Scottish Independence

The British capitalist class is facing a crisis: The possibility of an independent Scotland. How should socialists and working class fighters see this issue? In our view, we have to start with a look at the consciousness of the working class and how independence would affect that consciousness. Below are some comments from a series of socialists, the moderator of this blog site included:

John Reimann writes:

The workers’ struggle for a better life – better pay, jobs, housing, social services, etc. – has been dealt major set backs the world over, including in Great Britain. At almost every turn, the workers’ movement is blocked by its own leadership, or in the case of the Labour Party… well, some would claim that such a workers’ leadership doesn’t even exist anymore. In the past, workers could and did more or less wait for the call from their leaders to mobilize. Now, no such call comes. This throws a huge task onto workers. “You, yourself, have to sit down with your fellow workers, figure out the state of affairs and take the initiative. You cannot just wait for a greater power to bring people together; you have to start down that road yourself.” (I’m not advocating for spontaneity or just waiting for workers on their own to do things. My point is that no matter how sound and reasonable some small group of socialists may be, workers will mainly evaluate them on the basis of whether they think this group actually has any real power, in other words what “authority” it has.) That is a bitter pill to swallow, and the present situation shows that time after time, workers are tending to look for what appears to be the easy road out. So where nationalist or other similar approaches seem to solve the problem, millions of workers flock to that approach.
That is the issue that socialists have to deal with.
Not being there, it’s impossible for me to really judge whether Scottish independence would make it easier, would encourage Scottish workers to organize and take the lead of the working class throughout the British Isles. But one advocate of a vote for independence has given the example of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), which split away from the United Auto Workers in the US. This is actually an example against a “yes” vote. At the time of that split there was more militancy in some Canadian plants than in the US. The Canadian leadership encouraged a nationalist mood, leading to the split. They never posed the necessity of fighting to get rid of the UAW international leadership and change their policies. Nor did they ever hint at the fact that what happened in the US plants would ultimately have a huge effect on what happened in the Canadian plants. And what has been the result? Recently the US auto manufacturers have been shifting production away from Canada into the US, where wages are lower. And there is growing rumblings amongst the Canadian auto workers about some concessionary contracts there. Clearly, the move for separation was a diversion away from the real struggle.
It is similar in the Carpenters, who are organized in both the US and Canada. There was a decades long campaign among the British Columbia carpenters for “autonomy”.  I was up there in 1999 and I supported autonomy at the time. There was the beginning of a move for outright separation, and my view was similar to what it is about Scottish independence – would this lead to a stronger union? The main issue was (and still is) the question of the “team concept” and the idea that the union carpenters had to help “their” contractors compete with the non-union contractors. This was the idea that had to be fought, and if separation made it easier to fight it, then fine, but it had to be fought throughout the industry and the union movement. Ultimately the BC carpenters did split away, but under nationalist lines in a sense, and without squarely confronting that issue. And with what results? Now, there are the same complaints about rotten contracts pushed through by that very same leadership that we have throughout the rest of the Carpenters Union.
The issue of a union splitting off is not exactly the same as that of Scottish independence, but there are some common issues, as Tim’s raising the issue of the Canadian auto workers shows. One of the main issues in common is whether the nationalism is being raised as something of a diversion; whether it is playing into the reluctance of workers to confront that difficult question, to swallow that bitter pill that they, themselves, have to figure things out and have to take the initiative. Obviously, that is exactly what the Scottish National Party is doing – trying to divert the anger over austerity, etc. into nationalism and away from the class struggle. The question is whether the socialists are combatting that enough. I briefly looked through the material of the Socialist Party of Scotland (CWI), the Scottish Socialist Party and Tommy Sheridan’s group, “Hope Not Fear” (the name says it all — hope that things will get better). From what I looked at, I have to say that they don’t do that. Instead they focus on whether the economy (that is, a capitalist economy) would collapse in an independent (capitalist) Scotland, etc. Yes, a phrase here and there can be found that indicates otherwise, but that’s not the main thrust.
I think socialists should emphasize the following: “Prepare to defend yourself. No matter which way the vote goes, no matter whether we remain in Great Britain or are independent, the attacks on the working class and the poor will continue. The attacks on women will continue. The Labour Party and the Conservatives will attack you. The Scottish National Party will attack you. These attacks are part of the attacks of global capitalism on workers the world over. Organize in such-and-such a way to fight back. Link up with your fellow workers in the British Isles and throughout the EU and globally.” Then, in that context, the question can be posed about how to vote, but that is really a secondary question in my opinion. And in that context, I don’t necessarily think that advocating a “no” vote would necessarily be ruled out, although the more I think about it, the more I would tend to think socialists might advocate a blank ballot, which would mean a vote of no confidence in Labour, the Tories and the SNP. But that is really secondary, in my opinion.
Ed Bober writes:
I fully agree that unity of the working class across the British Isles is a paramount consideration. And I don’t think that national boundaries as shaped by bourgeois politics need be a barrier to working class organisations.
I also think this is developing into a major crisis for the British ruling class. A “yes” victory in the polls could undermine Cameron’s position as party leader even before the election next year. As the article posted by Tim illustrates, this campaign has already had a big impact in increasing political interest amongst the masses in Scotland, already too this is having repercussions within the English working class: more willingness to discuss politics.
My impression (from England so therefore tentative) is that the more establishment figures clamour to reverse the swing of public opinion, the more the Scottish working class draws the conclusion that it is better to be rid of these hypocrites based in London. The Labour leaders are distrusted almost as much as the Tories.
To me these developments illustrate the correctness of supporting a vote for Scottish independence,  not with any illusion that a capitalist Scotland would be any better, but because a “Yes” majority would deepen the political crisis for the British ruling class: something that will serve to help develop the revolutionary movement in Britain as a whole.
Marxist have a problem in a situation like this. We know that both the lies of the SNP leaders need exposing as well as the lies of the London politicians. Many Scottish people see this as a vote about defence of public services, defence of the NHS, opposition to the cuts, defence of living standards. Alex Salmond is preparing cuts. We can be sure that a newly independent Scotland will face all manner of neo-liberal “shock doctrine” pressures for austerity and privatisation. But a victory for the “No” campaign would also result in similar pressures, which in the minds of many Scottish people would be seen as the consequence of not having won independence.  The best way to expose SNP policies is for Yes to win. This will open up a more fertile political situation for revolutionaries. It will create better circumstances in which a party to the left of he SNP can be built. Such a development in Scotland would raise the level of political consciousness of workers in England and Wales.
Roger Silverman writes:

