The Scottish National Party government in Holyrood finally announced the date for the referendum on independence for Scotland: 18 September 2014.
Everyone over the age of 16 and resident in Scotland will be entitled to vote in the referendum, in which the question on the ballot paper will be: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
Some members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) advocate a call for abstention in the referendum on the basis that the only choice on offer is a capitalist Scotland which is part of the UK or a capitalist Scotland which is independent from the UK. The majority, however, favour a “no” vote.
This not because we are committed to the preservation of the existing UK state structures. We support, for example, the abolition of the monarchy, the abolition of an unelected second chamber, genuine proportional representation, and electoral mechanisms which make elected representatives directly accountable to, and recallable by, their electorates.
We advocate the creation of a federal republic, i.e. a federation of the four different national units which currently constitute the UK. This would involve a massive transfer of powers from the central Westminster parliament to the four “regional” parliaments.
As consistent democrats (i.e. socialists who do not dismiss democratic rights as a bourgeois concept but see them at the heart of a future socialist society) we also recognise the right of the people of Scotland to determine their relationship with the other peoples of the UK.
Although socialists are generally hostile to the idea of government by referendum (referenda are open to manipulation by various means) the most logical way for the people for Scotland to determine that relationship is by way of a referendum.
Yet this referendum has been manipulated. If a referendum were held tomorrow, there would be an overwhelming vote against independence. Delaying it for 18 months, and staging it in the aftermath of various “feel-good”sporting events which Scotland will host in 2014, increases the SNP’s chances of securing a “yes” vote.
The wording for the referendum originally backed by the SNP was: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Widespread opposition to the leading nature of such a question resulted in the current version.
There are three basic reasons why the AWL favours a “no” vote.
First, Scotland is not an oppressed nation, a colony or semi-colony of British imperialism which requires independence to free itself from that denial of democratic rights. For centuries Scotland has been an integral part not just of the British state but also of British imperialism.
(In fact only the most fringe elements of the pro-independence camp — to be found on its left wing — would argue that Scotland is an oppressed nation.)
Nearly 20% of Scotland’s population do not even self-identify as Scottish. 800,000 Scots live as equals in other parts of the UK. Around 400,000 people from other parts of the UK live in Scotland — not as a privileged metropolitan elite but, again, as equals.
Where there is an integration of peoples based on equality and an absence of coercion within the framework of a single state, it makes no sense, from a socialist point of view, to advocate the break-up of that state into smaller national units.
Second, notwithstanding the fact that the Scottish TUC is an independent body, there exists an integrated British labour movement which would be broken up, or at least severely weakened, in the event of independence. (There are only two trade unions in Scotland which do not exist in England.)
True, the British labour movement is often bureaucratic, routinist, and a home for time-serving careerists. But the reason why that labour movement is not “fit for purpose” is rooted in the absence of rank-and-file control over its leadership — not in the fact that it exists at an all-British level.
Equally true, there are trade unions which organise across national boundaries. But they do so because those national boundaries already exist. There are no trade unions which demand the creation of a new national boundary so that they can then organise members across that national boundary!
Third, the referendum is about the future relationship of the people of Scotland with the majority of the UK.
It is not a retrospective vote of “no confidence” in British imperialism, its blood-soaked history, its plunder of the world’s resources, its enslavement of a third of the world’s population...
Nor is the referendun to be viewed in purely negative terms, i.e. as a chance to “break up the British imperialist state” without any serious consideration being given to how such a break-up (supposedly) fits into the larger socialist project and the central role of the working class as the agency of change in that project.
For some on the left (mainly around the remnants of the Scottish Socialist Party, the depleted ranks of the Socialist Workers Party, and the politically incoherent International Socialist Group), this peculiar brand of “anti-imperialism” has become central to their rationale for a “yes” vote.
The AWL has consistently opposed this idiot “anti-imperialism” which is now so prevalent in sections of the left. We have no intention of pandering to it in determining our attitude to the referendum in 2014.
