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

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Radical Case for Scottish Independence

Yes- the Radical Case for Scottish Independence by James Foley and Pete Ramand Pluto Press

By securing England’s northern border from the threat of invasion from a Scotland allied with France, the Union of 1707 laid the foundations for what became the British Empire. Although in 1715 and again in 1745, Scottish Jacobites did invade England and did have French support, they did so as ‘rebels’ rather than as a fully financed and organised Franco-Scottish invasion force. The failure of the Jacobites  then allowed Scots as soldiers, merchant-traders and settlers to add their energies to the expansion and maintenance of the Empire for the next 200 years. Scots also played a major role in the development of Britain as an industrial and commercial world power.

The retreat from Empire after the end of World War Two dragged on until the 1960s. The loss of Empire was matched by the United Kingdom’s decline as an industrial powerhouse. The title of a book published in 1983 -‘The Eclipse of a Great Power: Modern Britain 1870 -1975’- seemed to sum up the situation .

But, as James Foley and Pete Ramand explain, over the past 35 years, successive UK governments have attempted to put the ‘Great’ back in Britain. From the Falklands war through to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain’s armed forces have hoisted the Union Jack in the corner of many a dusty (or damp) foreign field. 

At the same time, what David Harvey in his new book  ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’ describes as the neo-liberal counter-revolution has revived the City of London as a permanent autonomous zone. According to the City of London Corporation, $1.9 trillion flows through this onshore-offshore banking business zone every day. In contrast the annual value of the UK’s manufacturing sector is only $0.23 trillion. 

Only a fraction of the trillions of dollars flowing through the City of London get creamed off by the banks and financial institutions, but even this fraction is enough to ensure that when the City says  ‘Jump’ UK politicians ask ‘How high?’. Once upon a long time ago, when Britain was the workshop of the world, the economic importance of manufacturing  heavy engineering and coal production in Scotland, northern England, the Midlands and south Wales provide a partial counter-balance to the City of London. Today no such counter-balance exists. The City rules.

By an accident of history, the Union of 1707 left Scotland with the vestiges of nationhood. This means that Scotland, unlike a region of England, has the potential to become a state. The restoration of a Scottish state has long been  the ambition of Scottish nationalists, but has been seen as divisive by many on the Left. In ‘The Origins of Scottish Nationhood’ (Pluto Press, London 2000) pp 202-3, Neil Davidson argued that

If ‘Scottishness ’itself is at least partly the product of imperialism and ethnic cleansing, then it is futile to imagine that merely setting up a Scottish nation state will by itself remove the attendant poisons of racism and hostility towards cultures which are perceived to be different’. The point here is not that there is anything inherently desirable about feeling British rather than Scottish (or any other nationality), but rather that, precisely because the central economic, social and political  have tended to be resolved at a British level, it is at a British level that working class unity has tended to be expressed…The acceptance by Scottish workers of British nationhood has by no means been unconditionally positive. Where it has encouraged working class identification with the British state -where it has been channelled into nationalism- then it has acted as a barrier to socialism, but where it has involved recognition of the collective interests of workers on both sides of the Border…then it has offered the possibility of achieving socialism, and of escaping from the prison of nationhood altogether.

And in ‘Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746’ (Pluto press, London 2003) p 301

The completion of the Scottish revolution was at the same time the completion of the British revolution. The formation of the Scottish working class was at the same time part of the formation of the British working class. These facts make it unlikely, whatever the nature of any subsequent constitutional  changes, there will ever be second proletarian Scottish revolution separate from one in Britain as a whole.

However in May 2012, in an interview with James Foley for the (Scottish) International Socialist Group newsletter Davidson said ‘I think you need to consciously argue for setting up a state, where we would have some sort of levers over policy and so on ’, and went on to say 

The key point, I think, is that working class unity is not based on the constitutional form of the state or its organisational reflection in the structures of the trade unions: it’s based on solidarity in action, across borders if necessary. The biggest obstacle to intra-national unity is the union bureaucracy – think of the arguments about “Scottish steel” during the Miner’s Strike, for example. The question I suppose is why people make this argument about the divided working class. On the sectarian left it tends to be an expression of an abstract internationalism which is hyper-sensitive to what they regard as any capitulation to Scottish nationalism while remaining completely insensitive to the far greater ideological problem of British nationalism.

