In the mainstream British media, the debate surrounding Scottish independence has so far been focused overwhelmingly on the impact such a split will have on Scotland: will they survive without the UK? Little has been written about the political consequences for the rest of the UK* (rUK).
Take the issue of ‘defence’, for example. Stories speak of the “imminent risk” of terrorist attacks, and the vastly weakened military force that Scotland will face in the event of independence. Little is made of the fact that the UK without Scotland will lose its place on the UN Security Council, and face the relocation of Trident, leaving the rest of the rUK unquestionably reduced to a second tier status in world affairs, a long way from the heady heights of the brutal British empire which conquered a quarter of the world.
The point is that the consequences for rUK are worth thinking about. So perhaps it’s worth looking at independence from the other way round. Behind the scaremongering, there appears to be a genuine fear among both the Labour party and the Conservatives that Scottish independence will pave the way for a new kind of politics in England and Wales, or at least it raises questions about whether the politics we have today is desirable. The leftist case for an independent Scotland advocates, among other things, the expansion of public services free at the point of need, a more democratic system of government in which ministers are effectively held to account, and opposition to the imperialism and colonialism that “Great Britain” itself was created by. It seeks to break free not only of a government for which it did not vote, but from the reactionary policies and ideology that such a government promotes.
These values are not, however, exclusive to Scotland and those residing there. Working class people across rUK are united with the Scots in the almost unanimous consensus that the current Lib-Con coalition was neither voted for, nor is representative of, those whom it currently governs. The make-shift policies and the austerity measures that the coalition government insist on implementing are done so with no mandate – these are policies that were not voted for, not in England, not in Wales, and not in Scotland. The coalition represents nobody except the rich.
With this in mind, one could say that a British route to social change is the most obvious as it unites all working people across the UK. Easy to say in the abstract, but in practise things look a little different. Westminster is an entrenched system of political representation, entrenched in the sense that it is influenced, lobbied, engaged and experienced by a class of financiers, journalists and politicians along way away from its constituents. The first past the post voting system makes it incredibly difficult for new political currents to emerge to challenge the mainstream, as voters are scared to plunge for minority candidates in fear that it will simply let the Tories in. Labour therefore take the working class vote in the North for granted, and move rightwards to steal seats from the Tories and Lib-Dems elsewhere.
Secondly, if we are honest about it, Britain wide working class unity is hardly something that has been a force for powerful social change over the past twenty years. Gone are the days when miners from Ravenscraig to Durham are bringing down governments. The economic geography of the UK has changed and therefore the idea of a working class struggle which has specifically British characteristics has dissipated. None of this is to say we shouldn’t strive for all people to stand together, but we do so as part of a global working class struggling against the global corporations that rule our world. The idea that independence breaks up the British working class misunderstands the nature of class struggle – it isn’t based on the boundaries of a state, it’s based on solidarity across borders.
And we shouldn’t underestimate the power of a good example: if an independent Scotland can achieve greater equality, employment and social provision through supporting public services, free education, universal healthcare, and so on, then this creates a pressure point on those in the rest of the UK to follow suit. This isn’t to say Scotland will be some sort of socialist utopia which we can all look to, like a modern day Cuba, but that a more progressive political system on the same islands that achieves concessions for the working class can help shift the political climate away from the neoliberal dogma we see today at Westminster, and help win concessions for the working class down South.
Finally, the Labour Party has always been held up as the British answer to the problems working class people face. For a long time now, this has been a cruel joke. Under Labour inequality rose, under Labour Britain supported a disastrous war in Iraq, under Labour the trade unions were further marginalised, I could go on. Labour are not the answer, and the argument that ‘Scottish independence will forever lump us with the Tories’ is not justifiable in any sense: both because we shouldn’t put our hopes in Labour but also because it is still easily possible for Labour to get elected without Scottish votes, they achieved as much in 1997 and 2001.
There’s more political arithmetic we should examine. The rUK Labour party will lose the remainder of its support from Scotland in terms of elections, which will likely mean substantial losses in the UK as a whole. This could well result in the end of the two-party parliamentary system that has dominated Westminster politics for so long. Consequently, a space is created for alternative parties to seem like a viable vote. This might go towards the racism of UKIP, but the need for a party of the working class may also become a more clear necessity. Perhaps this is wishful thinking in the short-term, but we should take a long-term perspective – the Labour party and the British state have been two of the most powerful barriers to the working class, weakening both substantially is surely positive.
While independence for Scotland by no means guarantees a more socially inclusive and democratic path for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it can create a breach with the status quo that can be seized upon. England and Wales need a new party of the left, in which the needs and desires of the majority are both understood and represented in Westminster and beyond. The very issue of Scottish independence raises debate about the kind of state and society we want to live in; the leftist case for independence is not a nationalist one, but a vision of a better, fairer and more democratic society, one which is just as relevant to those in England and Wales.
The working class throughout the world is not united by statehood, nor on formal institutions, but by common interests and values, and self-activity, and the assumption that the current state structure is needed for this is at best naïve, and at worst, a form of social control to maintain the interests of the states elite. Scottish independence is always assumed by the political class to be a narrow, close-minded, self-centred nationalist agenda – but what about British nationalism? This goes under the radar because we’re so used to experiencing it, but British nationalism is the message of Labour’s new ‘one nation’ ideology, of the old Tory belief in Britain’s place ‘at the top table’ in oppressing the global south, and in the economic crisis an all party consensus of austerity being in the ‘national interest’. We should expose what the author Michael Bilig calls the ‘banal nationalism’ – every day nationalism that is so hegemonic as to be unnoticed – of Britain.
Independence for Scotland will by no means guarantee anything positive; complacency on the issue is not an option. But independence can offer new opportunities in UK politics, raise debates that should have been opened long before, and ultimately lead to a society in which democracy and social inclusivity are a reality, not a goal. Besides , opposition to Scottish independence is essentially a support for the status quo. That’s the last thing any socialist in Scotland or England want.
*Disclaimer: I am discussing here the impact of Scottish independence on rUK in the general sense as opposed to the particular impact they will have on the national question in England,Wales and Northern Ireland, which is important, but an issue for another article.