For a Yes Vote without Illusions: On the Scottish Independence Referendum

For a Yes Vote without Illusions: On the Scottish Independence Referendum


A decade ago, members of the Socialist Worker Platform within the Scottish Socialist Party (as I was then) had a clear, if unenthusiastic position on Scottish independence. If there was ever a referendum, then we would vote yes and campaign for others to do the same, but largely on the negative grounds of refusing to support the continued existence of the British state, rather than because of any positive benefits we believed independence would bring. There was in fact very little prospect of a referendum at that point: the Thatcher and Major regimes had led to majority support for Scottish devolution and the electoral dominance of the Labour Party, not majority support for Scottish independence and the electoral dominance of the SNP. Apart from SNP voters–and, interestingly, not even all of them–hardly anyone was interested

The only possibility of a referendum being called would be if the SNP, for whom it is a programmatic demand, achieved a majority in the Scottish Parliament. But the particularly undemocratic version of Proportional Representation adopted by the new body (the Single Transferable Vote) was intentionally designed to prevent any party–but specifically the SNP–from gaining a majority of seats. For revolutionaries to actively campaign for independence, in the face of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, growing Islamophobia, and the need to relate to the alter-globalisation movement, would have been at best reveal a distorted sense of priorities and at worst indicate a capitulation to an essentially left-nationalist agenda.

For much of the radical left, not least the dominant currents within the SSP, the capitulation to left-nationalism had already occurred. The ferocity of many of the internal SSP debates of that time (not least those involving the present author) were about supporting independence as a tactic (that is, one which in certain circumstances we would not support) rather than a principle, and for not turning into the main focus for left activity. Above all, revolutionaries were concerned with rejecting the ideological fantasies on which the left-nationalist case for independence was based: that a Scottish nation existed at the time of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, that Scotland was an oppressed nation within the UK, that the Scots were intrinsically more democratic or even socialist in their views than the English, that Scottish secession would necessarily be detrimental for capital, and so on. The arguments against these claims still seem to me to be entirely valid.


Ten years on then, what has changed? The most obvious point is that there is actually going to be a referendum. What had been a distant and not very plausible prospect in 2003 has, since January 2012, been an immediate and urgent reality which requires everyone on the left to make choice. The reasons why the referendum is now on the agenda are themselves interesting. Quite simply, the constitutional fix which was designed to prevent the SNP gaining a majority has failed. A combination of the SNP’s competence at governing, on a mildly social democratic basis, as a minority party between 2007 and 2011, the perception–fuelled by the rise of UKIP but by the growing anti-migrant hysteria more generally–that England is moving right, and a series of disgraceful but not exactly unexpected policy shifts rightwards by the Scottish Labour Party (an end to the ‘something for nothing society’ etc), all contributed to installing the SNP as a majority party in 2011. From that point the referendum was inevitable. So: what now?

We need to begin with what I regard as fundamental principles. Socialists cannot be nationalists for any nation, but especially not their own, even if their nation is oppressed. What they can do is support certain national movements and demands, up to and including secession. The basis for deciding which–if any to support in any given situation is political, which is not to say that it can be determined by the blunt instrument of the ‘oppressed/oppressor’ formula: there are situations where even oppressed nationalities cannot be supported if their objectives are essentially part of a greater imperialist strategy, as was the case for Pan-Slavism in 1848, for Serbia in 1914 and for the Iraqi Kurds today. And Scotland is not, and has never been, an oppressed nation. The political criteria in this context means whether or not support for a national demand, directly or indirectly, strengthens the working-class struggle for socialism. But the working class has to be understood here in a global context, not–as the defenders of ‘the unity of the British working class’ believe–within one country. It would for example, include our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and beyond who have been subjected to the Anglo-American imperialist onslaught. I will return to the issue below, but if, as I believe is the case, we could stop, or even make it more difficult for such attacks to take place, to prevent more needless deaths, would that not in itself make Sottish independence worthwhile? If we are internationalists then ‘unity’ surely needs to extend beyond the English Channel.

Some of the arguments from 10 years ago are still valid. Above all, the question of Britishness. The final stages of the referendum debate was always going to be dominated by imperial fantasies, given the coincidence of the Commonwealth Games and the obscenity of First World War celebrations/Commemorations beginning immediately beforehand. But even if that was not so, can anyone seriously imagine voting for Britain in an atmosphere where every right-winger from Michael Gove to Ron Liddle is declaiming about ‘British values’–in a context of heightened Islamophobia. To pretend that referring to the Chartists, or Suffragettes, or the NHS a la Danny Boyle’s Olympic spectacle is simply to provide left cover for a British nationalist arguments. Left-wing opponents of Scottish independence tend to become incensed when they are themselves accused of nationalism, as though British nationalism was not really a nationalism at all–a venerable conservative position dating at least as far back as Lord Acton’s writings on the subject. Very well, but if they can apparently detach their desire to maintain the British state from British nationalism, why do they assume that supporters of establishing a Scottish state cannot do the same with regard to Scottish nationalism?