I’m not so sure. Like the rest of us, I would of course celebrate a YES result next week. It would make me personally tingle with excitement: not because it would advance the cause of the socialist revolution by a single inch, but simply because it will be such a thrill to witness the catastrophic humiliation of the British ruling class. Losing an empire was bad enough; this is amputation.

That is not to say, in my opinion, that a YES result would necessarily be preferable. It would drive a further wedge into the solidarity of the working class. It is the democratic right of the people of Scotland (and equally, for instance, that of Eastern Ukraine) to separate if they so decide; and, given the justified popular hatred of Westminster rule (whether under a Tory, New Labour or Con-Dem coalition government), it would be unthinkable to campaign for the NO camp. But the reality we have to face up to is that the surge for Scottish independence represents a retreat for the class struggle and an expression of despair.

As a handful of individuals, our preference as to which side wins the referendum is immaterial. If we had any influence, then rather than align ourselves either with the British ruling class or with an aspirant separate Scottish bourgeois government, as socialists we are duty bound to argue for a workers’ socialist federation of Britain, or even perhaps of the British Isles. Our predicament will be just the same if it comes to a referendum in Britain (or what’s left of it) over membership of the European Union. Do we align ourselves with UKIP? Or with the CBI? Whether we as individuals vote YES, or NO, or abstain, all our political energies must be concentrated on arguing for a socialist united states of Europe.

Having said that, the question of which result in this current referendum would be more favourable to attaining that objective is in my opinion a matter of conjecture and speculation, not of principle. Neither a continuation of the union nor the foundation of an independent Scotland can in themselves help the workers’ cause at all unless there is a resurgence of mass struggle and of class solidarity transcending national boundaries.

The immediate risk of separation is entirely due to the arrogance and stupidity of the Tories. Initially, they thought that, while support for independence stood at about 30-odd per cent, it would be clever to concede the SNP’s call for a referendum. Give them their referendum, they thought, and get it out of the way. Then they thought it would be even cleverer to deny voters the compromise option of “devo-max” (a maximum  extension of devolved powers, which would probably have won a big majority), under the delusion that they could frighten the electorate into defeating the SNP hands down, so that such concessions would be unnecessary. Now that they face imminent disaster, all three major Westminster parties are lavishing every kind of promise on Scotland, amounting  to virtual autonomy, provided they are left with the formal token acknowledgement of union.

