By Michael Allan and Rachel Gibbs, Labour Party members and supporters of Socialist Appeal, Glasgow
So far the referendum debate has been fought out between the pro-independence camp and the official No campaign, with the ‘Queen and country’ British nationalism of ‘Better Together’ characterised as the voice of those voting no. At present a significant minority of Scots, particularly young people, are looking to vote Yes in 2014 as it seems like the most radical alternative. From this perspective independence is seen as a way of breaking with ConDem austerity budgets and a No vote by extension is a vote for this rotten status quo.
However, a Marxist analysis shows flaws in this logic and the drawbacks of a Yes vote, which in the long term could be highly counterproductive. We understand why many are enthusiastic for an independence which they believe to be a progressive shift for Scotland. Nevertheless, as socialists we must analyse the conditions and not be swept away with this. We have to put forward the case for the unity of the working class in Britain and internationally, as there are no shortcuts in the fight for socialism. On this basis we advocate a ‘No’ vote in the independence referendum, not as support for the Better Together campaign or the British state. That is also why as supporters of Socialist Appeal we back the idea of an alternative campaign that will articulate a no vote on the basis of maintaining working class unity, one that will also push for the adoption of socialist policies in the labour movement to give working people the fighting organisations we need in this period of capitalist crisis.
When considering the question of Scottish independence, or the independence of any other nation for that matter, we must first assert that we support the interests of the international working class and recognise the negative impact of nation states and private ownership of industry upon these interests. Whilst we will always support the right to self determination we must also recognise the limitations of this under capitalism. In the case of Scotland we must see the Scottish parliament as delivering real gains for the Scottish people but also restricted by limited economic powers leaving it dependent on the block grant from Westminster. We support greater powers for the Scottish parliament towards the ends of self determination but we also understand that without the questioning of the British state and private ownership of industry these would be toothless. Whilst some may say only independence offers true self determination we would argue that this would be a false division of the Scottish and the rest of the British working class and would also be unlikely to offer true autonomy; one must consider the independence being put forward – one with the queen as head of state, retaining the pound, British military bases and membership of NATO.
It is clear that the SNP have received a considerable rise in support from 2007 to present and that independence, at times, has been a somewhat popular option (though it has never risen to the majority of polls). In questioning why this is the case we must consider the dismal performance of both the Westminster and Holyrood Labour Party. Traditionally the largest party in Scotland by some margin, the Labour Party succumbed to a disastrous performance at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. When one reflects upon the programme being put forward this is hardly surprising as it centred around personal attacks on Alex Salmond – rarely political in content – and harsher penalties for those caught carrying knives. Little progressive ideal for the future was to be found and since then this has been reinforced by Lamont’s ridiculous comments on Scotland’s supposed “something for nothing” culture. With such little offered by the Labour Party many have looked towards the nationalists as a more progressive and social democratic option, seeming to offer a Labour-esque programme. However it must be considered that far from all of those that have voted SNP support independence and good Scottish Parliament results have failed to be repeated at Westminster or even last year’s council elections.
Within these circumstances Labour appears to be a dead right-wing duck with the SNP offering a more egalitarian future that they say could only be guaranteed on the basis of independence. However, independence must be seen as a move backwards rather than forwards. Does this declare the British state to be a positive force, much like Labour articulated in the post-war years? No, the decades of Thatcherism have clearly shown that not to be the case. What we are considering here is the case for a unified working class as this is necessary in the fight for socialism. This isn’t borne out of sentimental attachments. Capitalism is now a fully globalised system, which has been shown in the globalised nature of the capitalist crisis, with few countries across the world seemingly escaping for the moment. We have seen revolutions in the Arab world and political impasse in Europe. Even China, supposedly the next super-power, has seen a slowing down of economic growth and mass wild-cat strike action. What does this mean? Well, it shows that the crisis of capitalism lays the basis for international solidarity due to a globalised trend of austerity, leading to workers and unemployed people across the world shaking the shackles of oppression.
