There should be no doubt that those of us who wish to see Scotland become an independent country in 2014 face an extraordinary task. The intellectual and political obstacles we confront are held in place by well-organized, powerful and disciplined sections of our society. They are grounded in dogged and formidable sentiments like conservatism, risk-aversion and above all deference. Despite its Victorian affiliations, the latter maintains a particularly powerful hold on our social imagination – the urge to do as we are told, to listen to the experts and give Caesar his due is often compelling. The Better Together campaign will rally those who know better in an effort to nurture this sentiment and give it full expression. Allowed to run amok, it is our desire to defer that will kill hope of Scottish independence.
What is deference grounded in? The answer is that is based upon our own sense of inferiority. We are unsure or shaky in our own convictions, we’re embarrassed about what we don’t know and so we gain relief by creating the image of another who knows. Deference is dangerous, firstly, because it is infantilizing, it makes us the objects of the activity of others who we assume to be better equipped – creating the conditions for paternalism. Secondly, it is dangerous because quite often, as the global financial crisis has demonstrated, those whom we trust to take care of things – those who know – are in fact outrageously thick and incompetent.
In Scotland, the well-spring of deference runs particularly deep. It breeds on the well-known Scottish cringe, the nagging doubt about our status in the world that comes with statelessness and cultural underdevelopment. On the face of it, this problem doesn’t require much explanation. It is not difficult to fathom why a nation that has been told for 300 years that it is incapable of ruling itself should produce so many folk with self-confidence issues. The difficulty lies with what the cringe symbolizes more broadly and with the kinds of things it can make us do. It can make us shirk at the crucial moment, to decide, after all, to defer to experience – in this case, 300 years of being told what’s good for us.
What is the way out of deference? The answer is that deference ends when we begin to think for ourselves. Thinking for ourselves means accepting that others don’t know. It means taking the onus upon ourselves to discover and elaborate our own good reasons, our own language, and to test them in our everyday lives and in our politics. To commit to sitting a test is always dangerous – we might fail. Deciding that the other doesn’t know is not without its dangers. It’s a tactic that relies on a degree of considered incaution. It’s a risk.
The independence referendum campaign provides a perfect opportunity to challenge the roots of deference. For all its modern meritocratic and ‘classless’ gloss, Britain is a society built on deference. The mere existence of the Royal Family is a constant reminder that we – the subjects - ought to know our place. The sight of hundreds of thousands of cheering well-wishers at the Royal Wedding or the Jubilee demonstrates how satisfying some find it to revel in their own subordination. For its part, the make-up of the current Cabinet is a testament to Britain’s enduring love affair with the vestiges of its clapped out aristocracy and their increasingly disappointing spawn. Even more so than the wretched Prime Minister, the Panglossian Chancellor exemplifies the thundering arrogance and intellectual decay that is Late Britain. Nothing it seems – not double-dip recession, not mass unemployment, not spiraling debt – could make him doubt for a second that he knows what he’s doing. He displays the kind of cocksure arrogance in the face of consistent failure only found amongst men of high station. It is a sign that he is sure that, no matter what, he will continue to command deference.
The British state is stuffed with such people and, as such, deserves to be smashed– but it is also ripe to have the piss taken out of it. Britain is imperialist, colonialist and racist – it is also ridiculous. In his great hymn to the coming death of deference, The Bard suggests that the man o’ independent mind laughs at all the bullshit and conceit.
But, before laughing, he looks! So we need to look. We need to analyse Britain. James Foley’s new pamphlet Britain Must Break: The Internationalist Case for Independence attempts to set us on the road to such an analysis. The author is clear that his pamphlet offers not so much the case for independence but the case against Britain and therefore for independence. I find myself in agreement with this way of approaching the question.
For those on the pro-Independence Left, much of the argument offered by Foley will not be anything new, although there is fun to be had in seeing it pursued with ample intelligence and wit. The case offered against Britain concerns, in the first place, the slavish adherence of its political class to the neoliberal orthodoxy adopted from the United States, firstly by Mrs. Thatcher and then by her ideological successor Mr. Blair. The economic and social effects of this revolution – including the upward transfer of wealth, the destruction of industry, mass unemployment and the crippling of the Trade Unions – have been particularly egregious for Scotland. This country, as the author stresses throughout, is not a social-democratic oasis in a desert of monetarism. It is scarred by economic and social inequalities just as harsh as those found in ‘Tory England’.
Foley, I think with good cause, attempts to challenge those on the Scottish Left who downplay the extent to which neoliberal ideas have penetrated Scottish political culture. Touching on the ambivalence at the heart of the governing strategy of the SNP government in Holyrood since 2007 he identifies a half-hearted embrace of neoliberalism’s key tenets couched in terms consistent with a supposed Scottish social-democratic consensus.
On the geopolitical front, Foley advances an anti-war and anti-militaristic case for the end of Britain, grounded in an opposition to Britain’s role in administering and marketing the wars of the American Empire. The pamphlet says relatively little about Trident, which is perhaps surprising, but it does register its displeasure at the recent suggestions that the SNP is about to renege on its opposition to membership of NATO. In this regard, the pamphlet is to be recommended for its unashamed hostility to British Imperial adventures and for its recognition of the possibility that Scottish independence could derail Britain’s foreign policy adventurism. For all its symptoms of Imperial decline and political marginalization, it would be foolish to downplay the importance of British militarism to the structure of global Imperialism, and James advances a convincing case in this regard.
He is on rather less solid ground when he ventures that it would be easier for an independent Scotland to break with Anglo-American Imperialism. “Scotland”, he says, “would face no military enemies. The rational decision is to break with the orbit of Anglo-American imperialism”. This is all very well, except that British foreign policy, particularly in the post-Cold War era, has not developed in response to actions of actual “military enemies”. In fact, the defining feature of modern Imperialism is its need to constantly create enemies where none exist – either by portraying tin-pot dictators in the periphery (Saddam, Milosevic, Gaddafi etc) as mortal threats or by indulging in paranoiac delusions of vast hidden networks of terrorists.
The fact that an independent Scotland would have no enemies does not, in other words, have any bearing on its possible role in global Imperialism. If lack of military enemies was in any way decisive, British imperialism would have packed up decades ago. The nature of Scotland’s role in the world will be determined by the struggle within Scotland to determine what its priorities are. There cannot be any doubt that a militaristic, “Atlanticist” wing will exist in an independent Scotland (people like Jim Murphy and John Reid do not come from nowhere).
The element of the pamphlet that does broach new and interesting ground – although its basic thrust will be familiar to readers of Bella – is its elaboration of a class dimension to the coming referendum. Foley reproduces the evidence that younger and poorer Scots are more likely to be in favour of independence. (There is a slight danger here of what statisticians would call multicollinearity, or of inflating the importance of two separate but highly correlated variables. The fact is that younger Scots tend to be poorer and poorer Scots tend to be younger, so there is a large amount of crossover between the “young” and the “poor”. But let’s leave that aside for the moment). He marshals this evidence in favour of an argument for the importance of a radical and anti-neoliberal economic manifesto for independence that can mobilize those who have the “most to gain” from a post-British future.
James is rightly suspicious that the Yes Campaign and the SNP are in any mood to prosecute the radical strategy that is necessary for success. It is to be expected, at the very least, that senior figures in the Yes campaign are aware of the statistics regarding class and levels of support for independence, but acting on them is another matter. A radical campaign that emphasises real social and political reform and economic redistribution could alienate the ‘opinion formers’ and business leaders the SNP is hoping to attract. The miserable sight of Alex Salmond making nice with Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch reminds us that the urge towards due deference runs up and down the social scale.
In this sense, the Yes campaign and the SNP are caught between what James calls the ‘two souls of independence’. One ‘soul’ is marked by the instinct to make sure that even while things change dramatically, everything nonetheless stays the same. It is driven from the top-down, “designed to woo big business and the multinationals”. It is present in every attempt by the SNP to appear moderate in its message. ‘We’ll break with Britain, but nonetheless keep the Windsors on staff’, or ‘We’ll dump Trident, but nonetheless we’ll cling to NATO’.
The other soul, the soul of an alternative independence, emphasises the necessity of a “bottom-up” movement that mobilizes the sections of Scottish society most likely to be in favour of independence but least likely to have anything invested in the extant political process. Unfortunately the Scottish Left, the section of Scottish society most likely to be amenable to such a project is not, at the moment, in a position to pursue it.
The pamphlet, although interspersed with somewhat pedestrian admonishments to the Left to get its act together and move beyond “personal recriminations”, does not really attempt to develop any coherent strategy for changing that. I suppose this is not its purpose. The duty then falls upon pro-Independence Scots as a whole to move the campaign forward: but in what direction?
In a previous article I wrote with Jamie Maxwell, we suggested that the battle for Scottish independence was also, in part, a battle for cultural hegemony. What does that mean? There is a suspicion to treat the term hegemony as a kind of academic smokescreen – a term thrown about to mask a lack of clarity. However, viewed from another angle, the battle for hegemony is the same as the struggle against deference. They both suggest a fight to think for ourselves, to break with the traditional ways of seeing and doing things and develop our own organic strategies. An organic strategy is one that relates to our current situation in a way that is concrete and “realistic”, but also sees the potential in the elements that are not yet fully realized or developed.
A group has hegemony when it has the ability to set the boundaries of acceptable discourse and to decide whose voice is counted in any discussion. It establishes, in other words, who is owed deference and who is not. Who is an authority on something and who is just shouting into the wind? It is clear that if the same voices who have always dominated Scottish society prevail, then independence will not happen. The senior figures in the Labour Party, most senior journalists, the business class, the Church – these groups will attempt to establish the parameters of the possible. The emergence of Alistair Darling – perhaps the most non-descript human being alive – as a key figure in the Unionist campaign signifies that appeals to charismatic authority and Hope are going to be in short supply. Rather, the focus will be placed on establishing who is in the best place to ‘know’ what will happen to an independent Scotland, who are the experts that can decide for us?
We need to break will all that, laugh at it. Our strategy cannot be defensive; it cannot just accept the right of those who know to pontificate while we wait, passively, to receive their wisdom. New voices must emerge, people we have not heard from yet. Those without credentials must be allowed to speak. Britain Must Break is a step in the right direction. We need more like it. A huge effort is needed to break the majority of Scots from the dominant ideas and from the deferential ideas. Every Scot must become an intellectual. If Britain is the society of deference par excellence, then this campaign must be about building a culture in which everyone can speak and be heard, a democratic culture. A campaign that can win looks like the Scotland we want and have to build – open, egalitarian and democratic. The opposite – a campaign grounded in the old deference, in the faith in those who know – will lead either to defeat or to a victory not worth having.