The Left against Europe 2

PUB 193-23 - EuropeIn explaining the opposition of the left in Britain to joining the Common Market in 1971 Tom Nairn argues that the working class had succumbed to nationalism long before and that nationalism had successfully corralled the rising working class movement in the 19th century. This of course eventually led to the mass socialist parties of Europe dropping their internationalist stance and supporting their own state in the slaughter that receives its centenary this year.

Having fixed the class struggle within national limits, within which it “acquired great inertia and the natural conservatism of hard-won reforms”, the bourgeoisie was able to seek new international or multi-national forms more appropriate to the expansion and development of the capitalist mode of production.  “It does so very cautiously, amid great confusion and contradiction.”  However in this movement “the principal asset of the western European bourgeoisies is a simple one: the absence of the left.”

The margin for manoeuvre afforded the leaders of capitalism is relatively large because the class struggle in Europe long ago lost any concrete international dimension.  They are able to pose “questions to which the socialist and communist left simply have no answer . . . that is, except futile opposition, evasion of the issue, or a harmless rhetoric of abstract internationalism.”  Nairn then sets forth how he sees the left’s intervention within the ‘great debate’ in 1971 exhibiting all these characteristics.

Just like today, opposition to the Common Market was de rigueur and taken for granted.  It was opposition to a super-state – one bigger and further away, built in support of the biggest capitalist monopolies.  As we noted in the first of these posts Europe was “somehow more capitalist in nature than Great Britain and the British State.  The Common Market nations are either more capitalist than Britain, or they are capitalist in a more sinister sense; while the Community’s Brussels institutions represent the bureaucratic heart of darkness.”

“It would hardly be correct to call this a theory” remarks Nairn.  He quotes the British Communist Party (CP) stating that the Common Market is ‘anti-planning, anti-socialist, anti-working class’. National governments and their elected Parliaments have no control over its gigantic bureaucracy and the British would be merely represented in the same proportion as the Italians ‘as one sixth of the population of 300 millions involved.’  ‘We would be virtually sunk without trace’ and parliament would no longer be supreme.

The nationalist and statist conception of socialism exhibited here by the CP is hardly a surprise but it is remarkable, despite the categorical collapse of the Stalinist states, how much of this Stalinism is alive today under the banner of many of the supposed Trotskyist organisations – from their bureaucratic and undemocratic internal functioning to their reliance on nationalisation as a socialist measure, their support for popular front types of campaign organisation and electoralism.  And here: their opposition to the EEC.

What this illustrates is the good old Marxist dictum that being determines consciousness, that the material factors at play in society, the power of the capitalist mode of production and its state and the political movements supported and ideologies promoted by it, are more powerful than the purported political theories and programmes of small and isolated revolutionary organisations.  So the revolutionary left organisations in Britain in 1971 opposed entry into the EEC while today there is no campaign to leave it despite the question arising now as a live issue, yet in between there has been no reassessment.

Nairn looks at some of the left objections to the EEC, which are still around today.  On the Brussels bureaucracy Nairn points out that the employees of the Common Market Commission were approximately one fifteenth of the number working in one British Ministry, the Department of Health and Social Security.  On whether the Common Market is capitalist or not he asks the question “how could a union of six or ten capitalist national states be anything else?”   But the rational question for any socialist is “which of these two sets of capitalist conditions, the national or the Common Market, offers the best future environment for revolutionary thought and activity?”

Nairn remarks that, of the left in the anti-EEC campaign, “none of them – with the possible exception of the CP – looked happy inside it.  On every hand one found doubts, qualifications, and reservations.”  Nairn then looks at the arguments of various organisations on the revolutionary left, including the International Marxist Group (IMG).

The IMG opposed entry because “the Common Market is opposed to both the immediate and the long-term class interests of the labour movement.”  “The EEC is a capitalist solution to capitalist problems.”  However it lamented the lack of any scrap of socialist internationalism within the left of the Labour Party and argued that “chauvinism is a vicious enemy which must be destroyed.”  The unity of the Labour and trade union leaders and the mass of trade union members in opposition to entry is a unity that “holds no future for the working class, and one which must be rejected and fought against.”

The IMG posit that millions of workers are discussing the issue and into this debate revolutionaries can insert the alternative of working class unity “and the strategy of a red Europe against the capitalist EEC.”  This would involve “creating living links between workers’ struggles in the countries of Western Europe.”

In the same issue of the IMG paper ‘Red Mole’ Nairn quotes from an article by Ernest Mandel which looks at the EEC as an economic and political mechanism reflecting the internationalisation of monopoly companies and the need for British capital to join their competitors because it cannot beat them from outside.

Mandel concludes by stating that the most important factor in assessing the situation is “the dynamic of the class struggle.”  Joining the EEC would cause immediate material losses to workers but they could compensate for this because entry would not reduce economic class struggle but would exacerbate it. Political radicalisation would be reinforced (although entry was still opposed).

So how could the statement that “the Common Market (is) opposed to both the immediate and the long-term class interests of the labour movement” and the one stating that an increase in economic class struggle and reinforced political radicalisation will arise from joining both be true?

Nairn records the isolation of the revolutionary left in the debate but that they protected themselves from being camp-followers of left nationalist opposition through “a certain degree of intelligent half-heartedness.”  “Honour was saved, mainly by looking both ways at once and saying two different things at once.”  For Nairn this position arose partly from the void where some sense of what internationalism meant practically should have been.

So what was the reason for this lack of socialist internationalism?  Nairn quotes the IMG author: “  It is not the objective conditions that have been responsible for a lack of socialist internationalism in Europe but a failure on the part of the bureaucratically led labour movement to live up to its responsibilities.”  So the alternative is then to build a revolutionary party.

Whatever about the truth of the latter as a definition of the solution there are problems with the explanation of the problem.

For small Marxist organisations of hundreds or thousands the nationalist consciousness of millions of workers is not a subjective factor.  While betrayal of particular struggles on particular occasions has undoubtedly taken place it is hardly adequate to say that workers’ consciousness arises from having been betrayed repeatedly for decades otherwise the working class is essentially stupid.

What is the objective basis of workers consciousness over decades in all the most developed capitalist countries?  A Marxist would look for causes as long-lasting and as deep seated and profound as the phenomenon which is in need of explanation and ‘betrayal’ doesn’t meet this requirement.

It makes no sense to say that reformist and nationalist leaders betray reformist and nationalist workers.  The often contradictory character of workers’ consciousness can see their most radical and militant notions and impulses betrayed by their leaders but what has to be explained is why this radical consciousness does not predominate and why it can be betrayed, repeatedly.

Why is the lack of internationalist consciousness so pervasive among workers?

I will look at how the left has come to these questions in a future post but the next one will continue to look at how the question of the EEC was addressed by the revolutionary left in 1971 through looking at the debate within the International Socialists, forerunner of todays’ Socialist Workers Party.

The Left against Europe

DSC_0122The failure of David Cameron to prevent Jean Claude Juncker becoming President of the European Commission drew widespread comment that it will now be harder for Britain to stay in the European Union (EU).  If the Tory Party wins the next British general election Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by 2017.  Under pressure from The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and from within his own Eurosceptic ranks he has developed a policy that has temporarily settled the in-fighting within his Party.

In Ireland referenda on the development of the EU have been fairly frequent.  In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice by 53.9% with only 34.8% of the electorate voting.  The vote was held again in 2002 and the Treaty was passed by 62.9%, with 49.5% of the electorate voting.

