PEOPLE make history, Karl Marx said, but not under circumstances of their choosing. In about 18 months’ time, the Scottish people have the chance to bring an end to the British state, one of the world’s most ancient capitalist institutions. For internationalists like me, having grown up with the disasters of British foreign policy, it’s an enticing prospect, a chance to truly make history in the place I call home.
However, nobody in Scotland chose this referendum. It’s been thrust upon us because a faction fight in the English Tory party has cast Britain into an authoritarian experiment in economic nationalism with no clear goals and no possibility of authentic opposition. If Scotland doesn’t hold this referendum, it will mean irrelevance for our institutions. It’s become a case of fight on our feet before we die on our knees.
We must win, otherwise authoritarian forces in Britain and Scotland will seize the state completely. They’ll use the chaos to impose more curbs on the unions, more austerity, more detention centres, more border controls. There’s no possibility of a radical revamp of the Act of Union. The forces for it don’t exist. Conversely, if Scotland votes Yes this time, it will be a blow to everything represented by Theresa May and Donald Trump. These are the stakes.
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But there’s something more going on here. The problems with British, American and European capitalism don’t begin and end here. People are turning away from social democracy towards the authoritarian right for a reason, or rather, for two main reasons. Number one, people see centre-left politicians as the “establishment”, and in many cases they are right to do so. Number two, after 2008 the centre-left made no protest against austerity from above. Hence the current chaos. The right seized the banner of protest from us, and then claimed that we could end cuts by cutting immigrants.
Scotland’s referendum in 2014 wasn’t just a moment in British history; it was a world event in the post-2008 crisis. It was important because its appeal was quite clearly “populist” and anti-establishment, but the campaigns never engaged in anti-immigrant or racist backlash politics. It showed that working-class anger about austerity needn’t lead to reactionary conclusions.
However, this isn’t 2014. For one, the Unionist forces look very different. Labour are no longer the leading part of any coalition. They won’t sign up for a Better Together mark two, and they’ll probably run a quiet campaign that nobody will notice (rather like the “radical Remain” campaign in 2016). The Tories will dominate the opposition to independence. And they will simultaneously appeal to middle-class conservatives with “referendum fatigue” and to a broader constituency who are fed up with the establishment.
Because, right now, the Yes campaign doesn’t look like a group of outsiders. Instead, so far, the rhetoric focuses on the positive benefits of the European Union. The EU, whatever the merits of joining it or not, is the ultimate symbol of remote, post-democratic government by aloof insiders. It is the enemy of popular rule, and the authoritarian right ruthlessly exploited the left’s attachment to it to drive their racist agenda.
In Scotland, many Yes activists are calculating that we’ve already got the anti-establishment vote sewn up. We can count on the housing schemes to vote yes, they reason, so it’s time to firm up our insider credibility, and nothing says “I’m a responsible part of the club” like enthusiasm for the EU.
Others, with a largely liberal outlook, genuinely believe that the European Union is a truly progressive and internationalist force. And some on the radical left think it can be reformed.
I unashamedly take a different view. We can’t rely on the protest vote turning out like it did in 2014. We had to earn credibility last time, and we’ll have to earn it again. As the election last year showed – and I felt this more keenly than others – there is no guarantee that the “radical Yes” vote is a permanent factor in politics. We didn’t change Scotland forever. The housing schemes who turned out in great numbers in 2014 decided to stay at home in 2016.
Taking the protest vote for granted in an election is one thing. But in a referendum on which so much hinges, it would be a disaster. Let’s be clear: the liberal middle class aren’t making history right now. Since 2008, they’ve been making a mess of history, and, by all instincts, they’re the most conservative part of society. We can’t bet everything on them. Not when so much hinges on getting this right.
By concentrating everything on the European Union, we’d be taking a very dangerous gamble. I urge the Yes campaign, once it’s established, to be broad and inclusive, and mindful of the 38 percent of Scotland and roughly 38 percent of Yes voters who voted to leave. We need them.
I also urge the left to show some independence on this issue. I’ve been a huge supporter of Syriza in Greece. But let’s be clear: when Syriza showed no alternative to the bullying of the European Union, they signed Greece’s death warrant, and arguably a death warrant for the whole anti-cuts project worldwide.
I understand why people want a European project. If the European Union didn’t exist, it would need to be invented. The problem, though, is simply expressed by Perry Anderson, the great left-wing historian of the Union. The left, he says, must face the possibility that “the EU is now so path-dependent as a neoliberal construction that reform is no longer seriously conceivable”. Any continued support for the project must be couched in these terms. It’s unreformable. It’s undemocratic. And we need something better.
In 2014, Scotland moved to the centre of the radical imagination. There’s no guarantee of what will happen this time. But circumstances are forcing us to reinvent what’s possible, or face the abyss of endless, extremist Tory rule. Given the world we’re living in today, we’re going nowhere if we’re less radical than our enemies. There’s no need for that. Scotland has problems, but they’re shared by everyone in Europe who loves democracy, peace and equality. Once again, the world is looking at us for leadership: let’s show it.