The future of the country, perhaps much more, is at stake. Much hangs on the retention of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. The future is in anti-austerity, anti-war unity.
Posts tagged ‘referendum’
‘Settled for a generation’ was the confident, reassured assertion of the metropolitan commentariat after Scotland’s referendum resulted in a bigger than expected margin of defeat for independence. An independent Scotland may be off the agenda in the immediate term but we should remember Zhou En-lai’s famous remark about the effects of the French revolution: ‘too early to tell’. The Scottish referendum campaign and the vote itself may in time be seen as a fizzing, sparkling firework, momentarily illuminating the United Kingdom’s gloomy, sterile political landscape, only to fizzle out, or as the catalyst for a process of fundamental change to that political entity. Time, and whether the opportunities for change presented by the campaign are taken or lost, will tell.
The campaign itself was fantastic: a brilliant burst of creative democratic energy in which the people of Scotland engaged with the issues and discussed animatedly the society and country they wanted to for themselves and their fellow citizens. This was what democracy looks like when the decisions people make actually have consequences, when there is a choice, and when it is energised by the presence of 16 and 17 year olds. The politicians and journalists in the Westminster bubble, initially irritated by what they saw as background noise while they got on with the serious business of politics, ended up scared to death. Politics, in the post Thatcher-Blair era wasn’t meant to be like this. Credit goes not only to the Scottish National Party for the tone and content of the campaign but to the Scottish left, such as Radical Independence and the Scottish peace and anti-nuclear movement. With most of the Scottish-based media, let alone the blatantly biased and increasingly bewildered London media, against independence, the breach was filled by social media and blog-sites such as Bella Caledonia. Whatever the merits of the case for independence, the Yes supporters won the campaign even if they did not win the vote. Theirs’ were the ideas and the vision of what Scotland could look like. Theirs’ were the alternatives to the race-to-the-bottom, free market dystopia imposed by Westminster.
In response, the No campaign was Project Fear: what would be the currency and who would control it? Would the new state automatically gain EU membership or would it have to apply? Wouldn’t that take years? Look what happened to Ireland, and Iceland? Would people in Scotland still be able to listen to the Archers? A drip-drip series of announcements and leaks by banks and multinationals raised the prospect of capital flight, price rises and a currency collapse. This was not a serious attempt to challenge the SNP’s economic perspectives, not all of which would withstand proper scrutiny, or a serious contribution to the national debate, but a purely negative: ‘Well, you haven’t thought of that, now have you’, in order to try to close down discussion. ‘Vote No, it’s not worth the risk’ was the message, but, on surveying the, unequal, over-centralised political set-up that is the UK, one can legitimately reply, ‘the risk of what, exactly’?
The campaign and its aftermath poses problems for both the large Westminster parties. Cameron allowed a referendum without a devo-max option on the ballot paper, clearly assuming that the result would be No. Some political conspiracy theorists say that Cameron was happy to cast Scotland adrift. Tory rule in a rump UK would be assured without Scotland, with its one Tory MP, but this underestimates the prominence of unionism, or UK nationalism in Tory ideology. As the campaign reached its end and the No poll lead narrowed there was a palpable sense of panic in the UK ruling apparatus: would Cameron be the Tory leader who ‘lost’ Scotland? What would happen to Trident missiles? Might these weapons of mass destruction have to be housed nearer to London? Would the house of Windsor require passports to visit the vast tracts of the Highlands they use as a personal playground? The reaction was a commitment, ‘The Vow’, made largely on the hoof with Miliband and Clegg, for increased devolution. Faced with a backlash by Tory MPs against a promise of increased spending for Scotland, Cameron has since attempted to re-invent or re-interpret, for the sake of party advantage, the commitment to deeper devolution into a commitment to restrict voting on England-only issues to English MPs, thus satisfying the bloodlust of the English nationalists of the Tories and, importantly, UKIP and threatening to sabotage a future Labour government dependent on the votes in parliament of Scottish MPs. ‘The Vow’ was starting to unravel by the weekend following the vote with the Liberal Democrats and Labour both scenting a Tory trap.
Labour’s problems are probably deeper. Its alignment to the unionist-nationalist, union-flag waving, Better Together campaign against independence, on top of its embrace of free-market neo-liberalism in the Blair-Brown years meant that Labour was never able to challenge the SNP from the left. Terrified by the movement of Labour voters into the Yes camp but, like every Tory leader since Thatcher, despised in Scotland, Cameron was obliged to turn to Gordon Brown to fight the unionist corner, and Brown duly obliged, his ‘barnstorming’ speech invoking a unionist past more than a socialist future.
The SNP’s political tightrope walk combining lower corporation tax with much of the agenda which Labour should have made its own has left Scottish Labour little more than a defensive, unionist, Blairite husk, unable to understand the country it is in. The referendum campaign did little to rescue its image. A look at a map of the Yes vote should bring the Labour leadership out in a cold sweat: Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire. These have been Labour strongholds for decades but, faced with New Labour’s complicity with the Tories in de-industrialisation and the destruction of public services, the voters there saw the Yes vote as a means of escape; they need never live under a Tory government again. Of course, despite the panicky, last minute insertions into the No campaign of references to ‘social justice’ they took that chance, and why should they not?
