Separation will produce a carnival of reaction north and south of border

Showdown looms

A crisis over independence is on the horizon - and things could quickly get ugly, writes Paul Demarty

It is sometimes difficult to hold in one’s mind the reality that Boris Johnson enjoys a luxurious parliamentary majority that one would have thought would prove impregnable to the day-to-day adversities of bourgeois politics.

Instead, his inner circle is mending its wounds after a Night of the Long Knives that separated Johnson finally from his ‘ideas man’, the flatulent provocateur, Dominic Cummings; and the MPs who actually constitute that thumping majority - that is, those who poached seats in the north from Labour in last year’s Hottentot election - are in uproar at the government’s plan to reinstate tiered restrictions after the end of lockdown, a system which crucified northern England last time around. Surely even Cummings, a man with famously unreliable eyesight, could have seen that reaction on the horizon.

In trying to placate this bloc - who now call themselves the Northern Research Group (presumably in honour of the hard-Brexit Kool-Aid contingent, the European Research Group) - Johnson managed to extemporise himself into another mess, by calling Tony Blair’s devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales a “disaster” and Blair’s biggest mistake. Understandably that has played very badly - not only north of the border, but also among the establishment commentariat that likes to chide Johnson for being a Very Naughty Prime Minister. In the intersection of this particular Venn diagram we find someone like Gordon Brown, who wrote in The Guardian:

... fighting a Scottish election or a referendum on the evils of devolution, or even on his party’s current mantra - ‘No to independence, no to a referendum, no to change’ - simply plays into the hands of the [Scottish National Party]. It leaves the Conservatives defending an increasingly discredited status quo against an SNP that says there is now only one kind of change on offer: independence. And it takes the ground from under the feet of those who argue for greater devolved powers within the UK as the sensible way forward.1

Brown also discusses the need for further devolution in England - an idea which presumably prompted Johnson to blurt out his opinions on the results of Blair’s devolution initiatives on that particular Zoom call. In view of that, the feeble attempts to row back Johnson’s comments - the idea being that devolution in general was a jolly good thing, and the hegemony of separatists over devolved assemblies was the disaster of which he complained - stood rather exposed. Was Johnson really worried about Yorkshire separatists taking power in some parliament of the dales?

As with his great contemporary, Donald Trump, it is always tempting to interpret Johnson’s little outbursts as blunders or gaffes; the political style of the pair is to roll with the punches and come out on top later on. In this case he has not only put his foot in his mouth, but has managed to get it into someone else’s. We will return to the question of whether this cock-up can be turned to the Tories’ advantage.

The immediate context for all this has two parts to it. One we have already mentioned: the catastrophic mismanagement of Covid-19 by the Westminster government, and the way that ‘shit rolls downhill’ - the cities of northern England in particular have suffered terribly. One subplot is that the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales have had some insulation from the shambolic, nepotistic pandemic response of the UK government.

The second part is that the Scots are to go to the polls early next year to elect representatives to Holyrood. The general expectation is a landslide victory for the SNP and its separatist allies. In the background here is substantial polling evidence to the effect that, if a second referendum on independence were held tomorrow, the ‘yes’ campaign would overturn its 2014 defeat - and then some. Besides the pandemic, the other immediate boost to the Nats is paradoxically Brexit: Scottish voters rejected it by a wide margin, and with its projection of a ‘modern, cosmopolitan Scottish nationalism’, the SNP has just about managed to ride out the contradiction of taking sovereignty back from Westminster in order to pool it with Brussels, Berlin and Paris.

We are in a situation, then, where the inevitable consequence of the most likely outcome of a forthcoming election is a constitutional crisis. In a certain sense, of course, we are already in it - the question of the Six Counties of Northern Ireland is subject to the most tortuous circumlocutions of all in the Brexit negotiations, and has repeatedly proven poisonous for the government of the day in Westminster over the last four years. The national integrity of the UK turns out to be bound up with relations with the European Union ... and it is not only about Northern Ireland, but Scotland too.

A comprehensive majority in Holyrood - which is for EU unity and for UK separation - will not merely have a mandate to demand a second referendum (it will not have the right to do so, since Scotland has no self-determination within the terms of the union), but will be under intense pressure to demand it. Johnson’s chumocracy, by the same token, will have every incentive not to grant one - since defeat would be very likely. There will then commence an ugly stand-off.

Another Catalonia?

