Nothing has exposed the bankruptcy of the main Westminster political parties as starkly as the recent referendum on Scottish independence. So confident was prime minister Cameron that the Scottish electorate would resoundingly reject the Scottish National Party’s case that he refused to allow a “devo-max” option to be included on the ballot paper. It had to be a straight Yes/No choice for or against independence. During the final weeks of campaigning the gap between the “yes” and “no” camps was narrowing, to the point where a few weeks ago one poll gave the campaign for independence a narrow lead. This was enough to strike panic into the hearts of the party leaders and their minions. Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour leaders cancelled everything and rushed north across the border to beg and cajole the voters not to abandon the United Kingdom - not to “desert us.” For most of the campaign the tone adopted by the opponents of independence had been threatening rather than entreating, with dire warnings that isolation, exclusion from the EU, impoverishment and total economic collapse would be the inevitable consequences of a Scottish breakaway. Now the prime minister told the Scots that it would break his heart to see them go. It is more likely that his overriding concern was to avoid what would have certainly meant the end of his premiership and a place in the history books as the man who presided over the break -up of the United Kingdom. As it turned out, Scottish voters opted by 55% to 45% against independence. This outcome was probably never seriously in doubt, but until very late in the campaign there were few who would have believed that approaching 50% would vote yes to independence. It also became clear that very large numbers of those who voted no are very dissatisfied with the status quo and want far more extensive devolution.
Although it is rarely admitted by the political elites in this country, very large voter turnout in elections alarms them. For decades it has been taken for granted that participation in national elections in Britain will be between about 50% and 60%, sufficiently large to be able to claim that the system is representative. Anything below 50% looks bad because apathy or disenchantment on such a scale raises questions about the democratic legitimacy of the electoral system. In municipal elections turn-out is much lower – often below 30%. In the Scottish referendum an amazing 93% of the eligible population registered to vote and the turnout was 84%. It was the awareness that the campaign had stirred an unprecedented groundswell of interest in Scotland that shook the Westminster politicians. What the left used to refer to somewhat contemptuously, but plausibly, as “bourgeois democracy” is a system which requires the electorate, by placing a cross on a piece of paper, to decide every four or five years which section of the ruling class will continue to rule them. In between times they are expected to be quiescent. The Scottish referendum showed that it doesn’t have to be like that. For the first time 16 year olds had the vote. All who witnessed the campaign in Scotland testified to the electric atmosphere that was generated, with raging debates within families and between strangers on the streets. It seems that the whole nation became engaged. For the devotees of “politics as usual” this is a matter of concern because once the genie of mass political engagement has been released from the bottle, it may not be so easy to put it back again. For a few days there was a palpable fear among the Westminster elites and their acolytes in the media that Scotland would upset the UK apple cart. No-one had really considered how profound the consequences of such an upset might be.
The leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, is no leftist. As Scotland’s first minister in the devolved parliament he has all too often acted in lock-step with corporate interests. But the independence campaign went beyond the grasp of Salmond and he could not ignore the deeply rooted and long-lived radical and socialist tradition of the Scottish workers that for generations was one of the bedrocks of industrial working class militancy in Britain. Labour supporters deserted to the SNP in droves. There has always been a left strand in the SNP represented by such people as the former communist and leader of the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders leader, Jimmy Reid. From the beginning of the 20th century many Scottish socialists and communists such as John MacLean and Hugh MacDairmid have also been republican nationalists. Willie Gallacher, one of the leaders of the “Red Clyde” 40 hours strike of 1919 was the first communist to be elected to parliament in Britain in 1935. He was MP for West Fyfe until 1950. Another militant Red Clydesider, Manny Shinwell, eventually held ministerial posts in Attlee’s Labour government from 1945. Scots were prominent in the leadership of once powerful National union of Mineworkers. This proud working class socialist tradition was manifest in the referendum campaign. It was not an expression of narrow nationalism but rather a determination to throw down the gauntlet against what is rightly regarded as a grossly unfair political stitch-up in which since the 1970’s Scotland has had to suffer the depredations of Thatcherite de-industrialization imposed by Westminster on a nation that elects only one Tory MP. While this may be regarded by the Tories as no more than a “normal” outcome of the British electoral system, it is not so regarded by the majority of Scots. Southern counties English Tories have no conception of how much they and the system they represent are loathed north of the border.
Cameron’s capitulation in the days before Scotland voted, hastily offering the “devo-max” that he had earlier refused to consider, has already led to recriminations from his own “little Englander” back-benchers who are now vociferously demanding that Scottish MPs elected to the Westminster parliament should not be allowed to vote on issues that only affect England. Labour has fifty one Scottish MPs ; the Tories have one. Cameron is now back-tracking, as the SNP said he would. But should the coalition government renege on their promise of more extensive devolution there will be uproar in Scotland, and not only from the nationalists.
