Neoliberalism and new Labour removed the class struggle from the national question. The left must take it back, says John Foster
Britain’s constitution faces imminent change. Within the next six weeks the Smith Commission will publish proposals for the further devolution of powers to Scotland.
These proposals, once agreed, will begin to redefine constitutional structures for Britain as a whole.
Prime Minister David Cameron has stated his intention to legislate for the removal of Scottish MPs from Westminster for all devolved issues.
Depending on the recommendations of the Smith Commission, this exclusion could prove very comprehensive and apply not only to policy on education, housing and the NHS but also in some or all areas of taxation and for the provision of welfare benefits.
At the same time, the Con-Dem government is embarking on a piecemeal and politically reactionary reconfiguration of local government.
This month it announced a London-type mayor for Greater Manchester. Other such mayors, with concentrated executive powers, are likely to follow.
This is why the Communist Party’s 53rd congress this weekend will debate an emergency resolution on “The national question and constitutional change.”
The party has longstanding policies for the democratisation of Britain’s constitution. These are set out in our programme Britain’s Road to Socialism and do not need repetition here.
The purpose of this resolution is to focus attention on the immediate issue posed by Cameron and the Smith Commission: whether we will end up having an English parliament by default and the creation of new regional power structures.
It also focuses attention on the political context, namely the challenge posed by the emergence of the national question in Britain in a new way, symbolised by the rise of both Ukip and the SNP.
While politically these are quite different animals, they have one thing in common. They are cross-class parties that seek to capture working-class votes by an appeal to national sentiment and which, both in the case of the SNP and Ukip, make no reference to the issue of class or class power.
Some variety of nationalist populism might have been expected well before now given Britain’s trajectory as an imperial power in decline.
But even Thatcher’s flag-waving Conservatism had only limited impact on working-class communities. Now this has changed. Why?
There would seem to be three reasons.
The first is the impact of neoliberalism and new Labour on the special relationship between class politics and democracy in Britain.
More than in most other European countries, the original fight for democracy has been closely associated with the issue of working-class
power. This was because Britain, somewhat uniquely, had a majority working class.
Our rulers knew that the right to vote, if exercised collectively on a class basis, had the potential to change the balance of class forces. Thus they opposed full universal suffrage until well into the second quarter of the 20th century.
Democracy could and did mean the power to win full employment, a welfare state and public ownership.
Locally, it gave power to councils committed to fighting insecurity and squalor, winning decent public-sector housing, good social services and the equal provision of education.
Today this class potential has all but disappeared. It has been altogether squeezed out of local government and to a significant extent from Parliament — the consequence of the transfer of key powers of economic intervention to the EU (itself partly an arm of British big business power) and, fatally, by the longer term impact of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party.
This is the second reason. The essence of new Labour — and what made it different from the old Labour right-wing — was to deny the validity of class mobilisation itself. The market had to be supreme.
This new ideology was combined with the loss of older generations of trade union activists.
It resulted in the demobilisation of the collective “Labour” organisation that previously gave democracy its class force.
The third reason is more immediate. Working people have suffered the biggest attack on living standards since the 1880s — an attack facilitated by a new flexible labour market.
This has been combined with an all-out ruling class assault to remove
any potential for a revival of class politics — an assault on the trade union movement itself, on its links with the Labour Party and also, no less significantly, on the Labour Party itself as it seeks, however tentatively, to move away from new Labour politics.
This summer and autumn we saw the consequences.
In England, voters were told it was immigrants who were taking their jobs and benefits and Ukip would stop it.
In Scotland, working-class communities were told that their nation was the second richest in Europe and that if they voted for independence, austerity would end.
Politics defined in terms of national allegiance replaced those of class. This is why the constitutional question is now so fundamental.
What kind of English parliament will emerge under the Cameron plan?
Both the Tories and the SNP back “devo max” by which all tax-raising powers would be devolved. At a stroke, this would destroy the principle of wealth redistribution across Britain on the basis of social need.
It would also, under Tory proposals, create an English parliament able to challenge any progressive policies emerging from a wider Westminster Parliament.
Since the 1930s, communists have backed home rule parliaments for Scotland and Wales in order to give working people more power over capital in their own nations. But these calls for national devolution have always been combined with insistence on the need for the democratisation of institutions at British level.
It is here, at “federal” level that is it necessary to challenge the concentrated state power of British monopoly capital — to be able to control trade and capital movements, currency and interest rates and, critically, to redistribute wealth both socially and geographically across Britain in terms of social need.
The emergency resolution offers four options for debate. But its basic insistence is that the issue cannot be dealt with in the abstract.
Any proposals have to be linked to the wider perspective for redeveloping class politics and for real, not formal, democracy.
Democratically elected regional assemblies, with powers of economic and industrial intervention and ownership, will only benefit working people if they are driven forward by the revival of mass class politics in an alliance of trade unions and local communities as represented in the People’s Assembly.
The option of a federation of nations, including an English parliament, only makes sense if we understand England itself as an ethnically diverse multinational nation — one with many component nationalities that can only be united around progressive objectives by a wider class unity against oppression and exploitation.
Dimitrov’s warnings from the 1930s remain all too relevant today.
Socialists and communists cannot stand back from the national question. We are already faced with options that will be disastrous for our democratic future unless we, and the labour movement, advance our own alternatives.
John Foster is international secretary of the Communist Party
This article also appears in the Morning Star newspaper