In 2008 53.4% voted against the Lisbon Treaty (on a turnout of 53.1%) so once again the vote was re-held to get the ‘right’ result. The next vote in October 2009 resulted 67.1% voting in favour of the treaty, once again on a higher turnout of 59%.

The Left in Ireland has been in the opposition within these EU referenda and opposed the original entry into the European Economic Community in 1972, which was decisively approved in a referendum by over 80% of those voting.  In Britain the Left also opposed British membership of the EEC in a 1975 referendum, which was passed by a majority of 67.2% in a turnout of 64.0%.

When I was in a second hand bookshop in Glasgow some weeks ago my attention was therefore drawn to an old copy of New Left Review from 1972, which was a special issue on ‘The Left Against Europe’.  The whole issue was devoted to one article written by Tom Nairn on the ‘great debate’ in Britain in the previous year whether Britain should join the Common Market, as the EEC was popularly called.  This debate eventually led to a vote in the Westminster Parliament to join and accession into membership in 1973, before the new Labour Government elected in 1974 held a referendum in 1975 to ratify staying in.

Nairn states that the debate was far from ‘great’ and that quotation marks enclosed the phrase from the outset.  It continued what he called a ‘stale and exasperated argument about the topic which had dragged on for years.’  The Cameron promise shows that it still continues.

The ‘great debate’ Nairn says “never at any moment approached ‘greatness, or even excitement.”  Nairn uses it however to examine the Left’s opposition to the EEC and this examination is worth looking at to see what lessons it provides for today.  The issue of the EU matters to the Left and working class as much as it still does for the Tory Party.

Whether Britain stays in or leaves also matters to the Irish State.  Its original membership was only viable if the British also joined and Britain leaving would create a real problem.  Only last week it was reported that a delegation from the German Parliament’s Finance Committee had issued a report – that the Irish tax regime “had failed to reach one of the goals of Irish economic promotion, namely to be less dependent on Britain.  Instead Ireland has moved from de facto full dependency on Britain to a shared dependency on Britain and the US in developing and securing employment.”

Nairn puts the British decision to join down to the hegemonic interests of finance in the City of London and the timing down to global monetary instability prompted by the dollar crisis that eventually forced the dollar off convertibility to gold in August 1971.  He quotes the Economist magazine stating that a future attempt at monetary union within the EEC will see Britain in the inside, with the strongest financial centre and having a dominant say in what gets done.

Not quite how things turned out but this story isn’t over and the choice to join the Euro is one that still faces the British capitalist class.

Nairn notes the virtual unity of the Conservative Party in seeking membership of the Common Market and the limited opposition of a marginalised rump led by the arch-bigot Enoch Powell, who by coincidence, has had the depths of his bigotry recalled by a flag supporting him going up in a loyalist area of Belfast.  Today the decline of the Tory Party into a backward, reactionary and ultimately self-defeating nationalism is evidenced by the ascendancy of Eurosceptics within that Party.

It is examination of the attitude of the Left however that is the purpose of this long 120 page article.  The opposition of the Labour Party to joining the Common Market in this ‘great debate’, or the vast majority of it at least, is put down to pure opportunism.  Under the leadership of Harold Wilson it opposed joining for purely party political purposes, Wilson having attempted to lead Britain into the EEC when in power between 1964 and 1970.

The ability of Labour to perform this U-turn is put down to the fundamentally nationalist character of the party.  For Nairn, the Labour Party is not fundamentally a class or popular Party but a nationalist Party and its reformism and ‘betrayals’ of the working class a result of its nationalism.  This nationalism is one shared in a basic sense by its supporters and voters, which explains why – despite the betrayals – they still support and vote for it.  Otherwise the phenomenon of continued support despite continued betrayal become inexplicable, unless workers are to be understood as fundamentally stupid – voting again and again for people who betray their beliefs and expectations.

Nairn records the opposition of the Left of the Labour Party in particular and its opposition to the Common Market on the basis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘socialism’.  In this respect the themes of the ‘great debate’ resonate today.

  • The Left in the Labour party presented Britain as more internationalist than the inward looking European States.  Open, free trading Britain was compared to the protectionist EEC.  Didn’t Britain look beyond the petty European states towards the countries of the Commonwealth and Britain’s wider role in international affairs and international bodies?  The latter providing the basis for a real socialist foreign policy.
  • Entry into the EEC would erect obstacles to the fight for socialism in Britain and prevent further socialist measures by a future Labour Government.  The EEC is a capitalist club and entry would mean the loss of the potential for socialism that does exist.
  • Refusal to enter this club would pose the question of an alternative, which would allow a socialist answer to be given.
  • The independence of Britain would allow the real popular character of the British nation to be revealed through its labour movement in a way that would be impossible within the rules of the EEC.

So what does this remind you of?

Well, swap Scotland for Britain and you have much of the Left nationalist case for Scottish independence today.

Just as the EEC is supposed to be more capitalist that the British state (God knows how) so Scotland is less reactionary than Britain (which is even less comprehensible).  London rule is capitalist but somehow Edinburgh rule is less capitalist!

Left nationalists proclaim the international potential of Scottish independence in the same self-refuting way the Labour Party did in the 1971 ‘great debate.’  Nationalist separation is somehow internationalist.  Why?  Because somehow, again unexplained or simply incredibly, there exists more potential for socialism in Edinburgh than London; just as the nations within the EEC and the EEC itself were assumed to be barriers to socialism that the British imperialist state wasn’t.

Today one part of the imperialist state – with a history of disproportionate participation in empire building – is again more socialist, or with the potential for it, than Britain as a whole.  Again while Scottish Left nationalists claim that the real Scottish nation is more left wing so did the Labour Party claim the real British nation was more socialist than the capitalist EEC, including such historical bastions of reaction as Paris and Rome.

Finally, even posing the nationalist question somehow gives rise to a socialist answer, or less extravagantly, gives rise to the potential for a socialist answer.  But it’s as if, if you ask the right question in the right way somehow socialism will pop up almost naturally as the answer.  And where is the evidence for this even when, as in Ireland for example, the capitalist crisis brought the Irish State to bankruptcy and exposed double standards that made working class people pay for the reckless gambling debts of the rich?

What more striking exposure of the rottenness of capitalism could be imagined?  Yet still there has been no alternative created and still in both Ireland and Britain there is no successful resistance to austerity – the most immediate question to which the socialist movement has been unable to provide an answer.

What this exposes, among many other things, is that the essence of socialism is not the displacement or even destruction of this or that aspect of capitalism or its state but the development of the working class.  Capitalism can only be superseded, at least progressively, by the development of something positive.  Unfortunately the Left thinks always in negative terms – of what it is against – and when it looks to achieve even this it posits the existing capitalist state or some configuration of it, usually its own nationalist version, as the mechanism of transformation.

It is ironic that Tom Nairn ridicules the claims that the the fight against the Tories, for national ‘independence’, against inflation and for socialism were, in 1971, ‘all the same thing’.  This is exactly the same claim made today in 2014, except we might replace inflation with austerity and support the claims of ‘Scotland’ instead of ‘Britain’.   He shows how Labourism rejuvenated itself and re-established unity within its own ranks by claiming to unite British workers in opposition to bureaucracy and international capitalism.  Except all this rested on the unity of British workers with the British state, shackled by the chain of nationalism.

