Sep 21 2014

England – nationalism versus republicanism

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 23RCN @ 6:19 pm

In England during the referendum, members of both the Left Unity Party (LUP) and the Republican Socialist Alliance organised meetings in London, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield. In the aftermath of the September 18th, Steve Freeman (RSA and LUP/Scottish Republic Yes Tendency) provides his analysis of the campaign and its political consequences.

On Thursday 18 September Scotland stood on the brink of an historic change by ending the 1707 Act of Union. But when the votes were counted a majority of Scottish people voted no by 55% to 45%. This “averted the biggest constitutional crisis in the nation’s history”. (Mick Brown Daily Telegraph 20 September 2014). Instead of Scotland’s democratic future passing into the hands of the people, the no victory handed the power back to Cameron, the Coalition government, the Whitehall machine and the Westminster parliament.

The power had already drained away from Scotland as Cameron emerged from Downing Street the following morning to tell us what would happen next. Scotland would be handed down more powers. Then he seized the opportunity to torpedo the Labour Party and undermine UKIP with the slogan of “English votes for English laws”. He played the card of reactionary English nationalism. He had ‘saved’ the country from predatory Scottish nationalists. He had seen off Alex Salmond. Now he would make England an offer it could not refuse and harvest the votes in the general election.

Later that day the ‘no’ victory was crowned by Her Majesty. With victory in the bag, she emerged from behind the scenes to address the nation. This was reported on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. The headline proudly proclaimed “The Queen’s pledge to help reunite the Kingdom”. This was above a regal photo of the monarch standing beside Gelder Burn on the Balmoral Estate wearing the robes of the “Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle” (Daily Telegraph 20 September 2014). She called on her subjects to respect the outcome and appealed for a “coming together again in a spirit of mutual respect and support”.

Defeat

The referendum campaign was a real step forward for the democratic movement in Scotland, despite ending in defeat. We have to understand the weaknesses to work out next steps. Viewed from England the campaign in Scotland seems to have been very successful in mobilising working class support. There was a mountain to climb. Nearly reaching the summit is very commendable given the powerful forces trying to block the path.

Full sovereignty must be on offer

There has to be a discussion on the aim of ‘Independence under the Crown’. This SNP plan failed. The Republican option was not on the ballot paper. Full sovereignty was neither put to the people nor rejected. Republicans are not bound to some morality that says we have had our chance and must wait a decade for another chance. There are many reasons to think the time for another campaign will not be too distant. But next time the option of full sovereignty, the Scottish republic, must be on offer.

Divisions are likely to open up between those who settle for Devo-Max as a new stage towards a ‘Free State’, and those who want to dump the ‘Free State’ idea for a republic. Scottish republicans must work to make their option the front runner. This cannot be done unless there is a republican party. RIC can claim to have represented a republican alternative. It is more like the beginning of a republican movement. It can’t simply convert into a party without internal divisions with those loyal to pre-existing parties.

There is a need for a republican party to complement RIC to be built both within and outside and independent of the broader (RIC) republican movement. The establishment of a republican socialist party must mark out the next stage of the struggle. It is not a matter of waiting for another referendum but continuing to re-define popular politics in Scotland with the voice of an openly republican party.

There is a much bigger problem to be addressed. Eighty five percent of the UK population lives in England. London has a larger population than Scotland. The largest section of the working class is in England. England carries massive social and economic weight in determining the political future. Public opinion and public action in England can support, strengthen and encourage Scottish democracy or it can act as a conservative dead weight holding it back. Both sides of this dilemma exist in the politics of England.

England’s contradictions

Thatcher understood that to defeat the miners in 1984 it was necessary to try and keep the rest of the trade union movement out of the struggle. Cameron knew that to win against the yes campaign either England must actively support no or simply be neutralised. This is what the Labour Party could deliver through its trade union links. Of course Labour is pro-Union and pro-monarchy. Its prospects for government are tied to the Union and its arcane constitutional arrangements. Leaders, past and present, rallied to the British flag in the name of the Welfare state and in the language of ‘proletarian internationalism’.

Defending the Union in the name of ‘internationalism’ was of course a sham. It came from the same ‘internationalist’ and ‘democratic’ stables as Blair justifying the Iraq war. It was even more disgusting to see the ultra left version of ‘no’ peddled by George Galloway, the Communist Party of Britain, and the Alliance for Workers Liberty and Workers Power.

The Labour party machine serves up a demoralised working class at the dinner tables of the rich and powerful. The trade union movement is the transmission belt between working class people and the Crown state. The Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) was the only trade union which balloted members and came out for ‘yes’. The exception proves the rule. In England the trade unions maintained neutrality and kept out of it.

This was the best Cameron could hope for. The trade unions in England (and Scotland) would sit on the fence and concentrate on economic issues like pay and the NHS. Passivity was reflected in and reinforced by those organisations which claimed to oppose Labour. England’s new left parties, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and Left Unity, encouraged by Weekly Worker adopted abstention positions and sat watching Scotland’s democratic movement go down to defeat.

Hence an important factor in the defeat of the democratic movement in Scotland was the passivity of the working class in England. The English working class movement took no part in the struggle to end the Union. There were no mass protest actions or petitions. There were no political strikes or solidarity demonstrations. In England, Labour‘s conservatism, combined with trade union passivity and neutrality, left Scottish democracy isolated from its natural allies south of the border.

