The British state is once again in a bit of a panic. After the desperate ignominy of Project Fear, the name given by its architects and practitioners to the British state’s campaign of fear against the prospect of the Scottish people voting for independence last year, we’re seeing something of a re-run play out in the media and among the establishment.
So what’s the threat now? Violent revolution? I wish. Tartan terror at the gates of the City of London? Unfortunately not. The grave threat that has got the Union’s ruling classes so discombobulated is, wait for it, the mere prospect of the Scottish people voting a certain way, the wrong way, in an election. Talk about exposing the limits of liberal democracy.
Yes, the SNP is predicted to almost completely wipe Labour out come May 7. Those who made the case for the retention of the Union during the independence campaign on the basis that Scotland’s voice was not only wanted but needed, apparently only meant this if it entailed Scotland voting the right way.
The smear against Nicola Sturgeon in the form of a leaked memo apparently showing the SNP leader expressing her preference for a Tory government hasn’t even made the remotest dent in the current tidal wave of SNP support in Scotland. Whatever the circumstances that led to this memo being leaked and published by the Daily Telegraph without any confirmation from any of its subjects, it hardly takes a paranoiac to understand that this smear signalled the onset of another round Project Fear from the British state. Just briefly, what do we mean by the British state here? We mean the civil service and apparently independent state broadcaster, both of which showed themselves to be far from neutral during the independence campaign, as much as we mean the Unionist parties and the various partisan corporate media outlets.
We’ve got Boris Johnson, the Tory jester, Mayor of London and possible leadership candidate, likening Nicola Sturgeon to Attila the Hun, Lady Macbeth and, most bizarrely, King Herod. The inferences here are hardly subtle – in the SNP, you have destructive foreign invaders, Machiavellian femme fatale manipulators and, erm, infanticidal biblical autocrats who would have murdered the human embodiment of God on Earth if given half a chance. We’ve got the Daily Mail, long known for its anti-fascism, labelling the SNP and its supporters as fascists, while yesterday we were treated to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland telling us all on national television that the thought of a large bloc of SNP MPs sitting in the British parliament was ‘a frightening prospect’.
Labour have been at it too. The fact that Labour and the Tories share much in common in terms of overall policy, has meant they’ve mostly concerned themselves in this election with attempting to accuse the other of being secretly allied with the SNP. Given Labour’s sombre commitments to ‘fiscal responsibility’, the Tories have been saying that Labour’s reliance of the SNP to form a stable government would lead to their vision of a fiscal nightmare i.e. borrowing instead of cutting, while Labour have been calling the SNP ‘Cameron’s little helpers’ and implying that the Tories want the SNP to do well, which in Scotland is a bit like saying that you’re a fan of Jimmy Savile. The point is that each party is attempting to imply the other is secretly ‘in bed’, as Ed Balls put it, with the Scottish fifth column – each party is going to be responsible for the break up of the glorious British state. Don’t you just hate nationalism? The fact that the SNP want Scotland to be independent is hardly a secret, but, as they’ve repeatedly said, this election is not about Scottish independence, as much as the Unionists would like it to be.
And this gets to the heart of the matter. For all the puffed out patriotism of Labour and the Tories, fighting over who’s the most anti-SNP and thus pro-British, the crime of the SNP at this election is not their disloyalty to Britain, but to another country. Its name is Austeria. In this respect, the SNP’s moderate plan to end fiscal austerity, which has been the destructive raison d’etre of the coalition over the past five years, while the supposed opposition, led by Miliband and Balls, have always limply accepted its logic, despite their mantra of saying the Tories have cut ‘too deep and too soon’, by modestly increasing spending in order to invest in public services and grow the economy by stimulating it, is truly what marks out their alleged ‘destructiveness’.
In all the five years of Miliband’s leadership, the Labour Party, rebranded as ‘One Nation Labour’ in order to get away from the toxic branding of ‘New Labour’, have never once said that they oppose austerity. While they’ll rightfully protest against the ConDem slur that all the ‘tough decisions’ they’ve had to make were of their making (bank de-regulation, aside), they’ve never actually put up any fight against the essential logic behind such ‘tough decisions’. Instead, they’ve embraced the language of ‘fiscal responsibility’, including voting with the Tories and Liberals for the ‘Charter for Budget Responsibility’, which, despite Labour and the Tories disagreeing on some formal points of administration regarding ‘deficit reduction’, basically amounted to Labour endorsing Osborne’s austerity consensus.