However, our considerations are far removed from the way in which the debate about the referendum has been posed by the “Yes Scotland” campaign versus the “Better Together” campaign.
“Yes Scotland” is nominally a cross-party campaign — it is backed, for example, by the Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party — but largely under the control of the SNP.
Its case for independence might best be described as pork-barrel-politics writ large, and with the queen perched on top.
Scotland is a wealthy country — more than £1 trillion worth of oil and gas reserves! — and independence would allow that wealth to be spent on the people of Scotland rather than being squirreled away by Westminster.
Trident would go. The bedroom tax would go. But free higher education, free healthcare for the elderly, free prescriptions, free bus passes for the elderly and lots of other free things would remain, soon to be joined by even more free things. (And by a cut in corporation tax for big business.)
But the queen would remain head of state. And the pound would remain the currency. And the Bank of England would still be the lender of last resort. And the Tory/New Labour opt-outs from EU regulations would still apply. And Scotland would remain in NATO. And in a “social union”with England. And in the EU.
In this vision of independence everybody is better off, but otherwise everything remains pretty much the same.
The “Better Together” campaign has more of the character of a genuine cross-party campaign: it brings together Labour, the Lib-Dems and the Tories.
“Better Together” could not resist portraying an independent Scotland as an industrial wasteland, cast out of the EU, deprived of British defence contracts, and with the bulk of its population reduced to living in cardboard boxes.
The rational argument for maintaining the status quo which such a campaign might advance — that a Westminster government could use the resources of the larger unit of the British state to redistribute wealth and power in order to create a fairer society — is ruled out by virtue of the campaign’s constituent elements.
An alliance of a latter-day Scottish brand of New Labour with Lib-Dems and the Tories is inherently incapable of promoting a pro-union case which challenges inequalities and injustices.
Insofar as the parameters of the debate about the referendum are set by “Yes Scotland” and “Better Together”, that debate is not one in which socialists can have any truck with either side.
The Radical Independence Movement, launched by the International Socialist Group last November, aspires to present a radical left-wing case for independence. Not by chance, it functions like a Scottish version of Counterfire.
It begins with a big launch conference with a big platform of big-name speakers and lots of workshops which launches a political programme of five minimalist demands which no well-meaning liberal could disagree with.
That the programme calls for “a social alternative to inequality, austerity and privatisation” rather than a socialist alternative is not a typing mistake.
The conference is followed by setting up local People’s Independence Assembles and maintaining a flashy website with some rather less flashy articles. (One article suggests we live in a society “ruled by Tories that look after the rich and the interests of the US’.”
And then there is the campaign being run by the “Red Paper Collective” (largely an extension of the Labour-left Scottish Campaign for Socialism), which has the merit of attempting to adopt a class approach to the question of Scotland’s constitutional status.
They say what is needed is an assessment of the powers which need to be devolved to Holyrood in order that it can implement a pro-working-class agenda. This, in turn, would be linked to a broader federal structure of government throughout the UK.
But the “Red Paper Collective” is confronted by three problems.
What it advocates amounts to a form of “devo plus”. But this is not “on offer” in next year’s referendum. The “Red Paper Collective” has yet to argue explicitly for a “no” vote, which is the logical position for it to adopt if, as is the case, the referendum is a straight yes/no question.
Its portrayal of an independent Scotland tends towards being a left-wing equivalent of that promoted by “Better Together”.
And its approach to the referendum is fatally weakened by the anti-EUism which is now a hallmark of the mainstream labour movement left in Scotland.
An independent Scotland, argues the “Red Paper Collective”, would be too small and too weak to stand up to the EU. Independence would amount to no more than swapping rule from Westminster for rule from Brussels. Scotland should remain in the UK in order to better stand up to the real enemy: the Brussels bureaucrats!
Despite the current domination of the referendum debate by “Yes Scotland” and “Better Together”, over the next 18 months socialists need to make sure that the voice of independent working-class politics and socialist internationalism is heard above the cacophony of competing nationalisms.