Momentum behind Scottish pro-independence campaign exposes crisis in the British Establishment
With under a week to go until Scots head to the vote, the results of the independence referendum are too close to call. A recent surge in support for the pro-independence campaign has struck fear into the leaders of the NO camp. The maintenance of the union is now seriously under threat, providing yet another demonstration of the weakness and crisis within the British Establishment in this epoch of capitalist crisis.
Too little, too late
Following a recent YouGov poll that indicated – for the first time – a majority for the YES vote, Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband abandoned Prime Minister’s Questions and rushed up to Scotland to try and make the case for preserving the union. All three parties, acting out of panic, have suddenly produced promises to give more powers to the Scottish Parliament in the event of a NO vote. But for many in Scotland, the visit by the pro-union party leaders smacks of desperation, and the latest pleas are a case of too little, too late.
“I think it’s pointless,” stated one worker in Edinburgh interviewed by the Financial Times. “Where was David Cameron 18 months ago when there was something to discuss.” “It’s an empty gesture” exclaimed another worker. “It’s too late – it’s just a reaction to the opinion polls.”
It is well known to the strategists of the NO campaign that the Tory brand is toxic in Scotland, hence why Cameron and the Conservatives had kept their distance up until now. With the odds of a YES victory narrowing, however, Cameron’s last minute intervention is a desperate attempt to reverse the tide. Unfortunately, this last throw of the dice will only play into the hands of the pro-independence campaign, as it is precisely Cameron and his out-of-touch cabinet of Eton-educated toffs that are driving people towards the YES camp. Far from helping the NO campaign, Cameron’s trip to Scotland has only served to remind many of what they are hoping to rid themselves of with a YES vote – rule by a Tory-led government hell-bent on implementing austerity and cuts.
The British Prime Minister’s statement that he would be “heartbroken if this family of nations that we've put together... was torn apart” is unsurprisingly viewed with cynicism, with the conclusion being drawn by some that if the Tories want to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom so much, then there must be something in Scotland of value.
From the start, every strategic and tactical decision the “Better Together” campaign has taken has been wrong. Rather than providing any positive reasons for Scotland to stay within the union, Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor and leader of the Better Together campaign, has offered nothing but thinly-veiled economic threats. What else, however, can an alliance containing Tories and Liberals offer other than threats? If the coalition government in Westminster cannot offer any future to British workers and youth as a whole, other than that of crisis and cuts, then how can these same coalition parties offer any hope to those north of the border and convince them to stay? In this respect, the Better Together campaign’s strategy of economic threats and warnings is merely the extension of the Coalition’s wider threats to ordinary people across the UK that the painful medicine of austerity must be swallowed if we want to keep the British economy going.
Scottish people rightly feel patronised and bullied from having had to listen to this endless diatribe from bourgeois politicians, bosses, and bankers, who, having tremendously failed in running the British economy over the last six years, now have the hypocritical audacity to tell others how to run theirs. Cameron’s latest decision to fly the Saltire flag over Downing Street was yet another complete misreading of the situation, and was seen as being insulting by many. To add insult to injury, the whole episode was ultimately turned into a farce when the flag fell from its pole.
The disgust with the Tory-led Coalition and the Better Together campaign as a whole has ultimately played into the hands of Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists, who has cynically taken advantage of the anti-Tory mood to promote his own vision of an independent capitalist Scotland. Like the vast majority of people in Scotland – and in Britain – the Marxists of Socialist Appeal and the International Marxist Tendency are disgusted by the current status quo of Tory rule; but the change that Salmond offers is no solution for the conditions facing workers and youth. The change that we must fight for is not that of an independent capitalist Scotland, but that of revolutionary change – for the socialist transformation of society in Britain and internationally.
Another signpost in the decline of British capitalism
Responding to whether the Tories would benefit from Scottish independence by being able to win elections more easily, Cameron asserted that “I care far more about my country than I do about my party.” In reality, however, what the Tory PM cares about most is his own head and, more importantly, his own class – the capitalist class of the bosses and bankers.
