Interview: Don't march with nationalists
Tina Becker spoke to Sandy McBurney of Glasgow Left Unity about the September 18 referendum
What do you think the outcome will be?
I expect that the ‘no’ vote will still win, despite the fact that the difference between the two positions in the polls has shrunk to around 10%-15%, compared to November last year, when the anti-independence vote was in the lead by 20 points or more.
The ‘yes’ camp is really asking people to make a huge leap into the dark. We don’t even know which currency is going to be used after independence. Most of those who have jobs or are in an economically secure position are simply not willing to take that risk. But amongst the unemployed and those who are having a hard time, undoubtedly support for ‘yes’ has grown stronger. Things are so grim, they are looking for any kind of change.
The growth of nationalism is, of course, down to the defeats of the working class and the resulting decline of class-consciousness across Britain. The Labour Party has abandoned the working class and the socialist tradition seems dead or dying. The Scottish Nationalist Party knows that in order to win majority support for independence, it needs to win over workers in what used to be the socialist heartlands of Glasgow and the west of Scotland and they have started to make significant inroads there. The attacks of the Con-Dem government on working people have created the conditions under which organisations like the SNP have been able to grow, as they seem to offer an easy way out from increasing social misery.
Which other groups are involved in the official ‘yes’ campaign?
It is heavily dominated by the SNP, but the left nationalist Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) has also grown in the last few months. They are pushing the illusion that an independent capitalist Scotland would be a step forward for workers. Their central slogan is nationalist and simplistic: “Britain is for the rich - Scotland can be ours”, which has a certain traction, given the absence of a socialist alternative.
They are conducting a much livelier campaign than Better Together, which is hardly visible on the ground, and they are managing to put on big public meetings, particularly in small towns. The RIC are leafleting in working class areas and organising voter registrations. They are also doing a much better job on social media and all sorts of websites. On May Day this year, there was a large contingent of saltires, the flag of the Scottish establishment, as well as the Royal Scottish flag - the lion rampant - visible on the demonstration. The saltire dominated the RIC section of the march. This was a marked difference to May Days in previous years where the saltire was absent and the red flag was everywhere.
As should be expected, the growth in support for a ‘yes’ vote among workers is not being reflected in a growth in support for working class, socialist politics, but for Scottish nationalism. However, this support is still in a minority, although a larger minority than in the past. The ‘yes’ campaign is still polling poorly amongst young, first-time and female voters.
What about other sections of the organised left?
For a start, it is now much smaller than it used to be - it has dwindled to a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. And unfortunately most of what remains of it now effectively supports the ‘yes’ campaign: the Socialist Party’s Committee for a Workers’ International, the Socialist Workers Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the International Socialist Group, etc. Many people on the left are now trying to ‘out-nat’ the nationalists, calling for “real” independence. It is now apparent that even if there is a ‘no’ vote these groups will keep banging the nationalist drum and will try to give a nationalist dynamic and coloration to any working class fightback against austerity in Scotland.
Some of the smaller groups are for a ‘no’: for example the Campaign for Socialism in the Labour Party, the Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Appeal and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, but they are small and hardly visible. The Socialism First1 website is useful, but there is no real socialist campaign for a ‘no’ vote on the ground. Thus the socialist case for working class unity against the bosses is not gaining a wide hearing. Of course, no socialist could give any support to the Better Together campaign due to its conservative character. In the mass media it is British nationalism versus Scottish nationalism and you are being encouraged to take your pick between these two evils.
Does nobody advance the idea of a boycott? As you know, that is our position.
Not that I know of. All the supporters of a boycott in previous referendums have gone over to ‘yes’. For example, a picture of the leftwing actor, Tam Dean Burn, features prominently in a new leaflet promoted by the ‘yes’ campaign, which is dominated and controlled by of the SNP. You come across some people who say they are abstaining - a pox on both their houses - but that’s it.
Has there been no effort to build a socialist ‘no’ campaign?
