By Dave Sherry
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State of the nations

This article is over 9 years, 4 months old
It is increasingly likely that a referendum on Scottish independence will take place in the autumn of 2014. Dave Sherry looks at the growing tensions within the Scottish National Party and argues that socialists should back independence while emphasising class politics within the campaign
Issue 372

Political prediction is a risky business at any time, but at the moment the odds favour a Scottish independence referendum taking place according to the timetable set by the SNP-run devolved Scottish government – two years from now in the autumn of 2014. What is not yet clear is the exact nature of the question or questions that will be asked and who will be allowed to vote. In the present circumstances members and supporters of the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland will be arguing and campaigning for a vote for independence.

This is essentially for the following reasons. Firstly, the United Kingdom is an imperialist power that pillages the world’s resources. It is a state currently at war in Afghanistan. It operates in alliance with US imperialism, which is willing to intervene in Syria and Iran, should it see fit. A yes vote in the referendum will weaken the British state and make it more difficult for it to play the role as the US’s junior partner in crime. That’s why Cameron is so desperate to preserve unity. Calling for the break-up of Britain means that independence can be supported for anti-imperialist reasons and not to line up behind the nationalists of the SNP.

Secondly, the “Save the Union” campaign is jingoism at its worst. It asks voters to wrap themselves in the Union Jack and endorse a reactionary conception of Britishness that rests on imperialism, racism and anti-immigrant hysteria. The dominant tone of the campaign will not be about the unity of the British working class, which should not be confused with the unity of the British state.

Thirdly, devolution has become a means of delegating responsibility for austerity to the lowest levels possible. Cameron could live with granting more devolution including tax-raising powers. If nothing else, in a separate Scottish state the responsibility for cuts could no longer be passed to Westminster by the elected government of Scotland. But it would also be fatal for socialists to give a left cover to the pro-Union case. If we fail to put forward an argument for class politics within the independence campaign, the alternatives on offer will simply be the Unionist and Nationalist positions, with the rest of the Scottish left tail-ending the nationalists.

There are a couple of other things we have to say about the referendum. First, only people (of whatever origin) who actually live in Scotland should have the right to vote in the referendum. We expect the right of self determination to be supported by English and Welsh workers, but it is not for them to vote on the issue. Second, we are for the right of the Scottish government to set the questions it chooses without interference from Westminster. All of this means involvement in bodies like the cross-party Scottish Independence Campaign and in the debates and forums already launched or planned by the Scottish TUC (STUC), the major unions and other civic bodies across Scotland.

With voting still two years away and so much else happening at home and abroad, socialists in Scotland can’t become totally obsessed with the referendum, but neither can we stand back and simply watch.

The debate about future independence is already having political ramifications. The fight that has started to erupt inside and around the SNP over the leadership’s plan to dump the party’s most radical and popular policy, and replace it with one that keeps an independent Scotland in the Nato alliance, is a major turning point for the SNP government and the debate on Scottish independence. It should ring alarm bells for the left and ram home the need for a serious, socialist intervention that won’t accommodate to the nationalist project.

Until the run-up to the Scottish council elections in May this year SNP leader Alex Salmond had enjoyed a relatively easy ride, dominating the Scottish political scene with ease. In the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament, the SNP attracted the most left wing voters because it opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the replacement of Trident. It was also committed to social policies once identified with Labour – protecting local health services, scrapping the unfair council tax, doubling the provision of free nursery places for three and four year olds and ending student debt.

Historic breakthrough
Victory in 2007 was a historic breakthrough for the SNP. For the first time in 50 years Labour was no longer the majority party in Scotland. The SNP won 47 out of 129 seats for the Holyrood parliament, gaining one seat more than Labour to be the largest party. This enabled the SNP to form a minority government. It managed a full four-year term and had an excuse for not delivering on its commitments – the lowest level of financial settlement from the UK Treasury since the establishment of Scottish devolution in 1997 and an alliance of the other major parties that threatened to block its parliamentary bills.