Unfortunately, although Neil Davidson has ‘moved on’ (and, I think has left the SWP)  at a left Unity Conference in Manchester on 29 March 2014 a  motion ( no. 37) which  argued for a “Hands Off the People of Scotland” campaign to counter the propaganda of the mainstream parties and that a ‘sovereign democratic secular and social republic would not only be in the interests of the Scottish people but would encourage similar democratic movements in England, Wales and Ireland” was rejected. However, after supporters of the motion resisted the Chair’s ruling that the motion was clearly defeated, a careful count revealed it had lost by just 2 votes – by 70 to 68 – with 22 abstentions. Some of the West Midland comrades behind the motion had left in a minibus by the time this vote was taken. [Information taken from ‘Left Unity’s Debate on Scottish Independence’ by John Tummon of Left Unity Stockport]

If the Left Unity  delegates who voted against motion 37 had read ‘Yes- the Radical Case for Scottish Independence’ would  some of them have voted for the motion instead? I suspect they would. The obvious difficulty -expressed in motion 36 ‘That Left Unity will not support Scottish or Welsh nationalism’  which was voted through- is that the vote on 18 September is seen as  about ‘nationalism’ rather than ‘neoliberalism’.  The strength of  the book is that it  homes in on this problem and makes a very strong argument that a Yes vote in September can be a vote against the ‘neoliberal counter-revolution’  rather than for Scottish  ‘nationalism’.

There is - necessarily- a  big ‘but’ involved though. The ’but’ requires that the momentum being built up by the campaign for radical independence is maintained after the 18th of September so that Scotland becomes something more than another small social democratic Scandinavia style state. The outlines of such a post-neoliberal Scotland are set out in Chapter 6 ‘Scotland vs. the 21st Century: Towards a Radical Needs Agenda’. 

At this point an ideal rather than an actual book review would cross-reference the detailed proposals set out in Chapter 6 with  David Harvey’s new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’ -but I have only just finished reading Harvey’s book so can‘t do that yet. The most I can say right now is that the two books complement each other so that the ‘Radical Needs Agenda’ of Chapter 6 would put into practice the ‘Promise of Revolutionary Humanism’ outlined by Harvey in his conclusion. 

Although the global scope of Harvey’s new book  means he does not mention Scotland , Adam Smith is mentioned several times as a key figure in the history of capital. But as this quote from a review of a book on the Scottish Enlightenment and political economy shows, Smith was not acting alone.

The development of a capitalist economy had a destabilising effect on the socio-economic and political infrastructure of eighteenth-century Britain; nowhere more so than in Scotland where commercialisation had to contend with the lingering vestiges of feudalism. Contemporary analysts were quick to note that rapid economic expansion had, for instance, eroded traditional social bonds, most irrevocably those of employer and labourer, and that it had also weakened political institutions by placing unprecedented demands on them. But few in Scotland lamented the changes; instead, there was the recognition that man's relationship to man and man's relationship to society had to be redefined not so much out of an anxiety to come to terms with the .new ethos but because of a determination to engineer the future. This positive response provoked an intense public debate as philosophers including David Hume, Adam Smith, Lord Kames and John Millar contributed sociologically informed critiques of civilisation projecting distinctive visions of the ideal society. Moreover, in doing so, they in effect gave birth to political economy…All Enlightenment thinkers however shared certain common preoccupations in their social analyses not least of which centred on the problem of how to reconcile the responsibilities of citizenship with the need for individual liberty in a commercial society.

The Scottish Enlightenment was the product of an elite for whom the ‘destabilising’ impact of a capitalist economy was an abstract problem. For the millions of working class Scots who saw very little of the nation’s wealth during the heyday of the capitalist economy, the problem was concrete, was one of  sheer survival. As individuals in a commercial society they had very little ‘liberty’. What liberties they had were the creation of collective struggles against the capitalist economy’s iron cage. 

Over the past 35 years the neoliberal counter-revolution has reversed the hard fought gains for ‘collective liberties’ under the banner of ‘freedom for the individual’. The hollowness of this slogan can be illustrated in the recent rise of ‘Food Banks’. These collective, charitable, resources are needed in one of the world’s wealthiest countries since otherwise ‘poor’ individuals and families are at liberty to starve. 

In theory,  individuals are at liberty to exercise the responsibility of citizenship by voting in elections. However, at UK level, it has been estimated as few as 30 000  voters in 40 key marginal ( Labour/Tory) seats could decide  the May 2015 general election. This may be an exaggeration, but it is true that under the first-past-the-post system, most voters have very little influence over the outcome of  such elections. This is particularly true in Scotland where Labour has 41 out of 59 UK seats. The result  has been a disengagement with the ‘responsibilities of citizenship’. 

Unlike UK general elections, on 18 September every vote will count and the outcome of the referendum will shape Scotland’s future for better or ill. To the extent that the Yes campaign has become a grassroots campaign, it has began to engage voters across Scotland in a debate about Scotland’s future. The Radical Independence Campaign has taken this a step further by actively seeking out the disengaged, including people not registered to vote, in the Labour Party’s Scottish heartlands. 

If this ‘reserve army of the disengaged’ can be persuaded to vote Yes in September, his will be significant political achievement. But to achieve the next step, the challenge will be to persuade Yes voters that securing Scottish independence is only the beginning of a process which must continue beyond 18 September if our ‘collective liberties’ are to become the bedrock of  the new Scotland. 

To end on a speculative  note, one way that this ambitious, even revolutionary, goal might be achieved is for the  Radical Independence Campaign to evolve into a political party. For its manifesto,  the ‘Radical Needs Agenda’ of  James Foley and Pete Ramand’s book would provide an excellent starting point.


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