What is Britain in 2013? British imperialism is still alive and kicking. It still holds onto quite a few parts of the world, as the current spat with the Spanish government over Gibraltar reminds us, having been seized by force in the most part. It still punches above its economic weight in military terms, as the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya remind us. Together with France it is the only European state with sufficient military muscle to carry out such operations.
It is still of some importance to the United States, as proven by Edward Snowden’s revelation that the National Security Agency paid $100,000 million to GCHQ to spy on its behalf. The United Kingdom is still a huge overseas investor, particularly in North America. For all these reasons and more, it retains a permanent seat on the United Nations’ Security Council, largely because when this body was formed at the end of WW2, Britain was still a global power, something that appears to mean a great deal to the management of UK PLC.
So on the international stage Britain is a menace and it falls to all its citizens to impose its actions across the globe. So we should say Gibraltar is Spanish, end of story, just as we should demand British troops quit Afghanistan immediately. Therefore, there has to be a UK wide campaign against Britain’s military adventures.
But something has profoundly changed in Britain over the last three decades. Take this report from “The Herald,” on the lack of enthusiasm for next year’s commemoration of the start of World War One among Glaswegian males. Apart from trying to blame religious sectarianism and football, its main conclusion is that “Glaswegian men perceive next year’s First World War commemorations as an opportunity to foist “Britishness” on Scots ahead of the referendum.” It added that they question a “British identity” (Helen McArdle, The Herald, 4 August, 2013).
During the First World War Scots flocked to the colours, particularly at the beginning. They also had a higher casualty rate than any other part of the UK. In large part this reflected desperation to escape the grim reality of life in the slums and the pit villages. My granddad and his two brothers volunteered in 1915; visit Tarbrax, the shale mining village they hailed from and it is clear why fighting a brutal war seemed the better option.
But we should not avoid the fact that in 1914 the Scottish “identity” was riveted into a common identification as British. Until quite recently being Scottish meant, in a large part, celebrating the country’s military role in the creation of the British Empire.
That has largely gone. What’s changed? Well, the answer is that from its inception, the Scottish working class largely fought alongside their English and Welsh sisters and brothers. From the Radical Wars of the 1820s through Chartism to the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985, that was indeed the case. But as a consequence of the defeat of the latter, and the Tory onslaught of the 1970s and 1980s, something changed.
Support for Scottish devolution, and to a lesser extent independence, grew as the Scottish working class looked increasingly for an escape mechanism from a London based government they had not voted for. A Scottish “identity” also became something of a badge of resistance. While New Labour hoped the creation of a Scottish parliament would be the end of the story, it has been far from it. Bitterness over New Labour’s record in office and, now, over having a Con-Dem coalition hoisted on Scotland, has continued the process.
Scotland is now a separate place from England in the same way as Catalonia is a separate place from the rest of Spain, and Quebec from the rest of Canada. The Scottish parliament has control of key issues such as education, the health service, housing and much more. But the reality is, that Westminster still retains ultimate control over the matters of Scotland, despite not having been oted for by the Scottish electorate.
The independence referendum next year is causing much anxiety among the British ruling class (elsewhere Washington and Brussels are quite sanguine about it). A UK without Scotland might raise questions over why it should still have that seat on the UN Security Council and might encourage the Spanish and Argentineans in their pursuit of Gibraltar and the Malvinas. They will move heaven and earth into scaring Scottish voters into settling for the status quo next year.
What is strange is that the importance the ruling class attaches to the issue is not reflected among the left south of the border. There is a lot of discussion about achieving left unity in “Britain,” in creating a broad party of the left in “Britain,” or about “British” perspectives.” It’s as if nothing has changed since the 1970s, but it has.
Amidst all this discussion there is not a mention of next year’s referendum, with some honourable exceptions. This might strike a visitor as strange, as the break-up of Britain might be could be regarded as an event worth a mention.
It’s not as if it won’t impact in England and, especially, in Wales. In London, Boris Johnson will bang on about the UK capital’s taxpayers paying for the latest fix for Scottish welfare addicts. Ken Livingstone did that too, and UKIP are already banging that drum.
It is not that there aren’t many very important issues associated with the referendum; Trident replacement for one. If it’s a Yes vote Trident and its replacement have nowhere to go because they will leave Faslane. It’s a major issue already in the referendum campaign with the Yes campaign stressing the need for a nuclear free Scotland. At a time of austerity when we are told there’s no money, you might think this was an issue worth highlighting.
The disconnect between what the bulk of the left are talking about and campaigning about on either side of the border is worrying. The radio silence about next year’s referendum among the left in England is a big turn off for the bulk of the Scottish left who are already focused on the referendum.
It’s there already because there is remarkably little contact now either. Once, Scottish leftists would be travelling to London in particular, every other weekend. That’s gone (of course there is a minority who remain stuck in the 1970s).
There still remains the need for common resistance at a UK level. The Westminster government, for instance, still controls defence, foreign policy, benefits, immigration and energy. Most of the trade unions still function at a UK level. So this disconnect is very much a bad thing.
But the basis for co-operation and co-ordination between the left in this island should be
clear. There is not going to be a “British” wide left wing party controlled from London. Nor will it be enough to have some “regional” control. Today the left in Scotland has to take its own strategic and tactical decisions. It is effectively independent.
What would make that co-operation and co-ordination easier is not just some recognition of that but some discussion in England on the “Scottish question,” even a mention. It affects you.