Good morning everyone, and thank you very much for inviting me to speak this morning – it’s great to be at another RIC conference, with so many folk eager to discuss how we can build ourselves a better country – one that is equal, peace-making, outward looking, welcoming and just for all.
And it is especially good to be here in the week of International Women’s Day. I have really struggled to articulate just how angry I am at the inequalities, injustices, prejudice and discrimination women (and non-binary people) continue to face … in the 21st century. At this point, if I may, I’d like to get a little bit of audience participation going. Can I channel Frances McDormand and ask all the women and non-binary people, if you are able, to stand up with me. I just want to say a heartfelt thank you to you all for being part of this movement with me, for giving me the inspiration and energy to keep doing what I do, and for doing what you do every day. I really cannot be arsed waiting another 200 years for real gender equality … let’s smash the patriarchy together, sooner rather than later.
And it’s great to share a platform with Neil. The last time we did was in Aberdeen, I think, a couple of years ago, and we were talking about the EU referendu. As a Remain campaigner, I set out the case that a leave vote would produce an increase – a rapid increase – in xenophobia and a move to the right in British politics. True enough, after the leave vote, we saw and upsurge in racism which probably would have been worse had it not been for the murder of Jo Cox just before the referendum – an absolutely horrific act. And, under Theresa May’s leadership, we saw the UK government lurch to the right in policy terms.
Neil made the argument then that he may well reprise today: expertly highlighting all the flaws of the EU including at that time the destruction of Greece. And as we have seen more recently, the disgraceful treatment of Catalunya. He said we should vote leave because it would send a signal that the actions of the EU were immoral, and that it would cause a crisis in the British ruling class.
Maybe this is me being a bit cheeky, but I think this event was a masterclass in how two opposed positions on the left can both be correct. What we have ended up with is, if you will, a thesis and antithesis forming at this conjecture, a synthesis.
But, now on to the issue at hand, which is Brexit and Scottish Independence.
I think part of the reasons at, whilst we disagreed with each other, we were both right, is that our analysis is based on many of the same principles – most importantly a materialist analysis of history and a commitment to internationalism. But where we of course differ is in our particular reading of the situation in which we find ourselves, and the approach which is therefore most appropriate to take.
I want to be clear: I think the case for Scottish Independence is stronger than ever, not because of Brexit, but because of the things that caused Brexit. Brexit is, I believe, the culmination of three important, and completely intertwined, crises: a crisis of the British state, a crisis around the collapse of a political consensus, and a deep industrial crisis. So, to take each of these in turn.
First and most important, a deep crisis of the British state. To understand how we got into a situation where Brexit was possible, we have to understand how intertwined the British state and the British establishment had become in a financialised global system in which the very specific role of the British state was to facilitate tax evasion and avoidance through the parallel structures of the City of London and the British Crown Dependencies and Offshore Territories which have become by-words for off-shored capital.
These territories, Bermuda, the Isle of Mann, the Channel Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands – is that them all? – have a vital role in the global capitalist system: it is where global elites can channel their money and secrete it off-shore beyond the reach of their governments. One estimate of the amount of money hoarded off shore is US$21-32trillion, and I’m not talking about Zimbabwe Dollars!
After the global crash in 2008 the greed of the wealthy blocked important reforms. There was a failure to refloat the pre-2008 economic model. This left UK government with substantially lower tax revenues available from the City of London. With this decline in tax revenues the political consensus that had seemed impenetrable from 1989 to 2008 collapsed. You couldn’t argue that the economic model was “let the banks do what they like and spend the taxes on schools and hospitals” if there were no longer the tax revenues to enable this.
So we have the collapse of big banks, the collapse of tax revenues from those big banks, and a consequent collapse of political consensus.
So this brings me to the second point: the political consequences of an economic collapse – the political crisis. This political crisis manifested itself in several ways:
Firstly the death of the New Labour dogma that finally resulted in Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour party, polarising British politics.
Secondly, the rise of UKIP as the fascists in blazers that George Orwell warned us about.
Thirdly, the concession by David Cameron to the right of his own party that there should be a referendum on Europe.
This crisis entered a new phase during the Scottish referendum in 2014 when, for the first time, elites realised that the old politics was dying. It is very clear that the elites thought they had got away it in Scotland – that they would be able to continue with the status quo – and that fed their lackadaisical campaign in the Brexit referendum.
The official remain campaign which was based on threats that no one believed (like an emergency budget with more austerity) and an economic case which failed to resonate with many again highlighted how out of touch elites had become.The leave vote itself further deepened the political crisis: David Cameron choosing to resign, Theresa May being elected in a farcical leadership campaign most remarkable for the withdrawals of Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsome.
May is, or perhaps was, the most overrated politician in recent history – a Daily Mail fantasy in red, white and blue. Her immediate turn was part of a broader turn against neoliberalism and towards an authoritarian form of patrician capitalism based on the notion that working class people were stupid enough to be distracted by calls to patriotism (being a bloody difficult woman, strong Brexit in the national interest) and gesture politics like having workers on boards of companies. Having promised seven times that she would not call an early General Election, she torpedoed her own reputation, she called an early General Election. And, much to my delight, it turned out that the electorate felt pretty much the same way about the politics of the Daily Mail as I’m sure all of us here today do.
