Friday, September 26, 2014

Scotland the Brave (well 45 per cent)

UNITED in Maryhill!  Enthusiasm for Independence vote in working class Glasgow enough to overcome even long cherished differences, such as "whit team d' ye support".

IT'S over a week since the referendum in Scotland, and though I've seen and taken part in several discussions online, I still feel reminded of what the Chinese prime minister Zhou en Lai is said to have replied when asked what he thought had been  the impact of the French Revolution on western civilisation. Zhou, who was reputed to be a keen student of history, said that it was too soon to tell.

It's a nice little story, even though an American interpreter has rather spoilt the tale of inscrutable Oriental wisdom and reserve by saying that Zhou had not realised his guests were talking about the bourgeois revolution of 1789; he was thinking about the more recent student and worker upheaval of May-June 1968, which, though it did not result in a change of power, did shake up politics a bit.

Scotland has not had a revolution, nor even a wave of occupations and strikes. Its people have not even voted for independence, unless one believes the wildest allegations that the vote was rigged. But, despite all the thunder of establishment politicians and media, - maybe even to some extent because of it - some 45 per cent of Scottish voters defied warnings about jobs and pensions, and ignored appeals for the pound,  "our boys" and the Union Jack, and said YES to independence.

There was a time when that would have seemed a wild dream. Indeed when I first spent some time in Scotland, back in 1969, we on the Left still sneered that the Scottish National Party(SNP) were "Tartan Tories". A man in a Bathgate pub who, rather oddly I thought, mistook me for a Nationalist, said "Go and tell Wullie Wolfe that if he thinks he should run Scotland he had better start by paying his workers decent wages!"

Wullie, or William Wolfe was the owner of a local factory which made shovels. He had just become national convenor of the SNP, and he also stood as candidate for West Lothian that year, coming second to Labour's Tam Dalyell. That in itself was quite an achievement, and Wolfe is credited with helping his party acquire a modern image, and "social democratic" ideas. I don't know whether his workers' wages saw commensurate improvement.

But what is obvious from this referendum, and the upsurge in support for the SNP and other pro-independence parties that followed, is that the "YES" campaign did not depend on flag-waving demagogy and sentimentality, and nor was its appeal solely or even chiefly to the middle class.

On the contrary, the areas where the majority voted "YES" were Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbarton and Dundee.  All places hard hit by austerity, and places Labour would have normally counted on for electoral support. In Keir Hardie's North Ayrshire cradle it was close, 49% yes against 51 per cent

In contrast, the SNP was let down by many of its own voters
in places where working class consciousness is normally outweighed by patriotism, and profit.   (Though I notice also the YES vote was not high in West Lothian -that man in a Bathgate pub must have had his say!)

As for the idea - put around by some Lefties far from the scene who don't seem to have ventured north of the Border, nor much outside the M25 -that the nationalist appeal was anti-"foreigner" and akin to far Right parties scapegoating immigrants and minorities, I did not see any sign of this in the varied complexions of "Yes" campaigners or SNP representatives.  The first Scots-Asian to become a member of the Scottish parliament was Humza Yousef, the SNP MSP for the Glasgow region.

Though I'm no fan of Alec Salmond, I was interested to hear him criticise the last Labour government for decreeing that non-EU medical students who graduate here should not be allowed to work in the NHS, which was the only way many could pay for their studies. He promised to reverse this. I've not heard much said about this on the "Left", though it is obvious that in practice "non-EU" means non-white. Now which of the Parties is racialist?

A Scots friend who returned to his country after some years for the campaign was struck by the cheerful optimism he found in working class Glasgow neighborhoods, even bringing together traditional foes with allegiance to different football teams (see the photo he posted above). 

 A friend-of-a-friend whom I do not know but who, to judge from her surname was one of the YES campaign's more cosmopolitan supporters, writes: 
      " If you would have been on the ground here in Glasgow you would have seen a campaign of hope, of people actively thinking together about what type of world they want to live in believing that they can make it happen. Some of my favorite experiences were having conversations with 13 year old girls at our stall outside of Lidl, where they spoke insightfully about trident, defense policy, socialism and immigration - where they thought for themselves and refused to accept the status quo. At the polling station as people emerged so many of the yes voters were joyful, hopeful, voting for the first time, feeling a collective energy. The no voters as they came out were frequently angry, embittered, surly".

The one outburst of Far-Right hooliganism and violence (though it had been preceded by individual incidents and threats) came from "NO" supporters who flooded into Glasgow's St.George's Square on the Friday night. Though not all may have realised what was afoot, this crowd included supporters of the National Front and Britain First, as well as hardline Loyalists outraged that the previous week's Orange Order march in Edinburgh had failed to do the trick of provoking sectarian strife.  In contrast to the carnival atmosphere of the YES celebrations the evidence was not of people celebrating the NO vote but of thugs out for revenge. 

