Nationalist shock waves
Poll predictions of a Labour wipeout show that the national question has not gone away, argues Eddie Ford
Sending shock waves through the political establishment, a recent survey by the Conservative peer and polling guru, Lord Ashcroft, predicts a Scottish National Party general election landslide - the SNP is projected to win 56 of the 59 seats north of the border, leaving Labour and the Tories on a dead heat on 272 UK seats (with 326 theoretically needed to get a majority in the House of Commons).1
Not only that: the SNP is only a whisker away from taking the seat of Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour’s new leader, and is on course to oust the former Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy. The nats are even six points ahead in the Labour bastion of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, currently occupied by Gordon ‘silent no more’ Brown - the man who in the eyes of many saved the union and is stepping down before May 7. As for the Tories, the poll found that they were neck to neck with the SNP in their only Scottish seat of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.
Obviously, Ashcroft’s figures must be treated with caution, as they are extrapolated from only eight Scottish seats. For example, the latest poll projection from The Guardian, which takes into account all published constituency-level polls, produces a slightly lower figure for the SNP, giving it 52 seats.2 Even so, it is still no less dramatic - showing that a genuinely historic event could be about to happen, with Labour more or less wiped out in its former heartland of Scotland. Yet in 2010 the SNP returned a mere six MPs, and in its 80-year history the previous best result was 11 seats in the 1974 autumn election - considered then a near revolution.
Alex Salmond may have said that the question of independence had been settled for a generation, but he knew that Scottish nationalism had made a huge leap forward with 45% of the vote gained by the ‘yes’ campaign in the September 18 2014 referendum. As indicated above, support for the SNP is now rampant - even in the areas that firmly voted ‘no’. The momentum generated by the ‘yes’ campaign was never going to disappear, representing as it did some sort of alternative vision of the future, however illusory - in marked contrast to the relentless negativity of the Better Together camp. The 1,617,989 who voted ‘yes’ on that day were not just voting for the SNP’s programme of independence, but against the dreary Labour/Tory/Lib Dem consensus on austerity. No more politics as usual, please.
If anything, the national tensions and contradictions have been exacerbated. All the old certainties are vanishing. Murphy keeps repeating Labour’s central (only?) message, that a vote for the SNP will help the Tories remain in power - back to that negativity thing again. Cameron must now be “rubbing his hands with glee”, Murphy warned, because every seat the SNP takes from Scottish Labour makes it “more likely” the Tories will be the largest party across the UK.
In turn, the Tories are saying that a vote for Labour is a vote for the break-up of Britain, since the SNP might take part in a Westminster coalition under Ed Miliband. With Labour reduced to a rump in Scotland, the SNP will, barring a miracle, hold the balance of power in Westminster. A formal coalition seems unlikely, but you cannot entirely rule it out. Caroline Flint, the shadow energy secretary, told the Andrew Marr show that “we do not want, we do not need and we do not plan to have any coalition with the SNP” - which does not, obviously, rule one out.3
In fact some sort of post-election Labour-SNP deal is more than possible. Nicola Sturgeon has openly stated that her SNP MPs could work with Labour on an “issue-by-issue basis”. In other words, she would agree to support Miliband in Westminster on votes of confidence and the budget (‘confidence and supply’) if she had received assurances on her “red line” issues - more powers for the Scottish parliament, rowing back on austerity, and a decision not to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system based in the Clyde. When pressed on the latter issue for a filmed series of leader interviews with The Guardian, Sturgeon said the SNP could back Labour without a promise by Miliband to scrap Trident: “But we would not in any vote support the renewal of Trident and I can’t make that any clearer than I have already made it” (March 6). She went on to say that if the SNP entered into a deal with Labour, the party would help create a “more effective government and a government that actually delivers some of the policies Labour supporters are probably crying out to hear a Labour leader argue for” - ie, the SNP would act as the social conscience of the Labour Party. Salmond himself declared vaguely that SNP support for any future Labour administration would come with the “condition of progress for Scotland”.
Unsurprisingly, the establishment is beginning to feel nervous again - just like it did last year when on September 6 a YouGov poll showed the ‘yes’ campaign ahead by 51% to 49%, creating full-scale panic.4 For a dreadful moment, the unthinkable became thinkable. In a move reminiscent of war times or a national emergency, prime minister’s question time was cancelled and all the front line politicians charged up to Scotland, desperately promising “faster, safer, better change”. Even the queen got the jitters, advising the Scots to “think carefully” before they vote.5
Cameron has challenged Miliband to rule out a deal with the SNP “if he cares about this country”. Going even further, Lord Baker, the former Tory chairman, has mooted the idea of a “grand coalition” between the Conservatives and Labour in order to avoid the SNP holding the balance of power and possibly plunging the country into a constitutional crisis. This sentiment was endorsed by the “independently-minded” (as the rightwing press like to put it) Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for the marginal Birmingham Edgbaston seat. If on May 8, she conjectured, Labour had more seats than the Tories (but not enough to form a government), yet the Tories had more votes than Labour - then “you should not dismiss the possibility” of a grand coalition to prevent constitutional meltdown.