For the UK, this can be related to the interlinked nature of the working classes that make up Britain. The Scottish and British working classes have not developed separately but, because of capitalism, have developed as part of one working class. The same shared experience that once linked dockers in Glasgow and Liverpool now manifests itself in the precarious nature of the service sector employment which is all that we have left in the vacuum caused by deindustrialisation. It would be ridiculous to say that Scotland does not have its own national culture and identity but it would be equally absurd to say that class interests have diverged. Large strikes have often evoked sympathy strikes elsewhere (and across the border), this is particularly true in periods of crisis such as the 1920s, 1970s and 1980s where we saw the working class becoming increasingly militant and thus more unified. The great Scottish socialist John MacLean mistook a period of relative calm in the early 1920s, after the storm of working class radicalisation post World War One, as meaning that the Scottish working class was more radical than its English counterpart. However this notion was displaced with the general strike of 1926 less than five years later, a strike which asked the question of who runs the country. Similarly in the 1970s UCS in Clydeside was one of the first big disputes but it was followed by two decades of unrest across Britain. This period led to Britain being characterised as one of the most strike-prone countries in Europe, even ahead of France!
In relation to modern day Britain some have said the large increase in votes for UKIP at the recent county council elections have shown the English working class to be conservative and seeking reactionary solutions to economic crisis and that this is proof that they are less radical than Scots. There are several flaws with this analysis. As Socialist Appeal has explained elsewhere (‘Local elections show opposition to the Coalition: Labour needs socialist policies!’ http://www.socialist.net/local-elections-coalition-opposition.htm), these were county council elections held in mostly ‘Little Englander’ Tory strongholds where turnout was low, the Tory vote disintegrated considerably with UKIP hovering this up and gains being made by Labour. Also we must consider that whilst Scottish voters have had the supposedly social democratic SNP to vote for as an alternative to Labour such a party does not exist in English politics and UKIP have placed themselves as anti-establishment firebrands whose populist rhetoric offering a new solution will appeal to some of the disillusioned, but not the mass, of working class voters. The biggest vote belongs to those that have chosen to stay at home.
Characterising the English working class as conservative is something that is encouraged by the British ruling class as not only does it create division but also sows the seeds of disillusionment among radicalised layers in England. Just consider the extent of media coverage received by UKIP and purporting the popularity of British institutions such as the army and royal family.
Now let us consider the alternative consequences of an independent Scotland. So long as it was capitalist, Scottish and English workers would be put in direct competition. This is especially true if we consider SNP plans for a more “business friendly” environment, with lower corporation tax and other incentives which could lead to businesses relocating from England to Scotland. Whilst this might be good for Scotland in the short term, as it could bring more jobs, lower tax would mean less money for services and competition between Scotland and Britain would result in a driving down of wages on both sides of the border in a race to the bottom. Historically the way Scotland was able to compete as an export power was by doing the exact same, but lower wages retarded the development of the domestic Scottish market and made the economy highly vulnerable to falls in international demand. A loss of jobs or degradation of wages would also be used by the British ruling class to stoke up resentment south of the border, or vice versa if the reverse was true. This plays completely into the hands of the British ruling class. As a small nation state, particularly one that has been traditionally been a constituent part of a much larger one, it is likely that Scotland would continue to be dominated not just economically but also politically. This has been borne out by the experience of countries that have broken up such as the former USSR or ex-colonial nations.
