Scotland, 9/19

Scotland’s Yes campaign has been a bright spot for the Left. But will independence really challenge neoliberalism?

Escape has become a shared desire for many trapped in the neoliberal nightmare. Britain as its character has morphed into that of David Cameron’s has become an island from which practically everyone wants to exit.”

That’s the thrust of Carl Cederstrom and Peter Fleming’s short essay, “Escape from Cameron Island: Trapped in a Neo-Liberal Nightmare,” published in the July issue of Strike Magazine!

They riff on the news that in 2012 nearly 25,000 “illegal immigrants” gave themselves up to the UK Border Agency for deportation, a 7000% increase from 2005, when 330 gave themselves up in the same way. This they argue is not just the island’s most desperate people manifesting a sense of unease and a desire for escape and emancipation, but rather something that all British people living in conditions of “neoliberal nihilism” fantasize about.

Cederstrom and Fleming run through the other ways sections of British society seek to escape from Neoliberal Island. The cheap flights to “drink all you want” resorts on sunny southern European coasts, the candy floss of “reality” television, the middle-class fantasies of the Guardian’s food supplement and the Sunday Times’s property pages.

What Cederstrom and Fleming missed, in the relatively calm early summer days when they penned their piece, is the imminent opportunity part of the United Kingdom has to declare independence from Neoliberal Island.

On September 6, the British establishment got their greatest jolt since the 1973 Miners’ Strike. YouGov, a well-established, generally high accurate polling firm, with impeccable establishment credentials — its co-founders include a serving Conservative MP and the husband of the outgoing (Labour) EU foreign secretary — recorded a narrow lead for the Yes campaign in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

The referendum, to be held tomorrow, has been happening for two years and anticipated for far longer. Yet until early this month, Britain’s London-based rulers dismissed the vote as a fringe matter, of interest only to a few overenthusiastic kilt wearers on the hem of their nation. Now they fear the dissolution of their 307-year-old country, a dissolution that could take with it their Trident nuclear missiles and permanent seat on the United Nation’s Security Council.

The dream of British might and exceptionalism, much diminished over the last hundred years by the fading of empire and the rise of other powers, could finally fade into the past like the campaigns recalled in the moth-eaten regimental banners that still hang forlornly in cathedrals and country houses up and down the nation.

It isn’t just the British government that fears this. The Guardian reports that the response at the US State Department when the news of the YouGov poll came through by phone was “Scotland. . . What!?” President Obama and his cabinet are presented with the specter of their most faithful attack dog, their ideological soul mate, being defanged and neutered.

With Obama pledging to take his nation back into Iraq, a country that he supposedly “fixed” already, his administration is looking to its allies. Scottish independence wouldn’t reduce NATO’s military might much; but it would certainly show that the alliance’s pillars are subject to the same centrifugal forces as the rest of the world and reduce Britain’s appetite for participation in future foreign adventures.

Throughout the campaign the pro-Union camp have focused on exactly the sort of dismal fiscal arguments you’d expect the government of Neoliberal Island to obsess over. Trying to threaten Scots into staying by pledging to cut off their currency, block their EU membership, or undermine their banking sector.

What the British government cannot grasp is that the closed political culture of Britain makes any possibility of secession appealing. If a vote for independence leads to the cuckoo like Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group fleeing south many Scots would say good riddance.

For a century Scots put their faith, their dreams, and practical efforts for change into the Labour Party, the political arm of the pan-British trade union movement. Long after the dreams of an imperial destiny for the British people vanished, the dream of a socialist future and the advance of the working class remained. This vision had a strong purchase on the Scottish collective imagination, unsurprising in a country where the vast majority of the population, as late as the 1980s, worked for vast industrial enterprises.

This support for a unitary British state vanished in the 1980s and 90s as social-democratic Britain, no longer buttressed by the sharp edge of trade union syndicalism was submerged beneath Neoliberal Island, supposedly an endpoint, a land where all alternatives are off the table, the land that politics forgot.

In truth, socialist movements in Britain was always hamstrung by an adherence to “parliamentary socialism,” a reverence even on the far left for the nation’s traditional institutions. The closed shop “supreme” Parliament where until 1999 half the seats were allocated by birth right, whose rules, procedures, and obsessions frequently make it look more like a gentlemen’s club or university debating society than a serious democratic legislature.

Since it was established, in 1999, Scotland has administered most of its domestic affairs through the Scottish Parliament. In stark contrast to the Palace of Westminster, Holyrood is more deliberative and strikingly open to women, the disabled, and Scotland’s ethnic minority communities.

