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Establishment Coordinates Defeat of Scotland’s Independence


John  Macnamara contributes a guest post on the result of the Scottish independence referendum held last Thursday. I think it significant that many stalwart Labor voters defied the Labor party in the working-class centers of Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Dundee and North Lanarkshire, which all registered a majority for independence. Clearly international financiers were strongly opposed to independence and drove down the pound in the last weeks before the vote, no doubt pushing some undecided voters to the NO camp. This post outlines the rest of the establishment campaign to frighten voters against voting YES.

The referendum on an independent Scotland was the culmination of a two-year debate, and support for independence strengthened during this time from 30 percent to 45 percent on voting day. The final two weeks, after a poll showing the pro-independence YES voters had a majority, have been a frenetic affair with the entire UK establishment brought in to stem the tide of Scottish nationalism. 4.2 million residents of Scotland were eligible to vote, some 10 percent being English and another 10 percent being immigrants from elsewhere. 3.6 million voted, a turnout of 85%, which is the highest since 1951. Recent elections in Britain have hovered just above the 50% level for national elections, 30% for European and local elections and just over 10% for the recent poll of Police Commissioners. 1.6 million voted for independence and 2 million voted against.

In this short article, I want to report my observations as someone who grew up in England with a Scottish mother and a Northern Irish father, both of whom would probably have voted NO, given the chance. Their three children would probably all have voted YES. But the voting requirement was residency, not inheritance. Nevertheless, the independence referendum similarly split many Scottish families: brother against brother, son against father, wife against husband, family against family. Like many others, we have a history of strong religion, left-wing politics and a dour serious disposition, that even growing up in London in the 1960’s didn’t change very much.

Scots have been impressed by Norway and Sweden over the last 50 years, by their social justice, civic involvement, sense of fair play and willingness to pay high taxes for most of that time to make it all work, no matter which party was in power. The Scandinavian model of social democracy has been a dream for Scots for their own country, if they could only control it. Scottish independence was seen a way to get rid of Tory rule from Westminster: the Scots elected 59 members to that parliament in 2010, just one of whom was a Conservative, yet had to suffer right-wing austerity policies, Westminster-led foreign wars and pay for the associated inflated defence spending. With independence and control of its own finances an independent Scotland could support decent levels of spending on health and education.

The main argument against independence was about the currency to be used after independence. The political elite’s plan was for George Osborne, the English Chancellor of the Exchequer, to get the Bank of England and the Treasury, then all Westminster political party leaders, to deny an independent Scotland access to the pound sterling. Having decided this and made it public, they then used this policy as though it was a credible fact. They used this ‘fact’ to lambast the pro-independence campaigners as ‘naïve’ at thinking independence could work without either a currency of their own and sufficient reserves to support any future banking crisis. The British government constructed the weakness of ‘no currency plan’ and then condemned the SNP for it.

Ten days before the referendum, it seemed that the majority of Scots still bought into the social-democratic ideal. After a second debate between the leaders of the YES and NO campaigns, Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling, the strategy of denying Scots the use of the pound seemed to be faltering. Frightened by polls predicting 52% support for independence, the establishment fought back with four initiatives:

  • All 3 main political parties arrived in Scotland with the news that voting NO actually meant the maximum amount of home rule for Scotland. They joined hands and made three separate commitments to this policy, named “Devo Max,” one for each party in three different places. If Scots voted NO then the parties would organize the ability of the Scottish Parliament to ‘control its own affairs’. They announced a timetable with details of what specific measures “Devo Max” might mean for the day after the vote and then a parliamentary bill to be made ready by the end of October and a first and second reading in Parliament before May, when the current Parliament ends and a new election must be held. (An option for Devo Max in the referendum was denied by David Cameron two years ago as he thought its absence would guarantee a NO vote.)
  • A series of announcements over the next week from bankers and business executives followed, coordinated by 10 Downing Street, providing the media with daily headlines of job losses, pension and saving funds losses, and a variety of anti-Scottish articles threatening difficulties with building an independent Scotland with an antagonistic UK government, EU and US administrations.
  • A week later, now three days before the referendum, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited Scotland and made a speech outlining all the many risks of an independence vote: pensions were ‘made in England’, Scots were told, in English pounds, which Scots would not have if they voted YES. Defence forces would not exist, jobs would go South to England and the Scottish economy would diminish.
  • The role of the BBC was to claim impartiality while grilling SNP leaders in nasty interviews. There were no ‘hardball’ interviews of any of the NO campaign leaders nor of the Westminster politicians. There was no need to control the private newspaper media as it was united in its hostility to an Independent Scotland. One exception was Rupert Murdoch’s Scottish Sun newspaper which had suggested that its readers would support it, but Murdoch objected to the Environment and Social Justice platform of the independence platform. On the day of the vote, his newspaper alone came out with a blazing NO headline.

The outcome of the vote was a shock to the Independence supporters, who had the majority of the debate both on and off social media. YES banners were everywhere all over Scotland on the days before and on the election and NO banners were scarce. However, the intimidated silent majority of nervous pensioners and financial workers came out in force and saved the faces and possibly jobs of the wheelers and dealers in Westminster.

On the day the result was announced, Cameron tied the issue of ‘Equal Rights for the English Nation’ to the devolution proposals and also failed to specify what would be devolved. The pledge that a NO vote was a vote for maximum devolution and without the risks of independence has been linked to the issue of Scottish Members of Parliament no longer being allowed to vote on English issues. This makes a majority Labour government in May almost impossible. Incredibly, the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist part (with one seat out of 59) has been arguing that a YES vote is not needed as a way of avoiding yet more Conservative government in Westminster which Scots don’t vote for, since the Conservatives are likely to lose the forthcoming election in May.

The Labour response to losing the voting power of 40 of its MPs is to refuse to go along with Cameron’s party policking. Cameron, moreover, has proposed that his foreign Secretary, William Hague, should work on a package of measures to promote English and Scottish Devolution measures and limit the powers of all MPs to vote on issues local to other countries in the UK. Interestingly, Michael Gove is the main government Minister rejecting more powers to the Scottish Parliament without equal rights for an English Parliament. He is the Chief Whip of the government (the role of Frank Underwood in the original UK version of A House of Cards).

So there you have it: the devolution decisions will be made in smoke-filled rooms by the posh public schoolboys of the Bullingdon club. Precisely the fear that led 1.6 million Scots to vote against the Union! You could hardly make it up; the Westminster elite does not understand or care about the desire of the UK public for transparent and local politics.

— John Macnamara

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No Nostalgia for Thatcher, but a Tribute to the Welfare State by Ken Loach


The muted protests at Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday gave the world a glimpse of the deeply-felt divisions in British society. She did not create this social cleavage, which at root is part of an international process: a shift of manufacturing out of Europe and the U.S., and a rapid expansion of speculation in financial centres like London and New York. What she is responsible for is ending the ruling elite’s Keynesian commitment to the mitigation of regional and social inequities.

Although her death evoked few tears in Britain’s industrial heartland, there was more than a little interest in showings of Ken Loach’s new documentary about the Attlee Labour government, “The Spirit of ‘45”. I was fortunate enough to see it while in the UK recently, and my own feelings were mixed: my childhood was spent under the wing of the welfare state, so I took state-provided health and education for granted, and share Loach’s affection for the cradle-to-grave policies that characterized the period.

The interviews with people who were children in the 1930s and 1940s were very moving. They remembered the harsh and degrading conditions of that time and the optimism for a better future after the 1945 election, articulating the general disaffection with prewar society and the determination that things were going to be different.

The interviewees vividly recounted the social impact of the Labour government’s nationalization and house-building program. The experience of state-directed industry during the war had established the feasibility of state intervention to achieve social goals. There was a huge sense of pride and ownership of the newly-nationalized industries, especially the National Health Service, which brought free health care to working-class families who had never been able to afford it. The government channeled state resources into solving the immediate problems of poverty, unemployment, and bad health. Housing for millions of families living in slums or private boarding houses was made a priority.