So why can’t Labour simply just break with austerity? Austerity has been the battering ram of neoliberalism in the era of the ‘great recession’. Far from austerity being simply a necessary means to an end, namely deficit reduction in order to ‘balance the books’ and return Britain to some fantastical ‘equilibrium’ (no political force prior to the financial crisis gave more than a cursory hoot about debt or the deficit), it represents a particular economic strategy employed by the ruling classes and their political representatives to reshape society in their own image. With the Tory-Liberal coalition cutting public services, keeping wages suppressed, reducing and reshaping the welfare system, they are ultimately crafting an economic order in which society is more overtly in thrall to and moulded by elite interests. It’s these elite interests that primarily shape Labour’s policy; hence the focus of its manifesto on it as a party of ‘fiscal responsibility’, which despite its pseudo-pragmatic and righteous language, amounts to a coded endorsement of the ruling austerity strategy.
However, even Labour’s moderate differences to the Tories in the manner they’d administer austerity has been enough to mobilise a section of big business against them, so one can imagine the consternation among George Osborne’s buddies at the thought of the SNP, with their desire to end austerity entirely, having even the remotest influence on national policy. In fact, one can do better than imagine it – you can easily witness the backlash when you pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV or radio. They’re you’ll find the language of treason, chaos and destruction attached to these invaders from beyond Hadrian’s Wall, as Nigel Farage would have it.
In usual circumstances, the mainstream parties and much of the currently SNP-obsessed British media wouldn’t even bother reading an SNP Westminster manifesto, but these are not usual circumstances. After the Unionist victory in the independence referendum, much of the political classes expected or at least hoped that all of us who supported independence, and even some of us who did not, would go quietly back into our boxes. The separatists had lost. The issue had been settled. Except, not quite. In fact, not even nearly.
The issue of independence had certainly been settled, but the issues that drove independence were still very much active. Those who voted for and, perhaps more importantly, campaigned for independence were not compelled to do so merely by some mystical separatist fascination with Scottishness or some two-dimensional notion of ‘nationalism’, but were rather motivated by concrete circumstances that could not simply be abated or ‘settled’ by a one-off referendum.
The issues that fed into and shaped the independence campaign, namely opposition to austerity, concern about threats to the NHS, the militarism of the British state and questions about the democratic legitimacy of a national government imposing policy on a country in which it only has one MP, would not simply dissipate because Scotland voted to remain part of Britain. Even the circumstances of the Union’s victory were shaped by a tacit acknowledgement of these facts, with the Better Together campaign’s now infamous ‘Vow’, delivered by that presbyterian (false) prophet, Gordon Brown, who had suddenly been remade as some kind of much-loved Scottish statesman, promising a whole host of ‘new powers’ for Scotland, equating to what was widely sold to be a ‘devolution revolution’.
We were promised ‘home rule’, but what was the alleged substance? The substance amounted to a ‘best of both worlds’ deal – the powers to avert Westminster austerity and invest in our public services, as opposed to cut them, or to better protect our NHS from policies imposed by politicians we didn’t elect etc., but with the stability of remaining in the Union. The ‘Vow’ turned out to be a desperate and mendacious bribe. The new powers did not appear. Perhaps, at this stage, if the Unionists had actually delivered what they said they would, things might have been better for them. However, something else had occurred during the independence referendum. In fact, it had been occurring for sometime before the independence campaign, but the independence campaign simply served to hasten, solidify and exacerbate the process.
It began with Scottish voters rejecting Labour at Holyrood in 2007, opting for a centre-left alternative, opposed to Labour’s neoliberal agenda, as well as their illegal wars and experimentations with privatising the NHS. The minority SNP government bucked the trend of social democratic parties moving right when in power and enacted a series of moderate, left of Labour reforms, such as introducing free universal education and free prescription charges, all of which were opposed by the Labour Party. Then something that was supposed be impossible occurred. In the Holyrood election of 2011, within the context of Scotland facing Tory-Liberal cuts and the Labour Party acceding to the logic of such cuts, the SNP defied Scotland’s PR voting system and gained an absolute majority, crushing Labour in its own heartlands. This stage for the independence referendum was set.
