The "Scottish Labour Open Letter"
The Scottish Labour left has been presented with a new hero of the class struggle: Alison Evison.
Evison is the sole Labour member of Aberdeenshire Council. She is also Deputy Leader of the Council Opposition Alliance (consisting almost entirely of SNP councillors), President of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and Secretary of the COSLA Labour Group.
At no point in time has Evison, whose multiple roles in local government make her particularly well-placed to do so, ever advocated defiance of the cuts imposed on Scottish local authorities over the past decade as a result of Tory-SNP austerity.
Evison’s sudden elevation to the status of tribune of the people is not, alas, the result of a Damascene conversion in her attitude towards council cuts. Her promotion has been triggered by a post-election tweet backing a second referendum on Scottish independence:
“Recently democracy has become fragile. And we must strengthen it again. We can strengthen it by enabling the voice of Scotland to be heard through its formal processes and that must mean a referendum on independence.”
Some lost souls on the Scottish Labour left found this idle musing to be truly inspirational. So inspirational that they were moved to take the bold step of penning an “Open Letter: Scottish Labour for Radical Democracy”:
“A few of us have started thinking about the way forward for Scottish Labour (after the election). I’m sure that some of you will have seen that Monica Lennon, Alison Evison and others have suggested that we need a new approach to indyref. We’ve written this open letter …”
The other name cited as inspiration for the letter, Monica Lennon, is a Scottish Labour list MSP for Central Scotland. Nothing of note distinguishes her political record. Until, that is, an article by her which the “Daily Record” published last week:
Rather than “remain at the mercy of the UK party’s distant structures”, Scottish Labour should become a separate party. The UK party structures have “tarnished Scottish Labour”. The “UK link” was “stopping the Scottish leader from being heard or taken seriously.”
John McDonnell had “come to Edinburgh and contradicted our leader on indyref2.” A separate party in Scotland would be “a modern, dynamic political force” and would “reach out to voters and organisations in a more meaningful way.”
(Quick reality check:
What first and foremost still tarnishes Scottish Labour is its collaboration with the Tories in 2014. What first and foremost undermines the Scottish Labour leader are Lennon’s colleagues at Holyrood (Sarwar and Baillie) and right-wing union bureaucrats (Gary Smith of the GMB).
What first and foremost prevents Scottish Labour reaching out in a more meaningful way is the grip of the right-wing on many CLPs. And what first and foremost prevents Scottish Labour from being modern and dynamic is right-wing inertia and vacuous ‘left-wing’ posturing.)
But whatever their political failings, neither Evison nor Lennon have fallen so low as to put their names to the majestically incoherent Open Letter which they are cited as having helped to inspire.
The Open Letter begins with a call to “set aside the arguments for and against independence.” But three paragraphs later it calls for what amounts to a Scottish Unilateral Declaration of Independence. And it closes with an appeal to the UK left to support “our demand” for a second independence referendum.
It offers nothing by way of a programme, a strategy, specific demands, or even half-thought-out suggestions for a transformed and politically re-armed labour movement in Scotland, one which would be fit-for-purpose in the face of the dominance of nationalist populism at both a UK and Scottish level.
The working class, insofar as the Open Letter acknowledges its existence, appears not as the agency of revolutionary change but as passive victim (of “overlapping crises”) or passive recipient (to which economic power is to be “redistributed”).
The politics of the Open Letter are much indebted to the tradition of the Utopian Socialists, lampooned by Marx in the Communist Manifesto for “habitually appealing to society at large, without the distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class.”
Slap-bang in the middle of the Open Letter is the demand for the ruling classes in Scotland, or at least their political executive, to effectively declare UDI:
“We demand that the Scottish political establishment begins to think and act ‘as if’ it has the requisite independence to radically address the overlapping crises facing working-class communities in Scotland.”
But who are the members of this “establishment” (leaving aside the popularity of such a term with tinfoil-helmet-clad conspiracy theorists with antisemitic proclivities)?
Obviously, all SNP parliamentarians (despite their pretentions to be anti-establishment). And Tory politicians (currently more ensconced in the Scottish political establishment than Scottish Labour).
