For a No Vote without Illusions: On the Scottish Independence Referendum

For a No Vote without Illusions: On the Scottish Independence Referendum

The working class in Britain has been created in over two hundred years of common struggle against the British capitalist class and the British capitalist state. The advances that have been made by the working class such as the creation of the trade unions and the labour movement, the right to vote, collective bargaining, old age pensions, the welfare state reforms of 1945, the creation of the NHS etc have been achieved because of the joint struggle of workers throughout Britain for social improvement. In their struggle against their existence as abstract labour, workers in Britain have come together to create British wide organisations in order to pursue their fight.

The Chartists, the Trade Unions, the Independent labour party, the labour party, the communist party and myriad forms of socialist organisations have been formed on a British wide basis in order to combat the ruling class and its attempt to divide workers and keep them subordinate to the rule of Capital. It has been widely understood by workers in Britain, whither living in England, Scotland, or Wales, that they have common enemy in the British ruling class. For generations it has been the common sense of the socialist left that the British working class must come together and pose a political alternative to the parties of the capitalist establishment if the working class is to move forward.

Only following the rise of the SNP in the sixties and seventies, after the discovery of oil off the coast of Scotland, and the defeats suffered by the labour movement in the 80s and 90s (the defeat of the miners and the defeat of the Bennite movement in the labour party) has a significant section of the left in Scotland moved to champion Scottish independence as the way forward for workers in Scotland. This represents a decisive break from socialist politics in that the struggle to reinvigorate and politically rearm the British labour movement has been abandoned in favour of the quest for Scottish independence. For these erstwhile socialists, the Scottish people, and not the British working class, have now become the agent for progressive change. In essence these “socialists” have rejected the existence of any socialist potential in the British labour movement or the British working class and have instead become salespeople for the independence project led by the SNP and supported by a significant section of the Scottish establishment. By doing so they have placed themselves in the vanguard of the Scottish nationalist attempt to divide the British working class along national lines.

It should be obvious that any such divide will weaken the potential for a working class fight back against austerity. Workers in Scotland are no longer urged to look to their comrades south of the border for solidarity and a common project to win pro working class reforms but instead urged to look to their fellow Scots in a national movement for Scottish independence. However the fact that the independence movement is funded and supported by a significant section of the Scottish establishment such as billionaire Brian Souter of Stage Coach and billionaire Jim McColl of Clyde Blowers and ex Royal bank of Scotland chair George Mathewson etc should be a indication and a warning that the Scottish independence movement is no friend of the Scottish working class.

Leftist advocates of Scottish independence usually deny or downplay the likelihood that the establishment of an independent Scottish state will led to the break up or the weakening of the British working class. But is it not obvious that the ending of the British labour movement’s project of establishing a government answerable to the working class of Britain (a project that the forces of New labour have done much to undermine but cannot remove entirely or the labour movement would cease to be a labour movement) in favour of a project of uniting with a section of the Scottish establishment to establish a new capitalist state breaks the historic unity of the British working class movement?

As socialists should understand the highest form of unity of the working class is achieved in a united socialist party fighting to transcend capitalism. However many on the left in Scotland now promote the creation of a Scottish only left party and reject and campaign against the call for a British wide socialist party. This itself is a sign of a developing split in the working class movement along national lines. Is it not also obvious that trade unions links and active solidarity will also be weakened if not broken entirely by the establishment of a new state which will be in direct competition with rUK in respect of jobs and investment?

What is the SNP independence project?

