This article by Allan Armstrong (RCF) looks at the aftermath of the May 6th elections in Scotland, Wales and England, the current situation in Northern Ireland, and then to the political significance of new movements from below across these islands, culminating in the people of Govanhill challenging the UK state’s Home Office Border Agency’s attempted forceable removal of two migrants in Kenmure Street in Glasgow on May 13th.

Introduction

On May 6th, simultaneous elections were held for the Holyrood and Cardiff Bay devolved assemblies, the London mayor, the English local councils and the Westminster Hartlepool constituency. The outcomes of these elections and by-election have highlighted the very different political situations in the constituent units of the UK state. Furthermore, the ongoing political crisis in Northern Ireland, most immediately focussed on the much narrower DUP leadership election on May 14th, just adds to this.

The multifaceted political, economic, social and environmental crises which face us have focussed on the inability of the existing UK state constitution to address these. The British ruling class, with its long historical unionist and related imperial experience, is the most conscious of this. They have opted for a Right populist and reactionary unionist strategy to address their problems. Constitutional nationalists are also aware of particular shortcomings of the UK state, but mainly in regard to its impact on their own particular nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland/Ireland, and not to the UK’s deeper nature as a profoundly anti-democratic, unionist and imperialist state, based on the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster.

Nevertheless, aware of the current significance of constitutional issues, constitutional nationalists have emerged as the principal leaders of struggles against the UK government in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In addition, some liberal unionists have made weaker criticisms of the UK government’s reactionary unionist offensive, particularly in Wales. There is a wider, but still weaker British liberalism, acting under these combined pressures, hoping for cosmetic reforms of the UK state, e,g. ‘Devo-Max’ (which they misleadingly term ‘federalism’, something impossible under the Crown-in-Westminster set-up). They are also concerned about what they see as the unsavoury turn to Right populist politics under Johnson’s Tory government, downplaying their own role in preparing the grounds for this. However, today it is probably the Left in these islands, through a combination of economistic and national exceptionalist thinking[1]THE BRITISH LEFT AND THE UK STATE, that is least aware of the significance of the political domination of constitutional issues and their connections across these islands.

This article will begin by using the snapshot view provided by the recent elections to examine the political situations in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. It will then examine the British ruling class’s changed all-islands strategy. They have abandoned their liberal unionist project of ‘Devolution-all-round’ combined with the ‘Peace Process’ in Ireland, and adopted a reactionary unionist, centralisation of the UK state strategy with its roll-back of their previous devolutionary deal supplemented by Europhobic scapegoating.

This article will then deal with the political limitations of the Left when it comes to addressing these issues. They have long been brought up to accept elections are won on the basis of “It’s the economy stupid”.  But the current subordination of economic (and social and environmental) issues makes it very hard for this Left to recognise the centrality of the constitutional issue. In contrast to their armoury of immediate economic and social demands, (e.g. higher wages, defend the NHS), or even economic-environmental demands (e.g. a Green New Deal), this Left has no immediate political demands of its own, tending to tail-end those of others instead.

Therefore, in arguing that the political situation we confront today is based on a recognition that “It’s the constitution stupid”, this article will conclude by offering an immediate, democratic, republican ‘internationalism from below’ constitutional alternative based on the upholding of the sovereignty of the people.

1. Scotland

In Scotland on May 6th, the Nicola Sturgeon-led SNP won 64 out of 129 Holyrood seats – 1 short of an absolute majority. This was achieved on 47.7% of the constituency vote and 40.3% of the regional list vote. The turnout in the Holyrood election was 63.7% (up 7.6% on 2016). This compares with the 68.7% turnout in the 2019 Westminster election (which has a more restricted franchise on both age and ethnicity grounds). In Scotland, the significance of Holyrood is seen to be in the same league as that of Westminster. Here ironically the SNP are even more dominant (48 out of a total of 59 MPs) because of the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting system, although disadvantaged by the more restricted franchise. Indeed, for many, participation in the Westminster elections is seen only as a necessary transition to a Westminster-less Scottish future.

In the Holyrood election, the socially liberal and constitutional nationalist SNP saw off first the combined conservative unionist challenge of the Scottish Tories (31 MSPs, no change), Labour MSPs (22 MSPs, down 2) and the Lib-Dems (4 MSPs, down 1); secondly the socially conservative and populist but still constitutional nationalist challenge of Alex Salmond’s Alba; and thirdly the reactionary unionist challenges from Reform UK (which lost its sitting MSP, a Tory defector) and UKIP (with many earlier UKIP supporters switching to the Tories, hoping, as in England, to push them further in a Right populist and reactionary unionist direction), the new Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party and George Galloway’s latest vanity vehicle, All for Unity. The political eclipse of openly reactionary unionist parties is to be welcomed. Furthermore, the political disappearance of hybrid Right/Left nationalist populists, George Galloway (now a Right ultra-British unionist) and Tommy Sheridan (a more socially conservative, Scottish Left populist) is also a positive development. They have both done much political damage on the Left.

The Scottish Greens also improved their position on May 6th, gaining an extra 2 MSPs, all on the regional list vote (8.2%). An immediate issue is whether they will enter a formal coalition government with the SNP, something its more centrist leaders, Patrick Harvey and Lorna Slater, favour. If this happens, it will be argued that such a coalition strengthens the case for pushing IndyRef2, backed by an absolute majority of 65 MSPs – 72 in favour, 57 against. However, a coalition would more clearly tie the Scottish Greens in with the SNP leadership’s neo-liberal economic and social (in education and health) policies and its very cautious independence strategy. This is unlikely to make much headway against Johnson’s reactionary unionist UK government.

