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A Welsh view of Scotland’s ‘No’ vote: the end, or the end of the beginning?

britain‘Settled for a generation’ was the confident assertion of the metropolitan commentariat after Scotland’s referendum resulted in a bigger than expected margin of defeat for independence. An independent Scotland may be off the agenda in the immediate term but we should remember Zhou En-lai’s famous remark about the effects of the French revolution: “too early to tell”.  The Scottish referendum campaign and the vote itself may in time be seen as a sparkling firework, momentarily illuminating the United Kingdom’s gloomy, sterile political landscape, only to fizzle out, or as the catalyst for a process of fundamental change to that political entity. Time will tell whether the opportunities for change presented by the campaign are taken or lost.

The campaign itself was fantastic: a brilliant burst of creative democratic energy in which the people of Scotland engaged with the issues and discussed animatedly the society and country they wanted for themselves and their fellow citizens. This was what democracy looks like when the decisions people make actually have consequences, when there is a choice, and when it is energised by the presence of 16 and 17 year olds. The politicians and journalists in the Westminster bubble, initially irritated by what they saw as background noise while they got on with the serious business of politics, ended up scared to death. Politics, in the post Thatcher-Blair era wasn’t meant to be like this.

Credit goes not only to the Scottish National Party for the tone and content of the campaign but to the Scottish left, such as Radical Independence and the Scottish peace and anti-nuclear movement. With most of the Scottish media, let alone the blatantly biased and increasingly bewildered London media, against independence, the breach was filled by social media and blog-sites such as Bella Caledonia. Whatever the merits of the case for independence, the ‘yes’ supporters won the campaign even if they did not win the vote. Theirs were the ideas and the vision of what Scotland could look like. Theirs were the alternatives to  the race-to-the-bottom, free market dystopia imposed by Westminster.

In response, the ‘no’ campaign has been aptly characterised by Lee Waters as ‘Project Fear: what would be the currency and who would control it? Would the new state automatically gain EU membership or would it have to apply? Wouldn’t that take years? Look what happened to Ireland, and Iceland! Would people in Scotland still be able to listen to the Archers? A drip-drip series of announcements and leaks by banks and multinationals raised the prospect of capital flight, price rises and a currency collapse. This was not a serious attempt to challenge the SNP’s economic  perspectives – not all of which would withstand  proper scrutiny – or a serious contribution to the national debate, but a purely negative: ‘Well, you haven’t thought of that, now  have you?’, in order to try to close down discussion. ‘Vote no, it’s not worth the risk’ was the message, but, on surveying the unequal, over-centralised political set-up that is the UK, one can legitimately reply, ‘the risk of what, exactly’?

The campaign and its aftermath pose problems for both the large Westminster parties. Cameron allowed a referendum without a ‘devo-max’ option on the ballot paper, confidently assuming that the result would be ‘no’. Some political conspiracy theorists say that Cameron was happy to cast Scotland adrift. Tory rule in a rump ‘UK’ would be assured without Scotland, with its one Tory MP, but this underestimates the prominence of unionism, or UK nationalism in Tory ideology. As the campaign reached its end and the No poll lead narrowed there was a palpable sense of panic in the UK ruling apparatus: would Cameron be the Tory leader who ‘lost’ Scotland? What would happen to Trident missiles? Might these weapons of mass destruction have to be housed nearer to London? Would the house of Windsor require passports to visit the vast tracts of the Highlands they use as a personal playground?

The reaction was a commitment, ‘The Vow’, made largely on the hoof with Miliband and Clegg, for increased devolution. Faced with a backlash by Tory MPs against a promise of increased spending for Scotland, Cameron has since attempted to re-invent or re-interpret, for the sake of party advantage, the commitment to deeper devolution into a commitment to  restrict voting on England-only issues to English MPs, thus satisfying the bloodlust of the English nationalists of the Tories and, importantly, UKIP and threatening to sabotage a future Labour government  dependent on the votes in parliament of Scottish MPs. ‘The Vow’ was starting to unravel  by the weekend following the vote with the Liberal Democrats and Labour both scenting a Tory trap.

Labour’s problems are probably deeper.  Its alignment to the unionist, union-flag waving, ‘Better Together’ campaign, on top of its embrace of free-market neo-liberalism in the Blair-Brown years, meant that Labour was never able to challenge the SNP from the left. Terrified by the  movement of Labour voters into the ‘yes’ camp but, like every Tory leader since Thatcher, despised in Scotland, Cameron was obliged to turn to Gordon Brown to  fight the unionist corner, and Brown duly obliged, his ‘barnstorming’ speech invoking a unionist past more than a  socialist future.

