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Despite ‘No’ vote, Scottish referendum advances struggle for real democracy

The momentum of Scotland’s independence movement, although thwarted on this occasion by an unholy ConDemLab alliance and its corporate-financial sponsors, has nevertheless driven the UK state into a profound constitutional crisis.

There is a clear potential for rapid and explosive change around the UK – both in a dangerous, nationalist direction and in a positive way, creating opportunities for revolutionary, democratic change.

We should reject the emphasis on process that the Tories and Labour prefer. Rearranging the deckchairs on the SS Westminster simply won’t do. It’s not how we are governed  but why we are ruled by an undemocratic corporatocracy, where real power lies and how it can be transferred into the hands of ordinary people that are the real issues.

A roadmap to real democracy needs to be drawn up by assemblies and meetings throughout the UK, building on the gains of the Scottish referendum campaign. The political system has lost the right to rule over us because it has no democratic legitimacy. There is a global crisis of existing state systems, which the referendum reflected. This can and should be made to work to our advantage.

The 1707 union of Scotland and England is effectively a dead duck despite the “No” vote, while leading Tory commentators say David Cameron’s proposals to limit the power of Scottish MPs at Westminster rips up the constitutional settlement of 1688, which is a keystone of the present state system.

Naturally, the Tories and Labour want to keep real people away from constitutional change while they manoeuvre for narrow party advantage in the run-up to the 2015 general election. But the Scottish experience shows that the genie is out of the bottle.

The 45% Yes vote was made in spite of massive intimidation by the media and the state broadcaster, aka the BBC, big business, banks, the military, the Spanish prime minister, president Obama and the UK political establishment. A massive, last-minute ConDemLab bribe offering greater devolution was needed to swing the vote.

In some ways the wholesale effort to ensure the No vote has turned into its opposite; now people in England are expecting the very promises offered to the Scots, rashly made and impossible to keep. The defeat for the Scots may well turn out to be a victory for all. Clearly, the future of democracy in both countries is inter-related as never before.

The phenomenal 84.5% turnout, the largest in the UK since universal suffrage in 1918, reflected the thousands of meetings, small and large, up and down Scotland where ordinary people found their voice which they are denied by conventional politics.

People are not at all indifferent to being politically active when they feel that the result will affect them and that they have a role to play. This was especially true among younger voters. In fact, virtually every age group up to 55 voted Yes. As a result, Scotland will never be the same – and nor will England, Wales and the north of Ireland where there are calls for a referendum on a united Ireland.

Robin McAlpine, director of the Common Weal, has described how the political class was shocked at the content and conduct of local meetings where ordinary people set the agenda:

Simple rage at the sense society is not being run in their interests dominates these meetings. A woman with osteoporosis forced to work over 100 hours a week, a housing estate whose community centre and park are being sold to housing developers, a village without a single public transport link, a woman in her early 30s incandescent that she feels forced to choose between her career and children because of the cost of childcare.

As to the plan for greater devolution, McAlpine is dismissive, declaring:

Trust has fundamentally broken down and the elite will not give the masses what they want – which is real power. In my opinion, the clock is now ticking on an even angrier reaction from the Scottish people.

If a majority for independence was lost, it was the responsibility of Labour principally together with the SNP’s inability to answer key questions because of its own commitment to a Scottish version of the UK’s market economy.

Labour came out against self-determination for Scotland because, ultimately, it is a party of the UK state that puts the “defence of the realm” ahead of democracy. Labour is no threat to the ruling classes and they know it. Naturally, another consideration was the large body of Labour MPs who come to Westminster from Scottish constituencies which would have ended with independence.

Labourites would rather identify with Ukip, the Orange Lodge and the Tory Party who constitute a far more poisonous form of nationalism than that expressed by the SNP, infected as they are with an imperial past and the global corporate present. One result was the Unionist-led violence in Glasgow after the referendum.

Despite the No vote, Labour’s grip on Scottish workers is doomed. Forty per cent of Labour’s traditional voters crossed to the Yes camp. Glasgow and Dundee both had Yes majorities. The party itself effectively spit. Labour for Independence gathered substantial support and meets as a campaign next month to consider its future and could well go its own way.

Labour in Scotland, as shown by Glasgow City Council, is predominantly right wing and its MPs have consistently been to the right of those in England. Scotland’s Labour MPs helped Tony Blair win the tight vote on the introduction of foundation trusts, which then paved the way for privatisation within the NHS. What will be the point in sending them down to London in future? Good question!