With the referendum result on a knife edge, the cavalry have been called in, with the most serious voices of the bourgeoisie making 11th hour announcements for the NO vote. Editorials this week in both The Financial Times and The Economist, the most reliable of capitalist mouthpieces, soberly outlined the bourgeoisie’s case for maintaining the union, with the FT describing separation as a “fool’s errand”. Lloyds Banking Group and the Royal Bank of Scotland have both also added to the economic threats of the NO campaign, claiming they would seek to relocate to London in the event of a YES vote, thus taking the bulk of Edinburgh’s important financial sector with them. Meanwhile, the heads of both BP and Royal Dutch Shell – the massive oil corporations – have categorically come down in favour of the union, whilst Mark Carney, the Canadian top-dog at the Bank of England, has again warned Scots about the dangers independence would pose in terms of monetary policy.
Alex Salmond himself could not come up with a better strategy for recruiting to the YES campaign than to have a queue of bankers, fat-cats, and leading Tories line up on the NO side. Ordinary Scots are understandably mistrustful of any words emanating from the mouths of such openly bourgeois figures, who have shown no past restraint in promoting austerity and attacking the working class. Rather than scaring people into voting NO out of the fear and uncertainty of the unknown, by basing themselves on these representatives of the crisis-ridden capitalist system, the Better Together campaign have merely driven people further towards the pro-independence side.
Salmond, however, is hardly a friend of the working class himself. Whilst adopting a populist, anti-Establishment tone, he has himself gathered support around him from big business in Scotland, including a £1 million donation from Sir Brian Souter, the well known boss of Stagecoach, who has consistently attacked the unions and fought for privatisation.
For Cameron and the bourgeois class that he represents, the 300-year-old union represents the past dominance of British capitalism, the former glories of an empire in which the Union Jack was hoisted in conquered markets across the world. The break-up of this historic union would be yet another signal of the decline of British capitalism and imperialism, which has undergone a slow death agony over the past century.
Losing first its position as the leading world economy, then its colonies, and finally its industry, the separation of Scotland would be a clear mark of British imperialism’s diminishing role on the world stage. Doubts would be raised over Britain’s position within the EU and strength within NATO. The details of the UK’s future nuclear weapon capabilities are still undecided. Unable to maintain the union, the British ruling class would soon find itself the victim of centrifugal forces beyond its control, with a possible rise of nationalist sentiments in Wales and of UKIP in England.
Having been a reliable pillar of stability and continuity for the capitalists for over three centuries, separation would plunge the remainder of the UK into a future of uncertainty, bringing with it a new stage of heightened economic and political turbulence within this general period of capitalist crisis and unstable world relations.
Huge question marks have been raised over important economic issues such as the division of the national debt, with Salmond even threatening to leave the rest of Britain with the bill after separation. Concerns over the future of the pound and North Sea Oil have added to the worries of the capitalists. Already the markets have reacted to the narrowing odds on a pro-independence victory, with sterling falling to a 10 month low earlier in the week following the news that the YES vote was ahead in the polls. At the same time, long-term government bonds tumbled and £3.5bn was wiped off the market value of six London-listed companies with large exposure to Scotland.
“Be afraid, be very afraid,” was the message of analysts at Deutsche Bank in a note to investors on the risks posed to the UK economy by the threat of Scottish independence.
“The implications of a yes vote would be huge. On the currency side, it could at worst lead to a destabilising crisis in the whole British banking system and at best leave the rest of the UK with an unstable currency union... Scotland represents the rest of the UK's second largest trading partner after the EU and many corporate investment plans are likely to be put on hold until clarity over currency, regulatory and tax questions is achieved.”
It is these then, the interests and influence of British capitalism, that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, seeks to defend by arguing against separation and in defence of the union.
The deindustrialisation caused by the decline of British capitalism, which particularly affected Scotland, added fuel to the fire of Scottish nationalism and led to a collapse of the Tory vote north of the border. As the recent editorial in the Financial Times points out:
“England and Scotland have grown apart politically. In the 1950s, the Conservative and Unionist party – to remind David Cameron’s party of its proper name – had an absolute majority of parliamentary seats in Scotland. Today, the Tory party’s representation has shrunk to a single MP, partly a legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s ill-judged poll tax and the benign neglect of a strong pound which devastated manufacturing north and south of the border.”
It is a great irony, then, that Cameron, the heir to and defender of Thatcher’s legacy, now finds himself paying the price for the policies of his late idol, facing the possibility of being known in the history books as the prime minister who oversaw the break-up of Britain.
A YES vote in the referendum would send shockwaves across the political landscape – not only in Britain, but internationally also. The global crisis of capitalism has brought the question of national independence to the fore across the world, and regions such as Catalonia and Quebec are now focussed on the upcoming referendum in Scotland as a possible indication of their own future. In a general sense, therefore, the growing support for Scottish independence is yet another reflection of the extremely unstable period that society now finds itself in on a world scale – an unprecedented epoch of turbulence in which sharp turns and sudden changes are implicit within the situation.
