Scottish Referendum: A tale of two cities

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Yes campaigners with massive police backdrop - CC Gerard FerryFor one brief glorious fleeting moment two weekends ago, it looked like David Cameron had unwittingly brought the union between England and Scotland to the brink of collapse. Today the rain falls on the dashed hopes of 45% of Scotland’s voters.
In the unprecedented campaigns around the referendum for Scottish independence, we saw a level of political engagement by ordinary people not seen in the UK since since the post-war election of 1945. A level unheard of throughout the established democracies of the 21st century. In it we saw the politics of hope pitched against the politics of fear. That the politics of fear came out victorious is, however, not so unprecedented for our era. 
 
It may seem callous to pick over the bones of this great civic event in Scottish life while the corpse of now slain hopes is still warm, but there are questions here that demand our attention and reflection. Not the process of picking over what the Yes campaign could have done better or differently. There will be time enough for that later and naturally that task rightly falls to the participants as the people with the inside knowledge required.
 
Our interest on this side of the Irish sea is not so much the hows and whys of finding the exit from Britain’s loving embrace - we already answered that question, albeit partially, a good while since. But that was done nearly a century ago in different circumstances and in a different era. In the course of this #indyref campaign some people tried to draw parallels between Scotland and Ireland. However what separates our two countries is not so much either size, culture or geographical distance - in truth we are close in all three - but the dimension of time. Irish independence was fought for and, mostly, won in the age of colonial empires. The globalised, post-colonial world of the 21st century provides us with a significantly different context.
 
The Monetary-Metropolitan Thesis
 
In the age of globalisation and financialisation vast international financial flows surge around the world. The sum of the GDP of all the world’s countries is dwarfed by the size of these international flows of so-called “hot money”. More than $4 billion is traded on the foreign exchange markets every day. Mostly in the five largest international currencies, in order of importance, the US dollar, the Chinese Yuan, the Euro, the Japanese Yen, the British pound and the Swiss franc. 
 
With the help of an internet connection or satellite phone, these currencies can be bought and sold pretty from much anywhere on the planet. However one of the flipsides of modern communications technology is that alongside this delocalisation another effect of centralisation is also created. Time is money and in the hyperspeed trading of automated trading robots or algos, closeness to the data centre where the bulk of the trading in one of these global currencies happens, creates microsecond advantages from which billions can potentially be made at the expense of less speedy competitors. 
 
To each global currency, then, a trading centre emerges and a financial services centre built around it. Wall Street, the City of London, Tokyo, Shanghai, these names are constantly in our news. Not just as centres of financial might, but also of political power. Even when these centres are not the capital cities of the countries who own or control the currency. The capital city of the USA is Washington DC, but the world recognises Wall Street as the centre of US financial power and New York as a world city. 
 
Similarly in the Eurozone it is no surprise that the centre of financial gravity is in Germany. However when the Eurocrisis reached its most recent peak and it became necessary for the real power behind the apparatus to show its hand by deposing elected governments and appointing technocratic administrations, it emerged as the Frankfurt, not Berlin, group. Frankfurt, not the German political capital, is the financial capital of the Eurozone. The monetary-metropolitan thesis, then, is that in the age of financialisation, true political power is gravitating towards these “global currency cities”.
 
This raises the problem of sovereignty and economic development. Commentators in Britain, like Channel 4’s Paul Mason, have remarked that in terms of the UK’s economic development in the last decade or so, there are basically two economies - London and “the rest”. London is booming, even though it also contains some of the most impoverished districts in the UK. Whereas “the rest” is at best stagnating, at worst suffering continual declines in real wages and economic activity.
 
Against this background, the bid for Scottish independence can also be seen as a conflict between two cities - Edinburgh and London. The bid by Edinburgh to step out of London’s shadow and become a capital of an independent country was a factor in the campaign for independence. Up until the last stages of the campaign, Edinburgh was polling, like Glasgow, as a majority Yes. But this morning the results are that of Scotland’s major cities, only Glasgow and Dundee came out as Yes majorities. What happened to Edinburgh?
 
What happened to Edinburgh is that it is the financial centre of Scotland and all of that flak from the No campaign around the pound and Scottish banks relocating to London, was aimed squarely at it. But underneath the intimidation effect of creating fear, uncertainty and doubt amongst workers employed in Edinburgh’s banking and finance sector, there is a real question. Is it possible to separate political sovereignty from economic sovereignty in 21st century capitalism? And, given that effectively most of the pro-independence campaign had already answered that question in the negative, by campaigning around economic sovereignty issues (defence of the NHS, student grants, welfare, etc from Tory cuts and austerity), can economic sovereignty exist separate from the centres of monetary power? Is the real choice Edinburgh faced between the devil of London or the deep blue sea of Frankfurt?
 
In the end Edinburgh, with its cosmopolitan finance economy, voted no, while the more post-industrial working class urban centres of Glasgow and Dundee voted Yes. The Edinburgh-London divide ended up being transformed into a Glasgow-Edinburgh divide. The fallout of this divide remains to be seen and will have to be articulated and confronted within Scotland itself.
 
However the issues that emerged in this campaign - the problems of cities and finance in a globalised financialised world and the subsumption of arguments for political sovereignty by the problems of economic sovereignty - are not limited to Scotland but generally applicable across the capitalist world, no less so here in Ireland,. formal independence or no. 
 
The significance of these issues and the way they exposed a raw nerve in the current zeitgeist is reflected not only in the unprecedented level of popular engagement but in the absolutely extraordinary united front the British ruling class presented to the world, under threat. Not only did the Labour lamb lie down with the Tory lion, but the entire Fourth estate, from BBC, through Murdoch press, Daily Hate Mail and Guardian close ranks to castigate 45% of Scots as ungrateful morons. When the proverbial appeared about to hit the fan, not only the financiers of the City, business and monied establishment close ranks, but so did the “loyal opposition” of the middle class media opinion formers, left labourites like Owen Jones and luvvies like Eddy Izzard.
 
So much for Scotland’s woes. But the challenge of how to regain power for working class people across a Europe divided into global currency world-city-states and their hinterlands, remains the most pressing need facing us. And in that struggle, although we all have to fight against our local ruling classes and the borders we find ourselves within, we need to remember that to prevail in that larger domain we will need to find a way to cooperate, work and show solidarity and aspire to be truly “better together”.
 
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I'll mak this declaration;
We're bought and sold for Euro gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
 
Words: Paul Bowman
Photograph: Gerard Ferry, Creative Commons, Attribution, No Derivatives