London and the Right to Govern
Limited to the British press, it would be difficult to grasp the implications of the push against the informal UK constitution coming to a head next year. Understandably we spend a lot of time talking about the referendum’s national significance – but it also signals a huge push against the historical resistance to popular sovereignty at British level. The referendum belongs to a history running through the first crumbling of the consensual settlement in the 1950s and the post-1979 era of democratic deficit and what is usually described as the shift to neoliberalism (though this risks underestimating the 1940s welfare state’s power to manage inequality). Anything near a Yes vote could trigger questions about popular sovereignty which will not be easy to put away in any part of the UK or in its export culture. The Yes campaign’s ‘right to govern ourselves’ is crucial, but it is crucial in part because, as A.V. Dicey fretted about Irish Home Rule (1887), it disturbs the universality of the British constitution’s mandate, which relies on an avoidance of any formal or written principles, in practice on the fundamental status of the commodity form.
Of course all state forms can be traced to the protection of capital, but the process is not universally even, as left unionists sometimes mischievously imply. Britain is unusual, less a financial shell coming in to protect a prior ethnic or civil form than the creation of a new state for explicit reason apart from capital rationalisation. Seventeenth-century debates over republicanism saw the English imperium raise property rights over civic rights, and this was concretised by the new Anglo-Dutch credit regime of the 1680s and 1690s (ideological points of departure include John Locke and Daniel Defoe), which necessitated the act of union, then built on throughout the eighteenth century, as external and internal threats were subdued and finance expanded. Only after the Napoleonic Wars in the 1810s and the apparent ‘global’ victory of the informal, property-based constitution was this culturally embedded in the era of the ‘British nation’.
Even after ‘British nationality’ began to crumble in the 1950s, the powers of the UK welfare state retained a powerful technocratic hold on the received ethics of the self in society, or what Nikolas Rose termed ‘governing the soul’. The decay of imperial parliamentary sovereignty took longer than expected by the 1950s-’70s New Left, and was effectively patched up at the end of the 1970s and the end of the 1990s, but now again finds itself in real trouble. How are the unionist left to account for Michael Keating’s demonstration that people throughout the UK have come in the 2000s to see Scotland as the progressive form? Ideas of innate democratic properties don’t help us much here: the bigger question is of triggering the fall of an unviable state form.
This is one reason to be careful of a possible ‘ethnic’ turn in regions of the Yes campaign, in declaring pride or the need for us to care about ourselves first. Certainly, there’s no reason to care about Britain or the London political class – but a turn inwards is not very becoming of the kind of internationalist democracy Scotland could become. This is partly down to frustration at explaining the significance of the constitutional challenge to a British left who are deaf in one ear, and easily drawn back into a rhetoric of parliamentary reform. The auto-destruction of the British state continues to rain down horrors which make a run to the escape hatches quite understandable – but this also makes the state a clearer target than it was even in Thatcherite times.
And it is not egotistic to think that the implications of 2014 go well beyond Scotland’s borders, and trouble the bases of the world’s largest empire, historically reliant on the rejection of popular action and an aggressive export of a ideal and fixed image of itself. The remnant power of British commodification as government begs the question of why more ‘cybernats’ (a hideous term which sweeps away all constitution-scepticism as ‘nationalist’) don’t engage with a ‘negative dialectics’ to frame the debate as proceeding from a rejection of an unconscionable state form. Is the need to think positive so necessary that it suffocates that crucial initial moment of refusal of alienation? If of the UK are encouraged to misconstrue the importance of the referendum, on the other hand some Yes Scots risk narrowing the importance of the constitutional crisis.
For the jurisdiction which Scotland helped create is now prone to extraordinary runaway inequality, and remains unreachable through an informal constitution which offers no point of contact. Itself quite possibly the most unequal city in the developed world, London remains a centre of world credit and a centre of British cultural capital to an unparalleled degree (try to find another large city so separated from detached from and malignant towards the country around it), in a way that seriously affect Scotland and in which Scotland has been bound up. Phantasmic centre of incommensurate sovereignties, London has been lost as a civic society, and this is something that should concern its neighbour and historical partner.
