Reflecting on the Referendum Campaign

By Tommy Kane

Reflecting on the referendum campaign it’s clear that it’s degenerated into the most polarising, divisive and diversionary political event of our times. Countering this view, some socialists in the Yes camp suggest that the campaign has engendered hope, inspired a revitalisation of left politics and saw record levels of political engagement. These supporters pronounce independence will bring freedom from subjugation and a renewal of democracy, others proclaim it will allows us escape from the supposedly different Scottish and English political cultures, while others assert firmly that a Yes vote can go some way to ‘smashing the British state’ (incidentally not at the top of people’s concerns on the doorsteps). Amongst some there also resides a belief that, at the very least, independence will bring social democracy and a fairer and more just Scotland, because, whisper it, ‘we are more progressive up here’. In order to sustain a clean and seamless Yes campaign these left proponents of this missive appear to have suspended their critical faculties, especially in relation to the SNP’s White Paper, and whether they like it or not, have encouraged a discourse that has appears to have focused predominately on the liberation of ‘Scottish nationhood’.

Coming from a diverse range of views they all have one thing in common; a coalescing of grievance and anger at every recent failed policy or foreign adventure, a belief that solutions can only be found through the construction of a border and a seemingly faith based conviction that everything bad will, in time, become good but only if we vote for independence. If we don’t then, so the story goes, we are all doomed.

These assertions really need some interrogation. This message of hope is actually wrapped in real despair and pessimism that says nothing good can ever come from Britain. This is despite the fact that all material gains won over the past 70 or so years have come from a united Labour and Trade Union movement forcing them through. This fight back and material advancement for working people through the Labour and Trade Union movement is a force that has, incredibly, been written off by far too many sections of the left during this debate as they focus on the bad and ignore the good. All too easily they forget where the NHS, welfare, public services, social housing, and even the Scottish Parliament, emerged from

What about the Wallace style cry of freedom?  Scotland has not been a victim of British subjugation. Rather it has been an integral part of the oppression of others during the days of colonialism and empire. I have recently returned from British Colombia where contemporary Canada reflects relentlessly over the collective oppression of the first nation’s communities there. These national musings confirm how there are Scots fingerprints all over that process since way back at the beginnings of the Hudson Bay Company. Capitalist exploitation of the working class has of course occurred but that’s a class issue, the central resistance to which came from organised labour from across these isles.

Democratic advance and getting the Government we vote for is another refrain. But, didn’t the 890,000 people (that’s right nearly a million), just under 36% of the vote, who voted either Tory or Liberal in the last election get the government they voted for and the rest didn’t? What about the last Scottish election when those who voted SNP got the Government they voted for but the rest of us didn’t? Is that not democracy in action, that the party with most votes forms a Government and the party with the least doesn’t? Aside from this arithmetical exercise its also worth pondering how the current SNP Government has, ironically, been the most centralising Scottish Government on record and has diminished local government with no apparent desire to expand democracy to local government in the event of a Yes vote.

Nationalism is at the core of this debate. Yet many of the left have campaigned zealously for independence despite knowing full well they have provided cover for this exclusionary ideology. Nationalism both creates and implies difference. We see it here with explicit and implicit suggestions that we Scots are inclined to be more progressive and social democratic (the nationalist vote and the last General Election results show how this is an extremely problematic assertion). This Scottish strain of nationalism, like most others, also abandons notions of workers solidarity (at first hand through political trade union unity and common struggles) and seeks an outcome that necessitates the dividing of workers.

My interpretation of socialism is not based on excluding or abandoning my comrades; rather it’s built around core principles like solidarity, support and struggle (understanding that there are no shortcuts). I’m not about to change that view now and take a lifeboat, particularly with the fight we have on our hands to defeat the Tories. As Lenin states my foremost starting point “assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle”. This ‘national liberation movement’ has paid little attention to the consequences for working class struggle elsewhere in Britain, apart from reckless, complacent and blasé assertions about Scotland being a good example to our brothers and sisters in England.

Let us also be clear. This Scottish brand of nationalism has no intention of dealing with the rising structural inequality that has happened across the whole of the neo-liberal globalised world; including Britain. Indeed, they never mention wider global, economic forces, come to it neither do many of their left fellow travellers. Political self-determination is all that matters in their view with no strategy at all to deal with promoting, let alone achieving, any semblance of economic self-determination.