The SNP’s political tightrope walk, combining lower corporation tax with much of the agenda that Labour should have made its own, has left Scottish Labour little more than a defensive, unionist, Blairite husk, unable to understand the country it is in. The referendum campaign did little to rescue its image. A look at a map of the ‘yes’ vote should bring the Labour leadership out in a cold sweat:  Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire.  These have been Labour strongholds for decades but, faced with New Labour’s complicity with the Tories in de-industrialisation and the destruction of public services, it seems the voters there saw the ‘yes’ vote as a means of escape; they need never live under a Tory government again. Of course, despite the panicky, last minute insertions into the No campaign of references to ‘social justice’ they took that chance, and why should they not?

Labour’s response was merely to assert that a ‘no’ vote corresponded with Labour’s ‘values’ and to snipe against ‘nationalism’. British nationalism, however, appears not to trouble these people; what kind of country do they think the UK is?  Extraordinarily, ‘no’ campaigners also accused their opponents of ‘tribalism’. This is in a country where politics is still besmirched by religious sectarianism; Orange lodges were marching in support of a ‘no’ vote and the day after the vote, Unionist thugs attacked ‘yes’ voters in Glasgow’s George Square. This was the ugly, snarling face of the British nationalism the ‘no’ voters never mention, putting into perspective the accusations of ‘intimidation’ by ‘yes’ supporters.  Politics is ‘ugly’ when politicians ruin lives, not when the argument becomes raucous.  Of course, most ‘no’ voters are not sectarians and have a genuine loathing of Orangeism. However, to rail against SNP’s ‘nationalism’ without acknowledging  the malign influence of  this form of British nationalism is, at best, hypocritical and, at worst, an apology for sectarianism.

It is depressing that it has to be repeated, but this island contains three countries – England, Scotland and Wales – which for several hundred years have been bound together, at different times, by conquest, war, empire, Protestantism, common law, the industrial revolution and the welfare state. When the importance of all of these is diminished, all that remains is geography and a common language.  Crucial in the development of the Scottish independence movement was been the Tories’ destruction of Scotland’s industrial base: coal, shipbuilding and steel, the use of a Scottish natural resource, North Sea oil, to featherbed the British economy through two recessions, the use of Scotland as the test bed for the hated poll tax and then finally, the refusal of New Labour to break from what were, fundamentally, Tory policies.  The people of Scotland were told firstly ‘You voted Labour but you got the Tories’ and then ‘It doesn’t matter which of the Westminster parties you vote for, nothing’s going to change’.  In this context the Yes vote in former Labour heartlands makes far more sense than Labour No supporters’ charge that the independence debate is somehow a distraction from ‘class’ politics.

Socialists defend the right of a nation to self-determination. That is not the same, necessarily, as advocating separation. However, in the case of Scotland, the campaign for independence does not simply amount to a desire to exercise the right to re-establish Scotland as an independent state but a reaction against the inequality and centralisation that has increased dramatically over the last thirty years, as well as the sclerotic, pre-modern body politic exemplified by the House of Lords and the bizarre electoral system. It represents the hope that on the island of Britain, there can be a different kind of society.

So what about Wales? Welsh Labour’s leadership unsurprisingly supported a ‘no’ vote, with Plaid giving support and solidarity to the ‘yes’ campaign. Opinion polls revealed an opposition in Wales to Scottish independence, primarily, presumably, because of fears that in a rump ‘UK’, Wales would not be so much as dominated as smothered by England, doomed to an eternity of English Tory governments.

It is difficult to see anything positive for Wales in the post-referendum ‘new’ Union that has been promised, let alone in the status quo. The normally ebullient Rhodri Morgan has been in almost Uriah Heep mode, asking that Wales be rewarded for not having had a war (like Northern Ireland) or an independence referendum and oil (like Scotland) by being given a more equitable political and financial settlement within the UK. In other words, he was asking the Tories to treat Wales more generously because it keeps its head down. On the other hand, Carwyn Jones, despite his innate caution and his position as the leader of a unionist party, has been forced to come out in opposition to Cameron’s manoeuverings and call for a rebuilding of the union on an equal basis between Wales and Scotland.

