Jonathon Shafi argues that the inequality of British society is driving more voters to consider the potential for change offered by independence
‘I am not a nationalist, but an internationalist.” That is the opening line for so many of the diverse speakers in so many of the public meetings advocating a Yes vote. The leaders of the No camp on the other hand often introduce their argument with “I am a proud Scot, and I love my country.”
The real issues that are determining factors in the referendum are concerned with austerity and political power in the context of failing British institutions. Westminster is going through a profound crisis of legitimacy in the eyes not just of Scots, but of working people in England. Geographical distance from the corridors of power intensifies the disconnect between people and political decision making, but only quantitatively, not qualitatively. Just spend a day talking to people in the East End of London to find out how far apart they really are from political power. There is a reason Boris Johnson wants a water cannon.
Britain is run for the rich, by the rich. The intersection of Westminster and corporations and wealthy individuals is empirically identifiable. For example, Monitor is the name of the group set up to help oversee and enforce the entry of the private sector into the NHS in England. Out of the nine members on Monitor’s senior management board, three worked for KPMG and two for City consultancy firm, McKinsey. Both firms have previously won contracts for private finance schemes, and are winning big contracts as a result of NHS reforms. Companies are dividing up the NHS for private profit, and it is government policy to do so. In the House of Lords, 142 peers linked to companies involved in private healthcare were able to vote on the health bill that opened the way to sweeping outsourcing which McKinsey helped draw up.
The lack of democracy in Britain is not limited to the highest levels of government, or to deals between friends. It percolates into the entire system as a parallel outcome of privatisation. Privatisation is not just about a transfer of wealth from the public purse to a handful of individuals, it also transfers decision-making power to corporate interests. That is a process the establishment hopes to entrench for decades to come.
The wielding of political power is of course not separate from the nature of the British economy. Three decades of neoliberal consensus has hollowed out democracy to little more than the selection of more or less austerity, more or less privatisation, more or less wage stagnation. The economics which flow from this consensus have led us to where we are now: vast riches on the one hand, foodbanks on the other.
To say that there’s lots of wealth in society, just not in the hands of the right people, is not rhetoric. The combined wealth of the listed 1000 individuals now stands at £518.975 billion. That’s risen by 15.4 per cent in just one year. That’s a huge rise in such a timescale. Remember, this list is composed of publicly identifiable wealth, and does not include analysis of the wealth amassed in private bank accounts. In truth it is probable that even this list of the super rich is not representative of an even higher rung of the mega wealthy.
This is why class is fundamental to the independence debate – far more than national identity – because the debate is refracted through the lens of modern Britain and is an outlet for discontent. The referendum process has punctured what seems like a universal seal of approval for the current system. If Britain was not carrying out the austerity that is leading to a long-term socio-economic crisis, if we did not invade Iraq, if our institutions were transparent and the House of Lords abolished, there simply would not be the same thirst, and the same levels of organisation pushing for independence as there is now.
Media institutions have become used to consensus politics. Investigative journalism into the political elite has largely been reduced to individual scandal. But in towns and villages across Scotland, public meetings are focused on how we might exchange the neoliberal consensus with the post-1945 investment into welfare. In these meetings attended by hundreds, there is not a hint of “Scottish jobs for Scottish workers” rhetoric to mirror the nationalist sentiment behind Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers”.
The Radical Independence Conference (RIC) last year attracted more than 1,000 participants. The discussion was based on new ideas for rebuilding the economy, and debate on how we might develop a living democracy. It is doubtful that the No campaign could organise such a gathering, but ironically if it did, its members’ insistence on being Scottish patriots would likely be a key message coming from such an event. RIC is running the international, class-based campaign, whereas it’s the No side that are the superficial, narrow nationalists. But perhaps more important than our conferences and meetings, is our ground campaign that seeks to target areas of low voter turnout.
At the doors you are frequently told that they have not had someone knock their door and ask about politics for years. You have discussions about voting, not just in the referendum but about the political system in general. In these communities there has been a steady degeneration of political culture and social participation of any kind as libraries and community centres are shut down, industries close and political parties become disinterested. But now there is an awakening taking place. Now people are beginning to see the possibility of taking back some power for themselves. We are always clear when we talk to people that we don’t think independence is a magic wand, but that it offers the platform and a chink of light through which we can start to challenge the way things have been run for so many years.
All of this is of little significance to the Tories, and the Lib Dems are struggling for survival. It is the Labour party which is making the gravest of errors in its political positioning. On two broad fronts it is putting itself into a corner and accelerating an erosion of its voter base.
First, while it might be useful in the immediate term to pitch the referendum as Salmond versus Scotland and narrow nationalism versus British unity, Labour activists are failing to fully comprehend the shift that has taken place as working people look for a way out of the status quo that has failed them. For these people, who do not have an allegiance to the SNP, and who do not view politics through the lens of national identity, the Labour party comes across as dismissive, and as undermining the real concerns that people have about the nature of British politics.
Secondly, Labour has made a corporate argument for the union, reinforcing its standing in the existing British establishment, but alienating it from its voter base. This will become a bigger problem even if there is a No vote as the massive wave of cuts still to come hits home.
So it is because of the make-up of the independence movement, the context of the political and economic crisis that flows from Westminster and the understanding that power is wielded in the interests of the rich that this referendum cannot be limited to the parameters of national identity. This referendum is about potential political power in the future, and reflection on how it has been used in the past. Labour has failed to understand this, or at the very least chosen not to engage with it. Instead it is choosing to subordinate key concerns to the deployment of fear tactics and the claim that some divisive nationalism is driving the momentum of the independence movement. This will be remembered as the year when a crisis gripped establishment and a confused Labour party got a huge wake-up call from ordinary people, who were starting to find their political voice again.
• Jonathon Shafi is a co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign and a member of the Scottish Left Review editorial board