Labour’s response was merely to assert that a No vote corresponded with Labour’s ‘values’ and to snipe against ‘nationalism’. British nationalism, however, appears not to trouble these people; what kind of country do they think the UK is? Extraordinarily, No campaigners also accused their opponents of ‘tribalism’. This is in a country where politics is still besmirched by sectarianism; Orange lodges were marching in support of a No vote and the day after the vote, Unionist thugs attacked Yes voters in Glasgow’s George Square. This was the ugly, snarling face of the British nationalism the No voters never mention. It makes a nonsense of the accusations of ‘intimidation’ by ‘Yes’ supporters. Politics is ‘ugly’ when politicians ruin lives, not when the argument becomes raucous. Of course many No voters are not sectarians and have a genuine loathing of Orangeism. However, to rail against SNP’s ‘nationalism’ without acknowledging the malign influence of this form of British nationalism is at best hypocritical and at worst an apology for sectarianism. In the case of the ‘Labour door steppers’ bussed north to support the No vote, they simply don’t know what they are talking about.
It is depressing that it has to be repeated, but this island contains three countries, England, Scotland and Wales which for several hundred years have been bound together, at different times, by conquest, war, empire, Protestantism, common law, the industrial revolution and the welfare state; when the importance of all of these is diminished, all that remains is geography and a common language. Crucial in the development of the Scottish independence movement was been the Tories’ destruction of Scotland’s industrial base: coal, shipbuilding and steel, the use of a Scottish natural resource, North Sea oil, to featherbed the British economy through two recessions, the use of Scotland as the test bed for the hated poll tax and then finally, the refusal of New Labour to break from what were, fundamentally, Tory policies. The people of Scotland were told firstly ‘You voted Labour but you got the Tories’ and then ‘It doesn’t matter which of the Westminster parties you vote for, nothing’s going to change’. In this context the Yes vote in former Labour heartlands makes far more sense than Labour No supporters’ charge that the independence debate is somehow a distraction from ‘class’ politics.
Socialists defend the right of a nation to self-determination. That is not the same, necessarily, as advocating separation. However, in the case of Scotland, the campaign for independence does not simply amount to a desire to exercise the right to re-establish Scotland as an independent state but a reaction not only against the inequality and centralisation which has increased dramatically over the last thirty years, as well as the sclerotic, pre-modern body politic exemplified by the House of Lords and the bizarre electoral system. It is a sign that on the island of Britain, there can be a different kind of society.
So what about Wales? Welsh Labour’s leadership unsurprisingly supported a No vote, with Plaid giving support and solidarity to the Yes campaign. Opinion polls revealed an opposition in Wales to Scottish independence, primarily, presumably, because of fears that in a rump UK Wales would not be so much as dominated as smothered by England, doomed to an eternity of English Tory governments.
It is difficult to see anything positive for Wales in the post referendum new Union, let alone in the status quo. The normally ebullient Rhodri Morgan has been in almost Uriah Heep mode, asking that Wales be rewarded for not having had a war, like Northern Ireland or an independence referendum and oil, like Scotland, by being given a more equitable political and financial settlement within the UK. In other words, he was asking the Tories to treat Wales more generously because it keeps its head down. Carwyn Jones, despite his innate caution and his position as the leader of a unionist party has been forced to come out in opposition to Cameron’s manoeuverings and call for a rebuilding of the union on an equal basis between Wales and Scotland.
Despite Cameron’s promise that Wales be at the ‘centre of the debate’, Tory back-benchers are in revolt about a promise of extra money for Scotland, yet Scotland does considerably better than Wales out of the discredited and unfair Barnett formula. Neither the Tories nor Labour want to scrap the Barnett formula, under which Wales loses out by £300m per year (Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, despite prompting on TV by Andrew Neil, of all people, seemed to have neither any clue that Wales was being short-changed in this way or feel that Labour should do anything about it). There’s a well-founded suspicion that if additional powers for Wales are not forgotten about and subsumed into Cameron’s grubby obsession with appeasing English nationalists, they’ll be separated from any additional funding, leaving Welsh Labour or Labour-dominated governments with the consequences of having powers without the resources to use them effectively.
Dysfunctional and unsustainable as it is, the UK could, with some tweaking here and there, limp on for decades yet: dominated by England, with England in turn dominated and distorted by the financial might of the City of London and the Home Counties. On the other hand, Labour in Wales and Scotland could muster its electoral weight to move away from an instinctive pro-unionism towards in support for a more equal and equitable relationship between the three countries based on whatever degree of separation or unity that the people of those countries want. On the present evidence, the prospects are not promising.
The Scots may have voted ‘No’ but the real loser is Labour in Scotland.
With the last few days of the referendum debates came an awareness that Scotland is awash with social and political enthusiasm, inclusion, participation, in pubs and clubs, community centres and front rooms, in literally hundreds of emergent groupings – Women for, Asians for, Labour for, allsorts for Independence.
As important, probably more so, Scottish cultural life is in bloom. You can’t miss it when you are there: comedy, film, music, literature, theatre, festivals; even the Commonwealth Games set Glasgow alight. In contrast to the prevailing misery and despair in our communities, battered with cuts, abuses, apparent isolation, absence of leadership, the Scots are getting on with it, doing their thing, making the best of life, fighting back. Do not underestimate this. The author, literary figure, Yes campaigner, and self-proclaimed lesbian, Val McDermid, has her name emblazoned across the front of the football strips of Raith Rovers, the Scottish Championship team, this year playing Glasgow Rangers and both Edinburgh sides. If that doesn’t convince you that something rich is going on in Scotland, nothing will.
If you didn’t get it, it is because you didn’t feel it, you haven’t smelt the coffee! Down south, our sensors pick up the rancid odour from London, perhaps tempered by a sniff of fresh air from Syriza, the Indignacios, the Occupy movement, Left Unity or the People’s Assembly. None of this compares with what has happened in Scotland -under the radar, serviced in no small part by social media.