The weaker part of the film was the final segment, which showed participants urging a return to the collectivist spirit of the postwar era. While Thatcher was the clear villain of the piece, the discussion gave the impression that she imposed privatization and unemployment from above, an arbitrary political decision that could be reversed by a revived social-democratic party in Britain.

But the world has changed since Labour’s manifesto was written in 1945.  Globalization has made national forms of struggle increasingly ineffective in resisting corporate power. What troubled me was the message that the younger generation should look to the history of the Attlee government for an alternative to austerity, which amounts to advocating old solutions to qualitatively new problems.

The achievement of a welfare state after World War II was essentially a political compromise between an organized and homogeneous working class and a capitalist class that had survived the war and needed to restart capital accumulation. This cemented the priorities of the Labour leaders to the recovery of British-based capital within the economic boundaries of the old empire.

The Labour electoral landslide was not the result of some mass revolutionary wave, as some on the left like to think, but rather came from a popular determination to continue the state planning established during the war. State technocrats were more enthusiastic about nationalization than the government, which never intended to change the balance of power in industry, and obsolete production relations were kept intact along with antiquated machinery.

While making a huge difference in people’s lives by alleviating the prewar degradation of the working class, nationalization also released capital bound up in older industries with more than generous compensation to the former owners. Later Conservative governments continued the social compromise, while full employment and expanding markets gave shopfloor militancy leverage to gain a larger share of the surplus being produced. As production rapidly accelerated, the focus of capital accumulation shifted from the national arena to the global. The revival of the German and Japanese economies intensified competition in the world market, and the boom began to falter.

Signs of the erosion of the postwar political compromise were evident by the time of the Heath government, with a wave of inflation and industrial slowdown in 1973; national control of the economy dissolved with the IMF loan to the Callaghan government in 1976. As Michael Hudson explains it: “Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan made a token attempt to address [problems of the economy] by requesting an IMF loan in 1976 to finance tangible industrial re-investment as bridge financing until the UK’s North Sea oil could begin generating foreign exchange. But US Treasury Secretary Bill Simon read him the riot act. IMF and U.S. policy was to provide credit only to pay bondholders, not to build up the real economy. Britain would be advanced loans only if it reoriented its economy to let high finance do the planning.”

At the same time, industries based on new technology were expanding in the south of England, dividing the country socially and politically, and intensifying existing class divisions which had been left unchanged even after thirty years of the welfare state. This created the upwardly-mobile forces Thatcher was able to mobilize to champion populist capitalism against the Keynesian compromise. Her neoliberal agenda corresponded to the changes in international production and exchange that had weakened the unions and enabled her to change the ideological climate within the British ruling elite to toleration of the harsh monetarist doctrines shared by U.S. capital.

She did not set out to empower bankers, but that was the inevitable result of lifting restraints on capital as soon as she took office. As Hudson puts it: “Attacking central planning by government, she shifted it into much more centralized financial hands – the City of London, unopposed by any economic back bench of financial regulation and ‘free’ of meaningful anti-monopoly price regulation. … The Iron Lady was convinced she was rebuilding England’s economy, while in reality it was only getting richer from London’s outlaw banks.”  Her administration was the last to stridently claim an independent nationalism before later governments succumbed to the dictates of international finance – there is no pretense today that British foreign or economic policy is anything but dependent on the US and the City bankers.

Like the rest of Europe and the US, Britain has moved to a low-waged, service economy dominated by global corporations. The labour movement is faced with finding new ways of organizing and fighting in line with the realities of this globalized economy. That is why signs of international resistance to global capital are significant. US workers are flying to Europe to take on their Dutch supermarket owners. Striking immigrant McDonalds workers are returning to their homelands from the US determined to spread the campaign for a living wage. Bangladeshi survivors of the Tazreen factory fire and Nicaraguan victims of antiunion assaults are in New York to confront Walmart board members. And US unions are creating non-traditional ways to organize workers who have no recognized union at their workplace; the AFL-CIO affiliate, Working America, now claims 3.2 million members and is planning to establish chapters in every state in the USA.