But the question of Scottish separation is a derivative lesson to be drawn from reading ‘The Left Against Europe’.  The major lesson is the need to give real content to the socialist claim that it is international by its very nature.  Not an aspiration, not simply a goal to reach, an attitude to strike or an opinion to hold dearly but a practical and immediate part of its political programme.

What he says about this will be taken up in the next post.

A Scottish road to nationalism

Scotarmy

‘Is the a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013

I have mentioned before that the Yes side of the Scottish independence debate appears to present a positive message that contains hope and optimism while the No campaign appears negative and doubting.

Speaking to my daughter and sister however, it is similarly the case that the Yes campaign also has its powerful negative argument.  This consists of the claim that to vote No is to vote for the status quo and the status quo is neither popular nor acceptable.

But why is the status quo so bad?  What causes it to be like this?

For anyone who calls themselves socialist, by definition the problem is the social system.  One that produces disaffection everywhere and therefore cannot arise from ‘London rule’.  Socialists are also, or rather they should be, well used to nationalist campaigns that put the ills of society down to the nationality of the state, and which therefore obscure real causes.

Some on the left however have argued that Scottish workers and Scottish society generally is more progressive and that this justifies separation from England and Wales, in order to forge ahead in creating a more egalitarian society that can form a better starting point for the creation of socialism.

In a number of places within the two books reviewed the idea of making a fresh start is raised.  However what this demonstrates is not that some formula has been discovered that wipes the slate clean and allows past defeats to be overcome, but that the left has no answers to the problems that have beset socialism.  This means that these will still be there after independence, in worse circumstances and to a worse degree, should the objective of a separate Scottish capitalist state be achieved.

Even if it were true that the Scottish working class is more progressive, for a socialist this would mean finding ways through which Scottish workers could lead the rest of the British working class, of which they are an integral part.  Instead Scottish nationalists seek the creation of a separate state, one that can only be capitalist in current circumstances, and give it the role of catalyst for progressive change.

The key role of the state in substituting itself for the activity of the working class as the agent of change is demonstrated not only in the unavoidable claims that a Scottish state will be more progressive simply because it is Scottish but also in claims made for the unalterably reactionary nature of Britain as a political unit and the UK state.

In order to respond to the argument that, if they are more advanced, Scottish workers should lead their English and Welsh sisters and brothers, it is asserted that this cannot happen because there is something in  British politics or the UK state which just cannot be changed.  Behind the seemingly positive message of Scottish advance, of Yes to independence, is a pessimistic and very negative view of the British working class.  What lies behind the smokescreen of hope is a mountain of despair:

“There is a very simple answer to the question, ‘is socialism possible in contemporary Britain?’  On the basis that it is possible, the answer is yes, but it isn’t going to happen.” (Is the a Scottish Road to Socialism, p 57)

“. . . key vested interests are so entrenched within the very fabric of the UK state that it is difficult to see them ever relinquishing control.”  (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 45)

“Labour can offer no guarantee that it can deliver greater capacity for providing ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ whilst defending the union.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 59)

“We find ourselves in a unitary, multi-national British state that is politically locked into a neo-liberal world order.  In 2014, we have the opportunity to break free from that state and to start again in a newly independent country.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 117-118)

“I find it simply impossible to look at Britain and conceive of any strategy at all that might even bring a hint of socialism to London. . . If we want change in our lifetimes, we’re going to need independence” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 128)

“There is not a scintilla of evidence that Labour can be reformed, that significant forces wish it to be reformed or that any UK socialist party can emerge to replace it.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 157)

“This is what needs to be understood about Britain, that it is structurally incapable of being progressive.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 164)

Since Scotland is an integral part of Britain and the state in Scotland a component part of the British state, the damnation of Britain and the British state is really an equal damning of Scotland.  Except that what these authors really mean is that it is England and the English that are the problem.  Otherwise their assertions make no sense whatsoever.

Somehow the unreformable nature of the British state and British politics does not apply north of the border.  Apparently a Scottish capitalist state can be reformed.  Such a new state will not be part of the neo-liberal world order.  How?  God knows – for even a workers revolution in Scotland that placed political power in the hands of a completely democratic workers’ state could not escape being locked into a neoliberal world order.

Only in a scenario of immediate spread of the revolution could it have any hope of surviving and still be something worthy of the description socialist.  But such a prospect would immediately depend on not just solidarity but spread of the revolution to, of all places, England and Wales.

Aware of the self-defeating argument that Scottish workers are better off being separated from England the argument is then put that the great leap forward by Scottish workers would act as an example which English and Welsh workers would follow.

The two problems with this is, firstly it isn’t shown how this cannot be done more easily by Scottish and English workers remaining united and avoiding nationalist division.  And secondly, the example that Scottish nationalism is giving to English workers is not the need for solidarity and unity but that English workers are incapable, that the Scots are better off advancing by themselves and that this is the way forward for them to follow.  So, if there is a No vote, what our left nationalists are really saying is that English workers should dump the Scots.

Left nationalists might reply that it is not English workers but the ‘British’ state that is unreformable but the nationalist argument is that this state cannot be dealt with by British workers but only by Scottish workers leaving it.  This can only mean that a new Scottish capitalist state will somehow be more reformable and/or that English workers are a drag on Scottish workers in defeating the British state.

Except it is not proposed to  destroy the capitalist character of the British State but simply to set up two capitalist states where previously only one existed.  Much is made of the dominance by the British state by the financial interests of the City of London, but Scottish separation is not going to do anything about that.  This dominance has been around for at least a century, it is not something new brought about by recent ‘neo-liberalism’.  As the Irish contribution to ‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’ explains, the new Irish state did nothing to reduce the power of the City of London when it was created.

What it did do was spawn a tiny competitor to it, the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, which has been described as the wild west of international finance.  Irish workers now assert the sovereignty of their state through tax deals with US multinationals and no-union factories. The SNP promise exactly the same.  In the 1970s it promised that Scotland would be like Switzerland and in the 21st century that it would be like the Celtic Tiger, until it crashed and burned.

The example being set by left nationalism in Scotland is that the ills of capitalism, ‘neoliberalism’ and austerity, should be fought through small nations seeking independence.  Not by seeking the broadest unity of workers.

Independence is supported because it would be a defeat for the British state and the British state is a barrier to working class socialism.  In so far as it goes this is correct but what it leaves out is much more important than what it says.  It is not only the bones of the left nationalist argument but its whole physiology.  This makes it simple, simple minded and wrong.

Socialism is the movement of the working class and its conquest of economic, social and political power, irrespective of nationality.  It can exist only at an international level.  This too is a simple description.  But even at this simple level is shows the incompatibility of left nationalism with socialism.

In the case of Scottish nationalism the capitalist nature of the British state is confused with its being British which allows opposition to it being British hiding the fact that whatever replaces it will still be capitalist.  Scottish left nationalism seeks a new start on the basis of a newly independent nation but since Scotland is already a nation what they mean is that the new start depends on creation of a new capitalist state.  Unfortunately for such ideas, socialism is not the result or product of state action no matter how new or progressive that state is.

Nationalism, no matter how left it is, always confuses action by the state for socialism, so it calls upon the state to redistribute wealth and take control of resources ‘for the people’, whereas socialism calls upon workers to take ownership of production itself and build the power of its own organisations so that one day these can replace the state.  Internationalism is not the solidarity of one progressive state with another but is the international action of workers – from organising in parties and unions internationally to creating and building workers’ cooperatives internationally, across borders, not favouring the population within certain lines on a map.

