The Scottish referendum has demonstrated the centrality of the demand for democracy to working-class struggle, writes Alastair Stephens. This is a democratic revolt against neoliberalism and despair
The spell that has held official British politics as if frozen for thirty years is being broken. Like Narnia, a political winter has been upon us, the victims of neoliberalism turned to stone. But, in Scotland at least, people are again waking up and moving.
The Establishment’s shock at this palpable. People are on the streets, campaigning, challenging the status quo.
This is what general elections used to be like, but is clearly not to the taste of the political class. Accusations of intimidation are flying. Somebody shouted at a politician, another had a rough reception, the imperial emissaries of MPs, advisers, PR flaks and flunkies might not be welcomed on the streets and are mocked. That people might challenge our masters, that they may be impassioned angry - this is all treated as strange and unacceptable.
Cutting people’s wages, or taking their jobs and benefits away from them. That’s all fine. People are supposed to passively accept that.
The referendum has politically mobilized people who have been voiceless for decades and are now coming out to speak for themselves. The spell has been broken. The political winter is ending.
The UK is about to enter a period of constitutional and political turmoil unseen since the “Edwardian Crisis” of a hundred years ago.
The precipitating factor has been the independence referendum, but the combustible material has been building up for years: discontent with austerity and ever-growing inequality, a declining faith in the political system and the parties that is turning to outright hostility and a broad feeling that we no longer live in a democracy.
In England, this discontent has so far been most successfully channeled by the right, and in particular Ukip. They have, of course, had the help of the media, and the right of the Tory party, who are happy to have a stick to beat their own leaders with for failing to be right-wing enough.
However the Scottish referendum has changed the script.
Given the opportunity to have a national discussion about the sort of society people want to live in, and being able to have it outside of the boundaries of the two-and-a-half-party system in Westminster, a large part of the Scottish people are demanding a different vision of society to that which dominates political discourse in England.
Scotland is not different
Not that this is because Scotland is inherently more left-wing than England, or that somehow Scots are more progressive or more collectivist. Historically this hasn't been true, and Scottish society still has very conservative tendencies within it, often expressed through the Scottish Labour Party.
The things people want to defend, such as the NHS, and the changes people would like to see brought about are exactly the same across the UK. The difference in Scotland is only that these ideas have had a political expression.
There is UK-wide support for policies far, far to the left of the Westminster consensus. For example, a Yougov poll earlier this year found that 68% of the public say the energy companies should be run in the public sector, which includes 52% of Conservative voters and 74% of Ukip voters.
66% support nationalising the railway companies while only 23% think they should be run privately. Renationalisation is backed by 52% of Conservatives and 72% of Ukip supporters.
On the NHS, 84% of the public say the health service should be run in the public sector. Only 13% of Conservative voters say that it should be run by private companies
More surprisingly the public split 45%-43% in favour of rent controls and fully 35% of people think the government should be able to control food prices.
People’s views on inequality are also not what might be expected. Another poll by Yougov showed that 65% of people support introducing a mansion tax, more (49%) of Tory voters support this than oppose it (41 %) and half (50%) of Britons say they would support a wealth tax being introduced,
Given his party’s policies on tax Nigel Farage might also be surprised to learn that 57% of Ukip voters support a 50p tax rate top earners, almost the same as the national figure at 61%.80% of Ukip supporters saying tackling the gap between rich and poor should be more of a government priority than cutting taxes or the benefits bill an ICM poll found. In fact contrary to media myth the pay gap is now greater of greater concern to Ukip supporters than immigration, the benefits bill or the EU.
So on these issues Tory and Ukip voters are to the left of the Labour Party!
The reality is that on many of the most basic issues about the way the state should work, the way it should be financed, the political priorities of government and the distribution of wealth in society, the majority of people's views are well out of kilter from the political parties.
In fact, it would be fair to say these views have no expression in the political system at all.
It is little wonder that politicians would rather obsess about immigration and Europe. Ukip has turned concern about these issues into a political program that distracts from even their voters own major concerns.
They have in part been successful because they have been able to play on people’s disenchantment with the “political elite” and an obvious democratic deficit. Ukip has an explanation for this, and like all populist parties have an elite to blame: the EU and their local agents, an aloof cosmopolitan elite, of which Cameron and Osborne are meant to be prime examples.
Neoliberalism: incompatible with democracy
Ukip has moulded and shaped from the right a common feeling in our society: that democracy is disappearing, that ordinary people are being excluded and left voiceless. This is undoubtedly true: our democracy has been on the decline for three decades. This is unsurprising. Neoliberalism is incomparable with democracy.
The neoliberal assault on the economic system has been accompanied by an assault on democracy. Local government has been neutered and stripped of its powers, the state has been ruthlessly centralized, as have the parties that aspire to run it. Many areas of the state have been hived off and privatized, their workings hidden behind walls of commercial secrecy, and these same companies protect themselves from scrutiny by funding the major political parties.
