News that the polling for the Scots independence referendum, set for 18 September, is on a knife-edge has been greeted with the usual media rigmarole: gobsmacked astonishment was quickly covered over with retrospective wisdom. Apparently everyone always knew the vote would come in (the ‘yes’ campaign sits at 2% behind the ‘no’ vote), nationalism a potent force blah blah blah.
They didn’t, of course – the polls consistently suggested that the yes campaign couldn’t get much above 35 per cent. The ‘yes’ forces urged people to keep the faith and believe in the public as citizens-who-could-be-persuaded, not rats in a maze. They were right too.
Quite aside from any actual shift in intent, the polling gap was a repeat of what we have seen increasingly across the world (close to home, with the victory of Adam Bandt and the Palmer United Party): when a political question or force is new, then standard polling lacks the resources to gain an accurate result, because there are too many variables to screen out. In the case of Scotland – a once-in-a-lifetime question, in a voluntary voting environment, untethered from a general election – the use of existing voting patterns, especially by age, offered no guide on intent to vote. Polling companies are private outfits, who need to minimise costs, so it is only now, with some really expensive polling, that a closer, closing result has been revealed.
So much for the punditry. What about the politics?
The independence question has split the UK and Scottish left entirely, along quite heterogeneous lines. Indeed, the rifts show the limit of existing political frames for steering action.
The political centre of all three major parties are opposed to independence for overlapping reasons – all three know that the shattering of the United Kingdom blows a hole in the dominance of the Atlantic US-UK alliance/dominance. Though much of the power and capital would remain in London, a post-Scotland ‘UK’ is essentially England with a garage (Wales), and a soon-to-depart Northern Ireland.
The creation of the UK was the essential precursor to the beginnings of British imperial power (the Scots had hitherto been allies of the French, so English defences had to be focused northwards; in the late 1600s Scotland bankrupted itself trying to colonise what is now Panama and in a last-ditch attempt to avoid insurrection, the Scottish aristocracy agreed to full union in 1707). The sundering of it would have a similar effect to the blow the Irish struck against British imperialism on Easter 1916 – it would destroy the mystique and much would follow.
For the Tories, the need to retain this Atlanticist power outweighs the electoral advantage they would gain from getting rid of the 40+ MPs Labour sends to the 650-member House of Commons. Labour has a double advantage there: UK constituencies are drawn along traditional boundaries (councils, cities, Lord Agenwold’s old pheasant run, now a gated community, etc) and Labour enjoys a 3 per cent advantage from the over-representation of working class urban areas that have lost population to the ‘burbs. Scotland is further over-represented relative to the UK, and the Scots do not return a single Tory to Westminster. The Tories have to get around 4 per cent clear of Labour to win a plurality of seats, much less a majority.
Currently, the Tories are heading for a likely 2015 election loss, which the departure of the Scots might well forestall. They would prefer Labour to take a turn to keep the Union, both out of genuine belief in it, and for the projection of power.
The Lib-Dems, like Labour, draw a number of their MPs from Scotland (such liberalism is essentially presbyterianism by other means), so they are equally disposed. The only significant chunk of the major parties to be pro-independence is a section of the Tory Right who are, to a degree, inheritors of the nineteenth-century ‘little England’ Toryism. This is the strand that opposed full imperialism and colonialism as a liberal venture (and one that would displace landed power), now reconstituted as an anti-EU, and increasingly anti-war group, and also, of course, anti-immigration, and much more.
But it is on the Left that the most comprehensive split has emerged, based on two competing interpretations: one, that Scottish independence would mean the liberation of a country that has been under an imperial yoke, disguised as union, for three centuries (and under its dominance for a millennium); and the other, that the break-up of the UK would be a division of the working class of the Union, making it easier to defeat them with money and power.
