by Irvine Welsh
Scottish Independence, as an ongoing process, has never been about an event such as an election or a referendum. This is what makes it so frustrating for it’s opponents; it’s a conscious set of political steps, yes, but fuelled by a movement of historical forces, which have their roots in the decline of imperialism, post-industrialism, and the aspiration towards democracy. It won’t go away because it can’t go away. The referendum campaign gave independence enormous traction, through politicising so many people. It will only continue to gather force.
What we’re seeing in Scotland is a terminal disaffection with the institutions of the UK state and its South-East dominated agenda, and the attendant emotional and cultural disengagement from them. The political developments are simply the ongoing efforts to develop the separate institutions that reflect this changing culture. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, most Scots are now involved in the project of nation building. Even Johann Lamont, who led the No campaign, bizarrely and publicly becomes caught in this position, perversely arguing that Scottish politics is about Holyrood not Westminster, and advocating more autonomy from London, for her ‘branch office’ party.
With independence established as the compelling narrative of Scottish politics, everything else becomes, not so much an irrelevance, as having little validity unless it’s filtered through this perspective. The legacy of the independence referendum debate is that all subsequent UK polls north of the border have essentially become re-runs of it. This movement won’t stop now, simply because the structural and economic forces propelling it transcend both party politics and even individual political preferences. What Scots currently find themselves in, is from their perspective, a failed state that cannot deliver the economic and social goods. It just isn’t set up to do this, nor can it be reformed to do so, as its centrist, unitary structure of government is of benefit to the South-East of England, where most of the UK voters live.
So general elections in Scotland are now no longer about whether the pink or blue version of Toryism manages neo-liberalism from Westminster, but constitute another opportunity for Scots to gain more control over their resources and identify their own priorities. This basically translates as: tools in the advance towards independence. This is also the case with the proposed referendum on Europe. North of Hadrian’s Wall, this will not be about the UK in Europe. Once again, it will be about Scotland in the UK.
It’s not surprising that the concept of the UK as a political entity is in decline. Historically, it was an imperialist construct established to further the interests of a ruling elite, and it has pretty much operated in that way ever since, bar a golden era of 1945-70, where, following the unique and cataclysmic aftermath of the battle against Nazism, it briefly aspired to be something more inclusive. So there’s probably about 30 years out of over 300, when the UK state wasn’t solely about a struggle for most of its citizens against zero democracy, political oppression, economic depressions and recessions, world wars, union busting, negating democracy, neo-liberalism and the exploitation of the general populace by the super rich.
With the welfare state and NHS gains of that post-war window now all but gone, the British left finds itself hanging its appeal on retaking them. It hopes to do this through the Labour Party, despite the fact that this institution manifestly no longer exists as a valid agent of change. If a much more militant Labour Party, backed by a powerful trade union movement in an industrial society, failed to resist the Tory dismantling of the welfare state, how feasible is it to expect the current political class opportunists, who have aided and abetted the Conservatives in this process, to now suddenly do so? Leftist pundits embody this dilemma, forensically dismantling the party for its shortcomings, yet seeming to assume it can magically resurrect, and then remold the UK state, as it did in 1945-70. In the meantime, they support the de facto preservation of this exploitative and elitist state.
To argue to maintain a divisive and reactionary UK state on that basis, pretending it’s about ‘worker’s solidarity’, is both self-deluding and an insult to the intelligence of everybody else. Slavering on like a Hovis advert about the traditions of British working class resistance can’t disguise the fact that you’re bending over backwards to preserve a state that has been doing everything in its power to negate and crush this resistance for the last 35 years, and practically since it’s inception, right up to World War Two. The tragedy of the British left is that it’s got so used to playing this perennial losers game against the UK state. This obsession with protecting it, and continually rolling the same dice, which is so obviously weighted against you, has surely now expired as viable strategy.
It would be hard to find a political organisation in modern history that has treated its core support with such contempt as the Labour Party. Its political class leaders are almost uniformly invested in personal legacy, the trappings of office and strutting on a stage, rather than effecting real change for the benefit of the vast majority people of these islands. In Scotland the party is now in crisis, with polls predicting a complete meltdown, while it’s Blairite leader-elect, Jim Murphy, astonishingly and bizarrely talks of victory. For others, the delusion is replaced by desperation. You can’t just decide to have ‘more socialism’, as Margaret Curran suggests, particularly if you are run by a London party with one eye on middle England polls and Daily Mail leader columns. You either believe in progressive politics or you don’t, and if you did you would have advocated them, rather than waited to see what the polls, newspapers, focus groups or your London masters said about it.
There are still Labour politicians far more principled and visionary than the Murphy’s, Lamont’s and Curran’s. Granted, very few, with the party reduced to a shell of lobby-fodder drones, but they do exist. However, it’s doubtful the handful of genuinely committed progressives who want to make Scotland a better place, would be crazy enough to aspire to lead a London branch office. Neil Finlay has thrown his hat into the ring, but with an attendant white flag, admitting he only did this because Gordon Brown wasn’t interested. Jim Murphy, the status quo shoe-in, unrated even by Miliband, only gave up his seat on the expenses-fuelled gravy train south, as his Westminster career was going nowhere. To get its (now precious few) emerging talents seriously engaged, and the voters excited, Scottish Labour needs to have complete autonomy.
