The following article, written by Steve Freeman of the Republican Labour Education Forum in England, locates the current travails of the SNP and its impact on the wider Scottish independence movement in the wider crisis of the post-war UK state and British social monarchy. It points to the need for a republican approach in Scotland and England (as well as Wales and Ireland) to breakout of this impasse.
SCOTLANDS TRAVAILS FROM ENGLAND (OR SCOTLAND’S TRAVAILS AND ENGLANDS’ WOES)
The latest twist in the political game between England and Scotland was the arrest of Peter Murrell. With all the police milling about and tents in Sturgeon’s garden, I was expecting dead bodies would be dug up soon. Would Murrell and the former First Minister be charged with the murder of Alex Salmond? Who was the body double now impersonating him as leader of Alba?
These and many such questions are swirling about in England. Certainly this kind of thing doesn’t happen down here. There are no police tents set up outside Ten Downing Street to track down all the Russian money and other dubious donations to the Tory cause. No loading up boxes of incriminating files, no arrests and nothing to bring Tory crimes to book. Politics in Tory England and SNP Scotland are in a different place.
However, there are connections and parallels. The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon took place about the same time as the exclusion of Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a Labour MP. Sturgeon and Corbyn represent two versions of social democracy, Scottish and Anglo-British. Despite their allegiance to the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament, the government saw both as a threat to the state. So their defeat and removal from influence is a cause for quiet celebration in the corridors of power and highlights an impasse for the left in both countries.
We need to locate the current crisis of social democracy in the demise of the British ‘social monarchy’, or welfare state, created during and after the Second World War. After 1979 the Thatcher government abandoned it and thirty years of neo-liberalism more or less demolished it. The 2007-8 banking crisis and subsequent austerity policies turned the UK into a degenerated social monarchy. The 2014 Scottish and 2016 EU referenda showed millions losing confidence in Westminster and wanting radical change. This alienation took different forms in Scotland and England.
The UK’s liberal union state is breaking down. Its institutions in Westminster and Whitehall, in the police, health service, social care, education and prisons are in crisis. An epoch of degeneration and putrefaction is a breeding ground for racism and fascism and the ‘death of democracy’. But it also creates conditions where democratic republicanism is urgent and necessary to defend and extend our democratic and social rights in the face of growing authoritarian rule.
This epoch created political conditions that propelled Sturgeon (2014) and Corbyn (2015) to become social democratic leaders of their parties. Instead of leading a fight for a republican programme, they promised to restore a broken social monarchy on a Scottish or a British basis, presented as a step towards independence or socialism. We can locate their failure first and foremost in their political programmes, not in exhaustion, dodgy financial accounting or refusing to endorse lies about anti-Semitism. If the crisis demands democratic republican answers, Sturgeon’s SNP and Corbyn’s Labour did not provide them.
It now looks as if the SNP-led national democratic movement has hit the buffers. Sturgeon established hegemony over the SNP edging it forward at a snails pace, waiting for the dial of public opinion to switch to independence. Then the force of moral suasion would overwhelm the British government into conceding IndieRef2. A slow constitutional road to another referendum caused disquiet in the ranks of the SNP.
Scotland seems to have arrived at a similar impasse that once afflicted the Irish national movement in the nineteenth century, following the well-trodden constitutional, or legal, road to independence. There is no such road unless England becomes a republic committed to Scottish self-determination. At present there seems little prospect of this. Hence the time is ripe for an open break with constitutional nationalism.
The most important distinction between constitutional nationalism and democratic republicanism is that the latter does not recognise the sovereignty of the Crown-In-Parliament. Laws emanating from Westminster have no authority in Scotland unless the Scottish parliament ratifies them. It stands upside down the recent decisions taken by British Ministers that the Crown does not recognise a law passed by the Scottish parliament on gender recognition. That can cut both ways.
Republicanism, based on grass roots democracy and citizens’ self-organisation, is a precondition for Scotland becoming a self-determining republic. It is inherent or incipient in the crisis of a degenerate social monarchy. It took the 2014 referendum campaign to ignite it. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) brought republican activism to the campaign and gained support amongst the left in England, Ireland and Wales. Cameron and Brown were run so close that Her Majesty had to send a coded message for voters to ‘think carefully’.