Very little. There are some small signs of something coming together, but it is unlikely to have much impact before the referendum. George Galloway is pretty much the only one you hear of. He is organising fairly successful public meetings as part of his speaking tour, Just Say Naw. He doesn’t quite put the Marxist case against nationalism, but he does a fairly good job arguing in favour of working class unity. He makes the basic point that the British working class has made important gains in united struggle and that it would weaken us to divide our forces along nationalist lines. Of course, he’s a Labour reformist and there is a definite British nationalist tinge to his talk - he’ll mention Churchill and “Britain’s finest hour”. But he is one of the few people of a left persuasion in the public eye who are advancing a ‘no’ position on the basis of preserving working class unity in the fight against the bosses.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate now and put some of the arguments forward that leftwing ‘yes’ supporters are advancing. The most common is that Scotland is way to the left of the rest of Britain: there are no tuition fees, care for the elderly is free, there are no prescription fees. Imagine how things could be if it were not held back by the rest of Britain!
There is no real evidence that Scotland is way to the left of the rest of Britain. A Nuffield Foundation report in 2011 concluded that in terms of being “more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best”. They also note that “Like England, Scotland has become less - not more - social democratic since the start of devolution”.
There have, of course, been some modest concessions here. The Scottish political establishment (both Labour and SNP) have been adept at using the threat of independence in order to gain those concessions from the Westminster establishment. I have no doubt that most of them would be removed should Scotland become independent. The SNP government has been implementing austerity in Scotland during its seven years in office. The cuts agenda has been designed so that some of the most savage will actually be implemented after the referendum vote. The SNP government has already heavily cut further education, which affects many working class people, since it has been a traditional route to obtaining workplace skills and also access to university. Further education colleges have been hammered. Similarly, the freezing of the council tax, dictated to local councils by Holyrood, tends to benefit richer people. In the white paper the SNP proposes that corporation tax should be cut to three percent below whatever rate is set south of the border, which would clearly facilitate a race to the bottom in respect of tax on business.
It should be clear to all socialists that the SNP project is in essence neoliberal. Of course, this is disguised to some degree in order to try to win workers to vote for independence. It seems clear to me that the Labour Party is now actually to the left of the SNP on many questions. For example, Labour put forward a motion in the Scottish parliament that wanted to ensure that all government contracts honour the ‘living wage’ [£7.65 an hour nationally, £8.80 in London]. The SNP voted it down with Tory support, claiming that this would break European law. It is telling that only four months before the referendum, the SNP are not willing to take this small step to the left in case it frightens their supporters within the Scottish establishment and big business. So the SNP government are to the right of Boris Johnson on this issue! Also Labour’s proposals, timid as they are, on an energy price freeze, rent control and the 50p tax rate on higher earners has been opposed by the SNP.
Former SWPer Neil Davidson (now a member of Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century) claims that a ‘yes’ would be a vote for anti-imperialism.
This has no basis in reality. Alex Salmond might have been against the war on Iraq, but he supported the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the bombing of Libya. He’s a great friend of American imperialism and the dominant role of the USA in world politics. The SNP have always made a big fuss about supporting Scottish regiments in the British army. They might want to get rid of Trident, but they want to remain in Nato and have proposed a policy of ‘don’t ask and don’t tell’ in respect of the presence of nuclear-armed Nato ships in Scottish waters. The idea that an independent Scotland would be anti-imperialist is just ridiculous.
Davidson also underestimates the real danger that a ‘yes’ vote could lead to an increase in nationalism on both sides of the border due to disputes on the exact terms of the ‘divorce’. If the SNP win the referendum they propose an optimistic timetable of 18 months of negotiation with Westminster leading up to actual independence in March 2016. This process could get very messy, with chauvinists on both sides of the border stirring up nationalist resentment in respect of the division of assets and liabilities. In such a situation politics on both sides of the border could move sharply to the right and independence would weaken the only social force that is capable of defeating imperialism: the working class. In this context we could see what is left of the UK becoming even more aggressively militaristic after independence than Britain currently is.