The only strategy to deal with those forces is made clear in the only programme for independence published and available. The SNP White Paper is unequivocal. They intend to capitulate to those global pressures that have resulted in the huge and growing inequality in the wider world, Europe and UK today. The White Paper outlines a vision of a Scotland that will be slavishly obedient to the free market and do whatever is necessary to reassure market nerves. That’s what the proposed corporation tax cut is all about (how can that result in anything other than a catastrophic race to the bottom and more damage to working people in Scotland and the rest of Britain). That’s why they didn’t support the Labour amendment to introduce a living wage in the Procurement Bill earlier this year and that’s why they don’t support a 50p tax rate and a mansion tax.  Of course whenever anyone dare raise such points the response is that it’s nothing to do with the SNP; If only that were so. They are the Scottish Government; they will control negotiations and the writing of the constitution and it is they that will be at the heart of everything in the event of a Yes. Conversely, I accept that the likes of the Common Weal have published some interesting papers, but their promotion of corporatism which ignores class conflict represents another lurch into the rhetoric of nationalism; while they and their colleagues in the Radical Independence movement and others such as the SSP and Solidarity have very little prospect of electoral success any time soon. Indeed in the last General Election the Greens and SSP could not even muster 1% between them.

Left supporters for Yes have instead offered tacit support to many of the White Paper promises. Indeed many have shared platforms with representatives of Business for Scotland to promote an independent Scotland. A key signal of how for many class has been trumped by the politics of nation. If it’s a Yes we better get used to this. When faced with turbo charged austerity, required to find favour with and gain the confidence of the markets, the Scottish people will be urged to take the hit and suffer the pain for your country, how we are at a new dawn and early the beginnings of a new state and we need to do it for our children and grandchildren etc. It will be a political landscape dominated, just like Ireland for decades after the formation of the Free State, by a consciousness of nationhood and not class.

It’s unsurprising that the biggest issue worrying ordinary Scot’s is the potential for economic carnage. Many people get that there is a huge uncertainty attached to pensions, welfare, public spending, wages etc. Perhaps the biggest and most obvious issue is the currency. Yet despite that uncertainty and the real potential for hugely negative consequences from the SNP plans, or lack of them, many people on the left have suspended their critical faculties on this potential for even further negative material outcomes for working people. Only nihilists, fundamentalists and true believers and others who think they have nothing to lose may suggest that this is a mere technical point. It’s not. If we enter a currency union then we will have to agree to the ceding on monetary policy (already acknowledged in the white paper) and more than likely fiscal policy too. After all why would a (what would then be) foreign bank, underwrite our economy and become lender of last resort to a foreign country whose banking system is 12 times its GDP (IE its highly risky) without ensuring a huge say over taxation and spending.

This does beg the following questions. Where is the independence in that and how can you build the better and just society under such conditions? If it is a yes people on the left must argue for Scotland to have its own currency, only then could we have sufficient control of the economic levers to have a chance to do things differently and progressively, but this would take a long time to achieve stability and sustainability and would create huge pain for ordinary working people in the meantime. Unlike those advocating independence from a comfortable vantage point and who will be able to ride that wave of pain ordinary people will be faced with even more challenging economic times. That might be ok for the nihilists in our midst. For the likes of myself on the other hand, who actually live and socialise amongst the great working class (who many on the left cite but don’t normally go near) this is just not good enough. Particularly when working people are spun the line that everything bad will become good with no mention of the likely impending and increased pain.

Polarising as it has been it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the Yes/No debate has got people engaged and thinking about the type of country they want to live in. Whatever happens on the 18th it is now apparent that the political landscape has changed forever and that political change has to occur. For those on the left taking a No position we have argued from the outset that we are not Better Together under the present conditions. There has to be a change from the hugely damaging austerity and neo-liberalism. But, the view taken has been that independence and mere constitutional change has never been the answer to dealing with these huge enemies to working people.

So no matter the actual result it’s now clear that a huge swathe of Scot’s are, on the 18th September, going to express massive dissatisfaction at the status quo; the capitulation to neo-liberalism; and the normalisation of its outcomes of huge poverty on one hand, and eye-watering, record levels of obscene wealth enjoyed by those at the top, on the other. This expression by the Scottish people must be listened to. We must pay attention and understand how we found ourselves fighting this unnecessary fight,  and then push for a new paradigm of politics that addresses the concerns raised by so many of the Scottish people. Not just on bringing new powers to Holyrood but also in the type of policies devised and developed at Holyrood and indeed at Westminster.

This has to mean the Labour Party once and for all rejecting the politics of New Labour and once again returning to a programme and discourse that talks of inequality and poverty as obscenities, that proudly advocates redistribution and progressive taxation, proposes the repeal of Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws (which allows us to far more easily provide workplace solidarity where and when necessary) and which promotes renationalisation and public ownership. In short, it has to demonstrate that a vote for No was not for the status quo but for progressive change for all working people across these isles.

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