This approach could also lead to some tensions within the Scottish Greens from rank and file members, reinvigorated by participation in direct action along with Extinction Rebellion, and in active social campaigns, e.g. Living Rent. Differences could emerge over whether or not to reaffiliate to a re-founded national Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). In practice, the Scottish Greens’ work in the original national RIC was confined to its Left members, including Maggie Chapman, now however elected as a list MSP.

But the continued absence of any independent Left political challenge to constitutional nationalism still provides a later opening for a more socially conservative, but also more street orientated nationalism, aimed at putting pressure on the SNP.  Even if this doesn’t take the form of a Salmond-led Alba, after his failure to make any electoral breakthrough, Alba still has 2 Westminster MPs and 13 local councillors. Alba’s two MPs are very unlikely to survive another Westminster election. There may, however, be opportunities for Alba local councillors in next year’s local council elections, with its own Proportional Representation (PR) system of voting. And with Alba having no MSPs, and only 2 MPs with little future prospects, it will feel less restrained. This could lead to Alba office bearers in Scotland Now re-emphasising the importance of extra-parliamentary activity after Covid-19, but making a more strident criticism of the SNP (and the Scottish Greens) than its predecessor, All Under One Banner, when many of its leading members were still then in the SNP.

2. Wales

In Wales, in contrast to Scotland, Labour emerged the winner on May 6th. Labour took 30 seats representing exactly half of the Senedd’s 60 MSs. This was achieved on the basis of 39.6% of the constituency vote and 36% of the list vote. This compares to the SNP’s failure to win a majority at Holyrood by 1 seat, despite having a higher level of support in both the Scottish constituency and regional list votes. The Senedd election turnout was 46.5% (only up 1.2% on 2016), considerably less than for the Holyrood election, and also lower in comparison to the 66.6% turnout in Wales in the 2019 Westminster election. However, the franchise was also extended to 16-18 year olds for the first time, following the precedent established in Scotland.

Labour in Wales has a liberal unionist record compared to Labour’s woeful conservative unionist record in Scotland. This helps to explain Labour’s better performance in Wales. Interestingly, Welsh Labour, despite its official earlier pro-Remain stance in Brexit-voting Wales (which contributed to its losses in the 2019 Westminster general election) still performed better than Scottish Labour, whose official Remain stance coincided with that of Remain voting Scotland. In Wales in 2019, the Tories (and even the Brexit Party) were seen by many previous Labour supporters as a better vehicle for ensuring Brexit; whilst in Scotland the SNP was seen as a better vehicle to support Remain. But in the Senedd elections, liberal unionist, Welsh Labour has already partially retrieved its position (up 1 MS) whereas conservative unionist Scottish Labour has fallen further back in the Holyrood elections (down 2 MSPs). This despite having a new more media savvy (albeit further to the right) leader in Anas Sawar. The failure of the other Scottish Labour leadership candidate, Monica Lennon, closed off a revived Labour backed, liberal unionist option in the Holyrood election.

Thus, although the Welsh Tories won a total of 16 MSs, 3 more than they had before, relatively little of their vote came at the expense of Labour. This was different from Labour’s drubbing by the Tories in the simultaneous Westminster by-election and local elections in England.  In Wales, the Tories mopped up the votes which had previously gone to reactionary unionist UKIP in 2016 (when it had 7 MSs). As in Scotland, the openly reactionary unionist parties in Wales, in this case, UKIP, Reform UK and Abolish the Welsh Assembly, failed to make any breakthrough. This was also a positive development. It remains to be seen, though, to what degree the Welsh Tories, following Johnson, will decide to take a reactionary unionist stance in an attempt to undermine the liberal unionist and constitutional nationalist dominated Senedd (44 out of 60 MSs) .

The constitutional nationalist Plaid Cymru vote fell back marginally, although it gained an extra seat, giving them a total of 13 MSs. Plaid’s voting decline, however, was in largely English-speaking South Wales, where it lost its only constituency seat (held by former party leader and republican, Leanne Wood). However, Plaid increased its vote in Welsh-speaking Wales. Plaid also faced Propel, an Alba-like, populist, Welsh nationalist party, led by controversial former Plaid MS, Neil McAvoy. They also faced a smaller right wing nationalist party, Gwlad. These challenges, like that of Alba in Scotland, were seen off, with McAvoy losing his Senedd seat. However, Propel still has 8 local councillors, who, like those in Alba, had defected from their former party.

Recent opinion polls have registered an increase in support for Welsh independence. In addition, there has been the impact of the 15,000 strong YesCymru, similar to, but much larger than Scotland Now. But this was not reflected in the voting for the Senedd. Therefore, the election result could draw Plaid back into its previously ‘Devo-Plus’ approach, having only recently made a move towards actively promoting Welsh independence. In support for acting in a ‘defend the Senedd’ capacity, Plaid could become the Welsh-speaking, North and West Wales ally to Labour’s English-speaking, South and North-East Wales. This would be going back to the liberal unionist support role Plaid has long taken. The pressure to adopt this approach could be reinforced if Johnson steps up his attacks on the post-1998 ‘Devolution-all-round’ settlement. Alternatively, Plaid could settle into being an ethnic (cultural) nationalist party based largely in Welsh-speaking North and West Wales.

The Welsh Greens, now for the first time committed to Welsh independence (albeit, unlike their Scottish Greens, still in a shared party with the English Greens), increased their vote, but not enough to gain a Senedd seat. Plaid, with relatively low representation in the former coal mining areas of South and North-East Wales, but strong in North and West Wales, is able to put over a more convincing Green face than an SNP, which has long placed its emphasis on ‘Scotland’s Oil.’  Welsh Labour is also to the Left of Scottish Labour (and increasingly Labour in England), which also limits the growth of the Welsh Greens.

