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:
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.