What was quietly occurring at Holyrood for at leat the past eight years, namely Scottish voters abandoning Labour en mass, is now being recreated at Westminster. All that has really held Scotland’s historic guaranteed vote for Labour in place at Westminster elections in place has been the perceived threat of the Tories within the context of Thatcherism, so when the Labour Party began to accede to the essential logic of Thatcherism, albeit in a slightly more restrained and far more socially liberal manner, Labour arrogantly relied solely on lesser evilism to justify its apparently eternal rule in Scotland. Right until this very moment, all Labour can say to Scottish voters is that we ought to vote for them out of a fear of the Tories, but lesser evilism can only function in a duopoly. Devolution and Labour being challenged from its left paved the way for this logic of fear to be overcome.
The SNP, despite their faults and sometimes painful moderation, have proven themselves to be a genuine alternative to the economic logic of the Tories and, of course, Labour. This has had real concrete effects on the lives of people in Scotland. The independence referendum both reflected the political course Scotland was heading in, which sometimes seems grossly out of sync with a Tory-dominated England, but also a new wave of democratic engagement and political awakening. This in itself can be terrifying to a neoliberal elite who often rely on apathy and politics being as confined and restrained as possible.
The fact that 45% of the people of Scotland wanted to break up this 300-year-old entity is clearly worrying for the British establishment, but the motivations behind the will to break the state up are what truly concerns them – the issues affecting Scotland, such as poverty fuelled by decades of neoliberalism and exacerbated by austerity, combined with a lack of a genuine alternative, also affect many parts of England, Wales and the North of Ireland. Scotland’s democratic uprising, this tidal wave of support for a party that supports ending austerity, getting rid of nuclear weapons and blunting the harsher edges of neoliberalism, might be infectious. Where exactly does it end?
It’s in this spirit that the SNP, in its own moderately radical way, has been talking of building progressive alliances with left reformist entities such as the Green Party and Plaid Cymru, as well as left-wing rebel Labour MPs – it has even, as we saw at its manifesto launch, directly courted Labour voters in the North and other areas of England hit hardest by cuts. The kind of areas that need not a Tory-lite continuation of the status quo, but an end to austerity.
It’s in the context of this dangerous democratic offensive coming from Scotland, with the SNP looking to use the influence given to them by the Scottish people to push Miliband leftwards in return for propping up a Labour government, that the British establishment, including Labour, is once again losing its cool and revealing its deep anti-democratic streak. One shouldn’t underestimate the conservative will of the British establishment and its political representatives. Indeed, given that neoliberalism and the logic of austerity is an essential part of Labour’s admixture, we can more than assume that there are many Labourites who would rather see a Tory government than any kind of SNP-influenced Labour government. They’d much rather see Labour locked into the logic of austerity than shift its position one iota. The Tories and Liberals know this and they’ll be looking for what the Tory pundit Tim Montgomerie has called the ‘wiser heads’ within Labour to prevail.
If neither Labour nor the Tories form the single-largest majority in the parliament after May 7, which is far from guaranteed, but there are more anti-Tory MPs in the parliament than pro-Tory MPs, there is no doubt that there should be a non-Tory government. Given the anti-austerity, anti-trident nature of the SNP and its allies in Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, the British establishment will almost certainly mobilise in order to either keep Cameron in place or pressurise Ed Miliband to stick to the script. It’s not going to be a coup or anything as ominous, but rather pressure around locking the SNP out of government or out of influencing government concretely. It is in the interests of all progressives to turn Scotland’s democratic offensive into a British-wide offensive not merely to ensure that the working classes and most vulnerable in our society, who have already suffered so much at the hands of the Tories and Liberals, do not have to suffer five more years of Tory rule, but also to demand something better than Labour’s pro-austerity, Tory-lite programme.