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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fight the power

If we really had put a stop to the City back in 1983, it is unlikely that people in Scotland would be voting to break up the UK this September. I don't actually say this in following - the text of a talk for a meeting of my local / Dumfries and Galloway branch of the Radical Independence Campaign - but its there in the mix.

Between 1800 and 1860 Scotland and the Scots were changed utterly. In rapid succession, first the  Lowland then the  Highland Clearances destroyed the traditions of rural life. Then an industrial revolution concentrated the dispossessed in new urban centres where they were joined by successive waves of desperately impoverished Irish people. As journalist Neal Ascherson noted in 2002, while England experienced a similar transformation,  the  process there was slower. Ascherson went on to argue, based on his experience of public debates during the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendum campaigns, that the rapidity and extent of Scotland’s  transformation into a modern nation left an enduring trauma of self-doubt. This trauma revealed itself in the devolution debates through unwillingness  to speak out in public.

In November, I gave a talk on the Independence referendum to Dumfries and Galloway Green Party and quoted Ascherson’s theory. A member of RIC Dumfries and Galloway who was there challenged Ascherson’s observation. He argued that self-doubt and lack of confidence in speaking out in public debates was a general working class rather than a particularly Scottish  problem. In his book, Ascherson  partly answered this question from his experiences as journalist in Scotland and in England. At editorial meetings of journalists in Scotland there was very little discussion compared with the lengthy discussions of  English journalists at similar meetings. The implication being that even middle class Scots are less confident in expressing their views in public than middle class English people.

After the meeting  I went home to think again about Ascherson’s argument  and in particular his claim that Scotland’s transformation from a traditional  society to a modern industrial society was uniquely rapid and had left an enduring scar on the Scottish psyche.
Firstly, as Ascherson correctly noted, the process of  agricultural change in England was more long drawn out than in Scotland. Two centuries before the Highland Clearances, Thomas More claimed that

. ..your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I heard say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy, and devour whole fields, houses, and cities….And certain abbots leave no ground for tillage: they inclose all into pastures, they throw down houses, they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing, but only the church to be made a sheep house. [Utopia, Book 1]

Secondly, although Scotland was partly affected by the first phase of the industrial revolution -the mechanisation of cotton spinning which  turned Manchester into a  boom town- Scotland’s iron and coal industries did not achieve take-off until after 1830. It was only once James Neilson’s hot -blast allowed the use of raw coal that Scottish pig-iron became cheaper than English and Welsh pig-iron. This led to the ultra-rapid growth of the iron industry in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire which in turn drove the expansion of coal mining and railways. Cheap iron and later steel stimulated the growth of steamship-building on the Clyde and locomotive building in Glasgow and Kilmarnock.

It was this second phase of the industrial revolution, concentrated between 1830 and 1850, which transformed Scotland into an industrial and urban nation. Other parts of the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland were also transformed by the industrial revolution, which later spread to Europe, the USA and Japan. Where ever the industrial revolution took root, a new class of capitalists emerged along with the new industrial proletariat, the working class.

The critical question then becomes, are there any features of the Scottish experience of industrialisation which marks it out as expectional?  For example, Wales is a smaller country than Scotland  yet also developed similar iron and coal industries. However, development of the south Wales iron industry occurred over a longer time scale, so that by 1830 the iron industry already dominated the Welsh economy.

In north east England, the coal industry had been shipping coal to London since the seventeenth century. On a smaller scale, the west Cumberland coal industry  supplied Dublin with coal from the seventeenth century onwards. The economy of  Black Country in the west Midlands had been based on coal and iron since the early eighteenth century. The only English region to undergo a rapid expansion of the iron industry in the nineteenth century was the area around Middlesbrough after 1850, but this was a very localised development.

England is also a larger country than Scotland, with a larger population. So while the industrial revolution pushed the economic centre of gravity northwards in England, London in the south  remained the largest city as well as being the Imperial capital. In England there was no equivalent to the concentration of population in an industrial region as there was in Scotland and in Wales. However the Welsh experience of industrialisation differed from that of the Scots. Welsh iron mainly supplied the English market, while Scottish iron, either directly through exports of pig iron or indirectly through ship-building and locomotive building, relied on the global market.