However, the issues are not simply ideological. As I suggested above, Scottish secession would at the very least make it more difficult for the UK to play its traditional role as imperial servitor, if only by reducing its practical importance for the USA. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office rightly fears that the UK might be removed as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council–with the power of veto that this position confers–as the result of an Argentinian conspiracy backed by other Latin American states, although one imagines that India might also have good reason to see RUK removed. There would also be difficulties if the SNP were to remain the governing party in an independent Scotland and actually fulfilled its promise to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde. There are virtually no other deep water bases on the UK coastline where these submarines can be docked, and to construct them would involve massive expenditure. The Ministry of Defence is currently wringing its hands about the potential cost of relocating Trident from the Clyde to England, at a likely cost of £35 billion; although the SNP cannot be relied on to carry through the removal of Trident without mass pressure from below. Devolution has changed the context in which socialists in Scotland operate. The British state has already begun to fragment. 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 part of the political logic of Scottish nationalism. That fragmentation brings me to the second set of reasons to vote for independence: the nature of the alternative.

The meaning of devolution has changed over the decades. 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, Police and Crime Commissioners, members of the Welsh and London Assemblies, and the Scottish, European and British Parliaments. It has not 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 it 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–by reliance on the central state 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 that will impose restrictions on local taxation and public spending, and thus maintain the neoliberal order with a supposedly popular mandate: atomized citizens voting for which services they want to close. If the essential integrity of the British state was maintained at the military–diplomatic level, then further devolution, even to the point of outright federalism, would be an acceptable outcome for the majority of the British ruling class, particularly since it would place the responsibility for raising taxation and cutting expenditure on the Scottish government. Without fostering any illusions in the ability of an independent Scotland to remove itself from the pressures of the capitalist world economy, the ability to hold elected politicians directly to account is preferable to the current endless displacement of responsibility. In particular, it would make it more difficult for the SNP to blame Westminster for the decisions that it has taken with regard to imposing the austerity programme.


What then are the left arguments against voting yes? These vary in credibility. The first, and least credible, is that it necessarily involves the embrace of an atavistic identity politics. There are a number of possible responses to this, but perhaps the most obvious is that does not stand up to empirical investigation. There are indeed a very small minority of Blood-and-Soil anti-English nationalists, a white (literally) noise boosted out of all proportion by the cyberspace amplifier. Most Scots who want independence do so for eminently social and economic reasons, without any embrace of nationalist ideology. In fact, there are good socialist (and, indeed, capitalist) reasons for supporting either position which do not depend on possessing any nationalist feelings at all–indeed, as I argued above, it is vital for socialists not to be nationalists. It is possible to support the continued existence of the United Kingdom without being a British Unionist, just as it is possible to support secession from Britain without being a Scottish Nationalist.

A more concrete set of arguments for voting ‘no’ concern the potential weakening of the British working class. These involve varying degrees of intellectual coherence.

One is that the Labour Party will find it more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to form a government without the numeric weight of Scottish votes and MPs: the Scots who vote for independence are condemning their English brothers and sisters to an eternity of Conservative rule. There are a number of responses one could make to this type of political–emotional blackmail, but the most obvious, based on facts available in any reasonably detailed handbook of British electoral statistics, is that it is simply untrue. In General Elections since the Second World War, Labour has only twice–in 1964 and February 1974–relied on the results in Scotland to form a government, and in both cases these governments were subsequently re-elected–in 1966 and October 1974 respectively–without any such reliance. Labour’s great majorities in 1945 and 1997 would have been reduced without Scotland, but not to the point where their ability to enact legislation would have been threatened. In other words, Scottish independence does not create an impossible logistical obstacle to the formation of a future Labour government. If, subsequent to a Scottish secession, Labour was unable to gain an electoral majority in the Remainder of the United Kingdom (RUK), the responsibility would not lie with the departing Caledonians but with that party’s capitulation to neoliberalism, attacks on migrants and youth, and obsessive pursuit of marginal new middle class at the expense of working class voters.

