THERE’S something I need to get off my chest: the European Union referendum is coming, so get set for the Festival of Britain, 2016-style. I envision a grotesque carnival of the mad, the bad, and the downright scary.
Here’s my advice for surviving it. Make sure you’re not poor. Make sure you’re not a woman. Make sure you’re not on benefits. Make sure you’re not black. Make sure you’re not part of a religious minority. Make sure you’re not Scottish or Welsh. And make sure you’re not gay. Because the message for the next few months will be that “Britain is strong” – and it has no place for any of us losers.
I won’t go over what I’ve said elsewhere about the European Union – other than to say that I think the centre-left is far too soft on Brussels, particularly after what happened in Greece.
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Here’s what we need to know. There are reasonable and rational reasons to want to stay in the European Union, and equally there are good reasons to leave.
Unfortunately, none of those reasons will be heard before June 23. Neither side wants a reasonable argument. All we’ll hear is immigrant-this, scrounger-that, and how everything used to be sweet in Britain way back when.
In place of reasonable arguments, we have "innies" versus "outies".
The innies are trumpeting David Cameron’s programme for European reform. That means more power for bankers in the City of London, and less freedom of movement. Predictably, Britain’s liberals from The Guardian onwards are falling in behind this message – anything to save the EU!
The outies are Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and George Galloway. Less the good, the bad, and the ugly; more the ugly, the uglier, the ugliest, and the uglier still. Put simply, either result is a disaster for the British working class.
Okay, that’s the pessimistic bit over. Now, let’s focus on the case for optimism.
The EU question revives the question of Scottish independence. Bookmakers have slashed the odds on Scotland holding another referendum before 2021. Regardless of your views on the EU, that’s a tremendously good thing.
Moralisers in the British media hark on about how a referendum should be a “once in a lifetime” phenomenon. What nonsense. What utter contempt for democracy.
Let’s be clear: Scotland should have as many referendums as we want, on a variety of issues (for instance, do we want parasitical royals draining the public coffers?).
If we choose independence and it doesn’t work out for both parties, why couldn’t there be another referendum on getting back together? Who gets to tell us how we run our democracy? Why should consulting the public be a gruelling, traumatic process for political elites? (Actually, don’t bother answering that.)
Here’s my only point of caution: let’s not get narrowly fixated on the European debate as the trigger for the next referendum. Let’s not build our moral case on Britain’s relationship with Brussels bureaucracy. Instead, let’s reiterate the real reasons we need another referendum.
The case for devolution was built on 18 years of solid Tory rule that Scotland didn’t vote for.
During that time, North Sea oil revenues were squandered and our industrial economy all but collapsed. Who would bet against another generation like this ahead, with George Osborne or Boris Johnson at the helm?
Essentially, we’re moving into a grim situation where Britain is divided between two opposing authorities – nationalists in Scotland, cuts-crazed Tories in England. The truth is that only Scottish independence can cut that knot and free up progressive oppositional politics again.
Without the threat of independence as a lever, the SNP are being pressured into accepting a terrible fiscal framework for Scotland that will pass more cuts down the chain. Unless we’ve got a rolling mandate for independence, SNP leaders will be forced to defend and rationalise cuts. That’s why it’s a mistake to keep the issue off the agenda.
The timeline for independence can’t be left to the Scottish Government alone. They are trying to reconcile too many tasks –trying simultaneously to be the leaders of protest and provincial administrators. Taking on both challenges is a dangerous recipe that has led to over-cautious politics.
When I spoke at the Radical Independence conference at the weekend, I was reminded of the reasons why I helped establish the Radical Independence campaign. We took lots of stick when it was set up. Some called us an MI5 front. Some called us a Trojan horse for the Labour Party. The old left said we had capitulated to nationalism, and Labour activists claimed we were funded by Brian Souter. Everyone predicted we would fail, that we were bound to fail, that failure was certain.
So why didn’t we fall behind the well-resourced official campaigns? Why did we use our own scarce resources to fund something that might sink us, when our elders and betters pleaded caution, when the odds were stacked against us?
My own answer is simple: the official campaigns told a story of Scotland that made no sense to me. It was a story of plucky businesspeople and middle-class professionals zooming about in a 21st-century economic powerhouse. It was one big happy family of soft civic nationalism, or one big happy family of incremental constitutional change. It was simplistic, particularly in the post-2008 era.
I wanted a story of Scotland that represented our conflicts and our complexity.
I didn’t want to forget the other side of Scotland for the sake of short-term political convenience.
I wanted to remember the times when Scottish people, not politicians, seized the initiative from Scottish elites – because these are the truly inspiring moments in our history. I wanted UCS and Red Clydeside, not Michelle Mone and JK Rowling, or Sean Connery and Brian Souter.
Scottish history falters when we let politicians take the initiative for us. Let’s use the European referendum to set our own timeline for independence, an independence based on true self-rule and internationalism. Let’s not wait for 18 years of Tory rule to force us, zombie-like, to shuffle our way to autonomy. Let’s do it while we still have optimism and energy left in our bodies.