The referendum, Scotland’s chance to completely walk away from nightmare Britain, has been engineered by long-standing Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond. No campaigners have tried to paint him as a Pied Piper-type figure, leading the country towards the economic cliff edge by playing merry tunes that appeal to Scotland’s egalitarian and collectivist yearnings.

This was always unlikely to work as Scotland’s subconscious has for the last thirty years been churning away, writhing against the sense of dislocation, anomie, and worthlessness that late capitalism has brought it.

On the most obvious level this is represented in the crime fiction of authors like Ian Rankin and Val MacDermod, who, like Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell across the North Sea in Scandinavia, lay bare a Scotland where you don’t need to scratch very deep beneath the prosperous exterior to reach the underbelly of a society that is deeply ill at ease with itself.

Cutting even deeper into Scotland’s malaise are the works of authors like Irving Welsh and Michel Faber. Welsh’s Trainspotting graphically depicts how heroin flooded into working-class Scotland in the 1980s and 90s as the attentions of organized capital in the form of heavy industry flowed out, leaving a tangle of chaotic, meaningless, atomized lives behind it.

Faber’s Under the Skin, published in 2000, but filmed in Scotland last year, imagines an extra-terrestrial conglomerate setting up a meat processing plant deep in the Scottish Highlands. The raw material they ensnare, process, slaughter and sell is the bodies of Scottish men, left high and dry by the shifting sands of economic change and cast adrift in a sea of anomie: people that there “won’t be tearful appeals from their families on the television” for.

The chance to break free from these nightmares, the chance to dream differently, has galvanized millions of Scots. Turnout on September 18 could hit the giddying heights of 80%, testimony to the actions on the ground of networks of radical activists like the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and Women for Independence (WfI). It is they who by going out into the grey-flecked council estates, faded former pit villages, and flyblown market towns, long forsaken by campaigners from Scotland’s big four parties — who’ve in recent decades marked by low turnouts, just cynically concentrated on their core votes — who will be responsible for Scottish independence if Scottish independence is to be won.

The question now for Scots is whether on September 19, once the victory bonfires are snuffed out by the rain, Scotland will awake into a bright new future. Or instead still find itself conjoined to the United Kingdom by ties of geography, trade and history — still very much a part of Neoliberal Island.

Alex Salmond is often spoken of by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as if he was a Caledonian Hugo Chavez, pursuing a gospel of oil-fueled redistribution and seeking independence as a means of seizing control of the commanding heights of the economy.

In reality this is a fantasy, a symptom of the increasingly warped reality field that the British Right weaves around itself. When I look at the SNP and its leader, I see Ebert in 1918 and Mitterrand in 1981, rather than Nasser in 1956 or Castro in 1960.

The SNP is as much a part of the British neoliberal consensus as the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Conservative Parties. Alex Salmond and his party had a short flirtation with socialism and anti-imperialism in the 1970s, however, Scotland’s relationship with England is unlike that of Wales or Ireland.

Scotland was never invaded or subjugated; rather its history within the Union is more like that of northern England — rapid industrialiZation, followed by a long hangover. Its clearances, during the birth phases of capitalism, were akin to those in England, an act of class violence by a rent-seeking ruling class perpetuated against the dying peasantry. Scotland’s struggle for control of the means of production has always been a purely internal one.

As such it is right that RIC and WfI don’t have much faith in the SNP to deliver on their egalitarian promises following a “Yes” vote.

Having run Scottish affairs through the Scottish Parliament since 2007, the SNP have proven themselves to be keen supporters of the neoliberal consensus. Among their first actions on taking power in Edinburgh were securing free university education for Scots and a Council Tax freeze across Scotland. On the surface these seem like progressive measures — university fees in the rest of the UK have led to increased marketization and are a millstone round the necks of millions of graduates, and the Council Tax is considered a highly regressive tax.

However, to pay for these things — which disproportionately benefit the middle class — rather than using the powers of taxation open to them, the SNP government chose to drastically reduce financial support for low income students, slash over £100 million from the adult education budget, and accept a squeeze on the incomes of the local governments that provide elderly care, disabled care, housing, and a whole range of other benefits to low-income Scots. The Council Tax freeze has since been copied by the Coalition south of the border.

Likewise, the key plank of the SNP’s post-independence economic plan appears to be a pledge to peg Scotland’s corporation tax rate 3% below that mandated in the rest of the UK.

In a similar vein, the SNP intend for post-independence Scotland to continue using the Pound Sterling, tying them into a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. A survey, also conducted by YouGov, has found that 79% of Scots would support this. However, while this would give Scotland a degree of stability and assurance, it would also tie them into the UK’s financial plans, which include austerity and similar pseudo-monetarist measures until at least the middle of the next decade.

