Sunday, 3 June 2012

Saying Yes!

There has been a lot of talk of referenda lately. We will soon have the results of another referendum in Ireland this week. The same can't be said for the prospect of Scottish independence, even as the campaign for a ‘Yes’ to Scottish independence in 2014 has just started. Then there is the usual talk of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, which will remain as long as there is enough ink to waste on Euromyths in the gutter press. The option without competition is austerity has relevance to each instance of referenda as the Irish had to consider the neoliberal agenda of the EU. The Scots took have to choose how they wish to relate themselves to the austere doctrines of Whitehall and Brussels. Meanwhile there are a vast number of British people who think that the European Union are a threat to British sovereignty. The fact that Angela Merkel is as conservative as David Cameron doesn't enter into the picture as the libertarian tendency would have you believe the EU is just another left-wing exercise in utopianism.

At the same time the people are excluded from the decision-making process in the spheres of economics and foreign policy especially. The people are practically just there to reaffirm the status quo in various respects, not just at the ballot box but in polls too. Every state on earth seeks legitimacy, even to fake legitimacy and create the appearance of a democratic mandate. It is part of the long-term triumphs of the Enlightenment. There was never a referendum on whether or not Britain should hold onto nuclear weapons as part of the American nuclear command system. There was never a referendum over whether or not Britain should invade Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not to be taken as a reason for direct democracy, but it is clear that the democratic machine needs to be reinvented and deepened in a variety of ways. There would still be a place for vertical structures of power in order to maintain and coordinate horizontal developments of workers' democracy. There is a place for instantaneous decisions whether we like to admit it or not.

John McAllion put forward the socialist case for an independent Scotland in Red Pepper. The idea is that nationalism sets the pre-conditions for internationalism as Scottish independence would undermine Britain as a state-capitalist nexus and mercenary of the US. Still it seems to be divisive, even as McAllion notes that the Scottish working-class  have had to pay for the chaos caused by an unregulated banking colossus in London. And they are lucky to hold onto the social services that the UK government would like to destroy. He argues that Scottish independence could open up a space for an end to austerity and privatisation in Europe. He goes further to hold that independence could upon a space for a relaxation of laws against trade unions, giving workers greater power in the workplace just north of the border with England. There is some truth to the view that a country can break out of the neoliberal order. But it can only secure itself by reaching beyond its borders. The national is dependent upon the international sphere, just as the local relies on the national.

Its clear that the opening up of a space for better working conditions, rights and higher pay would undermine the anti-union measures in Britain. There could be a coordinated effort by the labour movement to strengthen workers’ rights and power across the mainland. It could also be used by the right-wing, to stew resentment and anger against the pampered Scottish workers. This would definitely be the case if Scottish independence led to disaster for the fledgling republic. The workforce may want to move north for better pay but the businesses might move south for a more vulnerable workforce. It would take state intervention to rejuvenate the manufacturing sector in Scotland, the matter isn't really whether or not this could be accomplished without the British military as a market. The real worry should be that the EU with its addiction to austerity would look to limit any attempts to raise public expenditure in Scotland. The EU could replace the UK in this way, leading to a shift towards economic nationalism and possibly even autarky in Scotland.

It isn't outside of the coordinates of the possible as manufacturing has a predisposition towards protectionism. It is compatible with anti-union measures in the private sphere because it has the most to lose to rising wages. Even with the financial colossus in London there may be more chance of progressive leaps as banking can live with unionisation and higher public spending. It is taxation and regulation that the financial sector fears, but it was banks that backed the New Deal in the US in order to buy-off socialism in the long-term future. When David Cameron stood up to the EU as a "bulldog" months back to protect the banks he resisted the limits that the EU wants to set on public spending. It may be possible to reconstruct industry and the labour movement in an economy which has undergone financialisation. But it will take a great push from below to initiate this change. Even if Scotland struck out on an independent line of development, it could not accomplish the level of public investment let alone redistribution that Britain can as a union.

David Mitchell recently wrote an article on the Strasbourg decree to extend voting rights to the prison population. It was a u-turn from his endorsement of the proposal when this was a major issue last year. The European Court of Human Rights is commonly seen as an extension of the European Union, a foreign force which interferes with the internal matters of a sovereign island. It just so happens that the proudest of islanders, who won't yield to a foreign court, feel more American than European. The illusion of nationalism is that we can stand as a proud and strong nation, free of international determinants and hegemons, in a position of glory not seen since the 19th Century. You might claim that it is better for the British to side with the Americans because of the obvious power the US still holds in the world. On the other hand, you might argue that the European Union is the only road left for a country aligned with an ailing superpower. Whatever the case it has to be noted that the issue of human rights as dictated from Strasbourg is not a pure matter of integration.

