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Dismantling Great Britain

An Interview with Tariq Ali on Why Scottish Independence Matters


JF:  Scottish Labour politicians claim they speak for internationalism, and often accuse independence supporters of parochialism and petty nationalism.  As an internationalist living in London, why are you supporting independence?

TA: Because I don’t accept the claims of New Labour or their coalition lookalikes that they are the internationalists.  Their internationalism essentially means subordinating the entire British state to the interests of the United States.  They have made Britain into a vassal state: on Iraq, on Afghanistan, on various other things.  This isn’t even a big secret.

So I would challenge very strongly any idea that the governments within the British state have been internationalist.  They haven’t been, for a very long time.  That is something that needs to be squashed.

The second point is this: an independent Scotland, a small state, has far more possibilities of real, genuine internationalism.  That means establishing direct links with many countries and peoples in the world.  The Norwegians, for instance, both in their media and in their culture, are attuned to countries all over the world.  I was in Norway last week at a conference on the Middle East, chaired by a Norwegian diplomat.  And she said she’d just come back from two years in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, and she knew all about it.  So the fact that you’re going to be small doesn’t mean you’re going to be parochial.  On the contrary, it can have exactly the opposite impact.

JF: Many Labour politicians will also deride the SNP as neoliberal populists, as anti-working class, and so on.  What’s your views on Scottish nationalism?

TA: The Scottish National Party has been transformed.  When it was first set up, it was small-C conservative, and a bit archaic.  But that was changed by the ’79 Group.  Although many of its members were initially expelled, including Alex Salmond, they are now in government.  Also, the SNP have been recruiting a lot of people, including Labour supporters and former members of far-Left groups.  I personally do not agree with their social and economic program, I think it’s too weak.  On many other things, I would also have criticisms.

But I think I would definitely support a Yes vote, purely for the reason that the Scottish people have a democratic right to determine their own future.  This is the first time they’ve been asked to actually vote on that.  The Union that was pushed through opportunism, corruption, and bribery in 1707 was not the result of a democratic vote, as we know full well.  Which is why they had to fight the battle of Culloden.  That was a decisive episode of Scottish history, because that defeat at Culloden imposed the Union as we know it, something totally dominated by Britain.

The SNP is now trying to break with that tradition, and effectively to ask the Scottish people to declare the independence that they once had.  And I think it would be better for Scotland, and I think it would be better for England.  New Labour have become totally corrupt, in my opinion, on every social, political, and economic front.  New Labour are the new Tartan Tories.

This doesn’t mean the SNP should not be argued with, debated with, and I’m sure people within its ranks will do that.  And the Radical Independence alliance is a massive factor in this.  I’ve been invited to speak to a Yes meeting organized by the SNP in Kirkcaldy in June, which I will do.

I’m very, very strongly in favor of Scottish independence, and always have been, despite disagreements with the SNP.  The idea that one can’t disagree with the SNP if one supports independence is just absurd.

JF: Could you talk a little about the potential global implications of a break up of Britain?

TA: I think, in particular, it would be very positive for England, which has always been the dominant factor in the Union.  It will open up new political space.  It may not benefit progressives initially, but it will at least allow politics to be discussed afresh and anew.  That’s the first thing: it will be good for English democracy, which is in a very sad state.

The second thing is that it will help even the most rabid unionists in Britain to understand that the game is over, and that they have to move towards abandoning imperial pretensions.  Those pretensions persist even though they’re a joke in the system, and they’re only a courtesy of the United States.  And who knows?  It may open up space for British independence again.  I mean genuine British independence, which hasn’t happened since at least 1956.

We shall see what happens, but I doubt the effects will be negative.  And I think an independent Scotland, playing an independent role in world politics and in Europe, would have an impact in Britain.

The other thing that’s worth saying is that this can only be done with the consent of the Scottish people.  No one can force it.  So there can be no argument that arms were twisted.  If anything, the campaign of fear and intimidation that has been waged by London is utterly pathetic, and I hope Scottish people will fight against it.

I remember when Tony Blair came on his last tour of Scotland, and he said, If you vote for independence, every family will lose £5,000 a year.  Who dreamed up that figure?  Some bureaucrat in Whitehall who wants something to frighten the Scots.  And then I read, just a few days ago, that Danny Alexander is repeating these absurd figures.  They do this because they want to frighten people, by saying your living standards will decline.  But there’s no reason they should decline if the economy is properly handled.

