Britain stands on the edge of breakdown. Tomorrow, the people of Scotland will vote on whether or not to support independence, with all opinion polls showing the result stands on a knife-edge. The fact that 97% of the adult population has registered to vote is just one indication of the intensity of the debate and discussion that has gripped the nation, from the big cities to the smallest island.
When one poll gave the pro-independence Yes side a slender lead two weeks before the vote, the reaction in ruling circles was one of panic. There were demands that the queen come out in favor of maintaining the Union (earlier this week, she broke her silence and said she hopes voters will “think very carefully about the future”) and that the leaders of the Britain’s three major parties rush to Scotland to plead the case for the Union.
The London-based media, which is virulently anti-independence in the main, told us they were there to “love bomb” Scotland. Yet immediately after they set off for home, the “love bombing” gave way to something more like “shock and awe.”
Corporate Britain kept up a barrage of scare stories about the evils that would befall the feckless Scots if they dared vote “yes.” The heads of the major supermarkets threatened to increase food prices. The big banks headquartered in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, warned they would quit Scotland for London, resulting in catastrophic job losses.
It is a reminder that when things don’t go their way, the ruling class will be ruthless, using every weapon in their arsenal to achieve their desired outcome. In this case the possibility of an independent Scotland hardly rated with Chavez’s Venezuela as a thorn in the foot of world imperialism (the comparison is not mine, it’s one made by the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph), but when agitated, our rulers don’t play by the rules they demand we observe.
Why this level of hysteria? One reason is that political, financial, business, and military leaders had for months been assuring the result was in the bag, a 60-40 majority for No I was told by one ex-Conservative minister. Nothing illustrates how out of touch these apostles of neoliberalism and the Atlantic Alliance were with the mood on the streets of Scotland, or anywhere else for that matter. The BBC reported all was well, government ministers echoed them, and the City of London went to bed contented, only for it suddenly all to be going horribly wrong.
There was also more than a myth of class warfare, because the polls show support for independence is greatest among the working class and that Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Dundee are set to vote “yes,” creating a fear that the plebeians might be getting out of order.
Scotland matters to the British ruling class; a significant section of it comes from there — or, like Prime Minister David Cameron, traces their family back there. On a personal level, the queen spends each autumn at her castle in the Cairngorm Mountains, and Cameron goes stag hunting on his wife’s stepfather’s estate on the island of Islay.
It’s useful to know the history between Scotland and England. The union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707, which effectively created the British state, was crucial to the emergence of the new state as the global hegemon, a position it won over Napoleon on the seas at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and then on land a decade later at the Battle of Waterloo. The Act of Union took place against the backdrop of constant war with France.
The new state was stronger than its rivals, especially after it was forced to eradicate feudalism in Scotland after a minority of the aristocracy attempted to restore the deposed Catholic House of Stewart to the monarch. Capitalist take-off in Scotland came suddenly after the defeat of the Stewart’s supporters at Culloden in 1746. Edinburgh was transformed with the construction of a classical-style town center, home to the Scottish Enlightenment, while forty miles away on the other coast, Glasgow became one of the empire’s great industrial cities.
Industrialization emerged from the creation of the largest single market in the world, Great Britain and its colonies. The Scottish upper class took to empire with gusto, not being junior partners to their English cousins but lead partners (in India, for instance). An increasingly dispossessed peasantry formed the Scottish regiments upon which British military power in part depended.
The position of Scotland within Britain was always set apart, however, with the country retaining a separate state religion and education and legal system. Until 1914, Scots could maintain their national identity within a wider British one. It was one based largely on Calvinism and militarism in the service of empire.
When World War I ended, Scottish capitalism, in the sense of Scottish-owned capital, was wiped out. Their larger counterparts in England swallowed up Scottish firms and banks. And yet the British economy hardly came out unscathed; it lagged behind its rivals, and its old staples struggled to compete.
Today’s Scottish National Party, formed in 1934, united two groups. The first was made up of Labour supporters, alienated by the party’s ditching of a longstanding commitment to create a Scottish parliament, and Glasgow Conservatives worried that the Scottish upper classes would be squeezed out.