If tension between a formal coalition-seeking Scottish Green leadership and some in the more movement-orientated rank and file membership could emerge in Scotland, then the political pressures on the Welsh Greens could take a different form. Will the Welsh Greens sharpen up their new pro-Welsh independence stance, and join Undod (the Welsh equivalent of the Radical Independence Campaign), or will they join a ‘defend the Senedd’ alliance, headed by Welsh Labour, backed by the Lib-Dems and Plaid?  Within this, the Welsh Greens might hope to replace the Lib-Dems as the third partner. The Welsh Lib-Dems lost their last constituency MS and only retained 1 regional list MS.

3. London and the rest of England

May 6th also saw the London mayor and Assembly elections. London seems increasingly like an ‘independent’ city-state[2]LONDON – THE NEW HANSEATIC LEAGUE. It has its own constitutionally privileged City of London inlier, protected from any democratic scrutiny, as well as having its offshore tax haven outliers, also beyond any democratic scrutiny. This, combined with the lack of major city-wide powers (after Thatcher abolished the GLC), and having an elected mayor and a London Assembly with a largely advisory role (so the mayor can develop even closer links with business), puts strong constraints on any meaningful democracy for the people living in this city. The franchise is more restricted in terms of age than either the Scottish or Welsh parliamentary elections.

In the mayoral election, Labour’s Sadiq Khan retained his position, albeit with a 2.2% drop in his vote since 2016. But the Greens gained a 3.6% electoral increase, mainly scooping up lost Labour voters. The Tory candidate gained a 1.6% increase in the party’s vote, hardly touching Labour or even taking that much of UKIPs 5.5% drop in the vote. London’s very multi-ethnic workforce has made it a barrier to Right populist and far Right Brexiteers. Even the Tories felt the need to put forward a black mayoral candidate. This time they more quietly cultivated Hindu and Sikh anti-Muslim voters, compared with their last candidate’s more open but unsuccessful resort to bogus anti-semitism and Islamophobia to undermine Khan’s last attempt to become London’s first Muslim mayor.

The turn-out in the mayoral election though was only 42%, a 3.1% drop from the last election. But Labour is still able to take some advantage of the transferable vote (TV) system which operates in London and the other mayoral elections in England. In these other elections, Labour won 10 out of 12 mayors (up 2). However, whether in Teesside with its Tory landslide (72.8%) or Greater Manchester with its Labour landslide (67.3%) the electoral turnout – 34% and 34.7% respectively – was much less than in the Scottish, Welsh or London mayoral and Assembly elections.

The FPTP electoral system  operates in Westminster and English local council elections. There is a more age restricted franchise in both of these elections, and a more ethnically restricted franchise in the Westminster elections. In the various local elections held in England. on May 6th, Labour lost 326 councillors and control of 8 councils, whilst the Tories gained 235 councillors and control of 13 more councils. Therefore, it is not surprising that Johnson has announced the Tories’ intention to bring in legislation extending FPTP voting to the mayoral elections.

In the Westminster Hartlepool by-election, held on the same day, the Labour vote dropped 9%, whilst the Tories increased their vote by a massive 23%, mopping up both former Right populist Brexit Party and many Labour votes. However, there was also a lower turnout (42.7%) compared with the 2019 general election (57.9%). Nevertheless, to underscore the Right’s triumph in Teesside, the successful Tory candidate still considerably increased the party’s total vote in the by-election (from 11,869 to 15,529) and the Independent pro-‘free port’ candidate came third with 9.7% of the vote.

4. Northern Ireland

Unlike Scotland, Wales or England, there were no devolved assembly or local council elections in Northern Ireland on May 6th. (The previously post-1998 shared dates of Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont elections were broken after 2016, re-emphasisng Northern Ireland’s semi-detached political relationship to the UK.) But on May 14th there was an election for a new DUP leader, and another is planned soon for a new UUP leader. Meanwhile, there has been a top-down shake up of Sinn Fein in Derry City, with its two current MLAs dropped as candidates for the next Stormont election.

The DUP has only been prepared to work within the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) framework, as long as it has been in the dominant position on the Northern Ireland Executive (NIE) and at Stormont. The DUP has reluctantly had to concede that the GFA is the method chosen by the British ruling class, the UK state and by Tory, Labour and Lib-Dems to maintain wider unionist rule in Northern Ireland. To try and increase its influence, though, the DUP has on occasions withdrawn from the NIE and Stormont. Behind-the-scenes it has sought support from the Loyalist Community Coalition (LCC) based on the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Army and the Red Hand Commandos. These organisations resort to extra-parliamentary action to increase the pressure.

The 2019 Westminster election results publicly demonstrated that the DUP had overplayed their hand, though, when they thought they could pressure first Theresa May then Boris Johnson. The terms for the maintenance of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are decided by the British ruling class, not by their chosen minions in Northern Ireland. Following Johnson’s success in the 2019 Westminster election, the Tories reinstated the Northern Ireland Executive (NIE) on January 11th, 2020. (This policy, coupled to reconvening Stormont, had also formed part of Corbyn’s 2019 Labour manifesto, highlighting that, along with opposition to any Scottish IndyRef2 and support for Brexit, Labour shared much of the same constitutional approach to the UK as the Tories).

Former DUP leader, Arlene Foster was made to carry the can for DUP hubris. Party opponents used her refusal to vote in support of ‘gay conversion therapy’ (she abstained) in a Stormont vote, as an example of her failure to uphold ‘true’ Protestant unionist values. She has been forced to resign as leader by the further Right in her party, led by Edwin Poots, Free Presbyterian and member of the the US Right influenced, Protestant fundamentalist, Caleb Foundation.

Following the disaster, due to the DUP’s absence from Stormont from 2017-20, of their failure to prevent sex marriage and abortion rights being legally introduced into Northern Ireland (although the actual implementation of abortion rights, as in the Republic of Ireland, is still very limited), the DUP upon its return to the NIE has focussed its attentions on the UK/EU Protocol. They argue that this undermines ‘Ulster’-Britishness.  Fighting the Protocol has become their new campaign to reunite Ulster Unionism. After their recent experience, the party doesn’t envisage an immediate walk out from Stormont. Instead, key leaders advocate a refusal to work with the GFA’s UK/Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland intergovernmental bodies, in an attempt to further undermine the GFA.