The betrayal of socialism involved in the embrace of nationalism by sections of the Scottish left is revealed by this state-centred conception of socialism, although this is hidden from many because socialism is popularly identified with state action and in particular by the growth of gigantic, bureaucratic state power, exemplified by the Soviet Union.  This is one reason it remains unpopular among the mass of workers.

It is revealed in assertions that Scottish nationalism is really internationalist.  Often such claims are made on the basis of comparisons with the struggle for a separate state in Catalonia or the Basque Country or even Ireland, but what this reveals is not internationalism but the solidarity of nationalisms.

The point of nation states is that they compete with each other, sometimes through alliances with other nations.  In fact it is usually through alliances with other nations, but this doesn’t make such alliances examples of internationalism.  The Axis and Allied powers in World War II were not rival internationalisms except in the sense of being rival imperialisms.

For small countries such alliances are doubly necessary and necessarily involve subordination to bigger and more powerful states.  An ‘independent’ Scotland would be no different.

So the argument that independence is to be supported because it will be a significant defeat for the British state is weak because it will simply create two capitalist states where one previously existed.  It will set a rotten example for workers who seek solutions to austerity and will only exacerbate competition between nations from which workers will suffer.

National separation in the case of Scotland will not settle nationalist grievance but intensify it through Scottish competition with England.  It will not significantly weaken the international imperialist system either economically, since Scotland will remain a capitalist society, or politically, since Scotland will remain part of the EU and of NATO.

What it will do is promote nationalist solutions to the problems of capitalism, or ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ as one author put it.  It will further division of the British working class and make more difficult the radicalisation of this working class into a movement for a new society.

Apologists for Scottish nationalism claim that Scottish workers can still belong to British trade unions, although why they would want to if the British labour movement is an irredeemable failure is nowhere explained.  The history of Ireland shows the powerful divisive potential of creation of separate states even within a single national working class.  Partition has dramatically increased divisions in the Irish working class and not just along religious lines.

The small pro-nationalist left organisations in Scotland have already revealed their true colours when it comes to claims to internationalism.  Almost their first step is creation of separate Scottish organisations.  They are oblivious even to the possibility of supporting Scottish independence while seeking by their own organisation to demonstrate their longer term goal of workers unity by being part of a British socialist party.  This is because working class unity and internationalism has no real practical significance for their programme, activity or organisation.

There is therefore something positive in a No vote that rejects the despair of nationalism.  This is hope and faith in the unity of the British working class, an historical reality with a tradition that has overcome internal nationalist divisions in the past. The future of the Scottish working class lies in its unity with the rest of the British working class and building towards unity on a European scale, not national separation.

 

 

Racism and anti-racism in Belfast

 

DSC_0117“Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.  Enoch Powell was a prophet, he called it that blood would flow on the streets and it has happened.”

When a Protestant minister in North Belfast’s Metropolitan Tabernacle Church declared that Islam was “satanic” and “heathen” and compared “cells” of Muslims in Britain to the IRA the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, who is known to have attended the church, was widely called upon to speak out.

Oh dear.

When he did, he said that Pastor McConnell had been demonised, that it was the duty of any preacher to denounce what he described as “false prophesy” and said he would not trust Muslims either, particularly with regard to those who had been involved in violence, or those who are “fully devoted to Sharia law, I wouldn’t trust them for spiritual guidance”; however he would trust Muslims to “go down to the shops” for him or to deal with a number of “day-to -day issues”.

Cue lots of people with their heads in their hands, especially those considering the Northern Ireland administration sponsored trips to the Middle East to promote trade and investment.

NWS_2014-06-02_NEW_006_31867640_I1

A newly elected unionist councillor for Belfast had that week been found to have tweeted a year earlier that “I’m so sick of the poor Catholic b*stards they make me sick I wish they would just go down to Ireland . .” but she was young and sectarianism is hardly news in the North of Ireland unless someone in the media decides to make it news.

But racist attacks, especially by loyalist paramilitaries, have already been in the news and have increased by 43 per cent over the year, twenty seven per cent of them in North Belfast.  Having been called upon to comment in order to denounce racism, Robinson was then called upon to apologise for his own offensive and insulting remarks.

Anna Lo, the Hong Kong born local politician, had just received some racist harassment herself and called upon him to resign if he did not publicly apologise, vowing to leave Northern Ireland because of local racism and  sectarianism and stating that she would not stand for election again.  One Democratic Unionist Party councillor then called her a “racist” and was dropped by that party as its candidate for mayor of Newtownabbey, which is adjacent to North Belfast.  Other ministers and unionist politicians backed McConnell and claimed Christianity was being persecuted.

Two Muslim men where then beaten in their homes in the north of the city and stated that their attack was connected to Robinson’s statement – he had “lit the fire”.

Some in the press and other unionist leaders attempted to minimise the impact of the insult by claiming he was just clumsy.  Michael Nesbitt, leader of the Unionist Party, claimed that “we say things we don’t really mean or express them in ways that perhaps we could have thought through better.”

Robinson then made a private apology to some prominent local Muslims, except it wasn’t an apology.  He didn’t admit to being wrong, did not withdraw the remarks and did not say he was unconditionally ‘sorry’.   What apparently he did say was that “If” anyone thought he had said anything derogatory “he would be hurt” and he would apologise, but he didn’t because he didn’t think so.  He had been ‘misinterpreted’.

So he might be the injured party in this episode and it was everybody else’s fault for not understanding him.

But still the calls for a public apology raged and eventually Peter Robinson did publicly apologise – except the apology wasn’t public.  It was one of those occasions when the media reports something and you look to see when and how it happened but you can’t actually find any evidence of it having happened, and when you look closer it appears that it hasn’t actually happened.  Yet most assume it has because it has been reported and before you now it it has happened because, well, that is how it has been reported.

In such cases this can only occur because everyone with any power to get across a media message has decided it’s in their interests to go along with the concealment.  For the unionist parties the interest involved is obvious.  Any gain in stature among its racist, sectarian and lumpen base has been achieved, while the reality of selling local business to Saudi Arabia etc. cannot be ignored so the controversy has to be closed down.

The British Government especially would be happy for the story to die no matter how this might happen and they showed no intention of doing anything that might shine a light on the bigoted character of their local political settlement, sold to the world as a model to be admired and to emulate.

But what about the nationalists, including Sinn Fein?  The second dog that did not bark was the failure of these parties to call upon Robinson to resign, as – to her credit – Anna Lo did.  Had such remarks been made in Britain by a leading member of the Conservative Government their feet would not have touched the ground as they headed for political exile and extinction. But not here.

What we got here was a bland resolution sponsored by Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly opposing “racism, discrimination and intolerance of any kind, wherever it occurs”  but for God’s sake don’t mention that the First Minister has promoted all three.

What such resolutions reveal is not the willingness of Irish nationalism to oppose racism and bigotry but its willingness to avoid doing so, to avoid identifying and condemning it in reality, to replace lofty, banal and meaningless condemnations of racism in general for dealing with it in concrete reality.

Sinn Fein is setting itself up to be in Government North and South in 1916, 100 years from the Easter Rising that saw the beginnings of an attempt, that failed, to achieve Irish independence.  To do so it must ensure that there is an administration around in the North for it to be a part of.  Since this requires unionist participation no provocation or act, irrespective of how outrageous it is, will be allowed to threaten the political structure in the North no matter how rotten, dysfunctional and bereft of credibility it may prove itself to be.