And yet every step that they take plunges them deeper into trouble. Cameron’s recent promise to the electorate that he will be “heartbroken” if Scotland leaves the union must already on its own have added yet another few percentage points to the likely YES vote. If we add to that the hardly very helpful interventions by the Orange Order, UKIP and Henry Kissinger, all of whom are currently campaigning on the government’s behalf, then you begin to wonder what result they really want. Meanwhile, mass disillusionment with the Labour Party has been fatally sealed by its eagerness to do the dirty work for the Tories by taking official charge of the NO campaign, and explicitly acting as their obedient catspaws.


What the SNP leaders are offering is anything but a real break with Tory policies. Beyond their manipulative demagogy about humanity and social care, their only hard promises are sops to the bankers and big business to cut corporation tax and the higher-rate of income tax even lower than their current rates in Britain, to lure “investors” into Scotland. Nor do they even promise genuine independence, but only continued allegiance to the British monarchy, continued membership of NATO and the EU, and continued use of the British pound sterling currency. Their former favourite economic “role models”, Iceland and the other “Celtic tiger” Ireland, no longer seem to have much allure.

If Thursday’s vote results in a victory for YES, that would almost guarantee a built-in Tory majority at Westminster, leaving the English, Welsh and Northern Irish working class at the mercy of a vicious and vindictive newly-strengthened Tory government implementing a UKIP manifesto under Boris Johnson’s leadership. Meanwhile, it’s true that in Scotland the actual experience of an independent Scottish government would quickly expose the demagogy and hypocrisy of the SNP. Rather than inspire a militant working-class resistance, though, this is at least as likely initially to demoralise the working class and deepen despair among the youth. Let’s remember that this is no longer the Scotland of John MacLean and the “Red Clydesiders”. The closure of the coal mines, the shipyards and whole swathes of industry have drastically reduced the size, specific weight and combativity of the Scottish working class.

A NO victory still seems more probable than not, given the overall balance of the opinion polls, the numbers still uncommitted and therefore more susceptible to conservatism, and the renewed scare campaign waged by companies hypocritically threatening disinvestment. If the government had had the foresight in advance to offer the compromise option on the ballot paper of “devo-max”, that would surely have prevailed. Now they find themselves forced to concede so much that, apart from the vital psychological impact of separation – a political symbolism which would be devastating for British imperialism – in real practical terms, given also the minimal programme of the SNP, the actual material consequences of either a YES or NO vote are hardly distinguishable.

And yet even a narrow victory for NO will still leave British capitalism damaged forever. This manifestation of deep-rooted mass hatred for the British ruling class has dealt it an unforgettable shock. It is a token of its impotence, and a source of hope for future far more substantial victories.

Finn Geaney writes:

It would be a mistake for socialists to support the demand for Scottish independence. Irrespective of the level of support for a ‘Yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum the stance that ought to be adopted by socialists should not be determined solely by the mood within the working class, even that within the organised labour movement. Nationalism has nothing to offer workers or society in the advanced industrial countries, and an independent Scotland will not improve the living standards of Scottish workers nor will it make easier the growth of socialist consciousness within the labour movement in Scotland, in the UK as a whole or internationally.
The current demand for indepence was fomented initially by the Scottish Nationalist Party, an organised body of Scottish Tories. While they might affect an air of radicalism now, that will change quickly should independence come about. What will be the response of comrades when living standards begin to fall and social services and jobs are cut in the period following ‘independence’, should it come about! For such will be the inevitable outcome. It will be no defence then to proclaim that the mood amongst workers was in favour of independence prior to the referendum.
A ‘yes’ vote would not easily be reversed, for restoration of the UK would require two referenda, one asking UK citizens whether they favoured reunification.
Socialists argue in favour of workers’ unity whatever stance is taken on the referendum. Yet in concrete terms how could one call for unity within the labour movement while at the same time withdrawing a large percentage of Labour representatives from the UK Parliament.
Anybody who is seeking arguments against the futility of nationalism in the modern epoch need look no further than Ireland, where living standards have collapsed and mass unemployment has become the norm. Incidentally a few years ago Alex Salmon used to point to Ireland as an example of the successes that could be achieved with independence.
Moods can change. The fact that many thousands of workers have attended meetings in favour of an independent Scotland is not an argument. The failure of the labour leaders to present an alternative to the ravages of capitalism has created the climate in which nationalism can grow. The same is true for the rise of backward religious movements in many areas of the world.
Socialist activists are unfortunately at this stage unable to influence events. That is all the more reason for clarity of ideas. Many areas of the globe have been riven by nationalist divisions. Only an international socialist movement can combat this trend. In the meantime it is essential to maintain unity of working class, regardless of the apparent short-term advantages.
The Scottish people have the right to vote for independence and they have a right to self-determination. But that is not to say that socialists always support the exercise of that right.


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