Whilst publicly dismissed by some as a largely symbolic gesture, many privately know that Poots and his allies’ actions are potentially far more serious. Like Foster before the December 2019 general election, he is working with the LCC, with its a record of street violence and paramilitary activity. Only the most naïve would believe that the eruption of mob violence on the Shankill Road and surrounding streets in April was solely the product of alienated local youths. However, the UK government has publicly gone along with this view. Northern Ireland’s continued semi-detached position permits the UK government to adopt a kid-glove approach to policing Loyalist youths burning out buses and attempting to invade nationalist West Belfast.

The election on May 14th for DUP leader, the first ever, was confined to their 28 MLAs and 7 MPs. It reflected some of the tensions within the party. Poots only beat his challenger, Sir Geoffrey Donaldson, by 19 to 17 votes. Donaldson is only a few lambeg drumbeats behind Poots but he is not a member of the Presbyterian Free Church. He wanted to give the UK government a little more leeway with the Protocol, understanding they want to maintain the Union too, but in their own way. But the vote went for the representative of the ‘Provisional wing of the seventeenth century’!

The UUP is also going to have an election, this time of their whole membership. The front candidate  Doug Beattie MLA, is a more UK government accommodating candidate. He is also prepared to work with Irish nationalists (meaning the SDLP) and is for the disbanding the LCC.[3]Doug Beattie vows to challenge DUP if he becomes new UUP leader

The problem for both the DUP and UUP is that many ordinary Loyalists, unlike their party leaders, have experienced no economic benefits under the post GFA order. Instead, they fall back on Loyalism’s psychological compensatory mechanisms – public celebrations of the British monarchy and empire, the Protestant establishment, union jack waving, marking out territory with red, white and blue painted kerbs and triumphalist arches, and holding coat trailing marches through predominantly Irish nationalist areas. This is all they seem to have left. The structure of the LCC and the Orange Order gives the ‘ex’-paramilitary groups and local lodges a lot of autonomy. This means they can take their own action, which can also be publicly disowned by their parent bodies.

The next Stormont election must take place by May 2022, but if the current political situation further unravels, it could take place before then. There is a possibility that the DUP could then cease to be the largest party at Stormont and would therefore no longer be entitled to holding the First Minister’s job. If such a situation came about, the DUP would very likely pull out of all aspects of the GFA. The LCC could be fully unleashed.

The DUP’s most recent NIE partner, Sinn Fein, also lost out badly in the December 2019 Westminster election, dropping 8.8% in support, with the more moderate constitutional nationalist SDLP gaining an extra 3.1%, the socially reactionary Aontu 1.2% (standing for the first time) and the Left social democratic, PbP gaining an extra 0.2%, giving it 0.9%. of the vote.

It is this political situation that has panicked Sinn Fein, especially after its heavy losses to the SDLP in the symbolic city of Derry. Unlike the DUP or UUP, there are no internal elections being held in Sinn Fein to address its problems. Instead, there has been a major top-down reconstitution of the party in the city.  Two of its existing MLAs have been forced to stand down for the next Stormont elections. Other local leaders have been marginalised. The situation in Derry is complex with Sinn Fein voter desertions to the SDLP, PbP, Aontu and dissident Republicans. But, despite Sinn Fein’s official Irish re-unification bluster, since the greatest electoral threat comes from the SDLP, this could lead to an attempt to occupy some of the SDLP’s more openly moderate, constitutional nationalist, political space.

Accepting an Irish reunification referendum certainly forms no part of British ruling class or UK state thinking. With a retreating British ruling class increasingly falling back on lost imperialist and closely related unionist grandeur, the loss of any UK territory is unacceptable.  Successive UK governments have in the past shown that they are prepared to go to some lengths in giving the Loyalists leeway, before later reining them in. The UK government has also used the recent  riots to put their own pressure on Sinn Fein. This is being done to further lower Sinn Fein’s sights and to maintain their role in policing the current constitutional order in Northern Ireland.

But Sinn Fein’s waning (albeit still substantial) influence in the ‘North’ is not going to stabilise the situation. With many on the Left, like the Irish nationalists, confining their attention to the changing proportion of Unionist/Loyalists and Nationalist/Republicans in Northern Ireland, another possibly less physically confrontational route to Irish reunification has been downplayed. Many young people from both backgrounds have begun to shed these two political blocs’ key indicators – support for socially conservative Presbyterian or Catholic values, and support for traditional nationalist ethnic  identities, whether ‘Ulster’- British or Irish. They have become involved in cross-border campaigns against social reaction and many see themselves as hybrid-Europeans, which contributed to the majority Remain vote in Northern Ireland in 2016. Those incoming migrant workers, who are a very recent phenomenon in an Ireland previously noted for its high rate of high emigration, also have no interest in a hardening border. These are the new forces whom Socialists should place at the heart of any reunification campaign.

5. An all-islands perspective

The methods used to maintain the UK’s constituent units within the wider state have to be tailored to suit the different problems they face in each. For Socialists this means a recognition of the significance of the British ruling class’s current shift away from their post-1997, neo-liberal, UK, EU and US backed, all-islands ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’.  This had been established by New Labour, following the failure of the Conservatives’ more limited initial ‘New Unionist’ moves confined only to Northern Ireland under the 1993 Downing Street Declaration.