In this way a political settlement based on sectarianism demonstrates its bigoted logic by ensuring that the most offensive statements can be made without fear.   In this way, but not only in this way, Irish nationalism becomes complicit in feeding the bigotry on which the Northern state rests, even while it self-righteously insists on its own non-sectarian character and its supporters continue to be the main victims of the bigotry.

What the Government parties are called upon to do, unionist and nationalist, is to deliver another document on “building a united, shared and reconciled community “, another piece of paper reviewing Stormont’s ‘Unite Against Hate’ campaign and together parrot inane promises from within ”its clear commitment within the Programme for Government.”

So if nationalism cannot provide an opposition to racist bigotry who can?

In a demonstration of thousands called quickly over social media a trade union spokesmen could only say that it was organised “in response to a worrying increase in the number of racist attacks in recent weeks, a situation which has been exacerbated by inflammatory comments by some religious and political leaders.”

Once again the identity of these racists couldn’t be stated.  Throwing a punch in mid-air takes the place of landing a blow on the real bigots who are allowed to continue to disclaim responsibility through the connivance of the media, political opponents and cowardice of others.

What political leaders are the racists?  How can you oppose something when you cannot even name it?  How are their excuses and non-apologies to be challenged?  How is the collusion of others to be highlighted and exposed?  How is their hypocrisy to be demonstrated?  And what is your alternative?

The trade unions bemoaned “the absence of the promised Racial Equality Strategy and the lack of coherent political leadership from the Northern Ireland Executive” as if pieces of paper are a solution and coherent racism would be better.

This hasn’t worked before and it’s not going to work now.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Amnesty International and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic minorities called a second demonstration today and got a good turn-out given the bad weather.  Again however there was no call for Robinson to resign despite his remarks and his non-public public apology that retracted nothing of the substance of what he had said.

Some People Before Profit placards called for his resignation and some chants from the Socialist Party contingent called for him to go but the latter’s leaflet didn’t mention it and instead claimed his apology was a great victory for anti-racists despite it being obvious that these forces played a relatively minor role.

Such repulsive episodes highlight the rotten character of politics in the North of Ireland because they involve relatively new targets but the solution that is always proposed is that local politicians be something that they are not and do something opposite to what they have just done.  That they oppose bigotry and sectarianism even while the sectarian basis of the political settlement is supported because it is part of the peace process.  ‘Peace’ becomes the excuse for yet more and more injustice because an alternative to the present political deal cannot be conceived.

Debating what such an alternative could be would be a start to addressing this obstacle.

 

Scotland is different II

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‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013

My sister received a leaflet from the local Scottish Socialist Party branch opposing the bedroom tax and saying it would be abolished by independence.  It also announced a meeting which would show Ken Loach’s film ‘Spirit of ‘45’, which records the famous victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 election.

It is therefore ironic to note that the Labour vote in 1945 in Scotland was not very different from the rest of the UK. One observer noted that “The most Conservative of the big British cities is – Glasgow!  And it did so by staying as it was before.  London is far “redder” than Glasgow” (quoted in ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, p. 205).

When one considers that the only party ever to get an overall majority of the vote in a Scottish election is the Conservative Party in 1955 a claim for Scotland’s necessary or intrinsic progressiveness looks pretty weak.  At this time many Scottish workers voted Conservative, the party having a membership of 250,000, and many were infected by Orange, anti-Catholic sectarianism.  This strain in Scottish society has of course very much diminished but it has not at all disappeared.

Historically Scotland was a stronghold of the Liberal Party; in the19th century it won a majority of the vote in every of the 20 elections held between 1832 and 1910.  Trade unions developed earlier in England and Scottish workers were lower paid and considered more docile.  This may have built a head of steam for ‘Red Clydeside’ before, during and after World War 1, on which rests to a significant degree Scotland’s reputation for workers’ militancy.

However the main burden of the argument for a more left wing Scotland rests on the domination of the Labour Party in Scotland for most of the last 50 years.  In 1959 the Conservative Party was still ahead of Labour but in the 1966 election Labour won 49.9%, the highest it was to achieve.

Subsequently the dominance of the Party relied more and more on the first-past-the-post electoral system and the limitations of its support were masked somewhat by the decline in the Conservatives, with that party being negatively affected by the electoral system.   So in the 1992 Westminster election the Tories gained over one quarter of the vote but only 11 (15%) of the seats.  In the following 1997 election its vote was 17.5% but it won no seats.  The decline of Labour is reflected in the fact that its vote in Glasgow in 2011 was less than 24% of its vote in that city in 1951 and this is only partly explained by the decline of the city itself.

The Labour Party was never the ‘national’ party of Scotland not only because its strength was essentially regional, for example it only won Edinburgh for the first time in 1984, but because the country’s class differences meant that it would have been very difficult for any single party to play this role.  It is this role that the SNP now hopes to take up but it can only succeed if class distinctions are buried.  Victory in the referendum would help such a project.

Two authors put the strength of the Labour Party in Scotland down to the relatively large role of council housing, the size of the trade union movement in Scotland and the political patronage of the Labour Party in local government.  They contrast this with the relative low membership of the Scottish party, which has generally been on the decline since the 1950s; its weak organisation, limited resources and relative lack of ideological ferment.

The decline in the three pillars of Labour is pretty dramatic: council housing fell from 54.4% of all homes in 1979 to 15.1% in 2005.  Trade union membership fell from 55% of the Scottish workforce in 1980 to 39.2% in 1991 and 32.2% in 2010.

Its power base in local councils has also declined.  In 1980 it won 45.4% of the vote, getting 494 councillors elected out of 1,182 seats and winning 24 out of 53 district councils while in the proportional vote election in 2007 it won only 28.1% of the vote, only 348 out of 1,222 seats and only 2 councils.  This decline has run parallel with nepotism and corruption scandals damaging the party but revealing the rotten underbelly of municipal state ‘socialism’.

Some of these trends are not unique to Scotland.  English council housing fell from a peak of 29% of homes in 1975 to 18% in 1985.  Trade union membership across the UK fell from a density of 55.4% in 1979 to 23.5% in 2009.  In English local government Labour had 9,630 out of 20,380 councillors (47.3%) in 1979 falling to 3,743 out of 18,216 (20.5%) in 2009. It controlled 169 out of 386 councils in 1998 (43.8%) and only 33 out of 351 in 2009 (9.4%).

Scotland has a proud history of working class struggle from Red Clydeside to the 16 month Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation beginning in 1971, to the 103 day sit-in in the Caterpillar plant in Uddingston in 1987 and the occupation of Timex in Dundee in 1993.  All this is something to learn from and share with workers from every other country as part of the international struggle of the working class, not a claim to some special badge of righteousness on which to pin a nationalist programme.

These can be seen as proud episodes in working class struggle within Scotland and Britain but they should not be placed within some supposed innate Scottish empathy with the oppressed that contrasts a Scottish “desire for fairness and justice” to the English ”ideological base”. (‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’, p. 34)  The Scottish working class never developed, even at the height of its militancy, a separate mass working class party or an autonomous political programme.  The story of the Scottish working class movement is inextricably linked with that of the British working class movement as a whole.  Within this framework each nation’s socialists can be proud of the history of revolt against oppression in their own particular country.

