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False choices in the independence debate

There’s more that unites working-class people of England, Wales and Scotland than divides them, writes JOHN WIGHT

I will be voting No in this year’s referendum on Scottish independence. I will do so as a statement of solidarity with working people throughout Britain.

There is undoubtedly much that is regressive — make that despicable — about the British state.

The monarchy, the House of Lords, the country’s history of empire, colonialism and its recent history of sowing carnage and chaos in the Middle East — all of those things add up to a damning indictment of a state formed in 1707 in the interests of a rising mercantile class, committed to colonial expansion and the super-exploitation of the planet’s resources.

However, the notion that Scotland was not party to this history — or played only a marginal role — is an insult to truth.

The ill-fated Darien Scheme of 1698-1700, an attempt by Scotland to establish its own colony in what is now Panama, succeeded in bankrupting the country, which led inexorably to the bulk of the Scottish aristocracy and merchant class, who made up the Scottish Parliament of the day, voting to enter the current union with England in 1707.

The Scots landed gentry, merchants and nobility responsible for entering Scotland into the union were bribed and coerced by their English counterparts in the lead-up to the vote.

Ultimately the prospect of gaining trading access to England’s colonies, the fact that as part of the Act of Union losses sustained by Scots investors in the ill-fated Darien Scheme would be compensated, plus the guarantee given over the independence of the Scots Presbyterian Church within the union, was enough to ensure its passage.

As for the English ruling class, their main objective in entering the Act of Union was to forestall the possibility of a military and strategic alliance between an independent Scotland to the north and France, against whom England was embroiled in the war of the Spanish succession.

There was strong opposition to the Act of Union by a large section of the Scottish people, whose interests weren’t taken into account.

This opposition culminated in mass street protests and riots in Edinburgh and other Scottish towns on the day the Act was signed by the Scottish Parliament.

Thereafter, in line with the expansion of the British empire across the globe, Scots played a key role as generals, officers and soldiers in the army, colonial administrators, slavers, and merchants — in the process creating great personal fortunes and establishing Glasgow as the second city of the empire.

An unintended consequence of the newly formed union was the way it paved the way for the gradual homogenisation of working people throughout the newly formed British state.

This was based on the common misery they were forced to endure at the hands of the factory and mill owners who controlled their lives under an expanding economic system of unfettered capitalism.

The need to organise collectively in order to resist the brutal conditions of the lives of workers across Britain transcended every other difference — whether on grounds of nationality, race, religion or gender.

This gave rise to the emergence of the trade union movement, followed by the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century, reflecting the growth in size and consciousness of the British working class.

It is a class identity which remains relevant at a time when the nation is being ruled by the most extreme and callous Tory government in generations, dictating that a bus driver in Glasgow has more in common with a bus driver in Newcastle, Liverpool or Cardiff than he or she does with a wealthy fellow Scot.

With this in mind, I have increasingly found some of the arguments being made in support of independence by progressives and socialists within the Yes campaign disappointing.

The central of those — namely that voting Yes will rid Scotland of the Tories — is not only weak, it is cowardly.

First, you may get rid of the Tories but that doesn’t mean you will get rid of Tory ideas, a few of which are front and centre in the SNP’s/Yes campaign’s independence manifesto (or white paper), titled Scotland’s Future.

The positions laid out on corporation tax, the monarchy and Nato membership would sit more than comfortably in the pages of a Tory manifesto.

More importantly, it is anathema to me that it can be considered progress to abandon millions of people who’ve stood with us — and us with them — in trade union struggles, political campaigns and progressive movements for generations.

Nationalism, unless rooted in national oppression, is a regressive ideology.

It obscures the real dividing line in society — namely class — offering instead an abstracted analysis of the world through a national prism that takes zero account of social and economic factors, thus offering nothing but more of the same under a different flag.

Our nationality is an accident of birth. It means nothing. You can’t eat a flag. A flag doesn’t heat a home or put food on the table.

Nationalism offers a largely mythologised history in the process of inviting us to embrace a national interest, one that can only relate to the world behind false divisions of national, ethnic or racial differences.

In 2014 economic sovereignty does not lie with national governments as it once did.

Today economic sovereignty lies with global capital under that extreme variant of capitalism known as neoliberalism — or the free market.

The notion that separation from a larger state would allow said smaller state to forge a social democratic utopia without challenging neoliberal nostrums is simply not credible.

A patchwork of smaller states plays into the hands of global capital, as it means more competition for inward investment, which means global corporations are able to negotiate more favourable terms in return for that investment.

The inevitable result is a race to the bottom as workers in one state compete for jobs with workers in neighbouring states. In this regard it is surely no accident that Rupert Murdoch is a vocal supporter of Scottish independence.

Support for Scottish independence among progressives in Scotland is rooted in despair over a status quo of Tory barbarity.

This is understandable. For the past three decades working-class communities throughout Britain have suffered a relentless assault under both Conservative and Labour administrations.

The Labour Party, under the baneful influence and leadership of Tony Blair and his new Labour clique, came to be unrecognisable from the party that created the welfare state, including the NHS, and the party that once held full employment as a guiding principle of its economic and social policy.

New Labour’s embrace of free-market nostrums meant that the structural inequality after 18 years of Tory rule remained more or less intact. The market was now the undisputed master of all it surveyed.

The consequence of Labour’s shift to the right has given rise to cynicism, disappointment and a lack of faith in politics among large swathes of voters, evinced in ever lower turnouts at elections.

In Scotland, for decades a Labour Party stronghold, devolution has allowed a protest vote to make the electorate’s feelings towards this Labour Party betrayal of its founding principles known at the ballot box.

Regardless, the most significant protest has been a non-vote, with turnouts at elections in Scotland following the pattern of the rest of the country in remaining low.

For example, there was only a 50 per cent turnout at the last Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011, out of which the Scottish National Party emerged with an overall majority, the first time any party has managed to do so since the Scottish Parliament came into existence in 1999.

However the argument that Scotland is more left-leaning than the rest of Britain is one that seeks to conflate conservatism with England in its entirety, rather than a specific region of the country, which in conjunction with the antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system of Westminster elections, has thrown up Tory governments that are unrepresentative of where the majority of England and the rest of Britain sits politically.

Scotland is no more left-leaning than the deindustrialised north-east, north-west and Midlands of England. Nor is it any more left-leaning than Wales.

The working class in Scotland is not any more progressive than its English or Welsh counterpart.

As a consequence, my No vote in September will be both a rejection of nationalism as a progressive alternative to the status quo and a statement of solidarity with all who are suffering under this Tory government — not only in Scotland but throughout Britain.


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