The left and the devil we don't know

The indendence referendum gives the people of Scotland the chance to act, to show the world that it's possible for ordinary people to stand up to the establishment. Let's hope that they do so.

Peter Hill
12 September 2014

Over the months of the referendum campaigning, I have to admit I have been rather lukewarm about independence. I happen to be friends with some of the left-wing bits of the Yes Campaign, so I was always sympathetic to the idea in a theoretical sort of way. But being English, I did not see it as particularly my business. And anyway I was away most of the year in Beirut, where there seemed, frankly, to be more pressing political concerns. So that I did not give it an enormous amount of thought.

About a month ago, in early August, I visited my friends in Glasgow, and had a crash course in Scottish politics at the capable hands of the writers of Roch Wind – young, militantly socialist, pro-independence, and members of the Labour Party. But I have to say that when I got the train back south I was not that much more inspired by the idea of Scottish independence than when I had arrived. The campaign had been dragging on, people were getting tired of 'referendum chat', both sides were getting bored and cynical. The negative, pessimistic, don't-rock-the-boat attitude of the No campaign seemed likely, on balance, to prevail.

Then came the last week, the surge in Yes's polling figures, the alarm bells ringing all over the Westminster Establishment. And I know it is a little silly to be this much influenced by psephology, but it suddenly came home to me that it was within their grasp to win this. When I saw that clearly, my attitude changed. I know I am still English and it is none of my business. But I want Scotland to vote for independence. As an English socialist, I want them to rock the boat – this Great-British, post-imperial, Nato-supporting, City-beholden, NHS-wrecking, special-relationship boat that George Osborne tells us we are all in. Upon reflection, I do not think it is my kind of boat at all. I suspect the Scots do not think so either. I would like them to show us what they think by climbing out of it.

As we approach the referendum and it emerges just how close-run a thing it is going to be, it has been driven home to me just what Scottish independence would mean. Nothing has made this clearer, I think, than the panicky atmosphere of emergency that seems to have infected the Unionist side as Yes crept ahead in the polls. People from Better Together talking about rushing through a new deal on devolution. Will Hutton announcing that we 'have ten days left to save the union'. George Osborne coming up behind with a big stick: 'You shall not have the pound'. This looks very much, to me, like an Establishment on the run. And I am rejoicing at the sight.

Of course, I am not supposing that an independent Scotland would suddenly metamorphose into a socialist republic. I am sure the Establishment down here would find ways of getting along, after the break-up of the Union, with the Establishment up there. Scotland would not become, instantly, some kind of 'red base' from which an assault could be mounted on the citadels of power and privilege in Surrey, Islington and the City of London. There will be plenty of hard work to be done on the Scottish left, to hold the SNP (and Labour) to their promises, and to force more radical items onto the agenda. Not just getting rid of nuclear submarines, but getting out of Nato; not just maintaining but extending the provisions of the Scottish welfare state; not just talk of popular sovereignty, but a challenge to the monarchy. Alignments within Europe, with other independent-minded states, would become important.

These things are for the left in Scotland to argue over, with friendly support, one hopes, from their comrades south of the border. But I am thoroughly sick of the argument that Scottish independence is intolerable to the English left, because it will condemn England to generations of Tory rule. It is not just that the psephological argument is faulty (Adam Ramsay has been pointing out just how few British elections have depended on the Scottish vote). It is more that, unless the current political situation changes in some way, we appear to be condemned to generations of Tory, UKIP or Blairite rule in any case. And Scottish independence would certainly be a change. It would not be an automatic left-wing victory, but it would open up new avenues which the left could take advantage of. I cannot in any case see that we would be substantially worse off without all those Scottish Blairite MPs than with them. The collaboration and experience of the Scottish left and labour movement is, of course, another matter. But that can continue anyway. As for 'Don't rock the boat: keep on rowing and we might get a proper Labour government in one day', does anyone really believe that any more? The devil-we-know – a dominant neoliberal orthodoxy, a supine post-social-democratic Labour Party, a weak left and labour movement, and no alternative in sight – has been with us a long time: my generation has grown up with it. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the part of this generation that is on the left, in England as well as Scotland, seems happier than its elders with the prospect of the devil-we-don't-know. We never lived through '45 or the social-democratic consensus, and we feel we have less to lose.

Professor Tom Devine, also a last-minute convert to the cause of independence, made a helpful point, and one that has not been much heard. This was about the dangers, not of independence, but of devo-max. 'Even devolution max would just prolong a running sore. Even if you accept the positive spin of devo-max in terms of more powers granted, would that not make many English people unhappy? They’re already unhappy about the Barnett formula which they think favours Scotland.'

One of the standard arguments against Scottish independence, from the left, has been that it would provoke a backlash of English nationalism: it would play into the hands of the BNP and UKIP. But we haven't thought so closely about what they would do with a new devolution deal. 'Scots are scroungers', 'They voted to stay in and steal our taxes' – you can hear the tabloid headlines beckoning. I am not a fan of nationalism, British, Scottish, or English. But I think the dangers of nationalism, though they are real, will be there anyway – in the Union as it is, under devo-max, in separate independent states. We will have to deal with them as best we can.

Above all, though, I think one of Tom Devine's points rang true: the psychological impact of the failure of the independence campaign, at this point, would be traumatic for Scotland, especially for young Scotland. And this trauma would be compounded by the fact that people in the rest of the UK would most probably not care, or soon forget just how close they had come to a radical change. It would be a slap in the face, and would breed resentment.

The results of a Yes vote would, I think, be rather the opposite. A Yes vote would – and especially among young people – inspire a sense of hope and, still more importantly, of power. It would be an object-lesson in the ability of people to change the political order – even against the wishes of the Establishment, the sound and staid advice of economic experts, and all that passes for political rationality in an irrational world. I think this lesson would be infectious: it would not be limited to Scotland, but would seep, like a warming tide, south of the Tweed.

For the last three and a half years I have been following with interest, amazement and sometimes with agony the events of the 'Arab Spring' and its various consequences, in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and the Gulf. There has been plenty of cynicism about the process and its unwelcome political results, about the naivety of those people on the streets in 2011 who thought they could change things. But one indelible fact remains: that change things they did. And because I can remember the stifling political atmosphere of the Arab countries before the uprisings of 2011 – the pervasive pessimism, the fear, the sense that everyone was trapped in a dead-end – I can only, on balance, be glad that that revolutionary process happened, for all its blindnesses, its falterings, its casualties. The Scottish people, and the Scottish left, may well be disappointed in their hopes, in the event of independence. But at least they will have stepped onto the historical stage and acted, rather than leaving things in the hands of their self-appointed masters. Like the people of Egypt and Tunisia, I think we are in danger of forgetting that ordinary people, when they want to and when the circumstances are ripe, have this power at all. Perhaps the relearning of it will be a painful process. But in this case at least, I would rather we abandoned the tired old certainties, and dealt with the devil we don't know.

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