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.
by Stephen Low, a Labour Party member and part of the Red Paper Collective
Nationalism has many potential outcomes, but they are all based on a concern for ‘our people’ not ‘the people’
Scottish nationalism, we are always told, is civic, tolerant and open, different to other nationalisms. So welcoming in fact that many signed up to independence will argue that it isn’t really nationalism at all.
From Billy Bragg’s distanceit all looks very cuddly. Up close though, finding safety in numbers through a process of division, it looks a lot less pleasant.
Taking just a few examples: demonstrators gather outside the BBC and unfurl banners denouncing people as ‘anti–Scottish’, claiming that only the ‘corrupt media’ stops people supporting Independence.
A writer, Alan Bissett, prominent enough to be invited to perform to the conference of the governing nationalist party, describes current constitutional arrangements as ‘Subjugation; cultural, political and economic’. The acme of liberal independence supporting commentators, Gerry Hassan, expresses satisfaction that the Scots ‘are becoming a people’ and ‘developing voice in its deepest sense’.
It’s easy to recognise tropes here familiar from other, less favourably looked on nationalisms. Principally that only by asserting ourselves as a nation can we throw off alien influences and truly be ourselves. Perhaps then, Scotish nationalism isn’t all that exceptional after all.
Responding to JK Rowling’s endorsement of a No vote, a writer from the ‘National Collective’ declares Scotland is ‘a State of Mind’. Independence is all about ‘the story we choose to believe in’.
How very open, how very welcoming; anyone can be Scottish, provided they share our state of mind.
Except this, naturally, involves embracing independence. The status of those of us unwilling to do this isn’t quite spelled out. Neither is the corollary; if anyone can be Scottish by sharing ‘our’ state of mind. Also, what if, like myself, you don’t? If the ‘story you choose to believe in’ is a multi- or even non-national one, are you somehow less Scottish?
This is as much about exclusion as it is inclusion. And it is this process, more than independence that is developing momentum. Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and one of the gurus of the Radical Independence Campaign, used to describe non Indyfan lefties as ‘fellow travellers‘ for whom they should ‘keep a seat at the table’. He now issues dire warnings that ‘We are not afraid of you, we are going to win and history will remember you for how you behaved’.
Of course, all of the above matter much less than the SNP and the Scottish government.Recently, Nicola Sturgeon drew a distinction between ‘essentialist’ and ‘utilitarian’ nationalists. This isn’t anything to do with fundamental outlook, just a tactical difference about the timing of state formation. The deputy first minister went on to explain, in a phrase redolent of Michael Gove on steroids, that she wanted a new Scottish constitution to ‘embody the values of the nation’.
What those values might be were (thankfully) left undefined. Add to this the vaguely sinister sounding intentions of education secretary Mike Russell that the views of scientists on research bodies ‘might be aligned’ with those of the Scottish government.
A more serious indicator of what might be in store was given when Ed Balls and George Osborne, invoking the national interest of the rest of the UK, said they didn’t support a currency union with an independent Scotland. They were immediately decried by the First Minister and his supporters as ‘bullies’ ganging up on Scotland.
In the howls of anguish that followed, it was taken as read that assertions by the UK couldn’t be valid in themselves, they were merely attacks on Scotland. The ‘Scottish’ interest wasn’t just deemed to be the most important or priority viewpoint, but the only legitimately held opinion.
The economics or even politics of the situation (eg If Balls or Osborne were interested in having a supranational banking arrangement deciding governmental borrowing limits, they would have joined the Euro) were abandoned in favour of the financially illiterate spasm of ‘It’s our pound too’.
Stripped to its essence, it was a case of the leader of a nationalist party building support for a policy by saying foreigners were attacking the country. If that looks like it has worked then don’t think it will stop on September 19. Nationalist ends won’t be willed in the referendum without embedding nationalist means to sustain them afterwards.
