Breaking up Britain would create new political possibilities

Today is the most extraordinary day in British politics in a generation. It is about more than the possible end of a 307-year old political union: it would be the biggest blow to the establishment since the 1973 Miners’ strike destroyed Ted Heath’s government. While a – temporary – respite for the Union today seems likely, this referendum cannot be analysed in the narrow way London media have, only concerned with election results. The UK model doesn’t work effectively for its own citizens, particularly in its protection of class and empire.

The referendum has torn up everything understood about British politics in the last 30 years. Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979 took place months after the first Scottish devolution referendum failed. Scotland was forced to respond to Thatcherism differently than England – aware a new kind of politics was required. The Scottish left progressively recognised from the 1970s that nationalism wasn’t a ‘distraction’ from class: Scottish people’s feelings had to be engaged with. If Scottish people are ‘angry’, then they are angry about something, not inherently bitter about the Union. The passion of the Yes campaign results from it being a movement of people imagining what kind of country they want to create. Groups like Common Weal have argued for long-term left-wing visions rather than short-term Labour electoral obsessions. Better Together have not understood the long-term implications of this referendum because it doesn’t fit any British political pattern in the last quarter century. It is post-political, with a technocratic, short-term ‘West Wing’ view of politics. A Better Together spokesperson infamously said, ‘people with mattresses in their gardens don’t win elections’. But if there is a Yes victory it will be because of groups like the Radical Independence Campaign registering ‘the missing million’ voters.

A No victory will be a temporary reprieve for the Union. While Mrs. Thatcher was seen as curing post-empire ‘decline’ and malaise, the UK didn’t work very well for Scots anymore. She did not cause Scottish independence so much as she delayed confronting post-imperial decline. Labour saw its role as redistributing the spoils of empire to the working-class – the welfare state collapsed the need for Scottish home rule. Older Scots are by far the most pro-Union voters, with memories of post-WW2 state provision of healthcare and housing. But the decline of empire meant there was less to redistribute and working-class strength could not be maintained. While Labour unionists romanticise the Attlee government, they forget such circumstances cannot be recreated. Indeed when Britain has acquired any significant resources post-WW2 – like North Sea Oil – they have not been used to remedy Scotland’s disproportionate reliance on empire, but to weather deindustrialisation and pour resources into the financial industry. A ‘Strong UK’ no longer provides ‘jam tomorrow’ for working-class Scots, but is geared towards the banks: British power – rather than Scottish nationalism – is used to disguise class.

Significantly, working-class Scots are far more likely to support greater powers. This is a gap seen since the 1979 referendum, where 57% of working-class Scots backed devolution and 60% of middle-class Scots opposed it. The Scottish middle-class has always had a great deal of political power in the Union, namely a separate education system that provided the Scottish middle managers for empire. By contrast, trade unions – despite being Labour’s base – are neutral. Joseph Stiglitz’s argument that UK inequality stifles investment in infrastructure is attractive to them. The UK has a long-standing problem of low reinvestment and productivity, currently ranking 142nd out of 154 countries for investment as a percentage of GDP. To claim Scotland is a ‘subsidy junkie’ takes a lot of chutzpah given the history of North Sea oil – and the British Empire. Investment and wealth instead flows into London’s housing bubble. Despite Scotland building as many council houses as England, the bubble is contributing to a wealth gap where the richest 10% of Scottish households are 273 times as rich as the poorest 10%. In order to effectively invest in council housing, higher education, and the NHS, taxation powers are necessary. Scotland cannot depend on the UK distributing the resources it needs. NHS cuts in England for example inevitably means cuts to Scotland’s budget. While a £400 million NHS budget gap in Scotland could be met, England’s £30 billion gap makes that more difficult.

The Labour and left-wing unionist view that the state should be as big as possible in order to pool and redistribute resources is reasonable. But the UK doesn’t effectively unite or empower the working-class as much as the ruling class. Ralph Miliband convincingly argued the centralised power of the British state prevents any attempt to wield it against capitalism. Though the world is ‘bigger’, solidarity doesn’t require centralisation. Centralisation – particularly the gutting of local democracy – aided Thatcherism. Spain’s economic collapse has more to do with its housing bubble than Catalonia’s autonomy. Devolution allowed Scotland to retain some elements of social democracy e.g free prescriptions, elderly care, and higher education. When UK leaders promise more powers if there is a No vote, it goes against their instincts: they have withdrawn devolved powers such as energy before. Support for Yes is – and in any future referendum will be – strongest when emphasising Westminster’s flaws. Westminster’s parties are all allied to a particular view of British power, with a toxic culture of lobbying, and even a seat for the City of London’s Remembrancer; Scotland would have a written constitution and already has a proportionally elected parliament, with no need for a second chamber and greater representation of self-identified women.

