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18 Sep, 2014 04:13

Blame neoliberalism, not Salmond, if the UK breaks up

Blame neoliberalism, not Salmond, if the UK breaks up

If Scotland does decide to leave the UK, we can be sure that the Westminster elite and anti-Scottish media commentators will be ready to blame Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, and his SNP party for the historic break-up.

But in truth, the reason why so many believe Scotland’s best place is out of the UK is to do with a major political and economic shift which took place in Britain 35 years ago, and which has nothing to do with the SNP or its leader.

From 1945-79, British governments – whether they were Conservative or Labour - followed economic and social policies which put the needs of the majority of people in the UK first.

The so-called post-war consensus meant that maintaining full employment was the government‘s number one economic priority. Governments supported manufacturing industry, extended public ownership, redistributed wealth on a scale never before seen in British history, and provided citizens with a comprehensive welfare state from the cradle to the grave.

But this all changed in the late 1970s.

Margaret Thatcher, who had been elected leader of the opposition Conservative Party in 1975, was a neoliberal who wanted to destroy this social democratic/democratic socialist post-war consensus. She supported privatization, tax cuts for the rich, and did not believe that maintaining full employment should be the number one government priority.

Her election as prime minister in May 1979 - which only came about after a falling out between the Labour government and the trade unions - signaled the end of one economic model and its substitution for another.

There was a big swing towards Thatcher’s Conservatives in London and the South East of England in the 1979 general election, but in Scotland, Labour actually increased their number of seats and their share of the Scottish vote.

While voters in other parts of Britain were tempted by aspects of Thatcher’s program, the Scots never were. That shouldn’t surprise us.

Margaret Thatcher.(AFP Photo / Suzanne Plunket)

Socialism has a long and proud history in Scotland. James Keir Hardie, the first Independent Labour member of Parliament in the 1890s, was a Scot. Many of Britain’s leading and most high-profile socialists have been Scots, think not only of Keir Hardie, but trade union leaders Mick McGahey and Jimmy Knapp, and politicians/activists James Maxton, John Maclean, Tommy Sheridan, and George Galloway. Think too of the legendary and truly inspirational football manager Bill Shankly, the man who made Liverpool Football Club into such a major force. “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, it’s the way I see life,” Shankly declared.

Scottish socialism was forged in Scotland's industrial towns, cities, and mining communities - a collectivist ideology that put people before profits and whose adherents preached solidarity and working-class resistance.

Throughout the period of Conservative hegemony from 1979-97, the Scots made it clear what they thought of the Tories and their neoliberal economic policies which had led to the destruction of Scotland’s industrial base and mass unemployment. The Conservatives' unpopularity plummeted even further when they introduced their hated Poll Tax in Scotland, before other parts of the country.

In the 1987 general election, the number of Conservative seats in Scotland fell from 21 to 10. By 1997, this had been reduced to 0.

Scottish left-wing voters hoped and expected that when Labour eventually returned to power in Westminster, they would make a clean break with neoliberalism and go back to the more collectivist policies of the 1945-79 period. They expected that Labour would support industry and put manufacturing before the interests of the bankers and speculators in the City of London.

They were to be cruelly disappointed. The New Labour government of Tony Blair, which was elected in 1997, merely offered more of the same neoliberal policies. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Blairites' foreign policy was more aggressive and hawkish than even the Conservatives. The Labour betrayal of everything it had ever stood for was complete when Tony Blair took Britain into a neocon war in 2003 against Iraq alongside a hard-right Republican US President - a war sold to the public with fraudulent claims about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. This came after Blair had already taken Britain into two other wars - the 1999 ’humanitarian’ bombing of Yugoslavia, and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

As Scotland‘s disenchantment with the pro-war, neoliberal Westminster elite grew, so did support for independence. In March 1979, two months before the advent of Thatcherism, the Scots voted in a referendum on devolution. Only 32.9 percent of the electorate voted 'Yes.'

In 1997, however, the Scots voted overwhelmingly for devolution, with 63.5 percent voting for the new Scottish Parliament to have tax-raising powers.

A decade later, polls showed that the majority of Scots weren’t just happy with devolution, but wanted independence.

It was quite a significant shift in a relatively short timespan and the economic policies that successive Westminster governments followed from 1979 onwards can account for this sea-change in public opinion.

Pro-independence supporters gather at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland on September 17, 2014.(AFP Photo / Lesley Martin)

Things might have been very different if John Smith - not Tony Blair - been at the helm when Labour returned to power in 1997. Smith was a Scottish Labourite who still preached the politics of solidarity. He had been elected Labour leader after the party’s election defeat in 1992. “He was spotted as a tax-raising corporatist socialist of the old school,” says Andrew Marr in his book ‘A History of Modern Britain.' Smith‘s biographer, Andy McSmith, tells of how the Labour leader received a letter which informed him: “You’ll not get my BT shares, you bald, owl-looking Scottish bastard. Go back to Scotland.” But while Smith wouldn’t appeal much to hardcore Thatcherites in the South East of England, he did appeal to voters in Labour’s Scottish heartlands. At the Trades Union Congress in September 1993, Smith pledged his party’s support for full employment - a key element of the progressive post-war settlement. “The goal of full employment remains at the heart of Labour’s vision for Britain. Labour’s economic strategy will ensure that all instruments of macro-economic management, whether it concerns interest rates, the exchange rate or the levels of borrowing, will be geared to sustained growth and rising employment,” Smith said.

Tragically, Smith never made it to 10 Downing Street. At the age of just 55, he died from a heart attack in May 1994. Instead of Prime Minister John Smith, we got Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A Labour government under Smith wouldn‘t have been socialist, but it would probably have followed more social democratic policies than Blair’s New Labour governments did, and it is unlikely that its foreign policies would have been so hawkish. As it happened, Blair’s combination of neoliberal domestic policies and neoconservative foreign policies only further alienated Scottish voters.

Neoliberalism doesn’t bring people together, but divides them, by destroying the bonds of solidarity. People did feel solidarity with others throughout the United Kingdom in the past - but these bonds have been loosened as our economic system has changed and we‘ve been encouraged to become more individualistic.

A wise old ‘One Nation' Tory, Sir Ian Gilmour, a consistent critic of Thatcherism, put it beautifully in his book 'Inside Right': “If people are not to be seduced by other attractions they must at least feel loyalty to the State. This loyalty will not be deep unless they gain from the State protection and other benefits…Economic liberalism because of its starkness and its failure to create a sense of community is likely to repel people from the rest of liberalism.”

Today, it’s clear that many Scots believe that a return to the politics of solidarity will best be achieved by voting ‘Yes’ and leaving the United Kingdom. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps they’re wrong. But it's important to understand why so many people in Scotland feel this way. It’s a huge mistake to believe that everyone who is planning to vote ‘Yes’ on Thursday is an SNP supporter, or sees themselves as a Scottish nationalist.

What is significant is the large number of Labourites in Scotland who are in favor of a ‘Yes’ vote. Over 100 Labour supporters – including former Labour Minister Les Huckfield and a former chairman of the Scottish Labour Party, Bob Thompson – have signed an open letter in support of independence.

It is doubtful if the ‘Yes’ campaign would have gotten this far, or had such widespread appeal, had Labour made a clean break with neoliberalism in 1997 and returned to the social democratic/democratic socialist policies followed by previous Labour governments.

So if Scotland does Vote ‘Yes’ on Thursday, and the union is destroyed, don’t blame Alex Salmond or “Scottish nationalism.” Blame the politicians in Westminster who have followed economic policies which have destroyed solidarity and pulled the people of the United Kingdom apart.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.