JF: Do you think British elites are worried about the prospect of independence?

TA: Sections of them probably are, because they will see it as a blow to British pretensions.  But I think there may well be a section of the elite that might well say, Fine, it will save us money, it will stop the subsidies, etc, and Scotland doesn’t make much money anyway.  This is the section of the elite which believes that the only way forward is effectively to sell the British economy and the cities of the South to the rich, to oligarchs from various nationalities, Ukrainian, Russian, Arab, etc, who dominate large parts of the financial markets in London today.  That section of the elite, which thinks this is the future, won’t care at all, whatever they say in public.

JF: Do you think the Unionists are bluffing over the question of currency union?

TA: I think they are largely bluffing.  But I think Alex Salmond should call the bluff by saying, If you are going to behave in such a mean-spirited and petty-minded way, then Scotland will have no alternative but to create its own currency.  As it is, Scottish currency looks different from the currency in Britain.  Scotland prints that money.  And we will print our own currency, if you bar us from influence, we will seek other ways. I think Salmond should be sharp on this, and call their bluff.  He shouldn’t be frightened.

JF: Can I ask a little bit about the historical element.  Why do you think the neoliberal counter-revolution was so successful in Britain?

TA: Well, I would challenge the view that it’s been successful.  Or if has been successful, it’s largely because the trade unions and the Labour Party didn’t put up any struggle or fight against it.  If you look at South America, even small countries in that continent who challenged neoliberalism, and have broken from it to various degrees, have done so with the help of huge social movements that erupted.  Unfortunately, the British trade union movement was so defeated after the Miners’ Strike that they just gave up.  They didn’t struggle, they didn’t fight, and once the Labour Party had effectively killed itself by becoming New Labour, then you had in Tony Blair a hardcore Thatcherite leader.  And he carried on in the same old Thatcherite way.

So in terms of providing any alternative to these people, New Labour and the Conservatives collaborated in saying there was no alternative.  And it’s not that people support it, especially after the Wall Street crash in 2008.  It is effectively that they have not been presented alternatives.

If Scotland gains independence, and its leadership has the guts, it could break with neoliberalism.  In Britain, there was no force from below to challenge it.  People felt defeated, they felt demoralized, and they felt that the institutions and leaders they had trusted for a long time had betrayed them completely.  And the way people challenge this is from the right.  The growing support for UKIP, in particular, is a way of opposing the games played by the elite.  It’s foolish, because Farage and company offer absolutely nil.  But that is the scale of the desperation.  And nothing exists on the Left to challenge that.

In other parts of Europe, there are challenges from the Left.  But not in Britain.  I would not say people accept it, I would say they have been shown no alternative by any group of people.

JF: You’re going to speak this week about “dismantling” the British state.  Some people have asked you mean by this.

TA: I mean that the British state, created by the Union in the 18th century, has effectively been unchallenged.  The only written aspect of the British constitution is the so-called Treaty of Union of 1707.  Now, what the Scottish people are voting for, if, as I hope, they do vote yes, then the British state as it exists is dismantled, full stop.  The vote for Scottish independence is the end of the British state as we know it.  How it will develop after that remains to be seen.  But, certainly, Scotland breaking away dismantles the British state.

JF: A lot of socialists would deny that there is something particularly toxic about the British state, and would say that all capitalist states are bad.  Of course, we know that rivals like France, Germany, and Italy have their problems as well.  Do you think there is a distinctiveness to the state of British?  And does this mean we have to challenge it in a special way?

TA: On one level, it can be said that the capitalist economy of these states is more or less the same.  But these states do have peculiarities.  In the case of Britain, as my old friend Tom Nairn has pointed out, these peculiarities are in the realm of satire.  The preservation of a monarchy, kept going largely through the monarchic internationalism of the House of Hanover, which found rulers for Britain when it ran out of natural ones.  Creating and maintaining this monarchy is a farce.

The House of Lords is also totally undemocratic.  All of this gives the British state an archaic character.  The fact that the absurd soap opera Downton Abbey is incredibly popular is an indication of what that means.  All this has bred within Britain a deference to the ruler, a doffing of the cap, and all that, which is transferred to Scotland in the same way, in the sense that the same Royal family has a house in Balmoral when it comes to Scotland and so on.