Claiming Scottish nationalism is reactionary while Labour politicians say, ‘There is British exceptionalism and we should be prepared to say that’, points to a broader issue. Even if Ed Miliband had the will, he could not alter a consensus built on state-backed neoliberalism where austerity sees no sign of ending. The extent of this neoliberal hegemony is unusual to Europe, where the state provides higher education and childcare, and business supports industrial strategy. Independence has never led to a developed nation’s economy crashing or being internationally isolated, but the UK’s foreign policy and ‘me-first’ economics have been destabilising for Scotland. But the issue is less about political independence than who exercises power. It’s not enough for Scotland to gain territorial control of North Sea oil as Norway has: the Norwegian model also involves 90% of revenue going to the state. Similarly, while Scotland would be better able to tap into tidal and wind power, only public ownership would guarantee greater investment as in Denmark. Breaking from City of London-led policies is necessary to escape low investment and productivity, and stark symbols of inequality like child and fuel poverty. The SNP’s bungling of the currency issue underlines the friction about who exercises power. While declining living standards are a more significant threat to Scotland’s economy than a currency union, Westminster leaders would have reacted more strongly if the SNP had proposed an independent currency (even if Scottish pounds already feel like a separate currency when attempting to use in London shops). The SNP should have grabbed this opportunity as the pound makes it harder for Scotland to trade.

The effect of independence would be internationalist rather than Scotland turning in on itself. There is for example extremely little chance of Scotland not being allowed in the EU – huge concessions were made for East Germany upon reunification with West Germany, while Scotland currently complies with all EU laws. It would also have strong allies in the Nordic countries, with Scotland possibly joining the Nordic Council (and suggestions for a Nordic renewable energy equivalent of OPEC). Scotland is not like Ireland and has its own colonial legacy to confront, mainly their role as middle managers for the Empire. But breaking with UK immigration policy would be one of the most important things Scotland could do to tackle the empire mindset. The SNP propose ending draconian policies of locking children asylum seekers in detention centres, and would encourage international students to stay after completing university. These policies, and UK foreign policy, have swung many Scottish Asian voters towards the Yes side.

However, answers won’t be created just by adding enough elements together – Scotland cannot have Norway’s oil fund, Iceland’s citizen constitution, Sweden’s elderly care, and Finland’s schools just by waiting on Scotland’s ‘innate progressiveness’, anymore than the British far-left waits for SYRIZA/Podemos to emerge in UK form. But independence would allow the British political system to become unstuck. It opens up issues locked away for 30 years. While an SNP government may find it more useful to use nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip in independence negotiations than immediately disarming, the space would be opened for the rUK (rest of the UK) to consider ditching the nuclear arsenal altogether. Similarly, while ‘losing’ Scotland may mean the rUK is less immediately likely to vote for staying in the EU, an establishment always divided on the issue would increasingly see Europe as vital when the UK’s ‘world power’ status had just been bashed. In Scotland, issues like feudal land ownership, a written constitution involving genuine democratic participation, and even leaving UK cultural stagnancy by building an independent Scottish Broadcasting Service, are being explored. It is not enough to ‘break’ institutions as Mrs. Thatcher understood: new ones have to be created.

Britain has never had to reimagine itself as Germany did. The UK’s UN veto, unwritten constitution, and ‘need’ to control immigration are taken as fact. Abandoning ‘progressive’ British nationalism is a daunting task – all change is hard. In the post-referendum UK, the English left could afford to be a little braver, more intersectional, to build bigger coalitions, namely with forces in Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland. This does not mean becoming ‘Little Englanders’. Rather, only by stepping down from Empire can the rUK properly engage with the world by not trying to dominate it. The presence of more than one independent country in Britain would undermine ‘island mentality’. It would also force the left to think about the class system left intact after WW2 – deeply intertwined with empire and the UK’s constitution – specifically how private education protects upper-class power.

Centralisation cuts off long-term questions about transforming Britain, seeing Scottish people as short-term electoral interests – one Labour MP likened Scottish voters considering independence to ‘children playing in the rain’. It’s far easier to stick to sensibilities about the Tories and the dangers of Scottish nationalism than to criticise the existing order, and think about their own failures in gathering English support – ignoring the first-past-the-post electoral system that does more to elect Tory governments than England alone. But even traditional bases of support like Catholic Scots have left Labour, and may tip this referendum. While the right is generally better at long-term strategy, the Conservative and Unionist Party would possibly be more rocked by Scottish independence as their identity is tied to class, empire, and the Union – David Cameron’s resignation would be inevitable. They would probably become a more conventional European Christian Democratic party.

Independence would not magically transform Scotland – or England – into a Scandinavian social democracy. Indeed, changes in SNP policies have been linked to corporate backers like Brian Souter, namely on same-sex couples adopting and bus regulation. A post-independence SNP split is not out of the question. But a far bigger breach with the British political system has happened. It’s not ‘Tartan Tories’ backing independence, but disproportionately working-class Scots. The debate’s events have controlled the establishment rather than the other way around. Yes or No, this democratising process has threatened the existing order by giving people both hope and power.


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