Saturday, September 20, 2014

The night after the No before

So, after two years of campaigning the people of Scotland have turned down the opportunity to become an independent country which is a member of the EU and NATO, has the pound as its currency and has the Queen as its head of state in order to remain in a union which is a member of the EU and NATO, has the pound as its currency and has the Queen as its head of state.  In the end you could say that everyone could claim a victory of sorts - the No campaign won the argument and have kept Scotland in the United Kingdom however the Yes camp will feel proud that they managed to convince 45% of the country for withdrawal from the Union.

As well as both sides being able to claim some form of victory, both will also head off into the short and medium term with some new fears.  For the No side, there is the realisation that almost half of their fellow countrymen and women feel disenchanted with the present constitutional arrangement.  For the Yes brigade, there is the threat that the promises made by the leaders of the three main parties at Westminster for increased powers for Edinburgh (a tactic which might just have swung the referendum in favour of a No) might simply evaporate in the coming weeks. 

Yes, the Scottish referendum was in many ways a triumph for both Scotland and the United Kingdom.  It is no exaggeration to say that Scotland witnessed an explosion in grassroots organisation which culminated in the sort of voter turnout one was normally accustomed to reading of in Pravda.  Yet it has equally been an advertisement for the strength and confidence of UK democracy.  At no point did Westminster stand in the way of preventing a Scottish secession.  When it looked as though a significant segment of the population north of the border wanted it, a Conservative-led government in London helped to facilitate a referendum that would allow them to leave the Union if they so wished.  Contrast that with Madrid's present stance towards Catalonia (a stance which will only increase Catalan nationalism if you ask me) and the position of the UK government seems a wise one.  But this referendum campaign has also caused a considerable degree of division.  Just how deep and dangerous that division is was witnessed a few hours ago.

Last night, as tens of thousands of people crowded the streets of Belfast in the annual Culture Night carnival, a city on the British mainland was tearing itself apart amidst scenes of sectarian rioting.  How things change.  The city in question was, of course, Glasgow.  Some of you might well say that compared to the rioting many of us were used to in Northern Ireland in days gone by the Glasgow skirmishes yesterday evening were a pretty tame affair.  Others might point out that the events did not even close to approaching the ferocity of the riots in London and other English cities back in 2011.  Nevertheless, the intensity of the violence is not the issue.  Last night's scenes in Scotland's largest city are important in one major respect: that they happened at all.

The referendum has undoubtedly, in Glasgow anyhow, opened up a Pandora's box of sectarianism.  For many years sectarianism in Glasgow was something which manifested itself primarily along sporting lines in the city's infamous Old Firm football rivalry.  True, the city had its firebrand Protestant ministers and its rabble-rousing Irish Catholic nationalist-supporting elements but these type of folk were very much on the fringes; whatever colour the footballing loyalty of a working-class Glaswegian might have been, his or her political loyalty was very much a deep red.  This has changed in recent years.  Scottish Catholics, once a solidly pro-union community that feared an independent Scotland would be a Protestant Scotland, have shifted in the direction of nationalism.  What we witnessed last night in Glasgow was effectively the template for Ulster-style conflict (Catholic nationalism vs Protestant unionism) transported across the Irish Sea and dropped slap-bang into Glasgow city centre.  We are not in the middle of a major crisis, but it should act as a warning shot.

The referendum campaign has finally disturbed and woken up something that has been bubbling under in Scottish society (primarily the Glasgow and western region) for many decades.  This is not the fault of Alex Salmond or the SNP or the Yes Scotland campaigners, nor is it the fault of the opposing side either.  The national question had to be confronted in Scotland.  It was unavoidable.  However, in doing so it was always going to be the case that sectarian tensions might just be triggered.  Clearly we should not over-exaggerate the situation - this is not some Glaswegian equivalent of Bombay Street in 1969.  However, neither should  it be ignored or brushed off as a mere aberration.  Just a few months after more than 10% of Scots voted for UKIP and thereby thrust anti-immigration politics into the mainstream, we do not want to run a similar risk of letting old school religious sectarianism get dragged in shortly after that.

Aside from the sectarianism, there are other more straightforward divisions between those that supported independence and those that did not.  I do not live in Scotland so my only way of judging the mood of the general public is based primarily on two things which are not always extremely reliable: social media (mainly Twitter) and radio phone-in shows.  In the space of the past 24 hours two distinct trends seem to be developing.  Amongst the No side there is a sense of triumphalism and a very clear desire to rub the opposition's nose in it; amongst the Yes supporters you get the impression that they view those that voted against independence as being weak and somehow less Scottish than them.

