Historic barely begins to describe it. If Scotland today manages to pull off what we’re hoping it does, it will be despite the most relentless ruling-class mobilisation in recent memory. Support for independence is running at about one third in the UK, yet not a single paper has backed it, and nor has a single major political party. In Scotland, only a single paper backs independence. The BBC’s agenda is solidly affixed to Westminster’s unionist consensus; when a Scottish academic exposed this systemic bias recently, the Corporation contacted his employer to complain. The business lobby’s scaremongering has been spectacular – familiar from the banks’ empty threats against regulation, but far, far greater in scale and intensity.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: leftists firmly backing the union and businesses backing independence – slabbering at the chops for a piece of the pie in their longed-for post-independence carve-up. But the Yes campaign is out of their control, and they know it. Even Rupert Murdoch, long an outlying far-right business backer of Scottish independence, got cold feet this week – realising the independence movement he had hoped for was not the one he had got. Much of the Yes campaign’s legwork has been put in by groups like the Radical Independence Campaign, talking to people on doorsteps, registering them to vote in droves and, most importantly, mobilising the disaffected Scottish poor. The result has been an explosion of democratic participation and discourse the likes of which few Scots can remember. If they are able to sustain this momentum – and there is every sign they may – they could soon be helping draw up the constitutional framework of a new country. As one activist put it, the atmosphere recalls nothing so much as 2003’s anti-war mobilisations: not only are we in a majority, but – for the first time in a long, long while – it feels like we have a chance of winning.
Radical Independence possess not only formidable organising muscle, but intellectual acuity. In Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence, James Foley and Pete Ramand set out some of the principal ideas spurring the movement. They pull off an admirable feat: a book specifically tailored to voters in Scotland’s referendum, but whose value will undoubtedly endure well beyond. In many ways they provide an invaluable guidebook to the contours of British and Scottish politics in recent decades. Most refreshing is what we might call the authors’ own radical independence: they take no prisoners, readily criticising any deserving party, from Scottish Labour to the SNP to the Yes campaign; neither British nor Scottish nationalism escape their scrutiny or sharp criticism. Nor do they promote illusions about independence. “By itself,” they note, “voting yes offers no guarantees of a better, more progressive future, never mind a radical redistribution of wealth and power.” Indeed the “idea that Scotland has a social-democratic consensus is misleading and limits political initiative.”
The No campaign present cataclysmic economic threats, but in reality remaining part of the UK will only “secure the present insecurity”. With insane levels of private debt, a skewed balance of payments, crushed manufacturing sector and housing bubble threatening another crisis, the UK’s economy is dangerously unbalanced. Nor was it the size of nations that made them vulnerable to the 2008 economic crash: rather, it was how far they shredded banking regulations and underwrote predatory gambling. Larger, stronger states can be more vulnerable, in fact, if they reassure the banking sector that it will not be allowed to fail.
Inequality was a fundamental cause of the credit crisis, since it forced the poor to borrow to make ends meet and the rich to lend surplus money they had to find a use for. Rather than address the roots of this crisis, however, Britain’s current government – effectively employees of the super-rich – capitalise on it, conjuring scare stories about government debt in the popular imagination. Austerity is thus a means of exploiting crisis – real or imagined – to strip away social protections that defend the weak from the strong, enabling ever-more-efficient predation by profiteers. While sharply increasing inequality, ruining public health and claiming the lives of the poor and weak, it also chokes off economic growth. This is a moral abomination and economic insanity; yet no mainstream British party offers an alternative.
Austerity is not Westminster’s only consensus. What Michael Billig calls “banal” nationalism – the kind so ever-present it passes unnoticed – saturates Westminster discourse, whether in “British values”, “British jobs for British workers”, or shameless nostalgia for colonial atrocities still unacknowledged and unatoned. Recognised only at its far-right extremes (and even then frequently valorised), British nationalism is instead cast as innocent, “value-free concern for humanity”. It also seeps into Scottish nationalism, inflecting it with imperial, protestant supremacist and racist strands. Yet, in confronting rather than sustaining Britain’s autocratic, militarist state, Scottish nationalism clearly incorporates and embodies progressive ideals in a more substantial and consistent way. Scaremongering about racist attacks on the English not only demonises Scottish nationalism, then, but ignores the incomparably greater racist violence propelled by British nationalism.
