Two recent, entirely dissimilar events caused me to reflect in a different way on the Scottish movement for independence from the UK: the Last Night of the Proms, and the murder by IS of David Haines.
The first of these celebrates the finale of a great annual festival of “classical” music. Though headquartered at London’s Albert Hall, the Last Night now includes all four nations of the British Isles, with performances in Glasgow, Belfast and Swansea rotating on screen with London so that for a brief period all parts of the UK clasp hands in a moving cultural embrace. Nothing like this implicit act of solidarity exists anywhere else on the planet. Symbolically the occasion moves far beyond music to a sense of what we, the peoples who live on these small offshore islands, have in common: an innate tolerance, a shared history both of conflict and cooperation, a delight in what each nation brings to the party. And what modernity has brought in the form of communications technology is the ability to demonstrate these values instantaneously, to join us together culturally as we are joined geographically.
News of David Haines appalling death coinciding with the Proms celebrations came as a reminder that events of deeper significance than Scottish “Independence” are taking place, and that to live in such a peaceful and, by international standards, still prosperous state is a privilege that most of the world’s people have no prospect of enjoying.
One of the most disappointing elements of the separatist debate is the narrow range of thinking on both sides (Adam Ramsay’s collection of essays a notable exception). The economic arguments are mostly couched in terms that seem to have emerged unaltered from Milton Friedman’s class notes at the Chicago school of neoliberalism. They are about natural resource exploitation, market value and capital movements; about living standards posited on the extraction of carbon pollutants from beneath the sea, and on the activities of purveyors of financial services. Given the proliferation of promises about the idyllic existence that awaits inhabitants of Scotland after the referendum regardless of who wins, the only Friedman note to have been mislaid seems to be the one about the elusiveness of free lunches
Claims made by some supporters of independence that they never get the UK governments for which they voted founder on the hard reality that Scotland voted for 13 years of Labour under Blair and Brown - ironically both of them Scots. Few if any of those (including myself) who voted Labour expected to get a bellicose right-wing government in disguise and to that extent we were all betrayed, a fact conveniently overlooked by both sides.
But these too are relatively trivial issues over which it is all too easy to enter into a dispute and depressingly difficult to engage in thoughtful dialogue.
More important by far is how to contextualize nationalist sentiment—on display here in various guises—in a world where the forces that affect the way we live are fundamentally multinational. A large proportion of the world economy is controlled by a very small proportion of the world’s companies. Militarily our fate rests in even fewer hands: the US, China, Russia with several smaller fellow-travellers as backup to provide an appearance of international cooperation when a great player feels a need to justify an action of choice. Finance capital and military capability are the twin arbiters of political power. It has probably ever been thus.
Many have argued, not least in the pages of openDemocracy, that the old left ideal that posited an alliance of the working classes across national boundaries is finished; and that the new left is nationalist, and founded on the kind of gradualism and localized advances that Marx and, indeed, traditional socialism, rejected as illusory and self-defeating. Mainstream Marxism has nevertheless generally lent its support to national liberation movements, but always with the idea that the ultimate aim—if nations are not to fall into the clutches of international capitalists—should be international socialism. Lenin spelled out the process:
“…as mankind can arrive at the abolition of classes only through a transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed classes, it can arrive at the inevitable integration of nations only through a transition period of the complete emancipation of all oppressed nations, i.e. their freedom to secede.”
Though he added:
“The closer a democratic state system is to complete freedom to secede, the less ardent will be the desire for separation in practice, because big states offer indisputable advantages, both from the standpoint of economic progress and from that of the interests of the masses…” (Lenin: the Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self determination)
It is idle to pretend that the forces of neoliberal capitalism can be overturned by individual countries acting alone. To that I would add that schismatic forces of the kind represented by the Scottish independence movement run the risk of having the opposite effect. Their success could well ensure that the system cannot be challenged. An independent Scotland will be a Scotland heavily dependent, so we are told, on two of the most damaging activities in modern economic life, both of them bulwarks of the neoliberal universe in which we live: oil and finance - contaminators respectively of the environment and the socio-economic fabric. An “independent” Scotland could end up doing the bidding not of rUK nor of Europe, but of bankers and oilmen.
To a very large degree that is also the dilemma facing the people of these islands as a whole, as well as Greeks, Spaniards and Italians among others, who, despite being members of the EU and the Euro, have been left to handle their own current problems of impoverishment and unemployment. Europe’s failure is not the currency, still less immigration—twin bugbears of UKIP and the Front National—but the absence of solidarity and coordinated activism among that vast majority of EU citizens who are not members of the capitalist elite.
To imagine that the famous mantra of the Communist Manifesto—Workers of the World Unite—can be revitalized and given new meaning in the 21st century may seem delusional. Certainly the word “workers” in this context has an old-fashioned ring and the phrase itself is easily dismissed as a symbol of political failure, manifest notably in the demise of the Soviet Union and the withering of communist experiments elsewhere. But what if we tinker with the words a little, substituting “workers” for “Peoples” or “Public” for example. Objectors might argue that words such as these by definition encompass everyone; but I believe they would quickly come to be understood as meaning the “non-elite” or what has become known in the media as “ordinary people”. More important, why after the wave of public protests against market fundamentalism in Wall Street, in the City of London, in Madrid, Athens, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and elsewhere can we not think of a coordinated ‘peoples’ challenge to the neoliberal status quo? Should we not be joining hands in the first place with the citizens of other EU states instead of being hidebound by national boundaries? In the UK would it not be preferable to work together rather than emphasizing our differences and arguing about whether and how we should divorce? Is this not, in fact, the only way in which market fundamentalism can be put back in its box and social democracy revived not as an inward-looking national project doomed to struggle in a globalized world, but as what Tony Judt would have called a universalist response to the domination of international capital over the lives of all our citizens. A utopian dream? Probably.
In “civilization and its Discontents,” Freud wrote that “It is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other, like...The English and the Scots...I call this phenomenon ‘the narcissism of minor differences…”
The Last Night of the Proms reminded me of just how small those differences are, and how much joy and solidarity we can find in them and in each other if we will. On the other hand, if narcissism prevails, then arguably so will unfettered capitalism and the poverty, inequality, insecurity and environmental degradation that it fosters.
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