Scotland after the referendum: Nationalism or socialism?

Scotland after the referendum: Nationalism or socialism?

‘Yorkshire First and movements like it aim to create a more participatory and inclusive political culture. They are, in essence, about social justice.’

Reuben Ross, Scottish Left Project: The People Demand[1]

Class has all but disappeared from the Left’s vocabulary in Scotland. We are no longer the international working class, but the People of Scotland. And the People Demand, as the subtitle of the Scottish Left Project (SLP) goes. What do we demand? ‘Radical social change’ and ‘a new citizens’ politics’ according to the SLP’s opening statement.[2] These demands, where they are elucidated, consist of social democratic reforms which are linked to the campaign for independence. Indeed, support for independence is now taken as given on the Scottish Left. The 45 – that is the 45% who voted ‘yes’ – are the vanguard of a new social movement, sweeping away and absorbing the reactionary, uninformed, scared (and so on) 55% who squandered the once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically transform Scotland with nothing more than a cross on a ballot paper. The 45 are the People of Scotland. Unfortunately, the People of Scotland include Brian Souter, George Matheson, Alex Salmond et al, not the socialists who argued against nationalism or the majority of the working class who did not vote for independence.[3] While much of the Left have distanced themselves from the language of the 45 movement,[4] they have thoroughly embraced its logic. The aim is now to expand the 45, constituting a greater People of Scotland, and continue the onward march to independence.

What we have in Scotland then is at once very familiar and completely new. The familiar comes in the form of left-reformism: of anti-austerity but not anti-capitalism, of no serious discussion of socialism as an alternative system. The new comes in the form of a wholesale collapse into nationalism and the abandonment of the idea that class is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of capitalist society. This would have been unthinkable twenty years ago and has necessitated a desperate and opportunistic volte face on the part of several socialist organisations and individuals.

Like Left Unity, the SLP are ‘doing politics differently.’ Which is to say, doing politics the same way as ever but with more social media and less principles. And so in the SLP we have, like the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) before, an organisation whose leadership is self-selected, unaccountable, and obscure. The 3000-strong November 2014 RIC rally in Glasgow culminated in the unveiling of the five-point ‘Peoples’ Vow’ presented by Cat Boyd and Alan Bissett.[5] This did not arise from discussions during the day, or from debate among members – as with the SLP, you could ‘get involved’ with local RIC groups but it was never something you could formally be a member of; that would entail the inconvenience of voting rights and suchlike – but was delivered from on high to the expectant masses. And then quietly dropped, never to be seen again. One wonders if the same fate awaits the SLP, given that in one workshop during the conference when participants were asked to raise their hands if they were members of the SNP around 80% did so.

What is striking about the aftermath of the referendum is that it became clear, almost immediately, just how well the SNP had played the Left in Scotland. In the days following September 18, the SNP gained tens of thousands of members, becoming the third largest party in Britain. In contrast the Scottish Socialist Party claimed two thousand new members – although only a handful of these recruits have been in evidence at meetings and rallies. The SLP waited a full month after the referendum before launching a website which promised a ‘tour’ in 2015 and has since published articles in a similar vein to the offerings of the now dissolved International Socialist Group (Scotland) who last made a public statement two days before the SLP was launched. Meanwhile, RIC continued to build for their November conference, achieving an impressive turnout, but followed this with nothing – the website is now seldom updated and the only subsequent event was a small meeting on fracking in January; although local groups are still active to varying degrees. It should not come as a surprise that the big winners from a campaign where the Left reduced all social progress to voting ‘yes’ are the SNP, the only party capable of delivering independence. Take, for example, RIC’s ‘Five Guarantees’ – a leaflet which promised 200,000 new jobs, free childcare, and an increased minimum wage in the event of a ‘yes’ vote.[6] Why build a movement against austerity or a socialist opposition when these things are guaranteed by independence? That there was no evidence to suggest any of these ‘guarantees’ would be forthcoming made this a particularly shameful deception aimed at desperate workers understandably looking for an escape from austerity.

