The Scots have voted to remain in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But the Westminster politicians, faced with unexpected levels of support for independence, agreed to substantial new powers for a Scottish parliament.
On September 19, UK Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that the commitments made during the campaign would be “honoured in full”. He also said “the question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer”. Cameron apparently wants to secure major constitutional change, in addition to the promises made to Scotland, before the next election in May 2015.
The impression Cameron’s speech leaves is one of opportunism and lingering panic. The independence campaign raised profound questions about the nature of political authority in an age of steepening inequality. In the minds of hundreds of thousands of people the British state came into focus as a bankocracy made possible by the peculiarities of the ancestral constitution. The prospect of a country in which the people are formally sovereign stood next to the existing reality: the Crown in Parliament, the House of Lords, and the City of London.
For a brief moment even money became a matter of general consideration. The British Chancellor George Osborne was forced to state publicly that after independence the Scottish people would have no say in the management of a shared sterling. Presumably the financial sector and its allies in the British state are hoping that people in the rest of the UK can be kept from understanding the implications of Bank of England reform. The arbitrary power of finance is only secure as long as it remains mysterious.
Core British institutions
The campaign also cast an unflattering light on core British institutions. For many people in Scotland and the rest of the UK the BBC emerged from the campaign greatly diminished. While the state broadcaster reported the positions of the Westminster parties with due impartiality, it failed entirely to give anything like equal treatment to the “Yes” and “No” positions.
As the journalist and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove noted: “Patrick Harvie of the Greens, who is not the leader but is a significant political person within the ‘Yes’ campaign, should have had exactly the same coverage as Ed Miliband.” There was never any danger of that happening and the BBC played an important role in protecting the status quo by framing its underlying assumptions as uncontroversial common sense.
Faced with Cameron’s unseemly rush to shut down the debate started in Scotland, it is only reasonable to insist on a constitutional convention throughout the United Kingdom that builds on the popular mobilisation in Scotland.
Perhaps most importantly, the cause of constitutional reform emerged as a source of vast popular energy and enthusiasm. Hundreds of thousands of people have been debating the fundamentals of government in meetings and through social media.
The number of registered voters increased by more than 7 percent from 2010 and the turnout reached almost 85 percent. Support for independence rose from around 30 percent at the beginning of the campaign to 45 percent in the final count.
This was achieved in large part by what Adam Ramsay has called: “A better organised and vastly more powerful version of the Occupy movement.”
A coalition of environmentalists, socialists and republicans, organised through the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), put together a case for Scottish independence that owed nothing to traditional nationalist tropes and stressed instead, the deficiencies of the Westminster system. It campaigned in working class communities on the slogan “Britain is for the rich. Scotland can be ours.”
This wasn’t about marshalling a small country’s sense of grievance. It was about rejecting a state that was generating inequality at home and enabling crime overseas.
Faced with Cameron’s unseemly rush to shut down the debate started in Scotland, it is only reasonable to insist on a constitutional convention throughout the UK that builds on the popular mobilisation in Scotland. This isn’t a matter of a few middle-aged men talking sagely about the West Lothian Question. This too requires thousands of meetings, millions of conversations. Parties that want to do well in the general election next year would be well advised to call for a constitutional convention. The Greens have done so. And now the Labour party has said something similar. It is up to us to take the idea and make something transformative of it, as the RIC did with Scottish independence.
The mainstream Left in Britain – the Labour party in particular – has tended to dismiss constitutionalism as a preoccupation of effete liberals. The point was not to reform the unitary state but to seize it and use its powers to legislate for socialism. This approach has failed. By contrast, the Scots have shown that constitutionalism can build support for far-reaching social change and bring people back to political participation and the mutual education it entails.
A programme for constitutional reform that can survive the scrutiny of an attentive people will not leave the Crown in Parliament as the sovereign power in the country. It will encompass the systems of credit managed by the Bank of England and the communications infrastructure dominated by Rupert Murdoch and the BBC. Most importantly, it will dismantle the offshore empire and call the bluff of the smartly dressed and well-spoken criminals that serve it.
Much is now uncertain. One thing is for sure. If the rest of us don’t shake off our constitutional quietism then we will be spoken for, and libelled, by the people impersonators in Westminster instead. The English in particular will be called resentful and bigoted and little by little we will come to believe it. There is an alternative: independence for all the peoples of these islands from the mystifications and iniquities of Britain.
Britain is for the rich. These islands can be ours.
Dan Hind’s third book, The Magic Kingdom: Property, Monarchy and the Maximum Republic, will be published September 2014 by Zero.