South of the border, the consensus was that we are internationalists, against nationalism and independence, for a united working class against the Tory offensive, although it is fair to say left leaning commentators began to peel off in significant numbers – John Harris, Billy Bragg, Russell Brand, Suzanne Moore, even Owen Jones all but converts from his hitherto ‘principled’ stance.
There is little point in running through the arguments again. Most formed their opinions after a long debate, impossible to miss north of the border, even if much ignored until the last minute, south.
A 45% vote for independence, with no blood on the streets, no riots or strikes, just popular engagement, is a truly extraordinary political event. The impact on Scottish politics, and very nearly on British politics over the past two years has been immense so, here, we will consider three aspects.
- Labour in Scotland, and probably in Britain as a whole, is in very serious trouble.
- ‘Tribalism’, a term reserved exclusively, it seems, not for our relations with the Tories, but for ‘the nationalists’, has allowed us to completely lose the plot. Get over it! Concentrate on the real enemy. The Yes campaign, like it or not, was based on a programme the broad left supports.
- The media’s, Westminster’s and particularly Labour’s inability to even recognise what was happening in Scotland, let alone consider how it might apply in the rest of Britain, is our best indicator yet that the British political system is at a very low ebb. Something has to change. How to do it is another matter; a question more easily answered in Scotland. Listen to the people, not the Westminster bubble and its media.
Yes! Labour is in Trouble
Members are asking, ‘Why still be in the Labour Party?’. In Scotland there are mass defections. Here in Wales the answer is probably
- There is nowhere else to go. Plaid at best has got a socialist current within but that would be even more of a struggle with its mishmash of politics than is Labour, where at least you know where you stand. Their leader, Leanne Wood, still one of the best, is clearly torn by disparate pressures on her;
- There are local reasons for being in Labour and perhaps many feel that the essential principles of Labour, at the roots of the Party, are still achievable; and
- Welsh Labour Grassroots is probably the most organised and coherent left current in Wales, still a tiny force.
In Wales, there is little alternative and perhaps still some hopes for ‘clear red water’; although less and less so it seems. All this may be in Wales. Now apply to Scotland.
There are certainly other places to go. The Yes campaign was a broad front with the SNP, Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party at its core and with former Labour MP Dennis Canavan as its chair. The SNP itself is no longer the bourgeois nationalist party we identified as being to the right of Plaid, even 10 years ago. For reasons we will no doubt discuss, the SNP is now in the mould of a social democratic party, a left social democratic party. The Scottish Greens have leapt to prominence with an excellent rounded programme fronted by their MSP Patrick Harvie, who, like Caroline Lucas in Westminster, has proved to be considerably better with socialist aspirations than most Labour MPs. Then there is the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) that, with the Reid Foundation’s ‘Common Weal’, brought together virtually the whole of the Scottish left from anarchists and the SWP through to Labour for Independence, and now surely bound to establish a united green/left party to succeed and embrace the Scottish Socialists, strangled in infancy. The RIC mobilised an impressive campaign, reaching into increasingly disenfranchised estates, bringing in unregistered, disaffected Labour voters, a whole new layer of young activists, and many not so young, for door to door canvassing and public meetings to fantastic effect. They helped raise the voter turnout to over 84% and engaged with the new layer of young voters. Their first conference two years ago assembled over 800 delegates, last year over 1200. This year, over 7000 have indicated they are going! Sheridan, with his Solidarity grouping, by the way, is now urging an independence vote for the SNP at the next election. There are clearly places for socialists to go.
Policy wise, Labour has lost its core electorate. The Yes vote took the industrial heartlands from Glasgow to Dundee. All 8 Glasgow constituencies voted Yes, to the tune of 53.5% to 46.5%. The politicos left in their droves; the Scottish working class has long since seen through Labour. The traditional party of the workers’ movement was further undermined , tragically, by fronting a campaign, a ‘popular front’, with the utterly discredited Tories and Liberals before a Scottish electorate that has ditched them for over 40 years now.
The No vote was clearly founded on that older, conservative 30% or so that will never vote Labour. One analysis claims that the 16-54 year olds voted YES 54%, NO 46%; aged 55+, YES 34%, NO 66%. (See Murray.) Any suggestion that the No campaign might in some way be deemed progressive is further evidence that Labour is deluding itself. Or us. Better Together campaigned with a neo-liberal economic attack on all fronts, led by Alistair Darling, arch neo-liberal, with CV to prove it, then by belated appearances from Gordon Brown, whose appeal is, at best, seriously tarnished in the public eye other than with die-hard Labour supporters.
BT wound up its campaign by falling over themselves with offers of devo-max, having refused it two years earlier in anticipation of a rout. The campaign and all its publicity was entirely neo-liberal. Even George Galloway, wheeled out to face 7000 Scottish school students at the BBC event in Glasgow’s Hydro as Labour, incredibly, appeared to bottle out; even Galloway drew on the neo liberal claptrap. That was all they had: the currency, pensions, the NHS, oil, even the utterly disingenuous attack on the SNP’s Corporation Tax, were all rooted in a neo-liberal financial back-cloth. Ed Miliband took the same approach at Labour’s September conference, promising a £2.5bn pledge for the NHS, only to be rebuffed by Tory claims that they have increased spending by more than that. Labour started their conference week by promising to cut Child Benefit and ended it by offering uncritical support for more middle east war.
The neo-liberal austerity debate cannot be won against the Tories’ well-honed propaganda machine. It is their game. It may well win the election for them, like scare-mongering and fear probably won them the referendum. The propaganda was fronted for them by Labour. The Scottish working class rejected these politics decades ago and are sick of Labour regurgitating it.
Labour had nothing to say about austerity, only pious words about ‘our NHS’, ‘our welfare state’, ‘we are the party for change’ as if the Blair years never happened. The attack was on the nationalists, nary a word about the common enemy, the Tories and their financial mentors.
The successes of the Yes campaign
The SNP took on the mantle of social democracy. A while ago, they were ‘bourgeois nationalists’, then centrists, wavering left and right, populists, nourished by the abject betrayals of Labour in Scotland and Britain, betrayals spotted early by the Scots, thanks to the Poll Tax campaign. They turned to alternatives – the Scottish Socialists with 6 MSPs before Sheridan and now The Greens, whose role in Yes Scotland, along with the SNP and SSP, has been exemplary. This social movement has had a huge impact on the SNP, now overwhelmingly social democratic in nature and probably more so with its more than doubling in membership in the weeks since the poll. So how did they respond to neo-liberal charges?
I refer you to Alex Salmond’s Arbroath speech 18th August 2014, which takes a wee while to get going but is well worth a listen (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jAWgC6qgXs). Salmond nails the NHS line. An SNP proposal to a constitutional convention in Scotland will be a clause for ‘A public free health service at the point of need’, ‘A right to a National Health Service will be enshrined in the constitution of Scotland’. That’s convincing. Discussing the role of Scotland in the world, Salmond argues for the removal of Trident as a fundamental policy of an independent Scotland. He then presents as sophisticated a line on pro-immigration as you are likely to hear from a mainstream politician. Their first focus for the anti-nuclear money is child-care and social care. This is not the left, this is ‘the nationalists’; better than anything ever heard from Labour. Had Labour taken such stances since the Tories came to power, would the Yes campaign have had the traction it did?
They grapple with the economy but, truth be known, there is much flexibility in economics. What people want to hear is the answer to ‘where do you propose to go with our lives?’. Labour offers a continuation of Tory austerity for the foreseeable future. The Scots are on to them and their future, our future is in jeopardy.
In the course of the referendum campaign, Scots have considered, imagined both individually and in their collectives, a democratic government, a constitution, a set of values based, not least on their experience of Holyrood and decades of Westminster policies and governments they never voted for. That imagination, that culture, is not a million miles away from ours in Wales, once separated from Westminster by ‘clear red water’. In Scotland, imagination converted into an anti-austerity, anti-Tory enthusiasm that not even Plaid, being as tribal as Welsh Labour is, has sought to achieve. The Scottish Yes vote was overwhelmingly anti-austerity and a serious challenge to the ‘Wastemonster’ ways. They may have lost the battle but the war is being won. For a start, about one-third of Labour voters voted Yes. (See Welsh.) These are reasons why Scotland became ready for an independence vote (and why Wales isn’t ready).
Labour’s late entry into the campaign, via Gordon Brown, a hero only to die-hard Labour members, cited our national pride, appealing to history, Labour’s and Scotland’s great role in it – history, empire, sacrifice, the welfare state, the NHS. But just ask Scottish former shipworkers, miners, car-workers. British interest, pride, commitment has long since evaporated. Jobs and a good living in industry, shipbuilding, manufacturing, coal, steel, the industrial revolution, imperialism and the empire, from which we all once benefited, albeit at the expense of others, have all been lost or sacrificed. We don’t even build houses any more. The Welfare State, Pensions, Mail, Telephones, Water and the NHS s are sold, often at knock down prices, to global capitalism. British workers no longer have any practical or emotional ties to our social and economic foundations, many of which Scots gave to the world. What commitment do the Scots, indeed any workers, have to the British state any more?
A Democratic Upheaval and a Danger of Backlash
Without the significant devo-max concessions promised by the Westminster parties, it is inconceivable that independence will go away. Breaking of promises, failure to deliver anything or, worse, more budget cuts and other retribution, will ensure that independence is back on the agenda in very short shrift. Just one day after the referendum, the Tories lurched to the right with a focus on England’s needs, on their right wing, on the West Lothian question, on a democratic structure that can only further marginalise Scotland and Wales.
Coupled with this is seeming delight in offering more powers to Scotland, Wales and the regions. Let them be responsible for ‘fully devolved powers’ over the crumbs the Bullingdon Boys deign to leave on our tables. Then we can be blamed for cuts, as was the charge laid on the SNP over the NHS, the same tactic as they seek to discredit our efforts in Wales. The real threat to we Celts is that the Westminster bubble does go right, and given Labour’s stances this is not an unrealistic possibility – another Tory government, perhaps with Ukip support, a vote to leave the EU and ditch the EU Convention on Human Rights. Where will that leave the Scots? And us?
The first signs of the very serious dangers of the English nationalist/ Ukip right wing trajectory were evident on the streets of Scotland’s two great cities on the last few referendum days. The No vote unleashed The Orange order, always a right wing force disguised with anti-catholic, anti-Irish rhetoric. For the first time in my experience, they took to the streets and revealed their truly fascist style, taking public space, burning the Saltire, attacking Yes voters, immigrants and women. A Yes vote would have stifled them; the No vote, coupled with Ukip and the English trend positively encouraged them.
Where do we go from here?
