Moving Right – the Scottish Left and the Indy Ref

by Vince Mills

One of the interesting, though perhaps more bizarre aspects of the current independence debate in Scotland is how some sections of the Scottish Left have been shifting to the right and even slipping into the nationalist camp, apparently without noticing it; others have adopted a strategy which hints at radical change but in their effort to achieve this, promote its ideological antithesis.

This latter position is most clearly articulated by the SWP and a range of other groups and individuals in the Radical Independence Campaign. Their argument that they support independence and not nationalism is premised on the belief that there will be a disintegration of the British state following a Yes vote.

The former is most closely associated with the remnants of the Scottish Socialist Party and others, like the Labour for Independence group (origins and purpose contested) who previously might have voted for, or even have been members of the Labour Party; it is a straightforward recognition that fundamental change is not on the agenda and some form of limited social democracy is the best we can hope for.  Of the two it is position that carries more weight.

It may be difficult to believe that socialists in Scotland, many of whom were loud in their condemnation, and correctly so, of Labour’s seduction by right wing ideas under Blair, can support a nationalist agenda, but here is how Colin Fox, the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, received the launch of the SNP’s economically right wing White Paper:

“The white paper sets out a vision of independence that represents a significant advance for Scotland in my view – affording us the right to self-determination and the chance to build the type of nation we want.”

To be fair to Colin he highlights its weaknesses as well as what he sees as its strengths,  but it is the political shift of a Party that once presented itself as an advocate of radical socialism that is important here. As spokesperson of the SSP, Colin is acknowledging that in itself the White Paper marks an advance (despite its neo-liberal economic assumptions) but that, more importantly it offers the ‘chance’ to build the kind of nation we want thereby signalling that the SSP will accept independence even if it does not lead in a left direction. In other words, by accepting independence as an objective in itself, he is thereby re-defining the SSP as a nationalist party. And if that is not enough, despite attacking the limitations of the White Paper, Colin signs up the left to work for independence among working class voters despite any guarantees of a better Scotland:

“Left-wing organisations that support independence such as the Scottish Socialist Party have a crucial role to play in persuading working-class voters who are justly sceptical of the sort of change Alex Salmond and the SNP have in mind that they would still be better off with independence.”

Why they would be any better off if the SNP’s pro NATO, pro EU Pro monarchy,  pro low business tax  Scotland, as it almost certainly would be, is based on two unstated assumptions.  The first is that a vote for independence is not a vote for the SNP and the second is that the politics of an independent Scotland will indeed be more progressive.

These are both unfounded. It is indeed the SNP’s white paper we are voting on, a party which had the highest share of the popular vote in the recent European election and the last Scottish Parliament elections and has the greatest number of councillors. It is by any measure the dominant political force in Scotland and is not about to disappear any time soon.

Meanwhile the myths bubbling up around Scottish ‘exceptionalism’ are surely bursting. In May in the run up to the European elections, where UKIP managed to win a seat in Scotland the  Glasgow Herald had already reported: “UKIP policies to curb immigration, cut overseas aid and crack down on benefits claimants are backed by a majority of Scots, a surprise new poll suggests…”

This poses a significant political and largely ignored challenge (by the SNP) to its desire to increase productivity by growing Scotland’s population through increased immigration.

To the left of the SSP’s analysis we have the SWP and other Radical Independence supporters who argue that a Scottish secession will somehow or another lead to the break-up of the British state. This assumes of course that the British state can neither be reformed or transformed though existing democratic institutions but, as the old light bulb joke would have it, can only be smashed. Leaving  aside the debate on the nature of the British state and whether in Keir Hardie’s view it is a ‘useful donkey’ or in Marx’s that ‘it is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’, the question that needs to be answered by its Left advocates is how a Scottish secession fundamentally weakens it, in either an independent Scotland or in rUK.

