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Socialism and Nationalism and anti-English racism in Scotland (part 2)

BraveheartThis is the second part of this article. You can read part one here.

Who is a Real Scot?

A new nation brings with it new questions of who belongs in it. Nationalism can very quickly divide people into who are Real Scots and those who are not. So Facebook entries on independence now include ominous words like ‘the Will of the Scots’, ‘Scottish blood’, ‘the Scottish people’, and not wanting to be ruled by ‘England’. And this is from people who regard themselves as being on the left.

Since I have been identified as a critic, I am now being asked ‘Do I deny the Scots are a people?’, and, ‘How can I disrespect my ‘host nation’ in this way?’ After many years here, for some I am still the guest while people born after I came are ‘the hosts’. Until quite recently, there were large numbers of bumpers stickers on cars saying ‘I am a real Scot, I am from Kilmarnock’, (or Falkirk, or Irvine etc). Of course there were none saying, ‘I am a Real Scot, I am from Islamabad’, or South London.

A rise in nationalism begins to legitimise questions which would previously have been unacceptable. The view that English people should not be in senior positions or there are “too many” of them can surface quite openly. I have twice been public meetings where it has been said that there will be more room for Scottish academics after Independence, with less English ones. It’s extraordinary that someone like Alasdair Gray could publish a piece on the English as being ‘Settlers and Colonists’ and could write this:

By the 1970s the long list of Scots doing well in the south was over balanced by English with the highest positions in Scottish electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services and art galleries.”

He must include me, as that is when I came up. But can we seriously imagine a major left wing literary figure in the South writing about Scottish people coming to England and not properly respecting or understanding English culture?

Am I a ‘settler’ or a ‘colonist’?

The SNP has ridden the tide of nationalism very successfully. It did not take off with opposition to neo-liberalism, but with the discovery of oil, whose nationality was also claimed to be Scottish. In the October 1974 election, you could not move here for yellow posters with the slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’. On this basis, they took 30% of the vote. But a nationalism which draws upon who is a Real Scot and how many English are here, is intensely divisive. Some on the left are now providing cover for these grim tendencies by arguing that this is all about independence rather than nationalism, in future all will be welcome and there will be no difference between people. But if this the case, then why draw a line between Berwick and Carlisle, or argue that the Scots are in some way ‘Exceptional’?

The divisions extend through the left, with people on different sides now denouncing each other as ‘scum’ and ‘quislings’. See for example the Trades Council Debate in Clydebank, which was filmed so you can watch if you can bear it. A particularly grim moment is the response to an English woman: ‘Away back home ya bitch!’

This will take some time to heal whatever the outcome of the vote, but I think also that a yes vote would also have implications for the Scottish economy which would intensify these problems and jeopardise the welfare of very many people.

Class Unity and Uneven Development in Foreign Countries

A key issue in understanding future developments is that when a new nation is established, it becomes an economic competitor. There can be collaboration, but the essential principle is of each country pursuing its own interests. Once no taxes are paid to the ‘old’ country and there is no political representation there, then no favours are owed, there are no electoral constituencies to be satisfied. So without any of the factors discussed above, it would be quite normal for resources and direct investment to be moved from an independent Scotland to the south.

Politicians on both sides are reluctant to speak much about this. Any mentions from the union side are denounced as a ‘threat’ and ‘bullying’, while the nationalists like to say that everything will go on much as now with no great shock to the economy. But it is quite obvious that independent states do not typically keep their government departments in another country (as for example DFID, now in East Kilbride). The same would apply to income tax collection, (Centre One , also in East Kilbride), and probably also to defence contracts. Why would heavy subsidies in green energy be put into another country when these would be gratefully received by constituencies stretching from Cornwall to Carlisle? We currently receive 28% of UK subsidies.

The finance sector here is also largely owned and/or operates substantially in the south (as in ‘Scottish’ Widows, owned by Lloyds). Much of this would be very likely to move, especially given the rather flaky relationship now on offer with the pound sterling. There are many other examples which are not even publicly discussed – like the Research Council grant funding which comes to our major universities and is centrally allocated. Needless to say this isn’t given to foreign countries.

I am not mainly concerned with economic arguments as such but rather how such changes will impact on the potential for class unity and collective action. Nationalism divides and different perceptions form on each side. There are some here who argue that ‘Scottish oil’ has subsidised the south. But in the South people would note that Scotland’s share of revenues from this are now less than half of 1% of UK GDP.  There are many there who believe that it is Scotland which is subsidised. They would point to our free university tuition, care for the elderly, no prescription charges and the 11% more spending per person than the English average (though still less than for London).

It is easy to see how a split would become bitter if perceived to be motivated by greed and racism. As the political and economic negotiations became tougher, there would be a lot of blaming here of ‘the English’. There is scapegoating – it is what happens when countries divide. The rightwing press in the South would leap on stories of attacks of English people. They are already running pieces like this and some commentators are now lining up to argue how the South would be better off without ‘the Scots’. I need hardly say that it is not a good idea for a small group of five million people to have an economic fight with sixty million who live next door.

Now of course, nationalists here would reject this description but it is very dangerous for the welfare of people above Carlisle if separation is perceived in the South as based on a grab for economic resources by the would-be ‘sixth richest nation’. The reaction in the south is likely to be ‘hell mend you’ and this would legitimise pulling the plug on the Scottish economy while the rest of the UK would simply hoover up the direct investment and subsidised regional development.

One result of such a shock to the Scottish economy would be to put pressure on government finances and to intensify the potential gap here between government income and public expenditure. Because Holyrood politicians have no appetite for increasing tax, then there would be cuts in spending, including or perhaps especially welfare. So it is a cruel trick on the poor to say they will be rich in the new Scotland.