The spotlight is now on Labour, already being drawn into the Tory regional game and happy to commit to Tory austerity plans, when what is needed is a language of change, something different, a break from the political decadence of Westminster, increasingly mimicking the shameless, gun-toting, fundamentalist, undemocratic, exclusive, segregationist catastrophe that is US politics and media. Scots were seeking change – austerity, Trident, social care, childcare, NHS, democracy. These are the themes to be convincing about. Their instincts and mine are that nothing is going to change. If it doesn’t, Labour is finished in Scotland. The SNP offered change, much of it taken from Labour’s bottom drawer, yet Labour continues to be tribal against ‘the nationalists’, preferring uncritical deals with the Tories, LibDems and their neo-liberal economics. Recognition of this single fact is a first necessary step to Labour’s unlikely salvation.
Labour has been unable to handle the role of the ‘nationalists’ in Scotland or Wales. What chance have the English got? Paradoxically, in the present climate, a Yes vote was the best opportunity socialist voters in Scotland had of ever achieving a Labour Government they could believe in. These same voters now have the prospect of a Tory Ukip government seeking exit from Europe.
What have we learned? What should we be campaigning on? How’s this?
- A clear stance, with our allies, against Tory austerity, for alternatives.
- Stand up for our NHS, for National Insurance, for Social Security and a rights based welfare culture.
- Challenge the war-mongering culture, not least the ease with which vast funding is found for wars.
- Build Homes
- Promote a programme of child-care, social care and pensions.
- Make Wales a beacon of sustainability, a green investment bank, green energy and re-usables industries
- Rail and other public transport back into coordinated public ownership
- Instead of faffing about local government reorganisation and who goes where, first consider, with the people of Wales, the question, “How do we best deliver these policies?”
- Build, certainly with young people, our communications networks and social media.
The great success of the SNP is that they recognised the occasion for this great political cauldron, greater than they dreamed of. We hopefully now will engage with our true allies throughout Wales and beyond against austerity, and wars and … well, let us discuss that with others. The difficulty is to recognise the occasion here in Wales, the event round which such unity can be formed. In the meantime, it will do no harm to promote an inclusive discussion on what sort of policies, a manifesto we aspire to in Wales.
Another Scotland, Another Wales, Another Britain, is Possible.
Gordon Gibson, September 2014
Here, a few references; the first two are bursting with lively debate.
Radical Independence Conference: http://radicalindependence.org/
Bella Caledonia: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/
Brett, Miriam. National Collective. Oh Scottish Labour What Have You Done? http://nationalcollective.com/2014/09/25/oh-scottish-labour-what-have-you-done/
Davies, Nick & Williams, Darren (2009). Clear Red Water: Welsh Devolution and Socialist Politics. Francis Boutle Publisher
Harris, John: Scotland has shown how the left can finally find its purpose http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/25/scotland-politics-left-purpose-snp-green-working-class-women
Jones, Owen. Whatever Scotland decides, the old order is dead and buried: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/07/scotland-decides-union-tories
Murray, Andy. FIFTY-FIVE per cent afflicted by Stockholm Syndrome. http://nicodemusscotticus.wordpress.com/
Welsh , Irvine. This glorious failure could yet be Scotland’s finest hour.
By Neil Davidson
[Celyn is anxious to promote broad debate on the burgeoning topic of independence. The left’s historic caution over the issue has been jolted by Leanne Wood’s election to the leadership of Plaid Cymru and this article from International Socialism, the journal of the Socialist Workers Party, no advocate of independence hitherto and written by an erstwhile sceptic, vividly reflects the strength of the social movement that is afoot. If anything, Davidson’s analysis of the SNP is even more applicable to Plaid, although Labour in Wales is certainly a more complex phenomenon than the Scottish version. Celyn Editors]
David Cameron chose to open 2012 with one of those tactical misjudgements increasingly typical of the overconfident, untested politicians of the coalition. On this occasion the subject was the timing and content of a future referendum on Scottish independence. Under the Scotland Act (1998) all constitutional issues relating to the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland are reserved to Westminster. If the Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh held a consultative referendum on the question of independence it would certainly carry great moral and political weight, at least in Scotland, but in legal terms it would be little more than a gigantic opinion poll. Cameron presumably hoped to outmanoeuvre Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond by offering to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum, but only if the latter accepted that it be held within 18 months and that it consisted of a single question, for or against Scottish independence.
Within days of Cameron making this offer on 8 January the entire episode had backfired. For one thing, he had now conceded that there would definitely be a referendum (which the Tories had not previously accepted). And his blundering attempt to bully Salmond left the SNP leader with the moral advantage, leading to increased levels of support for independence and an influx of new members to the SNP (over 700 in the second week in January) in response. At the time of writing (mid-February) it looks as if Salmond will hold the referendum at the time of his choosing in autumn 2014, although the nature of the question or questions is still unresolved. Salmond is probably the most effective British bourgeois politician of his generation; Cameron, on the other hand, is not, but there is more at play here than their respective qualities. Why was Cameron so insistent on setting conditions for timing and content of the referendum and what attitude should revolutionary socialists take towards it?
The timing issue was a relatively trivial piece of political gamesmanship. The SNP’s 2011 manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary election said that a referendum would be held in the latter half of the parliamentary term (ie after May 2013). Salmond allegedly had plans to arrange it for 24 June 2014, the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, the battle which is usually, if inaccurately, supposed to have secured the independence of the feudal Scottish kingdom from England. Regardless of the truth of this (and it would be untypically crass of Salmond, who never indulges in vulgar anti-English posturing), imposing a deadline would have narrowed the range of dates in which a vote could be held while, if he refused to accept such a timescale, the coalition could pretend that the SNP were running scared of the referendum because they knew there was not a majority for independence.