It is widely understood and accepted that Scotland does not suffer national oppression. Even the most militant Scottish nationalist would find it difficult to give any examples of national discrimination against Scots in Britain. Indeed in terms of public expenditure the Barnett formula has ensured higher public spending per head in Scotland than in the rest of Britain. Since there is no national oppression there is no history of popular or working class struggles around the national question. No strikes, no mass demos, no riots, no martyred dead fighting for national freedom etc. Of course this is in stark contrast with Ireland where national oppression did (and does) exist and the struggles against it form the background to the formation of the Irish labour movement. The fracturing of the Irish working class was successfully achieved by British imperialism permitting the fracturing of abstract labour along religious lines through the state guaranteeing jobs and housing etc to protestant workers in preference to catholic workers. Such a political inspired fracturing of the working class movement in Britain has thankfully not occurred and there is no systematic discrimination against Scots, Welsh or English workers anywhere in Britain. The lack of national antagonism between Scots, English, and Welsh workers is a big plus for the British labour movement and something that all socialists should defend.

Support for the SNP started to take off in the late 60s with the discovery of significant oil deposits off the Scottish coast. Sections of the Scottish establishment started to view Scottish independence as a potentially viable alternative to a declining and strike ridden Britain. “It is Scotland’s Oil” was the nationalist battle cry. It was obvious from the get go that the “struggle” for Scottish independence was not based on a fight against national oppression but rather a calculation the Scotland would be better off if it ditched the English and took the oil revenue for itself. The SNP had some success in the 70s but the working class heartlands in the central belt of Scotland tended to stay solidly Labour. During this period the socialist left denounced the SNP as “Tartan Tories” and this view of the SNP was widely held in the working class movement in Scotland which had its attention firmly fixed on the British wide industrial and political battles of the 70s and 80s. However as we know the working class movement suffered heavy defeats both in Britain and internationally at the hands of the ruling class move to finance capital and neo liberalism in the late 70s. In a period of defeat the working class tends to atomise and hope gives way to despair. In Scotland hope that the British labour movement can again deliver significant reform has faded, particularly given the experience of the Blair/ Brown years, and fighting to take Labours place are the SNP with their snake oil promises that an independent capitalist Scotland will be a more socially fair and just society if only we break free from those living to the south of the border.

Thus support for the SNP has grown in consequence of working class defeats. The fact that the labour government under Blair and Brown continued the neo liberal offensive on working class living standards and was a faithful servant of finance capital and of US imperialism and its wars has been a major factor in turning workers away from the British labour movement and towards the mirage of a Scottish solution to their problems. However the truth is that the Nordic model is no longer on offer, even in Scandinavia itself, despite SNP claims to the contrary. The international ruling class consensus is for a continuation of the neo liberal offensive on working class living standards. An independent capitalist Scotland will not, and cannot, buck that trend. The only difference independence will make is that workers in Scotland will be in a weaker position to resist the offensive of international capital since they will have abandoned their comrades in the south in the illusory pursuit of a new national beginning in the age of capitalist decline.

The fact that the leadership of the labour movement in Britain has so far failed to produce any real fight back against a world of growing social inequality, food banks, benefit sanctions, zero hour contracts, housing crisis and the growth of militarism has allowed the SNP case for independence to gain some traction among working class people. The SNP has been able to pose left on matters such as the bedroom tax but it is clear from looking at the actual practice of the SNP in government and its proposals in the white paper for independence that its real agenda is neo liberal and anti working class.

The SNP has a difficult balancing act to perform. It must try to win Scottish workers to vote for independence while reassuring its big business backers and sponsors that independence will be “business friendly” and that the working class will thus be kept firmly quiescent. It must make promises to workers that it knows it can’t keep so it keeps the promises vague and non specific. Unfortunately its social democratic pose has been accepted as good coin by much of the left or at least it has not been vigorously challenged. Indeed the erstwhile socialists of the SSP, Solidarity, ISG, RIC etc have provided an important service to the SNP by echoing the SNPs claim that independence will produce a fairer society and by promoting the SNP as a party to the left of Labour. However Milliband’s slight tack to the left recently has undermined the SNP pretence to be to the left of labour. The SNP have opposed his call for an energy price freeze as “unrealistic” and have also opposed his call for a form of rent control. They have also reject labour’s call for the reinstatement of the 50p tax band for those on higher earnings. And most telling of all when labour put forward a motion at Holyrood for the living wage to be paid on all Scottish government contracts the SNP voted it down with Tory support. Characteristically the leftist supporters of independence have been largely silent on this matter. They don’t want to rock the pro independence boat or help dispel the illusion that the SNP is a progressive party promoting social justice. That would harm the independence cause to which they are now irretrievably wedded so silence is their best option.