In the 1997 general election, the Conservatives were wiped out in both Scotland and Wales (with the SNP doubling its MPs to 6, although Plaid Cymru’s vote only went up by a little). This ensured that New Labour extended the Conservatives’ ‘New Unionism’ through ‘Devolution-all-round’ to cover these two nations too. And this more comprehensive ‘New Unionism’ came to be accepted by both the Conservatives and Lib-Dems, showing that it had the overwhelming backing of British ruling class. Indeed, it was the David Cameron-led, Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition government, which put the last piece of this deal in place. In 2011, they backed a referendum and the acceptance of enhanced Welsh devolution in 2011.

The 2008 Crash, however, led to the first dent in neo-liberal hegemony. The Right populists emerged as the main leaders of the opposition, backed by the Far Right. Their first target was the EU, a longstanding bugbear for the Tory Hard Right. These latter-day Powellites had been cast to the political margins, along with the Left Morning Star and other Left Germanophobes.  However, EC, then EU membership increased trade and profits for British businesses; whilst EC/EU membership also provided some protection for workers, consumers and the environment, along with social and regional funding, during the dark days of full-blown Thatcherite neo-liberalism. But come the Crash, the EU leaders’ neo-liberal promise to lift the European periphery and declining regions from their economic backwardness was quickly abandoned.  Instead, they concentrated on the EU’s central purpose – the defence of the profits of the major financial, commercial and industrial companies of their core member states. This meant imposing draconian austerity, particularly harshly on the periphery – e.g. Greece and Ireland.

But worse for the City of London, one of the EU’s suggested remedies was greater regulation of the banks and other financial institutions. The Europhobes blamed austerity on the EU, as if Labour and Tory governments hadn’t been to the forefront of austerity drives. This way of thinking just provided cover for the new hedge fund owners and other companies wishing to compete in the world beyond the EU, but without having to pay the costs for workers’ pay and conditions, and consumer and environmental regulations, which they would have to accept whilst still in the EU. The EU also provided an excuse for trade union leaders (Right and Left) who were not prepared to challenge the draconian austerity measures initiated by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling and further stepped up under David Cameron, without any prompting from the EU..

In the 2009 EU election, the Right populist UKIP picked up 13 MEPS (including 2 in Wales) and the neo-fascist BNP picked up 2. By the time of the 2014 EU-election, although BNP support had fallen away, UKIP emerged as the first party, with 24 MEPs (including 3 in Wales and 1 in Scotland). UKIP also gained 7 MSs in Wales in the 2016 Senedd election. UKIP and the BNP argued that the EU was linked to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers to Britain, ‘stealing our jobs’, ‘taking our houses’ and ‘demanding free health care and welfare benefits’ from ‘our state’. And they also claimed that Muslim immigrants also wanted to ‘impose’ sharia law.

Both New Labour and the Tories had already done much to promote a ‘hostile environment’ for welfare recipients and undocumented migrants. Gordon Brown and Michael Gove had also pushed for an ethnic (cultural) definition of ‘Britishness’, designed to exclude Muslims in particular.  Such state-backed scapegoating was all grist to mill of the Hard Right Europhobes. It proved to be particularly damaging within working class communities, where self-organisation (unions, tenants and other community bodies) had been shattered under the Tories and New Labour’s neo-liberal offensive. Looking for scapegoats and saviours replaced looking for solidarity,

UKIP was to gain some representation in all four constituent units of the UK, with an MP in England, MEPs in England, Wales and Scotland, MSs in Wales, an MLA in Northern Ireland, and local councillors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, UKIP’s only substantial breakthrough at local council level was in England, with over 300 councillors by 2016. It never managed more than 2 in either Wales or Northern Ireland and never had any in Scotland. This highlighted a weakness for UKIP.  Although projecting an all-UK image, based on winning hybrid-British support for the most reactionary features of the UK state – celebration of the Union, Empire, monarchy, the military (and with local Orange fine-tuning in Scotland and Northern Ireland) – the heart of UKIP’s appeal was to an ethnic English nationalism.

6. The British ruling class’s turn to Right populism and reactionary unionism assisted by the Left Brexiteers and Lexiters

The 2016 vote for Brexit (in England and English-speaking Wales) provided the greatest impulse to Right populism and reactionary unionism. But sadly, a section of the Left, particularly the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and their breakaways contributed to this[4]INDEPENDENT SOCIALISTS AFTER THE DECEMBER 12TH GENERAL ELECTION. Prior to the EU referendum they hoped there might be a Left Brexit or a Lexit alternative , which could take the lead from the Right Populists around Farage and the Far Right in the BNP and the English, Scottish and Welsh Defence Leagues and their spin-offs, in challenging Cameron’s Tories. However, following the ‘Leave’ vote  it was Jeremy Corbyn, assisted by an inner coterie of Left Brexiters, who did most to help Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, deliver a Hard Brexit.[5]THE END OF SHORT-LIVED MAYBYNISM AND THE VICTORY OF FULL-BLOWN RIGHT POPULISM?

In the battle to give Corbyn suitable Brexit advice, the ‘Left’ Brexiteer, UNITE general secretary, Len McCluskey, proved to be more influential than the Lexiters. McCluskey was more than happy, with his ‘British jobs for British workers’, to provide a ‘Left’ Brexit cover for both the Right Leaver and Right Remainer anti-migrant attacks. His main attacks were confined to migrant supporting Left Remainers. The Lexiters in turn offered up apologetics for Labour’s ‘Left’ Brexiters but had little more to say than “EU bad”, “Tories bad”.

In the end, Left Brexiteers and Lexiters failed even more dismally to challenge the Hard Right’s leadership of the Brexit campaign than the Red Paper Collective or George Galloway’s ‘Just Say Naw’ campaign did in the Right-led ‘No’ campaign during IndyRef1. The Lexiters confined their main activities to trying to neutralise any prospect of a pro-migrant worker, pro-democratic ‘break-up of the UK’, ‘internationalism and multiculturalism from below’ challenge from the Left Remainers. Unable to get majority support in campaigning organisations, the Lexiters ensured that opposition to Brexit would not become their policy, for example in the post-2015 RIC, or even be discussed at a national level in the short-lived RISE (2015-17), promoted by the SWP breakaway, the International Socialist Group (ISG).