I made this brief sketch of events in the years not covered by Ken Loach’s film to give some historical context to Thatcher’s administration, and to argue that the revival of a social-democratic perspective, necessarily limited to winning concessions from a nationally-based state, would not be productive. I believe that activists should focus on connecting with workers in the international supply chain feeding commodities into Western markets, which is corporate capital’s weakest point.

Nostalgia for the welfare state is understandable, but we need to learn from the creative solutions of the international labour movement in order to defend those reforms that remain from the past.

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Conservative icon and much-hated politician Margaret Thatcher is dead


The demise of Margaret Thatcher, for 11 years prime minister of Britain, has attracted eulogies from the conservative right and condemnation from the left. She is not entirely deserving of either.

Although credited with destroying the welfare state, her role was much smaller than her public persona made it appear. The “Iron Lady” was a carefully cultivated media image of single-minded ruthlessness for a woman who in actuality limited herself to the politically possible. Obama is mistaken when he says that she was able to shape history with her “moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”

The social consensus of postwar Britain had already been eroded in the 1970s by changes in the economy deriving from technological innovations like automation and the emergence of international capital markets. When Thatcher took on the miners’ union in 1984, the labour movement had been weakened both by economic decline and the removal of legal immunity for damages resulting from strikes. She unleashed the forces of the state to crush the political opposition of miners fighting to keep their jobs in the pits: however, their union was isolated by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and faced a legal and physical onslaught against their pickets. The miners were unable to counter the state’s strategic build-up of coal reserves imported from Poland in preparation for the conflict.

What Thatcher really did was to dispense with the role of the TUC in government. Since 1945 the union leaders had worked to keep disputes within a legal framework, while workers in shop floor organizations had become increasingly militant, in effect bringing down the Heath government in 1971 and undermining the Callaghan government after 1974. She abrogated this arrangement and took on the most militant union for political effect, similar to the way she attacked Argentina in 1982 – sending a naval task force to retake an old coaling station off the South American coast – and to when she allowed Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands to die rather than concede political status for IRA prisoners.

She hardly deserved to be a world figure. Her outlook was distinctly parochial and small-minded. What gave her international influence was her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who recognized in her an ideological kinship. Thatcher later wrote: “I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did, not just about policies but about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature.”

Although she claimed the mantle of Churchill, her politics were closer to those of Neville Chamberlain: she appeased dictators and was viciously hostile to unions. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out: “She played a key role not only in bringing about the first Gulf War but also using her influence to publicly advocate for the 2003 attack on Iraq. She denounced Nelson Mandela and his ANC as ‘terrorists’, something even David Cameron ultimately admitted was wrong. She was a steadfast friend to brutal tyrants such as Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Indonesian dictator General Suharto…”

Author John Mortimer described Thatcher’s political achievement as snatching the Conservative party from “the privileged but often well meaning old upper-class gentlemen, and giv[ing] it to the shopkeepers, the businessmen, the people in advertising and anyone she considered ‘one of us.’ ” Historian Kenneth O. Morgan elaborates: “The Thatcher background was one of entrepreneurial, upwardly-mobile, self-sufficient, middle-class neoliberalism. … The roots of Thatcherism lay in acquisition rather than in production. It sought to create a business, perhaps a rentier culture.” [The People’s Peace, Oxford 1990:443]

What Thatcher gave to many parts of Britain, especially in the formerly industrialized north, was mass unemployment, collapsing public services, and urban decay. But decline in manufacturing coincided with a boom in technologically sophisticated smaller industries located mainly in the south, and this more than anything else sustained her base.

She was able to get public support for the privatization of nationalized industries and council houses by doing so in a way that seemed to advantage workers who bought shares in the initial offerings. Later, of course, the real profits accrued to the banks and businessmen who were able to buy these assets at prices considerably lower than their valuations.

Her political legacy has to be seen as that of a neoliberal transition from the consensus politics of the postwar years to a country dominated by financial institutions. She spearheaded a state assault on unions, the public sector, and local government from an ideological free-market position, and met her political end after attempting to impose a “poll tax” which would have hit the poor the hardest. The monetarist philosophies that had apparently revived the economy were failing, and by 1990 Thatcher’s belligerent but idiosyncratic style was rejected by the Conservative party itself and she was booted out of office.

