Sunday, 14 September 2014

Scotland's vote, Britain's crisis - lessons from the independence referendum

Buchanan Street, Glasgow, 13 September. Photo: Suki Sangha
Here are 10 important things to consider, regardless of the outcome of this Thursday's referendum.

1. There is a democratic upsurge in Scotland. 97% of potential voters are registered for the referendum, with a very high turnout predicted. 'Yes' campaigners relish the prospect of a high turnout; 'No' campaigners are nervous of it. There has been large-scale electoral registration in recent weeks, much of it thanks to  registration drives by Radical Independence and other 'Yes' campaigners, especially among the young and the poor.

Just as importantly, mass meetings have taken place in every corner of Scotland attracting people who don't normally regard themselves as 'political'. There have been mass canvasses, flash mobs and astonishing scenes in Glasgow on Saturday. Thousands have become political activists for the first time, with a thriving grassroots movement for 'Yes'. This will have a permanent effect - the new activists and the newly politicised won't be 'put back in their box'.

2. The greatest hope comes from the radical grassroots. The official Yes campaign has had its strengths and weaknesses, but there has also been a vibrant unofficial campaign of activist groups, Green campaigners, socialists, websites and cultural networks which has frequently moved beyond the limits and moderation of the official campaign. It has expressed the politics of 'Yes, and...', seeing a Yes vote as merely the beginning in moving towards a more socially just future, a way of opening up greater space for contesting neoliberalism, renewing radical working class politics and articulating alternatives to a status quo of inequality, austerity and war.

It has been dynamic, creative and frequently young; both diverse and inclusive. The 'No' camp, by contrast, is tightly controlled and looks, sounds and feels rather stale. The Radical Independence Campaign (key slogan: Britain is for the rich - Scotland can be ours) especially has linked independence to a bigger vision of social, political and economic transformation, treating independence as a starting point for more far-reaching change.

3. Apathy is a myth. The widespread illusion that people - particularly young people - are uninterested in politics has been exposed as hollow. When offered real alternatives, and when engaged on matters of real substance, there is an appetite for political engagement. Normally marginal topics - from Trident to the constitution- can become matters of serious scrutiny and intense debate. There is no reason to believe this can only happen in Scotland.

Lowering the voting age to 16 made a contribution to engaging the young, though it has been about much more than that. And the independence debate has reached into deprived communities normally alienated by politics, in large part due to the efforts of left-wing and radical currents.

4. Westminster is broken. One recent poll asked Yes voters what motivates them. 'Westminster's style of politics' was the most popular from a list of options, chosen by 51% of Yes voters surveyed. It isn't simply about hating the Tories, though that is visceral, but about a (justified) lack of faith in a post-May 2015 Labour government reversing Tory attacks and making real reforms.

The deep popular disaffection with Westminster's hollowed-out democracy and its political orthodoxies can go in different directions. It can boost UKIP. But the referendum also indicates it can be channelled in a positive direction. Again: this is not something that must be an exclusively Scottish phenomenon.

5. The British ruling class is more scared than at any time in 30 years. The Miners' Strike of 1984-85 is the last time that establishment panic and hysteria reached the fever pitch levels we are currently witnessing, as politicians, banks and big business fear the threat posed by a victory for independence.

The British state remains firmly linked to British capital, and the bulk of the ruling class is strongly opposed to an independent Scotland. The markets are very jittery and will be much more than that on Friday if the vote goes the way they fear. The lack of preparation for a Yes victory - by government, civil service and the foreign policy and military establishment - speaks eloquently of the state of denial these institutions have been in. It reveals how unthinkable and appalling the prospect of independence is to them.

6. The British ruling class will do all it can to crush opposition when it is threatened. It may just be facing its gravest defeat since 1974, when the trade union movement brought down a Tory government. The hysteria of much of the British and Scottish press has been something to behold. We've even had front pages telling us that Deutsche Bank predicts a Second Great Depression as a result of independence, despite us having already had a Second Great Depression, for which banks like Deutsche Bank were largely responsible.