Despite Cameron’s promise that Wales be at the ‘centre of the debate’, Tory back-benchers are in revolt about a promise of extra money for Scotland – yet Scotland does considerably better than Wales out of the discredited and unfair Barnett formula. Neither the Tories nor Labour want to scrap the Barnett formula, under which Wales loses out by £300m per year (Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, despite prompting  on TV by Andrew Neill, of all people, seemed not to have any clue that Wales was being short-changed in this way or to feel that Labour should do anything about it).  There’s a well-founded suspicion that if additional powers for Wales are not forgotten about and subsumed into Cameron’s grubby obsession with appeasing English nationalists, they’ll be separated from any additional funding, leaving Welsh Labour or Labour-dominated governments with the consequences of having powers without the resources to use them effectively.

Dysfunctional and unsustainable as it is, the UK could, with some tweaking here and there, limp on for decades yet: dominated by England, with England in turn dominated and distorted by the financial might of the City of London and the Home Counties. On the other hand, Labour in Wales and Scotland could muster its electoral weight to move away from an instinctive pro-unionism towards in support for a more equal and equitable relationship between the three countries based on whatever degree of separation or unity that the people of those countries want. On the present evidence, the prospects are not promising.

Nick Davies is the co-author of Clear Red Water – Welsh Devolution and Socialist Politics

This article first appeared at Welsh Labour Grassroots

12 Comments

  1. jeffrey davies says:

    when we have one house london
    why do we need the welsh scots
    majic roundabouts wasting more monies

    1. Robert says:

      Go for it mate have an English only country I do not mind…

  2. David Jones says:

    The biggest problem Welsh Labour has is the fact that the Assembly only attracts 2nd rate politicians, any one in Welsh Labour worth his/her salt will stand for Westminster. Carwyn Jones is a light weight compared to the top dozen SNP politicians. All 4 leaders in Wales would be lucky to get into the bottom tier of government in Westminster.

  3. James Martin says:

    “It is depressing that it has to be repeated, but this island contains three countries – England, Scotland and Wales – which for several hundred years have been bound together, at different times, by conquest, war, empire, Protestantism, common law, the industrial revolution and the welfare state. When the importance of all of these is diminished, all that remains is geography and a common language.”

    This is at heart utterly dangerous nationalist nonsense. Because how interesting that the author forgets something that is far more important and relevant to that list – the British working class and labour and trade union movement. From the Chartists (dominated in the leadership by the Welsh and Irish in particular) to the crucial first industrial unions (where Welsh and Scottish leaders punched well above their weight) to the creation of the Labour Party – all these things have show time and again that what we have is a united British working class and labour movement based not only on a common language but a common culture.

    In fact while regional accents differ, there are none of the common and normal differences in things like culture, language, religion and other key points of reference between workers in Glasgow, Cardiff or London that would be expected to form an actual basis for nationalist sentiment (in other words we are not dealing with a situation like Catalonia). Neither do we have any national oppression (despite the truly daft incident where Miliband was called a murderer by some particularly rabid Scots nationalists for Culloden!).

    And I will say again, if there are no fundamental differences between workers across Britain be they in Scotland, Wales or England, and who all face the same bosses, and all have the same class interests, then what is the basis of this type of ‘left’ nationalism other than anti-socialist crap?

  4. Robert says:

    Your totally wrong of course we have different cultures and languages, the second language in Wales is Polish not Welsh .

    I’m a natural Welsh speaker it’s my first language so I do see my country as different then England, and I do not like England having the power over us, yes you did fight to take Wales and you show us this by having a bloody English Prince of Wales to show we are subjected .

    I think things will change and the battle is for England to hang onto the Union I do not see the Union like you do.

    1. swatantra says:

      Great reply Robert! What these English colonialist fail to understand is that Scotland Ireland Wales, and India, were coquered and subjugated by the English for centuries (ok, the Scots were bribed into bonded labour to pay off their National Debt).
      There must surely be some way of getting that message through into their thick heads?
      Until they ‘feel’ what it is to be a conquered people, we’re not going to move on.
      And I agree, Get rid of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh, and return the Kohinor, because that is just a constant reminder.

    2. James Martin says:

      Robert, how, exactly, does England have ‘power’ over Wales? In what way does, for example, an English council worker in Chester oppress a Welsh council worker in Wrexham? In what way does a worker in Poundland in Bristol have ‘power’ over their opposite number in Cardiff? How are they materially better off? Please explain to me exactly how this ‘power’ works?

      And how exactly is someone like the anti-(trade)union Scottish owner of Stagecoach Brian Souter ‘oppressed’ by the English? Or is he an enemy of the labour movement wherever you live? And then take someone like Swansea boy Mark Serwotka. Is he liked by his PCS members across the UK and hated by the ruling class because he comes from Wales, is that his defining characteristic? Or is it actually because he is a militant trade unionist and socialist?

      And conquered peoples? Don’t make me laugh. How far back do we want to go in this artificial UKIP-like fantasy? To opposing the French for the Battle of Hastings? The Vikings? The Romans? But worst of all, your historical nationalist definition is inherently racist in the same way as BNP-EDL English nationalism. The large numbers of balck and asian communities in Welsh and Scottish cities do not fit into this racial/cultural definition of nation very well if that definition is based on events hundreds of years ago.

      I used to be a history teacher and I like history, but please let’s talk about the present and how we progress to a socialist society – or would you rather burn down a few holiday cottages?

      The ‘union’ to socialists is not about the Westminster elite (let alone the royal family who should all be got rid of), but about the currently united British labour and trade union movement and our class enemies. Nationalism does not in anyway help that struggle, but rather by creating and inventing artificial divisions between workers hinders the actual fight we need to have.

      1. Robert says:

        You keep on telling us it’s not the first time you stated you are a history teacher, I use to be a soldier a miner and a factory worker what the hell has that to do with anything.

        The simple fact I’m sick to death of being under the boot of the parliament in London with people like Cameron and Miliband Blair and Balls and these people it’s time for the Union to go.

        We are now part of the EU so the Union is the EU not England your just scared stiff you will end up without the power over us.

        I’m now nationalist and I’m proud to be Welsh and Celtic, I do not see England or Britain in the way you do.

        You know your self that when Wales was over run the way the English showed Wales your under English control was that the First born son of the King or Queen would be made the Prince of Wales, and it’s still being done, and we in Wales should have a say.

        I’m all for the EU once we have had a referendum on it, and if we vote to be part of it then this crazy Union and the London Control should go, you can have the Union jack.

        1. James Martin says:

          If you are saying you are a nationalist and not a socialist fine – go and find one of the many nationalist sites that are out there where you can no doubt debate the merits of racial purity and how Celts are better than Saxons or Normans to your hearts content, although where that leaves your black and Asian Welsh neighbours is anyone’s guess (but mine is they won’t feel very comfortable about it).

          However, if you still claim to be a socialist answer my questions rather than dodge them. How does a worker in England oppress or exploit a worker in Wales Robert? It is after all a really basic question as without an ability to actually answer it your nationalism is based on nothing more than reactionary nonsense.

          As to being sick of the royal family and being dominated by the Tories etc., well yeah, join the club, but you hardly need to be in Wales or Scotland to think this do you! And tell me, how is your dislike for Cameron and the Queen different from mine? How is yours somehow ‘better’ because you add an unnecessary layer of reactionary nationalism to it?

          It seems to me that all this recent talk and debate that we see of nationalism, anti-English sentiment, constitutional reform et al is a result ultimately of a lack of faith in the working class and an abandonment of socialism – and that is why it is so dangerous.

          1. Robert says:

            Who is Anti English I’m just anti England as for Black people and Asian all are welcome and can vote for the Welsh Government.

            My argument is that England messed up badly it was heading for the gutter and now it is it. England should fight for it’s own parliament and let the rest of us get on with it.

            As for socialism it died with labour many years ago, after Blair and Brown and Cameron and Miliband have you ever seen a weaker leader then the wash out Miliband.

            Sorry but these day I want a dam sight more power in our hands and a dam sight less with England.

  5. James Martin says:

    Oh dear Robert, you see you expose the reactionary nature of nationalism better than I could! You say England this and England that. What a nonsense – do you mean the England of Cameron and the millionaires, or the England of the E15 occupiers? Do you mean the England of the bosses or that of the workers? The England of the CBI or that of the TUC? You see the problem with nationalism – the central problem – is that it (and you) view connections between all people in a certain geographical area (or worse of a certain racial type) as being more important rather than the connections of class which cut across all that. So you obviously feel more in common with an anti-trade union company director who happens to be Welsh than you do to a trade unionist that happens to be English – that is after all how nationalism works and why it is ultimately the antithesis of socialism.

    The only question left given your celebration of such reactionary nonsense is this – why are you still here?

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