Really showing the anxiety gripping sections of the establishment, the Financial Times is now demanding that Miliband spurns any advances from the SNP - committed as it is not only to independence, but “big spending increases” and “scrapping” the nuclear deterrent (March 6). Whilst it is “understandable” that Miliband “wants to keep his options open”, we read, he “does not have that luxury” - he needs to stop the “haemorrhaging” of support from traditional Scottish Labour voters to the SNP, which is partly happening because many Scots think a vote for the nationalists is a “cost-free exercise” because they could well be Labour’s coalition partners anyway. By ruling out a post-election deal, advises the FT, Miliband may make voters worry that a vote for the SNP would actually deliver instability - or, even worse, the return of David Cameron to Number 10.
After all, the SNP will “have no realistic choice other than to give informal support” to a Labour prime minister on key Commons votes - the only other alternative would be to bring down that “left of centre” government and risk the return of the Tories: try explaining that to the SNP’s Scottish base. So call the SNP’s bluff, says the FT. If the SNP did have a rush of blood and trigger a snap general election, it would endanger the seats it had only just won. No, the FT sternly concludes, no “responsible” unionist party can be seen to be “dancing” to the tune of the SNP - a “separatist movement” committed to “breaking up” the UK. Do the decent thing, Ed.
Prior to the referendum, we were told by some on the left, including a minority within the CPGB, that a clear ‘no’ would be a vote to preserve the unity of the British working class movement and stop nationalism in its tracks.
This was always a delusion, no matter how worthy - as we now see. Yes, of course, the class struggle is still happening in Scotland, but it is taking place in a deflected form - certainly not on the basis, as some doubtlessly imagined, of a 1970s-style wave of militant strikes, working class demonstrations, etc. In any case, such an approach was thoroughly economistic, as it downplayed the fight for democracy and high politics: ie, we must vote ‘no’ in order to get the national question out of the way and then return to ‘normal’ working class actions like fighting the cuts, and so on. But a ‘no’ vote was never going to magically deliver working class unity, especially if the vote was relatively close. What these economistic arguments fail to understand is that we first need the conditions for working class unity, which were obviously lacking, otherwise there would not have been a referendum in the first place.
We were also told that the CPGB’s agitation for a boycott of the referendum was “irrelevant” and that our call for a federal republic was “totally abstract” without any real purchase. Get real, Weekly Worker. But our critics have been proved wrong by life itself. Far from slipping into the background, the national question has grown bigger and more dangerous - we are now in a situation where former staunch Labour supporters are now voting for the SNP, a totally bourgeois party, as opposed to a bourgeois workers’ party: in that sense, things have moved to the right (dream away, those who think the SNP is ‘anti-austerity’).
We in the CPGB always said, contrary to the philistine arguments of many on the left - whether supporting a supposedly socialist ‘yes’ or ‘no’ - that the September referendum was never the simple or straightforward question it appeared to be on the ballot paper: a totally naive, almost childish, idea. Rather, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what exactly? Presumably, most of those who voted ‘no’ did so to back the constitutional status quo - yet that is almost the very last thing they will get, despite winning the vote.
The politics behind the September 18 referendum are complex, which for communists is the central reason why referenda and plebiscites are so problematic - as is the notion of so-called ‘direct democracy’ in general. By dealing with this or that issue out of its wider context, people tend to get atomised and in that way fundamental lines of class and democraticdemarcationbecome obscured - the very opposite of what Marxists want. Referenda tend to foster the sometimes dangerous illusion that people are actually exercising a form of political power - which is actually about corralling them. Near ideal conditions, needless to say, for all kinds of reactionary ideas to flourish - Scottish nationalism being the perfect example. As internationalists and extreme democrats, the CPGB was right to call for a boycott of the referendum and a pox on both houses - down with Scottish nationalism and British unionism.
The left needs an answer on the constitutional question. To all intents and purposes, we now have a federal monarchy - with more powers being steadily devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But what we need is a federal republic. Not along the lines of the United States or France, but a social republic: the form, as Engels argued, that the rule of the working class will take here in Britain.
3. The Guardian March 8.