Mercifully, claims of anti-Englishness are unlikely to be taken seriously throughout the campaign: the fall of state-capitalist Britain is far more likely to portend a liberation of England. And England’s (latent) popular sovereignty is a real subject for argument. There has been a waning of the widespread assumption that a post-British England would be lost, a powerful and misleading assumption implying that an England ‘left over’ would be ‘naturally conservative’. This British thinking has been dumped on England by the establishment parliamentary left, but especially by a panicked Labour Party, and has little evidence aside from British psephology and sheer Victorianesque confusion over territory. Even in the mouths of otherwise sharp left commentators, this assumption is hollow, and drives away from the popular sovereignty it typically claims to want.
So, some younger British left commentators struggle to see beyond the London establishment, and not only in the banal ‘same old Tories’ routine which aims to swing in amnesic support for the other team. One example amongst many is an otherwise forceful recent article in the Guardian – an organ which really needs to declare itself English despite hysterically hanging on to the epithet British – by Laurie Penny on rising inequality and homelessness. This short piece illustrates well the scale of the class apocalypse, though framed in ‘edgy’ Guardian terms as a youth problem which blurs class issues – but an almost total equation of we and London, both describes and compounds the problem. Ambitious young people are drawn to a city that turns out to offer a chronically low quality of life except for the very rich, and find themselves required to export the cultural ideal of London as a global cosmopolitan city. So also with Owen Jones’s plea for a revitalised ‘Labour Scotland’ (meaning, British Labour in Scotland) as the only progressive route. A few days later he followed a powerful piece on the benefits cap by tweeting that payback would come in 2015. Meanwhile in Scotland all three ‘main parties’ (in the UK sense) have perceived the danger and joined together in alliances which pit the entire political class against popular sovereignty.
The extraordinary oversight on the part of the commentariat of the possibility of overturning the political class and its disabling constitution altogether shows how the London establishment impels a closed-circuit loop of power: the more it seems crucial to occupy Westminster and London terms to address matters of ‘national’ import, the more the capital is lost to the English nation around it, in turn making it more crucial to British marketing logic, and so on in a vicious circle. The over-centralisation of London is the most powerful sign of the un-sustainability of the British project itself, not only in pure economic terms, but in terms of public culture generally. And however much it is written out of British narratives of even the bold left, the Scottish challenge to parliamentary sovereignty has to fill this gap, the new democratic deficit, to help address the malaise which has followed the loss of an empire in which it was so complicit.
And not only do we owe a duty of care to a London civic community struggling against global finance, so also the nation from which it has wrenched itself apart remains perched between a suicidal parliamentary sovereignty and popular sovereignty, in a struggle which it rarely even sees. As the ‘Great British Summer’ of 2012 showed, the export of the ‘parody-Britain’ described iconically by Tom Nairn remains a primary model, with the post-1999 ‘Cool Britannia’ trope is still seen in the horrors of the Olympics opening ceremony, a celebration of the enclosures summoning union and commonwealth from England – a trope taken from radio broadcasts by the 1920s BBC). 2014 at least suggest an end to endless enclosure (call it idealistic, and so on), and to the raising of property rights over an active civil sphere.
It is perhaps not that surprising that so many of the London British left commentariat have, and still do, so badly underestimate the importance of the 2014 constitutional challenge, beholden to a 1940s form of the welfare state they know in their hearts to have disappeared, and to a unionism they know in their hearts to have killed it. From a certain British point of view there seems to be no way out at worst, a far-fetched total reinvention of Labour at worst, leading to the conversations that Scottish Yes campaigners are doubtless often already having. Still, we might beware of assuming that Scottish ‘civic’ nationalism is exempt from the imperative of self-interest, and pay attention to the referendum’s international – intra-British and otherwise – constitutional and cultural reach.