Q&A: socialists and Scottish independence

Submitted by AWL on 17 September, 2014 - 2:14 Author: Sacha Ismail

Solidarity opposes the demand for Scottish independence. Shortly after we publish, the referendum will be over, but the issues it has raised will be around much longer. This “Q & A” is a response to some questions we have encountered. We encourage readers who disagree or want to raise other issues to write in.

It’s up to the people of Scotland to decide on independence.

Yes, but no one denies that. Given the widespread demand for independence, it is good that a referendum is being held (whether it’s good that the demand is widespread is another matter). It doesn’t automatically follow that people should vote yes in the referendum.

Socialists support the right of nations to self-determination, which if it means anything must include the right to separate and form an independent state. How we advocate exercising that right, including whether to form a separate state, depends on the consequences for the interests and struggles of the working class.

The overwhelming bulk of the radical left in Scotland is backing a yes vote.

Most of the Labour left and much of the trade union left is opposed to independence. But yes, probably most of the “ hard left” socialists in Scotland are backing a yes vote. However, we respectfully disagree. And we think that a lot of the Scottish left has, to one degree or another, become a satellite of Scottish nationalism.

You’re lining up with Cameron, Clegg and Farage!

We’re also lining up with most trade unions and the Labour Party! And on the other hand the pro-independence left is lining up with the significant minority of Scottish bosses who support independence, like billionaire Brian Souter of Stage Coach, billionaire Jim McColl of Clyde Blowers and former Royal Bank of Scotland chair George Mathewson. Rupert Murdoch has a close relationship with Alex Salmond (who describes him as a “remarkable man”) and has been flirting with backing the yes campaign!

But socialists cannot decide our policy by putting a minus where the ruling class (or the majority of the ruling class) puts a plus. That is the approach which has led swathes of the left into so many blind alleys, for instance over Stalinism and over anti-imperialism, for decades. We do not defend the status quo. We advocate the reorganisation of Britain as a federal republic — unlike the Scottish National Party, which supports the monarchy.

If Scots vote for independence, they’ll always get the government they vote for.

The same could apply to any area of the UK. What about London, or Birmingham, or Manchester, or any big English city which always votes Labour but often gets Tory governments? In any case, having an independent government is not a guarantee that it will be any good from a working-class point of view.

In both Scotland and England, “we” — the working class — are the big majority. Yet we get governments that serve the capitalists, who are a small minority. The problem is not in any real sense the existence of Britain as a single unit, but the balance of class forces within that unit — who has power.

If Scotland was in some sense oppressed as a nation, then escaping from English control would be a boost for democracy and for workers’ struggles. But one, even on the left, seriously argues that it is. The fact that Scotland sometimes votes differently from England does not constitute national oppression.

“Britain is for the rich: Scotland can be ours”

That’s a slogan of the Radical Independence Campaign, the left wing — or more accurately, left cover — of the campaign for independence.

But the RIC doesn’t mean that an independent Scotland will quickly become socialist — so in what sense will it be “ours”? The (not that radical) shopping list of reforms it pro- poses could indeed be carried out by a left-leaning government in Scotland, given a strong enough working-class movement exerting pressure and adequate channels for that movement to find some political expression. But that is just what does not exist in Scotland. The movement for Scottish independence is self-evidently not such a movement.

If there was a strong left movement in Scotland, but not in the rest of the UK, one of its tasks would be to spread to England, not to separate Scotland off. But in fact there is no such movement at present.

A left movement, bringing about a left-leaning government, could also happen Britain-wide. The barriers to it in England are real and strong, but only about as real and strong as the barriers in Scotland. We should fight together to overcome them.

Why was it that the legalisation of trade unions, shorter work hours, the right to vote, the NHS, the welfare state, nationalisations, measures of equality for women, LGBT people, ethnic minorities, and so on were won UK-wide over decades and even centuries, but now radical change is only possible unless Scotland leaves the UK?

The inescapable implication of the RIC slogan is that nothing much can change in the rest of the UK. To bolster illusions about the prospects in an independent Scotland, it promotes despair about prospects in England (and Wales?)

But Scottish politics is well to the left of English politics.

On a certain limited level that is true, in that the Tories are currently weaker. It has not always been true and will not necessarily always be true.

Such arguments rest in large part on the implication or assumption that the SNP is left wing. It isn’t. On some issues, the SNP is to the left of Labour — on others it is to the right. It voted down Labour’s proposal to insist that all Scottish government contractors pay the living wage and do not blacklist, voted down Labour’s call for an inquiry into police actions during the miners’ strike, criticised Miliband’s pathetically weak proposals for an energy price freeze as “unrealistic”, opposes a 50 percent top rate of tax, and says that if Scotland becomes independent it will cut corporation tax.

If Scottish independence would (at least in the short term) weaken Tory influence in Scotland, it would strengthen it in what remained of the UK, because it would (at least in the short term) make it harder for the Tories to lose a general election.

Scottish independence will weaken British imperialism.

It’s hard to see how. Minus Scotland, the UK will still have over 90 per cent of its previous population, over 90 per cent of its economic output, an extremely strong military, and major overseas influence. In any case, as British imperialism has long been in decline, this would hardly be a major blow.

Socialists do not advocate fighting imperialism by chopping up imperialist states. We do not want to break the US up into fifty small countries. We want to help a working-class movement develop which can fight the ruling class and its imperialism across the US, as part of an international movement.

National self-determination is a different issue: we advocate self-determination not primarily to “weaken imperialism” but to extend democracy and remove barriers to working-class struggle.

As for Trident, no one disputes that what is proposed is not scrapping it, but moving it. The idea that British imperialism will not be able to relocate it is absurd. And nimbyism is not the same thing as disarmament.

You accuse some Scottish leftists of being nationalist. But there is nothing nationalist about wanting independence.

There is nothing necessarily nationalist about wanting independence if the country you live in is oppressed by another country. But Scotland is not. So the demand is inherently nationalist, even though a minority of its advocates say they are not.

It is theoretically possible to imagine a left which supported a yes vote while also militantly criticising and fighting the SNP and its supporters. In fact the majority of the pro-independence left has echoed the arguments of the nationalists, only changing the emphasis. In doing so it has strengthened nationalism.

That is because serious criticism would mean exploding the whole basis of the nationalists’ worldview, and therefore the whole basis of advocating independence.

The left, across Britain, is in a weak position. We have to organise and argue our way to a stronger position. That will be hard work. It is daunting, and tempting to look for short cuts or substitutes. Support for Scottish independence is an example of such a substitute.

We need to renew and popularise the basic ideas of socialism — including the idea of uniting workers and the oppressed across boundaries of nationality identity.

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