Britain’s narratives of national potency and achievement cover for crisis and decline – military, social, economical and political. Post-1945, Britain’s fading power has seen it reassert itself as a violent “humanitarian” warrior and American junior partner, reliant on the “phantom unity of the English-speaking world” and “US-UK Empires”. Thatcher’s economic achievements prove equally illusory, even by her own criteria: in reality, her period in office saw slower growth, uncontrolled inflation, astonishing rates of unemployment, resilient public spending, out-of-control private debt, stagnant industry and a huge balance-of-payments deficit, all as poverty and inequality skyrocketed. Super-rich class warriors marvel, but Britain is left reliant on the socially useless and the harmful: “banking, bullshit and bombs”. The Blair years saw this class war normalised even as its existence was denied: strivers – the ebullient “filthy rich” and aspirant, debt-fuelled middle-classes – accompanied skivers: “chavs”, “scroungers” and “problem families”, their deprivation put down to flaws of character, punishable with an ASBO or a prison sentence. As the rich cemented their grip on power, trust in the political system plummeted.
Scotland insulated itself from some of the worst following devolution, but has developed in similar fashion. As in London, Holyrood’s “ecosystem of pro-market think-tanks”, funded by big business, sustain “a conformist neoliberal consensus”. Corporate lobbyists are firmly embedded, securing private profits through public patronage; Labour loyalists backed disastrous and exorbitant PFI deals without reservation. Groups like the Edinburgh Business Assembly dictate planning and development decisions, and Glasgow remains mired in poverty while developers socially cleanse the city on behalf of wealthy consumers. Licensing much of this was the centrally-controlled Labour Party: purging its social-democratic elements in Scotland, it came to combine corporate-friendly policies with tribal loyalism, twisting “old Labour” rhetoric about “communities” to promote an ugly, bigoted authoritarianism. The Iraq war above all killed off Labour in Scotland, driving traditional supporters to the SNP – which incorporates business backers alongside radical left and right fringes, but overall cleaves to Labour’s left.
On Better Together – or “Project Fear” as its members dub it – Ramand and Foley are rightly scathing:
“It is to the right of Yes Scotland on every issue, and its agenda has consisted in using elite media contacts to plant scare stories. … the unionist camp is composed of big business and upper-class networks. It hints at what an allied Westminster will look like without the element of trade unions.”
Yet they are far from sanguine about the other side: having misread the 2008 Obama campaign, they argue, Yes Scotland promotes an empty and shallow “hopeless optimism”, self-defeatingly conservative in the face of No campaign doom-mongering, and reluctant to address consequential class divides in its campaigning. Instead, evidence suggests the campaign will be won by mobilising the working class, talking to people on-the-level about key issues, cultivating latent progressive sentiments, and reminding poorer Scots what they stand to lose from the union.
What, then, might they stand to gain from independence? Ramand and Foley advocate a “radical needs agenda” with a wide range of features: a Nordic model that addresses emergency levels of inequality; a “green new deal”, funding environmental infrastructure to stimulate the economy and address environmental crisis; closing tax loopholes and using progressive taxation to redistribute wealth; pushing for a Tobin tax, creating a green investment bank and ultimately democratising finance altogether; constitutional guarantees of free childcare, equal pay and parental leave; investment in education and the right to one-on-one tutoring; quotas to eliminate discrimination in public and private sectors; exit from US-UK military alliances; a ban on the arms trade; scrapping Trident; promoting land reform; a 35-hour maximum working week; replacing GDP with a measure of social and environmental progress; open borders to immigration; democratising decision-making through “empowered participatory governance”, including Porto Allegre-style “participatory budgeting”; providing citizens’ “credit cards” to fund elections; and democratising the economy by taking finance, rail, energy and other key infrastructure into public hands, enshrining workers’ right to own and manage companies, and repealing anti-union laws. Vested interests will fight this tooth-and-nail, of course, and fending them off will require cross-party alliances, grassroots movements and perhaps fresh political parties.
While showing us what we might create, Ramand and Foley remind us what we would tear apart: a chauvinistic, prejudiced nationalism, and a former world power in decline – internally autocratic, unaccountable and grossly unequal, steeped in dangerous delusions of national superiority and imperial destiny, acting as a violent “enforcer” on behalf of international capital. The No campaign clamour to preserve this state, buttressed by the power of their elite backers – but Scotland surely will not miss it. Nor should we.