Rip it up and start again


On Saturday, Britain’s leading liberal paper called for Washington to annex Scandinavia. It called for Russia to annex Venezuela and Bolivia. Neither call was explicit, of course; but the logical conclusion was inescapable. Securing social justice is “the core political task facing all western societies today,” the Guardian argued – plausibly enough – “and it is surely better done when risks and resources can be pooled across a larger population than a smaller one. It is thus a task better undertaken in a Britain that remains united”.

We hear this argument time and again from left advocates of a “no” vote: to ensure social justice we must preserve the creaking, archaic institutions of Britain’s central state. It is both disingenuous and blatantly false. The first reason is size: if the US absorbed Scandinavia, we would gain no social-democratic America; rather, the larger US would absorb and water down the developed world’s most progressive nations. The second, more fundamental reason is institutional: if Russia absorbed Bolivia or Venezuela, the former’s autocratic gangster capitalism would subsume the latter’s popular democracy.

As former president of the Norwegian Authors’ Union Thorvald Steen told Scotland’s Sunday Herald:

“A majority of Swedish politicians were against Norwegian independence. They said all these bad things would happen, but they didn’t happen. And at that time Norway was much poorer than Scotland is now.”

Only the status quo bias makes the Guardian’s argument appear halfway plausible: to claim “it is easier to achieve social justice in a big state than in two small states” – without asking what kind of state – is absurd, an insult to the reader’s intelligence.

Insults to the intelligence are not in short supply. On Thursday, former President of Oxford University’s Young Conservatives Nick Robinson revealed more about BBC standards than he intended, relaying boilerplate empty threats from Britain’s business lobby, presenting unaccountable profiteers as more reliable authorities than elected leaders, receiving a humiliating impromptu lesson on how corporation tax works, then proceeding, even after receiving an answer to his question, to heckle the First Minister of Scotland in the middle of a press conference.

“North Korea ‘backs independent Scotland’ …and dictatorship wants whisky, officals say” proclaimed the Sun; the Sunday Post went with “ISIS ‘targeted’ Scot to force a Yes vote in referendum”. On fine, furious, foaming-at-the-mouth form, the Mail’s Simon Heffer lambasted the ungrateful jocks:

“Enough, I say again, is enough. As an Englishman, I feel my country has done all it can for Scotland and the Scots, sharing our country and wealth in the most open-handed way, while being branded as exploiters in return by a people for whom a vindictive ingratitude now seems to be a way of life.”

“I would be heartbroken if this family of nations was torn apart”, wailed David Cameron, somehow overlooking the real families his new immigration rules have torn apart. Freakish Telegraph hack Allison Pearson issued anguished laments on behalf of her country’s feudal proprietors, since the

“lifelong ties that bind Elizabeth II to this much-favoured part of her kingdom will be irrevocably undone in the event of a Yes vote. It would surely break her heart”.

“Scotland is her sacrosanct haven, where she knows she can relax every year between August and October,” Pearson concludes of a country of 5 million people. “Ask yourself, who would be more hurt by that divorce than the family’s beloved matriarch?” Scotland’s divorce from the UK “forces the Queen into a bigamous relationship”: Scotland and the rest must remain married, then, and preserve their strictly monogamous relationship with their “beloved matriarch”. (In the words of Eddie Izzard, “What’s going on in this family?”) In similar vein, the Mirror screams over a photo of Elizabeth II: “Don’t let me be last Queen of Scotland” – omitting that she’ll remain Queen of Scotland whatever the result. The Sunday Telegraph splashes a huge quote from former army chief Richard Dannatt across its front page: Scottish independence will “betray” the grieving relatives of Scottish soldiers killed in Northern Ireland. “Grieving relatives”: an equally excellent argument against decolonisation, the fall of the Third Reich, the end of Rwanda’s genocide, the dissolution of the Soviet Union …

Exposing the moronic piffle of the right is child’s play. But, as the Guardian’s unionism makes clear, the right holds no monopoly. “Over time and on balance,” that paper argues, “the union was good for the people of these islands, not least in the shape of universal pensions and the NHS that bind us.” In the face of globalisation an “independent Scotland would face the same problems as the UK, some of them in a more extreme form”. “Polls,” moreover, “suggest it is a fantasy that Scots have radically more social democratic views than the rest of the UK”.