What was on offer from the SNP was a watered down self-determination, still keeping NATO and the monarchy intact, plus terminal confusion over currency. If Yes had boldly stated opposition to the kind of banks that were threatening to leave Scotland, and offered a Scottish currency, it might have been a different story – then at least we would have been having the right conversation.

The truth is that the SNP were trying to tell Scots that everything would be OK in an independent capitalist Scotland at a time of global recession and the renewed threat of a further financial meltdown.

Cameron has launched a high-risk plan to save his own political future and appease the right wing in his own party by outflanking both Labour and Ukip. As the astute Tory commentator Peter Oborne notes:

So the Prime Minister has saved his skin. But he has only done so by ripping up the British Constitution, which is a very unconservative thing to do. Yesterday’s announcement raises some massive questions. Will there be an English First minister to match the Scottish First Minister? If so, what is the role of the Prime Minister? What is the role of the House of Lords? Will it be possible to govern Britain with two classes of MP? What about the English regions? Can a Scottish politician be British Chancellor? Mr Cameron’s reforms amount to the most profound change to the British Constitution since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

But Oborne is also wise enough to know that some in-house Westminster manoeuvres will not work, admitting:

The success of the SNP campaign has proved yet again that our traditional political structures are failing and that ancient forms of authority no longer prevail. We need to discover a new kind of public language and political architecture.

He acknowledges that Cameron fears a wider involvement in the process because “it would spiral far out of their control”. Exactly the point, which is reinforced by Helena Kennedy QC, who chaired the Power inquiry. That exposed deep disaffection with the political system. She says:

My fear is that the establishment will use constitutional change simply to fix the status quo. The fix that the masters of the universe and many of our politicians want is one that leaves the same people in charge to do the same things.

There is no need for some long and deadly, great and good royal commission, but if you want people to really consider the consequences of changes you need to give them a genuine opportunity to participate. You can do that with deliberative polls, where people meet and hear the arguments and express their views. You can do it with people’s juries, where there are challenging questions and alternatives and a commitment to following through on the results. People should be able to organise around the issues in their own communities.

Instead, we are back to top-down control. This is not about doing things differently but about Westminster designing change to head off at the pass something deeper and more democratic. In the bars at party conferences they will be asking themselves: how can we control this and get the outcome we want?

Kennedy is right in more ways than one. What has emerged in Scotland and is finding its way into the rest of the UK, is actually a struggle for power between the people and the present state rulers, a desire for a democratic form of politics in place of the existing, shambolic excuse of a democracy.

This cannot be reconciled by a process-driven exercise which essentially leaves the status quo intact. A bit of home rule for Scotland and a little extra for England will not even begin to solve the issues raised by the referendum. The mainstream parties will never get this because they are an integral part of state rule. They are beyond convincing and the state itself is beyond reform, subsumed into corporate-driven globalisation.

Power, real decision-making power and control over resources, is either left in the hands of the present state that is capitalist and undemocratic by nature or there is a concerted struggle for its transfer. That will involve creating entirely new forms of democratic rule that take us beyond the self-apparent limits of parliamentary representation.

In other words, we need a fundamentally new constitutional settlement that is republican and revolutionary, that enshrines social as well as individual rights, that extends democracy into the workplace, respects our place in nature, and is the foundation for an end to the profit system.

Agreements of the People, in the spirit of the draft constitution set out by the Levellers in 1647, drawn up in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland should be our aim.

How could we achieve this transformation? Certainly not without dismantling the present state system and putting something far more democratic in its place. How can we mobilise people independently of the state to take change into their own hands? Not without direct participation of every section of the population in the process.

The Agreement of the People campaign is launching an initiative which could take up where Scotland has, for the moment, left off. It is proposing Assemblies for Democracy in different parts of the UK are organised to discuss what kind of democratic future we should aspire to and how to achieve it.

These could lead to people-led Conventions on the Constitution that draw up detailed proposals for a real democracy. Instead of submitting the proposals to state politicians and institutions who have lost legitimacy in the eyes of many, they would become the basis of mobilising ordinary people to make the change for themselves.

If we do that, the momentum that we saw in the Scottish referendum campaign can be sustained and carried forward.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
22 September 2014

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Your Say


TimP says:

A good piece. There is an opportunity for the radical Left to claim the decentralising agenda as our own, linking it explicitly with wresting power from the ruling class and returning it to us.


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