The prospect of an independent Scotland is looking bleak. With oil now sitting below $50 a barrel, the fantasy of a Norwegian-style welfare state funded by the black gold under the North Sea is clearly preposterous. Yet the SNP continue to dominate Scottish politics with numerous polls suggesting they could reduce Scottish Labour to a rump in the forthcoming elections. Rather than viewing the thoroughly petty-bourgeois nationalists with the contempt and disdain they deserve, the Left has welcomed this development with open arms. One-time socialist poster boy, Tommy Sheridan, has been particularly effusive in his support of the SNP and has completed his descent into out-and-out nationalism with his participation in the ridiculous ‘Clan Alba’ project.[7] The strategy of those around RIC and the SLP is clear: make way for the SNP in 2015, by campaigning against the ‘Red Tories’ without offering an alternative; launch a new party prior to the 2016 Holyrood elections, picking up a handful of seats; before replacing Scottish Labour as the official opposition to the SNP in 2020 and securing another referendum in the majority nationalist parliament. Meanwhile, criticism of the SNP is kept to a minimum and all social demands – from anti-austerity and anti-war campaigns to Palestine solidarity – continue to be linked to the struggle for Scottish independence. RIC have even gone so far as to propose a demonstration against Labour left-winger and Greece Solidarity Campaign patron, Katy Clark MP, in her Ayrshire constituency (presumably in favour of the SNP’s Patricia Gibson who, when standing in 2010 against Clark, personally wrote to local Conservative Party members asking for their support after the Tory candidate had been expelled[8]), although this was recently abandoned. All of this demonstrates that large sections of the Left in Scotland have sidelined socialism in favour of Scottish independence.

And then there is the question of Syriza. Again like Left Unity, most of the Scottish Left around RIC and the SLP are desperate to paint themselves as the natural Syriza equivalent in Scotland. In light of recent developments, this is becoming problematic. Syriza in government are quickly becoming another party of austerity – the leadership’s strategy lies in tatters and the Troika, broken into its constituent parts but alive and well, have resisted any significant concessions – and this puts their advocates in Scotland and Britain in an uncomfortable position. How can the Syriza model be the way forward for the Left here if it clearly results in defeat? Serious political questions need to be answered as to the limitations of reformist politics and the consequences of cross-class collaboration of the sort advocated by RIC in the form of the broad-based independence campaign.

The situation in Greece points to further problems for the Left in Scotland. The refusal of RIC to accept an offer by the Campaign for Socialism to arrange for the aforementioned Greece Solidarity Campaign patron Katy Clark to speak at their February 18 Greece solidarity demonstration in Edinburgh reveals an entrenched hostility to any group or campaign which seeks to unite the British working class under one banner. Evidence of this abounds, both north and south of the border, from the refusal of the STUC to use the ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’ slogan on last year’s October 18 demonstration in Glasgow[9] to the behaviour of the Left Unity leadership towards Scottish members, who clearly would prefer to partner with RIC/SLP and rather Left Unity did not exist in Scotland – a tale too long and gruesome to go in to here.[10] What we have, in the end, is a form of nationalist prefiguration, whereby all campaigns and organisations on the Left must be Scottish – and most definitely not British – presumably in anticipation of the inevitable day of independence. This has a suffocating effect on the Left and is a real barrier to building the greatest possible unity of the working class across Britain and indeed Europe. It also, as previously mentioned, subsumes any campaign or movement under the project of independence, a project where socialist demands are all too often put to one side.

There is, however, hope. Away from the Left, there is increasingly the understanding that an independent Scotland is not viable or desirable.[11] The SNP have, to a considerable extent, shifted their focus away from independence to securing the promised additional powers for the Scottish parliament. In this they are supported by all the major parties and most of the Left. How this represents a step forward for the working class is unclear. For example, demanding the power to vary corporation tax will almost certainly result in it being reduced, as per the SNP’s stated policy. But, for the Left these additional powers are simply a stepping stone to full independence and so are welcomed uncritically. It is also likely that the SNP’s credibility as a ‘left of Labour’ party will be sorely tested in the coming period. SNP councils across Scotland have already begun passing savage austerity budgets – many of the cuts were back-loaded in Scotland and delayed until after the referendum, for obvious political reasons – and the Scottish Government’s position of blaming everything on Westminster without standing up to the cuts themselves is becoming less and less credible. Labour too have been no strangers to wielding the axe and the party did themselves no favours at all by electing Jim Murphy leader rather than Neil Findlay, the Labour Left’s candidate. Without having any illusions in the Labour Party, it is likely that with Findlay in charge Labour would have moved significantly leftwards and would have been well placed to challenge the nationalist consensus on the Left. By choosing Murphy, particularly on the back of a disastrous coalition with the Conservatives in the Better Together campaign, Labour have ensured their demise in Scotland. The consequence of all of this is both reformism and nationalism are being exposed to the working class as dead ends.