"Nazi salutes and taunting and jeering a much smaller and more peaceful group of Yes supporters,  fighting, terrorising ordinary people and spreading disorder in a city which until Friday night had been a carnival of fun and hope, not a carnival of hate. "
Two men set fire to a generator belonging to the Glasgow Herald, the only paper that had supported the YES vote. 
Of course, this was not typical of the ordinary voters who rejected independence. But it did happen, and it was real, unlike the imaginary threats of fear and hatred which some of our "Lefts" opposed to independence had been dreaming up. Yet for some reason they did not notice it, or regard it as significant, and some seemed to resent me mentioning it.  

Unlike Ireland, which was England's oldest colony, Scotland has been a full, if not equal, partner in British imperialism. Although the 1707 Act of Union was described as a political "job" by critics, it gave Scottish landowners the chance to export black cattle, coal and other goods to the English market, and Glasgow merchants access to colonial trade. It was the Edinburgh bourgeois then who resented the loss of parliamentary patronage and their profitable trade in luxury imports from France, against which Britain waged economic war. Glasgow, centre of Clydeside shipbuilding and textiles industries, became the wealthy second city of Empire, for all its now notorious slums. Scottish settlers, soldiers, engineers, missionaries and bankers fanned out around the world.

For several decades now Scotland has not just seen the loss of empire, and the once strong industries of which its people were justly proud, but suffered - as have regions of England, - neglect by Westminster governments for whom the City of London's financial speculation and money-laundering activity are all that counts. Scots wondering what happened to oil wealth only had to look to Norway, not some faraway utopia, but another small country, where different policies prevailed.

Adding insult to injury, the Scottish people who contributed so much blood and sweat, as well as intellect, to Britain's greatness, have to listen to ignorant gibes from southern English airheads like Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who asked "why are we paying them to eat deep-fried mars bars"  when Britain could not get decent health care? Not that health care deficiencies are anything to do with her government, of course.

So it is not really surprising that in Scotland, social resentment of neo-liberal economics and austerity policies has taken on, at least temporarily, a national form. Besides, the opportunity to aim a kick at the Old Etonians' cabinet and coalition was too good to miss.   

Cameron's Tories, who only had one MP left in Scotland, can feel relieved that the Union has survived the vote. It is Labour, which devoted months to the 'Better Together' campaign,  drafting in members from south of the border, and even wheeling out the much-abused Gordon Brown as an authority figure, which has taken a well-deserved kick in the pants.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, told the party's annual conference in Manchester that the main lesson of the referendum  was that "working people matter". The working class and especially young people had shown their interest in politics and how they had been "electrified" by the engagement.

Workers had turned their backs on Labour's advice in Scotland,  McCluskey, continued: "We can't say we weren't warned. Even after the SNP started winning Scottish parliament seats in the east end of Glasgow, some in the Scottish Labour Party clung to the mantra of wooing the middle classes. It took a referendum campaign to remind us that you ignore the hopes of the working people at your political peril."

We might add that when the boss of a Swiss-based company was threatening to close Grangemouth oil refinery and much of  Scotland with it, the Labour leadership was with the media pack attacking the union. McCluskey has taken stick for signing a climb-down agreement, but one wonders whether things might have gone differently had the workers been given strong labour movement backing, or boosted by the prospect of an independent government under pressure to back them taking the refinery over.

That might be too much to expect from an SNP funded by the likes of the Souters, of Stagecoach fame. But that's not the issue now.

 Defeated or not, pro-independence parties have received a huge wave of new members after the referendum. The SNP reports a 66 per cent increase in membership, and says those joining include not just newcomers to politics but former Labour activists who have had enough.

The Scottish Socialist Party, at a low ebb since the Tommy Sheridan scandal contrived by the Murdock press, and the Sheridan split encouraged by the English sects, has gained around 2,000 new recruits. This might tempt back some older stalwarts who had felt worn out, and be enough for the SSP to regain some Holyrood seats.

The Socialist Party in Scotland, not to be confused, nor subject of 'Life of Brian' jokes please, has emerged calling for a new "mass workers party" in Scotland. Sounds familiar? This is  the extension north of the border of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. True to previous lack of interest in the national question it interprets the YES vote in flat, economist terms, and true to previous SP involvement in Scotland it makes a call for unity specifically inviting Tommy Sheridan and his Solidarity group, and not mentioning the Scottish Socialist Party at all.

Unfortunately for this courtship, Sheridan has already called on his supporters to vote for the SNP next year, and may even be thinking of joining. Unfortunately for Sheridan, word is the SNP leadership and existing membership don't like Sheridan and would sooner do without his support. The course of true love never did run smooth.



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