The SNP has been in government for 7 years. It has implemented austerity. Between 2007 and 2015 government spending will have fallen 24 % in real terms. Many of the worse cuts are still in the pipeline. The SNP government has devolved many of the more serious cuts in expenditure to local government. Libraries and swimming pools have been closed and social care services are at breaking point. Thirty five thousand local government jobs have been axed. Council tax has been frozen for 7 years which has put further pressure on local government finance. Of course a council tax freeze tends to benefit wealthy house owners rather than the poor who rely on local government for front line services. The Further education sector has been hammered. This again has a disproportionate effect on the working class since FE is a tradition route forward for those who don’t go to university straight from school. On the question of democratic rights the SNP record is starkly authoritarian and gives us an idea of what life will be like for workers in an independent capitalist Scotland. The SNP has centralised the police force by creating one united police authority for the whole of Scotland. More armed police are on the streets. Stop and search powers are widely used and promoted by the SNP government- 3 times as many people stopped and searched in Scotland than in London despite London having a larger population. Legal Aid has been severely cut back and the SNP government has tried to move towards abolishing the corroboration rule in Scots law which gives some protection to the accused against wrongful conviction. In short the SNP in government has been anti working class, neo liberal and authoritarian.

The white paper on independence contains many vague promises about how an independent Scotland would be fairer and more just but little is proposed that is concrete. They promise an increase in free nursery care but it is widely acknowledged that they have the power to carry this out at present without independence but have chosen not to. One commitment that is clear is to cut corporation tax to 3% below whatever it is in the rest of the UK. This is obviously part of the neo liberal agenda of cutting tax on big business and would produce a race to the bottom if it ever came to pass. The SNP commits itself to the retention of the monarchy, membership of the EU and NATO and to a currency union with the rest of the UK. A currency union would mean that the bank of England would continue to set interest rates and regulate the financial sector and also have an effective veto over Scotland’s fiscal policy.

Even most of the left nationalist supporters of independence have to concede it is obvious that the SNP are intent on pursuing a neo liberal agenda in an independent Scotland. So what arguments do they advance for why workers in Scotland should support the independence project led by the neo liberal SNP?

Some on the left argue that the Scottish people are more left wing than those in England and thus an independent Scotland is likely to be more social democratic. However recent social attitude surveys show no significant difference between the social attitudes of people living in Scotland and those living in England.

Neil Davidson formerly of the SWP and now a supporter of the radical independence campaign ( RIC) gives two positive reasons in his recent article (published in Radical Philosophy 185 May / June 2014) entitled “A non nationalist argument for Scottish independence” for socialists to support a Yes vote-

1) It would lead to the breakup of the British imperialist state and would thus weaken British imperialism

Since national oppression is not an issue, and Neil accepts that it is not, I would contend that the nationalist break up of large states, even if they are imperialist states, is not a step forward for the working class either in Britain or in other parts of the world. Rather than an example of social advance the nationalist break up of Britain would be sign of social disintegration and of the political weakness of the working class.