The modernisation of Britain has been impeded by this.  So the British state has its distinctive features.  And I think it’s something that needs to be broken with.  But it’s been impossible to break with them in any other way, so Scottish independence would be a good place to start.  And by the way, when Norway decided to break from Sweden in 1905, they did so for similar reasons, that they wanted their own country, and they were fed up of being dominated by Stockholm.  And it happened relatively amicably.  So these things can happen.

Of course, you can argue that since capitalism is now dominant everywhere, then one shouldn’t do anything.  But that would be a retreat into total passivity and fatalism.

JF: Britain lost its Empire generations ago, but is Britain still imperialist?

TA: Well, it is a sub-imperialism, contracted to the only Empire which exists today, which is United States of America.  But other countries still have imperial pretensions.  Some try to revive their past, as Putin is doing in the Ukraine.  Others try and pretend, and in fact do box above their weight-class, because they’re attached to the coat-tails of an existing Empire.  If you look at all the big Empires that existed, the Japanese, the German, the French, the British, what are they now?  They’re effectively contracted to the United States of America.  There is absolutely nothing they can do without getting Washington’s permission.  The United States that is the only Empire today.

JF: You mentioned the poor state of English democracy. How worried are you by the rise of populist right-wing politics in England?   Why do you think this is so successful in England right now?

TA: Well, it’s successful because there’s nothing else.  Effectively, the two issues on which UKIP campaigns are the European Union and immigration.  Those are linked, because the immigration they attack, largely, is immigration from the European Union.  Unfortunately, these are popular demands in the whole of Europe at the moment because of the economic crisis.

Also, in my opinion, the Left has been very weak in not putting forward strong critiques of the European Union and how it functions today, because they’re scared of being considered anti-Europe.  But it is not anti-Europe to argue that the European Union is totally corrupt, bureaucratic, undemocratic, run by the elites, and is, effectively, a bankers’ union.  That’s just a fact.  But the Left hasn’t been campaigning like that, except in France, by the way.

So you have a situation where a party emerges from the bowels of the old Tory Party, and comes up with all this stuff, and fascist groups starting doing entry work in it, and it’s become a political force, whose main aim is to put pressure on the Conservatives and break them from Europe.  And they have certainly succeeded in pushing all the Westminster parties to the right on immigration.  So that is why they have arisen.

But I think there’s a deeper problem, which is argued by the late Peter Mair, a fine political scientist, in his posthumous book, Ruling the Void.  It effectively argues, correctly in my opinion, that what we have now in the advanced capitalist world is a situation where the political class does not represent the needs or the views of the bulk of the population.  This is leading to growing alienation from politics as such.

So the democracy deficit in Britain is huge.  And this is also a reason why the Scottish people should take this opportunity and break out of the prison that is the United Kingdom, and develop their own policies, and discuss openly ways to go forward.  They shouldn’t accept a smaller version of neoliberal Britain as their aim in life.

JF: A lot of people are worried about the implications, if Scotland leaves, about the future for centre-left Labour governments in the remaining UK.  In the context of UKIP, rising populism, the Collins Review, and so on, what is the future for British social democracy?

TA: My opinion on this has been openly expressed since the launch of New Labour.  It is now generally accepted that there is no fundamental difference between centre-left and centre-right, in British politics, or for that matter in French or German politics.  Effectively what we have is an extreme centre.  Extreme because it backs wars and occupations.  Extreme because it declares wars on its own people, tries to blame the victims for the crimes committed by the elites.  Extreme because it is prepared to dismantle fundamental democratic rights in order to prevent dissent in discussions of the secret state.

This extreme centre encompasses both centre-left and centre-right.  They make a few cosmetic noises when each is in opposition, but by and large, when they are in power, they do the same thing.  To this day, the New Labour front bench has not even been able to say that they will break from the coalition’s fundamental policies on the economy.  They can’t say it, because these are their policies.  They are no different.

So all this talk about weakening Left forces in what will be left of the United Kingdom is a cover.  A cover for what?  For nothing.  It bears no relationship to reality.  The trade unions are weak, the last General Strike was in 1926, so the notion that one is somehow betraying the unity of the Scottish and English working class is nonsense.  In any case, that unity can be exercised behind independent frontiers.  Socialists always used to argue for unity of the international working class, until the First World War showed the strength of nationalism of the retrograde sort, which gripped the workers as well.

