When David Cameron was overheard crowing that the Queen had ‘purred down the line’ on being told that Scotland had rejected independence, his delight was not only personal, but echoed the relief being felt that morning by his entire class.
Every national and regional daily paper supported ‘no’; military leaders warned of threats to British security; financial ’experts’ said banks would abandon Scotland; supermarket bosses predicted price rises while oil tycoons made you wonder why they were involved in oil production at all if there really was as little left in the North Sea as they insisted; the elderly were told of pensions at risk; and immigrants would be forced to leave Scotland. Finally, as late polls showed a narrow lead for ‘yes’, PMQs was hastily cancelled to allow the three main British party leaders to travel to Scotland, link arms in political unity and cobble together ‘The Vow’, a promise to grant Scotland more powers if it voted ‘no’.
The merits of those arguments have been exhaustively debated. But there remains a question yet to be addressed. Despite the most ferocious defence of ruling class interests in modern times, analysis of the vote revealed that working class Scots and those in the poorest areas had, by clear majorities, voted ‘yes’. Like Cameron, they too had figured out where their class interests lay. In the rest of the Britain though, what evidence there was suggested a substantial majority of working class people favoured Scotland remaining in Britain.
Common bonds based mainly on sentiment played a part for sure but that hardly explains the positions of our own, supposedly more class-conscious movement. Labour was of course, hostile to independence while those unions who declared a position were also unanimously opposed, and to be fair, this does seem to have accurately reflected the views of ordinary members. Why then did the wider British working class align themselves with their own ruling class?
Put simply they confused virtue with vice; the unity of our class with the defence of the very institutions which attack us. Class unity doesn’t depend upon sharing a government – examples of international solidarity are too numerous for that theory to bear any scrutiny – so it would be illogical to argue that our shared values are threatened by Scottish self-determination. But Westminster, the preferred choice of the labour movement, never seems to run out of ways to divide and defeat working people. And the loss of Scotland, one of its central pillars, would have been a crushing blow to the class system as conditions were created for its collapse and debate began to open up in the other nations. This is what Cameron fully understood and the British labour movement failed to grasp.
It’s nothing new. A century and a half ago around a million people were starved out of Ireland in order to undermine wages and conditions in Britain. Although they lived in squalor, they were resented and held in contempt by native workers, whose leaders at the time accepted British policy in Ireland. It was a classic case of divide and rule. In siding with the ruling class on Ireland, British workers were in fact supporting a strategy designed to attack their own living standards, the unthinking architects of their own impoverishment, prompting Karl Marx to write ‘the English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland’.
21st century Scotland is not, of course, 19th century Ireland. Conditions for working people have improved immeasurably, and Scotland never was a colony. But there remain parallels to be drawn and lessons we shouldn’t forget. The advances in conditions for working people are not a result of Westminster rule, but of the fight against it. They have been taken, not given. But accepting concessions allowed our ruling class to remain intact, to live to fight another day when conditions turn in their favour. The results are disastrous; poverty and inequality have rocketed, food banks have become an essential for many, tens of thousands are killed by fuel poverty every winter, others driven to suicide by benefits sanctions, joblessness and despair.
And Labour now claims to represent British workers but like its Liberal predecessor it too has a century-long record of defending, not defeating, British capitalism. Notwithstanding the efforts of genuine and able figures like Hardie himself, Lansbury, Benn or even Corbyn today, no-one can seriously believe a British road to socialism still exists.
It’s true that Scotland can’t claim the victim status of an ex-colony. Yet that’s the point. Unlike Ireland, an independent Scotland would represent the beginnings of the Empire crumbling from within, an irreversible rejection of the British ruling class by a section of its own working class.
The movement however, disorientated by Brexit and Corbyn, now appears divided on the timing of a second referendum. But frustration is the enemy and while support remains stagnant a second vote would most likely end in a more permanent defeat. Like it or not, the dust has to settle on Brexit before a clear vision of an independent Scotland can emerge. If that vision is progressive, if the SNP can be pushed leftwards towards more pro-working class policies – using a Scottish currency to facilitate full employment for example or promoting co-operatives amongst the unemployed as in regions of Italy – then support will grow again. Build it and they will come, you might say. Cameron recognised that the Scottish question is about class not nationality. It should be our duty to make the same crucial distinction.
Fraser Coast is a train driver and chair of ASLEF Bathgate branch. He was previously shop steward in CWU and a long-term member of Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and chair of its Airdrie and Coatbridge branch.