The other argument from class unity is that independence will undermine the British trade-union movement, by preventing cross-border unity. This would indeed be serious if it was an inevitable consequence of secession, but it is not. Workers in Ireland can belong to the same unions as workers in Britain, workers in Canada can belong to the same unions as workers in the USA; there is no reason why workers in Scotland could not belong to the same unions as workers in England and Wales. More importantly, unity is not secured by the constitutional form of the state or by the bureaucratic structures of union organization, but rather by the willingness to show solidarity and take joint collective action, across borders if necessary. Grangemouth is in Scotland, yet the existence of UK-level Unite organization did not prevent the debacle which overwhelmed the workforce last November when the union effectively conceded a pay freeze, attacks on pension levels and a massive reduction in workplace rights.

The third, more serious argument is that the Scottish economy is to a very great extent owned and controlled externally by foreign multinationals or their subsidiaries, while economic policy is determined by financial institutions based in the City of London and the EU bureaucracy based in Brussels. Deprived of the protective power exercised by the British Parliament, an independent Scotland would be at the mercy of these forces. It is true, of course, that an independent Scotland would still be dominated by capital, much of it external in origin; but who, apart from the most hopelessly naive ever imagined otherwise? And even–leaving aside the nationalist implications–the idea that there is something particularly pernicious about ‘foreign’ capital of course depends on how you see the socialist transformation of society being accomplished: workplaces cab be occupied and nationalised regardless of where ownership is based, but behind these arguments is the fabulous, the truly phantasmagorical idea that a future Labour Government will undertake a programme of state capitalist development, attack the City of London and take control of ‘foreign’ owned companies in the UK! Need I suggest that a degree of scepticism may be required here.


There is one final question which the anti-independence left needs to address: why are the overwhelming majority of the ruling class in Britain so opposed to it? Why aren’t they delighted at the prospect of the British labour movement being ‘divided’? Instead the Coalition is implacable about the impossibility of a post-UK monetary union, with the Labour Party leadership dutifully nodding agreement. Companies like Standard Life threaten to relocate to England. The CBI registers as no-supporting body until a revolt of its quangos and Scottish members forced it to retreat into neutrality. Nor are these attitudes restricted to the UK. European Union officials briefing–quite incorrectly, as it happens–that Scotland will not automatically be entitled to EU membership? Political figures from Obama and Li Keqiang to Sweden’s Carl Bilt being wheeled out to express their opposition. Is this because these groups and individuals are confused about, or misrecognise their own interests? Or could it possibly be that they recognise them only too well and they understand than Scottish independence runs contrary to them? Imagine the headlines in the Mail, the Express, the Telegraph and the Times if there is a no vote; then ask yourself why.

The changing positions of The Economist–always the most reliable bellwether of neoliberal ideology–suggest an answer. During the glory days of neoliberal globalization it was forever insouciantly recommending that the Scots be granted independence so that they would be compelled to become more competitive by cutting wages and welfare. Now it runs cover stories bewailing the fate of ‘Skintland’ were its inhabitants to opt for a constitutional option that the magazine had previously regarded as necessary to impose market disciplines. One suspects this change of heart is not prompted by a concern for the Scots, but rather a fear of the consequences for the British state, and consequently for capital invested in Britain, from whatever source. The problems which they foresee are not directly economic, but are related to the capitalist economy through a series of mediations, which as I’ve tried to indicate, are partly to do with the implications of the changes which would result from the former UK’s diminished position in the world.

But there would also be a more direct set of problems. A yes vote would provoke an immediate political crisis in the Coalition and, only slightly further down the line, a genuine crisis in the British state. Much nonsense has been written over the years–quite a lot of it by Tom Nairn–about the supposedly ‘archaic’, ‘pre-modern’ nature of the British state. Actually, the UK is one of the most successful, adaptive bourgeois states in the history of capitalism: its avoidance of revolution since 1688 is one fairly obvious demonstration of these qualities.  But the removal of Scotland–far more central and important to the UK than Ireland ever was–from the structure is not a process which can be met by further adaptation: it’s the end. Apart from anything else, one immediate consequence of Scottish independence would be to place a question mark over the existential viability of Northern Ireland, since the Union has always been with Britain, not England, and–as Ulster Unionists of all varieties are perfectly well aware -– Sinn Fein would almost certainly begin agitation for an all-Irish referendum on reunification. The unravelling would begin almost immediately.

What I’ve tried to suggest here is that Scottish independence would cause major problems for British and consequently, US imperialism. Whatever else it does depends on what socialists do, both before and after the vote. We are not passive in this. The future of an independent Scotland need not depend on what the SNP wants or envisages. This debate has already started in Scotland and is being carried forward by the Radical Independence Campaign, which has achieved the near-miraculous achievement of uniting (most) of the radical left. Whatever the outcome, this has laid down a basis for future struggles, independent or not.

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