These countries have continued to be dominated by both old and new powers. Closer to home, Ireland is a sharp example of such domination. At the time of partition in the early 1920s the British state retained power in the north, which was then the most industrial area with the majority Protestant population giving a better basis for political control. Whilst Scotland would clearly not be partitioned in this manner it is true that the British would likely try and retain power. The most obvious example of this would be military, which the SNP have already agreed to. Likewise there is a genuine belief that independence would rid Britain of nuclear weapons, as Scotland is one of the only viable locations for submarine bases. Would the British ruling class really give up nuclear weapons and their much-fabled permanent UN Security Council seat so easily? Most likely Britain would still retain the weapons, if not elsewhere in Britain but by pressuring the Scottish government to keep nuclear submarine bases in Scotland. Salmond, despite being seen to tackle Westminster would ultimately in an independence scenario remain deferential to the political power of Scotland’s southern neighbours as evidenced by his support for an independence that remains aligned with Britain and British interests. There could even be other means by which Britain retains influence over the oil fields. For example in the devolution referendum of 1979 had devolution been successful across the country but not in Orkney and Shetland there were plans for the islands to gain the same status as the Isle of Man/Channel Islands which would allow unfettered access to the oil fields. Whilst these plans may not exist today they demonstrate the desire of the British state to retain power over North Sea oil. Therefore unless you actually challenge the power of the British state, ergo the British ruling class and capitalism, then breaking Britain will not actually break British power.
We have already considered the fact that an independent Scotland would likely remain under British power to a large extent. It is also true that an independent Scotland, as promoted by the pro-independence campaign, would remain on a foundation of capitalism. On this basis the image of a more progressive Scotland is unlikely to be borne out, particularly during this period of austerity. It is painfully obvious that it is not just the British state that is pushing through draconian measures but international capitalism as a whole. One only has to consider riots of unemployed, disaffected youth in Sweden, supposedly the home of a different, social-democratic capitalism, to see that social inequality is likely to remain.
Some may respond to questions over an independent Scotland’s economic strength with the answer of North Sea Oil. Figures showing that Scotland pays into the British state more than it receives in expenditure have regularly been cited as reasons for this. It is true that ostensibly Scotland could survive but only in a period of a stable world economy. The economic storm that has engulfed the world would be likely to damage the fledgling economy of a small country that is largely dependent on its economically stagnant neighbours for trade. Norway in particular has been used an example of a small, oil rich and economically successful small nation – of similar size population to Scotland. However, it must also be said that Norway has not developed as part of a much larger union and its economy (including oil) has developed in a significantly different way, and time period, to Scotland. The British state has failed to capitalise upon the opportunity offered by the discovery of North Sea oil during the 1960s. With the oil crisis of 1973 there was a great incentive to extract as much oil as quickly as possible even if this meant a cavalier attitude to rig health and safety – culminating in Piper Alpha – and longer term economic planning with Tory and Labour governments giving massive tax breaks to multinationals. From this conditions of low tax and multinational control have arisen within the North Sea oil industry. It is true that oil has provided an economic boost to North-East Scotland but it has far from fulfilled its transformative potential. The government of a small capitalist country would neither have the will nor the economic might to tackle multinational corporations. An independent Scotland would struggle to nationalise industry on a capitalist basis. Even the British state had difficulties nationalising BP and setting up a publically owned competitor to the multinationals in the form of BNOC during the 1970s.
Up until this point this article has considered an independent capitalist Scotland. Now let us consider the question of an independent socialist Scotland. By socialism we mean public ownership, democratic planning and workers’ control of politics, economy and workplaces. A yes vote in the referendum must not be conflated with socialism or as a necessity in creating an independent, socialist Scotland. For a start the SNP and the rest of the pro independence campaign cannot be seen to be offering such a solution. It is also questionable as to whether Scotland would be allowed to continue as socialist state with Britain over the border. Also, why would socialism simply be confined to Scotland? If there was a mass movement of the working class in Scotland, which was at the point of overthrowing capitalism, why would that movement simply stop at the River Tweed? In reality, a socialist Scotland would only be allowed to exist within a socialist Britain and in order to achieve this a workers’ movement across Britain would be required. On the basis of a socialist Britain, as part of a socialist Europe (and beyond), an independent Scotland could be possible if this was the will of the Scottish people.
We’ve seen here the arguments against independence on socialist principles. That is why we encourage a no vote, not out of enthusiasm for the United Kingdom but out of a desire to see socialism. Of course voting no is not enough for this. We need the unity of a British working class armed with a socialist programme and a fighting labour movement. That is why Socialist Appeal welcomes a socialist no campaign and supports such a campaign fighting for socialist policies in the labour movement.