The BBC - a publicly funded broadcaster tied into the ideology of the British state - has generated a fierce backlash because of its shameless bias. No wonder thousands of people protested about bias and slander outside BBC Scotland. We have also seen banks, major corporations and supermarket chains threatening to leave Scotland and issuing dire warnings of rising prices or economic meltdown. The nastiness of the British state and elite institutions has been revealed for all to see. We could still see much more of this if there is indeed a 'Yes' victory, as the political, financial and business leaders of the defeated 'No' camp struggle to minimise the damage and obstruct the process of moving towards an independent Scotland in 2016.

7. British nationalism is both toxic and fragile. This is exemplified by the Sunday Telegraph's grotesque front page suggesting that independence will be a betrayal of Scottish soldiers have been killed as part of the British armed forces. This is a repellent piece of nationalist emotional blackmail - originating with former armed forces chief Lord Dannatt - but it also has a rather pathetic quality of nostalgia and decay.

British nationalism doesn't have quite the hold it once did, the institutions which once gave it some material substance are now discredited (like the BBC) or being dismantled (like the NHS), and its modern character is very post-empire, fragile rather than swaggering. This is not to deny its still considerable ideological power - nor is it to overlook the serious problems of racism and scapegoating in our society - but to note that it lacks the depth of social base it one possessed (and if there is a 'Yes' victory on Thursday its force will be eroded significantly).

8. Democracy is now a major battleground in British politics. Much of the left really doesn't get this: advocating an abstract ideal of future socialist democracy while blind to areas of current contention, from the House of Lords to the lack of regional devolution, from the slashing of funding for local government to the growth of corporate influence at Westminster. The more perceptive elements of the left grasp that democracy is important in the here and now, that people care about it, and that it is bound up with all sorts of social and economic issues. We should also be aware that if Scots vote for independence, there will be an almighty battle - south of the border as much as north of it - over the negotiation process, with Westminster and the British state putting numerous obstacles in the way. This means we could very soon face a prolonged struggle over a big democratic question.

35 years of neoliberalism have hollowed out democracy. The gaps between the mainstream parties have narrowed, politics has become technocratic and managerial, and our elected representatives are less likely than ever to come from working class backgrounds. Local government has been gutted, due to a combination of cuts, reorganisation and the preposterous craze for 'executive mayors', and anti-union laws have eroded workers' rights and weakened their resistance. This referendum campaign has offered a glimpse of something better - for Scots, yes, but also for the rest of us if we fight for it.

9. Independence is a ticking time bomb. 'No' has a substantial lead among those aged 65 or over. If it is a very narrow defeat for independence on Thursday, the long-term prospect - 10 or 15 years from now - is likely to be a victory in any fresh referendum.

The 25-34 age group - the Iraq war generation, we might say, as that was such a politically formative event for many of them - is notably more pro-independence than most. This generation, too, has provided many of the 'Yes' activists and the backbone of the Radical Independence Campaign. They learnt from Iraq how destructive the British nation state can be. They also learnt what a democratic deficit looks like.

10. The left can be rebuilt. The Scottish left, which had been so fractious and stagnant a few years ago, has emerged strengthened, with a new generation of socialist activists developing and new alliances formed (of course some have been left behind, but the more active, astute and outward-looking have seized the opportunities). This new left still has some way to go, but the direction of travel is the right one. It has proven how it is possible for socialists to make their politics relevant and to connect with wider layers of working class people, including on housing schemes (neglected by politicians) where poverty is rife.

The English left, too, can be relevant and effective - if the lessons are learnt and the fatalistic miserabilism is ignored. A left that shapes struggles against austerity, war and racism, builds broad coalitions and communicates alternatives clearly can make an impact and grow. Alternative political directions are possible.


1 comment:

  1. Alex. Apart from a few left mavericks like my good self who have argued lomg for a progressive Englishness, I think this is the first time I've read a leftie use the self-evident term 'The English Left'.

    Its self-evident becaiuse as you correctly point it there is a Scottish Left, there's certainly a Welsh Left and if we are serious about social change there wioll soon enough be an English Left.

    The implicatiions are profound, but irreversible.

    Mark Perryman