I find this piece fascinating in its highlighting of what infuriates me about much of the independence debate. It’s certainly a level beyond Better Together’s ‘independence will be armageddon’ or the Yes campaign’s obsessive sniping at ‘unionists’ but it highlights just how inadequate this debate is in many ways.
Greig complains of “the UK goggles which say you never ask questions” but then we’re later told “Greig said that the outburst in October by the comedian Russell Brand, who said he had never voted, was a symptom of wider alienation with the democratic system in England”. Brand’s words clearly hit a nerve, suggesting the idea that people in the UK are generally living in some catatonic trance is rather misguided at best. Yes, there is much disillusionment with the UK political system – that is different from ignorance which Greig initially complains about. There is a tangible sense that a significant proportion of people in the UK want political change – indeed, there is this sense in most of the developed world.
This leads us onto Greig’s big point:
“When the City of London wields such astonishing power, it entirely dictates the terms of how we view each other as human beings. We’ve lost the idea that an economy exists to make sure we’re happy and fed. It’s as if we exist to feed the economy.”
What Greig is complaining about here is capitalism and, with his words about being estranged from the economy, he is echoing Marx’s theory of alienation. The City of London could be described as ‘hyper-capitalism’ but given that we all live in a capitalist system, its ‘faults’ are by no means unique. The idea that an ‘independent’ Scotland could reject these basic tenets of capitalism is naive, to say the least. Greig states that “London is essentially an entirely different economy, an entirely different society”. Reading this as a socialist, I find it pretty harmful stuff, eliding the common class interests which exist across the UK and indeed the world in favour of some notion that London is the Capitol in contrast to the rest of the UK’s Districts. People in London are not the enemy and most of them share the same concerns, fears and hopes as most people in Scotland…or Greece, or Spain or etc.
(As an aside, it’s also worth noting that under the independence proposals Scotland would retain the pound and so the Bank of England, based in the City of London, would still exercise strong influence.)
Since the (ongoing) financial crisis, there is a widespread sense that capitalism is deep inside one of its periodic moments of crisis. This brings misery but also opportunities to expose the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and drive change. Much of the political action we’ve seen around the world in recent years, from Occupy to SYRIZA to the Scottish independence movement, seems to largely be a response to, and attempt to capitalise on, this crisis.
In order to do this, however, we need to know what we’re fighting against. Greig says “We don’t need to reform the House of Lords: we need to start again” yet in failing to identify ‘capitalism’ as the fundamental problem he’s discussing he ends up advocating a different kind of reform. Indeed, it’s noted that he would be open to rejecting independence if the ‘pro-UK’ parties offer “greater devolution and reform.” Fine, in and of itself, but ultimately nothing that will address the roots of Greig’s disaffection. When he says that “Scotland’s first independent government would make mistakes and disappoint people who had campaigned for it” it’s difficult not to conclude that this is the inevitable result of a capitalist democracy with social democratic leanings under the current system of global neoliberalism.
Indeed, it’s notable that the sole mention of the EU in the piece is in reference to the ‘modernisation’ of the ‘old nation state’. One of the biggest issues I have with the independence movement is that it seeks to critique the union of the United Kingdom yet, because of the offer on the table, has nothing to say about the European Union and in fact tacitly accepts that it’s a ‘progressive’ institution. Yet by any stretch of the imagination the EU is far less democratic than the UK. It also has immense power over the future of any independent Scotland. From the actions of the Troika to its current negotiations regarding the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement, far-reaching and possibly mendacious decisions are made with little-to-no scrutiny in the UK (or Scotland). A large part of the reason for this is that ‘anti-EU’ rhetoric has been largely lost to the right, despite the efforts of coalitions like No2EU, so the idea that the EU could be pushing austerity, privatisation and an attack on welfare states is at best mocked, at worst ignored. Similar points could be made regarding NATO, the Council of Europe, the UN and the IMF. There is no such thing as true ‘independence’ and we cannot choose to criticise one ‘membership’ while deeming the others to be off-limits.
The same is true of ‘English nationalism’. The Scottish independence debate has been pushed by the Scottish Nationalist Party and is seen as a progressive force. Yet in complaining that such a debate isn’t happening in England, it’s impossible to ignore that anyone labelling themselves as ‘English nationalist’ is immediately viewed with distrust. It’s ground which has again been abandoned to the right. Clearly there are complex and often legitimate reasons for this, with the legacy of Empire having damaging effects on the English psyche. However this narrative obscures Scotland’s own history as a partner in Empire and its own current problems with racism. As we’ve seen, a ‘progressive’ discussion about the future of the political system can originate in England.
Some argue that independence is a way for Scotland to move beyond its tendency to positively contrast itself with England/London/Westminster. This would undoubtedly be healthy and I find it to be one of the most compelling arguments in favour. It would also be remiss not to note campaigns such as Radical Independence, which has offered critiques from a left perspective. Yet the debate generally seems to insert damaging division where there should be class solidarity. It’s completely lost, for example, that most people in England did not vote for the Tories or that no-one voted for the Bedroom Tax. It’s also completely lost that “Although Scotland is more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best.” ‘Westminster’ is not waging a war against Scotland but rather conducting a class war across the whole of the UK.
It seems clear to me that the argument which needs to be won is not whether Scotland is capitalist within the EU or within the EU and the UK; rather, we need to be reminding people of their class solidarity regardless of nationality and encouraging further debate regarding capitalism and our current global political system. There are certainly arguments that independence can play an important role in this but, on the whole, I see only the naive and obfuscatory narrative found in the article above which confounds matters at a time when the majority in the UK should be united.