leadership have, after a fashion, identified the key to winning. It is also the second reason to support Yes. This is a class vote, unabashedly so. As the Radical Independence Campaign’s (RIC) 18,000-strong canvassing returns show, support for independence amongst Scotland’s working class communities is enormous. Meanwhile, amongst its better off, opposition is overwhelming. The reason is simple. No is a vote for the status quo. If you think the status quo is not such a bad thing – if you, perhaps, are doing quite nicely under it – you won’t support tearing it up. Scotland’s marginalised, excluded, and exploited are the natural constituency for change.
For No to win, it must hope these people stay away from the polls. If those habitually excluded from Scottish political life stay exactly as they are – excluded - the union will remain. For Yes to be in with a chance, and the polls now strongly suggest it is, it has to mobilise the Scottish working class.
This is not about “dividing the class”. It is about dividing the state. Independence is not a pure class issue. (Almost nothing ever is.) But English socialists becoming hot and bothered about the “illusions” of nationalism show a stunning lack of self-awareness. Scottish nationalism is not some freakish outgrowth of the far north, whilst support for the British state is merely the natural order of things, to be left unexamined. Those “internationalists” urging a No vote to oppose Scottish nationalism are seeing a mote in their neighbour’s eye, but ignoring the beam in their own. Whatever the misdemeanours of Scottish nationalism, they are as nothing compared to the world-historic crimes of British. And support for No is support for British nationalism.
This is the key to the third, decisive, reason to support Yes. It is why the referendum matters so much, north and south of the border. It is the hope raised by RIC: that, contrary to the official Yes campaign, which has been at pains until recently to stress continuity, independence can become a decisive break with the neoliberal politics that have failed most Scots for decades. The campaign has drawn in new political forces, reshaped the radical left, and helped create a national conversation about the type of society Scotland could become.
It is a break with a tradition of British socialism, in which a single, unitary state, allied to its united labour movement, would introduce radical social change across this island. The apogee of this tradition was the Labour government of 1945-51, and the creation of the modern welfare state. But as a vision of how to transform British society, it is now dead: for three decades, our increasingly centralised state has driven hard against the gains of ’45. Westminster has marched in lockstep with the City, to the point that it was a Labour government who mobilised the state’s immense powers to bail out the banks, clearing the path to the full-scale assault of austerity. (It was Alastair Darling, lest we forget, who as Labour Chancellor promised to “cut deeper than Thatcher”.)
It is this centralised, unitary state, meanwhile, that has gone to war repeatedly over the last decade. The legacy of its brutal Empire lives on its oversized military, and its willingness to use it. (Britain, with a population 0.89% of the world’s total, is the sixth largest military spender on the planet.) My entire adult life has been spent living in a country that is either bombing, invading, or occupying one place or another, with appalling consequences. It is only the immense, popular upsurge of the anti-war movement that has stayed the British state’s hand. Breaking up this warlike state, undermining its capacity to act abroad – as Scottish independence will – will be a huge gain for the world.
All the Westminster parties stand in agreement on the core domestic issues. No serious challenge, within the Westminster system, is possible to the austerity consensus. The British state is now hard-wired to neoliberalism. Far from, as the dream of British socialism hoped, seeing a united working class build on its historic gains, utilising the state, the increasingly centralised state was used to break up and atomise the British working class. The very centralisation that was supposed to facilitate the march towards socialism was turned, by successive governments since the 1970s, into its opposite.
The machine will not be thrown into reverse. The machine can only be taken apart. (As a questioner at the televised debate put it, “If we’re Better Together, why are we not better together already?”) If the outcome of the vote is close – and all the evidence suggests it will be – then, win or lose, a series of political crises will follow. For the Labour Party, which foolishly entered into an alliance with the Tories; for the Westminster system as a whole, now confronted with outright rejection by huge numbers of its own citizens. The first rumblings of a campaign for English devolution can be heard, threatening further cracks in what is perhaps the most centralised state machine of all the major economies.
We cannot guarantee the outcomes of independence. Should the vote go in favour, the fight will be on to extend the historic gains of the working class north of the border – and, for the rest of us, to insist that the remaining UK state recognises the will of the Scottish people. But the possibility is there to crack open our captured democracy, and break up the Westminster-City machine. We should seize it with both hands.
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).