As comedy bust-ups go, the latest totally unexpected spat between UKIP and the SNP has been immense. Last Thursday, UKIP leader Nigel Farage decided to launch the party’s Aberdeen by-election campaign by turning up at a pub in….Edinburgh. As if being over 120 miles away from any potential voters wasn’t embarrassing enough, Farage found himself the latest right wing windbag to visit Bonnie Scotland and be met with a loud and vociferous protest.
The general response of politicians when this happens is to laugh and/or shrug it off. One visitor to Glasgow, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, was so proud of getting a tiny bit of paint on his jacket when a protester had in fact been aiming at Nick Clegg that he appeared beaming on the evening news. It was probably the first time he’d ever been involved in anything remotely newsworthy.
Farage has been fostering an image of himself as a relaxed, down to earth kind of guy; the kind of politician you’d go for a pint with, as pundits are so fond of saying. But far from shrugging off what was essentially a noisy bunch of young folk, Farage went on an absolute rampage declaring that those who objected to his attempts to gain a foothold in Scotland were “fascist scum.” He insisted that their actions were anti-English and racist and desperately tried to fruitlessly connect them to the SNP . This was all news to Mike Shaw, one of the protestors who got lifted, who described himself as a “proud Englishman.” The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), whose members were amongst those protesting, released a statement in which protestor Alice Bowman is quoted as saying, “As one of many English people on the protest, I find it insulting that Farage is painting us as anti-English. I think it is appalling that he conflates being English with support for his crazy anti-immigrant politics.” The slogan “Immigrants Welcome Racists Not” appeared on the RIC facebook page within minutes and footage of the protesters shows much of their anger was reserved for criticism of UKIP’s anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and racist views. So not anti-English or racist then.
Since the incident, neither Farage nor any of the other UKIP faithful have been covering themselves in glory. Farage hung up on a BBC interviewer, accusing him of “hatred” by daring to ask some questions and then disappeared. This left the delightful Roger Helmer MEP (who bares a striking resemblance to Viz character, Major Misunderstanding) to appear on Channel 4 ranting about “anti-democratic shouting of slogans” and accusing the protestors of hating the English and being racist (yes, again). The anti-Farage protest was tremendously important in reshaping the coverage of UKIP in the media which has been fawning as of late. Focus has now turned on UKIP’s racism, their homophobia, their anti-Scottish sentiments and how just how fundamentally unwanted they are North of the border.
But there has been a deathly silence on one issue from the progressives opposing Farage and UKIP in Scotland, and a blatant lack of desire to engage in one of the central questions which drives support for him and his party down South. We can only ignore it for so long, but eventually we’re going to have to acknowledge the spectre haunting all this: the spectre of the EU. Progressively-minded people in Scotland have completely forgotten what the EU is, what is does and why we should oppose the direction it is taking Europe. Our desire to look like internationalists in the face of insular bigots like UKIP has led us to defend the indefensible rather than seek to challenge and reshape it. In doing so, we cede ground we shouldn’t to those like UKIP. Those of us who believe in a co-operative Europe which can help deliver global justice need to turn up the heat on the undemocratic, destructive bankers’ club in Brussels if we want to tackle the growth of nasty nationalists like UKIP.
It wasn’t always like this. The start of my political development was also a time in which a new movement was burgeoning across Europe. In response to the impending threat of the war in Iraq and the growth of the anti-globalisation/global justice movement, the World Social Forum aimed to bring together political activists, NGOs, anti-racists and a whole variety of social justice windbags like ourselves.
Its European offshoot, the European Social Forum (ESF) first met in Florence in 2002. While my personal memories of these events can broadly be described as boozy and thin on politics (a frequent criticism from many more sober participants). Many of those in attendance shared a clear understanding that Europe was on the wrong economic path. They also worried that the drive towards a liberalised economy and increasingly shady and undemocratic decision making in Brussels could lead the creation of an entity which would worsen and not improve the living conditions of its citizens. It was feared we were looking at a rush to the bottom as states increasingly looked towards low-tax, low-wage models like Ireland where labour was becoming deskilled and casualised.
I first heard the word “precarity” about 8 years ago at an ESF meeting when a dreadlocked Spanish student told the room that this was the plan for Europe – when our credit-driven consumer boom ended we would be looking at a Europe constantly on the edge while the rich laughed all the way to the bank. Unlikely as this all seemed at the time, he was correct. When it did all came crashing down, the powers that be in the EU unleashed hell on the poorest to pay for their massive fuck up. Progressive people in Scotland have kept quiet, because criticising the EU has become something right-wing people in England who wear driving gloves do. This just won’t cut it anymore.
It’s important to point out that many of the policies which have so devastated EU member states = like banking regulation and wholesale privatisation – were implemented largely by national governments and not some Brussels bogeyman. These free market policies are now forever entrenched via EU agreements such as the ‘Stability and Growth Pact’ (SGP) and form the basis of institutions like the European Central Bank. Every part of the domestic economy must be opened up not just to national but to Europe wide capital.
This mean basic public services cannot simply be provided by the people directly employed by the government (or local companies), but that governments are compelled to put contracts for their provision out to tender. The Scottish government was compelled by the EU to put ferry routes out to tender despite no desire to do so. These routes, which provide the only connection to the rest of Scotland for thousands of people in outlying communities, had always been run by the government operated Cal Mac as a public service. The Scottish Government announced they saw “no benefit” in the process, dutifully did it anyway and picked Cal Mac (or subsidiaries thereof).