Davidson argues that there is no reason why independence would weaken working class forces. For example, the Labour Party has only twice needed Scotland to ensure a general election victory, while Scottish workers will still be able to join trade unions in Britain.
Of course they will. But that’s not the point. The whole process of splitting our forces into two different countries will seriously weaken the solidarity that exists. It is already happening. It is quite common now for socialists not to support the founding of a Britain-wide socialist party - instead they advocate a separate party for Scotland with its own separate programme. They reject the prospect and perspective of a government in Britain controlled by the working class.
But capital is organised at the level of the state and by splitting up our forces many on the left are effectively giving up this fight against capitalism as a system. I really cannot see how you can take on internationally organised capital by dividing our forces into ever smaller entities. Why help build a new national prison for the working class? The fact that this increase in nationalism is visible not just in Britain, but also in many other countries, shows that the traditional reformist left is continuing to disintegrate and degenerate. We need an international Marxist alternative to the old politics that still dominate the workers’ movement.
Can’t you be in favour of Scottish independence without being a nationalist?
The whole trajectory of the Scottish independence project led by the SNP leads to a growth in Scottish nationalism. The left in Britain historically has always been opposed to that project and has always supported the idea that only a united working class can advance its interests and transcend capitalism. But now in Scotland it has largely gone over to supporting a nationalist movement which is attempting to con workers into supporting a new capitalist state.
It might think it is not supporting the nationalism inherent within the demand for an independent capitalist Scotland, but how can its support for independence be separated from the support for nationalism? Neil Davidson’s claim that non-nationalists can support the movement for Scottish independence is only true in the sense that you can go on an Orange Order walk and still think of yourself as an open-minded friend of the Catholic church. The truth is that if you are on an Orange walk you are supporting the bigots, even if you are quietly humming ‘The Internationale’ while the drums beat out ‘The sash’.
I am, of course, not defending the integrity of the British state. I am defending the unity of the working class that is necessary in order to successfully fight against the British state. It is outrageous how some on the left are now trying to portray this traditional Marxist position as some kind of British nationalism.
Currently the SNP can hide behind Westminster. But in an independent Scotland it would be clearer that it is the SNP that is enforcing austerity measures, which would presumably lead people to move to the left.
I think that is a very lame argument. It is true that the SNP government is enforcing austerity and blaming Westminster for the cuts. However, the SNP wants to remain in the European Union and keep the pound sterling after independence. Which in reality means that the Bank of England and the government in London would continue to enforce austerity measures - for example, in the name of stabilising the common currency. Monetary and fiscal policy would still be effectively controlled by the Bank of England. The SNP could continue to hide behind that and blame the English, if need be. But at the same time the people in Scotland would have given up the little bit of control they had over the government in London.
But independence weakens the British ruling class.
It clearly isn’t true that whatever is bad for Britain is good for our side. A plague might spread across Britain, but surely we wouldn’t welcome that! We want to positively transcend capitalism. But the growth of national antagonisms that are likely to follow a ‘yes’ vote would surely make this job a lot harder. You don’t move towards the unity of the European working class movement by dividing the actually existing labour movements in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, etc along nationalist lines. Should socialists be promoting separatist movements in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain on the basis that national separation would be a blow to Belgian or French imperialism, etc? That way lies the nationalist disintegration of the working class.
But capital is opposed to independence.
Of course, the vast majority of the capitalist class in Britain is against independence and prefers the status quo. Though it has to be said that there are some in Scotland, like Brian Souter of Stagecoach or George Mathewson, the former chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who think that a rebranded independent Scotland could attract international capital and develop a dynamic and competitive free-enterprise economy. Rupert Murdoch has also expressed this view.
The ‘yes’ campaign is far better funded than Better Together, but you would have thought that capital would step up its funding for Better Together if it really believed that independence would be a threat to the system. In their view it might be a threat to Britain’s standing in the world, but not to capitalism itself.
Independence mainly harms our own side. It is not that the movement for Scottish independence is a diversion from the class struggle - rather the Scottish independence movement is part of the class struggle being waged against the working class by a section of the Scottish establishment, which aims to split Scottish workers from the British labour movement and its historic traditions of workers’ unity against the bosses.
