Inconsistent left nationalists
SPS and the SWP may have refused to vote SNP, writes Peter Manson, but in effect they both cheered on its advance
May 7 2015 will undoubtedly go down as the day the Scottish National Party took a decisive step forward, and the possibility of an independent Scottish state advanced.
Both factors were, of course, key elements in the general election campaign - for the Conservatives, the allegation that Ed Miliband was at the beck and call of the SNP ranked alongside ‘the economy, stupid’ as the two central points to be emphasised and repeated ad nauseam. But obviously there was something more serious behind the vacuous point-scoring. The defence of the bourgeoisie’s precious United Kingdom is for all the mainstream parties a leitmotiv - the uncertainty and instability that would follow a declaration of Scottish independence cannot be quantified.
And that had been one of the arguments put forward by most of the left in favour of a ‘yes’ vote in the September 2014 independence referendum - the breaking up of Britain would severely weaken imperialism and what is bad for them must be good for us. We in the CPGB strongly disagree - if a meteor struck London and destroyed the City, that would hardly equate to an advance for the working class.
I do not wish to be misunderstood here. We want to see the end of the UK constitutional monarchy - but we favour a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales: a voluntary unity of the three peoples, in which each would enjoy the right of self-determination. We view such a republic as the form that working class rule would take in Britain.
But what is on offer from the SNP is not even some kind of enhanced democracy, let alone a step towards working class rule. The SNP favours the continuation of the constitutional monarchy - under a capitalist Scotland fully loyal to both Nato and the European Union as currently constituted. The establishment of an independent Scottish state in these circumstances would represent a blow to working class unity - to the idea that workers in Scotland, Wales and England must fight as one against their common enemy, the capitalist class and its state. It is true that British imperialism would be weakened by Scottish independence, but so too would be the strength of the working class: Scottish nationalism is at best a diversion; at worst a divisive, anti-working class threat.
In that case, why did we not call for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum? Because the two alternatives on offer were both reactionary: on the one hand, the pro-austerity status quo; on the other hand, the illusion of an anti-austerity independent Scotland, which would be forced, in the harsh light of reality, to implement austerity. Our call for a boycott was hardly the equivalent, as has been stated in some mischievous quarters, of Left Unity’s official policy of ‘neutrality’ on the referendum. Nor was it ‘abstention’. Our call was for a stand against both reactionary alternatives.
We disagreed with those who said that a ‘no’ vote was the better option - apparently it would totally remove the question of independence from the political agenda and thus strengthen working class unity amongst the Scottish, Welsh and English. I wonder what such comrades are thinking now. We warned that the question would not go away - even a 40% vote in favour of separation would be regarded as an advance by the Scottish nationalists (the 45% achieved was far beyond their initial expectations). It would give them renewed hope and inspire them with the idea that a separate capitalist Scotland was within reach. That is precisely what has happened.
Unfortunately, however, the comrades who advocated a ‘no’ were not the main problem. At least, in their own mistaken way, they stood opposed to Scottish nationalism (while sometimes inadvertently going along with British unionism) and advocated working class unity.
The main problem came from the majority of the left, which not only claimed that independence would be a blow to imperialism and therefore advantageous to us. They also claimed that the movement in support of a ‘yes’ vote represented a progressive rebellion against Westminster’s austerity programme. There was indeed a rebellion against the current order, including the politics of austerity, within the pro-independence movement. It would be reasonable to describe this as a deflected form of class struggle. However, you could say the same thing about the anti-migrant sentiment among workers who blame outsiders for lowering wages and worsening working conditions, which in extremis translates into a vote for the UK Independence Party.
In other words, both separatism and xenophobia are often grounded in discontent, but both are diversions. It is shameful that those who claim to be Marxists are prepared not only to go along with such diversions, but actually cheer them on.
In the case of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International, it came out in favour of “critical support” when the SNP-dominated Yes Scotland campaign was launched in 2012. At the time a statement from the CWI in Scotland warned:
The SNP leadership’s plans [in opposition to austerity] would be unable to deliver. Therefore, while supporting a ‘yes’ vote, Socialist Party Scotland will also campaign for an independent socialist Scotland as the only viable solution to the fundamental issues facing the working class and young people.1
But within a very short time SPS had well and truly forgotten about the “critical” part of the phrase in its original left-nationalist statement. By March of this year it was proclaiming: “The independence referendum saw 1.6 million people vote ‘yes’ in what was a working class revolt against austerity and the political establishment.”2
And just a couple of weeks before the general election the CWI was still waxing lyrical:
The huge growth in support for the SNP in Scotland following the TV debates shows the potential for a genuine anti-austerity alternative to be built. The SNP’s membership has grown still further to 104,000 in Scotland. Thousands of people in England have also applied to join the SNP as well.3
Of course, all this comes with a health warning:
However, the SNP in power have carried out Tory cuts in Scotland since 2010. Their proposed public spending increases, even if they were fully implemented, would leave over 90% of the austerity programme intact. Their support for big business and capitalism mean the SNP are not a sustainable vehicle for working class people seeking a struggle against austerity.
So there should be no vote for the SNP - only the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is worthy of support.
The Socialist Workers Party has an almost identical position. According to Socialist Worker, not only is the right, including the “racist” Ukip, on the rise, but
there is also a surge towards more progressive arguments. This is clearest in Scotland. The SNP has quadrupled its membership in just six months. It now poses as the vehicle for the movement that demanded social justice and an end to austerity during last year’s independence referendum. The referendum politicised huge swathes of society. For once people felt they had something to vote for.4
This featured in the paper’s report of the April 25 ‘Hope over Fear’ rally in Glasgow, organised by pro-SNP left nationalists such as Tommy Sheridan. It was a desperate attempt to feed into the “new mood” - even though the SWP, like the CWI and its SPS, were against any vote for the SNP:
Many former Labour voters have been attracted by the SNP. It has put a popular anti-austerity agenda at the centre of its campaign. But its record contradicts this message. Much of the left in Scotland even argued for ‘lending’ a vote to the SNP in the general election then standing independently in the Scottish elections next year. But building an alternative to Labour that stands against welfare cuts, privatisation and racism can’t wait. We have to start now.5
Both SPS and the SWP have now split with Sheridan after his Solidarity group (formed in 2006 as a split from the Scottish Socialist Party) voted in March to support the SNP in the general election. While, as far as I know, the SWP has made no formal announcement of its departure, SPS quit immediately after the Solidarity conference decision, which it declared was “a significant move away from a principled socialist position and is a step to the right politically”.6
But at least Tommy Sheridan and the Solidarity majority were acting consistently: if you sincerely believe that an independent Scotland will serve working class interests and strike a blow against capitalism, then logically you should vote for the only party able to deliver that independence - in UK as well as Scottish elections.
In reality, however, the two groups have helped to bolster the SNP - the hegemonic driving force behind the ‘yes’ campaign - by building illusions in the independence movement. They are both continuing to do so.
1. SPS statement, May 29 2012: http://socialistpartyscotland.org.uk/2012/05/29/yes-scotland-independence-referendum-campaign-launched.
2. CWI statement, March 16 2015: www.socialistworld.net/doc/7129.
3. The Socialist April 22 2015.
4. Socialist Worker April 28 2015.
5. Socialist Worker May 5 2015.
6. CWI statement, March 16 2015: www.socialistworld.net/doc/7129.