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Socialism should trump Nationalism in the Scots debate

Those on the left should recognise that there is much to be lost from independence, and should be particularly wary of the ugly nationalism the debate is fostering.

 

How would you feel about being rich? As Mr Swinney says, we would be the sixth richest in the world, while the rest of the UK would be a mere 16th if they are lucky. So that is one up on the Southerners, who we have apparently been subsidising. 

Even if this was true, how are so many people on the left lined up with such an appeal?  The plan is that we take the resources, and then leave the de-industrialised areas and dispossessed classes of the rest of the UK to cope with the uneven development of capitalism as best they can. How did we get into this state where an appeal, which is so obviously divisive in terms of working class unity, is presented as progressive independence? I hear people on the left say we will set an example to the rest of the UK, but what example is it to the people in Durham or South Wales, except to dig for oil?

And there is another current feeding an intensely divisive nationalism which some do not wish to discuss. When I asked my students what the main driving force was, some replied, ‘Oh we just hate the English!’  Others rejected this, and it is true that many people in Scotland want nothing to do with anti-English racism. There are a million Scots in the South; we have relatives and friends there. But it would be quite false to say that anti –English attitudes no longer exist. Teachers tell me it is quite common for racist comments about the English to be made in the classroom, an attitude which presumably comes from parents. A 2006 Government study of school children’s attitudes concluded:

SCHOOLCHILDREN in Scotland show a "worrying hostility" towards English people and should be taught to curb their prejudice during anti-racism education, an Executive report has recommended.

The police here recently issued figures showing an increase in physical assaults which were racially based against English people. These figures were partially contested by the Nationalists with Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish Community Safety Minister, being rather confusingly reported as saying:

“Although there had been an increase in Anti-English incidents, over the last four years the average level has “remained consistent”

Some incidents attracted a lot of attention, especially that of a disabled man being pulled from his car and attacked for having a Union Jack and a young boy being punched in the street for having an England football shirt. The crucial point is that a rise in nationalist fervour is likely to intensify a divisive racism. I was in Scotland all through the ‘Braveheart’ period and for some it was a grim time to be English, as recorded in this report:

Some interviewees suggested that any hardening and proliferation of anti- English attitudes was in large part attributable to the influence and success of films such as Braveheart and, to a much lesser extent, Rob Roy. The Braveheart ‘phenomenon’ was keenly felt by many of those we interviewed:

Braveheart was showing and as soon as the film was finished there were car horns honking and people were out on the streets and I thought 'wow this is very scary'. And I've heard of people who were living in Falkirk who were English ... driven out of the cinema and stuff by Scots consumed by this sort of crazy nationalistic spirit (male 38).

I've seen people with tears in their eyes after they've seen Braveheart, Scottish people with tears in the eyes, and the contempt they've had in their voice towards me being English (male 54).

(Ian McIntosh, Duncan Sim and Douglas Robertson (2004) ''It's as if you're some alien...' Exploring Anti-English Attitudes in Scotland’. Sociological Research Online, vol. 9, no. 2, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/9/2/mcintosh.html>)

The potential for division is obvious as such attitudes and the publicity they attract produce a response from the South and people start to speak in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’. In my recent focus groups there, I encountered a sense of puzzled betrayal as people made comments like ‘We know they hate us, but why do they hate us?’ This is important because I think it indicates a change. When I grew up in South London, there were jokes about kilts and accents certainly, and probably racist incidents but there was no folk narrative about Scots terrorists coming down and stealing cattle, no songs about the flower of England duffing up the Scots or any film like Braveheart. I know there were examples of racist attitudes towards Scottish people in England, but generally there was not a cultural attitude in that direction. The stereotypes for the Scots were different  – good education system, good legal, good whisky, reminiscent of Tony Hancock’s description in The Blood Donor: “Fine Doctors the Scots and Engineers, it’s the porridge you know”. After all, we had built the empire with them, shoulder to shoulder; they were tough as well, the razor city, hard drinkers and hard fighters; as my mum told me, the enemy were terrified when they heard the bagpipes, a story told to her by my grandfather. The point is, they were on ‘our side’, as Barry Gibson writes, the Scots were ‘family’.