Scottish socialists, led by the somewhat renewed Scottish Socialist Party, are part of the yes campaign (together with the SNP and the Greens), but many who would consider themselves socialists remain opposed to independence. Indeed, for decades, the Left has been opposed to Scottish nationalism, which emerged as a political movement in the 1920s, out of cultural renewal movements. Arising from intellectuals and universities, and projected onto rural Scotland, it was initially a movement of the Right (and some of the Stalinist Left), and a number of Scottish nationalists were interned during the Second World War. (Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, parachuted into Scotland, because he hoped that it would be a place from which to heal the rift between the two ‘Aryan’ nations and point the war eastward.) The more mainstream Scottish Nationalist Party that emerged from this movement were long known as the ‘Tartan Tories’, and proved to be such when they withdrew support for the Callaghan government in 1979, just before a flow of oil revenues might have allowed it to restabilise the economy – and thus ushered in Thatcher and Thatcherism.
The anti-independence Scottish Left don’t trust the refashioning of the SNP into a twenty-first-century social-democratic party. Nor the pitch that Scotland would become a boutique, semi-Scandinavian nation, with the ability to run a more collectivist nation, cutting with the grain of Scottish culture, and thus capable of raising more taxes and extending public services.
Scots already have higher education at minimal cost, and a better version of the NHS, but they are constrained by the fact that Westminster sets the total tax take, and controls defence spending, meaning the Scots can only shift money around services, not expand them. The anti-independence Left argue that whatever flexibility Scotland gains, it would lose in its need to compete for capital, through a race to the bottom: corporate tax-breaks and sweeteners, which would soon become a permanent feature of the economy.
The de facto leader of anti-independence Leftism is George Galloway, who has been running a ‘Just Say Naw’ campaign, up and down the whole of the UK. If the ‘no’ vote squeaks through, credit will largely be due to Galloway, in persuading enough working-class and leftist Scots that independence is a mirage – largely because the interventions of the mainstream leaders have been either preaching to the converted, or actively counter-productive.
The UK far-left, led by a much-diminished but still viable SWP, have tilted towards the ‘yes’ campaign, with an emphasis on carrying independence further, towards a republic.
To a degree then, the Left have cancelled each other out. They could have agreed to simply not campaign on the issue, and devoted those tens of thousands of hours available to any other campaign – which, with everyone else distracted by yelling at each other on the Royal Mile, would have had a greater chance of success. Nor is it easy to see any key political determination in the intra-Left division. You could, for instance, see the Galloway vs SSP/SWP split as a continuity of a certain division over consolidation and insurgency. But you could also see it as a reversal of polarities, with the far-left wading very deep into a certain type of leftist nationalism, while the stalinisant Galloway rejects it. The fact that each interpretation seems valid suggests that the political yield, even in intra-Left terms, is going to be small indeed.
The point is that the question is undecidable. Scotland is both a nation subjected by a larger power and part of the imperial projection of power, supplying capital, intellect, innovation and an entire political class to the project for two centuries. Independence would be both a fantastic opportunity to take an English-speaking country leftward, and a place for substantial innovation in state-formation, politics, community and social practice and a peripheral, depressed and dependent state, with a desperate need for inward investment to refloat its ruined formerly industrial metropolitan heartland.
You could analyse this question strategically for years – and people have – and not come up with a clear position on what the Left should do, or have done.
In such cases, which have occurred before, the Left has had an ability to let the matter lie on the table and watch everyone else fight it out. The fact that few have been able to restrain themselves from doing so is evidence that the passion for and the conception of political possibility have waned.
Standing in Edinburgh, that bizarre Hogwarts of a city, about six months ago, trying to feel the vibe, it occurred to me that if I were Scottish, I could not but be in favour of independence – even as I acknowledged that the departure of Scotland may ruin the last chance to save what remains of British social democracy and decisively repudiate the full neo-Thatcherism that the Cameron government is foisting on the UK. And so as an Englishman, I hope the Union stays intact. Yet as a junkie for political possibility the prospect of a new and leftist nation is …. and arrgggghhhh.
What can be said is this: if the ‘yes’ vote does prevail, Edinburgh and Glasgow will suddenly become two of the most exciting cities on the planet. A new country – not a beaten-down, ratfucked old colony struggling to supply basic healthcare and get an economy going. It will be a twenty-first-century English-speaking country with a whole series of institutions in need of reinvention and creation; a politics in a state of realignment, a political culture up for grabs – and with some of the cheapest rents in Europe. I’ll be there in a heartbeat, and I’d offer it for you consideration, too.