The attempt to confine the choice to either the status quo or independence results from more fundamental considerations. Cameron has no desire to be responsible for the break-up of Britain: if Scotland seceded from the United Kingdom there would be a real threat that the state could unravel. One immediate consequence would be to place a question mark over the viability of Northern Ireland, since the union has always been with Britain, not England and—as Loyalists of all varieties are well aware—Sinn Fein would almost certainly begin agitation for an all-Irish referendum on reunification. British state managers would find their geopolitical position weakened by the loss of territory involved, leading, for example, to the removal of the rest of the UK (“Little Britain”) from permanent membership of the UN Security Council. There would also be difficulties if the SNP fulfilled its promise to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde, since there are virtually no other deep water bases on the UK coastline where the submarines that carry them can be docked, and to construct them would involve massive expenditure.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the political situation is simply reducible to SNP support for independence and Tory support for the status quo. In fact, the majority of the leadership of both parties would find a third option, so-called “maximum devolution” or “devo max”, preferable, although for different reasons neither can publicly admit it. Devo max is the option overwhelmingly supported by most Scots: it would leave the Scottish Parliament in control of all state functions (including taxation) with the exception of those controlled by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Bank of England (ie in relation to setting interest rates). Most of the SNP leadership recognise that there is not a majority for independence, or at least not one that would currently make the transition from opinion poll to voting booth. Devo max is what they hope to achieve—and more importantly, what they think they can achieve—in the short to medium term.
But although Salmond would prefer three options to be included in the referendum—status quo, devolution max and independence—he cannot openly argue for this without incurring the wrath of the fundamentalist-nationalist wing of his party, for whom anything less than independence is a betrayal. What he seems to want is for enough popular pressure to be expressed through “civil society” (ie the institutions of the Scottish professional and technical-managerial middle classes, plus the Scottish TUC and its constituent trade unions) to make it impossible for the devo max option to be excluded from the ballot paper, but without his direct intervention.
The situation is further complicated, however, by the fact that, in certain circumstances, devo max would probably be acceptable to a majority of Tories if it was politically necessary. Cameron certainly wants to win a vote against independence but, tactically inept though he is, he is also aware that even if this is achieved, the demand for further devolution will be unstoppable, and would probably result in pressure for a subsequent referendum asking Scottish voters to choose between the status quo and devo max. Cameron effectively conceded this in his speech in Edinburgh on 16 February, when he offered further measures of devolution if voters rejected independence. Salmond for tactical reasons affected to believe this was a ruse to lull the Scots into voting for the status quo, after which the promise would be quietly forgotten. It is usually wise to believe the worst about Tory intentions, but in this case Cameron is probably genuine.
If the essential integrity of the British state were maintained at the military-diplomatic level, the latter would be an acceptable outcome, particularly since it would place the responsibility for raising taxation and cutting expenditure on the Scottish government. Indeed, some Tory intellectuals, notably Tim Montgomerie, are arguing that Cameron should seize the opportunity to reconstruct the British constitution on a federal basis—a position which would bring the Tories into harmony with the Liberal Democrats, for whom this is a policy dating back to the days of the original Liberal Party.
Where is the Labour Party in all of this? The leadership has effectively entered a bloc with the Tories and Lib Dems against both independence and the inclusion of a devo max option on the ballot paper. As a demonstration of Labour’s apparently insatiable appetite for self-destruction this is almost on a par with Ed Balls’s recent declaration that a future Labour government would not reverse coalition spending cuts. Most party members, like most Scots, favour devo max, but they now have very limited mechanisms for influencing policy. There have, however, been initiatives by Labour-affiliated unions, above all Unite, to put pressure on the party hierarchy to shift position, and these provide an important forum for debate and intervention.
Although this retreat to outright Unionism will almost certainly be abandoned before the referendum, it is indicative of the sectarianism which Labour has always displayed towards the SNP, even its left, long after it became clear that the “tartan Tories” label had ceased to be applicable. The simple reason is that, of all the mainstream parliamentary parties, the SNP is the only one which has had the possibility of attracting a significant part of Labour’s working class electoral base, and is now beginning to do so—indeed, this was why it was able to form a majority administration in 2011. Labour’s greatest immediate concern in this respect is that the SNP will win Glasgow, the largest Scottish council and one of two which it still controls, in the May 2012 local elections.
The SNP stood a realistic chance of doing so even as things stood, but—in another manifestation of the suicidal tendency mentioned above—the Glasgow Labour Party has split. After voting against Labour proposals to cut services and jobs at a fractious council meeting on 9 February, an increasing number of Labour councillors (eight at the time of writing) have resigned and announced their intention to form a new party, provisionally called “Glasgow Labour”, to contest the May elections. Unfortunately, this split is not based on a principled opposition to budget cuts—their own proposals, like those of the SNP, merely rearranged them—but is a calculated opportunistic response by a group of councillors who had earlier been deselected and who hope to retain their seats by avoiding the opprobrium which will attach to the Labour group. The outcome is to make an SNP victory all the more likely.
