It was deja vu all over again this week, as everyone’s favourite anti-austerity poster boy, Owen Jones had another bash at bashing Scottish independence.
Word on the street (i.e. what he’s telling anyone who’ll listen) is that he totally didn’t want to write it – and his views have changed little since I last tore his analysis apart at length – so I wasn’t intending to go through it all again but here we are. As before, his piece “what a fairer Scotland would look like” is pretty solid from the point of view of analysing where we are and how we got here. As before, I must concede that he offers a far better analysis and understanding than we usually get from the English left. As before, it still doesn’t lead anywhere.
It still assumes that socialists haven’t grasped that the SNP are both neo-liberal and social-democratic; presuming we’re too daft to realise that we can’t have our Dundee cake and eat it. We’re all going into the referendum with our eyes open, knowing that the real battle is not whether we are a nation but what kind of nation we should be. It’s also an utter joke to be told the Nats are dead nasty/right wing (because they still cling on to their pledge to cut corporation tax) by a member of a party who aren’t just rampantly neo-liberal but also profoundly anti-democratic. Even if Owen convinces 5 million Scots to join Labour and they all vote at conference to nationalise everything, Labour party policy is still decided behind closed doors. The last time the left had any strength within the Labour party, they were simply removed. Owen’s parents were both in the Militant, so he knows this only too well.
All the usual gripes aside, he’s clearly being paying some attention to what the left in Scotland has to say; he references the Radical Independence Campaign and concedes that there is an internationalist aspect to the Yes movement, whereas last year, he was denouncing Scottish lefties as “blood and soil nationalists” where we dared to say maybe we should talk to Ireland as well as England.
There is another much more telling change in this piece, the only reason I came back for round two with Mr. Jones. His prior offerings always contained a warning that the current divergence between Scotland and England, the failure of the traditional left and trade union movement to represent working people across the UK, could be reversed and fought against. This time we’re told “Scottish nationalism” is “as uncomfortable as it is inescapable.” This is arse over tit but nonetheless it’s a concession that the material facts (which he analyses pretty accurately) mean that even regardless of the referendum result, there is no going back to Britain for any of us.
The piece concludes with this “alternative”
a loose federation, with the English regions granted substantial autonomy, too, breaking the hegemony of Westminster across the islands. Movements for a living wage, decent housing, publicly run and accountable services and workers’ rights would unite shopworkers in Glasgow with call centre workers in Manchester and Cardiff. An old dream, yes. But still one worth fighting for.
Aside from being a dream nobody dreamed, “federalism” is meaningless in this context. States which are independent but still co-operate for their mutual benefit may not meet the dictionary definition but in practical terms, we’re stuck on this landmass regardless, meaning independence offers much more chance for “a loose federation” with the rest of the UK than the status quo. An while we’re on the subject of landmass, it’s an odd kind of solidarity when it’s not even extended to say…Belfast.
But Owen isnae daft, in fact he’s incredibly astute. He didn’t assert the dominion of the British Labour Movement (TM) over Belfast because he knows that’s unhelpful. He knows he has little agency to speak about what’s going on there and maybe reckons he’s better off supporting workers in Belfast in their struggles, rather than giving them a lecture about the constitution. Yet not Scotland? His argument also ignores the fact that Scotland and England can’t really be outward looking or internationalist when we’re spending all of our time glaring at each other, wondering what went wrong – or whether it was ever right. How much longer can we all demoan our mythical past when there was no poverty, inequality and war and we all knew what we stood for and voted Labour? How much longer can internationalism not extend beyond the parts of the world you can get to on a horse and cart?
There is a much more pressing question for Owen and Co. than what Scotland will look after independence but yet they never ask it: what would a fairer England look like? Saying the breakup of Britain may be “inescapable” surely creates the need to begin to analyse the potential to build mass movements to transform our society, across and beyond the border that runs between Scotland and England. Or maybe just to engage with some of the ones that already exist, like the various movements and campaigns for independence in Scotland.
I can’t dictate the terms of the debate in England but the English left need to stop being so endlessly negative about the prospects for a nation without empire and stop seeing Scotland as some kind of bulwark against their own inevitable drift to endless, irreversible right-wing mania and millennia of Tory rule. What actually happens under the current system is that some Scottish Labour MPs had the cheek to turn up to vote against Equal Marriage for England & Wales and didn’t even bother to turn up to oppose the Bedroom Tax. I don’t see why this helps England.
Instead, we could put in place a much better Equal Marriage Bill, we could fund mitigation of the Bedroom Tax…no wait that already happened this week in Scotland. We have an independent LGBT* movement, not tied to the London-centric, undemocratic Stonewall or any political party. We also have an mass, independent movement against the Bedroom Tax which hasn’t faltered in hating the Tories and Liberals who introduced it, the Labourites who failed to oppose it and the Nats who said “wait for independence.” Our years of fighting and struggling has won us a more responsive and accountable Parliament. Amendments to the Equal Marriage Bill were made by the Equal Opportunities Committee at Holyrood; while at Westminster, it was the Lords. Every Scottish politician would be terrified to be seen to be doing or saying anything in support of the bedroom tax, so they buckled. We didn’t win these things by waiting for the constitution to change nor did we hang on indefinitely for some future Labour Government (who wouldn’t be total bastards like the last one…honest), we just went ahead and won.
The Bedroom Tax victory is a clear example of the kind of practical solidarity we can offer our friends in England. If an independent, mass campaign can forced the Scottish Government to fund mitigation then any local authority in the land could be forced to do the same. It represents a victory not just here but for that call centre worker in Manchester, whose pivotal role in the class struggle we’re all so fond of pondering.
The mere practicalities of the act of state-building will send shockwaves through the British political system. A written constitution, the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland, a debate about currency, monarchy, public ownership, power of all kinds; economic, social, cultural, political and maybe even sexual. All massive opportunities for the left in England to finally have something relevant to say, to have not just rhetoric but a practical example of what a better society might look like. The argument that Scots should wait around for Britain instead of fighting against it, that solidarity would be losing for England’s sake, that a victory in Scotland is a direct assault on our mythical Mancunian Customer Service Advisor don’t stack up.
What’s happening in Scotland is not inescapable nationalism, it’s a mass movement to smash the British state that’s increasingly rising from below. Owen is correct to note that its popularity is increasing most quickly amongst those with the least to gain from the status quo. So surely it can and must be a movement which is capable of challenging not just a flag but the economic and political system it represents. We know that won’t be easy, we know we might not win. It may be not be a communist utopia by October 2014, the SNP might “go rogue”, we might be shot down by GCHQ/Cybernats the day before independence, the rest of the UK might descend into UKIPland and nuke us on the way down.
Those are risks we’re prepared to take. Why? Because we know this may be our only hope of seeing, “a living wage, decent housing, publicly run and accountable services and workers’ rights” not written about on the Independent’s website but enshrined in the constitution of our independent nation. A fairer England isn’t just possible, it’s made much more likely by the creation of the fairer Scotland that we demand.
That dream isn’t just worth fighting for, it’s looking less like a dream with every passing moment.
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