In failing to get a majority in an election she was expected to win with a majority of well over 100 seats, she proved both that the working class are not as stupid as she thought they were, and, very importantly, that people do not care that much about Brexit.
The third crisis leading to Brexit was the industrial crisis: the utter failure – or, more correctly, the complete destruction – of British heavy industry from the 1970s onwards, and accelerated by the 1986 big bang reforms to the City of London that drove the financialised economy and pushed out extractive and manufacturing industry. This was compounded by the failure to replace jobs in these industries with jobs of equivalent pay or esteem. This left a significant element of the electorate disaffected with the status quo and willing to take a chance on anything else.
When set alongside the deep affinity from many in the English shires for the Imperial Britain of the past (and it is worthwhile noting that most Brexit voters were wealthy) this produced a majority for Brexit.
Having set out an analysis of the situation that led to Brexit, I want to move on and talk about how Brexit and Independence interact. A small caveat here: the temptation to make an argument for elite Independence based on the continuity of European institutions is one we must avoid: our argument for Independence must not rely on arguments around Brexit. Independence is the right thing to do because independence is the right thing to do, not because of Brexit. But it is very important that we defend, with all our strength, devolution, from any Brexit power grab.
Let me be clear, though. I think Brexit is a terrifying prospect. Let’s think about what a hard Brexit, which the Tories seem hell bent on achieving, means. It is very clear that the aim of the Brexiteers in the Tory Party and their allies in the hard right media is to use this opportunity for a dose of the shock doctrine.
There is a scenario where the Brexit deal negotiated by the UK with the EU is voted down in Parliament but the UK still leaves the EU. Britain moves to WTO rules, tariffs are immediately applied, and we are talking about this happening in 54 weeks time. Immediately food becomes more expensive, manufacturing becomes much more difficult as the just-in-time supply chains are disrupted by customs checks, and British services, which of course make up the bulk of exports struggle for access to foreign markets.
There is an immediate economic crisis, and in this economic crisis the right of the Tory Party are able to do what they have wanted to do for 40 years: unwind every gain by workers since the industrial revolution. Health and safety protection for workers – gone. What remains of the welfare state – gone. Education privatised and charged for. Health privatised and charged for. Dissent managed through increasing surveillance and an authoritarian turn in the justice system to curtail all protest. Remember we will lose our human rights after Brexit, the Conservatives would like to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. All in order to protect Britain’s role as the global capital for tax evasion and avoidance. We’ve seen the shock doctrine before – in Chile after the overthrow of the Allende government, and later in countries across the world, including Russia. For the right wing Brexiteers, this is what it has all been about. And this is the Brexit we MUST avoid.
And independence offers us a way out of this, and I believe we have a duty to the people whose lives would be ruined by a hard Brexit. And by creating a crisis in the British state, we offer a way forward for those in the rest of the UK.
Because this is a crisis of the British state, and because the Green case for Independence has always rested on sound principles of decentralisation, subsidiarity and local decision making, we can still see Independence as the antidote to the crisis of the British state. We see the concessions that even a principled and committed socialist like Jeremy Corbyn has had to make (on issues like Trident and immigration), and we understand that these concessions are the beginning of the process of co-option.
Scottish Independence offers us two things:
First, an opportunity to build a state in Scotland that is not enthralled to an Imperial past, to outdated institutions like the monarchy, and that can deliver on our aspirations for a new economy based on social and environmental justice. It also creates a deeper crisis in the British state that may find its resolution in a democratisation and reorientation of that state.
Second, an opportunity to make the case for this approach in the international forums that are fundamental to decisions about these things. We can build the case internationally against austerity, for self determination and for human rights.
We need to have a very serious debate about what an independent Scotland does about membership of the European Union or other institutions. I don’t believe an independent scotland would take the disaster capitalism approach that Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are pushing.
We know that 62% of Scots voted to Remain, but we need to have a real discussion about how it is we can best express our belief in an internationalist Scotland that acts for social justice across the world. I see the merit of Scotland having a seat at the EU table, making the case for Greece, for Catalunya, for a workers’ Europe, not a bosses Europe. But I can understand that there are others who may wish to be in the EEA, or out of the European institutions altogether. But that’s a debate for another day. For now, we know that our job has to be to deepen the crisis in the British state and protect people from the brutality of a hard Brexit.
For now, let us be clear that we need to work together to restate the case, to recreate a vision, of a new, better, Scotland.
The Scottish state that I want to see is based on internationalism, on welcoming those who come to make their lives here, and on meeting our commitments to the global commons. Those aspirations cannot be met in Brexit Britain, and they require an approach to international cooperation that works with others not against them. I look forward to joining you all in the struggle to come.