With six weeks to go before people in Scotland go to the polls to decide the future of the United Kingdom, the referendum campaign has by now settled on the political arguments being articulated on either side of the debate.
Over the past year or so I have written a number of articles putting the case for No. The basis of my argument is that uniting working people on the basis of class rather than separating them on the basis of any other factor, be it nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, and so on, is the non-negotiable cornerstone of any progressive politics which has as its objective social and economic justice.
Given the laws of motion of capitalism – specifically its extreme variant, neoliberalism, which currently holds sway across the globe – independence will turn people north and south of the border into rivals vying for the same jobs as both economies are forced to compete for investment, thus triggering a race to the bottom. It will not, as supporters on the Yes side of the argument try to assert, make Scotland a beacon for people south of the border to follow. Such claims are the product of delusion rather than serious analysis. In the words of Karl Liebnecht: “The basic law of capitalism is you or I, not you and I.”
In truth, there is no progressive alternative to the status quo when it comes to any of the mainstream parties in the UK. Each has absorbed, accepted, and bowed before the nostrums of the free market when it comes to macroeconomics. The contents of the SNP/Yes campaign’s White Paper, to date the only prospectus for independence that exists, make this inarguable, confirming that the SNP does not constitute a departure from the status quo but rather stands for its continuation under a different flag. As Noam Chomsky said: “The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy.”
Despite its historic importance, never has such a divisive political campaign been fought on such narrow political terrain as this one. Consider the evidence. If the result is No in September it will mean that the existing head of state – the monarchy – will remain the head of state, while if the result is Yes the existing head of state – the same monarchy – will become the new head of state. Similarly, if No prevails sterling will remain the national currency, while if it is Yes sterling will become the new national currency.
By now, of course, it is clear that a currency union is not going to happen. Even it if did, it would mean handing key fiscal levers of the economy over to the central bank of a foreign country, thus qualifying as the only case in history of a nation voting to become a colony of another nation at the ballot box.
The latter option, sterlingization, which appears to have become the SNP’s plan B by default, is even worse. It carries with it the worst elements of a currency union – i.e. the handing over of the ability to set interests rates and currency valuation to the Bank of England – while also ensuring the absence of a central bank as lender of last resort to underwrite the nation’s borrowing and debt. This would have a severe impact when it comes to both the ability to attract investment, and the cost of that investment, especially when dealing with an untried and untested economy that will be starting life with an estimated national debt of £143 billion according to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR).
Yet despite the aforementioned economic and political realities, socialists and progressives on the Yes side of the debate have chosen to ignore them, instead embracing idealist arguments based on hope and faith that independence will be a catalyst for a socialist or social democratic paradise. The point has to be made that while hope is all right when it comes to purchasing a lottery ticket it isn’t good enough when it comes to setting up a national economy upon which millions of people’s pensions, mortgages, jobs, and public services will depend.
There is no argument that class as the lynchpin of political consciousness and activity in Britain has never been weaker. This is the product of the de-industrialization of the economy and its impact on society. The emergence of New Labour in the early nineties was part of this process, producing a steady erosion of class and its replacement by identity as the fulcrum of political activity. The spread of nationalism both north and south of the border reflects this process, one deepened with the ravages of austerity, which has sown despair up and down the country, leaving people desperate for change. However, erecting a border and cowering behind it hoping that the Tories will go away simply doesn’t stand up when subjected to scrutiny.
Firstly, based on the proposal to continue with sterling as the national currency, the Tories will have even more of a stranglehold on an independent Scottish economy than they do now. Moreover, the problem is not the Tories so much as Tory ideas, which will only be defeated with a better and more powerful idea founded on a class-based alternative rather than one focused on constitutional change.
No matter, as September 18 approaches we are witnessing a Yes grassroots campaign intoxicated with an increasingly US-style ”happy-clappy” attachment to enthusiasm and positive thinking in order to inoculate its adherents from reality. There is undoubtedly something inspiring about being inspired and exciting about being excited, yet as much as you try to ignore reality, it won’t ignore you. There is no escape hatch from the real world, as harsh as it may be.
Nationalism, unless rooted in national oppression, is a perniciously hollow doctrine. It succeeds to the extent that political forces on both left and right place their belief in it as a vehicle to advance their respective political and economic interests at a given time. It is the child of illusion and the parent of disillusion. To paraphrase Nye Bevan: “Nationalism is akin to walking backwards with your face to the future.”
Constitutional struggle as a substitute for class struggle is at bottom the product of despair and lack of belief in socioeconomic change. It signals a victory for neoliberal orthodoxy, offering up the possibility of yet another state and national economy competing for the same investment. It is no accident that every small state that has separated from a larger state in Europe over the past three decades has shifted to the right. There is no evidence that an independent Scotland would offer a departure from this pattern.
I remain confident that a No vote will emerge victorious on September 18. Unlike Catalonia, where there is a real mass movement agitating for separation, in Scotland people remain largely unconvinced. There are no mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in the streets and there is no national mood clamoring for independence with just six weeks to go before people head to the polls.
The energy that has been deployed in pursuit of a Yes vote, if redeployed after the referendum in the struggle to reassert the primacy of collectivist ideas and the struggle for social and economic justice everywhere on this small island, could be where the future lies.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.