by John Wight
I will be voting ‘No’ in this year’s referendum on Scottish independence. I will do so as a statement of solidarity with working people the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.
There is undoubtedly much that is regressive – make that despicable – about the British state. The monarchy, the House of Lords, the country’s history of empire, colonialism, and its recent history of sowing carnage and chaos in the Middle East – all of those things add up to a damning indictment of a state formed in 1707 in the interests of a rising mercantile class, committed to colonial expansion and the super exploitation of the planet’s resources.
However, the notion that Scotland and the Scots were not party to this history – or played only a marginal role – is an insult to truth. The ill-fated Darien Scheme of 1698-1700, an attempt by the then independent Scotland to establish a colony in what is now Panama, succeeded in bankrupting the country, which led inexorably to the bulk of the Scottish aristocracy and merchant class – who made up the Scottish Parliament of the day – voting to enter the current union with England in 1707. Thereafter Scots played a disproportionate role in building the British Empire as generals, officers, and soldiers in the army, colonial administrators, slavers, and merchants – in the process creating great personal fortunes, and establishing Glasgow as the second city of the empire.
The unintended effect of the 1707 union was the homogenization of the working class throughout the newly formed British state. This homogenization was based on the common misery they were suffering at the hands of the factory and mill owners who controlled their lives under an economic system of unfettered capitalism. The need to organize collectively in order to resist the brutal conditions of the lives of workers across Britain transcended every other difference – whether on grounds of nationality, race, religion, or gender. This gave rise to the emergence of the trade union movement followed by the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century, reflecting the growth in size and consciousness of a British working class. This class identity remains relevant today at a time when the nation is being ruled by the most extreme and callous Tory government in generations. Simply put, it dictates that a bus driver in Glasgow has more in common with a bus driver in Newcastle, Liverpool, or Cardiff than he does with a wealthy fellow Scot.
With this in mind, I have increasingly found some of the arguments being made in support of independence by progressives and socialists within the Yes campaign disappointing. The central of those – namely that voting ‘Yes’ will rid Scotland of the Tories – is not only weak, it is cowardly. Firstly, you may get rid of the Tories but that doesn’t mean you will get rid of Tory ideas, a few of which are front and center in the SNP’s recently produced independence manifesto (or white paper), titled‘Scotland’s Future’. The Scottish Nationalist Party’s positions on corporation tax, the monarchy, and NATO membership would sit more than comfortably in the pages of a Tory manifesto.
More importantly, the idea that abandoning millions of people who’ve stood with us – and us with them – in trade union struggles, political campaigns, progressive movements, etc, for generations – the idea that this can be considered progress is anathema to me. The analogy of the Titanic applies, wherein rather than woman and children, it is Scots to the lifeboats and to hell with everybody else.
Nationalism, unless rooted in national oppression, is a regressive ideology. It obscures the real dividing line in society – namely class – offering instead an abstracted analysis of the world through a national prism that takes zero account of social and economic factors, thus offering nothing but more of the same under a different flag. It is no wonder that Albert Einstein described nationalism as an ‘infantile disease’.
Our nationality is an accident of birth. It means nothing. You can’t eat a flag. A flag doesn’t heat a home or put food on the table. Nationalism offers a largely mythologized history in the process of inviting us to embrace a national interest, one that can only relate to the world behind false divisions of national, ethnic, or racial differences. Even when it comes to culture, the terms national culture obscures more than it illuminates. The traditional culture of the Highlands in Scotland, for example, means little to me as a Lowland Scot. I can appreciate it, of course, but not anymore or with any more feeling than I do any culture anywhere in the world.
The concept of the modern nation state is a relatively recent one. It traces its roots to the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century, which brought to an end the Thirty Years War in Europe. Out of it emerged the concept of national sovereignty, a political concept reflective of the early stages of capitalist economic development, with the resultant growth in international trade and the need to expand and protect both markets and sources of natural resources required to feed burgeoning manufacturing industries in the interests of competing capitalists.
However, much has changed in 350 years. In 2013 economic sovereignty does not lie with national governments as it did at one time. Today economic sovereignty in the West lies with global capital under that extreme variant of capitalism known as neoliberalism – or the free market. The notion that separation from a larger state would allow said smaller state to forge a social democratic utopia without challenging neoliberal nostrums is simply not credible. A patchwork of smaller states plays into the hands of global capital, as it means more competition for inward investment, which means global corporations are able to negotiate more favorable terms in return for that investment. The result is a race to the bottom as workers in one state compete for jobs with workers in neighboring states. In this regard it is surely no accident that Rupert Murdoch is a vocal supporter of Scottish independence.
Support for Scottish independence among progressives in Scotland is rooted in despair over a status quo of Tory barbarity. This is understandable. For the past three decades working class communities throughout the UK have suffered a relentless assault under both Conservative and Labour administrations. The Labour Party, under the baneful influence and leadership of Tony Blair and his New Labour clique, came to be unrecognizable from the party that created the welfare state, including the NHS, the party that once held full employment as a guiding principle of its economic and social policy. The embrace of free market nostrums under New Labour meant that the structural inequality that obtained after 18 years of Tory rule remained more or less intact. The market was now the undisputed master of all it surveyed. The consequence of Labour’s shift to the right has been to give rise to cynicism, disappointment, and lack of faith in politics among large swathes of voters, evinced in ever lower turnouts at elections. Issues such as the lies and subterfuge surrounding Britain going to war in Iraq in 2003, the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2011, followed by the phone hacking scandal – during which the unhealthy relationship between the owners and editors of tabloid newspapers and politicians was revealed – has only deepened this cynical disregard for politics and politicians in Britain, giving rise to anti-politics as the default position of many voters.
In Scotland – for decades a Labour Party stronghold – devolution has allowed a protest vote to make the electorate’s feelings towards this Labour Party betrayal of its founding principles known at the ballot box. Regardless, the most significant protest has been a non-vote, with turnouts at elections in Scotland following the pattern of the rest of the country in remaining low. For example, there was only a 50 percent turnout at the last Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2011, out of which the Scottish National Party (SNP) emerged with an overall majority, the first time any party has managed to do so since the Scottish Parliament came into existence in 1999.
However the argument that Scotland is more left leaning than the rest of the UK is one that seeks to conflate conservatism with England in its entirety, rather than a specific region of the country, which in conjunction with the antiquated first past the post electoral system of Westminster elections has thrown up Tory governments that are unrepresentative of where the majority of England and the rest of the UK sits politically. Scotland is no more left leaning than the deindustrialized North East, North West, and Midlands of England. Nor is it any more left leaning than Wales. The working class in Scotland is not any more progressive than its English or Welsh counterpart.
As a consequence, my ‘No’ vote in September will be both a rejection of nationalism as a progressive alternative to the status quo and a statement of solidarity with all who are suffering under this Tory government – not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.