Clearly the SNP aren’t some sort of Jobbik style proto fascists. But suggesting that ‘Technocratic Administrative Boundary Adjustment’ or ‘Blood and Soil’ are the only two possible settings on the nationalist dial isn’t right either.
Nationalism has many potential outcomes, but they are all predicated on defining and separating, with concern for ‘our people’ not ‘the people’. Real progressive politics does the opposite. People at home or in the places that will shortly be abroad if there is a yes vote in September would do well to remember that.
by Vince Mills
Socialism First, like the Red Paper Collective has adopted a class approach to the independence debate arguing that ultimately what we should be asking is what is the best way to bring about an irreversible shift of wealth and power in favour of working people.
Although many on the Left agree with that there is disagreement with those advocating a Yes position because our position seeks to outline an analysis based on what we argue will be the actual dominant forces that shape a new Scotland that a Yes vote would give, as opposed to the arguments of those who believe that voting yes will by itself release revolutionary new forces. Instead we pose the necessity of a British wide strategy for challenging the power of neo-liberalism.
The independence that is on offer is that driven by the SNP, a party which has the highest share of the popular vote in the European and Scottish Parliament elections and 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.
There are two major concerns for the Left in the independence debate. The first is the necessity to defend public services and second is the second is the longer term strategy necessary for winning socialist advance.
Let us look more closely at the economic case for independence. In his recent book: Seventeen contradictions and the end of Capitalism David Harvey writes: “The world is broadly polarised between a continuation (as in Europe and the United States) if not a deepening of neo-liberal, supply side monetarist remedies that emphasise austerity as the proper medicine to cure our ills; and the revival of some version, usually watered down, of a Keynesian demand side and debt-financed expansion ( as in China) that ignores Keynes’s emphasis upon the redistribution of income to the lower classes as one of its key components. No matter which policy is being followed, the result is to favour the billionaire’s club that now constitutes an increasingly powerful plutocracy both within countries and (like Rupert Murdoch) upon the world stage.”
Both of these strategies are being offered by key supporters of the independence project. On the one hand there is the commitment to lower corporate taxation and straight forward rejection of any strengthening of workers’ rights as advocated by the SNP leadership and on the other hand there is Commonweal strategy as outlined by the Jimmy Reid foundation that seeks to build on the limited welfarism of the Scottish Parliament posing at its core the need for partnership between Capital and Labour. It hardly needs stating that since neither advocates a fundamental challenge to the basis of class society nor a significant transfer of ownership in terms of wealth, they do not constitute the basis for a secure public services in Scotland.
And yet those arguing for independence, left and right believe that they can end austerity, although they may disagree about how they would do that.
The SNP argues that they can challenge austerity by growing the Scottish economy through a combination of sustaining the existing economic staples like oil and gas and food and drink and by borrowing money.
This growth depends on increasing the working age population through higher levels of immigration leading to better productivity leading to 2.5% growth per annum. The Finance Secretary, John Swinney also recently set out proposals to borrow heavily in the first three financial years after the planned formal split.
This, like all capitalist strategies is excessively rosy about the capacity of the market economy to deliver economic stability. For example, in relation to oil and gas as you know this has been the subject of raging arguments but no-one is saying that oil and gas reserves are not declining; the argument has been about the rate of decline and what we might expect as likely tax take from an industry that is notoriously fickle in rates of return.
In relation to borrowing, Swinney’s plans would see Scotland’s deficit rise to around 7 per cent, based on Holyrood estimates. This ignores three things. Firstly the cost of borrowing given Scotland’s standing as a new country without a track record is likely to be enormously expensive. Secondly , if there were a currency pact with the UK, any plans for such borrowing would have to be agreed with the Rest of the UK, hardly likely in the current climate and finally the EU, which the SNP is determined to join has instructed member states not to allow their deficits to exceed 3 per cent, never mind 7%. It is difficult to see Swinney’s promise as something other than a gamble for the swing in the electorate that they believe is necessary to win the referendum rather than a serious economic strategy.