If anyone offers a “false prospectus” here, it is the Guardian. It states that “the poor and the ordinary, rather than the rich, have had to bear the weight of recovery from the financial crisis.” Only the mainstream press can argue so casually that the suffering of the poor has secured economic health, rather than the opposite. The union was good for Britons? A woefully incomplete balance sheet for a former world power, engaged in ongoing economic and military vandalism abroad, and complicit in around ten million deaths in the latter half of the twentieth century. How, moreover, does the paper weigh the toll on British citizens of the First World War? The relentless background rate of poverty-related illness and death? The threat of nuclear catastrophe? The constitutional relics of feudalism and their stranglehold on British democracy? And “good” compared to what? What fictive, 300-year-old disunited kingdom is the Guardian imagining?

Globalisation is not the only tool of corporate power. In Britain’s case, the principal tool has been precisely its archaic, autocratic and unaccountable central institutions, insulating the organised business lobby from the popular will, and allowing an aggressive rollback of social-democratic gains unparalleled across the developed world. As Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation James Meadway puts it:

it was the specific features of the British state – its archaic centralism and the immense capacity to act without typical restraint that has given the neoliberal assault here its unusually virulent character. Britain has moved, on Thomas Piketty’s figures, from being close to the most equal society in Western Europe in the 1970s, to the most unequal today.”

Scotland may not possess “radically” more social-democratic attitudes than the UK, but that is not the point. No “radically” social-democratic climate of opinion was required to prevent Thatcherism and Blairism, neither of which enjoyed a popular mandate: a democratic electoral system would have sufficed – and Scotland already has such a system. Britain’s autocratic electoral system, monarchical executive, non-existent separation of powers, unwritten constitution and unelected upper chamber are a locked cell with no exit. If Scotland opts to smash its way out, so much the better. Designing a constitution from scratch offers still more opportunities: to reform lobbying, party funding, media control. The SNP already propose provisions to tackle climate change, protect the environment, enshrine universal human rights, respect international law and ditch Trident.

When all else fails, Project Fear blame nationalism. Scottish nationalism, that is – British nationalism so obviously right, natural and proper it goes unnoticed everywhere except in its most extreme, far-right exponents. We never hear Alex Salmond express pride in Scotland’s colonial role in Africa, declaim “Scottish jobs for Scottish workers”, announce that it is Scotland’s history and destiny to lead other nations, or declare “Scottish values” and respect for Scottish ruling institutions mandatory elements of the curriculum; yet it is only Scottish nationalism we hear denounced for its prejudice and intolerance.

“Nationalism is not the answer to social injustice”, the Guardian insists. So why preserve Great Britain? Indeed this ridiculous adherence to British nationalist precepts under the cover of internationalism and universalism – including from the liberal-left – has been one of the most farcical elements of the debate. Will Hutton provides the most hysterical example:

“If Britain can’t find a way of sticking together, it is the death of the liberal enlightenment before the atavistic forces of nationalism and ethnicity – a dark omen for the 21st century. Britain will cease as an idea. We will all be diminished.”

Note what a fantastic non sequitur this achieves. Britain, despite its far more vicious and toxic brand of nationalism, becomes synonymous with “the liberal enlightenment”. Scottish nationalism, though far less toxic, becomes synonymous with “the atavistic forces of nationalism and ethnicity”. “Britain will cease as an idea”, even if in reality it will cease only as a nation-state – and this is supposed to bother us, even as we abhor nationalism’s threat to civilised values. One of the reforms Hutton proposes is telling: “The House of Lords would become the House of Britain.” Not the House of Democracy; not the House of the People: The House of Britain. There speaks a thoroughgoing British nationalist.

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