Not every government would make such an enlightened choice, nor has ours done so on every occasion. In Sweden, a Latvian company, brought in under a similar process to refurbish a school, refused to keep to local labour agreements and instead brought in its own workforce from Latvia on a third of the wages of the local workers. There are thousands of similar cases created by a phenomenon now called “social dumping”, where workforces are imported to deliver contracts and then simply exported again at the end. This benefits no-one but the employers and means the benefits of public works and regeneration to the local economy and communities is minimised. In the end it was left to the European Court of Justice to declare that the contract was totally fine and basically what the EU is all about. Justice, EU style.
But the EU does not just demand the restructuring of public service delivery, but compliance with a whole set of economic principles. Enforced limits on debt and deficit levels are codified in the SGP, with the ability for “corrective action” if states stray. If you want to see what this means in practice you need only examine the Greek crisis. The EU/IMF bailout came with 3 conditions: deficit reduction, mass sales of public assets and “structural reforms to improve competitiveness” (i.e. no-one gets paid anymore).
The mass unemployment and deprivation that has resulted has been of great benefit to the firms moving in to take over the government/economy and to fascists like Golden Dawn. Despite being a signatory to the Pact, Greece is neither stable nor growing; nor will it ever be if it continues to enforce the economic misery being demanded by Brussels onto its citizens. Many economic levers are simply removed from national governments, meaning regressive taxes like VAT aren’t bad ideas we can reform or get rid of, but EU law. We can’t spend or borrow, or not open up our citizens to exploitation, or stop firms importing cheap goods or even cheap labour to lower our standards.
All this leads to the elephant in the room. Why would an independent country want anything to do with a failed undemocratic model? How can we protect our citizens if we have to put our public services up for auction to the lowest bidder? How can we invest in our services to grow the economy if we’re not allowed to borrow? How can we ensure wealth is redistributed if we’re forced to implement regressive policies like VAT?
I simply don’t think we can, but I’m not going to waste much time arguing about that. Whenever something is as utterly repugnant as the EU, there are always 2 responses – reform it or rip it up. For some reason, the independence movement has largely gone for a third, less wise response by just pretending it’s all totally fine. This is seen as a necessary tactic in the face of the “enemy” But why? What coherent thing do the unionists have to say about Europe which demands total deference? A few short months ago, Better Together were touting the idea that remaining in the British state was the only way to remain in Europe, but increasingly the constituents parts of unionism seem more and more intent on pulling Britain out of Europe altogether. You’ll notice I said Europe and not the EU. That’s because this is what they actually think. Parties like UKIP and the Tories think it’s possible to remove Britain (England) from Europe altogether, to get rid of immigration and integration and take us back to a fantasy land where coppers hit you round the ear and women who spoke out of turn were encouraged to go for a nice lie down.
So why are we silent in the face of this absurdity and not talking about the possibilities for Scotland both inside and outside the EU? We are in Europe – something they have not quite grasped yet. That’s not what the choice is. It’s about whether we need to be tied to the economic policies of the EU and immerse ourselves solely into an attempt to create a European “pole” based on low taxes, low wages and poor regulation; or whether we can look beyond our own backyard and out into the wider world.
An independent Scotland could follow the example set by our Northern neighbours. Norway is not in the EU. so it gets to invest in what are renowned for being some of the best public services in the world. Poverty is lower, GDP is higher and on pretty much every measure of wellbeing and progress, it beats the UK and Scotland. Iceland isn’t in the EU either, so when it’s economy went under it put the bankers in jail and got the citizens to rewrite the Constitution to make sure it couldn’t happen again. There are no fascist hordes assembling on the backstreets of Reykjavik and the country is both growing and stable.
Rather than fighting stray men like “will Scotland be allowed in the EU?”, we should be asking “does Scotland want to be in the EU?” I’d rather we didn’t bother frankly, but those who favour remaining and reforming need to be much clearer about what reforms they want to see. Saying we don’t want a gravy train run for the richest which imposes economic misery on the rest doesn’t suddenly make us racist anymore than telling Nigel Farage to do one does. We shouldn’t be afraid of an open debate or see it as a sign of weakness – we should tackle the Kippers head on. We can only do this by calling out the undemocratic institutions and the entrenched economic policies which don’t work for the benefit of the people of Europe. I’ve barely touched on the massively corrupt gravy train that is the Parliament (something UKIP have more than touched in the past of course). There are so many reasons why we should be fighting to reform Europe for the better, or arguing for better policies outside of the narrow EU framework.
The Eurosceptic right wing of British politics has little currency in Scotland, but assuming that the EU offers a progressive alternative to their policies is a problematic road to be walking along. The world into which our new state will be plunged is increasingly multi-polar with emerging economies like China, Brazil and India challenging the monopolies once held by the US and the EU. We will be faced with the need to make bold choices about what kind of society we want to be in the face of the griding austerity imposed by Westminster, even after independence. The idea that Brussels will allow us to set our own path in that respect doesn’t hold much weight. Talking about building a progressive, outward looking independent country with real power to make radical changes doesn’t suddenly make us Tories or xenophobes.
We need to tackle the EU on our terms and not theirs. We can’t give up the debate to bigots whose only answer seems to be to physically remove our landmass from the rest of the world and hope no-one will ever want to come here. We need to ensure that Scotland isn’t bungled in to the EU without a proper debate or, dare I say, a referendum. Putting all Scotland’s eggs in the EU basket may be a risky strategy, given the EU’s form for making omelettes out of it’s citizens when its economic policies fail.