In this situation without any recourse to the current Barnett formula, which allows the transfer of funds from the UK to its constituent parts, there is a strong likelihood that we would face cuts in public expenditure in Scotland because demographic change and the level of inequality mean need will grow, but the SNP want reduced levels of corporate taxation and the status quo in relation to personal taxation.
But there is another and just as important argument from a left perspective related to the issue of the economy. The level of productivity and the benefits that come from that depends on who owns the economy and what influence we, trade unionists and socialists can bring to bear on that ownership.
Scotland’ economy heavily externalised. The following statistics are based on data published by the Guardian. Nearly all Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas production is licensed to foreign firms. There is only one significant Scottish firm, First Oil. It produces just 6,000 of the total 1m barrels of crude produced every day.
• 90 banks and finance companies operate in Scotland with no Scottish registered office, including global firms such as Barclays, HSBC and Morgan Stanley. Their earnings flow directly to London or overseas.
• More than 70% of Scotland’s total economic output – excluding banking and finance and the public sector – is controlled by non-Scottish-owned firms.
• Of the large firms in Scotland, those employing 250 or more people, 83% are owned by non-Scottish companies.
• Well over 80% of Scotland’s whisky industry – the UK’s largest food and drink export – is owned outside Scotland. Nearly 40% of total output is in the hands of one London-based company, Diageo.
• More than 80% of Scottish farmed salmon, Scotland’s most valuable food export, is foreign-owned. About two-thirds of it is controlled from Norway.
What independence would mean is that Scotland would be subject to power of corporate capital vested largely in the City of London without any say in how that power is exercised because we would not have a vote for the UK politicians who have political jurisdiction over those institutions.
We did not create our history. Our forebears did and because of that the Scottish economy, and the Scottish people and the Scottish Labour movement are deeply integrated into the British economy. We need a strategy built on that reality, on existing working class institutions, primarily the trade unions, but growing beyond that into a British wide People’s Movement like the People’s Assembly, that is ultimately capable of winning the case for social ownership of the banks and financial institutions, the energy companies and the communication and transport infrastructures. That kind of advance will give us the basis for ending inequality and bringing about an irreversible change in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people.
By Vince Mills, Campaign for Socialism and Red Paper Collective
In an UK mired in austerity it is hardly any wonder that some sections of the Scottish left, as well as individuals who want a more just society, are attracted by the argument that they would be better placed to achieve socialism, or at least a move in that direction, if Scotland were independent of the UK.
What are the underpinning arguments for that position and what left strategies have emerged on the basis of these assumptions?
The first argument in favour of this position is that there is a significant difference between the Scots and the English in terms of the extent to which they favour progressive politics with the argument being, on balance, the Scots are more favourably disposed than the English.
In fact the evidence argues in quite the opposite direction.
A Nuffield foundation report in 2011 by Curtice & Ormston, concluded that in terms of being ‘more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best’. They also note that “Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”
As Stephen Low points out in the Red Paper Collective website, the data extracted from British Social Attitudes (BSA) Surveys suggests that when it comes to our fifteen million closest neighbours, the 3 Northern regions of England, we are no different at all. Perhaps I should add ‘unsurprisingly’ since they are areas of high unemployment and industrial decline just like Scotland and surely this played a significant part in shaping attitudes to the welfare state and neo-liberalism.
The second argument to emerge from the left, the more revolutionary left, is that if Scotland left the UK it would lead to the break-up of the British State. Alex Salmond by contrast has been at pains to stress continuity. In the Andrew Marr show after the SNP conference last October he said:
“The state we currently live in is not Great Britain, it’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. ‘Britain’ won’t disappear as a geographical expression no more than ‘Scandinavia’”.