So while Scottish socialists can be proud of Red Clydeside, so English socialists can be proud of the Peasants Revolt, the Putney Debates, the Peterloo massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs,  the General Strike in 1926, Saltley Gate, Grunwick and  the heroic miners strikes in England, Wales and Scotland.

This is the history of the fight against exploitation and oppression that socialists across Britain should see as reference points in the fight for working class unity across the three nations.

Such an appreciation of the British class struggle would allow comparisons to be drawn between today’s referendum and previous elections.  In February 1974 the Tory Party in Government called an election in the wake of the miners’ strike under the slogan ‘Who Governs Britain?’ and after another election in October it was clear that is wasn’t the Tories when a new Labour Government was elected.  Today the independence referendum does not arise on the cusp of working class struggle in Scotland but is timed more to coincide with the 700th anniversary of a medieval battle.

A final argument can be put that, even if Scotland is not materially more left wing or progressive, left leadership can make the independence movement a progressive agent of change.  This is supported by the fact that supporters of independence, it is argued, are disproportionately left wing: “. . . the vast majority of support for independence in Scotland comes from the most progressive sections of society – young people and workers in Scotland’s larger town and cities.  On the other hand, who do we find lined up to support the British state?  The elderly (!), the wealthy, and those whose business and political interests mean that they have most to lose from the break up of the British state – in other words, the most conservative and reactionary elements of Scottish society.” (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? p 53)

All three independent Scottish parties are on the political left and “believe in Scottish democracy” and Scottish nationalism now plays “a much more progressive role in recent decades”. (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? p 48 & 52).  The SNP election programme contains “anti-imperialist pledges” it is claimed. (Time to Choose p. 36)

On the other hand even some supporters of independence would presumably regard this latter remark as nonsense, as the SNP “are a pro-capitalist party who favour neoliberal corporate control.” (Time to Choose p. 89)

Against the claim that the pro-independence support is relatively more left-wing others have argued that “only a minority of working people in Scotland currently support independence and most independence supporters do not have strongly socialist perspectives”.  The “programmatic demands and slogans of the main pro-independence party, the SNP, are likely to weaken rather than strengthen attitudes of working class solidarity in the process of any independence struggle.” (p 92)  Another author records an opinion poll which shows that of those supporting independence in 2002 46% were ‘left’ and 48% ‘centre/right’. (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? P. 35)

Irrespective of left hopes of political leadership of the independence movement, it is the SNP which dominates in the real world.  Those claiming that a left leadership can make all the difference need to explain how this works in reverse when this is not the case. Does right wing leadership not rob the demand for independence of progressive content if left leadership is necessary?

It is also the base of the SNP which is the bedrock  of the independence vote – “elements of the new middle class, small businesses, unorganised sections of the working class, and nouveau riche ‘entrepreneurs’”. (Time to Choose p. 16)

Use of rather nebulous descriptions such as ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ allows all sorts of violence to political principle to be perpetrated.  What matters is the objective significance of a political programme and practice. A demand becomes socialist not because a left wing movement takes it up.  It is equally logically possible that the Scottish left is less socialist for its championing of nationalism.

It is not what people think they are that matters but the objective meaning of their political programme.  Many women will be familiar with the guy who walks into a bar thinking he’s god’s gift to the opposite sex . . . Because parts of the left take up a cause it must therefore be progressive or correct needs to be demonstrated; it does not by itself stand as proof of anything.

The British working class – including its Scottish component – has suffered from ‘Thatcherism’ and the political retreat that this has engendered.  The rise of nationalism amongst much of the Scottish left is the product of this defeat as its rise is hardly conceivable without it.

This is not at all surprising.  What would be surprising would be that Scottish workers somehow resisted this shift, not by sticking to their traditional politics, but by embracing nationalism.

Were Scottish workers really so different, more radical and militant, this would be reflected in their ability to lead the rest of the British working class in resisting what is called neoliberalism.  The left case for independence has arisen because it has been unable to do so not because it is – uniquely within these islands – in a position to play this role.

This failure has led to, for some, a collapse into narrow nationalism while pretending that somehow Scotland is more left wing.  We will come to the proposed strategy that arises from this in the next post on the independence referendum.

 

Scotland is different

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In my first post on the Scottish referendum debate I noted that the Yes campaign appeared to be offering something positive  while the No campaign was involved in almost purely negative rhetoric.  This is also how it appears in the left case for Scottish separation.  This argues that a Yes vote will open up a Scottish road, if not to socialism, then to a place that brings the possibility of achieving socialism much nearer.

There are two parts to this assertion.  First that Scotland is in some senses more left wing than England (Wales it would seem, unfortunately, doesn’t really count) and secondly that ‘independence’ would free Scotland, the Scottish people or the Scottish working class, to make advances to socialism.  Sometimes socialism is framed in terms of a kind of Scandinavian social democracy and sometimes in more radical terms.

Let’s take these claims one by one.

First that Scotland is more left wing, radical or in some way more egalitarian; a more fertile ground for socialism if separated from the rest of Britain.

Marxists believe that the ideas in peoples’ heads arise not simply from within their heads, from preformed views, but are a result of their interaction with the world around them, particularly their interaction with fellow human beings, through the way that the society in which they live is structured.  One fundamental way society is structured is how people cooperate to produce the means by which they survive and prosper, or otherwise.  This involves the creation of classes and even when not class conscious workers’ views of the world are heavily imprinted by the fact that they see the world as workers.

This means that if Scottish workers are in some fundamental sense more egalitarian or progressive this should be reflected in Scottish society. This does not mean that there is any one-to-one correlation between the economic and social structure of society and the politics expressed in that society but if there was a strong and persistent egalitarian politics within Scotland while its society was not otherwise very different from, say England, this would require some explanation, especially since both have existed under the same state and both with a similar relationship to that state.

Inequality is high in the UK relative to other OECD countries, ranked 7th out of 35.  Inequality in Scotland is lower than it is in the rest of the UK, a result of particularly high inequality in London, resulting in inequality in Scotland being roughly equivalent to the median level of the OECD.  Tax and social transfers by the UK state are slightly more redistributive than other OECD states but not particularly high given the higher initial level of inequality.

Inequality has been rising in the OECD countries for the past few decades and particularly in the 1980s and 1990s in the UK, although it has been rising at a much slower rate since.  In the OECD however it grew much more quickly in this latter period and even more so in the Nordic countries that the SNP and some on the left see as the model to emulate.

The level and worsening trend of inequality in Scotland is therefore very similar to that of the rest of the UK outside London.  The richest 1% of Scotland’s adult population earned 6.3% of total pre-tax income in 1997 and 9.4% in 2009.  In Sweden the richest 1% increased its share to 9%.

This growing failure of the Nordic countries is a result of growing basic inequality in these countries and a reduction in effectiveness of redistributive policies.  In addition some of these Nordic countries display high levels of wealth (as opposed to income) inequality.

The authors of the report from which these figures are taken state that adoption of Nordic style redistribution policies would not result in closing the gap between Scotland and the Nordic countries given the different starting points of inequality.  That is, given the basic inequality within the economic system to begin with before tax and benefit changes involving redistribution.

The authors point out that in order to redistribute income from high earners to lower income earners you need high earners in the first place.  In other words the basic economic system must still be inequitable.  It is not a very robust socialist policy to rely on income inequality based on basic economic relationships to generate the revenue to equalise society.  It accepts this basic inequality and hopes that the rich will simply accept that they become significantly less rich despite the underlying inequality of power.