Faced with the ongoing self-immolation of the Scottish Labour Party, it may seem redundant to ask why working class people are increasingly turning to the SNP, but there are also what Gramsci called “organic” as well as “contingent” reasons. Like similar social democratic organisations in Europe and Australasia, Labour has moved extraordinarily far to the right, although its attitude to devolution has never been comprehensible in left-right terms. Nevertheless, despite the rightward shift, Labour will remain a social democratic party so long as it at least retains a role in articulating the interests of the trade union bureaucracy, thus holding open the possibility that working class demands—in however mediated a form—might once again influence what it actually does. Since reformism remains the dominant form of consciousness
within the working class, it may appear that nothing much has changed and that this reformism will continue to find expression in the Labour Party as it has for the last hundred years or so. But there is no necessary connection between reformism in general and the specific form taken by Labourism.
A combination of Labour’s own behaviour in office and opposition—above all its acceptance of neoliberalism—together with structural changes in the nature of the working class and the current diminution of trade union membership and consciousness in the private sector, means that for many working class people, Labour does not appear to be fundamentally different from the other parties, but is simply “the least worst” of the choices on offer. In this connection it is important to remember that, although the “typical” member of the organised working class may be a public-sector employee who belongs to a Labour-affiliated union like Unite, the “typical” member of the working class as a whole is a private sector service worker in no union at all. In these circumstances, if a party other than Labour was to appear, offering reforms, sounding as if they actually believe in them, and invoking the social democratic tradition, workers, especially in the latter group, might well consider transferring their vote to it. In England no such party yet exists, and for several historical reasons one is unlikely to appear, but in Scotland it does, in the form of the SNP. It is worth noting that, even in the context of organised workers, over 40 percent of Unite members in Scotland voted for the SNP in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections
In general, the SNP accepts the neoliberal economic agenda—but the point is of limited importance since this is true of all the parties in the Scottish and UK parliaments, with the possible exception of the Greens. But the SNP has also positioned itself as the inheritor of the Scottish social democratic tradition and to make this credible it has adopted three tactics. First, it has retained all the reforms introduced by the previous Lib-Lab coalition, above all free care for the elderly. Second, it has legislated for its own reforms, such as free medical prescriptions. Third, and this is in many ways the most important, it has simply refused to carry through the counter-reforms of the previous Labour and current coalition governments in the areas where it has power: water privatisation, student fees and the fragmentation of the NHS. In many respects it is what the SNP has not done that has gained it support, rather than its relatively limited reform programme.
In these circumstances, revolutionary socialists have to argue four positions. First, only the Scottish people (ie people of whatever origin who actually live in Scotland) should have the right to vote in the referendum. Second, and quite independently of our attitude towards the SNP, the date of the referendum and questions on the ballot paper should be set without interference from the coalition at Westminster. Third, the devo max option should be included on the ballot paper. Fourth, working class people should nevertheless vote for independence. The first three are basic questions of democracy; the fourth perhaps requires further explanation.
Unless we put forward an argument for class politics within the referendum campaign, the alternatives will simply be between nationalist and unionist positions, with the rest of the left tail-ending the former, helping the SNP towards the hegemonic position it seeks in Scottish politics. This means active involvement in the campaign, including participation in bodies such as the cross-party Scottish Independence Convention. Among other things, we need absolute clarity that there is nothing intrinsically beneficial about Scottish independence; otherwise we face the danger of encouraging the popular but wholly false assumption that Scottish people are automatically more left wing than English people, which will in turn encourage dangerous illusions in a Scottish parliamentary road to socialism, or at least to a revived social democracy. The reasons for supporting independence lie elsewhere.
Britain is an imperial state at war. A referendum called while the occupation of Afghanistan is still ongoing, with the Iraqi and Libyan interventions a recent memory, would be inseparable from the arguments against these wars and the British state’s subordinate alliance with the American empire. Scottish secession would at the very least make it more difficult for Britain to play this role, if only by reducing its practical importance for the US. Britain has always been an imperialist state, but socialists have not always have called for support for independence and in other situations they were correct to oppose it, for example in the early 1920s. But devolution has changed the context in which we operate. The British state has already begun to fragment and so to call for its further fragmentation on an anti-war basis, in a situation where a majority opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, means that independence can be supported as a means to an anti-imperialist end, rather than as the political logic of Scottish nationalism.
A related reason is that the campaign for a “no” vote will effectively be asking voters to endorse a conception of Britishness which is built around racism and anti-migrant, anti-Islamic hysteria. No doubt some well-meaning but deluded members of the left will argue that the issue is the unity of the British working class, but we should be clear: for the anti-independence side, this will not be about the Chartists, the Suffragettes, anti-fascism or Saltley Gates; it will be about the virtues of white, Christian, imperial Britannia, at best alloyed with a little official multiculturalism. For socialists to give this “left colouration” to the pro-union cause would be politically fatal.
The unity of workers and the oppressed in the British Isles is not secured by the constitutional form of the state or by the bureaucratic structures of union organisation; but by the willingness to show solidarity and take joint collective action, across borders if necessary. Many workers in Southern Ireland belong to the same unions as workers in Britain; workers in Canada often belong to the same unions as workers in the US: there is no reason why workers in Scotland could not belong to the same unions as workers in the rest of the UK. To argue that this is a decisive reason for opposing independence is either scaremongering or a concealed defence of the British state. Part of the process of maintaining unity is for Scottish workers to support the struggles of English and Welsh workers, and for English and Welsh workers to support the right to self-determination of the Scots.1
What of the alternative? The meaning of devolution has changed over the decades, which is why, as I suggested earlier, the Tories could accept devo max if necessary. Previously, it was a way of meeting popular aspirations without threatening the economic order; now it is also potentially useful for further implanting social neoliberalism. The more politics is emptied of content, the more social neoliberal regimes need to prove that democracy is still meaningful—not, of course, by extending the areas of social life under democratic control, but by multiplying the opportunities for citizen-consumers
to take part in elections for local councillors, mayors, members of the Welsh and London Assemblies, and the Scottish, British and European parliaments.