Pressure mounts on the Coalition
The potential victory of the YES campaign, and the real possibility of independence being voted through, has placed yet more pressure on the Coalition, and particularly on the Tories, who are already wrought with internal tensions. Victory for the pro-independence side would most certainly bring about a constitutional crisis, raising questions over the future of Parliament and of British politics in general, and provoking even further panic in Westminster and Whitehall.
The rising YES vote is yet another headache for the Prime Minister, following quickly in the footsteps of the recent defection by former Tory MP, Douglas Carswell, to UKIP. There is a growing rebellion within the ranks of Conservative MPs over the question of Europe and immigration, fuelled by the emergence of Nigel Farage and UKIP, and Cameron has already found himself between a rock and a hard place in trying to appease the most Euro-sceptic layers of the Tory Party with the promise of a future referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Both Farage and the rabid Tory backbenchers sense weakness, and a victory for the pro-independence side would only give these layers more ammunition against Cameron. But the weakness of the Tory leader is not due to his own personal characteristics, but is a reflection of a weakness within the bourgeois parties and the ruling class as a whole, whose endless series of internal crises and scandals demonstrate the impossibility of creating a climate of political stability within a period of extreme instability for the world capitalist system.
A vote for independence on the 18th September would be an embarrassment for Cameron and the coalition government, serving to intensify the calls for the Tory leader’s departure emanating from the Conservative Party backbenches. Already Cameron has dug his heels in and stated that he will not resign in the event of a win for the pro-independence side. With their extreme arrogance, Cameron and the Tory leaders – who arrogantly assumed that a simple YES/NO vote would drive people towards the NO side – have created their own undoing. By refusing to put a third option of “devolution max” on the ballot paper, they have driven themselves into this current situation where all manner of panicked concessions are being offered for fear of even greater repercussions.
Above all, a YES vote would greatly undermine the authority of the whole Establishment, which is already riddled with crisis, mired in scandal, and untrusted by the public at large. After the issues of MPs expenses, the News of the World, and lately the allegations of political cover up of child abuse in the 1980s, the whole of Westminster is understandably seen by ordinary people – across Britain – as being completely out-of-touch with the mood in the rest of society; a political class in a world of their own.
With all three of the main Westminster parties allying themselves on the side of the NO campaign, for many on the YES side, the referendum is seen precisely as an opportunity to deliver a blow against this corrupt Establishment. Indeed, the YES campaign has been based very little on questions of Scottish nationalism, but on social and economic issues, with many seeing a YES vote as an anti-Tory, anti-austerity message to the coalition government. As The Economist notes in its latest issue, “Forget the beauty of self-determination: ridding Scotland of the Tories is the mantra of the independence campaign.” The Prime Minister himself has acknowledged as such, but has warned, also, that the referendum could not be used as a protest vote in the same way elections are.
The crisis of reformism
Whilst a vote for independence would add to the problems of the ruling class, it would not provide any solution to those faced by workers and youth. It is clear that there is a growing radicalisation in society – both in Scotland, and across Britain and the rest of the world. Ordinary people are looking for some way out of the seemingly endless crisis; looking for an alternative to the political scandal and years of austerity that governments everywhere offer.
In the absence of any real alternative from the leaders of the Labour movement, Alex Salmond, the populist and pro-capitalist leader of the SNP, has filled the vacuum, consistently tapping into the anti-Tory, anti-Westminster mood in society to promote his own brand of big-business-backed Scottish nationalism. Presenting himself, the SNP, and independence as an alternative to the Coalition and their programme of austerity, as an anti-Establishment vote against the corrupt gangsters in the UK Parliament, Salmond has exploited the weakness and timidity of the Labour leaders, promising a land of milk-and-honey to those who support his independence cause.
With existing reforms such as free higher education and free prescriptions, it is understandable why independence would provide hope of further progressive change for many workers and youth in Scotland. In addition, with only one Tory MP in Scotland, many understandably conclude that separation could result in a sharp shift to the left and provide a guarantee against any future Conservative government. But the reality for workers and youth in an independent Scotland would be far different from these hopes and dreams.