Thatcher’s agenda was a counterpart to the globalization of production and exchange that had weakened and undermined the national compromise embodied in the welfare state. So to regard her as destroying it single-handedly, as some on the left imply, is mistaken. Movements of resistance now have to take on international capital, and are no longer confined to what was possible within a relatively closed national economy. Although many in places like Merseyside and Tyneside will be drinking extra pints tonight, Thatcher merely pushed over an edifice whose foundations had already decayed.

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Which Queen’s English are we speaking?


On BBC TV’s recent Newsnight program discussing the London riots, David Starkey, a constitutional historian and honorary fellow of Cambridge University, who presented a popular TV series on the Tudors, claimed that “the problem is that the whites have become black.”

“A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together. This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England and that is why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country,” he said.

Starkey used coded language to make “whiteness” a synonym for British middle-class values, for law and order and stability, while “blackness” signified the dangerous other, the outsider, the criminal. Asked point-blank whether he thought that “black culture” was responsible for the rioting, he replied obliquely: “Listen to the [language of the] text sent by the girl who had been the Olympic ambassador, who then engages in shocking acts of looting.” “It’s not skin colour, it’s culture,” he said. “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on radio, you would think he was white.”  (Watch the whole thing here.)

This provoked a storm of protest. But Starkey did not budge from his position. He told The Mail on Sunday: “I said until I was blue in the face on the programme that I was not talking about skin colour but gang culture. A large group of whites have started to behave like blacks. I think that is the most unracial remark anyone can make.” He added later: “David Lammy does sound white, so does [MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington] Diane Abbott, because they’ve had a white cultural experience. It’s one of the reasons they don’t have any street credibility. They have no contact with the young.”

The outcry that followed Starkey’s comments typifies the awkwardness of the British in talking about race. It’s usually discreetly suppressed, but whenever race is discussed openly the assumption of the superiority of British bourgeois values coded as “white culture” is expressed in a crude essentialist attitude.

Starkey’s racialization of culture was elaborated by right-wing commentator James Delingpole. “Listen to how many white kids (and Asian kids) choose to speak in black street patois; note the extent to which hip-hop and grime garage and their offshoots have penetrated the white mainstream; check out how many white kids like to roll like pimps or perps with their Calvins pulled up to their midriffs and their jean waistbands sagging below their buttocks. Is anyone seriously going to try to make the case that this isn’t black culture in excelsis?”

What has really happened, it seems to me, is that there has been a fusion both of languages and outlooks, of an unemployed or unskilled British working-class attitude which rejects middle-class norms of propriety with Afro-Caribbean assertions of identity expressed linguistically in British Creole. While some Afro-Caribbean second- and third- generation immigrants have risen into the middle-class through education and “speak like whites,” others identify with working class defiance of authority and elite cultural values. And white and Asian youth find hip hop and Afro-Caribbean cultural expressions a way to express their rebelliousness and social alienation, a way to oppose middle-class ideals which devalue them.

Starkey’s identification of blackness with a propensity for violence was repeated by another BBC presenter, Fiona Armstrong (otherwise known as Lady MacGregor of MacGregor). Interviewing long-time Afro-Caribbean activist Darcus Howe, she kept asking him if he was shocked by the riots, and when he attempted to explain the police harassment youth, including his grandson, faced daily, she objected “That is not an excuse for what has been happening over the last few days…”

At one point, she said, “You are not a stranger to riots yourself I understand, are you? You have taken part in them yourself.” Howe replied indignantly: “I have never taken part in a single riot. I’ve been part of demonstrations that ended up in a conflict. Stop accusing me of being a rioter and have some respect for an old West Indian Negro, because you wanted for me to get abusive. You just sound idiotic – have some respect.’”

As the guardians of public morality, the BBC later acknowledged it had been a “poorly-phrased question.” But the racialized views of a highly-placed academic and an upper class television anchor attempting to “otherize” non-establishment voices reflect the role of the BBC in reproducing bourgeois ideology. They are afraid that alongside Queen Elizabeth’s English we will also hear Queen Nanny’s.

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