Whatever the result of Scotland’s referendum vote later this month, the Yes campaign will have succeeded in striking fear into the heart of the English establishment at Westminster and may even extract concessions, tangible or otherwise, in defeat.
Interestingly, the most common argument I’ve encountered in favour of separation hasn’t concerned identity so much as it’s concerned equality. The Scottish electorate hasn’t sent a significant number of Tory MPs to Westminster since before the Thatcher era. Its own wants are social democratic in orientation, though it’s spent most of the last 30 years being governed by ring wing administrations in London who have, largely regardless of their colour, aggressively pursued an agenda of privatization, retrenchment, and spanielish deference to the demi-gods of Big Finance. Seen in this respect, Scottish Independence is simply one manifestation of neoliberal despair – of the abject failure of English politicians, particularly those on the left, to adequately break from the corrosive political agenda of the 1980s.
In thinking about the referendum next week I recently revisited a passage from my favourite political diarist, British Labour politician Tony Benn. In the mid-1970s, the publicly-owned petroleum company BP successfully tapped the immense oil resources available in the North Sea. In early November, 1975 the government held an official celebration in Aberdeen to commemorate the achievement and Benn himself attended as the cabinet minister responsible for energy.
The passage stuck with me after the first reading and reappeared earlier this week – not, I suspect, by mere chance:
Arrived at Aberdeen at 8:30 in the morning. And then we went to Dice, which is the BP headquarters. The first thing I noticed was that the actual workers at Dice – that’s to say the guys in their yellow plastic work helmets who really bring the oil ashore – were behind a barbed wire fence, just allowed to wave to us as we drove by into a huge tent with a thousand people, most of whom had been brought from London.
Then the Queen went into the computer control room and I followed at a great distance because [Prime Minister] Harold [Wilson] was there and I believe while she was there she pressed a button – and then she went out to the back into the open air and there were some Aberdonians, I suppose about 500 of them, spread in the open air behind another fence with the kids waving little Union Jacks they’d all been given. And the Queen walked in front of them with the Duke of Edinburgh as if they were animals in the zoo.
When you see the Queen in action everything else is frozen into this feudal hierarchy – with the Queen’s Private Secretary and the Lord Lieutenant and all the old big wigs who have no power – all brought out into the open as if they were presiding generously over what was [actually] a big industrial achievement. The feudal imposition on the whole structure means of course that the workers are still left – and it’s a disgrace that a Labour government should allow this to happen – are still left as natives and barbarians who can be greeted but have to be kept at a distance. I know there was a security [issue] but there’s no reason they should have been treated like that.
Also one got this very strong feeling that this great Scottish occasion was just an opportunity for the London establishment to come and lord it over the Scots. I’ve always loathed Royal occasions and this even moreso. And although I played no part in it at all – [as] the Secretary of State for Energy [I] was simply described as being “in attendance upon Her Majesty”, just as if I was a damned flunky, which I’m not.
I found the thing revolting, really unpleasant. And I was given a little plaque which looked to me as if it were made of gold and if it was it must be worth a couple of hundred quid. I’ll put it in my cupboard along with all the other junk you collect as a minister.
And I’m quite happy to sign off on Monday, the third of November 1975 recording that at least a quarter of the nation’s oil supplies are now available from the North Sea.
*In the mid 1970s Benn dictated his diaries, which is why they read as conversational.