SATURDAY’S convention of the Radical Independence Campaign – a meeting point for left and green activists of all parties and none, who support an independent Scotland – was a useful first step in assessing our strange new post-Brexit world. Even if the event, in Glasgow’s Marriot Hotel, gathered hundreds rather than the several thousand of previous RIC conferences, the mood was positive. In particular, the attendance of representatives of left-wing movements from other parts of Europe, including the Catalan CUP, underlined the fact that the new political conjuncture demands an international response.
However, I felt the debate at RIC was struggling to move beyond the earlier agenda defined by the austerity crisis that followed the 2008 banking crash, and the rise of the popular movement that transformed Scottish politics during the first independence referendum. True, that’s a problem of strategy and tactics facing the entire left in Europe and North America, as well as Scotland and the UK. Recent events, economic and political, have been moving at the speed of an express train. So here’s my tuppence-worth: more defining the problems than suggesting ready answers.
First up, the global economy is shifting gear rapidly, which means the old anti-austerity agenda of the left (including the SNP) needs redefining. To save time, let me quote the chief economics commentator at the Daily Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. Last week, Mr Evans-Pritchard summed up the state of the global capitalist economy thus: “Trade is stagnant. Deflation is still knocking at the door a full seven-and-a-half years into the economic cycle, even with the monetary pedal pushed to the floor. The next downturn will test this regime to destruction.”
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In other words, the global economy is in deep trouble. Eight years of Quantitative Easing (QE) – where central banks print money to push down interest rates and prop up share prices – has not only failed to reinvigorate the global economy, it now threatens to bring the house down. Fact: QE and cheap money has led to companies borrowing to buy back their shares, rather than invest. Result: productivity has flat-lined and profits are falling. Fact: QE and low interest rates are being used to artificially devalue currencies. Result: new trade wars and slowing in global economic growth. Fact: QE and low interest rates are causing banks to lose money. Result: a new wave of financial instability.
Right-wing politicians in many countries can see the writing on the wall. They are shifting gear away from narrow austerity (cutting spending) to boosting local industry and protecting local markets from foreign imports. The right has already effectively abandoned the US-EU TTIP trade deal while the left is still moaning about it. The Chinese regime is pumping fresh stimulus in the economy and devaluing the Yen aggressively. If elected, Donald Trump is threatening to put a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese goods. In other words, the era of neoliberalism and globalisation is coming to an end, as the major powers scramble for advantage.
The point here is that the left needs an antidote to the right’s newfound economic nationalism. We need effective growth strategies that combine social justice with efficiency, yet which challenge the national chauvinism of the right. This poses a question here in Scotland and the UK. Many Yes voters plumped for Brexit, as did a lot of the left in England. They did so to express anger at austerity and – let’s be frank – because they thought it would bring down Cameron and Osborne, which it did. But the cruel fact is that handing the Brexiteers a victory has emboldened the right – a very different right than the posh Cameroons.
This new, hard right is in favour of boosting public spending on a national industrial policy to help British capitalism out-compete Johnny Foreigner. This new right will also play the immigration card to pretend to Scottish and English workers that it is defending their interests. The danger is that this turn sows confusion among working-class voters, including some former Yes voters. We are already seeing pro-Remain Labour MPs like Rachel Reeves capitulate politically to the new chauvinism and switch to opposing free movement of people.
At the same time, the SNP’s defence of EU membership – a correct defence – will be twisted by the new patriotic right to suggest we are “enemies of the people”. This could form part of the battleground in any new independence referendum, where the SNP might find itself painted (no matter how erroneously) as the “friend” of big business. Unless properly countered, that propaganda could make it difficult to reassemble the previous Yes coalition.
The solution is to put forward our own Yes/SNP programme that is both progressive and pragmatic. At Saturday’s RIC conference there was much criticism of the present order and a fair bit of utopian demands – usually accompanied by criticism of the SNP Government. However, if we expect to win an independence referendum before the end of 2017, an indy Scotland might emerge in the middle of a global economic downturn. The need will be for workable policies that make a difference to ordinary lives, not a utopian delivery of a social Nirvana on Day One.
EQUALLY, any government in a new, small nation needs to seize levers of economic power. That reopens debate on the currency question: a separate Scottish currency would give the Scottish Government control over interest rates and the exchange rate. Again, there is a case for a greater degree of public influence over the banking system. That could be achieved in a number of ways, including the creation of a tier of municipal and cooperative savings banks. If RBS remains in UK state control at independence, it must pass into Scottish public ownership. A Scottish central bank would be in a position to ensure lending was tailored to local needs.
However, there remains the question of how to promote a progressive vision of Europe during any forthcoming independence campaign. The new right is already moving to undercut the argument that EU membership is necessary to protect workers’ rights by incorporating European directives into UK law before Brexit becomes final. Of course, a decade hence, when HMS Little Britain is sinking in the middle of a global trade war, workers’ rights will be the last thing a right-wing UK government defends. But for now, we need an answer to the canard that the Yes movement is a poodle of Brussels.
The answer is to take the initiative in building a new Peoples’ Europe. The RIC conference on Saturday raised the idea but went nowhere far enough. Somebody, somewhere has to call a congress of European social and political movements to get the process started to reform the EU from within, and oppose the nasty, racist populism that is spreading across the Continent.
Let’s start this movement with a pan-Europe campaign to impose a common minimum wage across the entire EU. Such a minimum wage will kill the lie that the free movement of people is a threat to wages and jobs locally. And it will create a common reference point for progressive movements. The left needs to get on the political offensive across Europe. That is the real lesson to draw from Saturday’s RIC conference.