Even in 2010 when the SNP government “reluctantly” accepted a savage Tory cut to the Scottish block grant and responded by cutting the Scottish social housing budget by an unprecedented 35 percent, Salmond could argue that it was not as bad as what had happened to social housing in England and Wales, where funding had been slashed by 65 percent.

In the general election of 2010 the Labour vote in Scotland held up at the expense of the SNP – a class response to the threat of another Tory UK government. Before the Scottish parliamentary election in 2011, and with the Tories now back in charge in Westminster, the general expectation was that Labour’s working class base in Scotland would return to the fold and Labour would repeat its success of a year ago.

Labour initially held a considerable lead over the SNP but quickly squandered it. Labour ran an inept election campaign, based on frightening voters with the spectre of independence and the break-up of Britain, highlighting local crime, pandering to racism and bragging that only Labour could defend people from the Tory threat to jobs, services and welfare. It was negative in the extreme and out of touch with Labour’s traditional working class base.

Despite an electoral system designed to make coalition government inevitable, the SNP surprised everyone, winning an overall majority of nine seats. The SNP took one seat from the Tories, eight from the Lib Dems and 20 from Labour. Crucially it had taken all but one of those Labour seats in its working class heartlands. In the past the SNP had captured safe Labour seats in Westminster by-elections. But these always reverted back to Labour at the subsequent general elections. This time a more profound shift had taken place, at least in a Scottish Parliament context. The Unite union in Scotland estimated that over 40 percent of its members voted SNP in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election.

However, this year there have been growing signs that Salmond’s star is on the wane. A former economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland, he has always been committed to a pro-business, neoliberal agenda. In the period before the financial crash and the euro crisis, he championed Royal Bank of Scotland as an example of what a great Scottish-based institution could achieve. His slogan was “Scotland independent in Europe” and he argued that Scotland could join “the arc of prosperity” with Iceland and Ireland and become another “Celtic Tiger” – in plain language that meant a low-wage economy competing with other low-wage economies. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

Crucially Salmond was damaged in the run-up to the May council elections this year by the revelations about his friendship with Rupert Murdoch and the public backing the Sun gave to him and the SNP. It also emerged that Salmond, like Tory cabinet member Jeremy Hunt, had promised to back Murdoch’s attempt to gain total control over BSkyB.

Labour leader Ed Miliband managed to force Salmond into a clumsy attempt to explain away his association with Murdoch and this helps explain why Labour performed well in the council elections, retaining control of Glasgow city council when the SNP had boasted they would win it. Labour also became the biggest single group on Edinburgh city council. Despite everything the support for Labour in its traditional heartlands remains resilient.

Capitalist Scotland
Salmond and the SNP are fully committed to making Scotland more successful in capitalist terms. Even in their first ever budget at the end of 2007 the priorities were clear. Money was spent ensuring that the council tax did not go up, while business rates went down, hitting local authority services. Promises to free former students from their debts, to offer grants to first-time house buyers and to cut class sizes were all ditched. The public sector was put under strict financial discipline to achieve two percent efficiency savings year on year.

This budget was only passed with Tory support on the basis that the SNP government would speed up the abolition of business rates for 120,000 small businesses and reduce them for 30,000 more. In June this year SNP finance minister John Swinney told BBC News Scotland, “The Scottish government is providing all the support we can to the business community under the current circumstances. Within the limited powers we have, we have already ensured that Scotland has the most competitive business rates in the UK….The culture of business we can build in an independent Scotland with a ‘can do’ attitude, means taking decisions in Scotland, in the interests of Scotland.”

Socialists need to engage with all those who see the referendum as an opportunity to win something better than what’s on offer from the SNP. That includes those who presently favour maximum devolution – or “devo max” as it is referred to. This is the preferred option of most Scots. It would increase the devolved powers by putting the Scottish Parliament in control of all taxation and all state functions, with the exception of those controlled by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Bank of England.