But as everyone knows, family break ups can be very bitter, especially if one side perceives the other as motivated by racism and greed.

Socialism in One Country

Of course, there are better motives on offer. Some on the left tell us that this is the opportunity to oppose neo-liberalism, to defend social democracy and help the poor and dispossessed of Scotland. Once Scotland is independent and we are free of the Westminster parliament, all this is apparently possible. But neo-liberalism is not the Westminster parliament or the geographical expression which is the UK. It is the philosophy and practical application of Corporate Power in a global market based on profit and exchange. It is well served by a proliferation of small states that compete with each other to offer the most favourable terms for ‘business’. That is the rationale behind the commitment to lower corporation tax in the White Paper and why there is nothing on wealth taxes, nationalisation of land or even a guaranteed living wage. At present the SNP will not even agree to put up the top rate of tax to 50p. And it does not help for the Radical Independence left to keep saying that they are not the SNP and it will all be magically different in the future. We have the politicians that people vote for, in Scotland just as in Westminster. The Holyrood parliament has always had the ability to put up income tax and could have done so to help the excluded people of the de-industrialised West. But the politicians know that there is no appetite amongst the rich, the middle classes or those in jobs for higher tax.

This is shown in other policies. The freezing of council tax, for example, is popular but is actually a subsidy for the middle classes and better off, while the decline in public services which results has serious effects on those who depend on them with no alternative.

So the appetite for social democracy and the political will for radical social change are in many ways limited, here as elsewhere. This brings another question to the fore, which is:  how different are the people in Scotland from those below Carlisle? There are some on the left who believe in a sort of Scottish Exceptionalism. Certainly, there are many excellent things here, the tradition of the red Clyde, the anti-racist groups, the strong activism, Gramnet, the help groups for refugees, the belief in a public sector and a cultural strand that favours collective action and community. But much of this would apply to other areas which have had industry, strong unions and community action – the North East, for example, Teeside, Humberside, Durham, Yorkshire across to Liverpool and South Wales and more.  London does represent an enormous accumulation of wealth but is also a centre of radical activity and politics. Wealth there is very unevenly divided, over half of its population rent their homes, and so a rise in property values profits some and leads to the eviction of others.

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The picture in Scotland is more mixed than the election results and our one Tory MP might suggest. There are very strong currents of right wing opinion here. In the last election, 412,855 voted Conservative, 465,471 voted Lib Dem, and 491,386 voted SNP.  So around 1.4 million voted for these while just over 1 million voted Labour. The dominance of Labour MPs (with 41 of 59) has a lot to do with the electoral boundaries and system, rather than just political preference. Social attitudes here are very conservative on many issues.

On Asylum, Refugees and migration, 58% want less immigrants (amongst whom some include ‘the English’). The Oxford Migration Observatory also examined the preferred policies for Scotland on refugees if we became independent. Just 16% wanted more welcoming policies:

  The most frequent choice was that policy should be less welcoming to refugees and asylum seekers (43%) than in the UK, while 29% preferred to stay the same as the UK and 16% would choose a more welcoming set of policies.       

There is also terrible racism directed at Black and Asian people. An attack on a Black busker in Sauchiehall Street was recently filmed and shown on TV. The man had been in Glasgow for 15 years and made this comment:

It was the second or third day (after arriving). Someone said to me, ya fucking black bastard. I was a kid of 20 or so. Since then it has been like that every day.

(Sunday Mail 16.02.14)

Every day? In the Glasgow equivalent of Oxford St.

For our recent book on refugees, we interviewed a community worker, in a focus group, who told us:

When asylum seekers came to Glasgow I felt I had got a promotion, I felt I was promoted even though I was born in Glasgow, from being racially beaten up, abused, marginalised for most of my life. When asylum seekers first came to Glasgow, I was now seen as Glaswegian. (There was a boy who said) ‘You’re alright now but I don’t like these new folk’. I had suddenly been promoted from the bottom rung to the next rung. He said ‘now’ because there was a new group of people who could be marginalised and to bully.

