Britain Must Break: The Internationalist Case for Independence

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.


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  1. Callum,

    I agree with much of what is written here, particularly the need to build a campaign rooted in opposition to the failure of British elite rule. However, I take issue with your remarks about Atlanticism in an independent Scotland. Undoubtely, an independent Scotland would have commentators and politicians supportive of American militarism, and folk who actively campaign for greater military ties between Scotland and the US. But it’s unlikely they would have any meaningful political or media platform from which to advertise their views. The two examples of Scottish Atlanticism you cite – Jim Murphy and John Reid – are (in the latter’s case, were) senior members of the British Labour Party and developed (if ‘developed’ is the right word) their position through the prism of Britain’s – not Scotland’s – perceived strategic interests. I suspect that most low-rank members of the Scottish Labour Party are not ideologically sympathetic to US foreign policy, and would be less so if Scotland were to leave the Union. I also suspect that the SNP’s looming NATO u-turn has little to do withany ‘nationalist Atlanticism’ and everything to do with lessening US and European hostility to the independence project.


  2. David Moynagh says:

    The solution it seems is to turn deference on its head so that it is THEY who are at the poor end. The times call for such a mass turnaround.

  3. Scotland will become independent again.If not now then soon.But if not now why not? We could be building a Scottish Scotland,with Scottish values,rebuilding industry,housing,re-nationalising,transport,power generation,the national grid,what is needed to be rebuilt.Building a country for the people,for your grandchildren,for my grandchildren,we can do it now instead of leaving it for them to build.

  4. Tocasaid says:

    This should be a major plank in our arguments. Before the Act of Union, Scotland was arguably more internationalist than our southern neighbour and enjoyed friendly trading relations with our nearest continental neighbours. After the Union, we were at war with them because England was.

    As things stand, how can we make a positive contribution to the international stage when we don’t have a voice. Individuals within ‘regions’ can be progressive but it’s pissing in the wind without a collective effort.

    I lok forward to Scotland reaquainting herself with our old allies on the North Atlantic rim as well as selling water, oil and clean energy to London.

    Saor Alba.

  5. pmcrek says:

    Ah yes the UK, clearly a state that is the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat building an internationalist socialist paradise.. if it wasnt for the reality being the complete opposite of that.

    I doubt there a single person outside the UK who affiliates with the left that wouldnt be getting heartily drunk at news of the UK’s demise. We are talking about the worst imperialist state to ever exist and in the modern era, easily one of the top 5 protaganists.

  6. Davy says:

    You should read Carol Craig’s insightful book on our psyche, titled: The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence.

  7. Callum McCormick says:

    @Jamie: I can’t accept that there would be no political or media platform for Atlanticist mutterings in an independent Scotland. What about the Murdoch press for a start? It is not difficult to imagine what Murdoch’s opinion would be on the approach an independent Scotland should take towards American imperialism. The Sun has just recently taken over from the Record as the most read paper in Scotland. Secondly, there is, if anything, more of a ‘natural’ cultural and political connection between Scotland and America than between Britain and America – the influence of the Scots-American diaspora, the connection between Scotland and the Founding Fathers, the fairly voracious way in which Americans consume an albeit bastardised version of Scottish culture etc. I would think it obvious that the government of an independent Scotland would attempt to cultivate these economic and cultural links and, with that, comes certain political pressures.

    I certainly take your point about how Jim Murphy and John Reid form their opinions on the basis of a perceived British and not Scottish national interest. However, I don’t think we can draw the lines between these things are sharply as you suggest. I consider it entirely possible that British Atlanticism could elide with some post-Independence courting of America. I agree that it’s more difficult to see how this relationship could develop in quite the way it has in Britain – that is, on militaristic and imperialist grounds – but I think it likely that it will hold some sway.

    1. Callum,

      In recent years the link between Irish republicans and Americans have been deeper, culturally and politically, than those between Scots and Americans (particularly when you factor the Megrahi affair in). Yet Irish republicans have always been vocal in their opposition to American militarism. It’s hard to see how the Scots-American cultural relationship would encourage support for America’s wars after independence. There is a pretty clear distinction between the strategic interests of an increasingly marginal, post-imperial state like the UK and those of a small, northern European social democracy. It’s also possible that the need for an independent Scotland to foster links with Washington would be less pressing if it was a member of NATO.

      The influence of the Murdoch press has always been over-rated. But, post-Leveson, I think it can only grow weaker still. I suspect that if Scottish political culture develops as it might outside the UK – that is, in a more Scandinavian direction – the Sun will try to reflect the new values rather than resist them. Much of its success is based on populism.


  8. john young says:

    First steps in subjugation is to eradicate culture/heritage/language this they have all but achieved,we are taught the history of the British Empire with little/no reference to the acheivements of Scots in every corner of the globe leaving us with a large hole in our psyche,the establishment tried the same in Ireland but couldn, overcome Irish resilience and belief,they remain strong /proud/confident inspite of the setbacks encountered along the way,this in part is why a fair section of our society hate the Irish or anything associated with the name they the Irish shame them,Joann Lammont wasn,t far out we are genetically programmed to be subservient,Culloden and it,s aftermath cleared out the best/bravest we were left with the “runt of the litter” and any species human/animal/plant onlt survives and thrives if the strongest/bravest and best win the day.

  9. In my opinion the SNP stands for Social Justice .An almost forgotten value in the politics of the present day.The Nationalist aspect is a musical message : let us be free from the Westminster cabal ! A cabal which is an adoring worshipper of International Capitalism.Besotted with the Consumer Society.A tiny fraction of the total UK population owns and controls a huge amount its wealth.How many of those own huge swathes of Scotlands land ? 90% of the printed media is owned by the Tories.I do not know the owners of the rest of the media.Murdoch is one.
    How does one define Social Justice ? It is form of control and regulation in which the vast majority of the people can have a standard of living by which they have a collective pride.Greed is controlled. That no family has to endure deprivation and humiliation: or queue in food banks…
    In the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet poor people have to queue to prevent starvation.Yet hunger is endured…Teachers report that many children turn up for school hungry.
    How many `food banks` are there in the UK ? Last count there are 272.
    Criminal justice has to be seen to be done : Social justice too needs to be done.

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