Regardless of which side prevails in the referendum today, Scottish nationalism has asserted itself so loudly in the past few months that the consequences will be tangible even in the face of a No vote: Westminster’s leaders are already offering further devolution of powers and the episode has successfully sent the complacent London establishment into panic mode.
Whatever your view of the referendum, anyone frustrated at the ossified state of British politics should welcome this development. Neoliberalism may have wrought destruction everywhere but in Britain it has affected a massive socioeconomic transformation with consequences that have completely restructured the body politic in just a few decades. Once a social democratic country with a huge manufacturing sector, a dynamic welfare state, and a ruling class tamed by both democracy and public ownership, Britain today is an economic oligarchy lacking either solidarity or social justice. Its working class, once proudly assertive at the highest levels of political decision-making, has been reduced to a precarious postindustrial rump, suffering the double indignities of poverty and class chauvinism; the latter exemplified by a morally reprehensible tabloid/entertainment culture which delights in demonizing the casualties of Margaret Thatcher’s counter-revolution as parasites for the amusement of its smug economic beneficiaries. That the party which once proudly and openly represented the interests of the working class spent the better part of its most recent tenure in office embracing and even deepening the injustices of Thatcherism can only add to visceral sense of misery and despair felt by so many Scottish, English, Welsh, and Northern Irish alike.
In the face of all this, a Tory prime minister who once claimed to embrace social justice now appropriates the iconography of wartime austerity while asking people all over the UK to accept even deeper retrenchment to pay for a crisis wrought by the very amoral greed which his party’s most popular leader helped make culturally hegemonic.
Britain today is a country which officially embraces enterprise, entrepreneurship, individual freedom, and social mobility. In practice, it is a country run by and for a narrow political elite from a select group of families who inherit their wealth and send their children to the same cabal of exclusive private schools while hollowing out social provisions and gleefully demanding people on benefits “work harder” to “earn” their miserable payouts. It is a country whose elites accuse the SNP of exclusionary demagogy while English far right movements and their allies in the press call for immigrants to be denied welfare, rounded up, (or worse). It is a country where individual freedom means the freedom of the ruling class to acquire unspeakable wealth while thousands of people spend their nights sleeping on cold concrete and the unemployed are effectively reduced to economic serfdom. It is a country where the elitist proclivity to fawn on greed and bourgeois excess is matched only by a love of demonizing and degrading the extremely poor for sport.
Scotland has been among the worst victims of this neoliberal shift. In spite of this, a majority of its people haven’t voted Tory in over 50 years and its political centre of gravity remains defiantly to the left of the British mainstream. Scottish nationalism may predate Britain’s ring wing cultural shift, but its aggressive reassertion – particularly among the young – can only be understood as a clarion call for social justice and solidarity in the face of their erosion by myopic Westminster elites.
This granted, we must hope that any result will persist in shaking Westminster out of its complacent neoliberal slumber. The Yes campaign has faced a predictable barrage from all manner of sources who have an economic stake in the current arrangements and yet maintains considerable momentum. The No campaign, for its part, finally realized it needed to articulate its own vision of social justice in order to prevail – as evidenced by Gordon Brown’s decidedly left wing speech in Glasgow on the campaign’s final day. If this whole episode is evidence of anything, it’s that only a decisive break from the political shackles imposed by neoliberal orthodoxy will galvanize large sectors of the public for change. In either case, the Labour Party must take note.
So whatever the result of tonight’s vote, here’s to a Britain that turns itself once again towards solidarity, equality, freedom, and social justice for the working people of all its kingdoms – United or otherwise.