Both campaigns are US allies and friends
September 18 referendum has nothing to do with preserving working class unity, argues Eddie Ford
Exciting some, Barack Obama on June 5 used the G7 summit in Brussels as an opportunity to intervene in the debate around Scottish independence - though it probably had little to do with the fact that some genealogists believe they can trace his ancestry back to William the Lion (or William I), who ruled Scotland from 1165 to 1214.1
Holding a joint press conference with prime minister David Cameron, the US president made some general remarks about the 70th anniversary of D-Day - when American and British troops “fought valiantly alongside our allies”, helping to “turn the tide of human history”. We “stood together” against fascism. Then however, Obama stated that the United States has a “deep interest” in the UK remaining “strong, robust and united”. Great Britain, he continued, “had worked pretty well” for centuries and, more to the point, had been an “extraordinary” and “effective” partner to the US. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it - at least according to Barack Obama.
Actually, his comments hardly came as a bolt from the blue. Eighteen months ago, Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, observed that “fragmentation” of the UK would not help either the US or the European Union - words that raised some eyebrows. But she was only saying publicly what has been said in private many times, before and since. It was only to be expected that US imperialism was not exactly joyous at the thought of the UK diminishing in size, worried about the potential impact on US interests if British influence in Nato, the UN security council and the EU were weakened by Scottish independence.
Unhappily for the US administration, and David Cameron, the ‘yes’ campaign still appears to be gathering momentum - or perhaps, to be more accurate, the ‘no’ campaign is running out of steam. A recent poll by Populus has the ‘no’ vote on 47%, ‘yes’ on 40% and ‘don’t know’ on 13% - too close for comfort.2 Hence Obama’s intervention.
But his move is not entirely risk-free. Bill Clinton did something very similar over Quebec in October 1999. Whilst addressing a forum on federalism in Montreal, he made a direct appeal for the preservation of Canadian “territorial integrity” - declaring that if every major “racial and ethnic and religious group” won independence, then we might end up with “800 countries in the world” and “have a very difficult time having a functioning economy”. Indeed, he said, “maybe we would have 8,000”, but how much sense would that make? National independence, he concluded, is often a “questionable assertion” in a global economy, where “cooperation pays greater benefits in every area than destructive competition”. Naturally, Clinton was criticised in some quarters for only encouraging separatism, not dampening it - as outside intervention so often does.
Anyway, predictably enough, Obama said the decision on independence had to be made by the “folks” up there in Scotland. But the message was loud and clear, especially if you were David Cameron. Make sure you secure a ‘no’ vote on September 18. In the same vein, Obama also thought it would be “hard to be advantageous” for the UK if it were to leave the EU. Rather, he argued, the British government should have a “seat at the table” in Europe. So do not screw up the other referendum as well - get the right goddamned result.
Of course, the “extraordinary” partnership between the US and UK is a product of the post-World War II settlement. That is, when Britain’s former position as the number-one power in the world was definitively ended - the US was now the global super-cop. No more British empire apart from this or that scrap. No longer were the maps covered in pink. The American century had begun. Since then, the UK has remained a loyal ally, albeit with the occasional wobble - such as Harold Wilson’s decision not to send even a token force to Vietnam.
However, what was especially illuminating was the response of Scotland’s first minister, Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, to Obama’s G7 comments. He did not retort, ‘Keep your Yankee nose out of Scottish affairs’ - no way. Not even ‘Imperialist hands off Scotland’. Instead, perhaps disappointingly for some left nationalists, he replied that after Scottish independence the US will have “two great friends and allies here rather than one”. Salmond also remarked that Scotland was “deeply fortunate” that its struggle for independence was being conducted in a “deeply democratic way” (presumably by contrast to the US revolutionary war for independence nearly 250 years ago) and could not resist stealing one of Obama’s main campaign slogans from 2008 - he was entirely focused on making Scotland a “land of opportunity”, and his message to the people in the months ahead was: “Yes, we can”.
In other words, a newly independent Scotland would, like Britain, be a faithful ally of US imperialism - seeking to join Nato at the earliest possible moment, negotiate with the EU on a pro-US basis and accept the dominant position of the White House. No problem. Of course, rump Britain will remain US imperialism’s most devoted ally.
Imperialism must, of course, be understood as a global system - not just the actions of this or that state, no matter how powerful (or not). All that will happen is that Scotland will move from being part of the US’s number-one ally to a much lower position in the pecking order. Edinburgh, for instance, will no longer benefit so much from being an overshoot of London’s enormous parasitical finance industry. Where will Salmond get the finances from to make Scotland a “land of opportunity”, a country fit for heroes, a social democratic paradise, etc?
