Bernadette McAliskey gave the following talk at the ‘London Says Yes’ rally held on September 6th 2014
Going back in history there was the Great Debate in English democracy between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, which too may people forget. This debate preceded the more radical discussion on the rights of the working class. The debate centred around basic democracy, what constitutes the state, the role of the state and the role of citizens within it.
Edmund Burke, although actually an Irishman, was an English nationalist, who, at the time, argued that once the people had voted, the state, as it were, became the permanent voice of the people. It wasn’t really within the gift of the people to challenge this. However, Thomas Paine said that nobody has the right to set the boundaries for the next generation. Democracy is always evolving and the citizens who formed society created the government and created the state. And it was the right of the citizens, at any point, not only to dismiss the government, but to reconstitute the state.
We can see this in the later development of what is called parliamentary democracy, which the British think they invented. Actually, the Native Americans had a much better form of democracy before this. But the concept that, once the government is in place, it supersedes the rights of the people, fits very well with a backward democratic society like England.
After the Great Debate, most emerging nation states at least had a written constitution. You could see what the rules were. It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But you had a framework around which to organise and to demand your rights.
In England, you don’t have a written constitution. You have a democracy by the Grace of God and Will of Her Majesty the Queen. And if the queen, or her grandchildren, or whoever else god chooses, decides you are not entitled to a democracy, it is over – unless you want to fight, to take up arms, or there is a Cromwell among you! Even some of the weakest democracies in Africa have written constitutions. As I said, this is not all it is cracked up to be.
So that Great Debate which preceded the understanding of elites in society still has relevance. It separated out the difference between nationalism and national identity. Everybody is entitled to a national identity. The nation is not a structure. A nation is a collective of people – a Scottish nation, an Irish nation, any nation. It is a cultural representation. But the state is simply an administrative function. It ought to have a written constitution, and the people living within that jurisdiction should be the people who decide the rules.
And this is what Scotland is doing and why wouldn’t they? If the UK is such a wonderful place then why would so many people be trying to get out of it? It is not a united kingdom. In fact the UK was the first step in the creation of British imperialism. My father taught me that British imperialism was built on rape and plunder throughout the world. That was how it gained its wealth. Look at all the museums. Walk around and everything you see you stole – not you, you weren’t there!
But the state built itself up on the slavery of Africa, the mineral wealth of South America, the genocide of Native Americans, and the destruction of Aboriginal Australia.
Nothing great about the UK
Get over it! There is nothing great about the UK. When you look at the Scottish debate, and if you go up there as I have, what exactly is it about? It is a different conversation. It is not a conversation amongst young people, working class, women and communities about Scottish nationalism being better than English nationalism. That’s not the conversation that is happening. It is a conversation about taking power into local hands. It seriously challenges such 21st century concepts as:- the reason we haven’t got an NHS, the reason you can’t keep people in education, the reason people are dying of cancer, and the reason we don’t have anything for mental health is there isn’t enough money.
We have plenty of money in the country. The country isn’t poor. If you were in Guinea-Bissau you could say we don’t have the money. The reason we don’t have enough money to look after the citizens of this country is that the state and government have become nothing but the whipping boy of capitalism. It has become nothing but the slave of the banks and private corporations.
The country has plenty of money. But, if you want to build a society fit for human beings, with a proper health service, education service, that looks after its elderly, that pays its workers, shares its wealth, then you have to have a government that has a large public purse. For a government to have a large public purse it has to have the ability to tax the rich. You have to have a government that, if the rich don’t want to part with their money, then it nationalises the resources that the country needs.
What has the UK given all of us? It has taken away our public transport system. It has destroyed our NHS. It has weakened our trade unions. It has created sectarianism and racism. It has set men, women and children against each other. For what reason? To preserve the wealth of the wealthy and to make us believe that it is somebody else’s fault. It is the poor person’s fault that poor people are sick. It is the poor person’s fault that the poor don’t have an education. And that is what they are asking us to preserve.
A new democracy in the hands of the people
The new conversation in Scotland is for localised democracy, for people beginning to take power into their own hands. A new conversation is taking place in community halls about Trident, in universities about migration, and on the streets involving the ordinary people in Scotland. That’s the conversation people are having. It isn’t a ‘Braveheart’ conversation. It’s not an anti-English conversation. It’s an energetic conversation about a new democracy in the hands of the people.
And it is not only Cameron who is worried about a ‘Yes’ vote. Mr. Salmond must be frightened. The demands of the ‘Yes’ campaign put across by Salmond would only create a separate system not unlike the system Blair brought about.
So imagine that conversation if Scotland voted ‘Yes’. It is no longer an abstract conversation about hope, You have to make it work, because it belongs to you. It is easy to have a conversation about Trident when it doesn’t belong to you. But when you have to take the decision whether to shift or not to shift it, the conversation opens up. This will make a difference in every part of the UK.
Will Scotland drift off into the melting ice? Will a new chasm emerge or a new wall grow up in the middle of the night? Oh, I can’t see my relatives in Glasgow! Does anybody seriously believe that on September 20th people will say, “Oh, what will I do with the pound?”
There will be a discussion about currency. There will be a discussion about the membership of the EU. More important is the nature of the discussion and how it begins to change the nature of the discussion south of the border.
Because once you have a localised conversation based on the needs of the people, the majority being working class, then you no longer have an English conversation. You have a Liverpool, Manchester and Yorkshire conversation about how people are surviving in their regions. You don’t have a conversation that is controlled by the interest of the City of London. You have a conversation that is controlled by working people on this side of the border.
And how does the conversation in Northern Ireland relate to a United Kingdom that no longer exists? How do you build up a false loyalty based on sectarianism and bigotry? How do you justify that loyalty when its basis is being whittled away?
We already have a new conversation in Scotland about the need for more people. You already have a more progressive immigration policy. This would also open up a new conversation on immigration in the Northern Ireland. I keep on saying that, if you know of anyone who is thinking of immigrating to the UK, please send them to Belfast. We need more people. Actually we used to have 8.5 million, till Britain starved us. We’re still 3 million short!
A ‘Yes’ vote is not simply important for Scotland. It allows us to deconstruct the colonial and imperial relationship that has existed in these islands; and to put together a federation (soviets if you like – I would!), a collective grouping of equal regional bodies that represents the needs of the people who live in them. That’s why a ‘Yes’ vote is historic.
You can not build a fair British/Celtic Isles until you dismantle that aberration of democracy – the United Kingdom. My mother told me that the queen of England was a gracious and noble lady, but my father said she was the receiver of stolen goods and the inheritor of the butcher’s apron. This doesn’t mean she is a bad person, or that she is personally responsible. But the relationship of the people in this room to the queen is that she owns you, and you have to behave like British subjects. I am not and never will, of my own consent, be anybody’s subject.
So, the Scottish conversation is about democracy. It is about disentangling the undemocratic colonial knot and preparing ourselves for a fairer society, a democratic society of equals. We want to eradicate poverty, racism and the narrow nationalism represented by UKIP, the Orange Order and the DUP. However, if you want to eradicate poverty, the discussion is not only political and social, it is economic, then unless the means of production and the wealth are in the hands of the people, the distribution of wealth will never be.
This is a slightly edited version. The full version can be seen at http://links.org.au/node/4039. (Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal )