In the run-up to the vote on independence, Colm Breathnach reported from Scotland in Issue 55 (March 2014).
In November 2013, the Radical Independence Conference, based on a grassroots left-wing campaign for a Yes vote in 2014’s Scottish independence referendum, brought together over a thousand delegates. When you strip away the paid lackeys and lobbyists, there are few political organisations in Britain which could muster such a number. So why has a conference and campaign centred on Scottish independence brought together almost the whole of the Scottish radical left, as well as hundreds of people who don’t belong to left organisations? Why are local RIC sections beginning to shape up as real campaigning groups where activists are working together in a non-sectarian way? Primarily because there is a consensus that independence could mean much more for Scotland’s people than a saltire replacing the Union Jack and that it will have major implications for the future of the British state.
Independence: a beginning not an end
A socialist approach to self-determination is based on two principles: the democratic right of a population who identify with a certain national identity (since nations, of course, are social/cultural constructs, not essential/racial ones) to decide on the political structure that they wish to reside in. This does not mean that socialists always support the creation of independent states, autonomous regions, etc. but they do support the right of people to democratically decide on this. However, a second principle comes into play because, while socialists support the right to self-determination, they must balance this with the interests of the working class. So questions must be asked about how this will affect the immediate interests of the working class and the terrain on which the struggle for the emancipation of that class occurs.
So how would a victory for the Yes side advance the interests of the working class? Of course, the day after a Yes vote we would still have the same exploitative, patriarchal capitalist society that we had the day before. What’s more, we would find ourselves in what Allan Armstrong has accurately called the Scottish Free State: tied to the UK by the monarchy, sterling and NATO membership. However, no one on the pro-independence left claims that we will immediately enter some Scottish socialist nirvana, but simply that the tilt of the field of struggle will be more to the advantage of the working class.
Firstly the political terrain would be profoundly different. Two slightly social democratic parties, Labour and the Scottish National Party, would be competing, in a state where the popular pole of gravity is well to the left of the ‘Rest of the UK’, to be more ‘welfarist’ than the other, especially if they were battered by pressure from below. Anyone who doubts the impact of the political culture on Scottish politics should simply look at the difference between the SNP and Westminster parties on immigration and refugees. The SNP openly advocates greater immigration to Scotland, while Labour and the Tories compete to be seen as ‘tough on’ immigration. Scotland is not immune to racism, but the dominant political culture renders such right-wing populism less effective. The steady moves to privatise the NHS in England have not been mirrored in Scotland, again largely because of the SNP’s need to appear to be a party of the welfare state and thereby sometimes having to act as such.
Independence would also deprive the establishment politicians of the ability to squeal: “It wasnae me, it was the big man frae London” as an excuse for implementing neo-liberal policies. In addition there would no longer be the prospect of major right-wing projects being imposed from London, and the ability to do so from Edinburgh would be restrained by the electoral challenges posed for those who wished to do so. The prospects of the creation of a serious radical left force would have a much bigger impact in an independent state, forcing the big two to go further than they would like to. The electoral system will guarantee that any half-decent left force will have significant representation in parliament, but more importantly, such a movement will have far more weight in an independent state. So the battle to defend and advance the immediate interests of the working class would face much more conducive circumstances.
Secondly, the future institutional structure of the new state would immediately become a key battleground for both defending and advancing the interests of the working class. Regardless of Salmond’s assurances that all will remain as is, a struggle over the shape of the institutions of the independent state will immediately open up. A written constitution will differentiate the new state from the UK, and all the anti-democratic laws and traditions of the British state will be up for grabs. Of course, a more democratic state will not be less capitalist than the centralised, overly bureaucratic, monarcho-parliamentary UK, but it will provide more room for manoeuvre in the class struggle. It’s quite easy, for example, to envisage that the highly restrictive trade union laws of the Thatcher era could be undone. Revolutionary socialists have always been to the forefront in fighting for democratic rights and institutions, even within the confines of bourgeois democracy, because such gains, though quite compatible with capitalism, give the workers much greater room for manoeuvre in their struggle to overthrow capitalism. This is not a case of postponing the struggle for socialism until you have moved through a succession of stages, but taking the opportunity to shape the terrain as you engage in the struggle for socialism.
Freed from the overwhelming power of the British state, fighting now on the firmer ground of an independent democratic state, the prospects of a radical socialist transformation would be enhanced in the context of regional and international developments. Even in the short term, the goal of a socialist republic would begin to look far less fanciful: major battles for the public and democratic control of Scotland’s energy resources, including not only oil and gas but also renewables, would no longer be hamstrung by the direct intervention of the British state. Socialists could now be in a much better position to challenge the retreat into simply defending the welfare state that has been the hallmark of much of the British left, as ‘welfarism’ would define the political consensus. There would be no excuse for failing to strike out and fight for workers’ control, for democratic planning, for real equality for all regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexuality.
The class politics of the referendum should alert us to the radical potential of independence. A small section of the capitalist class in Scotland favour independence on the basis that it will increase profitability for this nascent national bourgeoisie, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of capitalists favour the No side and have poured money into the unionist Better Together campaign is proof enough of where the interests of that class lie. The working class are the key to winning a victory in the referendum. Opinion polls have consistently shown that those lower down the socio-economic ladder (and the younger) are more likely to favour independence. The question is, can this trend be strengthened? Here is where RIC could play a decisive role. During summer 2013 RIC began a voter registration campaign in some of the poorer urban working class communities where voter turnout is traditionally low, but the polls show that people are more likely to vote Yes if they do turn out. Such communities do not, however, constitute the majority of the working class, and RIC will have to connect with a broader layer of the class via the trade union movement, the struggles of public sector workers, etc.
Despite the half-hearted nature of Salmond’s version of independence, it would spell the beginning of the end of the British state and open up new possibilities for social transformation throughout these islands. This has serious implications for the north of Ireland. Given the strong ties of the Protestant working class in the north with Scotland, it could contribute to a significant change in that section of the class. It is possible that Scottish independence would precipitate a crisis of identity amongst northern Protestants. This is all the more likely given a process of unravelling in the ‘Rest of the UK’ entity. How long before the Welsh Assembly demands more powers or the Welsh people begin to baulk at their subordinate position? What about the impact on the north of England if people see the last remnants of the welfare state being dismantled while, in close proximity, Scotland heads in a different direction? Such a process could lead to a breakdown in traditional allegiances amongst Protestant workers, leading to a greater receptivity for socialist ideas in that community and the development of an orientation towards an all-Ireland perspective.
A Yes vote will also have serious global implications. It will greatly reduce the power of the British state as the USA’s key ally and as an international ‘player’. What will be the status of the rump UK in the UN? Will it maintain its Security Council membership? Will it be able to play the key role it did in imperialist adventures such as the Iraq war? One thing for certain is that independence will contribute to the reduction of influence. As a bonus card, it will also pose a threat to another key state in the EU, Spain, whose right-wing prime minister has strongly hinted at blocking an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU, fearful that a Yes victory will give added impetus to Catalan and Basque demands for independence, with a similar referendum in the offing in Catalonia.
The consequences of a No vote
At the moment opinion polls consistently point to a commanding lead for the No side. Not surprising, given that almost all the mainstream media, the majority of the capitalist class and the trade union bureaucracy have sided with the No campaign, leading to a constant stream of well-funded propaganda washing over the public. Now all this could change overnight, and the Yes campaign seems to be stronger on the ground, but it is important to consider the consequences of a No victory.
While the No side has targeted voters’ fear of the unknown, one thing is certain: a No victory will not simply mean maintenance of the status quo. The attacks on workers’ wages and conditions, the dismantling of the welfare state, the increasing militarisation/ securitisation of society and the constant pandering to anti-immigrant racism will accelerate as the ConDem Government in London act with the confidence that the most proximate threat to the British state has been seen off. They will quickly go in for the kill to reduce the funding available for Scotland and to impose further cuts. And tragically, the greatest security threat to the population of Scotland, the nuclear weapons base at Faslane, will now be confirmed rather than removed. A defeat will also strengthen Scottish Labour’s shift to the right, from the traditional thuggish but vaguely social democratic boss politics that has dominated for long to a more technocratic but also more rightist direction, encapsulated by the ineffectual leadership of Johann Lamont, who recently echoed vicious Tory rhetoric with her very own Thatcherite reference to “something for nothing” culture in Scotland.
Yes, Yes Plus, and beyond
The official Yes campaign is dominated by the SNP and based on the ‘nothing will change’ principle. It argues for a Scotland that keeps the monarchy and sterling, combined with vague assertions that this will be combined with Norwegian oil-based social democracy. The tight link with the SNP only helps to confuse the issue: it leads many floating voters to see a Yes vote as a vote for Salmond and his party. The mistaken strategy of some socialists which, initially confining themselves to this official campaign, was largely based on a selfish calculation that this seal of approval would give them advantage over the rest of the left, has now been quietly dropped as they have seen the growth and energy of the Radical Independence Campaign. The failure of that ‘embedded socialists’ strategy has been highlighted by the success of the RIC in uniting a broad layer of socialist, green and social movement activists in support of a more radical vision of independent Scotland. RIC has not operated in direct opposition to the Yes campaign, and indeed has co-operated on practical measures, but it has effectively become the Yes Plus campaign, with increasing signs that it is making a serious impact in the referendum debate. RIC is important because it takes the campaign for independence out of the SNP’s control, it raises questions and poses solutions that are far to the left of the official campaign, and it unites a wide swathe of activists in a campaign that could play a key role in the emergence of a new left movement post-referendum.
Yet it’s important to keep this development in perspective. RIC is a not a socialist movement, still less a revolutionary one, although many of those involved fit those categories. Revolutionary socialists are joined by a variety of left reformists, including members of the Green Party, current and former SNPers, and even a scattering of ex-Labour Party members. The politics advocated by the majority are certainly well to the left of anything else on offer in Scotland, but it is fair to characterise much of it as broadly social democratic in the old sense of that word: you will hear a lot of talk about protecting and advancing the welfare state and public ownership, but not much about workers’ control! This poses a challenge for revolutionary socialists in RIC. There is a balance between insisting that a broad campaign adopt a revolutionary socialist programme, thereby reducing it to a bickering bag of mini-groups, and the opposite mistake of socialists hiding their light under a bushel so as not to frighten the children. The key point with RIC is that, despite certain organisational problems, in comparison to other broad campaigns it has been an open forum for debate and discussion as well as a vehicle for action, so that socialists have been able to articulate the arguments for a socialist Scotland and influence the shape of the campaign. It is not a revolutionary campaign, but it is a campaign where revolutionaries can have a decisive impact and argue their case openly.
It should not be forgotten that a few short years ago the left in Scotland was hopelessly divided and weakened by the bitter split in the Scottish Socialist Party caused by the spectacular fall of self-indulgent sexist Tommy Sheridan and his travelling circus of opportunistic camp-followers and misguided fans. This one-man-induced freefall was unfortunately compounded by the failure of many of Sheridan’s opponents to face up to the lessons of this terrible setback: failure to face up to the perennial reliance on ‘charismatic’ leaders, failure to understand that this was the price of prioritising short-term electoral gain, failure to face up to sexism not in theory but when practised by leading members. Yet the Sheridan split has all but faded, with the culprit himself and his diminishing band of followers playing no role in RIC. Most of his leading opponents, to their credit, have done what so many socialists fail to do: put the interests of the working class before their own or their organisations’ interests by taking a low-profile but positive role in the campaign. In fact, many of those who are at the heart of the campaign are young people who were too young to play any significant part in the Sheridan affair or not involved in any central way. This is not to idealise RIC—there are still problems—but the situation is fluid, and most of the problems are ‘growing pains’ rather than deliberate manipulation.
Contrary to the view expressed by some on the left, the referendum is not just an inter-capitalist dispute that we can ignore while we wait for the magical millennium when the pure armies of labour and capital line up and fight to the death on the day of judgement. Socialists who refuse to enter combat, waiting to line up on the perfect battlefield, usually find that the real messy battles of life have passed them by. Revolutionaries can have no illusions when fighting on democratic questions: they do not deliver the emancipation of the working class, nor are they stages which must be passed through while ‘labour must wait’. Rather, they are part of the long and complex process of emancipation, a process that we must engage in at every twist and turn, unapologetically raising the banner of the liberation of the class while we engage in those struggles. It is with that banner firmly raised that we enter the fray in the struggle for the independence of Scotland.