Subsequently the Radical Independence Campaign was saved from termination and come forward with a more overtly republican programme. That surely has to be the way forward. The Declaration of Calton Hill now gives impetus to renewing and rebuilding the movement with the possibility of winning more support in England, Wales and Ireland. This is why the Republican Labour Education Forum has given its support to the Declaration.
Republicanism prepares the Scottish people for the future. It is more likely to persuade the Crown to gamble on a second referendum, as Cameron did, before support for popular sovereignty becomes too strong. It has, potentially, more leverage than the constitutional nationalist tactic of taking the begging bowl to Downing Street or the Supreme Court and being told No.
Looked at from England, Scotland’s politics works, at least on the face of it, on a different dynamic. It spins around the axis of Unionists versus Nationalists, whilst English politics continues to revolve around Conservatives and Labour with both parties saluting the Union Jack. English politics is still based on old class model where the Labour Party is supposed to represent the working class against the Tories backed by the landed aristocracy, City bankers and the business class. Starmer’s new Labour is disabusing English socialists from that idea even if they still think the demise of Sturgeon is a victory for old style British socialism.
In England, republicanism seems more or less absent from mainstream social democratic politics as the Republican Labour Education Forum has pointed out. But everything is not always what it seems. Below the radar the impulse towards republicanism is germinating. Politics shifted in 2016 after the EU referendum when England voted to leave the EU and Scotland voted to remain. The majority in England reflected a rise in a new English nationalism, promoted by UKIP and the Tory right who took over under the leadership of Boris Johnson.
The majority vote in Scotland expressed pro-European attitudes of the majority of the Scottish people. England’s majority to leave ignores a country divided between the Anglo-British and Anglo-Europeans. The Anglo-British wanted to leave the EU and keep Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the UK. Those on the left who supported this equated it to a British Road to Socialism. The Anglo-Europeans are those thinking of England as a European country and who want a closer more democratic relationship with the rest of the continent.
In England the focus of the left has been the Corbyn movement that reached its zenith in 2018 before its decline and defeat in the 2019 general election. Now we are in a period of purging his supporters from the Labour Party. Although Corbyn had supporters throughout the UK, it was mainly an English movement connected to the organised working class and still exists, even if now disoriented and divided. It has some parallels in Scotland’s social democratic nationalist movement.
Corbyn’s politics did not get the exposure that Sturgeon had from being First Minister. In the 2019 election, Johnson and Corbyn represented the two poles of mass politics in England still branded under the long established names – the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Labour Party. We can only recognise how extraordinary this was if we go back to the 1990s and remember the marginalised politics of Enoch Powell, an English nationalist, and Tony Benn, an English republican.
Thirty years later the heirs of Powell and Benn confronted each other in a general election. We can think of this as a contest between Powell-Johnson and Benn-Corbyn fuelled by English nationalism (i.e. Anglo-British) with its slogan “Get Brexit Done” and a feeble and loyalist ‘republicanism’. Corbyn, of course did not stand on a republican programme. Johnson’s English nationalism was victorious with the backing of the entire establishment of the Crown, the City, the Tory press and sections of the Labour Party.
The degeneration of the social monarchy is remaking politics in England as a confrontation of nationalism and a kind of closet republicanism that dare not speak its name. The big difference between Scotland, where nationalism and republicanism are allies agreeing on the necessity of constitutional change and England where Anglo-British nationalism and republicanism are opposed. This reflects the fact that nationalism means something different in Scotland than in England.
The ousting of Sturgeon and Corbyn may suggest that politics is returning to ‘normal’ after the turmoil of the Corbyn-Johnson years. Has Sunak and Starmer restored calm conservatism? In the epoch of degeneration, calm is an illusion and a moment before many more storms. The Coronation on 6 May and the Declaration of Calton Hill are straws in the wind and a reminder that there is a different direction to go before we face the most racist general election we have seen.