Bear in mind that the state that will most likely emerge in Scotland will be deeply tied to that of the rUK through our integrated economy, (perhaps through a currency pact). In rUK, the power of finance capital, umbilically linked to the brokers of political power, will remain untouched in the City of Westminster where it will still control the flows of capital in and out of Scotland.

A real challenge to the power of capital in an independent Scotland would require in the words of James Stafford in Renewal a “chaviste economic strategy of nationalisation, investment and redistribution …” it would also mean “…capital and exchange controls, as well as the swift abandonment of EU membership. This is a recipe unlikely to meet with either success or popularity in a small, open, wealthy and European economy like Scotland’s; even less so during the brief initial period when the framing conditions for Scottish independence would be decided …”

As Stafford suggets above, such a strategy would at the very least require an honest dialogue with and compelling narrative offered to  Scottish working people and their institutions about the difficult and dangerous political terrain they were about to move onto. Not only has  such dialogue not been entered into, while sections of the ultra-left massage each other’s delusions about the possibility of radical change following the referendum, the main Yes campaign of which they are part sets out quite a different future.

In the Yes Campaign’s  ‘Your Choice’ pamphlet, in a section headed “WELCOME TO SCOTLAND 2020” it cites the example of Barbara “Today: Up to her eyes in paperwork, Barbara wishes she had more time to focus on what she does best – running the most popular pub in town. 2020 A hardworking businesswoman, Barbara has always had what it takes. Now freed up from high business taxes and red tape, she has a thriving pub on her hands and her employees are happy and productive thanks to the new guarantee to raise the minimum wage at least in line with inflation.”

So, on the one hand a section of the Scottish Left espouses national independence for its own sake in the hope that it provides a chance for a better future, while another pretends to promote revolutionary change through support for independence, while in effect supporting a campaign for a Scotland of entrepreneurial aspiration.

Whatever the result of the referendum, both these left factions will be marginalised, but all the more marginalised if it is a No vote. This is not because they have not tried to have strategic engagement with the working class.  They have tried very hard to engage, to the extent of abandoning their own objectives in favour some quite toxic to the left. The problem is that they do not have a credible strategy for serious social change. That is not an area where the Labour Left can feel an excess of confidence either which is why, as soon as the vote in September is over, the Scottish Labour left needs to meet and discuss our strategy and programme for fundamental change. A No vote must also mean another country.





  1. Frank McBride

    Vince, you are even more wrong now than you were in my first political encounters with you, in 1982, when you were arguing that a vote for Labour would get rid of Thatcher. I could have, at that time, supported Michael Foot’s vision for the UK but, it was obvious that a great many Labour MPs and activists opposed his radicalism. We all know the result of the following election(s); Labour went down to its worst defeat in modern times and became that anathema which is NewLabour.
    Simply, Vince, arguing that the UK can be changed from within, is wishful thinking tinged with selective amnesia. The British State will not change by simply tinkering with it; 300 years of history has shown us that. Revolution is needed.
    However, the revolution need not be violent, it can be peaceful; a bit like voting YES.

    You are still blinded, Vince, by the notion that “nationalism” is the antithesis of socialism: it is not. It may be the antithesis of Soviet socialism which, most thinking people would consider State Capitalism and whose results we are seeing played out today. The great KGB “protectors of the Soviet State” are amonst the most virulent capitalists on the planet.
    No, Vince, the idea of a hegemonous “International” is not the way forward for any society, far less ours. Genuine democracy is a far easier, and ultimately more socialist way.
    A written Constitution with appropriate checks and balances, a proportional voting system, proper regulation of business, a genuine living wage rather than the odious “minimum wage”, genuine workers rights, the right to an affoardable home, the right to education as against it as privilege of money, inter alia. These, Vince, are all addressed in the White Paper. Of course, supporters of the Union have denigrated the White Paper as a “wish list”, but they would, wouldn’t they?
    However, “wish list” it may be, but if we don’t take this chance to make it reality, it may be very difficult to create the opportunity again. I say this with some certainty, as both you and I, and everyone else who reads this blog has experienced, the Brittish State learns very quickly from its mistakes and is faster than a chamelion at changing its colour to confound the masses.

