With the coming referendum on Scottish independence the future of the British state and the movement against austerity are inextricably bound together, argues Pete Ramand.
The Scottish elections of May this year shocked the left profoundly. Few saw an SNP victory coming, and even fewer could have guessed the scale of the rout. Not only did the nationalists win the election, not only did they win an overall majority, but they outflanked Labour to the left and trounced them in their heartlands of Glasgow and Ayrshire. No longer can a red rosette be pinned to a monkey to ensure victory.
Now the question of independence has been placed well and truly on the table. While a referendum in three years can seem a distant prospect, and with debates on the subject currently amounting to little more than scare-mongering from sections of the right-wing press, the left must begin to address the question now if we are to seriously impact and influence the contours of the debate. The demographics in Scotland moving towards support for independence are primarily the working classes and the youth (See tables below). Framed by the context of global austerity, this will be an increasingly important topic in Scottish political life.
The balance of forces on the independence question
The first question which must be addressed is the support – or apparent lack thereof – for independence amongst the electorate. The polls suggest that despite an SNP victory, support for independence has remained fairly constant at around 30%. The problem is that polls provide a fairly undynamic way of analysing opinion. Indeed, if the polls of only a few months ago were to be believed then we would now find ourselves with Iain Gray as First Minister of a Labour-dominated parliament. But incompetent leadership and effective SNP campaigning reversed the expected result. Recent evidence also suggests that a large section of both those who do and do not support independence have changed their minds at least once, and could still be convinced either way. Only a small minority of both camps have a hardened position. So everything is to play for.
Therefore the art of leadership in the political process will become decisive, one which polling data cannot factor into a survey. The leadership that will coalesce to form the No campaign are in serious crisis. The Tories – the traditional party of the landowning classes and Scottish big business – are in serious decline. From their electoral apex in 1955 claiming more than 50% of the vote in Scotland, they have declined to the point where they failed to gain a single seat north of the border in the 1997 Westminster election and their vote fell to just 13% in 2011. The reality is that the Scottish Conservatives are regarded as an irrelevant, if not quaintly eccentric, joke while their English counterparts are seen as a mutation of Thatcher and a force to be hated or feared. Either way, the Tories are too unpopular to lead any serious campaigns in Scotland in the near future.
Their coalition partners, the Liberals, are barely worth mentioning. The party was decimated in the recent elections, even losing seats in Highland constituencies which they had maintained since the days of the Whigs. Their betrayal of the students and cosy relationship with Cameron south of the border has resulted in annihilation and near total irrelevancy in the North. Certainly not the credentials one would desire to stand as the defender of their precious union.
Labour are the natural figure head of the No campaign, maintaining far more influence in Scottish society than either the Cons or the Dems. But the traditional party of working class reformism is now fully subscribed to neoliberal doctrine, and finds itself in arguably the worst position in it has ever occupied in Caledonia. Having still not recovered from the election day upset, they now find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to remain with Iain Gray as their leader well past the promised Autumn deadline.
Whether or not their official line to the press – stating a number of unintelligible constitutional quibbles – bears any resemblance to reality is hardly relevant. They cannot find anyone with suitable weight to lead the party – so where are they going to find an individual with enough muscle to stand up to Salmond and the SNP juggernaut in full independence flow? John Reed, the candidate favoured to lead the campaign, has already ruled himself out basically stating that posterity would not look kindly on the individual responsible for the break up of the British state.
Another problem Labour will face is the source of funding for the No campaign. While the trade unions provide the bulk of Labour’s funding, they will be reticent to give serious support to a campaign that will alienate them from their members, and equally importantly those who could potentially become their future membership. As the tables below show the younger you are and the lower your occupational status, the more likely you are to support independence.
Support for Scottish Independence by Age
Support for Scottish Independence by Occupational Group
SOURCE: Scottish Opinion Survey, Independence Poll, TNS, December 2010
In all likelihood, the worst elements of Scottish capitalism will write the cheque for the “No” campaign. Even if Labour wanted to, they will find it difficult to articulate an alternative vision of the future to that of Cameron’s austerity Britain.
By comparison the Yes campaign has got off to a flying start. Buoyed by electoral success, the SNP have already tasked Angus Robertson – the campaign director and strategist largely credited for both the 2007 and 2011 victories – with leading the charge on independence.
Despite their many contradictions the SNP has build up a head of steam and are hoping that this momentum will carry them through to the Saltire-covered finishing line. The populist trick of presenting themselves as a social democratic alternative to Labour while simultaneously rubbing shoulders with big business and espousing their neoliberal credentials has worked for the Nats so far. The positive campaign-style that Salmond expresses with gusto and charm gels with the aspirations of Scottish workers fed up with the pessimistic prospects of the status quo. Salmond’s campaign will, in all likelihood, be buttressed by the support of the Greens who have consistently campaigned against public sector cuts and who have attempted to articulate a left Keynesian vision of what Scotland could look like.
On top of this Salmond is clearly a pragmatist. While a Scottish republic is the ultimate dream, he is more than happy to settle for ‘devolution max’. Fully aware that the global trend is towards further devolution over an extended period, he sees fiscal autonomy and a more federalised British state as a stepping stone towards outright independence at a later date. This is not to predict the outcome. Rather all the evidence suggests is that in politics – as in all aspects of life – no outcome is set in stone and everything is in a constant state of flux.
Arguments against independence from the left
Much of the left has consistently treated the SNP with derision and scorn, summed up by the slogan ‘Tartan Tories’. Equal vitriol has been levelled at the idea of independence. But the arguments used to support the union are somewhat less convincing.
The first argument deployed is that if Scotland were to become independent, Labour would never again be re-elected at Westminster. While it is undoubted that Labour government is preferable to that of our Eton educated Tory adversaries, the loss of a party who have bathed in the blood of more than a million Iraqis is hardly something to base our political strategy upon. And that is not to mention support for the Vietnam War, acquiescence with Empire and repeated attacks on workers in the form of wage freezes etc.
The second argument is that the break up of Britain will mean the break up of the British working class, the breaking of the trade unions, and ultimately the death of a UK wide fight back. While it is not inconceivable that the ruling class could use this as a tactic to halt militancy in Britain, that is certainly not currently the case. Given that unions are now attempting to coordinate action across Europe and forge links with our brothers and sisters on far away continents, it seems clear that solidarity from Scottish and English workers could circumnavigate the Antonine wall. While the trade unions are currently UK wide bodies they all contain a separate Scottish organisation (for example the TUC and the STUC), or in the case of teaching a different union altogether (the EIS and NUT). We must agitate for a UK wide fight back, but ultimately independence will not currently be detrimental to working class organisation. Certainly, hushing up the question of Independence for the sake of working class unity is a non-starter.
But then how can you be an internationalist and simultaneously argue for independence? The response to this point is quite simple. International solidarity does not stretch solely from John O’Groats to Lands End. We need more international solidarity and coordination with people across Europe who are resisting austerity, with the millions in the Arab world who are overthrowing their dictators, and with those across the globe who want to resist capitalism in its many brutal forms. The break up of the British state does not mean we will relinquish our support for workers anywhere in the British Isles taking action. The solidarity between Waterford Crystal factory workers in South-East Ireland and the factory occupations in England and Scotland two years ago is a positive example to learn from.
Arguments for independence
Problems also arise from the arguments presented by the nationalists. The first is the question of a democratic deficit. Simply put: you would never get a Tory government in an independent Scotland. This is probably true. And there certainly is a major democratic deficit – however it is class-based rather than geographic. Paul Henderson Scott – former vice president of the SNP and one of its chief theorists – argues: “One of the advantages of a small state is that everyone in it is close to the centre of government. Problems encountered by people in Stornaway might seem remote to a government in London but they cannot be ignored by one in Edinburgh.” This is patently untrue. A black working class single mum living in Dummydykes – a scheme only a few minutes stroll from the parliament – faces so many problems in capitalist Scotland that she may as well be living on the moon. Whereas Salmond will bend over backwards to welcome unsavoury plutocrats from around the globe such as American billionaire and quasi-racist Donald Trump.
There is also a danger that this line of thought leads to the conclusion that Scottish people are somehow inherently more progressive than the English, Welsh and Irish. Scottish politics has a distinct rhythm to that of the rest of the UK and debate is often further to the left north of the border (although while the mainstream political parties are forced to adopt slightly more progressive positions on questions such as immigration they have their own right wing populist hate cards to play such as knife crimes and the fear of marauding gangs of urban ‘neds’). This question deserves attention in its own right and is beyond the scope of the present article.
By far the most convincing – and ultimately conclusive – argument for a yes vote is that it will break up the British state. Minor scrutiny will reveal that the history of Britain is written in blood rather than ink. From the act of union in 1707 to the present, not a day has gone by in which British brutality has not been felt somewhere in the world. To even attempt to address this here is to do a disservice to the scale of barbarism accomplished by the rulers of this state. On this basis any excuse to break the British state should be welcomed by the left. This is not to paint the Scots as innocent bystanders: from slavery and empire to modern imperialism, Scots have played their part in the cruelty and oppression carried out in the name of capitalist progress. But for us to achieve even a minor tear in the butcher’s apron is something to be welcomed. The end of the British state will be welcomed by the millions who have experienced first hand the meaning of imperial progress.
What does the far left currently say?
Once we discern that the Left must demand the break up of Britain, the problem arises that we simply cannot do it on Salmond’s terms. We must provide an independent position which rejects the politics of austerity and acquiescence to neoliberalism. So what has the Left said so far? On the one hand you have some sections of the far left, whose current position can be boiled down to ‘vote yes with no illusions’. While not incorrect, this is a wholly uninspiring formulation which essentially renders them absent from the political debate and offers no way forward for the working class movement. It does not engage with the workers and youth moving towards a position of support for independence.
Conversely, the primary slogan of other sections of the far left has been to call ‘for an independent, socialist Scotland’. In some respects, this might be seen as an adequate expression of the tasks of the Left in relation to nationalism: on the one hand, we favour the break up of the British state; on the other hand, we want to change society. But this slogan, by itself, is inadequate on several counts.
Firstly, the ‘socialism’ promised here is both too abstract and too concrete to be satisfactory. For most workers the term often seems to cast up images of the betrayal of ‘Old Labour’ values, which, in the popular imagination, seems to be a conflation of the National Health Service (proposed by the Liberal Beveridge), the ILP’s campaign against slum landlords (used to divert working class attention away from the employers), and Tony Benn (whose opposition to British invasions and nukes is in stark contrast to the unstinting support for American imperialism by virtually every ‘Old Labour’ leader).
The Scottish Socialist Republic also stands for the vague notion that Scotland could be reconstructed along the lines of Cuba, a tiny and embattled state capitalist regime which, despite its reformist pretensions, is increasingly brought to heel by the forces of global finance – hardly a progressive vision for Scotland’s future. Paradoxically, this sort of ‘socialism’ stands for limited horizons and a lack of ambition, precisely the opposite of what the Left should aim for in this period. Instead, our conception of socialism must be based on working class revolutionary self-activity – a constituency that remains to be built, almost certainly amongst the working class youth of Scotland, but which is not identical with populist romantic yearnings for Jimmy Reid or James Maxton.
Any referendum on Scottish independence must be – and unquestionably will be – observed through the lens of the global austerity agenda. An anti-austerity consciousness, which has moved beyond grassroots opposition to individual cuts and populist hatred of the banks, is reaching a stage of political maturity in the nations that currently represent the weakest links in the imperialist chain: the Eurozone nations of Spain, Greece, Portugal, and to some extent Ireland. These nations will be forced to confront the question of what demands the Left should make, in the context of a global financial system demanding its pound of flesh from the weakest and most vulnerable elements of society. The question of refusing the debt and breaking with the global financial system is seriously posed in Greece – and elements of the ruling class are talking about this, in hushed tones, as a potential ‘second Lehmann Brothers’.
The first task of socialists across the world is to declare their solidarity with the people of Greece who are organising general strikes and occupations of Syntagma Square against the austerity offensive imposed as payment for the bailout. In Spain, similar occupations have taken place in Madrid and Barcelona for months now – with calls for a ‘real democracy’ as opposed to farcical elections that merely offer alternative brands of neo-liberalism. Both protest movements are informed by the Arab Revolutions, which are the defining element of unity for the recovery of democracy against global austerity.
In this context, we must redefine the meaning of any ‘break up of Britain’ to ask what it is we plan to break with. The basis of the Unionists’ negative campaign is to say that Scotland will be saddled with an unbearable financial burden due to the share of British debt that we will be forced to pay, and this will inevitably lead to yet more cuts. So far, the SNP leadership has failed to provide an answer that goes beyond vague platitudes about North Sea oil and some minor quibbles with the figures. The Left’s answer must be quite clear: we won’t pay. We must argue that an independent Scotland should refuse to foot the bill for bailing out the global financial system – a demand in solidarity with the people of Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. This sets the left against the austerity measures and finance capital; against the British state and its imperialist; and politically independent in our attitude to independence from Alex Salmond’s vision of a neoliberal Scotland.
As for two of the biggest recipients of bailout largesse, RBS and HBoS, our attitude must be quite simple: these banks, the largest elements of Scottish big business, must be taken entirely into public hands and run democratically in the public interest. We must call on Salmond and the SNP to support this position – something they are singularly incapable of doing. Indeed, even during the height of bailout hysteria, Salmond and his cronies were quite willing to condemn the ‘casino capitalism’ of the City of London but would not say a word against his former employers at RBS, undoubtedly among the most foul and disreputable elements of British capitalism.
Making these demands in Scotland should not be seen as opposed to any Britain-wide campaign against austerity: they are part and parcel of it. The task of the Left in Britain is to find demands that call into question Britain’s imperialist role and problematise the British state, both domestically and internationally. We must argue for an independence that opposes NATO, the role of the EU and the anti trade union laws. In short socialist should argue yes to independence and yes to an anti-austerity movement across Scotland and across the globe.
This article was originally published on International Socialist Group Scotland.