Despite most ‘Left’ Brexiteers and Lexiters being members of party (read party-sect) internationals, they made no attempt to mount EU-wide ‘internationalism from below’ campaigns. They confined their ‘internationalism’ to abstract propaganda. This confirmed their essentially ‘British road’ politics. The SWP and SP had supported ‘Yes’ during IndyRef1. However, this was largely done on a Scottish ‘national exceptionalist’ basis, updating a wider Irish ‘national exceptionalism’, which has been held by much of the British Left in the aftermath of the Irish Free State leaving the UK state and Northern Ireland being given semi-detached status under the Stormont regime.

A significant section of the British ruling class, already chastened by the 2008 Crash, had also become panicked by the closeness of the 2014 IndyRef1 vote. The UK’s declining status within the EU inner circle and the prospect of greater national democratic challenges to their unionist state, brought about a change in their thinking. They saw the 2016 EU referendum as an opportunity to ‘take back control’ and massively strengthen an authoritarian Britain; implement draconian new labour migration laws by creating a three tier workforce (British subjects, fixed term migrants and non-documented), slash protective workers’, consumers’ and environmental regulations; and become even closer to the US in a Right populist, ‘America First’/‘Britain Second’ dominated world order.

The British ruling class switch from majority support for neo-liberal Euroscepticism to majority support for Right populist-led Europhobia followed Johnson winning full control of the Tory Party. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, signed up to Johnson’s Brexit Deal a couple of months prior to the 2019 Westminster general election[6]Carney: Brexit deal ‘positive’ for UK economy. Meanwhile the City of London was pushing its own deals with the EU for its Channel Islands tax havens. (Not having quite so powerful backers, fishermen in Jersey who, along with other island residents, got no vote in the 2016 EU referendum have, in contrast, found their own economic interests ignored by the UK government both before and following Brexit[7]‘We’re piggy in the middle’: Brexit has made life impossible, say Jersey fishers).

7. Continued Lexiter denial after the 2019 Westminster general election

The overall UK results of the December 12th, 2019, Westminster election, with its Right populist and reactionary unionist victory, should have shattered any Left illusions in Brexit. (This also applies to the independent Left’s poor performance in the February 8th Dail elections , having given their earlier support to Irexit). Yet amazingly there are still some Lexiters in Scotland who are in a state of denial – “The growing reality that Brexit hasn’t delivered the apocalypse that many in the pro-Remain SNP and Green parties had been predicting.”[8]Alba and the Crisis of Indy Movement Leadership

Some neo-liberals, such as David Cameron have certainly made their peace with new Brexit order. This has been by highlighted by the Greensill Scandal, Cameron’s very highly paid lobbying of Tory Brexiteer ministers, Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak. However, Socialists should be looking at the consequences of Brexit Britain for the working class, including its migrant section (mainly excluded from the EU referendum and often bureaucratically excluded from the 2019 EU election). They should also be looking at the impact of Brexit Britain on democratic rights.

In Brexit Britain, the working class is seeing another even more draconian immigration bill to regulate migrant labour (modelled on Right wing Australian practice) with its stepped-up state promotion of ethnicism and racism; and the concerted attempts to breach workers’ existing conditions and pay contracts under Covid-19. An authoritarian Brexit Britain is being constructed with a repressive police bill massively curtailing the right to protest and a bill to provide legal impunity for police and informers’ crimes; a bill amnestying past and future members of the armed forces who resort to killing and torture[9]Frances Webber, Britain’s authoritarian turn, Race & Class, Volume 62, no. 4, pp. 106 -20; and the Internal Market Act’s curtailment of Scottish and Welsh devolution and its undermining of the tentative peace following the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit could never be separated from the wider Right populist and reactionary unionist offensive it was always central to.

Other Lexiters seem unable to comprehend that Sir Keir Starmer has also thrown his weight behind Brexit. They hark on about his ‘Peoples Vote’ past[10]Source Direct: Scotland and England’s Hart-lands. Starmer has made his pitch as leader of the British ruling class’s ‘fire and theft’ insurance party, for the time when Johnson falters. Belatedly following the ruling class, Starmer has no intention of reviving the prospect of EU membership. In Hartlepool, Labour’s formerly pro-EU candidate Dr, Paul Williams, clearly stated “We’re outside the EU, I don’t want to go back”[11]Dr Paul Williams in Hartlepool: “We’re outside the EU, I don’t want to go back”, and accepted his campaign office should be adorned with a union jack.

But you don’t defeat a triumphant Right in an election by suddenly adopting key elements of their thinking even if you do now accept them. Between Old Labour’s abandonment of welfarist social democracy and New Labour’s adoption of the economic aspects of Thatcherite neo-liberalism, it faced the prolonged out-of-office period of ‘New Realism’.  It took the adoption of New Labour colours before Blatcherite neo-liberal continuity was achieved after 1997.  Labour, under Starmer, wants to avoid that long out-of-office New Realist interval. He is trying to leapfrog to full-blown union jack waving, ‘Johnstarmism’. The old Blue Labour ‘UKIP-Lite’ politics, with its hostility to migrants and welfare dependants and its support for flag and family, are being rapidly accepted by Starmer.

8. From apologetics for British Right populism to apologetics for a more ambiguous Scottish Right/Left populism

If you were to ask why some on the Left continue to hang on to their Lexit Linus blanket, it would be best explained in their hopes to find something progressive in Right wing challenges to neo-liberalism, with their appeals to sections of the marginalised and alienated working class. This, and opposition to Tories, underpinned their Lexit siren calls from 2015-19. They showed little deeper understanding of the ruling class’s changing relationship to the UK state. They can see that Boris Johnson is no neo-liberal, but he s still to be opposed because he is a Tory. But the Lexiters’ attack on neo-liberalism can be continued in Scotland, because Nicola Sturgeon, following Alex Salmond (and the demise of Labour), remains its leading representative.