The problem is if this happens, the party almost inevitably becomes part of the pro-independence movement, a place where many of its natural supporters, before they gave up on it, felt it should be. If you’re left wing, believe in the decentralisation of power and are anti-nuclear weapons, as most real Labour people are, Scottish Indy becomes not so much a catastrophe, as a natural position. What is the relevance of your personal politics to a middle-England fixated, London-based party leadership, striving to keep you tied to the notion of a centralised, imperialist, warfare state? (Ex) Labour voters have made that leap in their droves, and many more will continue to do so. The only thing that’s holding Scottish Labour to London are its leaders, and the personal self-interest of those people, not its declining band of voters and their concept of the good of Scotland.
The potentially fatal news for Labour is that Scots seem to have grown tired of habitually sending parasites south to do little more than troop through the whip’s designated lobby and rack up extortionate expenses. The constant betrayals by that empty chassis that still perversely bears the name of the Labour Party, means that they now face annihilation. The referendum appears to have shown Scots that a block of pro-indy MP’s in Westminster –whisper it- perhaps even holding the balance of power, will be stronger advocates for the country than a set of stooges for a Miliband majority, and more pro-austerity Toryism by another name. Labour, almost content to cede the Scottish parliament to the SNP, now face clear danger to their hegemony in the Westminster elections, and the loss of this block of Scottish seats. How do they stave off this threat? Their only options are playing the same old game, with Murphy at the helm, which is unlikely to impress voters, while the alternative – real autonomy for the Scottish party – won’t be palatable to UK Labour leaders for the reason stated above.
Like the 2015 Westminster general election, Cameron’s proposed EU referendum of 2017 will be another opportunity to further advance the cause of Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon, with her proposed veto, has wasted little time in putting it on the agenda. The question ‘why should England be allowed to force Scotland into leaving Europe’, especially as the Scottish independence referendum vote was undertaken on the premise we were in Europe (and would get devo max), also, of course, becomes also the converse one: ‘why should Scotland be allowed to block England from exiting Europe?’ This shows up both positions as undemocratic, and morally indefensible. It throws up all sorts of questions about the scope of the referendum, as it should do. A referendum, after all, is about more than a simple vote. It’s interesting how ‘the vote’ has come to be seen by elites and their apologists as not an integral part of democracy, but an end to all discussion and debate – essentially a resolution to all the problems democracy throws up. It seldom works that way, as the Scottish independence referendum has shown.
Many Scots are rightly cynical about the EU, how could you not be? It’s dominated by the Commission, which is an unelected body of self-interested bureaucrats, a continental House of Lords. As long as they have power at the expense of the European Parliament, European integration will not proceed further and, indeed, start to unravel. The stalemate is that the European parliament can’t gain more powers unless the sovereign nations are prepared to cede them. So the current impasse suits neither the integrationists nor the separatists.
However, the Little England grounds for exit will have almost zero appeal for most Scots, who, if lukewarm on the EC as currently construed, are utterly disaffected with UK membership. The right-wing parroting of ‘deregulation’ is a naked attempt to further drive wages down. The concept of forcing an immigration curb on a country where the population has remained almost static since the war is a nonsense. Additionally, Scotland has growing numbers of elderly citizens, meaning that it badly needs large-scale investment to develop a vibrant economy capable of both retraining existing workers and attracting incomers. ‘Immigration’ as an issue feels exactly what it is: an alien agenda imposed by a foreign nation, solely in pursuit of their own interests.
If the general election might see more pro-change, Devo max, No voter’s bundled together with the independence movement, the European referendum could present even greater jeopardy for Labour. It is highly unlikely that Labour No’s will stick with the fervent Little Britain anti-Europeans on this one. (North of the border, the hard-core unionists and the EC separatists tend to almost perfectly overlap.) So we’re likely to see the scenario whereby the progressive voters of Indy and Devo max join to reject the 25% or so of UK myopia merchants, who would stagger emaciated, forelock-tugging and lip-synching Rule Britannia into establishment-ran death camps, rather than support something that would materially change their own circumstances for the better.
For most Scots, as the polls suggest, leaving Europe will not be an option. The UK establishment pulled out every underhand trick to get voters north of the border to stay with them, and only just managed it. And they did this at massive expense to the credibility of institutions like the Westminster parliament, political parties, press and the BBC, undermining any claim these had as agents of a free and fair society. To get Scots to go anywhere with them – particularly out of Europe and into a centralised quasi-fascist Tory/Ukip little England state – will be an almost impossible task.
How the EC referendum will be framed, and the parameters of its debate, will be greatly influenced by the outcome of the 2015 general election. If pro-independence MP’s in Scotland are left holding the balance of power at Westminster, the ballot paper north of the border could involve a further question on Scotland in the UK. Or, in the event of a ‘stay in Europe’ Scots vote, there might be an option to opt out of the non-European UK, perhaps at the discretion of the Holyrood parliament. More likely, there may be another immediate independence referendum. The scenario where the UK leaves Europe, and Scotland leaves the UK, remains a distinct possibility. Without oil, the establishment would almost certainly take that trade-off and stop even pretending to care about what happens north of the border. They might be still be able to do that anyway, if they can entice the Labour Party, once again, to try and do the dirty work on their behalf. Whether Scots would listen this time round would be another matter.
The antiquated parliament in Westminster, with its first-past-the-post system, which gives great power to minority interests, has been a straightjacket on democracy. It’s baled out two corrupt parties, both past their sell-by dates, and the establishment they protect. Now that garment seems more like an old, threadbare shirt. ‘Why does it always have to be about the Scots these days?’ an exasperated English friend recently asked me. I told him that it isn’t really that much to do with them, it’s about the ailing system of democracy, and the deeply flawed and iniquitous economics of these islands: this is what the Scottish independence supporters are doing their bit to try and fix. For supporters of this project, that admittedly cringe-worthy Obamaesque phrase, ‘on the right side of history’ has seldom sounded so pertinent.