Scottish labour movement must find its own voice

Submitted by martin on 17 January, 2012 - 12:06

"There are two different forms of nationalism in the referendum. The British nationalism of a 'No' vote. The Scottish nationalism of a 'Yes' vote. And Scottish nationalism is better for the workers."

So John McAllion (former Labour MP and MSP, and now a member of the Scottish Socialist Party) concluded his pro-independence speech at a conference in Glasgow on 14 January, organised by the United Left (Scotland) of the Unite trade union.

The Tories and the SNP have clashed over the timing of a referendum, how many questions should be on the voting paper, who should be entitled to vote, what would be the status of the referendum result, and what body should have overall responsibility for the conduct of the referendum.

Both have been motivated more by self-serving calculation than by principle.

The SNP can genuinely argue that it has a mandate for staging a referendum in late 2014. But the real reason why the SNP wants to hold it then is that it calculates (correctly) that it would have a better chance of winning then: around the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, after the second "Scottish Homecoming" celebrations and a succession of international sporting events in Scotland, and shortly before a UK General Election which could see the Tories returned to power.

According to McAllion, there has been a "genius" element in the British state which allowed it to "mould and change threats, to see off threats to the establishment."

The Labour Party has been "moulded and changed" by the British state. There is no time to spend another hundred years trying to build a new workers’ Labour Party. But an independent Scotland will open up space for the progressive political change previously stifled by the British state.

Independence for Scotland will also be "a golden opportunity" for the British trade union movement to show how trade unions can operate across national boundaries.
In truth it is not the "genius" of the British state which holds back progressive social change, but the idiocy of the Labour and trade union leaders who fail to fight for it.

The weakness of the British labour movement comes from its own political limitations, not from the quirks of British governance (monarchy, House of Lords, etc.), which the movement would have changed long ago if its leaders were combative enough.

Independence would not be "a golden opportunity" for the trade union movement.
Right now, despite the changes and political differences resulting from devolution, there is a single British trade union movement. The EIS teachers’ union is the only union of any size which is purely Scottish.

What is the point in that unified trade union movement campaigning for the creation of an obstacle to that unity — another national border — so that it can then show how well equipped it is to overcome it?

Other speakers at the conference claimed virtues for nationalism.

Jackson Cullinane, the Political Officer of Unite in Scotland, argued:
"Nationalism can be reactionary or progressive. Examples of the latter are Cuba, Venezuela, and James Connolly and Ireland … There is no conflict between the ideology of nationalism and the ideology of socialism."

Specific Scottish examples of this supposed lack of conflict between socialism and nationalism were Keir Hardie (who called for Home Rule when he stood as the first independent labour candidate in 1888) and John Maclean (who advocated a Scottish Communist Republic).

But when Keir Hardie advocated Home Rule in the mid-Lanark by-election in 1888 it was an expression of his continuing Liberal political baggage. Until shortly before the by-election Hardie had been a member of the Liberals, and his election slogan was: "A vote for Hardie is a vote for Gladstone."

There clearly is a conflict between nationalism and socialism. Nationalism is about organising and mobilising people on the basis of their national identity. Socialism is about organising and mobilising people on the basis of their class identity.

Nationalism is a particularising ideology: it divides people up according to their national identity. Socialism is a "universalising" ideology: it unites the working class, the class which aspires to liberate all humanity, across the boundaries of national identity.

Sometimes socialist movements may pursue goals also sought by nationalist movements, like freedom for the colonies of the imperialist powers in the twentieth century.

Even then nationalism as an ideology conflicts with the ideology of socialism. And Scotland’s case is not analogous to the national liberation movements in India or Algeria: hardly anyone argues that Scotland is subject to national oppression.

The third speaker at the 14 January conference was John Foster, for many years the Communist Party’s main theoretician in Scotland.

In the early 1970s, he recalled, the trade union movement in Scotland had begun to take up the question of a Scottish Parliament in response to the initiatives of Communist Party members such as the miners’ leader Mick McGahey. It was the start of the road which eventually led to the creation of a Scottish Parliament some three decades later.

But, said Foster, the hopes of the early 1970s that the Scottish Parliament would be a "workers parliament" had been dashed by the political domination of neo-liberalism.
What was needed now was a specifically labour movement form of "devo-max", involving "redistribution-max" (i.e. redistribution of wealth) and "democracy-max". If the labour movement fails to shape the Scottish nation, he warned, then reactionary forces will do so.

Foster’s argument cannot be understood outside of the evolution of the Communist Party’s politics.

From the 1930s onwards the Communist Party in Scotland (and elsewhere) pursued "popular-frontist" politics, allying with and accommodating to non-working-class political forces.

In 1972 this “popular frontism”, which by then had come to be known as ‘building a broad democratic alliance’, led the Communist Party in Scotland to push the Scottish TUC to convene the first-ever Scottish Assembly in Edinburgh in 1972 – bringing together trade unions with... local authorities, the Scottish CBI, Chambers of Commerce, and Tory MPs.

"Devo-max" is the demand around which the Communist Party hopes to reconstruct the "broad democratic alliance" which produced the Scottish Assembly of 1972.
Logically, after pro-independence and "devo-max" speakers, the final speaker at the conference should have been someone arguing for some version of retaining a larger political unit.

Instead, Lorraine Davidson (introduced as "a journalist" but better known as a former Labour Party spin-doctor) described herself as "a mere observer in this debate, not here to make any political point."

The Scottish left, or much of it, is confused about the basic difference between nationalism and socialism, and so demoralised that the SNP is effectively to be entrusted to achieve what the labour movement has failed to achieve.

Despite the repeated invocations about the need for the labour movement to have its own distinctive agenda, the best on offer was really a latter-day "broad democratic alliance" of the Scottish people against neo-liberalism.

The 14 January conference was billed as the start of a debate. The debate must be continued – and shifted onto the grounds of class-struggle socialism.

* AWL on Scotland: click here.

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