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Scottish independence: should socialists back it?

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
The question of Scottish independence is being hotly debated on the left. What is best for workers and the struggle against austerity? Here two socialists debate the arguments.
Issue 2320
Jim Harte (top) debates Neil Davidson (above)
Jim Harte (top) debates Neil Davidson (above)

The question of Scottish independence is being hotly debated on the left. What is best for workers and the struggle against austerity? Here two socialists debate the arguments.

NO: Jim Harte, an electrician and Labour councillor, fears independence could divide workers

As socialists and trade unionists, the debate around independence should examine the best way for redistributing the nation’s wealth and delivering social and economic justice for working and vulnerable people.

For those who advocate independence the question must be, “Can an independent Scotland improve on its current levels of public spending?”

A study by the Scottish Office under the last Labour government suggested that Scotland spends 145 percent of the tax it collects.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) would like Scotland to have a high spend, low tax economy. But it’s difficult to see how this can be achieved with full fiscal independence. It could end up with a low tax, low wage economy.

So what about “devo max”? It’s a system of full fiscal autonomy but paying the UK government for defence, foreign policy and other “shared services”.

This is a very attractive option in that we could have the benefits of independence but stay within the UK. Isn’t this what’s on offer from the SNP— independence whilst retaining sterling, shared services, membership of Nato and so on? Where is the difference?

There would still be the problem of raising revenue to a level that would sustain our current public spending. Can we really have a redistribution of the wealth in this country without influence at a British level? Much of Scotland’s economic capital is based in London.

That is why we must seek a fairer redistribution through a British solution where the wealthy south east of England would subsidise the poorer areas of the country—including Scotland. This couldn’t be achieved by independence or fiscal autonomy.


And as a trade unionist, I fear that independence could break up British trade unionism. There are things that bind us together—injustice in the workplace, protecting national agreements, fighting blacklisting, collective bargaining, health and safety, and protecting skills and apprenticeships.

The list goes on. But instead of working together we would be split—fighting the good fight in our own little parts of the world. Our collective would be reduced and our influence diminished further.

I have often wondered whether, if Scotland was independent, the electricians’ campaign against the Besna pay attacks would have been as successful as it was?

Would a Scottish solution have been found that would have excluded the rest of the UK? Instead we had the Scottish rank and file working hand in hand with the rank and file throughout the UK. This resulted in the most significant industrial trade union victory in the past 20 years.

As an internationalist, I feel that we should be reducing barriers not creating more. There is so much that binds us together—so much history that we have shared—and it would be a shame to discard that without justification.

This constitutional question should be about people, our people, and how they will be best served. Devolution is working for the Scottish people and more powers are needed.

But our people are best served by being part of a British solution to redistribution of income and wealth. Scotland can’t achieve it on its own.

YES: Neil Davidson, a lecturer and SWP member, argues against Britain’s state

The question for socialists is whether campaigning for independence on a socialist basis strengthens the left and the labour movement or not.

Some socialists have argued that separation would divide and weaken the British labour movement. But workers already belong to the same trade unions across the Irish/British border and could easily do so across the Scottish/rest of the UK border too.

And this argument confuses organisational structures with real unity. Obstacles to solidarity already exist and are caused by the cowardice of the trade union bureaucracy, and subservience to the Labour Party.

It is this—not any future constitutional settlement—which is obstructing resistance.

It is understandable that socialists would rather be mobilising for the 20 October demonstration or fighting to defend our pensions than debating independence.

But we never operate in “conditions of our own choosing”, as Marx put it. There is going to be a referendum. In it the arguments for the status quo are highly unlikely to be about the Chartists or the Suffragettes.

Instead, we are going to be faced with a carnival of imperialist reaction in which the virtues of the Union will be represented by the British Army and Sirs Sugar and Branson.

To give any “left” support to this would be disastrous. But to call for independence to increase the chances of pulling Scotland out of the slaughter in Afghanistan and to kick out Nato’s weapons of mass destruction, is to make a genuine socialist argument.

These will not be bestowed on us by the SNP. We will have to fight for them. But with the coalition government in Westminster weak and in turmoil, a vote for independence can help to destabilise the ruling class further.


We must also assess the alternatives. Devolution was widely supported during the 1980s and 1990s because it offered Scottish politicians a way of distancing themselves from the Thatcher and Major regimes.

It was an issue of democracy and one which could be accepted by bourgeois politicians like Tony Blair because it did not threaten capitalist economic or social power.

But particularly since the onset of crisis in 2007, devolution in the broader sense has become a neoliberal strategy. It is now primarily a means of delegating responsibility for imposing austerity from central governments to devolved governments, to local councils, to services and so on.

This is why more intelligent Tories would be prepared to accept extensions of devolution up to “devo max”. Devo max is sometimes described as being the best of both worlds, and so it is—for the British ruling class.

It would retain the military and diplomatic coherence of the imperialist state, while shuffling responsibility for making the cuts onto Edinburgh.

In these circumstances, without any illusions in the power of individual states, a directly accountable Scottish government is politically preferable. Finally, our attitude to Scottish independence is not dependent on our attitude to SNP policy.

We have to oppose SNP cuts, backsliding over withdrawal from Nato and so on. But unless the left has its own arguments for independence the SNP will simply dominate the campaign. The stakes for the Scottish left are very high.


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