As a result participation and interest in politics has withered; party grass roots activity has collapsed. In the past, when democracy became an unwanted encumbrance it has been liquidated with bayonets and jackboots. This time its murder has been quieter, slower, less noticeable. Rather than a death being brought about by a sudden lunge and a poisonous bite, democracy has had the life slowly squeezed out of as if by an anaconda.
Most political decisions are now taken at the summit of the state where government and the party leaderships (both those in power and those who wish to be) meet with corporate power and (in particular in this country), high finance. This process was been greatly facilitated in this country by our First Past The Post electoral system which effectively ossifies the party system and makes it near impossible for new parties to achieve representation.
Unions, once the most powerful institutions in civil society, have long been tamed, their power in the workplace, and their ability to project it into society and the political system greatly circumscribed. They have little influence even in Labour, the party they founded.
The vast majority of the population have found themselves excluded from politics by the decline of the state’s representative institutions and the lack of any party to represent their views. They have in large part reacted by political passivity, the perfect outcome for the continuation of neoliberalism.
Break in Scotland
This whole neoliberal system of power has in this country worked well for two decades. Since the Poll Tax revolt of 1989-1990, it has managed to avoid any major challenge to the status quo. There have been other outbursts, such as the anti-war movement, which though fantastically successful at delegitimising Britain’s imperial adventures, did not create a vehicle for broader domestic dissidence.
The Scottish referendum has blown a whole in the whole edifice of power, it has torn down at least a corner of its façade.
It has become a very direct and clear manifestation of the fact that most people want to live in very different kind of society to the one the political elite tells us we all want.
It has raised the question of democracy in society, challenging the highly centralised and oligarchic nature of rule from Westminster.
It has also revealed more clearly than ever, at least to the Scots, the network of vested interests that sustains the political establishment, and the way in which they are wiling to mobilise their power in the most undemocratic way when challenged. Scottish Labour may win the referendum but will destroy itself in the process. It could become the second Social Democratic party in Europe to suffer the same fate as the Greek Pasok party – decimating its own base of support.
It is significant that the break has come in Scotland, and as a result of one of the New Labour's few democratising measures: devolution.
It must be remembered Scottish devolution was brought about not by the democratic tendencies of the Labour Party. That Party that has been one of the key forces for the centralisation of the British state since at least the 1930s. Rather devolution was brought about as a result of movement in Scotland for it, and the desire of Labour to divert this away from support the SNP.
Labour wanted to preserve the UK state as is, not democratise it. When it came to choosing an electoral system for the new Scottish Parliament, they rejected FPTP (a system they still advocated for Westminster) and introduced a proportional system, but only in order to prevent the SNP obtaining a majority and calling a referendum on independence. How the mighty of the Scotttish Labour Party must now be looking on their work and weeping!
Wales too has seen a shift to the left as a result of (even more limited) devolution of power. The third devolved area was London, which at first elected a mayor far to the left of Labour, Ken Livingstone, but the lack powers and undemocratic nature of the Mayor’s office and Assembly meant that there has been no democratic renaissance in London. Instead the last election turned into a ridiculous beauty contest in which a far-right Tory won in a Labour-voting city on the basis of bonhomie.
Devolution to succession?
It is impossible to imagine the referendum, and the forces it has unleashed in society, without the creation of the Scottish Parliament. The devolution of power downwards, away from the political-corporate apex of power in Whitehall to a level at which people might be able to influence things, joined with breaking of the two party monopoly, has led to a regeneration of politics north of the border, and an associated shift to left of mainstream political discourse unimaginable in England.
It is now coming to a crescendo. Revolt against austerity and the role of governments in shaping an increasingly unequal society has found its expression through the question of state power: whether Scotland becomes independent. Independence has become a class demand. This is seen in the way in which Yes supporters repeatedly talk to reporters about “the working class” and a desire for “equality” and “social justice”. Opposition to independence is also clearly a class movement, the better-off and the upper classes at the forefront of the No campaign, which could not have looked more Establishment if it had been openly run by the Tory party.
And the Yes movement is clearly, in the main, working class in composition. The demands which it expresses or classic class demands for the defence of the NHS or against austerity, even if it is not based on, or driven by what we might consider to be the traditional bodies of the Labour movement. These have, we may note, almost all taken a Unionist line.
It has also created, in the Radical Independence Campaign, the germ of a rival leadership to the SNP, and an organizational structure with roots in the working class.
Whatever the result of the referendum the political landscaped has just been dramatically changed – certainly in Scotland.
The call for democracy
The call for democracy - that people might again influence government in order to bring about the sort of society they want, and not the sort they are told they should want – is central. This is the vector through which a class rebellion is being expressed, just as it has been in movements across Europe.
This should not surprise us. Just as neoliberalism and democracy are incompatible, democracy and socialism are essential to each other. Socialists should always fight for the maximum of democracy in the state and society, and have always been at the forefront of the fight for democratic change, from Marx to the Bolsheviks to the revolution in Egypt more recently. The working class needs the light and air of democracy to breath and live.
Democratic explosion in Scotland will have echoes in England. We must use it to end the spell of eternal winter here as well.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.