It is worth noting here that the sort of conflict we have seen in Catalonia in recent years is hardly excluded from the range of possibilities. As noted, the SNP will be under pressure to use what mechanisms of power it does control to build the case for a fresh plebiscite - just as the bourgeois separatists of Catalonia were three years ago. Meanwhile, his authority battered by the Covid disaster, Johnson will be in need of a way to shore up his authority, and the most tempting means will always be chauvinistic rabble-rousing - just as Mariano Rajoy, the rightwing Spanish premier, needed to distract attention from his administration’s shameful corruption. The result was the crushing of demonstrations and the imposition of direct rule over the region, which is continued today by the Socialist Workers Party-Podemos coalition government in Madrid. (With this in mind we should be cautious of writing off Johnson’s words last week as a mere faux pas.)

The intervening years have not exactly cooled the ardour of Catalan nationalism - in fact such things have a cycle to them. In this respect, people like Gordon Brown who protest loudly against the idea that devolution was a disaster need to face up to some home truths. It was not accidental that the long-term result of devolution was the success of the SNP in dominating Scottish politics, both in Edinburgh and Westminster.

Governments in this whole period have been dedicated to dismantling what remains of the political fibre of post-war social democracy, even while sometimes (as in fact with the Blair governments) public investment increased in budgetary terms. Local government has been cut to the bone and public service provision is increasingly run according to central diktat, to avoid a repeat of the municipal resistance to Thatcherism. Devolution - both national, as with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland2, and metropolitan, as with the fiefdoms of the elected mayors - has functioned as concessions, where unavoidable. Yet the effect has been to force ever more underlying antagonisms to be expressed through the distorting lens of the devolved political bodies, which, in the case of the four constitutional components of the UK, means through nationalism.

In some ways the striking case is Northern Ireland, where the Good Friday agreement has resulted in an inherently unstable power-sharing arrangement, mainly between the contradictory poles of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party - the petty bourgeois wing of unionism which, in effect, espouses an ultra reactionary Ulster nationalism that still likes to imagine itself an integral part of what is, in fact, a fast disappearing Britishness.

The core of the cycle is that capitalism tends to centralise political authority so as to reduce the political ‘attack surface’ for those masses exploited by it; but in doing so it eats away at the basis of its own consent, as its corruption becomes more obvious. Maintaining control means giving concessions, which in turn become politically disruptive, requiring further concessions. The way out of that cycle is the way out of capitalism itself: ie, socialism, the politics of the organised working class, which has no nation and no need of tyranny.

In order to get started, however, socialists must face squarely the democratic questions which minority class rule inevitably poses - including questions of national rights. The problem here, as we often argue, is that there is no right of self-determination in the United Kingdom, which tends to divide the workers of England from those of the smaller nationalities along national chauvinist lines. It is the duty of all working class partisans, especially those in England, to fight for full national rights for the Scots (and others) - which means that the people of Scotland ought to be able to decide to go for separation from the rest of the UK on a simple vote in the Holyrood parliament, without this kabuki dance over referendums.

A fight along these lines would have a chance of defusing separatism and drawing the poison of nationalism - British, English and Scottish alike. Alas, the socialist left as a whole increasingly endorses separatism, failing even to recognise it as an enemy. It is, after all, not self‑determination, for or against, that ‘spontaneously’ exercises the popular masses in subordinate national formations, but independence, which immediately appears as the thing about which a decision must be made.

The left, having made a Satanic pact with spontaneity generations ago, falls into the same trap - either opposing independence and dismissing self-determination, or (more commonly by far) identifying self-determination with independence - which is quite as much an obstacle to the just resolution of national questions as the more obviously discreditable chauvinism of Johnson and the like.

The point of revolutionary socialism, surely, is that the political choices presented to us are very often - precisely - false, and we can only win by uprooting the conventional understanding of how political issues are posed. The Scottish masses (and, for that matter, the Welsh masses) must have their national fates placed in their own hands; but the duty of the left is to make plain how little our fates should depend on nationality.


  1. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/20/boris-johnson-blames-devolution-but-in-truth-hes-long-been-hostile-to-scotland.↩︎

  2. In official speak, Northern Ireland is nowadays a ‘nation’ within the United Kingdom - what is, in fact, a royalist amalgam. Northern Ireland is better, more accurately, called the Six Counties . historically, note, Ulster was one of Ireland’s four provinces and consisted of nine of its 32 counties. Needless to say, people in Northern Ireland are divided along hard national/religious lines at the level of day-to-day experience.↩︎