    We have an opportunity, Vince, on Sept. 19, to make a break which may lead us to a more socially just and prosperous future, we must take that opportunity for our children and their children because, as history has shown us, there is not a hope in hell that any change towards social justice will occur whilst we are part of the UK. Indeed, since the Atlee Government, the UK has moved progressively to the Right, unfortunately, the Labour Party has been in the vanguard of this shift.
    Finally, Vince, I am less sanguine than you with regard to a realignment of the Left in an Independent Scotland as many well respected SNP MSP, are very much on the Left and will want to see a much more socially just Scotland than many of their colleagues and, perhaps, much more significantlt, many of our current NewLabour MSPs and MPs.

    • vince mills

      Hi Frank,
      Good to hear from you. I hope you are keeping well. The essence of what I was arguing is that a secession by Scotland will not have any impact on the power of capital concentrated in London to influence the Scottish economy, much of which is externally owned. I would refer you here to the chapter on the Scottish economy in the Red Paper. It will have a negative impact on the left, though; Scotland will have given up its right to vote for the politicians who have political jurisdiction over the city of London, and who could at a British level begin the process social ownership of banks and finance institutions as well as energy, communication and transport infrastructure . This requires an alliance of the Scottish working class with workers and their institutions across the rest of Britain. I accept that it is massive task winning the people of Britain to challenge the power of capital but that challenge will be immeasurably more difficult for us in Scotland if we can no longer access the levers of power necessary to make fundamental change and those levers of power are at British, not Scottish level.

      • Frank McBride


        I hope you’re well to.

        What is needed, IMHO, is at least the possibility of change, change which has proved impossible within the context of the British State. We need to start somewhere. We need to try to extract ourselves from what Eistein described as insanity.
        With an Independent Scotland, we have that chance. We have the opportunity to bring about change, particularly, to land ownership. We have the opportunity to bring, progressively, production into the hands of all of the workers. We have the opportunity to ensure that we have a welfare and education system that addresses the needs and aspirations of the people. This change will not be easy, but, I believe that it is do-able. However, it will require a serious and sophisticated realignment of the Left; a Left that is broken and fragmented. A Left, broken and fragmented by individual belief in the “purity” of our own interpretation of socialism. As you’ve heard me say, on many occasions, the Left is its own worst enemy. The lack of coherence amongst us is our downfall.
        We know, history has proven this, that we are too fragmented to disturb the British State so, we must look for a different alternative; Scottish Independence, I believe, is that alternative, if we choose to grasp it. It is not, of itself, the panacea, but it can be the start. However, that start will only achieve progress if we are prepared to lay aside our individual “purity” and present a united front that can make change happen. This, Vince, is what the SNP has done and, in doing so, it will achieve its principle aim on Sept. 18.
        After Sept. 18, the Left will have a short time to organise and work towards helping to draft the New Coustitution of Scotland and to organise itself into a credible political alternative. The is no place, particularly at this time, for the SSP, Solidarity, ILP, Greens, or, indeed the left of the SNP and Labour Parties. We, all, need to be behind a common workable Manifesto or, as with Britain, the organised Right will win.
        The opportunity being affoarded Socialists, with a YES vote, is, IMHO, the best chance we have had, or are likely to have, to begin to create the type of society we want. Denying ourselves this opportunity is to deny the chance of a better future for our decendants and, I believe, the rest of the people of these islands who will be inspired and strengthened by a more socially just Scotland.
        Unfortunately, the comment from Alan Johnstone is a perfect example of the Left’s unabiding denial of Einstein’s definition of insanity. We have to fight the battle where it is; currently it is here in Scotland. We must also take the opportunity when it arises; it arises on Sept. 18. And, finally, we must accept that the age-old approach of the Left has failed up until now, so we must adopt a different perspective because, without a different perspective, we are doomed to the same results as we have experienced since the first seeds of socialism were sown.
        Rather than railing against Independence, the Left should be embracing it; it should, particularly, be embracing Scottish Independence because we have a rich country in which we can embed socialist principles and values from a economic and educational base that does not need to be built from the bottom.