Only a few one-time Lefts and later Brexit supporters, e.g George Galloway, are prepared to back the Right populist, reactionary unionists, in their opposition to neo-liberal Sturgeon. However, the emergence of a more ambiguous Left/Right Scottish nationalist populism in the form of Salmond’s Alba Party, soon drew some Lexiters into its slipstream[12]Source Direct: The Spectre at the Feast and Source Direct: Blackmail, Derangement and Pied Pipers and Source Direct Election Profile: the Alba Party and Alba and the Crisis of Indy Movement Leadership. It is not that they don’t recognise Salmond’s own neo-liberal past and dubious leadership qualities, it is that they hope to relate to Alba Scottish independence supporters disenchanted with the SNP leadership’ inability to deliver IndyRef2. They have downplayed Alba leadership’s attempts to break from the civic national, rainbow alliance IndyRef1 approach to cultivate more socially reactionary forces.

This resembles the Lexiters’ earlier downplaying of the impact of the British chauvinist and racist appeal amongst atomised and alienated Brexit supporting workers. But these workers proved to be far more willing to support Right wing parties than to follow the Lexiters, or Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Left’ Brexit. In Scotland, there remains a  possibility for Socialists to relate to those showing an increased questioning of the SNP leadership’s IndyRef2 strategy, and who were attracted initially to AUOB, and now to Scotland Now (SN). SN’s Objects still reflect the civic national, rainbow coalition of IndyRef1. But the tensions within the SN, with an ‘Indy first and only’ component, were evident at the founding conferences. Although those of a socially reactionary disposition kept quiet, pointing instead to their proposed Holyrood election slates, these were soon abandoned once Salmond’s Alba Party made its appearance.

But any attempt to win over SNP leadership-questioning independence supporters can’t be done by trying to don ‘anti-woke’ clothing. This means either offering apologetics for, or just going along with, attempts to fragment a working class which can only act in meaningful solidarity on the basis of unity in diversity. With appeals to anti-transgender, homophobic or misogynistic prejudice, the ‘real’ working class soon becomes those who are male, straight and white, whether or not members of trade unions. And such thinking was very much part of the post-1945, British Labour and trade union social democratic legacy, and this period is still very much part of Leftist nostalgia. The best that most women, gays and black workers could expect back then was toleration, provided they accepted their subordinate position, and that included within the trade unions too. In today’s Right dominated political climate, even such toleration might not stretch very far.

Furthermore, in an attempt to distance themselves from the more obvious social reactionaries in Alba, its former Lexiter apologists have tried to identify a chimerical Left, based around the SNP’s old 79 Group – Kenny MacAskill, Jim Sillars and Alex Neil (although only the latter two publicly backed Brexit). However, the old 79 Group had long ditched any Left wing practice and  those members who became SNP ministers cynically used their past record to win support for the ‘New’ SNP by supporting Salmond in ditching party opposition to NATO at the 2012 conference. This parallels the 79 Group’s ‘Left’ Labour Scottish contemporaries, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, who later helped in the creation of New Labour through the ditching of Clause 4 in 1995. Indeed, it was the SNP’s acceptance of NATO which provided the basis for the 800 strong Radical Independence Conference in November 2012, following the anger of so many SNP members at this new turn.

On May 6th, Alba’s candidates, apart from sex pest and bully, Alex Salmond, included well-paid Westminster incumbents, lawyers, business owners, a misogynist, a racist and a conspiracy theorist. There wasn’t even a token trade union official, far less an actual worker as a candidate. Furthermore, such eager Left nationalist hopefuls as Tommy Sheridan and Craig Murray, who quickly dumped their earlier Solidarity and/or Alliance for Independence membership, were offered no Alba candidacies.

If these people allowed themselves to be used willingly by Salmond, then it raises the question of whether those like George Kerevan (a Marxist re-convert influenced by IndyRef1 after a long period of ‘New Times’ style neo-liberalism in the SNP), and the inner conter coterie (mainly ex-ISG with another ex-SWP member in rs21 involved) were just duped in their attempts to close down the RIC, prior to the formation of Alba. In throwing themselves behind a spurious ‘Left’ in Alba, it looks like they contributed to “the true danger of Alba {being} that it could amount to nothing.” But their feared May 6th outcome partly flowed from their illusions in the Alba ‘Left’s phony credentials, highlighted in this comment. “And, in establishing itself, {Alba) will have emptied the SNP of many of its most eloquent internal opponents, including Kenny MacAskill and, in all likelihood, many others to come.”[13]Source Direct: Blackmail, Derangement and Pied Pipers
Well after Alba’s May 6thelection result, there may not be so “many others to come”!

9. After May 6th – looking beyond Scotland to challenge reactionary unionism

For many living in Scotland, Wales or Ireland, it is the Right’s triumph in the Hartlepool by-election, the Teesside mayoral election and the massive Labour losses in the local council elections (and this following earlier losses), that has registered. This could easily play into some Scottish and Welsh nationalists’ more ethnic way of thinking, where ‘the English;, come to be seen in monolithic political terms, as ‘the enemy.’  Many Socialists in Ireland still think in ‘national exceptionalist’ terms and have not appreciated the wider potential for an immediate republican, ‘internationalism from below’ challenge across these islands. Therefore, the election results in England, to the degree they have registered at all in Ireland, will just confirm their idea of England’s political backwardness. There can be little doubt that a combined British unionist and imperialist politics has been more dominant in England, given the central role of the English component of the wider British ruling class in the creation of the UK and British Empire. And there is a particular Right version of British unionism which sees Britain as a ‘Greater England’, and can show either condescension or hostility to the Irish, Welsh or Scots, and in particular to minority Celtic languages. However,  there has always been a significant Scottish, Irish then ‘Ulster’ and smaller Welsh-British component to the hybrid-British ruling class, often to the forefront of British imperial ventures supported by local regiments recruited from each of these constituent units of the UK.

