One of the interesting, though perhaps more bizarre aspects of the current independence debate in Scotland is how some sections of the Scottish Left have been shifting to the right and even slipping into the nationalist camp, apparently without noticing it; others have adopted a strategy which hints at radical change but in their effort to achieve this, promote its ideological antithesis.
This latter position is most clearly articulated by the SWP and a range of other groups and individuals in the Radical Independence Campaign. Their argument that they support independence and not nationalism is premised on the belief that there will be a disintegration of the British state following a Yes vote.
The former is most closely associated with the remnants of the Scottish Socialist Party and others, like the Labour for Independence group (origins and purpose contested) who previously might have voted for, or even have been members of the Labour Party; it is a straightforward recognition that fundamental change is not on the agenda and some form of limited social democracy is the best we can hope for. Of the two it is position that carries more weight.
It may be difficult to believe that socialists in Scotland, many of whom were loud in their condemnation, and correctly so, of Labour’s seduction by right wing ideas under Blair, can support a nationalist agenda, but here is how Colin Fox, the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, received the launch of the SNP’s economically right wing White Paper:
“The white paper sets out a vision of independence that represents a significant advance for Scotland in my view – affording us the right to self-determination and the chance to build the type of nation we want.”
To be fair to Colin he highlights its weaknesses as well as what he sees as its strengths, but it is the political shift of a Party that once presented itself as an advocate of radical socialism that is important here. As spokesperson of the SSP, Colin is acknowledging that in itself the White Paper marks an advance (despite its neo-liberal economic assumptions) but that, more importantly it offers the ‘chance’ to build the kind of nation we want thereby signalling that the SSP will accept independence even if it does not lead in a left direction. In other words, by accepting independence as an objective in itself, he is thereby re-defining the SSP as a nationalist party. And if that is not enough, despite attacking the limitations of the White Paper, Colin signs up the left to work for independence among working class voters despite any guarantees of a better Scotland:
“Left-wing organisations that support independence such as the Scottish Socialist Party have a crucial role to play in persuading working-class voters who are justly sceptical of the sort of change Alex Salmond and the SNP have in mind that they would still be better off with independence.”
Why they would be any better off if the SNP’s pro NATO, pro EU Pro monarchy, pro low business tax Scotland, as it almost certainly would be, is based on two unstated assumptions. The first is that a vote for independence is not a vote for the SNP and the second is that the politics of an independent Scotland will indeed be more progressive.
These are both unfounded. It is indeed the SNP’s white paper we are voting on, a party which had the highest share of the popular vote in the recent European election and the last Scottish Parliament elections and has the greatest number of councillors. It is by any measure the dominant political force in Scotland and is not about to disappear any time soon.
Meanwhile the myths bubbling up around Scottish ‘exceptionalism’ are surely bursting. In May in the run up to the European elections, where UKIP managed to win a seat in Scotland the Glasgow Herald had already reported: “UKIP policies to curb immigration, cut overseas aid and crack down on benefits claimants are backed by a majority of Scots, a surprise new poll suggests…”
This poses a significant political and largely ignored challenge (by the SNP) to its desire to increase productivity by growing Scotland’s population through increased immigration.
To the left of the SSP’s analysis we have the SWP and other Radical Independence supporters who argue that a Scottish secession will somehow or another lead to the break-up of the British state. This assumes of course that the British state can neither be reformed or transformed though existing democratic institutions but, as the old light bulb joke would have it, can only be smashed. Leaving aside the debate on the nature of the British state and whether in Keir Hardie’s view it is a ‘useful donkey’ or in Marx’s that ‘it is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’, the question that needs to be answered by its Left advocates is how a Scottish secession fundamentally weakens it, in either an independent Scotland or in rUK.
Bear in mind that the state that will most likely emerge in Scotland will be deeply tied to that of the rUK through our integrated economy, (perhaps through a currency pact). In rUK, the power of finance capital, umbilically linked to the brokers of political power, will remain untouched in the City of Westminster where it will still control the flows of capital in and out of Scotland.
A real challenge to the power of capital in an independent Scotland would require in the words of James Stafford in Renewal a “chaviste economic strategy of nationalisation, investment and redistribution …” it would also mean “…capital and exchange controls, as well as the swift abandonment of EU membership. This is a recipe unlikely to meet with either success or popularity in a small, open, wealthy and European economy like Scotland’s; even less so during the brief initial period when the framing conditions for Scottish independence would be decided …”
As Stafford suggets above, such a strategy would at the very least require an honest dialogue with and compelling narrative offered to Scottish working people and their institutions about the difficult and dangerous political terrain they were about to move onto. Not only has such dialogue not been entered into, while sections of the ultra-left massage each other’s delusions about the possibility of radical change following the referendum, the main Yes campaign of which they are part sets out quite a different future.
In the Yes Campaign’s ‘Your Choice’ pamphlet, in a section headed “WELCOME TO SCOTLAND 2020” it cites the example of Barbara “Today: Up to her eyes in paperwork, Barbara wishes she had more time to focus on what she does best – running the most popular pub in town. 2020 A hardworking businesswoman, Barbara has always had what it takes. Now freed up from high business taxes and red tape, she has a thriving pub on her hands and her employees are happy and productive thanks to the new guarantee to raise the minimum wage at least in line with inflation.”
So, on the one hand a section of the Scottish Left espouses national independence for its own sake in the hope that it provides a chance for a better future, while another pretends to promote revolutionary change through support for independence, while in effect supporting a campaign for a Scotland of entrepreneurial aspiration.
Whatever the result of the referendum, both these left factions will be marginalised, but all the more marginalised if it is a No vote. This is not because they have not tried to have strategic engagement with the working class. They have tried very hard to engage, to the extent of abandoning their own objectives in favour some quite toxic to the left. The problem is that they do not have a credible strategy for serious social change. That is not an area where the Labour Left can feel an excess of confidence either which is why, as soon as the vote in September is over, the Scottish Labour left needs to meet and discuss our strategy and programme for fundamental change. A No vote must also mean another country.