It has not, of course, reversed the growing public withdrawal from official politics and in that sense has failed as a neoliberal strategy of legitimation. On the other hand, devolution is also part of a neoliberal strategy of delegation, and in this respect has been much more successful. Here responsibility for implementing anti-reforms is spread beyond governing parties and central state apparatuses to elected bodies whose policy options are severely restricted both by statute and—as in the case of local councils—reliance on the Treasury for most of their funding.
In the case of the devolved nations the assumption is that the people most likely to participate in local decision-making will be members of the middle class, who can be expected to behave, en masse, in ways which will impose restrictions on local taxation and public spending, and thus maintain the neoliberal order with a supposedly popular mandate. The distribution of responsibility for decision-making downward to the localities will continue
and gather further momentum following the onset of recession and still greater spending restraints. We too easily dismiss the “Big Society” as a joke, but what it ultimately means is atomised citizens voting for which services they want to close. If nothing else, in a separate state the responsibility could no longer be passed up the line to Westminster, by either the SNP or Labour.
Finally, participation in a campaign for independence will involve revolutionaries working alongside SNP members: what attitude should we take towards them? We approach the Tories and Lib Dems in one way (as open enemies) and Labour in another (as someone we expect to be a friend). Neither approach fits exactly in the case of the SNP, but it would seem more productive to tilt in the latter direction, partly because—unlike the Tories or Lib Dems—there are actual socialists in the SNP, but partly because it claims to be governing in a social democratic model.
In that case our demands should be for the SNP to prove it, in relation to refusing to implement the cuts, remaining opposed to student fees while reining in university principals, getting on with removing Trident from Scottish soil, etc. The contradictions for the SNP are already enormous, but as long as large sections of the working class regard them, however wrongly, as a viable reformist organisation, we should take that as our starting point. It should go without saying that none of this is meant to imply that we should stop working alongside Labour activists: our attitude towards them should continue to be one of fraternal engagement in the unions and campaigns.
All this is conditional upon class struggle—there are circumstances in which working class resistance could reach such a level that the question of independence would be irrelevant or even reactionary; we are far from that stage yet, although we may be at it by the time the referendum takes place, so the position set out here has to be kept under constant review. Nevertheless, we should beware of assuming that high levels of class struggle will result in “normal service being resumed”, with workers returning to Labour. There is no historical warrant for this: in 1974, after six years of the most intense class struggle since 1919, Labour limped into office at Westminster and the SNP received the biggest vote it had ever received (and bigger than it has ever received since) in a UK election. Nor will the Scottish national question simply disappear in a wave of strikes and demonstrations: workers—and the biggest increase in support for independence has been registered among young, unskilled workers—might understandably still see a logic in separating themselves from a Tory-led Westminster government, even when the class struggle is on the rise. Economics and politics are not autonomous from each other, but the mediations between them are deeply complex. Revolutionaries, not least in Scotland, ignore this at their peril.
1: Contrary to what Lenin sometimes suggested, “the right of nations to self-determination” does not necessarily mean the right to separate, it means the right to decide whether or not to separate; if the Scots voted to remain part of the UK they would nevertheless have exercised their right to self-determination.
This article first appeared in the March issue (134) of International Socialism
It’s difficult to know where to begin with David Cameron’s intervention in Scottish democracy. After months of prevarication and brow-beating, we’re now being lectured on democratic matters by failed-Tory grandee, the rejected Lord Michael Forsyth, and by David Cameron, who’s own elected MPS north of Carlisle are outnumbered by Pandas. Curious.
Patrick Wintour writing in the Guardian seems to be re-producing Tory press releases: “Salmond has been talking about holding a referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn (1314)”, a claim which I don’t believe to have any basis whatsover but neatly allows Danny Alexander and Michael Forsyth (Dumb and Dumberer?) to raise the straw man of Bannockburn. I note that the online version of his article is different from the paper version. It states instead: “Tories claim Salmond has been talking about holding a referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn in 2014.”
We are now entering a feeding frenzy of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda.
The Guardian, clearly flailing about, also writes: “The Scots Tory peer Lord Forsyth, who is leading the campaign to preserve the union, said: “The idea that we should decide the fate of the UK on the basis of the date of a medieval battle when we are in the middle of a financial crisis and youth unemployment of one in four would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.””
Is Lord Forsyth leading the campaign? God, let’s hope so.
So what is the basis of Cameron’s intervenion. While today he is claiming he is not interfering, here are the four key areas he is attempting to dicate:
The eligibility for voter registration, both in terms of Scots who live outside Scotland and the age (the Scottish Govt has suggested that the poll be open to anyone over 16).
That the Electoral Commission oversees the election.
The poll’s legality.
That’s not really interfering is it?
“There is no point in mucking about any longer. As things stand, Alex Salmond cannot be allowed to manipulate this referendum the way he wants. Full stop,” said one senior minister last night.
Cameron said on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday: “Let’s not drift apart. I think he [Alex Salmond] knows the Scottish people at heart do not want a full separation and so he is trying to create a situation where that bubbles up and happens.”
It’s the old ‘independence by the back door trick again’ isn’t it.
Oops I’ve just established a new state!
So what should and will be the independence movement’s response? I suggest it should be succinct and direct and need not contain more than two words. Anything else would ‘create confusion and uncertainty’.
My view is that sooner rather than later would be better too.