Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Scottish Referendum

By Peter Rowlands    

I couldn't get to the WLG meeting on this but I have read the pieces by Gordon and Nick and would like to offer my own thoughts, partly in order to redress the balance of the debate, which here and elsewhere appeared to reflect majority support on the left for 'Yes'.

Let me say first of all that 'Yes' had a strong case. Although Scotland (and Wales) have had a Labour majority at every general election since 1964, they have been subjected to Tory governments for over half the period since, while North Sea oil and a relatively diverse economy made independence credible. Scottish Labour post 1999 appeared Blairite and anti-devolution, thus playing into the SNP's hands, as opposed to Welsh Labour's ‘Clear red water’ and pro-devolution stance, although change from the previous Kinnock anti-devolution line was hard-fought. However, it is, I think, reasonable to assume that, had Welsh Labour's approach been adopted in Scotland, the SNP would never have formed a government and there would have been no referendum.

The debate itself was conducted in a largely negative manner by the 'No' side, which emphasised fear and risk rather than positive arguments, and, implicitly at least, argued an imperialist nostalgia (shades of Andy Stewart’s Scottish Soldier), although the violent intervention of the Orange Order perhaps indicated what this really represented. Labour, however, largely went along with this and did not attempt to promote any sort of left-wing case, which was left to a few MPs and trade unions and never really surfaced.

The build-up to the referendum saw an intense national debate in Scotland, which included large public meetings and resulted in an exceptionally high turnout of 85%. No supporter of democracy could fail to be impressed by this, although this was hardly the attitude of the establishment and main parties as it became clear that the effect was an increase in the 'Yes' vote.

The net effect of all of this was a greater degree of support for the 'Yes' campaign from the left that might other wise have been the case. In my view this was wrong, and the left should have campaigned for the 'No' vote, although as I said above, the left case for this barely surfaced.

Let us look at some fundamentals. Socialists generally oppose nationalism on the grounds that it obscures the real class divisions in society. Where national self-determination has been supported, it has been because the resolution of the national question is of such significance to the people concerned that it is judged that without it there can be no development of socialist consciousness. This was the basis of left support for anti-colonial struggles, or of other repression of minorities (yes, this is a gross simplification of a complex picture, but I believe broadly right).

Today, that certainly means support for an independent Kurdistan, and probably for a united Ireland. (Sinn Fein have obviously decided that demography will deliver what semtex couldn't). There is even a case to be made out on these grounds for Wales, although the requisite level of national feeling required is not there, being confined to a minority in the North and West.

But it doesn't apply to Scotland, where union with England was mutually agreed in 1707. Rapid industrial development in the nineteenth century based on heavy industry saw the rise of a powerful labour movement, enhanced after the decline of the Conservative/Unionist vote in the 1960s and the rise of the SNP.

The SNP have been successful for reasons described above, because of Salmond's political talents in seeming to be able to face in different political directions at the same time without losing credibility, and because sections of the left who should know better have supported the 'Yes' campaign. The far left have done so for opportunistic reasons, to maintain a high profile, but many in ‘Radical Independence’ seem to have built up enormous illusions in the possibilities for radical change following independence. What they have done, in fact, is to have supported nationalism. It may be a fairly acceptable sort of civic nationalism, with xenophobia and 'Braveheart' bollocks kept in check, but it is nationalism nevertheless, and to repeat the point it weakens the left by obscuring the class divisions which are as strong in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK. The left generally would be weakened by independence, as Salmond's business friends are well aware. Exhortations to forgo wage increases and accept cuts would all be ‘for the sake of our new nation’, and would make the task of trade unionists and socialists harder, particularly because of the lack of control over the economy because of remaining with sterling. Meanwhile, the rest of the UK would lose 50-odd Labour MPs and a significant part of the activist cadre within the trade union movement. It would make electing a Labour government much harder, particularly if Wales followed suit with a further loss of 30-odd MPs. Scottish independence would, therefore, be disadvantageous to both Scotland and the rest of the UK (and to Wales, in the unlikely event of it happening there).

The growth of nationalism is, in part, a reflection of dissatisfaction with the prevailing political set-up, as is the growth of parties like UKIP, who want to leave the EU. But neither supply any real answers. They are distractions, blind alleys. In my view, the only credible way to begin to create a social-democratic, and hopefully eventually a socialist, society which is able to challenge global capital is on an EU-wide basis.

What is ironic is that the struggle for Scottish independence has actually resulted in (a promise of) a form of ‘home rule’, ‘devo max’, which most Scots would have voted for anyway had they had the choice! (Was this what the wily Salmond had in mind all along?) And, of course, that means not only its extension to Wales, but the opening up of a renewed debate about federalism and devolution for the whole of the UK, including the regions of England. If that results in a real devolution of power away from the stranglehold of a metropolitan elite in London, then much will have been achieved.

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