speri.comment: the political economy blog

Uneven geographies of the British crisis

As the UK’s economic model flat-lines, new visions of a progressive political economy – rooted in our cities, regions and sub-national spheres – become more significant

Scott Lavery, SPERI Research Fellow

Scott Lavery

Scott Lavery

In a recent blog post Colin Hay argued that this is a ‘very British crisis’ in the sense that successive UK administrations actively promoted – domestically and internationally – the unsustainable model of Anglo-American capitalism which led to the crash of 2008.

This is also a ‘very British crisis’ in a second sense. Neoliberalism within the UK has compounded structural weaknesses within the peripheral economies of the North of England, Wales and Scotland. After the decimation of industry in the 1980s, these areas have suffered from chronic under-investment, higher levels of unemployment and associated social problems.

Hay is right to say that this is a British crisis. But we must at the same time be clear about which economic and social groupings benefited from neoliberal growth – and which are paying for it – now that the ‘virtuous’ cycle of debt and false prosperity has spiralled into a vicious cycle of decline.

The UK’s broken growth model should have ‘Made in the City of London’ stamped on it.

While the Square Mile’s activities were deregulated, and it was given carte blanche to engineer growth through paper assets and international Ponzi schemes, the UK periphery found itself enduring some of the weakest labour market protections in the OECD. Many areas outside of the South East have seen systematic neglect of industrial capacity and the proliferation of low-skill, low-wage employment.

Progressive political economy should recognise that uneven development generates a series of new political spaces from which the old economic orthodoxies can be contested. The clearest expression of current regional disaffection comes in the form of a constitutional challenge against the British state; the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. This process raises a new question: will the British growth crisis translate into a crisis of  Britain?

Nationalism is often viewed with suspicion on the Left, because it’s seen to be rooted in parochial identity politics. But this view fundamentally misunderstands the political roots of the project for Scottish self-determination.

Scottish ‘small ‘n’’ nationalism has been rooted in a social democratic impulse against the worst excesses of neoliberal marketization. The movement for Scottish devolution, for example, was conceived as a response to the market-led strategy of successive Conservative administrations.

Thatcher’s aggressive use of parliamentary prerogative to implement the New Right project – irrespective of its social consequences – was perceived as an attack on the fabric of Scottish society and implied a ‘democratic deficit.’ Unemployment doubled under her watch while industry stagnated – in spite of the fact that Scots had consistently rejected the Thatcherite project at the polls.

When devolution arrived in 1999, the Scottish parliament became a new sphere for the expression of the Scottish electorate’s political aspirations.  The parliament enabled Scotland to continue providing social goods, including free tuition in higher education, the abolition of prescription charges and free day care for the elderly. While the neoliberal growth model delivered an expansion in public expenditure, these social programmes could continue apace, further legitimising devolution and, by implication, the British state.

Austerity has changed all that. Now we’re told that the ‘golden years’ of New Labour’s boom are over, there’s no alternative but to cut-back on the debt through a radical programme of public sector retrenchment. By 2025 the Scottish budget will be slashed by a massive £40 billion. As a result, the considerable social achievements of the Holyrood parliament are now under serious threat.

The question of the UK’s broken growth model has fused with the debate around its constitutional future. A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report was brandished by both unionists and nationalists as vindicating their respective positions. It’s the unionists who’ve tended to emphasise the uncertainties and ambiguities of Scottish independence. But As Stephen Maxwell’s new book of pragmatic and progressive nationalism Arguing for Independence demonstrates, remaining in the union is itself an inherently risky strategy.

We face in the short-term a triple-dip recession, and in the longer term a ‘lost decade’ of low, if not negative growth. As a result of this process, the welfare state and public sector will have been hollowed out, with corresponding ‘flexibilisation’ (read – attacks on pay and conditions) in the private sector. The risks of staying in the union – under a deeply unpopular Conservative party which has no Scottish mandate – could well be one that the Scots are not willing to take in 2014.

The problem for the pro-independence left is that the SNP are not currently emphasising this argument. However, the Nationalist Party does not have a monopoly over the movement for independence. This weekend, Greens, pro-independence Labour members, trade unionists, left nationalists and socialists will attend a large ‘Radical Independence Conference’ in Glasgow.