        BTW, Alan, I hope that our Anthem is “Freedom come all ye”.

  2. alanjjohnstone

    I am sure you have been eagerly awaiting the statement on the referendum from the SPGB
    The Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the 2nd August adopted the following as a statement on the Scottish Breakaway Referendum on 18 September:-

    “Most of us don’t own a single square inch of Scotland.

    It doesn’t belong to us: we just live here and work for the people who do own it. In or out of the Union, that won’t change.

    In Scotland, society is run in the interests of those who own the wealth. They argue among each other over billions of barrels of oil, GDP rates, profits and exports, because where the borders lie matters to them. Every border is an opportunity to wring cash out of other property owners. Scotland will remain dependent upon their whims and interests whatever the outcome of the referendum.

    They’ll try to sway us one way or another with crumbs (or the promises of crumbs) but we’ll only get what they feel they can spare to protect their privilege and wealth. We will remain dependent upon their investments making a profit for them before we can get our needs and interests seen to.

    The only way to stop this dependency would be for us to take ownership and control of the wealth of the world into our own hands. We could, together, use the wealth of the world to meet our mutual needs and grant the true independence of being able to control our work and our lives in free and voluntary association of equals.

    Though the outcome of this referendum is irrelevant, it is an opportunity for us to tell our fellow workers that this is what we want. We don’t have to suffer in silence, we can go to the ballot stations and write “NEITHER YES NOR NO BUT WORLD SOCIALISM” across the voting paper. Then, join The Socialist Party to fight for an independent world.”

    SPGB Glasgow/Edinburgh branch blog

    SPGB Official Blog

    Raise the Red Flag Not the Saltire !
    Sing the Internationale Not Flower of Scotland !

  3. alanjjohnstone

    Your choice of anthem is certainly an improvement, Frank. How its sentiments actually is incorporated by a EU member with Fortress Europe policies i’m not so sure. (SNP’s immigration policy maybe a bit more relaxed than others but still insists on controlling the gates and vetting who is worthy of entry, simply a friendlier bouncer at the club door, in other words)

    Your Einstein remark i think is more apt to those who have for over a 100 yrs placed hopes on a successive run of governments run by a selection of political parties with various reform platforms. Socialists standing resolutely for a goal that is still to be achieved is not the same as doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome…that has been the insanity, the working class has been led to believe down the years. That is indeed the failure of the Left which the SPGB has constantly tried to disassociate itself with.

    And the battle to fight is our OWN battle in the class war and not as many who in the past have done, sacrificed themselves for the interests of the ruling class or sections of it.

    The mistake is to relegate this aim for a completely new society as secondary by declaring for independence first then socialism. History abounds with examples of where when this tactic has been followed nationalist ideas prevailed and the socialist objective forgotten. James Connolly sadly got that bit correct and the Citizens Army was subsumed by the businessmen nationalists like Murphy who they had fought in the 1913 Dublin Lock-out.

    I also think Vince is more on the right track…he has at least identified that the problem is capitalism but of course even the City of London is not the sole location, not even Wall St. It is a world system of economic and social relationships and requires a world solution and both Scottish or British or even European parochial approaches is insufficient.

  4. Marie Lynam

    I am interested in what Martyn Cook and Frank McBride’s positions. I don’t know enough to give a better judgement. Please give me means of staying in touch. Comradely greetings, Marie Lynam, GMB, LRC, and Posadist, individual capacity

  5. Marie Lynam

    Hello Martyn and Frank. I was not able to open the link you sent me to be in proper contact. Please confirm that you are putting me on your mailing list. Greetings, Marie Lynam

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