The likely outcome of a post-independent Scotland would be for an SNP government, with Salmond’s popularity bolstered by staking his claim as the man who led the fight for independence and established the Scottish nation. Salmond’s vision for Scotland, however, is still firmly entrenched within the confines of a capitalist state that serves the interest of the bosses and the bankers, not those of workers and youth. As Seamus Milne comments in The Guardian (11th September 2014):
“[T]he idea that a yes vote would be a short cut to a progressive future in a Scandinavian-style social democracy is another matter. It’s not just that Scottish voters aren’t being offered genuine independence at all. Instead, the state cooked up by the SNP is one signed up in advance to the monarchy, Nato, the EU and a currency controlled from London...
“On top of that the SNP, which would doubtless rule the roost in the aftermath of a vote for independence it would rightly be seen to have brought about, is still no party of the centre-left. Backed by tax avoiders, hedge funders, privateers and Rupert Murdoch, its central economic policy is to cut corporation tax 3% below the British rate to attract capital to Scotland.”
Once in power, the SNP, or whichever party finds itself in government, will be faced with the cold light of day. Born into this world during a period of extreme political and economic instability, the new Scottish nation would instantly be at the mercy of the financial markets, who would demand “responsible” policies – i.e. cuts and austerity – to balance the books. This mean attacks on the NHS, welfare, education, public services, pensions, and all the reforms from the past that many will have taken for granted.
In order to maintain “competiveness”, an independent Scottish government will be forced to attack workers’ wages and conditions, creating a race-to-the-bottom between workers in Scotland, the rest of the UK, and beyond, as Milne continues:
“It’s a classic recipe for a race to the bottom, as each government seeks to undercut the other’s corporate taxes to woo foreign investors – slashing the revenues for public services and pensions in the process.
“But then the SNP also opposed a 50% top rate of tax, bankers’ bonus tax or mansion tax, while pledging deregulation and cuts in red tape. And a Scottish exit from Britain will make Tory governments more likely, by stripping out 59 Scottish MPs from Westminster, only one of whom is currently a Conservative. On current polling, Labour would lose its majority at next May’s election without them.
“The impact of that wouldn’t only be felt across the rest of Britain, most painfully in its most deprived communities. It would also feed back directly into Scotland, as a more rightwing administration in London propelled a weak government in Edinburgh into a wider Dutch auction on taxes, rights at work and regulation – delivering the very opposite of what most yes voters actually want to see.”
Whoever is in power, it will be a government of crisis from day one. Far from finally being in control of their own affairs, the newly formed Scottish government will be forced by the invisible hand of the market into carrying out the same cuts that are being implemented across Europe and the rest of the world by governments both of the left (such as the “Socialist” government of Francois Hollande in France) and of the right (such as the Popular Party in Spain).
It is the global crisis of capitalism, not the ideology of this or that party that causes the same programme of austerity in country after country. In this respect, separation for Scotland would offer no respite from cuts and attacks for Scottish workers and youth. Independence for Scotland would not mean independence from capitalism.
We are living through an epoch of capitalist decay; a period of stagnation and crisis in which the cupboard is bare and reforms are no longer on the cards. Indeed, the reforms of the past are being attacked and taken away, and the ordinary people are being presented with nothing but counter-reforms. Those leaders, such as Francois Hollande, who come to power promising reforms, quickly find themselves as reformists who have no reforms to offer. Instead, as is the case with the Socialist Party government in France, they find themselves carrying out the same policies of austerity on behalf of the capitalist class.
Failure of the Labour leaders
It is this same crisis of reformism that explains the complete failure of the Labour Party to offer any alternative to the austerity programme of the Tory-led Coalition. And it is this failure to offer any hope of change – to challenge the status quo of cuts and scandal with a genuine alternative – that has driven many radicalised workers and youth towards the YES camp and into the arms of the Scottish Nationalists.
The desperate last-minute attempts by Ed Miliband to woo voters in Scotland could so easily have been avoided if the Labour Party had not aligned itself behind the Tories and Lib-Dems and had run an independent NO campaign from the start, based on the class issues that affect all workers in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Instead, Miliband and co. have jumped into bed with the hated Tories and the equally despised Liberals, putting forward their own man, Alistair Darling, to lead the pathetically uninspiring “Better Together” campaign and do the dirty work of the coalition parties.