This is why Marxists do not place much faith in any capitalist state redistributing the high incomes of the rich to workers, not to mention their wealth and ownership of capital.  In its place we seek the growth of worker-owned production so that more equal income and power relations are generated by workers through their own actions rather than rely on taxing – and therefore relying on – the unequal ownership of productive resources.  The identification of socialism with acceptance of basic capitalist relations and the simple amelioration of the worst effects of this by state tax and spending is therefore mistaken.  It has increasingly failed in those countries held up as the exemplars of success.

One of the authors in ‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’ illustrate the figures above:

“. . . Scotland is a capitalist, class society with staggering inequalities of wealth and power.  One study, in 2003, showed that two Edinburgh districts have more millionaires than anywhere in Britain other than Hampshire in London.  ‘Blackhill is better heeled than Belgravia and Morningside is more upmarket than Mayfair’ reported the Telegraph (6 February 2003). Contrast this to the figure that men in the Calton ward of Glasgow live to an average age of 54.  With these facts in mind, we dispute any idea that Scotland has a distinctively ‘collectivist’ civil society.  The neo-liberal trajectory in Scotland, like elsewhere, has led to extreme polarisation of income.”

So Scotland is not an unusually equal society and is much like most of the rest of Britain, outside London, and even London (!) has many millions of working class residents.

However I did say that there is no one-to-one correlation between the economic and social structure of society and the politics expressed in that society.  The report above notes that there is “some evidence for preference heterogeneity between Scotland and the rest of the UK. . . As well as persistent differences in voting patterns according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, Scots are: more likely than English voters to think the gap between high and low incomes is too large (78% v. 74%); are more likely to support government efforts at redistribution (43% v. 34%); are more likely to say that social benefits are not high enough (6.2% v. 3.6%); and more likely that unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship (22% v. 18%).

What is noteworthy about these results is not the differences, which are not pronounced except perhaps somewhat in attitudes towards redistribution, but how similar they are – how the first question results in high scores in both and such low scores for the third question in both.  Since all the questions are aspects of workers dependence on the state, except the first, they measure not so much attitudes to socialism but attitudes to reliance on the state, which workers must overcome to realise their own society.

The Red Paper collective provides further evidence of similarities of views in England and Scotland.[i]  It quotes a Nuffield foundation report in 2011 which “concluded that in terms of being ‘more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best’.  In what perhaps should serve as a warning for those who would conflate constitutional and social change they also note that “Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”

The data quoted by the Red Paper collective shows that when it comes to the three northern regions of England not only are there no big differences in attitudes compared to Scotland but no real difference at all.  They therefore state that “insisting progress for people in Scotland depends on independence is saying that those with similar problems and outlook to our own must be written off as partners in building something better.”

“The problems facing Merseyside and Clydeside have the same causes and as we have seen, people feel similarly about them.  Maintaining that the difficulties of the former are ‘economic’ and the latter ‘national’ is to take the advocates of nationalism at face value.  Accepting rather than analysing their claims, and ignoring the reality of class power.”

The telling of national myths should be left to nationalists.  “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education” says Alex Salmond.  In fact the national story of Scotland is failure to build an empire by itself and then joining the English in creation of a British empire in which the values of compassion, equality and empowerment were conspicuous by their absence.

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“A more collective sense of society, of looking out for one another, is a strong part of Scottish life” says the chief executive of the Yes campaign.  Except the figures for inequality and working class mortality in Glasgow show this up for the crap that it is.  Just like England and Wales working class solidarity has suffered defeats in Scotland and the values of compassion, equality and looking out for each other will come not from the state, decked in tartan or not, but from the working class itself.

It might be objected that the attitudes of Scotland are those of a nation while similar attitudes in the three English regions are only of a part of England. However to privilege the national breakdown of social attitudes is to accept privileging the interests of the national unit over those of class.  It presupposes what it has to prove – the overwhelming salience of national division – and begs the question in the assertion that only by itself can the Scottish working class move forward.  It ignores the much larger potential for working class unity – the 5 million Scots and the fifteen million in northern England together.

For socialists the unity of the working class within the 20 million is infinitely more important than the unity of all classes within the 5 million.

It can be argued that even if the basic nature of society is hardly very different in Scotland from the rest of the UK and social attitudes not very different either, and more or less the same as northern England, that still politically Scotland has proven more progressive and more left wing.  Since independence is not just for Christmas but for keeps any such political differences must be pretty fundamental and long-lived.  Does the political history of Scotland demonstrate such fundamental and more or less permanent differences?

To be continued

 

[i] It is interesting to note some of the nationalist comments on this paper which state tha it is not their claim that Scotland is different but that it can be different through independence that matters.  What they ignore is the nationalist claim that the latter is possible because of the former.

The arrest of Gerry Adams

images (6)When Gerry Adams was arrested for the murder in 1972 of mother-of- ten Jean McConville Sinn Féin claimed it was “political policing. The arrest of a high profile political leader during an election could hardly be anything else.  That the intention to question him was notified by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to the highest levels of government in advance and that this government tells us it is keeping Washington informed is simply confirmation.

Yet when it comes to explaining what this political policing amounts to, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness claims lamely that the arrest is due to a “small cabal” of police officers, “an embittered rump of the old RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary)”.  McGuinness claims that other police sources have described these people as the “dark side”.

So it’s not really political policing but a “rump” that presumably can be dealt with.

Yet Sinn Féin hasn’t asked for this but just a vague wish that the episode is “resolved in a satisfactory way”.  Meanwhile the party will continue to “support the reformers who have made a massive contribution to policing” while saying that if it “does not work out the way that it should” the party will review the situation “in the context of continuing with a positive and constructive role in a vitally important peace process”.

However the press conference at which all this was said was really about a threat to reverse its previous political support for the PSNI, an event that would precipitate yet another crisis in the never-ending peace process.

But how can Sinn Féin complain of political policing when it supports this policing?  How can it issue vague hopes that everything turns out ok when it also claims that policing is accountable?  Why is it threatening to withdraw support (in a very vague and indirect way) when it can hold the police to account for its actions?  Why doesn’t it just do that?

Graffiti has gone up in West Belfast attacking “Boston College Touts” (informers), i.e. those who gave their accounts of their own and Adams’ involvement in the IRA and its abduction of Jean McConville to the American institution , the acquisition of which may be the basis of his arrest.

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Yet how can these people be touts when Sinn Féin supports the PSNI and has called for everyone to give the police whatever information they have on the actions of republicans (i.e. the dissidents)?  The hypocrisy involved is as staggering as it is completely unselfconscious.

McGuinness claims that “Sinn Féin’s negotiations strategy succeeded in achieving new policing arrangements, but we always knew that there remained within the PSNI an embittered rump of the old RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary).”  Yet it never made any qualification when it announced its original support for the PSNI.

Does this mean it only supports part of the PSNI or only partly support the PSNI?  Which part? How is everyone else supposed to know which part to support?  How would it and everyone else partly support the PSNI?

How can such a situation exist when Sinn Fein is in government?  How could the brilliant negotiators of Sinn Fein agree to a deal to support the police without getting a guarantee its leader would not be lifted for allegations made years ago?

Why is Sinn Féin making such an issue of Adams’ arrest when it never threatened to withdraw support from the PSNI when the PSNI spent months allowing loyalist crowds, led by the UVF, to disrupt everyone else trying to get home during the flags protests?

