Monday, September 22, 2014
Only two major urban centres in Scotland voted ‘Yes’ in the independence referendum and, tellingly, they were the most working class ones: Glasgow and Dundee, my home town. Or I thought it was, but upon visiting Dundee at the weekend I found that the dreich post-industrial city of my upbringing had been replaced by something else. The casual visitor to the city square last Saturday would have come across a spontaneous gathering of hundreds of Yes supporters barely twenty-four hours after their defeat. It was the most working class political gathering I have ever encountered. There were two main arguments visible which, although Dundee had an exceptionally high ‘Yes’ vote, are also present in the rest of the Yes movement as it discusses where to go. The SNP from the platform, telling people to join their party and work for the 2015 General Election and the 2016 Holyrood Election, to either make sure new powers are delivered or a mandate for a new referendum is gained, and angry folk getting up and saying the whole thing is rigged and they want a recount. In some ways the hashtag 'the 45' (hopefully provisional given its implication of permanent minority status) captures some of the mood that the referendum was a beginning rather than an end. Here is my take:
I. There will not be a recount, but there will be a fair chunk of people who essentially do not accept the legitimacy of the state ruling them. This felt particularly the case in Dundee, but even if it's less than 5% of the Yes vote, that is still tens of thousands of people. Like previous instances where working-class people come face to face with the British state, they are now alienated from institutions that previously took their trust for granted: the BBC and the Labour Party, most noticeably. Where this mood goes after it becomes obvious there will be no recount and the promises of more powers are revealed as simply devolving austerity, I don't know. Some might wonder how anyone can believe that the result, with a 10% 'no' majority, can be questioned. I think it's obvious the vote was fair, and probably quite representative of politics in Scotland at the moment: but say you are a 17 year old in one of Dundee's larger schemes such as Charleston, Fintry, Kirkton or Whitfield. You belong to an age cohort that is about 72% Yes; your parents are from an age group 54% Yes; you live in an area 70-75% Yes within a town that was majority Yes. If you ever go to the 'pan-loafy' areas that voted No, people probably do not ask you about politics. Britain died in these parts of Dundee (and for that matter, Glasgow) in the 1980s. Once the hate-bombing from Westminster starts, the results will be even worse than that dismal decade. The notion that a majority of your compatriots would condemn you to such a fate because they were worried about interest rates is a bitter medicine to swallow: easier to believe that the 'No' majority simply does not exist. Unfortunately, the former seems to have been the case. A recount is not going to happen. In fact, if it were needed, why wouldn't they just rig that too?
II. The alternative put forward by the SNP is to join the party and campaign for 2015 at Westminster and 2016 at Holyrood. Thousands are taking this advice, and you can see why: the SNP is already there, it has a party machine, and it is credible in the everyday sense that parties are seen to be in capitalist parliaments. Another option being put forward is a pan-Independence alliance with the SNP. I think this would be a step back to pre-referendum politics, and away from the kind of movement that raised support for Yes by twenty percentage points. That support came from people who did not see Scottish independence as the be-all and end-all of politics, but something that expressed the desire for social justice. Was all that really just to have a Saltire flying over the food banks rather than a Union Jack? What would have been gained then? The SNP are not the 'Tartan Tories' of old - they have gained support by humane, mild, social democratic policies for which they deserve credit - but they are constrained by capitalist politics. When it comes to the crunch (and it will, see below) the pressure on them to remain 'credible' by enforcing cuts will be huge. Identifying a yes vote with them in that case would be likely to reduce it again from 45% to 25%.
III. The results, in so far as we can analyse them with only one exit poll, bear the above point out. The SNP made a number of concessions to conservatism with a small 'c' (keeping the monarchy, NATO, currency union and so on) that seem actually to have failed to bring their more conservative vote with them. The key divides in the referendum were age and class. Dundee and Glasgow voting 'yes' we know about, but at the counting station level the class divide was even starker. The age profile is telling: with the exception of a curious 'No' bump in the 18-24 range, if you had some of your adult life before Thatcher you were probably 'No'. If you didn't, you were probably 'Yes'. It seems reasonable to infer that neo-liberalism, rather than Scottish identity, is the underlying issue here. A local perspective clarifies matters further: why was Dundee 'Yes', and its hinterland of Angus 'No'? Dundee has become SNP in the past decade, but before that a lump of wood in a red rosette would win an election: indeed, one might quip, the experiment was carried out with repeated success in Dundee West. Angus is pure SNPshire. They have fourteen members on the local council: Labour has one. The Nationalists have had two decades to build hegemony there. Yet Angus was 'No'. Why? At a guess, the SNP council has looked after the farmers well, but not towns such as Forfar, Arbroath and Montrose. Yet those same farmers were solidly 'No', from the look of the signs in their fields. Angus council has imposed some niggling, petty cuts, especially in education: at an anecdotal level, those cuts were a reason for people to vote 'No', identifying the 'Yes' position with the SNP. Strengthening that identification would surely be unwise.
IV. Austerity Max is coming. David Cameron is almost certainly sincere when he promises more powers. One can always be sure that a Tory will serve the interests of his party, and the super-rich: Cameron will do this with 'English votes for English laws', and a large measure of fiscal devolution. However, with his braying backwoodsmen and UKIP adding Scotland to the bestiary of parasites on the true-born Englishman, this will be accompanied by the end of the Barnett formula and not a penny of the oil revenues. Until 2016, and probably after, the SNP will be the ones administering the hugely reduced public spending that results. The SNP had enough wriggle-room to defy the bedroom tax: that will be very unlikely with what's coming. It will be extremely difficult to mobilise the energy of the Yes movement to fight those cuts if it is in, or allied to, a party that is carrying them out even under duress.
V. Scottish Labour do not realise the magnitude of what they have done. Working class people in Dundee, and surely elsewhere, are filled with hot, spitting fury for them. Nothing can shake them from their complacency: somehow they see the result as a victory, when 51% of Glasgow – Glasgow for God’s sake - voted against their position. They think their voters have no memories. This illusion will be robustly dispelled when they canvass the streets of Possil, Menzieshill and Easterhouse next year. Yet nothing says that those people must necessarily swing instead to the SNP. Why not have a serious, pro-independence left party as is already being suggested at the grass-roots? There are precedents, such as Podemos in Spain, for the establishment of such a force.
VI. But, some may object, the Westminster election is in a few months and the important thing is to punish the sinners, and elect pro-independence candidates whose vote could be split by a Left pro-independence party. The thing is, the only way that makes sense for such a strategy would be if SNP (or 'Scottish Alliance') MPs won a majority on an abstentionist ticket, in the manner of old school Sinn Fein. Surely no-one envisages that actually happening: even to make it SNP policy would require entering and taking over the party, when that energy that could be used to make something new. It also seems unlikely that people who have just voted 55% ‘No’ would swing to support such a radical position in eight months. Holyrood 2016 is a different matter, but the Scottish Parliament has proportional representation that allows smaller parties to grow without the 'don't split the vote argument'.
To the switherers, who are thinking of throwing their energies into the SNP, I would simply suggest this - give it a week, go along to one of the RIC or other meetings about the way forward. You might find, or find yourself able to make, something better.