The gap in political consciousness between the two countries has long been identified. Whereas the Tories have most of their support in England, especially the South East, Labour has been more strongly supported in Scotland. Scotland has a long tradition of trade union membership and activity. After the defeat of the miners Thatcher’s attempt to impose the poll tax on Scotland produced mass resistance. The struggle against the poll tax fed directly into popular support to re-establish a Scottish parliament in 1998.

The widening gap is very dangerous

The Scottish working class has become much more conscious of the need and importance of political change and political reforms. England is imprisoned by the sloth of economism. This gap is not permanent and neither is it an ethnic dimension. The gap can narrow and England could even overtake Scotland. The class struggle and the political consciousness it generates is not fixed for ever. However the referendum campaign has widened the gap. The activity and politicisation of the Scottish working class stands in sharp contrast to the passivity of the working class in England.

The widening gap is very dangerous. It opens up more space for right wing and reactionary politics. UKIP has exploited this space to draw people to a reactionary form of English nationalism. Although UKIP stands for Unionism or British nationalism, beneath its cover lurks an English nationalism which is feeding, and feeding on, resentment against Scotland. On the present course Scotland is on a left trajectory and England is lurching to the right. The defeat in the referendum will add some rocket power to the process.

Scottish Republic Yes

It is not all doom and gloom about England. There were signs of opposition and solidarity. In Left Unity there was a significant minority that raised the slogan “Scottish Republic Yes”. They called on workers in England to support a ‘yes’ vote and argued for a Scottish Republic. It supports yes but contains an implicit criticism of the Scottish SNP government’s proposal for a Scottish Free State (or Independence under the Crown). This slogan was the most advanced slogan to appear in the English left during the referendum.

It was a democratic not a socialist slogan. It recognised the national question as a democratic issue and proposed an independent democratic demand. It contested the SNP’s constitutional proposals on the same terrain of democracy by demanding full sovereignty for the Scottish people. It did not make an abstract call for world socialism nor promote the idea of national socialism. However as Lenin emphasised democratic demands and advances do not divert or delay the struggle for socialism. They bring socialism closer.

The ‘Scottish Republic Yes’ as a slogan in England is an internationalist slogan. At first it might seem odd that the working class in England should support a Scottish Republic. Yet with a moments consideration we can see a link between greater democracy in Scotland and England. The working class in England have much to gain from acting in solidarity with the democratic demands of the advanced part of the Scottish working class. It is an internationalist slogan because it tells Scottish workers that there are people in England who are not English nationalists thinking only of English ‘interests’.

The ‘Scottish Republic Yes’ was not simply about voting. If there was a yes victory it points to the next step – the fight for a Scottish Republic. Behind this is the idea of ‘permanent revolution’. The revolution does not stand still. It must move on from one phase to another. A yes vote majority is not the end of the road. It is the beginning of a new stage in Scotland’s peaceful revolution. The call for a Scottish republic is ahead of the current situation but not too far. It proposes a discernable ‘line of march’.

English Republic Yes

The ‘no’ majority is not the end of the struggle – far from it. It is time to reflect and re-organise. Attention is now switching to the constitutional future of England. The right will try to build up resentments that England is left behind and encourage chauvinism against Scotland. The left in England must try to counter this by building support for democratic change and closer links with the left in Scotland.

On 19 September when Cameron promised “English votes for English laws”, he triggered more constitutional speculation over English regionalism, an English parliament and federalism. It was a smart or opportunistic move. It put Labour on the back foot. Labour and Gordon Brown helped save Cameron and the Tory government from a humiliating defeat. Cameron then stabbed them in the back.

It was an irony that Labour supporters in England opposed Scottish independence because they would no longer have Scottish Labour MPs. Now after a no vote Cameron was threatening the same. If Cameron presses on, he will use the resentments caused by the absence of a parliament in England as the way of mobilising English votes in the 2015 general election. On this Cameron and the Tories are well positioned to make the running with the slogan “English votes for English laws”.

Publicity stunt

UKIP is not going to be out-flanked by Cameron appealing to English nationalism. Immediately a ‘pro-England’ publicity stunt began with Farage posting letters to Scottish MPs which called on them not to vote on ‘English’ issues. The same theme was taken up in the UKIP conference. David Coburn told delegates he wanted to see a Scottish government “behaving responsibly with the money they raise”. He called on First Minister, Alex Salmond, to accept the result of the referendum. He added “it doesn’t pay for Mr Salmond to abuse the English…..that is not the way to treat Scotland’s largest trading partner and oldest best friend”. (Huffington Post 27 September 2014).

However there may be other straws in the wind. A recent People’s Assembly ‘Question Time Panel’ meeting was held in the East End of London on 9 October with 1,200 people present including Russell Brand on the panel. Mention of the Yes campaign was met with enthusiasm and cheering from the audience. Last week’s BBC Question Time had Alex Salmond and Len McCluskey (Unite) on the platform. McCluskey spoke in glowing terms about the Yes campaign mobilising popular action for change. So he looked more than embarrassed when asked about Unite’s position which he called “Positive neutrality”.

If political struggle is turning to England, then Scottish republicans should not be stuck north of the border. Perhaps the next stage in Scotland’s march to sovereignty is buried in England. If so it is time to dig for the ‘English Republic Yes’. Building an internationalist–republican party in Scotland and narrowing the gap between progressive democratic forces in both countries is now very important.

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