Many on the left are, of course, recent converts to independence.
Neil Davidson and other leading ex-SWP members like Chris Bambery (now in the ISG and RIC) spent 30 years or more arguing against Scottish independence on the basis that it would divide and weaken the working class in Britain. Now they support a ‘yes’ vote, but they really don’t provide an explanation for their change of line. Surely, according to their latest logic, Scottish independence should have been a blow to British imperialism in the 1970s or 80s - maybe more so, given the ongoing war in Ireland at the time - but then they opposed Scottish independence. Were they wrong then, but right now? Surely we deserve an explanation.
Some left nationalists argue that the British working class no longer exists - without clarifying when or how it disappeared - but this seems to me totally unworldly and no more than a transparent excuse to allow them to jump on the nationalist bandwagon. Certainly the ISG and the campaign they lead are quite clear that they are for a separate Scottish left party and oppose a Britain-wide united left party.
Thus for all their talk of supporting the unity of the British trade unions, even after Scottish independence, the fact is that the left nationalist groups actually oppose the unity of the working class in Britain around our common struggle for political power. They promote the unity of the Scots rather than the unity of the working class in Britain. The whole point of the political activity of a socialist is to increase the solidarity, strength and socialist consciousness of the working class movement to the point that it can take power and transcend capitalism. It seems to me obvious that the movement for Scottish independence led by the SNP government does the opposite.
Left nationalists argue that “Sinn Féin would almost certainly begin agitation for an all-Irish referendum on reunification” if Scotland voted for independence.
It has to be said that the Irish question does not feature at all in this referendum campaign. The problem is, of course, that there are still a huge number of people in the north of Ireland opposed to a united Ireland. With so many people opposed to it, it’s simply not going to happen without the rise of a mass socialist movement in Ireland which can attract important sections of Protestant workers to its banner.
Which is why we in the CPGB put the demand for a federal Ireland and a federal Britain. We think that by advocating self-determination, including the right to secede, this would actually strengthen unity.
I am not opposed to a federal republic in Britain, but as a slogan it has no purchase in the present debate. The question on the ballot paper in the referendum is: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” In effect it is either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. I think the important positive matter to stress in the debate around the referendum is the need to defend and deepen working class unity and the socialist perspective of a fight for a workers’ government in Britain as a part of the struggle for a socialist Europe and a socialist world, free of national boundaries. Since Scotland is not an oppressed country and is not being denied national self-determination - hence the referendum - I think the call for a federal republic is abstract and does not really deal with the matter under discussion.
Sandy McBurney will be debating Mick Napier of the Radical Independence Campaign at a number of Left Unity meetings that are taking place as part of the ‘Scots Solidarity Tour’, put together by Alan Story of Nottingham LU.
Sheffield, Thursday May 29, 6.30pm: Central United Reformed Church (opposite The Crucible), 60 Norfolk Street, Sheffield S1.Local contact: Matt Hale - 07902 120002.
Leeds, Friday May 30, 6.30pm: Victoria Hotel, 28 Great George Street, Leeds LS1. Local contact: Jim Padmore - 07825 381430.
Manchester, Saturday May 31, 2pm: Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2. Local contacts: Chris Strafford and John Tummon - 0161 427 5815; 07974 943650.
Nottingham, Saturday May 31, 2pm: Friends Meeting House, 25 Clarendon Street, Nottingham NG1. Cat Boyd of RIC will be questioned by a panel of three people: Liam Conway (Notts Trade Union Council); Dr Matthew Ashton (political commentator and politics lecturer, Nottingham Trent University); Dr Claire Jenkins (LGBT activist). Local contact: Alan Story - 01158 418768.
Shipley, Sunday June 1, 2pm: Kirkgate Centre,39a Kirkgate, Shipley, Yorkshire. Mick Napier of Glasgow LU and RIC (‘yes’) debates Mike Quiggan of Bradford Trades Council (‘no’). Local contact: Keith Nathan - 07772 641654.