“There are five million of us in Scotland, but sixty million in the rest of Britain. We’ll always be in a minority. That’s why we’ll never get the government we want.”
That’s the SNP case for a ‘yes’ vote on 18 September. Anyone who has attended referendum debates will have heard this argument – word-for-word – from SNP MSPs.
Even if not always expressed in exactly the same terms, that’s also the argument being fired back on the doorsteps by people who are saying that they will vote ‘yes’ on Thursday of next week.
That argument also explains why socialists should oppose a ‘yes’ vote.
“We in Scotland”, from a socialist perspective, are not in a minority.
The “we” that counts for socialists are the working class: people who work, the unemployed, those retired after a life of work, and their families. They are the majority of the population in Scotland, and they are the majority of the population in the rest of Britain.
This is not a coincidence or some transient state of affairs. Capitalism, by definition, is a society based on massive inequalities of wealth and power. A small minority lives off the wealth created by the majority of the population.
That is why, for socialists, it makes no sense to say that “we” are in a minority or to accept that argument from other people. In England, in Scotland, in Britain, “we” are the overwhelming majority of the population.
We might not, and do not, get the government we want.
But that is not because we live in a state called Britain. It is because of the checks and controls over elected government which exist in every capitalist country (and which would also operate in an independent Scotland).
And, more importantly, it is because of the lack of democracy and accountability in the trade union and labour movement.
This has allowed successive Labour governments to rule in the interests of capital while making, at best, only minor concessions to the trade unions which created the Labour Party and which still control 50% of the votes in the party’s decision-making processes
But the SNP, like any nationalist political formation, categorises people according to their nationality and national identity, not their class. And because there are more English in Britain than there are Scots, it concludes: “we will always be in a minority.”
Different groups of people certainly do have different nationalities and national identities. We recognise that and defend their right to define their own national identity.
Right now in Ukraine, for example, we defend the right of the Ukrainian people in the face of claims, backed up by force of arms, by Russian fascists and ultra-nationalists that they are “really” Russian and therefore “belong” in the Russian Federation.
Though Alex Salmond praised Putin earlier this year for “restoring a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing”!
But the SNP does not merely define people according to national identity (us in Scotland – them in England). It seeks to mobilize people politically on the basis of their national identity. It does that because that is what nationalism is all about as a political project.
And that is why the case for a ‘yes’ vote on 18 September is inherently nationalist:
We Scots are so different from those English that our voting patterns will always be different. Therefore, we Scots have to break away from the larger state unit in which we Scots are a minority. Otherwise, we Scots will never get the government we Scots want.
Socialists can have no truck with such an argument, based as it is in seeing the world in terms of national divisions rather than class divisions.
That deceptively simple but profoundly divisive nationalist mantra of “us the Scottish minority and them the English majority” is the real core of the real case being put forward for a “yes” vote on 18 September. Everything else is just window-dressing.
Whatever happened to “Scrap All Immigration Controls!”?
Whatever happened to “All Borders Are Illegal!”?
Whatever happened to “No Gods, No Borders!”?
To call for a “yes” vote on 18 September is to call for the creation of another border.
And once a border exists, certain corollaries follow automatically. Immigration rules to define who can, and who cannot, cross it. Immigration officers to maintain those rules. Penalties to deter rule-breaking. And enforcement agencies – the police and the courts – to impose those penalties.
The pro-independence left cannot call for a “yes” vote on 18 September and then object in principle to the state powers needed to maintain the border which will be created in the event of a majority “yes” vote.
The pro-independence left cannot call for a new border on 18 September, and then, if there is a “yes” vote on the day, call for that border to be scrapped on 19 September.
“All Borders Are Illegal, Apart from the Scottish-English One” is not a very snappy slogan. And even if the immigration controls in an independent Scotland were to be more liberal than the current controls, “Our Borders Are Better Than Yours” is not a very good slogan either.
The pro-independence left has retreated into a fantasy world in which the referendum is not about what it is actually about in the real world.