So none of these arguments are serious arguments, in my opinion.  The hardcore unionists have a serious argument saying, God, church, monarchy are the uniting factors of our Union, and have been since 1707, and we shouldn’t break with them, and woe betide the Scots who want to do it.  That’s at least a consistent view, but completely anachronistic.

JF: Some people also argue that Scotland and England will get dragged into a race to the bottom after independence.  They also talk about corporate taxes and so on.  Do you think things will really improve if Scotland gets independence?

TA: Well, I think the basis has been created for things to improve.  Whether they improve or not will depend on two things:  whether the leaders of the SNP are prepared to go further in terms of creating a social democratic Scotland or not.  I hope to God they are.  Secondly, and most importantly, whether in an independent Scotland there will be the desire of people to participate more actively in politics on every level.  Not just through existing institutions, but through the creation of institutions to supervise and watch the new Scottish democracy.  They need to participate in it, and speak up when things aren’t going right.  In a smaller country, it is much easier to do that.  I think that probably will be the effect.  And the Left in Scotland has to play its part.

JF: What’s your views on the Nordic model and other varieties of capitalism?  Can Scotland draw on these ideas?

TA: Well, we’re talking about a period in which the capitalist system has triumphed, and the ideas of socialism have suffered a huge defeat globally.  So we’re living in a very strange transition period, which may well last until the end of the century.  One shouldn’t exclude that.  So one has to operate with what exists, and see how capital in its worst aspects can be regulated, how a state can be regulated that works for the benefit of working people…I mean, this was an aim of Labour in 1945, and that program was a good one, by the way.  It actually did change living conditions for people, and even today, I don’t live in Scotland, but people tell me that the education system in Scotland is better, from that point of view, than the English education system.

This is where an independent Scotland could make a big difference.  If it handles its economy properly, its oil, the lesson to learn is from Norway, which invested its oil wealth very wisely.  As a result, it has a social democratic welfare state which is the envy of virtually everyone.  When I was there, my Norwegian friends said, I won’t see you until October because I’m going on six months leave.  And I said, six months leave?!  Why, what’s happened?  And he said, my wife is having a baby, and according to Norwegian law, both partners are allowed six months paid leave.  I was surprised, because I knew there was something like this, but I didn’t know the details.

So, people feel, in some ways, that they survive better under social democratic governments, or under a consensus which accepts that certain reforms are invaluable.  And it’s the privatisation programs of the British elite which have wrecked the country.  Now, they’re selling off the health service.  New Labour should remember this.  There was an article by former health secretary Alan Milburn in the Financial Times last week arguing the case for private health, while pretending that it’s a way of protecting the National Health Service.  This is what has created the anger in Britain and in Scotland.  It’s New Labour that has done this.  And one has to break decisively from those politics and create a better society.

This will not be the socialist society many socialists dream of.  But it would open up the space where at least such things can be debated, and reforms implemented that improve the living conditions of Scotland.  There is absolutely no reason why an independent Scotland can’t begin to reindustrialise, and build a big shipbuilding industry, with the help of countries outside Europe, who are ready to go.  It’s silly just to see Scotland’s future in relation to England or even the rest of Europe.  If it’s imaginative, it can go way beyond that.

JF: A lot of people’s big anxiety is that Scotland will be isolated after isolated after independence.  How should Scotland prevent that?  And what sort of alliances do you think Scotland should build?

TA: But isn’t Scotland isolated now?  I would say Scotland is isolated now, by being part of Britain.  Britain isn’t, but Scotland certainly is.  So this notion that it would become isolated after independence is wrong.  The sets of alliances it should build?  Initially, the aim should be to construct alliances with the Scandinavian bloc, particularly Norway and Sweden.  I think they would be received with open arms, to do economic deals, tourism, political deals, etc.  So the Scandinavian bloc is one possibility.

Within the European Union, they should fight for the right of smaller states to have a say.  Scotland should also build ties with smaller republics within the European Union, or even those areas within the EU which are not yet independent, like Catalonia.

That’s not to mention the world at large.  Why should Scotland be dependent on Britain to mediate its relationships with countries in Asia, or Africa?  So I think Scots have to look abroad.  The one institution that will have to be created, amongst the new ones, will be a Foreign Office, and overseas trade, that is very important.

James Foley writes for Bella Caledonia, where this interview originally appeared.

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).