It surely must be clear from all this that the idea of a ‘yes’ vote being a blow against imperialism is patently ridiculous - though something foolishly repeated by the likes of Socialist Resistance and the Socialist Workers Party. The latter’s Socialist Worker tells us that the “break-up of the imperialist British state would be a positive thing”, adding that “we are not for the unity of the state, but for the unity of the working class” (May 27). As for the latest issue of the paper, it has the SWP’s notorious - always cringeworthy - interviews with ‘normal people’ who just happen to support ‘the party’s’ line. Funny that. “Marilyn” thinks Scotland “should do anything it can” to avoid getting another Margaret Thatcher government, “Glyn” patriotically wants to live in a country “that makes its own decisions” rather than being told what to do and “Hayley” will support the ‘yes’ campaign if she gets a “clear commitment on funding public services and renationalising the railways” (June 10).
Outraged ‘cybernats’ on both sides of the border have fulminated about how Scottish voters do not care what president Obama thinks, or that the US government wants to keep the UK as its “lapdog” - tell that to Alex Salmond: he might not want to dance around like a poodle, but he is very keen to curry favour. Communists, on the other hand, can lend no support to the ‘yes’ campaign and fantasies about ‘national independence’.
Pox on both houses
Then again, having said that, a ‘no’ vote - though it might be a supportable ‘lesser evil’ in the abstract - means in reality a continuation of the status quo: we would still be ruled over by the constitutional monarchy and the bourgeois ‘rule of law’. No change.
The cross-party ‘no’ campaign group, Better Together, has been more than explicit about this - welcoming Obama’s “clear statement of support” for the UK, which will “resonate” with many in Scotland who understand that “interdependence” is a “defining feature of our modern world”. Quick off the mark, BT put together a photoshopped pastiche of one of Obama’s most well known election posters - changing the slogan from “Hope” to “Nope: let’s remain robust, united and effective”.3 More desperately, the chair and main spokesperson of BT, Alastair Darling, rather implausibly suggested that Salmond was behaving like Kim Jong-Il, merely because the first minister had said that Ukip is a party that “gets beamed into Scotland courtesy of the BBC”.4 Darling’s silly quip almost perfectly illustrates the overwhelmingly negative nature of the ‘no’ campaign - something its supporters might still live to regret.
Significantly, the Tories have now come out in favour of their own ‘devo-max’ option. On June 2, the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, published the conclusions of the party’s devolution commission, chaired by Lord Strathclyde, former leader of the House of Lords. Doing a fairly spectacular U-turn, she now thinks that Holyrood - currently funded by a treasury block grant - must be given “full income-tax powers”, making it responsible for raising 40% of Scottish revenue. The commission also argues that the Scottish parliament should get “additional responsibility” over VAT, income tax and welfare. The plans, which have been endorsed by David Cameron, will be in the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 UK election. Davidson was at pains to stress that the Tories’ ‘devo-max’ scheme was not some kind of “consolation prize” in the event of a ‘no’ vote in the referendum - perish the thought.
The other pro-union parties have already set out their plans for strengthening devolution. The Liberal Democrats said Holyrood should raise 50% of the money it spends and have control over income, capital gains and inheritance tax. Labour’s plans include ceding control of three quarters of the 20p tax rate and complete devolution of housing benefit in order to permit MSPs to abolish the bedroom tax, not to mention “more powers” for Scotland’s various islands - maybe home rule at a later date for Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides? Under the stipulations of the 2012 Scotland Act, the country is due to get some limited powers over income tax in 2016.
Responding to these ‘devo-max’ plans, Salmond said - with a certain amount of logic - that the Scots would be “foolish” to rely on these promises: the “only guarantee” of getting more powers is to vote ‘yes’ on September 18. Make your choice.
For us in the CPGB, it is naive in the extreme to think that the question on the ballot paper is the only one that needs answering - in that sense it is not an honest question, which is nearly always the case when it comes to referendums. The bourgeoisie and its bureaucrats get to decide the question, after all. In reality, there will be two questions confronting you on that ballot paper: ‘Do you want Scotland to be an independent country?’; and (implied by the ‘no’ option): ‘Do you want a continuation of the status quo, with ‘devo-max’ bolted on?’
The answer to both questions should be a resounding ‘no’. Scottish nationalism weakens the working class - but so does the monarchist-unionist status quo: that is surely obvious. Yes, we may have a historically constituted British working class, but, alas, we do not have a united working class. In fact, the rotten status quo continually sows disunity. Under these conditions, communists must develop tactics and strategies to positively overcome division and all forms of backwardness.
Therefore we in the CPGB repeat our message: a pox on both houses, when it comes to the referendum campaign. Neither camp fights for the interests of the working class in any shape or form. Down with both Scottish nationalism and British loyalism, and all their ‘left’ variants. Unlike the SWP and others, we are not going to swap the madness of the British road to socialism for the even bigger madness of the Scottish road to socialism - no matter how long its coastlines or “legions” of internationally acclaimed musicians, writers, actors, film directors, etc.
Communists fight for a federal republic as the main means of addressing the national question and promoting maximum unity of the peoples of Britain. By definition, this means the abolition of the monarchy, the secret state, the unwritten constitution, the unelected second chamber, and so on. A federal republic would enshrine the right of Scotland and Wales to separate, but serve to ensure voluntary union l
2. The Herald June 7.
4. The Guardian June 4.