In only a matter of days, Scotland will decide on its future. The Left seems to have lined up behind the Yes-side of the referendum on independence. What is the case for unionism here? Surely, there has to be a progressive angle. After all, the Union stood firm against the rising tide of fascism in the early decades of the twentieth century. What makes it unworthy of progressive politics, now?
First of all, it has to be affirmed that the right to self-determination is without question. If the Scottish people demand independence, then they are more than entitled to it. The English don’t have a right to impose a form of government not accepted by Scots, as they don’t over any territory within the United Kingdom that rejects it. This goes to the heart of democratic concerns. There has been a gradual weakening of the consent of the governed in the UK. It’s a state of affairs that did not panic Britain’s political echelon until it became apparent that a referendum might not go their way.
Secondly, we have to recognise the vivacity of nationalism in the present day and what underlies the drift into such waters. Scotland’s centre-left nationalism poses a mass-popular affront to not just the Union as it exists, but to the entire establishment in Whitehall, and its cosy trilateral consensus. The old social base of the Labour Party in Scotland – the working-class and the so-called ‘under-class’ – has become the stronghold for the Scottish National Party. As Richard Seymour has noted, “all the unfolding problems of democracy, political representation and the class system are concentrated in the national question.”
What we might call ‘red patriotism’, or traditional revolutionary patriotism, as Eric Hobsbawm called it, has its time and place. British and English nationalism were tapped into by both Winston Churchill and JB Priestley. The war against fascism coincided with forces vying for the future of the social order. The people who had seen the worst of the 1930s did not want to return to those days and wanted a better life. This is why in 1945, the national government under Churchill’s leadership helped to win the war, but the Labour Party won the election. It marked the beginning of three decades of social democracy.
It was in the Union that the Welsh and Scottish people found a voice in British political life, not through nationalist organisation, but through the opposition – the Liberals and Labour. It was only with the decline of the post-war establishment and rise of Thatcherism, coupled with the death of the British Empire, that the Labour Party pursued devolution. Then Scottish nationalism became a serious contender. This should not surprise us. A vital part of the picture is the rise of neoliberalism.
Socialism in a Neoliberal World
The question of Scotland’s viability is not so uncertain. The country has a GDP per capita of over £24,000. No doubt Scotland would undergo some measure of economic reform in order to reorder the institutions which underlie its standing. The real issue is what exactly an independent Scotland will look like.
An independent Scotland could well be opened up to international forces and exposed to the full brunt of neoliberal reforms. This might even be the case if Scotland heads for greater integration into the European system. The power of monetary policy may still be held by Whitehall and this could constrain any government in its policies. Likewise, it would be possible for corporations, and even small-scale businesses, to hold the state to ransom – threatening to disinvest the fledgling economy – to shift policy in their own favour. The English government could easily initiate a race to the bottom on fiscal policy with Scotland, forcing down its rate of tax and expenditure.
The possibility of a flat-tax haven north of England shouldn’t be dismissed as we have seen the same thing happen in Ireland (where there always was a much stronger nationalist/republican case). Michael Portillo has described this as the Tory case for Scottish independence. He argues it would thrust Scotland into the cold winds of global competition and, by the looks of Brussels these days, we can see how independence may lead to greater neoliberal reform, not less.
This is a point that can’t be dismissed easily, as the national takes shape within the international. Contrary to the claims of nationalists, globalisation does not oppose nation-states, or even nationalism. Sovereignty of national bodies has long been embedded in a global economic context. Just as the freedom and sovereignty of the individual is not absolute, neither is that of the body national. Capital can easily exploit the proliferation of borders in a world already too bifurcated. This is the reason Scotland will remain within the EU and its currency will remain Sterling after independence.