 

(Bad News for Refugees: 139)

Then of course there is the vicious sectarianism, the religious divisions, the Orange marches, plus the other opiates of the masses and our less than brilliant record on the beating of children and domestic violence. Opinions and attitudes are mixed and divided, sometimes in the same people –  in my focus groups, an anti-Tory, Labour voting nurse will also tell me about the ‘scum’ on the council estates and the guy up the road who is fiddling a disability vehicle. There are many contradictions - strange to sit in a radical union meeting and hear an MSP, a trade union equalities officer on the need to fight for rights, who has just voted against Gay Marriage. Meanwhile the leader of the Tories who is gay gives an impassioned, brilliant speech in favour. The truth is we are like a lot of other places, and we would do well to remember that when people speak of Scotland or the Scots as having a “will to socialism” or write that “social democracy is hard- wired into Scotland’s soul”.

We are not so special that we can effortlessly deliver socialism to the world. I have no interest in any nationalism and certainly not in the preservation of the UK Ltd. But the key questions are, how do we best organise the struggle for social change and what is the impact of creating new boundaries and divisions? How, for example, can we combat the uneven development of capitalism in this island and its disastrous impacts on the people of the north and west if we do not have representation in the Westminster parliament? Certainly we should have grass roots action and popular movements, but the capacity to make laws and control the movement of resources is actually important. And there is no point in complaining that the Westminster parliament does not always represent our views. It is the one that brought in the Bedroom Tax and the Poll Tax, but also the same one that abolished slavery, promoted women’s and gay rights, brought in the NHS and nationalised large parts of British industry. Just after that most radical period, in 1955, a majority of the people in Scotland voted Conservative. Sometimes we advance and sometimes not. There are no short cuts; it is a very long political struggle.

If we believe that the UK Ltd is a particularly appalling concentration of corporate interests and financial capital which launches illegal wars, then that is all the more reason to be in there fighting for better policies. Without political representation, the possibilities for opposition are lessened. We can lose struggles as in Afghanistan and Iraq, but then sometimes an intervention is stopped as in Syria. What happens in a separated future, if without our 59 MPs, a war goes ahead - do we just look on from above Carlisle, feeling morally superior?

All this does not suggest to me that independence would open the way to a socialist Scotland, much as I would like one. The radical left, as we understand it, is not represented in the Scottish Parliament, even with proportional representation. But more crucially, the idea of a new socialist politics being born with a yes vote seems to me very unlikely, as  a major consequence would be a surge in the worst elements of nationalism, above and below Carlisle and all the divisions which that brings - we would be divided by a new border and also within our own society.

Who is a Real Scot?

A new nation brings with it new questions of who belongs in it. Nationalism can very quickly divide people into who are Real Scots and those who are not. So Facebook entries on Independence now include ominous words like ‘the Will of the Scots’, ‘Scottish blood’, ‘the Scottish people’, and not wanting to be ruled by ‘England’.  And this is from people who regard themselves as being on the left. Since I have been identified as a critic I am now being asked ‘Do I deny the Scots are a people?’ and, ‘How can I disrespect my ‘host nation’ in this way?’ After many years here, for some I am still the guest while people born after I came are ‘the hosts’.  Until quite recently, there were large numbers of bumpers stickers on cars saying ‘I am a real Scot, I am from Kilmarnock’, (or Falkirk, or Irvine etc). Of course there were none saying, ‘I am a Real Scot, I am from Islamabad’, or South London.

A rise in nationalism begins to legitimise questions which would previously have been unacceptable. The view that English people should not be in senior positions or there are “too many” of them can surface quite openly. I have twice been public meetings where it has been said that there will be more room for Scottish academics after Independence, with less English ones. It’s extraordinary that someone like Alasdair Gray could publish a piece on the English as being ‘Settlers and Colonists’ and could write this:

By the 1970s the long list of Scots doing well in the south was over balanced by English with the highest positions in Scottish electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services and art galleries.

