Friday, 18 April 2014

Westminster's broken politics and the radical case for Scottish independence

Independence dominates, as you might expect, the Scottish political landscape. The referendum this September is potentially of huge consequence. It could break up the British state and establish an independent Scotland, opening up a new set of possibilities for Scottish politics but also impacting on politics south of the border.
Even if the 'Better Together' campaign (pro-Union alliance of Tories, Labour and Lib Dems) maintains its polling lead right up election day, the referendum has already framed just about all political debate in Scotland. This will continue to reverberate for years to come.

One consequence of the referendum campaign has been increased space for discussion of political directions and alternatives. While the official Yes Scotland campaign – with an agenda dictated by the Scottish National Party, led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond - has tended to be moderate, and the mainstream debate has been shaped by the No camp’s scaremongering, there has been an opening up of the possibilities. Unsurprisingly, there is a marked increase in political engagement by many ordinary Scots.
Radical Independence Campaign
The left-wing case for independence has been articulated by a number of forces, most notably the grassroots Radical Independence Campaign which has breathed new life into the Scottish left. It has forged new relationships among those dedicated to linking independence to a broader social and political vision. Radical independence is the politics of ‘Yes, and…’ – it regards the prospect of an independent Scotland as a starting point, a platform for articulating and campaigning for an alternative set of policies aiming towards social justice, sustainability and greater equality.
James Foley and Pete Ramand - activists in the Radical Independence Campaign - provide a detailed critique of Westminster's broken politics in their new book, 'Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence'. They also offer a thorough case for the alternative - not merely for independence, but for a far-reaching social and economic alternative.

I hope the book finds an audience in England, where there has been a remarkable indifference, at least until recently, to the Scottish independence question. There continues to be a widespread failure to grasp what is at stake or what is driving political developments.
No doubt this has been influenced by a widespread, and complacent, assumption that it can’t really happen, that it will all blow over and Scotland will reject independence and we will continue with business as usual. Yet recent polls indicate that, while retaining the Union remains the more likely outcome in September, independence is a real possibility.
The English left is far from being immune from this sluggishness, ignorance and conservatism. Elements of the left, especially those in the Labour Party, are pro-Union, while others view it as mere constitutional matter or think it should simply be left to the Scots (despite the potentially profound opportunities independence would open up for the rest of us).

Beyond Westminster
For the radical independence activists, what drives the movement for a Yes vote is not ‘nationalism’ but opposition to Westminster politics and the suffocating neoliberal orthodoxy that Westminster represents. The book’s authors note that the Yes campaign is at its strongest when it focuses on Westminster’s failings and articulates the need for breaking from its political consensus: cuts, privatisation, pro-US foreign policy, immigrant bashing and a relaxed attitude to growing inequality. What’s wrong with contemporary Britain – and the potential for alternatives to that – is the starting point.

They also highlight the class and generational dimensions of the independence debate, with the poor and the young being most likely to back independence. Surveys have found near-unanimous opposition to independence among business elites.
The UK has an electoral system that entrenches the neoliberal orthodoxy and marginalises more progressive voices. There is a Tory-led government despite Scotland and some English regions returning very few Tory MPs to Westminster. Labour is constantly pulled to the right in a bid for supposed ‘Middle England’ votes, a process reinforced by the first past the post system, while neglecting its core support. Ukip, despite not having any MPs, possess a media profile that enables it to exert right-wing pressure on the mainstream, while the left is completely marginal.

Westminster is – however you look at it, whatever angle you take – broken and very unlikely to be repaired.  There is a gaping democratic deficit and the enforcement of precisely the neoliberal policies which have enabled inequality to grow. The authors are clear that an independent Scotland does not guarantee a substantially different future, but that it does open up space for a different direction.
Under devolution, Scotland has seen a handful of positive reforms – like scrapping university fees and prescription charges – that compare favourably with England. The SNP is politically diverse and contains a conservative right wing, but on most policy issues it is to the left of the Labour leadership. Scottish political debate is – with the Tories marginal and Ukip virtually non-existent - framed  differently to the UK level. The social democratic mainstream of Scottish politics is a great improvement on Westminster politics and, with far greater powers than at present, an independent Scotland could bring positive change.

Nationalism and the British state

Independence would have repercussions for politics in the rump UK as well as in Scotland. The foreign policy establishment has lined up to warn of the terrible dangers of independence precisely because it will weaken the British state and its alliance with the US. The end of Trident is the most immediate likely effect, but the book outlines the wider challenge it will pose to the status quo.
Foley and Ramand recall how disgust at Tony Blair’s government over the Iraq war was a driving force behind increased support for the SNP in the 2003 and 2007 Scottish parliament elections; without that, the SNP may not have been able to reach the stage where it could call a referendum on an independent Scotland.
This aspect of independence is of course closely connected to the not insignificant matter of British nationalism – its history and its continuing ideological import – which, the authors note, is near-invisible in the whole referendum debate: Scottish nationalism is the object of vast amounts of commentary, but British nationalism is an ideological ‘common sense’ and thus rarely articulated openly. The book contains a very thoughtful discussion of different types of nationalism, their significance, and how they have evolved.

A central argument is that independence is not, contrary to media myth, the same as Scottish nationalism or identity – interestingly, polls reveal a very weak correlation between strength of Scottish identity and voting intentions in the referendum. Foley and Ramand also demolish the myth of ‘anti-English racism’ as a driving force for independence supporters, reminding us that more traditional and familiar forms of racist bigotry – like that directed to the Asian community – remain the real problem in terms of racism. Anti-racism and internationalism are at the heart of radical independence.
A radical needs agenda

For Foley and Ramand, however, the campaign for independence is about much more than choosing Holyrood over Westminster, opting for a social democratic mainstream over right-wing orthodoxy, or breaking from the worst elements of neoliberalism at home and imperialism abroad. The book, like the Radical Independence Campaign itself, is fuelled by a desire to move beyond those limits and champion a radically more progressive vision. This thread runs through the book, but is expressed most openly and forcefully towards the end, including an outline of a radical needs agenda for Scotland.

The radical needs agenda is a set of demands that, as the authors acknowledge, do not constitute a socialist society, but rather represent a radical alternative within the constraints of capitalism. All of them would need to be fought for, all would be resisted by powerful vested interests, and all would (in the process of fighting for them) raise fundamental questions about the society in which we live. It is a bold set of alternatives that has clearly been the subject of much research, thought and discussion; extremely well-informed and shaped by current conditions, rather than being a generic blueprint for a better society. 
Evidently one of the great advantages of the independence debate in Scottish society has been this opening up of space to discuss the future, allowing the Scottish left an opportunity to discuss and articulate alternatives instead of settling for opposition to the status quo. The authors are exceptionally good on the need for the campaign to link a critique of existing politics and an alternative vision. They explain and criticise the limits of the Yes Scotland campaign, and the SNP’s approach, which too often emphasises continuity over change, and is relentlessly ‘optimistic’ in a way  that lapses into the vague and vacuous. Voters need to be convinced that the present system is broken, but also that independence can lead to a genuine and far-reaching alternative.

This book – clearly written, coherently argued, wide-ranging in its concerns – is a must-read for anyone who supports independence for Scotland. It isn’t just for Scottish radicals, but of great relevance to those of us campaigning against Westminster’s bankrupt politics south of the border. It serves as a guide to the whole independence debate and a polemic for a radical alternative.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review.I am a Radical Independence Campaign member but lived in England for 20 years so agree that this is not just a book for 'Scottish' radicals and should be read by campaigners in other parts of the UK.