The Prospects for Distribution
We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the Barnett formula. It’s not the case that there is a ‘trickle-down’ of wealth from the financial colossus in the City of London; but there is a case for widespread redistribution within the Union. It may be said that the United Kingdom has a greater pool of tax revenues together, and from the 1940s to the 1970s, there was a modicum of distributional change. This led to the workers’ share of GDP rising to a peak in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The battle to restore profitability to the system, firstly, by the Labour government of the late 1970s, and then by the Thatcher government, ultimately succeeded. Since then, the workers’ share of GDP has stagnated while the bosses’ share has skyrocketed.
However, once independent, Scotland would not necessarily have access to capital if a programme of redistribution were secured. The Glasgow Media Group calculated that the top layer of income-earners in the UK – around 10% of the population – were sitting on £4 trillion in wealth in 2010. The vast amounts of capital amassed over the generations and concentrated in southern English hands would largely remain in London. The potential for redistribution would be left stunted, and Scotland would be on the receiving end of a self-imposed scarcity. Under such conditions, it seems likely that the Scottish government would take the side of one class over another.
It can certainly be argued that the Union has done much to preserve inequality in Scotland, where the richest 10% now have 273 times as much wealth than the poorest 10%. The richest 100 men and women increased their wealth from £18 billion to £21 billion in 2012. Just in terms of land ownership, there is immense inequality in Scotland. Out of the rural landscape, which makes up 94% of Scottish land, a little over 83% of it is privately owned. Out of a population of over 5.2 million people, less than a 1,000 people control 60% of the country. It seems plausible that the social inequalities preserved in Scotland by the Union would remain and could potentially be deepened by independence. So the strongest case for Scottish independence has to be a socialist case and not a nationalist one.
Except the world situation seems to make a socialist Scotland unlikely. In the distributional struggle inside the EU the biggest sparks of resistance have been in Spain and Greece. The disenchantment elsewhere in Europe, including in the UK, has not translated into electoral change. This matters because Scottish independence could well open up a new distributional struggle in the country. In the absence of a mass movement capable of waging a fight for workers’ rights, the conservative tendencies of the Scottish National Party may win out in the end.
The Enemy at Home
The positive case for the Union flows from these largely negative points, but that’s not all there is to say for unionism. One of the consequences of independence would be self-imposed scarcity. The possibilities of redistribution would be limited to the border with England and capital would easily jump the fence whenever it feels right. The capital amassed in London would not be within reach of a Scottish socialist government, especially given the propensity for Whitehall to undermine any attempts at progressive change.
So if we want to redistribute wealth and power in the UK, then we need a mass movement drawing on the powers and capacities of class and social movements. Why should labour have a national loyalty while capital has none? More importantly, why would we pretend that social justice has a nationality? The Union, for all of its flaws, and iniquities, does provide a starting-point, and its negation may pose greater hindrances than we can foresee in the here and now.
As the conservative columnist Tim Stanley has pointed out, the Union is inherently multicultural and multilingual. It always was in a way, but even more so in an era where old cultural practices and languages are being recovered and reclaimed. Once the nations breakaway, then the question of who is and who is not authentically ‘one of us’ can be raised in a much more forceful voice. And it can be heard by much more sympathetic minds.
This would be the case in England standing almost alone for the first time in centuries. The sense of identity found in Scotland may be indelibly shaped by a popular-national mythology of being colonised. In contrast, the English have no such mythology and may hold a much more distorted sense of identity after the loss of Empire and now the loss of the Union. The SNP has worked hard to foster a civic nationalism with progressive overtones. South of the border, nationalism is an ethno-linguistic force and a far too close association with whiteness.
If Scotland votes Yes on September 18th, then the Left will have its work cut out for it. That goes almost as much for the Scots as it does for the English and the Welsh. In the best case scenario independence may bolster Northern Ireland to shake-off the English and, hopefully, reunify with the Irish Republic. The independence of Scotland would also humiliate the Cameron government, possibly beyond repair, showing up the Conservatives as a vulnerable force. This is likely the case even if Scotland gains greater powers and remains within the UK. The Left should be asking itself, “Why haven’t we been able to undermine the Con-Dems in this way?”