Scotland is only one of the problems plaguing the political elites. The next British general election is due in May 2015. All three main parties are suffering serious malaise. While the economy has returned to growth there is no “feel good” factor to lift the spirits of the great majority of people who are painfully aware that they are enduring the longest period of declining living standards since the nineteenth century. Most people are poorer now than they were before 2007 and they know it. The government talks as though everyone is pre-occupied with reducing the deficit and will therefore accept another decade of crippling austerity. The Labour opposition also preaches the need for austerity which will last throughout the next parliament. Labour arouses no enthusiasm. Many of those whose memory goes back to the mid 1990s remember the great betrayal perpetrated by New labour. There is no confidence in any of the three main parties. The only party to the left of Labour that stands the remotest chance of winning parliamentary representation is the Green Party, which at the moment has only one MP. So, there is widespread discontent with the mainstream parties but this has not resulted in the emergence of any one coherent force on the left capable of articulating the discontent. The public sector trade unions are resilient and some are capable of mounting very effective industrial action, but there is no political party that has been able to build a base from this militancy. There are many leftist groups and sects that argue with each other on the margins of politics, but none has made any impact on the wider working class who, for the most part remain unaware of their existence. However, apart from the encouraging and exhilarating example of the Scottish independence campaign, something else is stirring in England. Unfortunately it is not very encouraging. It is the U.K. Independence Party.
The recent rise in popularity of UKIP is part of the Europe-wide emergence of xenophobic nationalism and neo-fascism. In Greece, Hungary and Ukraine parties unashamedly and violently fascist have gained alarming support in recent years. Throughout much of Western Europe parties of the extreme right have adopted a veneer of sophistication, publicly eschewing association with overt fascism and emphasizing their supposedly democratic credentials. Most of them have built their electoral success on opposition to immigration and, in particular, hostility to Islam and Muslims. The most successful of these is the Front National in France. UKIP is a party of this type.
Although it would be inaccurate to describe UKIP as a fascist party, it appeals to, and draws its main support from, the same social strata that were attracted to fascism in Britain in the 1930s. That is primarily the urban and rural English lower middle classes who have become disillusioned with the traditional party of the right – the Conservatives. But in another respect UKIP appears to have extended its appeal far more effectively into sections of the English working class than did the inter-war fascists of the BUF. In the 1930s and 1940s the only convincing analysis of fascism came from the left – more precisely, from the Marxist left. One of the main tenets of that theory held that a crucial condition for the triumph of fascism in any society was the existence of a strong working class movement that posed a threat to the continued rule of capital. Where that threat was minimal or non-existent, the ruling class had no need abandon bourgeois democracy and resort to dictatorship to preserve the system. By the later 1930s many Marxist theorists had come to see fascism, despite its base in the middle classes, as the open dictatorship of the “most reactionary sections of monopoly capitalism.”
Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 it is not an exaggeration to speak of a prolonged crisis of finance monopoly capitalism. In Britain one of the most striking expressions of this crisis is the almost universal disillusionment with leaders of the mainstream political parties. They are held in almost universal contempt. This extends beyond the parties of government – the Tories and the Liberal Democrats - to the opposition Labour Party which has signally failed to arouse any enthusiasm among its traditional supporters and wider sections of the electorate. “A curse on all your houses” is the sentiment that best seems to express the public sentiment. In many respects this is similar to the mood that existed in the early 1930s in Weimar Germany, where the centrist and authoritarian conservative parties of government were seen as corrupt, self-serving and contemptible – all the creatures of a bankrupt “system”. But fascism rose to prominence and soon after to power faced by the opposition of a huge working class movement supported by millions at the ballot box. Tragically, the movement was deeply divided between social democrats and communists and this division was perhaps the single most important factor accounting for the triumph of the Nazis in 1933. They managed to persuade 37% of the electorate that they were a new broom that would sweep the Augean stables clean.
One of the many elements differentiating the situation in Britain today from the crisis that led to fascism in some European countries in the 1920s and 30s is the absence of a powerful socialist working class movement. Nevertheless, the rise of UKIP in England is a matter of real concern. It now looks increasingly likely that this party will win at least one by-election before the general election due in May of next year. They may well take more seats in that election. If they do so it will almost certainly be with substantial working class support. In the absence of a large, well organized left wing alternative, a demagogic racist and Europhobic party of the right, presenting itself as the “outsider” speaking for the deceived and despised “ordinary people” could well make the breakthrough they have long sought. The likelihood that their success may result in a narrow victory for Labour in the 2015 election, will not make the success of UKIP any more palatable.