The reliance of Scotland’s heavy engineering industries on exports made the Scottish economy very sensitive to fluctuations in trade. The cycle of boom and bust continually disrupted the lives of the workers and their families. This in turn led to industrial conflict as the workers tried to  hang on to the good wages paid in times of boom  against wage cuts in times of bust. The iron and coal masters responded by employing unskilled Irish workers, thus creating and exploiting religious and ethnic divisions within the  workers’ communities. At the same time, skilled Scots workers began to emigrate to the USA and the ‘white colonies’.

To summarise, by the middle of the nineteenth century Scotland was an industrial nation and more than half of all Scots lived in working class communities in west central Scotland. Although the Victorian industries which created these communities are gone,  the concentration of Scotland’s population in the central Lowlands remains a significant feature of  Scottish life. This suggests that it is possible to rephrase Ascherson’s observation  to say something like ‘As a result of Scotland’s experience of rapid social change and industrialisation, many aspects of Scotland’s recent history are similar to the recent history of English and Welsh working class communities. Part of this similarity includes self-doubt and lack of confidence in public debates.’

Our problem now is that the No campaign with the help of the BBC, ITV, the Scottish and British press are doing their worst to generate fear, doubt and uncertainty. Project Fear as they laughingly call themselves are effectively engaged in psychological warfare against the Scottish psyche. It reminds me of a famous quote from the Vietnam War ‘In order to save the village we had to destroy it’-  or more accurately quoted, to prevent the Vietcong over-running the town of Ben Tre in 1968 a US army major said ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’.

In order to save the Scots from themselves, Project Fear have to destroy every hope, every dream, every vision that another Scotland is possible. What this reminds me of is when Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti was interviewed by Dutch-Canadian journalist Pierre van Paassen for the Toronto Star in 1936.  With a ferociously destructive civil war going on van Passen pointed out to Durruti that ‘Even if you win, you will be sitting on a pile of ruins’.

Durruti answered "We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For, you must not forget, we also know how to build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America, and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place, and better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth, there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute".

Our situation is hardly so desperate, but the essence of Project Fear is the claim that even if we win in September we will be sitting on a pile of ruins. That an independent Scotland will be a broken nation. But Scotland isn’t broken, what is broken is the Union.

Why is the Union broken? There is a nationalist argument that  the Union has always been broken, but I think the break occurred much more recently. It happened after John Major won the 1992 election, when the Labour party became convinced  that  to gain power it would have to betray the aspirations of its working class voters in Scotland, in south Wales and in the industrial regions of England and shift to the right.

There is a parallel here  between Labour’s problems in the 1980s and 90s with the problems faced by the Yes campaign today. Just as the Yes campaign are struggling to get their positive message across in the face of a blizzard of scare stories, so Labour were faced with trying to get their message across in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile right wing media. Labour blinked first and re-branded themselves as Tony Blair’s big-business friendly New Labour.  This was symbolised in 1995 when New Labour dropped Clause 4 of  the British Labour Party’s constitution - which committed the British Labour party

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Clause 4 was adopted by the British Labour party in 1918, but it was to take the great depression, the rise of fascism and another world war before the coal, health, iron, steel and transport industries were nationalised. Unfortunately, this  nationalisation was effectively the continuation of war-time state control of these industries rather than a more co-operative and democratic system of common ownership. As a consequence, there was no empowerment of the workers in the nationalised industries so they remained alienated from the decision making processes.

Beyond the nationalised industries, the post-war period, from 1945 to 1975, saw a gradual decline in the UK as manufacturing nation and a re-focusing of the ‘national interest’ in banking and financial services  in the City of London. In the run up to the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979, the right wing press kept up a barrage of scare stories - the infamous ‘Winter of Discontent’-designed to convince voters that Labour and over powerful trade unions were destroying Britain by wrecking the economy. Only the Conservatives could put the ‘Great’ back in Britain.