Of course, the SNP is merely a single faction within the rich tapestry of Scottish politics. However, late last month in a debate with the right-wing former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling that was beamed by the BBC into every home in the United Kingdom, Alex Salmond made a “big and comprehensive offer to Scotland’s best talents,” UK Scottish politicians like Darling, to join his negotiating team in the event of a Yes vote.

This seemingly conciliatory move reveals that Salmond believes that, fundamentally, there is nothing separating his vision for Scotland’s future from that of a man like Darling. Indeed a journalist reported last week that in the event of a “yes” vote, current Scotland Minister Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat, is considering quitting his post to join the Scottish side in the negotiations.

The worst outcome possible from the referendum is that through voting “yes,” the Scottish people don’t just fail in their bid to escape Neoliberal Island but rather make the dream even worse. In the 1990s, a liberalized Irish economy with “highly competitive” tax rates and labor laws seemingly raced ahead.

Through arrangements like this, Ireland managed to draw in cuddly household names like Apple, Starbucks, and Pfizer, helping their shareholders keep more surplus value. Ireland’s house prices and the size of its banking sector soared until 2007, when the country caught a cold from the crunch. The pain of “structural adjustment” has been worsened since then by the inflexibility of the EU’s Central Bank, who backstop Ireland’s Euro currency. The Eurozone’s more powerful members don’t take very kindly to Ireland’s clever tax arrangements.

From London: Alan Rusbridger’s pet right-winger, idiosyncratic former Times editor Simon Jenkins, has been cheerleading for independence precisely because he believes it will lead to a “leaner, meaner Scotland.”

His hope, it seems, is that an independent Scotland will take its cues from the other side of Baltic to Scandinavia, from the “minimal state” post-Soviet countries of Estonia and Latvia. Countries that weathered the fallout from the financial crisis far worse than their more “statist” neighbors. This week, he has been looking forward to the Union’s demise spelling the end of the publicly owned National Health Service on both sides of the border. Something that documents leaked by Scotland’s own civil servants, suggesting the SNP are factoring in at least £400 million pounds of real terms cuts to the health service, does nothing to dispel.

Independently of upper-class Englishmen, prior to the downturn, the SNP held up Ireland, Iceland, and the Balts as examples of what an independent Scotland could become. They don’t anymore. However, it’s clear from their economic suggestions that, seven years after the crisis began, they don’t have any better ideas, either.

It would be a tragedy for Scotland’s Yes campaign, underpinned by such hope, to have its dreams dashed by a post-independence stitch-up that keeps intact the ideology that ties Neoliberal Island together. Doubly so, if it enables a British version of the dilemma set out by Rob Hunter in these pages, with the death of unitary Britain creating a situation where it is harder for workers to push for change because they have to seek to capture more seats of power.

Scottish independence might lead to the holy grail for many British liberals: written constitutions, north and south of the border that would finally — more than three hundred years after the fact — clearly proclaim the victory of the bourgeoisie for all to see. Doing so would handily fix in aspic current constitutional thinking and power arrangements, locking out the kind of popular formations represented by RIC.

Alternatively, if “no,” wins out tomorrow, the widely predicted victory of the Labour Party next year, most likely on a platform of further constitutional reform, could well lead to the same result. Regardless, with London now promising to hand control of almost everything except immigration and defense to Edinburgh in the event of a “no,”vote, the high-water mark of Yes might already have passed.

“Yes,” “no,” or maybe so, a brief opening up could lead to a long period, like so many before it, when Britain’s ruling class gave away just enough to abate popular demands for change and entrench the status quo.

For the first time since the late 1970s, Scotland’s debate has provided a serious popular jolt to Britain’s entrenched concentrations of power and privilege. Many of us on the Left, Marxist and non-Marxist, who live elsewhere in the UK have been rather jealous. There is a sense that we are missing out on the chance to take control of our destiny, the possibility of escaping the Neoliberal Island.

That said, the economic forces that unleashed the Thatcherite revolution that tore through the attempts to reconstitute Britain in the interests of workers are far bigger than one small northern European country, regardless of whether that country is the United Kingdom or Scotland. The forces that created Neoliberal Island will still be intact on September 19, whether Scotland is set to remain in the United Kingdom or not.

The Yes campaign shows that people can still be rallied to mass political action, but collectively we need an awful lot more than another tightly bound legislative assembly to awake from our neoliberal nightmare.