Devo max
As things stand at present this won’t be an option on the ballot paper. Salmond and the SNP leadership know there is not yet a majority for independence. Devo max is what they think they can achieve in the short to medium term. They see it as a stepping stone to full independence, but cannot argue openly for it to be on the ballot paper without incurring the wrath of the traditionalist wing of the party. Anything short of full independence spells betrayal for the hard-line nationalists.

Salmond is also aware such a move would allow the Unionist camp to ridicule him for running scared of a straight yes/no vote on independence. So the SNP leadership is trying to encourage popular pressure from the unions and civic society to make it impossible for the devo max option to be excluded, without directly intervening as the Scottish government to impose this.

Cameron wants to win the vote against independence, but even if he does, demands for greater devolution of powers will continue and could lead to a further referendum for devo max. After his botched attempt in January to force Salmond to bring the referendum forward, Cameron has gone public on his willingness to concede further measures of devolution, but only if and after voters have rejected independence. At the moment it’s a phoney war, with the media obsessed by the manoeuvring and shadow boxing in the various camps.

The existence of Scottish nationhood is not in question and there is no reason why Scotland could not become a capitalist nation-state like any other. It is hypocrisy to oppose Scottish nationalism and claim that it is reactionary, while remaining silent about British nationalism or, even worse, championing it.

The Guardian quoted the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, a key figure in the pro-Unionist campaign, arguing that the Olympics represented “a detoxifying of the Union Jack”. And according to BBC Scotland, Gordon Brown, another prominent figure in the Unionist camp, has claimed the Union between Scotland and England played a part in Britain’s Olympic success. Of course, Gordon is also the man who coined the phrase “British jobs for British workers” – a most pernicious form of nationalism that Salmond would never condone.

Labour’s leaders north and south of the border have entered a bloc with the Tories and the Lib Dems against both independence and the inclusion of the devo max option on the ballot paper. But the Labour leadership’s position on this does not reflect the views of the STUC and many other forces on the Labour left in Scotland. The STUC, Unison, Unite and other major unions have opened up a debate among their members without yet having adopted a formal position on the referendum. This is a big shift from two or three years ago, when it was customary for most of the Labour left activists in these unions to attack the SNP as if it were the main enemy.

No illusions
The sparring between Salmond and Cameron over the timing of the referendum and what questions should be on the ballot paper has been running since the start of the year, when Salmond publicly outmanoeuvred Cameron. Since then things have gone from bad to worse for Cameron’s government, with the austerity programme failing badly, the economy shrinking and government borrowing rising, rather than falling.

No wonder a recent opinion poll shows the proportion of UK voters expecting the coalition to collapse within two years has doubled to 54 percent. The TUC march in London and the STUC march in Glasgow both take place on Saturday 20 October and there is a real possibility of coordinated mass strikes on the back of those protests. Together they provide us with the opportunity to inflict real damage on the government. If we succeed, Cameron and the coalition could be gone by the time the independence referendum is held in 2014.

We should be under no illusions about what kind of Scotland the SNP has in mind. Its commitment to retaining the royal family, sterling, the Bank of England and Nato, means it is a single-issue-party, intent on achieving independence and nothing else. James Connolly, the Edinburgh born revolutionary socialist, wrote about this very problem in Ireland in 1910: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic, your efforts would be in vain”.

The SNP solution is simple; it’s called Edinburgh government. There will be no change in the system of government and there will be no significant change in the corrupt, rotten society of which the present system of government is an integral part.

Instead, according to the SNP, as soon as we have our sovereign assembly in Edinburgh, its doors will open to a bright new future.

This propaganda is tantamount to the following: Coca-Cola rots your teeth when bottled in London; site the bottling plant at the end of the Royal Mile and Coca-Cola is good for you.

An independent Scotland would not be a socialist Scotland. There is nothing intrinsically beneficial about Scottish independence. To think otherwise is to encourage the myth that the Scots are more left wing than the English and spread the illusion that there can be a Scottish parliamentary road to socialism. Workers in Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland and beyond will still need unity in struggle against those who rule us. But the break-up of the UK would be a small victory for the world working class.

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