As it is, with the existing arrangements, the poorest groups have some protection. Spending on welfare and health has been relatively well sustained and we were able to protect people from the worst effects of policies such as the bedroom tax. But a new state would face a much grimmer prospect , buffeted by the winds of globalisation, in the queue for corporate investment with no one owing it any favours. In this, the shots would be called by the 500 people who own half of Scotland plus the middle classes and those with jobs, and it is obvious who would lose out.

If this sounds alarming, then bear in mind that it is on the mild end of the scale of what happens when countries divide. I am not suggesting that we will be like Ukraine but in the move from subsidy mode to ‘who owns what’, relationships can very quickly become icy. Above Carlisle we have a lot to lose from this. An increase in anti-English sentiment would prompt many people to leave. Scotland’s tourist industry gets 60% of its income from England. And while this bitterness and division is being generated, what happens to the collective struggle against neo-liberalism and crucially against the uneven development of capitalism in the island as a whole?

The Break-up of Britain

A key issue which faces us in this is not the secession of Scotland, but of London and the south-east. That golden triangle is now drawing in talent, investment and resources, at an extraordinary rate. As Vince Cable said, it is acting as ‘a giant suction machine’ draining the life out of the rest of the country

It also attracts massive international investment. Recently, the Chinese company APB Holdings revealed that it would be building a second Canary Wharf with the intention of focusing the headquarters of key Asian corporations in London. Boris Johnson announced that this would be the single biggest Asian development in Europe and construction would start this year.

What is remarkable about this investment is that it was barely covered in the media – there is just so much of it. London and the Thames valley have become the focus of hundreds of thousands of key workers, not just in finance, but in design, hi-tech and information technology companies including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard Oracle and Dell, plus communications, advertising, media, pharmaceuticals and many other industries.

The problem is that all of this is going on just a bus ride from Buchanan Street and each year I see many of my students make that journey. One now owns a large TV company making programmes like The Voice and Who Do You Think You Are? He has told me that he could name off the top of his head at least ten other top people in his industry from Scotland, now all in the South.

Such a relentless process of uneven development can only be altered by very strong regional planning. It requires physically moving jobs and investment , including transferring government departments or media conglomerates such as the BBC, plus the development of new infrastructure, broadband, cross rail links to join northern cities laterally and the focussing of research, training and development in targeted areas. The problem with independence is that it removes any representation which we have in that planning. The movement of people south would continue, but there would be little we could do about it, short of re-building Hadrian’s wall. So we need to be part of a new alliance by which the north and west effectively force new policies on the south east.

There are many other areas for collective action. We found very strong public support when we suggested a substantial wealth tax, by which the richest 10% would contribute one fifth of their wealth to pay off the national debt. The opinion poll which we commissioned showed 74% of the UK population in favour. There is also a strong public desire to stop tax avoidance, for public ownership of the railways, and key industries such as electricity and gas. The struggle for decent wages, the defence of the NHS, home building programmes, jobs for young people, apprenticeships and training also have extensive popular support.

This politics has to be forged and fought for, through peoples parliaments, strong union links, effective political representation and demands for space in the media to explain the alternatives to austerity politics. I think the current debate on independence has got in the way of all this. It offers the division between those above and below Carlisle, the internal fracturing of our society and a fall in the living standards of the poorest. For us, socialism should come first and last and should not be used as a cover for a nationalism which would reduce our ability to take part in the wider changes that are so desperately needed.

Greg Philo is research director of the Glasgow University Media Unit and Professor of Communications and Social Change at Glasgow University. His research interests have included media representations of industrial disputes and trade unionism, the Falklands War and Northern Ireland, and current research includes projects on political advertising, images of health and illness (including mental illness), migration and ‘race’.

Image credit: Braveheart, 20th Century Fox

4 Comments

  1. Randall Wallace says:

    “Until quite recently, there were large numbers of bumpers stickers on cars saying ‘I am a real Scot, I am from Kilmarnock’, ”

    You mean the ‘Real Scots read the Record’ bumper stickers handed out by the err English based and owned Trinity Mirror group. I am surprised that someone living in Glasgow for as long as Prof Philo has would still be stuck in the same mindset as regards the restoration of Scottish Independence, as when he first arrived.

    Using Braveheart as representative of the YES campaign really couldn’t be further from the truth.

  2. Mike Williams says:

    This is one the most important and cogently argued articles I’ve read against Scottish independence. As one of the potentially abandoned South Walian I hope it influences the vote. Yes can’t just be characterised as a vote for the status quo, surely it’s also a vote for working-class solidarity?

  3. James Martin says:

    Other than no one I know being remotely interested one way or another when it comes to this vote (I’ve never heard anyone actually talk about it other than on the telly either), is the fact that other many years of attending union conferences I gradually realised that there are indeed some tribal characteristics but not ones to do with borders or nations.

    For example, it was always the case that delegates from Liverpool, Glasgow and Newcastle used to get on very well, which often contrasted with Manchester (up themselves, made worse if they supported Utd), London (common perception that they don’t wash very often) and so you tended to get some interesting factionalism existing under the surface of the more explicit political stuff. Now of course none of this is particularly scientific, but as a result I tend to find those that seek to further inter-UK nationalism in these isles rather odd.

  4. David Ellis says:

    If the No campaign had any nouse they would major on Salmond’s creepy admiration for the homophobic tyrant and international war criminal Putin. But of course they cannot as the alliance of neo-Stalinists, New Labourites, Tories and British Nazis that support a No vote are even bigger admirers of the Russian kleptocracy.

    Socialists in Scotland should be supporting the YES campaign whilst putting forward its own independent, radical programme for socialist transformation.

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