Why did it not threaten to withdraw support when these illegal parades were allowed by the PSNI, in fact the PSNI met with organisers to arrange them, and not do so when these parades attacked the small Catholic area of the Short Strand?  Only this week a judge found the PSNI (all of it, its leadership included and not just some “rump”) guilty of failing to enforce the law when it came to illegal loyalist parades.

Again these last few weeks drunken loyalist paramilitary mobs have taken down legal election posters and put up their own flags on main roads in Belfast,  right in front of police stations, while the PSNI has told local residents on no account to take them down.  Is it only Sinn Féin’s leaders who must be protected from the “dark side”?

And why indeed should Adams be protected?  He denies any responsibility for Jean McConville’s killing but then he also denies ever being in the IRA.  Other former IRA members, with unimpeachable republican credentials, have admitted their involvement and claimed Adams was in on it.

As the recently deceased IRA member Dolours Price put it “I wanted very much to put Gerry Adams where he belonged and where he had been. We had worked so closely with him, on many occasions and taken orders from him on many occasions and then to deny us, particularly after we had been through such a harrowing experience in prison … we were offended that he chose to deny us as much as he chose to deny his belonging to the IRA. To deny it is to offend those of us who partook in what we partook in.”

The message on the hill overlooking Belfast calls for the truth about the British Army murders of 11 people in Ballymurphy in August 1971, an enquiry into which has just been rejected by the British Government, but the same demand can apply to Adams.

But bad as these questions are for Sinn Féin none of them get anywhere near the biggest problem it has.   And this problem is that Adams would not have been arrested if the British Government had not given it the ok.  The political policing of which Sinn Féin speaks is not the actions of a “small rump” but the actions of a state.

That Sinn Féin should peddle the line of ‘sources’ within the PSNI that what is involved are the actions of “dark forces” against the reformers, “the many progressive and open-minded elements” of the PSNI that McGuinness hallucinates, is to swallow the old good-cop bad-cop tactic that old IRA men must have been warned about if caught or arrested.  That this is now the line of Sinn Féin shows how far it has travelled and so low it has sunk.

Swallowing and parroting this means buying into the designs of the British state just as much as swallowing the good cop line gives you the bad cop result.  What this means has been signalled by the British Government.

Recent speeches by Teresa Villiers, the NI Secretary of State, have glossed over the refusal of the Unionists to accept the deal offered by US diplomat Richard Haas, and supported by the British state itself,  and have conciliated their intransigent line, which itself is a play to extreme loyalism.  So the crimes of the state, never investigated with any seriousness it has been revealed, are even more to be airbrushed out of existence and instead it is the crimes of the “terrorists” which must be centre stage.  The role of state forces in sponsoring these terrorist gangs will of course also be occluded.

So the past will more and more become the one imagined by unionism.  Parades? Well the Parades Commission has given every evidence that its restrictions on loyal orders can be ignored with impunity.  Getting a form of words that ends with the same result might not be difficult given even a minimal willingness of loyalism to engage with Catholic residents whose neighbourhoods they parade in.  Flegs? Well we have noted the PSNI’s preference to let drunken loyalist mobs put up whatever symbols of intimidation they want.

That about completes the Haas agenda but even these do not signal the end game and this too is coming more into focus in a statement of Villiers.

In a speech widely reported, but the reporting of which missed its most significant element, Villiers anticipated the rewriting of the political deal on which Sinn Féin can claim success.  She foresees the “evolution” of the power-sharing institutions towards them having an opposition.

The whole point however of these institutions is that no one is in opposition, in particular nationalists are not put into opposition by unionists who have not demonstrated any capacity to act in other than a sectarian fashion.

It’s put in the usual honeyed words:

“The third way in which politics could be moved forward here is through the evolution of the devolved institutions.

Let me be clear, power sharing and inclusivity are enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and the government is not going to undermine any of those principles.

. . . Yet at the same time nobody can plausibly argue that the institutions must be set in stone for all time.

Political institutions the world over adapt and change.

As the founding father of modern Conservatism – the Irishman Edmund Burke – once put it:

‘A state without the means of change is without means of preservation.’

And there are inherent weaknesses in a system in which it is very difficult to remove one’s rulers by voting and to choose a viable alternative.

That’s why this government is clear that we would welcome moves that facilitate a more normal system at Stormont that allows for formal opposition, so long as a way can be found to do this which is consistent with power sharing and inclusivity.

But we also believe that if or how this happens really has to be primarily for parties in the Assembly to take forward, not least because it is so firmly within the Assembly’s competence to deal with those matters that might characterise an opposition, such as speaking rights, financial assistance and committee chairmanships.”

So at the moment the British Government would be quite happy for the Stormont regime to have parties outside Government if this was accepted by these parties, if it was voluntary.  No longer is this anathema, no longer is such a suggestion the antithesis of what the new arrangements are about.  Now this is both a viable and even preferred destination.

But of course it has to be voluntary.  Since having the nationalists in opposition is the primary objective of unionism such a policy stance is not so much a disinterested, absent-minded meandering on possible future directions as an incentive for unionism to get nationalists, or at least Sinn Féin, out of Government, “voluntarily”.

This is not actually the preferred British solution but it is testimony to how far it will go to keep unionism inside the existing deal that it floats ideas that while mollifying unionism actually increase instability.

That it only undermines the deal more and more by emboldening unionism and feeding its triumphalist agenda demonstrates only the continuing contradictions within the imperialist settlement – continuation of a sectarian state and sectarian political arrangements while hoping that this sectarianism can be made innocuous or at least reduced to an acceptable level, just as there used to be an “acceptable level of violence.”

So the incentive for unionism is to continue not to work the existing institutions while seeming to maintain a modicum of good faith, obstruct and provoke Sinn Féin as much as it can without damaging itself and hope that the sheer impossibility of Sinn Féin putting up with its obvious powerlessness gets the right reaction.

Unfortunately for them it is perfectly obvious that Sinn Féin will cling to the Stormont regime like grim death with no humiliation too embarrassing and no rebuke too severe for it to walk away. Sinn Féin will hold on to the appearance of power even when this appearance has gone.

But if clinging to the trappings of office becomes the main objective the point of actually having it – making changes – grows ever less important.  Being in office in the North is important for Sinn Féin getting into office in the South and it believes that it being in office in both Irish states on the centenary of 1916 will be a powerful symbol.

Indeed it will.  It will symbolise that the party has realised its strategy but that this strategy is ultimately a failure.  A Sinn Féin in government in both partitioned states will still leave both partitioned states in place.  Sinn Féin will simply sit over both.  Should it stay in office the sight of it doing so will prove no more remarkable than the sight of Sinn Féin toasting the Queen of Great Britain.

How quickly can illusions be shattered.  Fresh from congratulating themselves and being congratulated by the chattering classes for its wearing of white tails and standing for “God save the Queen” the acceptance of the privileges of the British monarchy is rammed home by her state exercising its powers as it sees fit.

Why toasting the symbol of oppression should lessen this oppression or limit its exercise can nowhere be explained by Sinn Féin.  When one swallows the toast there can be little complaint when one has to swallow a whole lot more.

Whatever the outcome of Adams’ arrest the whole exercise is a brutal demonstration of Sinn Féin failure and it will cost it in the long run.  The grounds for creation of an alternative are clearer but unfortunately there is no sign yet that any such alternative is arising or has some progressive working class content.