All of which leads me to conclude that if I have learned any lessons from this referendum campaign it is that 'civic nationalism' is nonsense and that the left must stop pretending that nationalism and internationalism are compatible with one another.  For a long time I have believed that Scottish nationalism, along with that in other places like Quebec or Catalonia, has represented a different brand of patriotism to the ethnic nationalism that was responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians in the Balkans back in the 1990s.  It was not that I agreed with them or found them attractive, I just did not believe that they had any more of an ugly underbelly than, say, liberalism or green politics.  This new nationalism was, I thought, generally safe.  It lacked aggression, it was non-threatening, it was about the economy and self-government and at heart an argument in favour of people managing their lives in smaller, more democratic communities.  Except it isn't really about that.  When it comes to the crunch the new nationalism is simply the old variety with a better PR operation behind it.

Scottish nationalism might never kill thousands in the way that the Serbian or Croatian varieties did but it still has the effect of splitting workers on an issue unrelated to class politics.  Make no mistake, this is not a unionist argument I put forward here.  I am not arguing that small nationalism is bad but big nationalism is good.  Neither is desirable.  Spanish nationalism is not in any way superior to Basque or Catalan nationalism.  French nationalism does not trump Breton or Corsican nationalism.  Belgian nationalism is not better or worse than Flemish nationalism.

That some on the left chose to put themselves on the side of flag-waving goons of all hues for the duration of this campaign is sad, though not entirely unpredictable.  What we leftists and progressives should really be struggling for in 2014 is not the creation of yet more new countries nor the reinforcing of old borders but something much more imaginative and exciting than that which was offered by the Better Together and Yes Scotland campaigns.  In short, that means breaking out of the straitjacket of nation state politics and putting forward a radical, democratic socialist case for federalism in Europe.

Someone once observed that the workers of the world have no fatherland.  He was right you know.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Were you still up for Fife?

It's over.  It's a No.  That's that for a generation.  Or a "political generation".  Or a lifetime.  Or some other period of time that means 'a long time' without being any more specific on the precise duration.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On the edge of the Union

As I write this people across Scotland are voting on the question of whether or not they should become an independent nation or remain within the United Kingdom.  Were Tony Blair not off doing other more important things, his hand of history would no doubt be on all of our shoulders.  Am I excited?   I suppose you could say so, but I have arrived to the party somewhat late. For most of the referendum campaign I have been seriously underwhelmed by developments on the other side of the Irish Sea yet – sucker for hype that I am – I have now succumbed (just a little) to the wall-to-wall coverage in the media and accepted that today does have a truly momentous feel to it.

Something else I should add before I begin sharing my thoughts on a referendum in which I am unable to vote: I have no dog in this fight. I do not feel drawn to either side. If I were a Scot, even now at this ridiculously late stage, I would probably still find myself entrenched firmly in the camp of the undecideds.  Indeed, it is not so much a matter of being undecided as being unconvinced that either outcome can truly deliver improvements in the lives of Scottish workers.

Having watched the campaign as a neutral observer with varying levels of interest over the past couple of years, I am not overly surprised that an item on the RTE website last night reported that between eight and fourteen percent of Scots still had not made up their mind on how they would vote. While the last opinion poll I saw had a 51-49 percent split in favour of the No campaign, the large number of undecided voters means that the result is still unclear even at this late stage.

Small though it may be, the No folk should be thankful that they have a lead at all. While I am far from being a Scottish nationalist, the Yes camp has unquestionably carried out the more impressive of the two campaigns. Salmond and his followers have given portrayed themselves as upbeat, optimistic seekers of change who strive for some sort of new Tartan Jerusalem; on the other hand much of the argument against independence has rested on scare stories of the economic apocalypse which lies ahead if Scots opt for breaking away from Westminster. I have always found this a lousy argument. Given the amount of money and political heavyweights they have at their disposal, the referendum result should be a foregone conclusion at this stage.

But the Yes campaign has not been without its faults either. The messy handling of the currency issue, not to mention the unconvincing argument that an independent Scotland would automatically be entitled to immediately enter the European Union, detracted from the case for separation and I believe might just have sowed enough seeds of doubt in Scottish minds to tip the balance in favour of the unionists.