Nevertheless, there have been two recent indications of a possible shift in Left thinking in England. The first of these has been the large demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter (particularly in Bristol), the Women Uncut-led demonstrations (particularly in London) following the killing of Sarah Everard, and the protests against the Tories’ new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This increased willingness to take direct action in England has been prompted by the collapse of the Corbyn project and Labour being taken over by a neo-Blairite, Sir Keir Starmer. He is opposed to any meaningful challenge to the Johnson government, far less the UK state. He hopes through the promotion of a super patriotic, union jack waving, British military force supporting, law and order backing, Labour Party to be eventually called upon should Johnson’s own Right populist project go pear-shaped. Although demonstrators in England are already confronting the state, it will take more time to win many over to a wider challenge to the imperialist and unionist nature of the UK state (historically empire and union have been intertwined) with its anti-democratic Crown Powers based on the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster).

This leads to the second indication of a possible shift in Left thinking in England, amongst section of the Left intelligentsia, following the collapse of their Corbyn hopes. Many had opposed Scottish independence, during the 2012-14 IndyRef1campaign, or whilst Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party. They looked to Scotland to provide the Labour Party with a Westminster majority, to offset the more conservative forces in England. But, during the recent Holyrood election campaign, some on the Left joined with other leading intellectuals from the EU, to recognise the need for an independent Scotland. These signatories in England no longer retain their earlier belief that the UK led by Left social democratic Labour provides an adequate constitutional vehicle for reform. Indeed, they see the break-up of the UK state as the only hope in the face of Right populism. However, having overcome some earlier illusions in the nature of the UK state, they have transferred these to the leadership of the EU. They began their address with “Dear Heads of State and Government of the EU, President of the European Council, President and Members of the European Parliament, President and Members of the Commission”.[14]Europe for Scotland

This weakness though highlights the sort of campaign Socialists should be mounting. Following the EU leaders’ abandonment of any pretence that the EU exists to lift the economic and social conditions for the majority, we have seen Right populist attempts to break-up the EU (backed by similar forces in the USA and Russia) and the Far Right’s attempts to convert the EU into a ‘white Christian Europe’.  Lexiters tried to compete with the various Right Exiters (e.g. in the UK, Greece, Ireland) on a Left nationalist breakaway basis. And despite their party-sect ‘internationals’, they don’t even have an international vision to counter that of the Far Right, with their call for a ‘white Christian Europe’.

The EU bureaucracy has imposed its own ‘internationalism from above’ rules and regulations to maximise profits for  the ruling classes of their leading member states. This has been  done through a combination of internal cross-border liberalisation of markets and (largely) free internal movement of labour coupled to  the external protectionism of import duties and the Schengen walls to block migrants from outside the EU. But at the same time, the EU has produced an unanticipated new ‘internationalism from below’ response. There is now a multi-ethnic workforce throughout the EU’s member states (but particularly in the larger ones, including now ex-member the UK), with a much greater migrant component; shared membership of trade unions and other campaigning organisations; greatly increased educational contacts, particularly at the tertiary level; many more mixed personal relationships; and a vibrant multicultural scene, particularly in music.

It was much of this ‘internationalism from below’ aspect of European integration which the Brexiteers wanted to end. Once the ruling classes of the various EU member states had abandoned the prospect of any wider European unity for all, the last thing Socialists should have been doing was to tail-end the EU’s current Right populist, ethnic nationalist opponents. Instead, it is now time for Socialists to take up the abandoned baton of wider European unity, based not upon the  existing member states, but upon uniting their multi-ethnic workforces (workers and their families and partners form the majority of the 16.8 million EU and 49 million non-EU residents living within EU states other than those of their birth[15]EU Migrants in other EU Countries: An Analysis of Bilateral Migrant Stocks.) And as struggles for national self-determination in Catalunya, Scotland, a divided Ireland and Euskadi show, the EU’s make-up of existing states further contributes to its democratic deficit. The Socialist immediate answer to either an EU of the elites or the Far Right’s racist ‘white Christian Europe’ should be the creation of a democratic, federated, secular, social European Republic[16]THE REALITY OF THE EUROPEAN DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION. The social forces to achieve this are already there and encompass some of the most militant and politically conscious in Europe.

For Socialists in Scotland, this means developing a republican internationalist coalition. The tremendous events in Kenmure Street in Glasgow on May 13th, where the Govanhill community supported migrants threatened by the UK state with forced deportation, highlights the significance of republican defiance and ‘internationalism from below’. Their actions should provide an inspiration across these islands and beyond.

15th May 2021

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also see:

1. Glasgow says ’No Pasaran’ to the hostile environment – Robina Qreshi

Glasgow says “No Pasaran” to the Hostile Environment

2. What’s going on in Northern Ireland? – Allan Armstrong, Republican Socialiast Platform

What’s going on in Northern Ireland?

3. The power grab of the queen’s speech – Mike Small, bella caledonia

The power grab of the queen’s speech

4. The Alba Party and the Left in Scotland – Allan Armstrong, Republican Communist Forum

The Alba Party and the Left in Scotland

5. Freedom come all ye – Allan Armstrong, bella caledonia

 

Freedom Come All ye

6. Independent Socialists after the December 12th general election -from illusions in a Left Brexit to disillusioned Lexit from Brexit politics – Allan Armstrong

https://allanarmstrong831930095.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/socialists-and-december-12th-election.pdf