As a side effect the breakup of Britain would embolden and encourage the anti working class nationalist forces in other imperialist states who argue for separatism- Flanders, Catalonia, Corsica, northern Italy etc. Even if the prestige of Britain and its social weight in the world was decreased by Scottish independence that does not imply we must support independence for that reason. If a deadly plague broke out on this island tomorrow and killed off a large number of the inhabitants it would surely weaken British imperialism but it would not be something we would welcome! If the decrease in the power of British imperialism simply means the increase of the social weight of other imperialist powers vis a vis Britain then that it is not something we should welcome or promote since it is a zero sum game from which the working class of the world does not benefit and it is demagogy to claim otherwise. As in all political matters socialists have to look to the effect of the demand for Scottish independence on the strength, solidarity and the class consciousness of the working class. The whole point of socialist activity is to increase the strength, solidarity and class consciousness of the working class up until the point where the working class has the social weight to transcend the rule of Capital and begin the construction of a socialist society. I submit that it is obvious that the movement for Scottish independence is tending to weaken the strength, cohesion and class consciousness of the working class by attempting to win Scottish workers away from their tradition support for the struggles of the British labour movement and their tradition of class solidarity with their comrades south of the border towards support for a neo liberal project led by the anti working class SNP government and supported by a significant section of the Scottish establishment.

The move to the right that the nationalist breakup would entail would tend to increase the aggressive potential of the successor states since the main opposition to imperialist aggression and war, the working class, would have been significantly weakened and divided. We know that the SNP are committed to NATO and have supported the Afghan war and the attack on Libya and who can really doubt Salmond’s commitment to the hegemonic role of the USA in world politics. The truth is that the SNP are pro imperialist and not anti imperialist. Also rUK may actually be a more aggressive imperialist war monger after the breakup of Britain than before for the reason I have stated -the social weight of the working class will have decreased due to the nationalist split of the British working class movement. It is a fact that Scottish labour MPs were a crucial factor in the House of commons vote that stopped the bombing of Syria.

As to Neil Davidson’s second argument for socialists to vote yes

2) It would stop the SNP government using “Westminster control” as an excuse to implement austerity

It is true that the SNP government hides behind the excuse of “Westminster Control” in order to justify its implementation of austerity measures. However the SNP proposed post independence currency union would give the bank of England control of interest rates and an effective veto on fiscal policy so there would still be room for national antagonism and scapegoating of the English by a SNP government when any dispute arose. Also the independence negotiations following a yes vote ( lasting at least 18 months) would provide a lot of potential ammunition for those who wish to blame deteriorating social conditions on the foreigners across the border. Indeed the negotiations between the Holyrood and Westminster establishments on how the assets and liabilities of the state are to be divided up after any Yes vote are likely to be acrimonious and provide a field day for chauvinists on both sides of the border. Workers of course will be encouraged to line up to support their respective bosses. Not a good environment for the development of a united fight back against austerity.

The idea that socialists should support Scottish independence in order to expose the anti working class nature of the SNP is in any event a rather lame argument. The reason we don’t have a successful fight back against austerity is not because workers have illusions in the SNP but because the present leadership of the British labour movement is incapable of organising a successful fight back due to the pro capitalist nature of their politics.

History shows that is dangerous for socialists to flirt with nationalism. The result is usually a boost for nationalism and a defeat for socialism. At present much of the left in Scotland has not only flirted but has ended up fully embracing nationalism and its independence project. This year on the RIC contingent of the Glasgow Mayday March the Saltire was being flown in abundance. RIC main slogan Britain is for the rich- Scotland can be ours is obviously a nationalist slogan. I would submit that rather than campaigning to win workers to supporting a new capitalist state with its attendant nationalist ideology of nation against nation, socialists should be fighting to reinvigorate and renew the socialist tradition within the British working class movement – a tradition of unity and solidarity amongst workers on both sides of the border in their common struggle against British capitalism. What is needed in the referendum is a socialist campaign for a No vote which aims to oppose Scottish nationalism and its anti working class independence project by promoting a British wide fight back against austerity as part of the fight to produce a labour movement that can take on and defeat the forces of Capital. It should be obvious that you don’t move towards the unity of the European working class movement- a unity that must be forged if we are to win any significant victory over a declining and vicious capitalism- by dividing the actually existing unity of the working class in Britain along national lines.

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