The pro-independence left has been keen throughout to sell their vision as a simple method of once and for all ridding people north of Hadrian's Wall of the dastardly Tories.  One might even say that, from a left perspective, this is the most attractive certainty in breaking away from the United Kingdom.  While various other post-independence economic and constitutional matters remain unclear at present, one is guaranteed that the Scottish Conservatives would be resigned to the part of a minor player in the new 'free' Scotland - for the early years of independence at least.  The reason I add this final part is that independence could, in a strange twist, be just what the centre-right in Scotland needs.

One of the reasons the Conservative Party has been so weak in that part of the world in recent times is because of its association with some of that country's worst years under the Thatcher and Major governments.  With the Scottish Tories virtually wiped out at parliamentary level, Tory and Tory-led governments at Westminster these days create a bizarre feeling of rule by a foreign power for many Scots.  As long the UK remains that is unlikely to change.  It would, however, be equally foolish to view all people in Scotland as being red-blooded socialists from birth.  Far from it. 

Even today, in a Scotland any leftists like to think could become some kind of radical powerhouse in Europe if a Yes vote is carried, the combined vote of the right (Conservatives plus UKIP at the European elections in June) still adds up to almost thirty percent.  With that vote being taken into an independent Scotland and the 'Thatcher factor' suddenly gone, who is to say that the centre-right would not enjoy a rebirth?  Perhaps not at first but certainly after a few years of SNP or Labour governments one could see attitudes shift rightwards.  So, anyone voting Yes on the basis that it guarantees the perpetual rule of the left should look at those European election results and think again.

And then what of our wee province? Debate about the Scottish referendum here in Northern Ireland has been surprisingly low key. Maybe folk in this neck of the woods feel it best to let the Scots make up their own mind. Or perhaps they just burned themselves out taking sides in the Gaza conflict over the summer. How strange that a region which has had obsessed over the national question since it was created almost a century ago seems less interested than the English and the Welsh when it comes to whether or not Scotland secedes from the UK.

Most of the interventions from figures here have been banal and predictable. One could hardly be shocked at nationalists here expressing a desire for a Yes vote while unionists would adopt the opposite stance. Yet no-one seems to be overly bothered about the result. There is a severe lack of passion around, save for the few hardy souls that made their way up the Black Mountain in Belfast to erect a 'Yes Scotland' sign.

In truth, unionists probably have the most to lose in terms of the identity and heritage factor that the connection with Scotland brings.  On the other hand, it is difficult to see how Irish nationalism could be furthered one iota by a victory for the Yes camp. Would an independent Scotland increase support amongst those not currently nationalists for the unification of Ireland? I very much doubt it. Firstly, the constitutional debate here remains intensely sectarian in a way that it has not been across the water. Secondly, the case for a united Ireland is an even more difficult one to make than the argument for an independent Scotland since the Yes side in Scotland can outline their utopia of a free and sovereign nation without anyone being able to see what it would look like in reality; northern nationalists in Ireland on the other hand are forced to try and convince the electorate to integrate with a state that a) already exists, and b) hasn't been performing so well in recent times.

On an amusing note, the award for the oddest comment on the Scottish referendum from a Northern Irish politician without doubt goes to David McNarry. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph a couple of weeks back, Mr McNarry expressed his concerns about whether Northern Ireland would be able to cope with the influx of people leaving Scotland in the wake of a victory for pro-independence campaigners. Goodness me.  I know David is in UKIP these days and concerns about immigration obviously play a big part in his politics but I think the concept of a mass exodus of Scots to Ulster as Salmond and his crew get their hands on the levers of power might be pushing things a bit too far.

We are now just an hour or so away from the close of the polls.  A final result is expected to be declared sometime around six o'clock tomorrow morning.  My gut instinct is that the No side will win - just.  That is my guess.  Time will tell just how correct that prediction is.  In the long and turbulent history of debates around nationhood and independence, the Scottish referendum campaign has been one of the better ones.  Unlike Northern Ireland to its west and the Balkans to its east, no blood has been shed in this particular European national question.  For that we should be thankful.  Yet it is worth reasserting once more that, in real terms, the lives of Scottish working people will remain largely unchanged whatever the result.  Brendan Behan once remarked that the difference between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom was the difference in receiving your eviction notice with a harp on it rather than a crown.  Today, when all is said and done, that is what Scottish people have been deciding on.  Ultimately, there is nothing on offer here worth getting excited about.

Back when the referendum was called in the autumn of 2012 the Alliance for Workers' Liberty issued a statement declaring that its goal was a federal republic of Britain existing within a federal Europe.  That is something I might just be able to get excited about.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

You're speling Isreali baad

Phone box. Botantic Avenue. Belfast. Note to local BDS activists: learn how to spell the name of the country you intend to boycott.