With the current oil prices set to continue for the foreseeable future, along with the SNP’s continued support for TTIP and a reduced corporation tax, it is clear that the vision of a social democratic independent Scotland is at best utopian and at worst a lie. The Left have made no great advances, contrary to hyperbolic reports, as both their Syriza inspired reformist character and attachment to nationalism have been revealed as bankrupt. This is reflected in their slump in activity following last year’s RIC conference as they ultimately have nowhere to go. The alternative, of course, is to channel the frustration with nationalism and reformism into building the maximum unity of the working class possible in a common socialist organisation orientated around three key principles: against austerity, against capitalism, for international socialism. It is often frustrating reading this sort of article – a series of criticisms of the current Left followed by the predictable call for unity around an explicitly socialist programme. But there are alternatives out there. Left Unity in Scotland is attempting to build an open, democratic, socialist organisation and has approached TUSC to stand a Left Unity – Trade Unionists and Socialists candidate in Edinburgh North and Leith. South of the border, groups like the Independent Socialist Network are working within Left Unity and TUSC advocating a united mass socialist party. We are a minority but the Left’s politics de jour are patently failing, where they have not already failed. We cannot despair, despite being up against the politics represented in this article’s opening quote. We have to present an anti-capitalist, democratic, internationalist socialist alternative because, at least in Scotland, it often seems like no one else will.

[1]           http://thepeopledemand.org/?p=845

[2]           In fairness, the phrase ‘socialist challenge’ appears in the statement on two occasions to describe the electoral formation which will emerge from the project, but the politics – witness the opening quote – are a long way from what most would consider to be socialist.

[3]           Contrary to the claims of the Left-Nationalists, unless you define working class in sociological terms – as some kind of marginalised group – rather than all those who are forced to sell their labour power in order to live, you have to accept that the majority of the working class in Scotland either voted ‘no’ or did not vote at all. To claim otherwise is to claim that the working class are in a minority in Scotland – a troubling concession to the post-Thatcher ‘we are all middle class now’ mantra.

[4]           Although the SLP’s opening statement does refer to two spirits of 45: ‘the vast grassroots movement that inspired 45% of the population to vote Yes for social justice and equality in an independent Scotland; and the year of 1945, when the generation that had defeated fascism created the National Health Service, even while public debt was at its highest ever.’ To their credit, there is no mention of the spirit of 1745 but the connotations are unfortunate. And don’t mention the fact that over 40% of the Scottish electorate voted Unionist (the Tory’s precursor in Scotland) in 1945, increasing to 50% in 1955.

[5]           http://radicalindependence.org/2014/11/23/the-peoplesvow/

[6]           https://socialismfirst.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/the-guarantees-of-the-radical-independence-campaign/

[7]           http://youtu.be/JhLF9KILT9c

[8]           http://www.the3towns.today/#!SNP-select-Patricia-Gibson-for-North-Ayrshire-Arran/cjds/0F6E1C4B-5D93-43AE-9C40-4D4BC93B3E7A

[9]           Preferring instead the depressingly vague, uninspiring ‘A Just Scotland’. The TUC slogan was poor but at least it contained a concrete demand.

[10]         For example, the recent Scottish Left Unity aggregate called by the National Council saw Scottish members being repeatedly asked to justify the organisation’s existence in Scotland, and at one point the majority of members present being invited to leave the organisation for being revolutionary socialists.

[11]         One only has to look at Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland etc. to realise that it is simply not true that ‘things can’t get any worse’ – the words of RIC’s Jonathan Shafi and oft repeated throughout the referendum campaign (http://bostonreview.net/world/stephen-phelan-scotland-independence-referendum).

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