Once in power, the Conservatives gave the bankers and financiers free reign while destroying the power of organised labour through a combination of new legislation and allowing manufacturing to collapse. Mass unemployment was seen as a price worth paying to restore a free-market economy. In reality, Thatcher’s economic strategy would have bankrupted Britain if it hadn’t been for Scotland’s oil, the wealth from which was squandered in an orgy of economic and social vandalism.

Thirty five years of neo-liberalism later and Britain is broke. It has even been argued that a Yes vote  in September  would  trigger a financial crisis- not in Scotland, but in the remainder of the UK. The theory is that the finances of the UK are so finely balanced that the loss of Scotland’s contribution, including but not just oil, would panic the markets. With very little manufacturing industry left in the UK, there would no longer be enough export money coming in to stop the whole house of cards from collapsing. The only way around this disaster will be to let Scotland keep the pound after independence.

To summarise, Scotland’s particular experience of industrialisation was very rapid but was over-reliant on export markets. This meant that the Scottish economy was very unstable, with bust following boom  throughout  the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hundreds of thousands of Scots chose to emigrate  rather than  put up with this. The Scots who stayed had, like working class communities in England and Wales, lost most of their self-confidence in their struggle to survive.  

After  the second world war, nationalisation and numerous state led attempts to regenerate the Scottish economy failed to overcome its structural weaknesses. If North Sea oil had been Scottish oil in the 1980s and 90s,  a new economy could have been created, but instead successive Conservative and New Labour governments squandered  the opportunity in pursuit of casino capitalism based  on house price inflation and the deregulation of banking. What ever sense of community and solidarity which had survived the decline of traditional industries was now fractured seemingly beyond repair. The death of the old Labour party added sense of political powerlessness to this desolate scene.

However in Scotland, unlike England and Wales, voters had an social democratic alternative to Labour- the SNP. The SNP in turn had a radical solution to Scotland’s problems- independence. This means that we are now in a very interesting situation. It is interesting because the threat of independence has revealed the structures of power within the UK.

National broadcasters - the BBC and ITV along with the newspapers and UK political parties have all signed up to Project Fear. No attempt has been made to make a positive case for the Union. Instead we have been subjected to an unremitting barrage of scare stories designed to convince us that independence is both impossible and unthinkable.

What are they so frightened of ? I think it is a problem of power. If Scotland leaves the Union, the last shreds of the illusion that England is still a world power will be stripped away. That what remains of the UK will at last compelled to face with sober senses its real conditions of life and its relations with other countries.

A mature and self-confident democracy should be able to step back and begin the process of adjustment to the prospect of Scotland becoming independent. But this is not happening, instead there is a profound and absolute refusal to even begin to think about this possible future. It is as if not just the political but the intellectual and creative culture of the UK  has become hollowed out, become the empty shell of what was once a great power.

Back in the heyday of Empire, back when Britain was the workshop of the world, it was dangerous for working class people to speak out in public because such troublemakers could lose their jobs and their homes.  It was more sensible to remain silent. Collective action in the form of strikes made it more difficult to silence individuals. Then, as more men and eventually women were entitled to vote, the Labour party emerged out of the struggle between capital and labour to give the working class a public voice. But as it was drawn into the machineries of power to become one of the pillars of the British establishment, what had been the party of labour became another party of capital.

Without Scotland, it will be much harder to maintain the façade that elections in the remaining UK  produce anything other than an oscillation between the parties of capital. Out of the ruined dreams of an eternal empire,  a new England, a new Wales, even a new  northern Ireland will have to emerge. We cannot tell what these new countries will be like.

 On the other hand, the alignment of so many organisations and agencies within and behind  Project Fear has revealed the usually concealed  hegemonic discourse of power within the UK. Such a naked display of fear shows the depth of the crisis the UK believes it is facing and the scope for radical change across the whole UK, not just Scotland.


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