 

                              (‘Settlers and Colonists’, in Unstated 2012:103)

He must include me, as that is when I came up. But can we seriously imagine a major left wing literary figure in the South writing about Scottish people coming to England and not properly respecting or understanding English culture?

Am I a ‘settler’ or a ‘colonist’?

The SNP has ridden the tide of nationalism very successfully. It did not take off with opposition to neo-liberalism, but with the discovery of oil, whose nationality was also claimed to be Scottish. In the October 1974 election, you could not move here for yellow posters with the slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’. On this basis, they took 30% of the vote. But a nationalism which draws upon who is a Real Scot and how many English are here is intensely divisive.

Some on the left are now providing cover for these grim tendencies by arguing that this is all about independence rather than nationalism; in future, all will be welcome and there will be no difference between people. But if this the case, then why draw a line between Berwick and Carlisle, or argue that the Scots are in some way ‘exceptional’?

The divisions extend through the left, with people on different sides now denouncing each other as ‘scum’ and ‘quislings’. See for example the Trades Council Debate in Clydebank, (3/10/13) which was filmed so you can watch if you can bear it. A particularly grim moment is the response to an English woman: ‘Away back home ya bitch!’

This will take some time to heal whatever the outcome of the vote, but I think also that a yes vote would have implications for the Scottish economy which would intensify these problems and jeopardise the welfare of very many people.

Class Unity and Uneven Development in Foreign Countries

A key issue in understanding future developments is that when a new nation is established, it becomes an economic competitor. There can be collaboration, but the essential principle is of each country pursuing its own interests. Once no taxes are paid to the ‘old’ country and there is no political representation there, then no favours are owed, there are no electoral constituencies to be satisfied. So without any of the factors discussed above, it would be quite normal for resources and direct investment to be moved from an independent Scotland to the south. Politicians on both sides are reluctant to speak much about this. Any mentions from the union side are denounced as a ‘threat’ and ‘bullying’, while the nationalists like to say that everything will go on much as now with no great shock to the economy. But it is quite obvious that independent states do not typically keep their government departments in another country (as for example DFID, now in East Kilbride). The same would apply to income tax collection, (Centre One, also in East Kilbride), and probably also to defence contracts. Why would heavy subsidies in green energy be put into another country when these would be gratefully received by constituencies stretching from Cornwall to Carlisle?  We currently receive 28% of UK subsidies.

The finance sector here is also largely owned and/or operates substantially in the south (as in ‘Scottish’ Widows, owned by Lloyds). Much of this would be very likely to move, especially given the rather flaky relationship now on offer with the pound sterling. There are many other examples which are not even publicly discussed – like the Research Council grant funding which comes to our major universities and is centrally allocated. Needless to say this isn’t given to foreign countries.

I am not mainly concerned with economic arguments as such but rather how such changes will impact on the potential for class unity and collective action. Nationalism divides and different perceptions form on each side. There are some here who argue that ‘Scottish oil’ has subsidised the south. But in the South people would note that Scotland’s share of revenues from this are now less than half of 1% of UK GDP. There are many there who believe that it is Scotland which is subsidised. They would point to our free university tuition, care for the elderly, no prescription charges and around 11% more spending per person than the English average (though still less than for London).

It is easy to see how a split would become bitter if perceived to be motivated by greed and racism. As the political and economic negotiations became tougher, there would be a lot of blaming here of ‘the English’. There is scapegoating – it is what happens when countries divide. The rightwing press in the South would leap on stories of attacks of English people. They are already running pieces like this and some  commentators are now lining up to argue how the South would be better off without ‘the Scots’. I need hardly say that it is not a good idea for a small group of five million people to have an economic fight with sixty million who live next door.

Now of course, nationalists here would reject this description but it is very dangerous for the welfare of people above Carlisle if separation is perceived in the South as based on a grab for economic resources by the would-be ‘sixth richest nation’.  The reaction in the south is likely to be ‘hell mend you’ and this would legitimise pulling the plug on the Scottish economy while the rest of the UK would simply hoover up the direct investment and subsidised regional development.