The conference signals that the Scottish left is increasingly unified around the need to emphasise the risks attached to remaining within the union. The internationalist case for independence – which advocates the abolition of the Trident nuclear weapons system, massive reductions in military expenditure, and the promotion of a new state-led green industrial strategy – could work as a radical and progressive alternative to the status quo.

As the UK’s economic model flat-lines, new modes of resistance – and new visions of a progressive political economy – rooted in our cities, regions and sub-national spheres become more, not less, significant. The ‘Scottish Question’ stands at the apex of this breaking point in the UK’s uneven political geography. As the constitutional decision draws closer and the effects of the Conservative’s aggressive programme of austerity bite harder, the next casualty of the British crisis could turn out to be the British state itself.

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Categories: British growth crisis, SPERI Comment | 3 comments

Articles and comments posted on this blog reflect the views of the author(s) and not the position of SPERI or the University of Sheffield.

Comments (3)

  1. What an absolutely wonderful article. I really like the way you draw together a number of different strands of the analysis of the crisis here, and the discussion of Scottish ‘small-n’ nationalism is a compelling one. Two questions that come to my mind, though, are, firstly, what this means in the context of what is happening in Catalonia at the moment . Are we about to see Europe (and by implication, other regions) fragment into smaller nations of under 10 million people, and would these actually be better disposed to deliver development than the over-leveraged behemoths from which they emerge? In a sense, there is probably some logic to this, with ‘large’ nation states being a relatively recent development and, in many ways, relatively unusual and extremely unstable. The second question relates to whether or not the Tories are actually ‘that’ unpopular in Scotland. They surely don’t have anywhere near majority support, and ‘the left’, broadly defined, is much more popular of course. But in purely party political terms, at the last UK general election, they got 16.7% of the popular vote. This was only a couple of percent less than either the Lib Dems or the SNP. Can we infer from this, that actually the SNP’s support – and its independence mandate – is actually quite unstable?

  2. Thanks Matt. With respect to the Catalonia question, I think we have to recognise that different nationalisms arise in different historical contexts and appeal to different motifs and ideological groupings.We could equally point to Golden Dawn – the deeply reactionary and neo-fascist outfit currently terrorising ethnic communities in Greece – which has ‘racialised’ the economic crisis. Tom Nairn’s account of nationalism as ‘the Modern Janus’ – a political phenomenon which looks forward and backwards – i.e. one which necessarily has both reactionary and progressive elements written into its DNA – is instructive here. My intuition is that as the crisis unfolds, national groupings will become more, not less, significant – and that the process of sub-national discontent will intensify as the crisis deepens. The question for the left is how to engage with these developments in a positive and internationalist way when they have progressive content.

    With respect to your question about the Tories in Scotland, it’s always quite satisfying to remember that there are more pandas than conservative MPs in Scotland (2 in Edinburgh Zoo compared to 1 MP in Dumfries). However, you are quite right – it would be complacent to assume that the Conservatives have no electoral clout whatsoever north of the border. However, even with 16% of the popular vote, they faced in 2010 an electoral centre–left bloc of over 80% ( Labour, SNP, Liberals pre-coalition). Whether with FPTP or a form of PR, the Conservatives have been for decades – and will likely remain – a deeply marginalised outfit in Scottish politics.

    I would say the mandate for the independence referendum itself is solid, as has been recognised by all major political parties in the UK. However, while the SNP enjoyed a large electoral victory in the 2011 Scottish elections, as you suggest the popularity of independence is at present much lower. Support for independence generally polls at around 35%. The point I try to make in the article is that if the pro-independence movement is to bump this figure up, I think a more explicit framing of the crisis as one of an austerity-obssessed conservative government at Westminster would provide a suitable path to a more progressive constitutional settlement.

    • The Tory are in a definitely wnniing scenario. If the referendum is defeated, they’ll be credited for keeping the United Kingdom united. If the referendum is carried, they’ll be a lot closer to an outright majority since many of Labour’s and Libdems’ safe seats are in Scotland. What I found difficult to understand is the position of the LibDems (their Michael Moore is the Secretary of State for Scotland). They got nothing to win in this deal, although it’s in line with their core value to maximise civil rights and liberties.

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