Until the 1960s, the SNP remained fairly irrelevant. What changed its fortunes was the continuing and relentless decline of Britain, now stripped of empire. Scotland, reliant still on the old staple industries, suffered worrying pools of unemployment and high emigration.
The 1945–1951 Labour government created the welfare state, and successive governments gave grants to US corporations to build plants in Scotland, but the sense of deterioration, particularly in the industrial regions, was powerful. In 1967, the SNP parlayed discontent with the Labour government elected three years earlier into a victory in a parliamentary by-election in a coal-mining seat.
But the real breakthrough came through in 1974 amid a global recession and a loss of support from Conservatives and Labourites. The discovery of oil in the North Sea led the SNP to declare “its Scotland’s oil,” and it won eleven Westminster parliamentary seats, taking votes from both parties.
That success seemed to evaporate after a 1979 referendum on whether to create a Scottish parliament failed to secure the required majority; Margaret Thatcher took office the same year, signaling a sea change in English politics.
The answer to why Scotland could now win independence is that Britain lost it. The first chapter in that story is what happened in the Thatcher years. Her Conservative Party was a minority one in Scotland, and its position shrunk in every subsequent election during her time in office.
The British working class heroically resisted her onslaught, but they lost. By the end of the 1980s, Scottish workers began adopting a Scottish identity as a badge of resistance to Conservative rule and supporting a Scottish parliament as a possible shield against the excesses of Thatcherism.
The second chapter came under Tony Blair and his New Labour government, elected in 1997. It’s hard to recall the high hopes that accompanied that win because they were buried in the subsequent years of relentless neoliberalism and the debacle of the Iraq war.
Blair, against his better judgement, agreed to the creation of a Scottish parliament. Scottish working people began to see it as an escape pod from a UK state addicted to war and free-market policies. They wanted old-fashioned social democracy, not what New Labour was doling out.
Neil Davidson wrote recently about the current referendum campaign, one where support for independence is not about nationalism but prioritizing welfare over finance, creating good jobs, and protecting services plus removing Trident missiles from their Scottish base.
So let us return to why Great Britain PLC and its international allies, including the US, cannot abide the idea of Scotland going independent.
Britain “needs Scotland,” former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major has insisted, saying the Union would be diminished on the international stage if Scots said yes to independence. Each United Nations permanent Security Council member has nukes, Mayors says, so losing theirs would mean jeopardizing that seat. This is a totem of continuing British power for its ruling class.
It’s worth considering Britain’s position in the world. Despite its inexorable decline, it is still a power, and the City of London is up there with Wall Street as the global financial center. It is slavishly addicted to its alliance with the US, earnestly following it into military adventure after adventure.
England home to GCHQ which, as Edward Snowden has revealed, works tightly with the NSA in eavesdropping on our phone calls, emails, tweets, and much more. Obama has called for a “no” vote, and the Pentagon has made clear its worries about British power if Scotland succeeds.
Britain PLC does not want any further diminution of British power. They recall the thrill back in 1982 when Thatcher took on Argentina over the Falkland Islands and won. The capitalist class needs the state, and Scottish independence would weaken the British state.
They also do not want any divergence from the neoliberal template and pro-US foreign policy. In Scotland, university education is free, as are health prescriptions. Scottish pensioners get a better deal than their British counterparts. The SNP opposed the Iraq war (but not the one in Afghanistan), and in August this year backed the Palestinians as the Cameron government stood by Israel in its assault on Gaza.
What position should anti-capitalists take? Historically, of course, there is scarcely a trouble spot in the world that was not caused by the British. From Cork to Calcutta, few would shed a tear over the demise of the British state. The break-up of Britain by whatever means would be a step forward for humanity.
In addition, the sight and sound of corporate Britain charging into battle to threaten, cajole, and bully Scottish voters, backed up by the International Monetary Fund, Goldman Sachs, the European Union, and Deutsche Bank, tells us which side our enemies are on. That’s why we should be cheering on Yes.
It would be a small but not insignificant blow to the British and global elite. Bring it on.