In a last ditch effort to win people back, including many Labour voters who have recently switched sides, the Labour leadership has attempted to distance themselves from their Tory and Liberal allies in the Better Together camp, with Miliband, in his latest speech in Scotland, emphasising that “we are stronger staying together because we can better create a more equal, a more just, society”. Meanwhile, Lord Prescott, the former Labour Deputy Prime Minister, spoke to a crowd of unimpressed Scots about how he believed David Cameron’s recent visit was a hindrance to the NO campaign. Prescott’s speech, however, was met with hostility and anger from Labour supporters who consistently – and correctly – asked why Labour had tied themselves to Cameron and the Conservatives up until this point.
The clinging of the Labour leaders to the tailcoats of the Tories and Liberals in the Better Together campaign merely reflects the way in which they cling to the dying corpse of capitalism in general, providing no real alternative to the Coalition on any major issue, but instead promising only meek and mild reforms that have no content whatsoever.
Many pro-independence supporters – particularly those on the left – have argued for separation on the grounds that Scottish people are “inherently” more left-wing, and that only through independence can this be expressed in policies implemented in Scotland. The Labour leaders use the other-side of the coin of this same argument to justify their alliance with the Conservatives and Lib Dems in the NO campaign, stating that they would like to have offered something to the Scottish people that provided an alternative to the Westminster Coalition’s policies – but if they gave any alternative to Scotland, they would have to offer the same policies to the “more right-wing” voters in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In other words, left-wing vote-winning policies in Scotland would apparently turn into their opposite south of the border and become vote-losing policies, thus leading to a future electoral defeat for Labour!
Restricted in their actions or abilities by their past betrayals and adherence to the needs of capitalism, Miliband and co. have left themselves with no option but to potentially sacrifice Scotland – one of their most reliable bases of support in the country. As long as they accept capitalism, and thus the logic of capitalism – of crisis and cuts – the Labour leaders can take no path but the one they have chosen. Within the straight jacket of capitalism, Miliband and his type have nothing to offer workers and youth – in Scotland or elsewhere – but a slightly diluted version of the Coalition’s programme. In this respect, the responsibility for the drift of workers and youth into the YES camp and the hands of the nationalists, with the resultant threat of dividing the labour movement in Britain, lies solely with the Labour leaders.
The decision by the Labour leaders to enter into an unholy alliance with the Tories and the Lib Dems in the Better Together campaign, therefore, merely flows from their reformist outlook and their acceptance of the senile and rotten capitalist system. It is part of the same logic that leads to Labour councillors capitulating, carrying out the cuts and, in some cases, even entering into local coalitions with the Lib Dems and Tories. Once again Miliband and co. have shown their complete bankruptcy as so-called leaders of the Labour movement, which in turn is the bankruptcy of reformism in an epoch of capitalist crisis.
Fight against the status quo; fight to change society
Above all, the failure to offer any alternative to the Tories is yet another sign of how out-of-touch the current Labour leaders are from the real mood in society – a mood of growing radicalisation across Britain and internationally, in which the vast majority of society is looking for a genuine alternative to a future under capitalism that offers nothing but crisis and cuts. As long as we leave the real decisions in society to the unelected bankers and bosses, there can be no hope for ordinary people. Only with the socialist transformation of society – with a rational plan of production in which the banks and major monopolies are publically and democratically owned and controlled – can we avoid this future of toil and misery and instead raise the living standards for the vast majority.
The politics of nationalism offer nothing to workers and youth in the fight to transform society. Already, the question of independence threatens to leave behind a bitter taste regardless of the outcome on 18th September. In the event of a victory for the NO vote, hundreds of thousands of radicalised Scots who looked to independence in the hope of some sort of change will feel demoralised at what they perceive to be a victory for conservatism and the status quo. If the pro-independence side wins, there will be demoralisation in the future, as utopian dreams are shattered by the cuts that capitalism will demand of the new Scottish government.
In either case, sides have been drawn, leaving communities – and even households – divided. The bourgeoisie in Britain have fought for a NO vote in order to preserve the union of a capitalist and imperialist United Kingdom. The Marxists advocate a NO vote also, but for opposite class perspectives – not to maintain the status quo of Tory rule, austerity, and inequality that we see under capitalism, but to maintain the unity of the working class in the fight for socialism. For the working class, unity is strength; anything that acts to weaken that unity is a step backwards. Those victories that have been seen in Britain, such as the militant struggles again the hated Poll Tax of the Thatcher government, were battles that were won by a united movement of workers and youth across Britain. The only solution to the problems faced by workers and youth everywhere is for a Socialist Britain as part of a Socialist Europe and beyond. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries: unite!”