It does raise interesting questions of sovereignty. This was a case where Strasbourg infringed upon the coordinates of British sovereignty and that just intolerable for the Eurosceptics. The sovereignty of the state comes down to its capacity to exclude and include people in the realm of rights and freedoms. Only the state holds the monopoly - in its sovereignty - over the power to declare an exception, to suspend normal legal guarantees and deny basic rights to people. The state has sovereignty insofar as it can divide the people into those who qualify as politically recognised and those who don't. The former are adorned with the meaning that comes from recognition and representation in political society. This is what the latter is deprived of, it's the difference of being a human being and being a citizen in the moral sense. But sovereignty isn't just about prisons. This goes for states of emergency declared, for the suspension of habeas corpus in civil war, for assassination and for the torture of 'terror suspects'.

The normal expectations of life no longer apply in these instances. Prison may just about fall within in the framework of sovereignty, which is why there are calls for the return of the death penalty. This isn't the case with 'terror suspects', asylum seekers and gypsies who are just on the boundaries of sovereign power. We see this in 'renditions', in the detainment of asylum seekers and when Dale Farm was brushed away. It was act of American sovereignty that put Osama bin Laden to death and it was religious sovereignty that put a fatwa on Salman Rushdie's head. There was the more recent instance of the Libyan revolutionaries excluding Colonel Gaddafi in killing him as to establish the sovereignty of the new order. It's significant that the constitutional monarchy, which you fetishise, originates in the restoration - when Charles II had republicans gutted in Charing Cross and their guts burned in front of them. Then Oliver Cromwell was unearthed and his body decapitated. This is what established the monarchy until it took on a constitutional guise after 1688.

The financial crisis has hit Ireland hard and has blown away Fianna Fail, the old party of the Free State, with its 14 years of precarious coalitions with Progressive Democrats, Greens and independents. Now the country is in the hands of a coalition between the Labour Party and Fine Gael, a party of far less noble origins than Fianna Fail. The sight of social democrats climbing into bed with cultural conservatives is an old story in Ireland. This came only after the Fianna Fail had signed away Ireland's future to the bureaucrats of financial liberalism in Europe. There was the usual nativist noise in Britain at the prospect of bailing out Ireland at the time and the UK government maintained its commitments to Ireland anyway. To be more accurate, the UK as part of the  EU sought to safeguard banking interests in Ireland and ram austerity measures down the throats of the Irish people soon afterwards. Of course, the tendency towards self-pity will continue to see the British as the real victims of bailing out feckless hordes abroad in Ireland, Greece and elsewhere.

The British don't like to remember the crimes committed against the Irish and the brutish manner of occupation that the island was subjected to for far too long. Back in 1867 Karl Marx noted that the Irish needed self-government and independence from England, to achieve an agrarian revolution it would be necessary to implement protective tariffs against England. From 1783 to 1801 the Dublin Parliament, which represented the Protestant land-owners and bourgeoisie, maintained protectionist measures to insulate Irish industry from England. These measures were possible because the Dublin Parliament was able to attain a degree of independence from England in 1782. The rebellion of 1798 gave the British the opportunity to ensure impoverishment in Ireland, the Dublin Parliament was done away with and its decrees reversed. By 1801 the Irish had become subject to free trade that had been imposed over their country. The life of industrial life was quickly suffocated, with only the small linen industry surviving.

It was certainly the case with Australia, Canada and the United States that independence had turned to protectionism against the British Empire. Ireland didn't strike out on an independent line because of its unfortunate proximity to Britain. The island would only move to independence once the popular sentiments converged with the decay of imperial Britain. It could be argued that the reunification of Ireland may be a pre-condition for recovery and development in the country. From the same line of thought we could argue that Ireland really needs reunification coupled with independence from Europe. But this would leave a poor country vulnerable to foreign investment that can't be influenced in the Parliamentary systems of Europe and Britain. The case for a united Ireland as well as for European integration are really political, we should avoid economism here and stick to the political. What the referendum result may have proven is that there is a desire for security and that the EU, as it is, is incapable of providing that to the Irish people.

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