One result of such a shock to the Scottish economy would be to put pressure on government finances and to intensify the potential gap here between government income and public expenditure. Because Holyrood politicians have no appetite for increasing tax, then there would be cuts in spending, including or perhaps especially welfare. So it is a cruel trick on the poor to say they will be rich in the new Scotland. As it is, with the existing arrangements, the poorest groups have some protection. Spending on welfare and health has been relatively well sustained and we were able to protect people from the worst effects of policies such as the bedroom tax. But a new state would face a much grimmer prospect, buffeted by the winds of globalisation, in the queue for corporate investment with no one owing it any favours. In this, the shots would be called by the 500 people who own half of Scotland plus the middle classes and those with jobs, and it is obvious who would lose out.

If this sounds alarming, then bear in mind that it is on the mild end of the scale of what happens when countries divide. I am not suggesting that we will be like Ukraine but in the move from subsidy mode to ‘who owns what’, relationships can very quickly become icy. Above Carlisle we have a lot to lose from this. An increase in anti-English sentiment would prompt many people to leave. Scotland’s tourist industry gets 60% of its income from England. And while this bitterness and division is being generated, what happens to the collective struggle against neo-liberalism and crucially against the uneven development of capitalism in the island as a whole?

The Break-up of Britain

A key issue that faces us in this is not the secession of Scotland, but of London and the southeast. That golden triangle is now drawing in talent, investment and resources, at an extraordinary rate. As Vince Cable said, it is acting as ‘a giant suction machine’ draining the life out of the rest of the country.

It also attracts massive international investment. Recently, the Chinese company APB Holdings revealed that it would be building a second Canary Wharf with the intention of focusing the headquarters of key Asian corporations in London. Boris Johnson announced that this would be the single biggest Asian development in Europe and construction would start this year. What is remarkable about this investment is that it was barely covered in the media – there is just so much of it. London and the Thames valley have become the focus of hundreds of thousands of key workers, not just in finance, but in design, hi-tech and information technology companies including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Dell, plus communications, advertising, media, pharmaceuticals and many other industries. The problem is that all of this is going on just a bus ride from Buchanan Street and each year I see many of my students make that journey. One now owns a large TV company making programmes like The Voice and Who Do You Think You Are?  He has told me that he could name off the top of his head at least ten other top people in his industry from Scotland, now all in the South.

Such a relentless process of uneven development can only be altered by very strong regional planning. It requires physically moving jobs and investment, including transferring government departments or media conglomerates such as the BBC, plus the development of new infrastructure, broadband, cross rail links to join northern cities laterally and the focussing of research, training and development in targeted areas.  The problem with independence is that it removes any representation which we have in that planning. The movement of people south would continue, but there would be little we could do about it, short of re-building Hadrian’s Wall. So we need to be part of a new alliance by which the north and west effectively force new policies on the south east.

There are many other areas for collective action. We found very strong public support when we suggested a substantial wealth tax, by which the richest 10% would contribute one fifth of their wealth to pay off the national debt. The opinion poll which we commissioned showed 74% of the UK population in favour (http://www.glasgowmediagroup.org/the-wealth-tax).  There is also a strong public desire to stop tax avoidance, for public ownership of the railways, and key industries such as electricity and gas. The struggle for decent wages, the defence of the NHS, home building programmes, jobs for young people, apprenticeships and training also have extensive popular support.  This politics has to be forged and fought for, through people’s parliaments, strong union links, effective political representation and demands for space in the media to explain the alternatives to austerity politics. I think the current debate on independence has got in the way of all this. It offers the division between those above and below Carlisle, the internal fracturing of our society and a fall in the living standards of the poorest. For us, socialism should come first and last and should not be used as a cover for a nationalism which would reduce our ability to take part in the wider changes that are so desperately needed.

 

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About the author

Greg Philo is the research director of Glasgow University Media Unit. He is the co-author of Bad News For Refugees, written with Emma Briant and Pauline Donald.