Former Labour MP and MSP, John McAllion, and now SSP member by contrast sees independence as a way of smashing the British sate where the British left has so signally failed. Writing in Red Pepper in 2012 he states:
“The choice is really very simple. Go on as before inside an antiquated and reactionary state that legally shackles trade unions and has no political space for socialism. Or begin to break that state apart in the name of progress and social advance and in doing so release the energy and the potential of a left across Britain that has for far too long been in retreat.”
It is very clear from what John writes that he believes that the power of capital somehow depends on, and is sustained by the constitutional relationship that exists between Scotland and the United Kingdom. Neither John nor other socialists who make this case explain how the power of capital, which would remain vested in the City Of London would be undermined by what Salmond recognises is a mere geographical re-arrangement, not social and political transformation of society.
As the Red Paper 2014 points out The Scottish Business Insider list of the Top 500 companies in Scotland in January 2013 showed a Top 20 dominated by wholly-owned subsidiaries of foreign multinationals and London Stock Exchange quoted corporations.
A secession by Scotland would not change this. Quite the reverse, according to Eric Hobsbawn in Nations and Nationalism, it increases small state dependence on global capitalism.
“They are economically dependent in two ways: generally, on an international economy they cannot normally hope to influence as individuals; and specifically – in inverse proportion to their size – on the greater powers and transnational corporations… The optimal strategy for a neo-colonial transnational economy is precisely one in which the number of officially sovereign states is maximized and their average size and strength…is minimized”
Undeterred The Jimmy Reid Foundation, has come up with a detailed strategy for pushing an independent Scotland towards the Left but hardly one that grips the socialist imagination. It is called the ‘Common Weal’.
On ownership of the economy it says nothing about the top 20 companies and instead emphasises the role of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in transforming the Scottish economy. There are upwards of 80,000 such firms with a range of employees between 2 and 250 in Scotland and they are mainly in services. Few export directly. Many are suppliers to a single, larger firms like Ineos Grangemouth or BAE systems and hence vulnerable to changes at that level – hardly the engine of economic transformation.
Furthermore in so far as the Common Weal promotes Public ownership it is not primarily in class terms – giving democratic control of the economy to those who produce the wealth -and there is no serious discussion of how, for example, key sectors of the economy like transport and energy could be brought back into public ownership. Instead the Common Weal focuses on state interventions necessary because of market failure.
From a left wing perspective the section on democracy and governance is positively alarming. It adopts an unashamedly partnership model for trade unions. It argues for “strong trade unions working collaboratively with employers not only on employee remuneration issues but also on strategic management issues”. This is the model which some Irish Trade unionists would argue has been devastating in terms of their capacity to resist austerity. It sits very well, by contrast, with the corporatist thinking of the big business backers of the SNP.
The Red Paper Collective is only too conscious that exposing the limitations of arguments for a Yes vote from the Left might be taken as counsel for despair.
On the contrary if the English working class is, as it must be, as likely to challenge the exploitative nature of capitalism as their brothers and sisters in Scotland, then together we can challenge capital at its heart in the City of London. I say this without the slightest doubt that winning the people of Britain to a radical anti neo-liberal project is enormously difficult. But if we want to challenge the power of capital that is what we must do. There are no short cuts.
We need a strategy built on existing working class institutions, primarily the trade unions, but growing beyond that into a British wide People’s Movement that the People’s Assembly aspires to, a movement that advances the case for social ownership of the economy starting with the banks , and financial institutions, the energy companies and the communication and transport infrastructures that will give us the basis for transforming this rotten, unjust society into one which is fit for human beings.
The Red Paper Collective’s response to the SNP’s White Paper for Independence.
Class, Nation and Socialism – The Red Paper 2014
The Red Paper Collective http://www.redpaper.net
Recorded at the STUC, Glasgow 2013.
Glasgow Caledonian University Archives
Available by post from Scottish Centre for Work Based Learning, Glasgow Caledonian University, Cowcaddens Road, Glasgow G4 0BA £11.00 including postage payable to ‘The Red Paper Collective’.
Also available in Waterstone’s