The referendum, supposedly, will be a mighty blow against imperialism. “The workers of the world,” as one leading member of the SWP put it at a recent Unite debate on the referendum, “want to see a ‘yes’ vote on 18 September. It will be a body blow to the British Empire.”
Is it not a little strange that the only people who believe that there is still a British Empire are Daily Telegraph readers and members of the SWP?
The referendum, supposedly, is a way to fight austerity. How strange, therefore, that this fight against austerity should be led by a party which is committed to a cut in corporation tax and a refusal to increase the top income-tax-rate to even 50p.
And in this supposed “anti-austerity campaign” there is not even a picket-line or strike in sight! So is the SWP maybe now going to tell us that change does come through the ballot box after all, not through rank-and-file working-class action?
“We can’t wait for Labour!” used to be a favoured slogan of the SWP: Workers should not wait for a Labour government to be returned but should fight Tory cuts right now. But now, it seems, the answer to austerity is to wait for an independent Scotland in 2016 and beyond.
The referendum, supposedly, is some kind of settling of scores, as one Radical Independence Campaign speaker put in a recent referendum debate, with “300 years of imperialism and colonialism.”
If it was, then Scotland, given its role as part of the imperialist metropolitan centre, would surely be barred from voting on the grounds of “vested interest”.
The referendum, supposedly, will lead to a true, “higher”, form of solidarity with English workers as Scotland creates an austerity-free, nuclear-free, wars-free country. In the meantime, though, “us Scots” simply cannot live in the same multi-national unit as “them English”.
Isn’t this argument a bad case of cod-dialectics?
The negation of the negation as the transcendence of itself: The existing unity of the British working class must be negated so that at some later unspecified date that negation can in turn be negated and class unity be recreated on a higher level?
The referendum, supposedly, is about whatever the Radical Independence Campaign happens to think it is about.
Adapting a metaphor used many years ago in a rather different context, the pro-independence left is like a little boy with a tin-whistle turning up for a performance of “The Flower of Scotland” by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
“I’ll join in with the Orchestra on my tin-whistle for the first few bars so that they think that I’m really one of them,” says the little boy to himself, “and then I’ll switch over to the “Internationale” and they’ll all change tune as well and follow me.”
So the little boy starts playing “The Flower of Scotland” on his tin-whistle. But when he switches to the Internationale, the Orchestra, of course, carries on with “The Flower of Scotland” and drowns out the Internationale.
And the little boy is left standing there. A rather sad sight, no more than an unwanted add-on to an orchestra that is not only not playing his tune but also drowning it out by playing a tune of a diametrically opposed content.
The forces of the left in Scotland are weak. They will not get any stronger by hanging on to the coattails of nationalism and pretending they are leading the struggle against world imperialism.
The pro-independence left should throw away its tin whistle, let go of the coattails of nationalism, and stop deluding itself, and trying to delude others, that there is something positive — or even revolutionary — about being cheerleaders for SNP nationalism.
How the pro-Yes left argues
An example of the argument. From Socialist Worker 19 August 2014
Socialist Worker supports a vote for independence. We are in favour of the break up of the imperialist British state and weakening its ability to join US military adventures and illegal wars around the world.
Independence would be a blow to both sides of the so-called special relationship.
A Yes vote would also call into question Britain’s status as a leading nuclear state and raise the possibility that it may be forced to abandon its nuclear capabilities altogether.
We should have no illusions that a Yes vote will bring a socialist Scotland. In an independent capitalist Scotland there would still be bosses wanting cuts and politicians willing to implement them.
We will still need to make sure the SNP leadership does not get its wish to keep Scotland in Nato. A Yes vote should be a vote against war and nuclear weapons. We cannot rely on the SNP to win it.
Anti-austerity and opposition to war and poverty motivate thousands of independence activists. We have to argue for a vision of real change to inspire working class voters to be a decisive force on 18 September.
Whatever happens, ordinary people’s raised expectations of change will be hard for our rulers to put back in a box. But we still should throw all our efforts towards trying to make Britain history.