Plus right-wing Labour politicians (whose sole goal in life is to secure a place in the ranks of the establishment). And all those local worthies at the level of local government (such as Alison Evison and the entire membership of COSLA).
That is to say, the demand to “radically address the overlapping crises facing working-class communities” is addressed to the concentrated expression of the political forces responsible for creating and perpetuating those crises.
What prevents the Scottish political establishment from implementing that demand is not that it lacks the imagination to act and think as if Scotland was independent but rather the class interests which it represents. That is why “the establishment” is called … “the establishment”.
Some of the authors and signatories to the Open Letter used to display a more hostile attitude towards the Scottish political establishment. But that was a different tune for a different audience at a different time.
It seems that in the course of writing their Open Letter the authors realised, however dimly, that the Scottish political establishment would be unlikely to implement a demand raised in a garbled letter signed by some Labour Party members they had never heard of.
This can be the only explanation for the very different demand aimed at a very different audience contained in the very next paragraph.
Having boldly raised the demand that the Scottish Government should legislate on matters reserved to Westminster, and then gone a step further by calling for Scottish UDI, the Open Letter concludes with a call for a second referendum.
(It should be noted, in passing, that the Open Letter poses legislation by the Scottish Government on reserved matters as one form of the civil disobedience which it advocates “against that (Westminster) government.”
But nowhere does the letter advocate a campaign of civil disobedience against the SNP Holyrood government. Instead, the Open Letter makes a cap-in-hand plea to the latter. But political servility comes in many forms.)
The final paragraph of the Open Letter boldly declares:
“We refuse to abandon the people of Wales, Northern Ireland and England to Tory rule, even if Scotland chooses to pursue its own road to socialism. We believe that real self-determination can only be achieved through co-operation between movements and across borders.”
“We call on the left across the UK to back our demand for a second referendum on independence and to fight with us to secure a radical democracy for all the peoples of these islands.”
Even by the rock-bottom standards set by the Open Letter, this represents a new low in political incoherence.
“Even if Scotland chooses to pursue its own road to socialism” is a politically evasive and ultimately dishonest formulation for “even if Scotland votes to go independent”.
A vote for independence in a second referendum would not be a vote for a Scottish road to socialism (save for left-populist fantasists). It would simply be a vote for Scottish independence.
The formulation “real self-determination can only be achieved through co-operation between movements and across borders” suggests that any self-determination achieved without such co-operation would not be “real”.
But the former colony-states of Soviet imperialism, to give just one counter-example, achieved real political self-determination without any co-operation between movements and across borders. They simply declared themselves independent.
In any case, there is no need for English and Scottish workers to currently co-operate “across borders”. For the simple reason that there is no border between Scotland and England.
(Which is why socialists oppose Scottish independence: We are for dismantling borders, not creating new ones.)
If there was a border, then English and Scottish workers would not need to co-operate “across borders” in order to achieve Scottish self-determination: Because Scotland would have it already. That is why there would be a border.
Leaving aside the concluding rhetorical flourish about “radical democracy”, the Open Letter closes with a call on the left across the UK to support “our demand” for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
But in terms of working-class, class-struggle, socialist politics that is not “our demand”. It is the demand of the SNP. It is the demand of a Scottish populism which has gelled around a hard-core of militant nationalism.
To recognise that the SNP can legitimately argue that it has a mandate for a second independence referendum by virtue of the general election result in Scotland is one thing. To actively campaign for that demand is something else entirely.
To adopt it as “our demand” is to abandon class politics and to take on the role of bag-carrier for the SNP. This is made even worse by the Open Letter’s appeal for the left across the UK to reduce itself to the same level of political servility.
Many readers of the Open Letter will, no doubt, instinctively think of the original Swedish translation of the Communist Manifesto by Pehr Gotrek. He translated the closing words of the Manifesto (“Workers of the World – Unite!”) as: “The Voice of the People is the Voice of God.”
Gotrek translated the slogan of international workers solidarity into the language of religious mysticism. The Open Letter translates the demand of nationalist mysticism into a bombastic caricature of the language of the left.
“Open Letter: Scottish Labour for Radical Democracy”: