Indy2, strikes and boycotts
Why are the ‘official communists’ in such a muddle over the SNP’s bid to hold a legal referendum on independence? James Harvey critiques the YCL’s gensec
As we await the next big set-piece battle in Scottish politics - the Supreme Court’s hearing in October on whether the Holyrood parliament has the power to hold an advisory ‘yes’/’no’ referendum on independence without the consent of Westminster - the various parties are busily preparing the ground for what will follow the court’s ruling.
The Scottish government’s most senior legal officer, lord advocate Dorothy Bain, has published the Scottish government’s written position, while the SNP will also seek to take part in the case as a separate player to ensure its political points about ‘self-determination’ are heard. While the legal language and the technical nature of much of what is being argued might seem remote from ‘real politics’ and only of interest to ‘m’learned friends’ and constitutional experts, in fact the political issues are very clear indeed, as the reactions of politicians in both Edinburgh and London have shown.
Both the Conservatives and Labour took much the same position in opposing the SNP’s proposed referendum. While Scottish Tory spokesperson Donald Cameron accused the SNP of “playing these political games”, Scottish Labour’s constitutional spokesperson, Sarah Boyack, argued in favour of the constitutional status quo and claimed that it was “a dereliction of duty” to hold a referendum in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.
Both Tory and Labour leaders have also made it clear that if the Supreme Court revenges itself on the government, after the failure of ministers to stand up for the judiciary following the Daily Mail’s infamous November 4 2016 ‘Enemies of the people’ headline, and allows the Holyrood government to go ahead with its ‘advisory’ referendum, they will boycott the whole thing.
A ‘yes’/’no’ referendum which has 99% of voters opting for independence, but just a 30% turnout, will be dismissed as a farce, as an irrelevance. In other words an object lesson in the kind of political tactics that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the trade union movement and the left ought to have adopted in June 23 2016 with respect to David Cameron’s EU referendum.
A mass boycott would have rendered his referendum a farce, an irrelevance. It would have left his government split down the middle, while the working class movement would have been greatly strengthened. Instead, acceptance of the Brexit vote opened the door for Boris Johnson, paved the way for the crushing December 12 2019 general election, Corbyn’s demise as Labour leader and a general shift to the right in British politics.
Labour was not alone in dismissing Indyref2 and the whole issue of independence as a distraction. In the name of working class politics, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain effectively lined up behind the Labour leadership. In strikingly similar terms Johnnie Hunter, general secretary of the Young Communist League, argued in a recent Morning Star article that “a new referendum will distract from the class struggle”, replacing the “new unifying wave of worker militancy and strikes with a polarising division between rightwing unionism and nationalism.”1
This position sets the ‘official communist’ CPB and YCL apart from the bulk of the left in Scotland, which tails behind the SNP’s referendum bid, but gives it a militant edge by calling for industrial action and for ignoring the law. However, the CPB/YCL position on the referendum makes its own serious political errors. It is also worth noting that, on this question, the Johnnie Hunter article shows a fundamental alignment between the politics of the YCL gensec and Robert Griffiths, the CPB gensec. So, despite ongoing strains over the YCL’s Stalin worship and vicarious love affair with the armed struggle, when it comes to Scotland both sing from the same muddled hymnbook.
The SNP’s referendum is opposed, on the one hand, in the name of strikes and, on the other, in the name of either David Cameron’s 2014 referendum or a more complex, CPB amended referendum.
Let us begin with strikes. Comrade Hunter’s approach is essentially economistic, emphasising the “electrifying change” brought about by the “recent upswing in industrial militancy and class-consciousness in Scotland”.2 The implication is that this strike movement will automatically go beyond immediate issues of wages and conditions and develop into socialist politics. The future constitutional status of Scotland and the high politics in contention in Edinburgh and London are deemed to be an unimportant distraction from the real issues facing the working class.
So, for Johnnie Hunter, it is wrong for the left to respond politically and advance a distinctive working class alternative to the SNP’s referendum, because, he warns us, “at this time of rising industrial militancy, a return to politically disabling polarisation should not be our priority”.3 What he calls “class politics”, and constantly counterposes to the reactionary irrelevance of another independence referendum, is simply a mistaken elevation of the most basic forms of defensive struggle conducted within the framework of capitalism.
True, they are the starting point for the development of a much higher level of militant socialist politics which challenges capitalism and the constitutional order that supports it; but to develop those forms of consciousness the left must not limit itself to economic demands. If the working class is to take power in society into its own hands and become the ruling class, it needs its own programme and its own independent approach. So, despite the militant phraseology of class struggle, the deliberate avoidance of high politics and confining our struggles to the economic sphere are the real distractions.
What about opposing the SNP’s referendum in the name of David Cameron’s 2014 referendum? After making the ritual obeisance to the right to self-determination and arguing that independence is a question for the Scottish people alone, comrade Hunter then argues that the 2014 referendum produced a democratic result which should be respected. The same goes for David Cameron’s other referendum. Where the SNP-Green government in Edinburgh wants an independent Scotland to join the EU, the CPB upholds the 2016 Brexit result in the name of national independence.
The implication seems to be that the issue of Scottish independence has thus been settled for a definite period and should not be opened up again. But it has been, and the working-class movement cannot simply wish it away, however much we recognise the reactionary nature of the bourgeois nationalism of the SNP and its utopian small-state nationalism. Likewise, we cannot elide the differences between such bourgeois nationalism, however well-disguised in the language of ‘radical nationalism’, and communist politics.
The position of Marxists on the national question is quite clear. Our support of the right of peoples to self-determination is not designed to heighten national differences and sow illusions in a supra-class nation that encompasses both the capitalists and the working class. Rather it is rooted in the interests of the working class as an international class and in a political programme that seeks to unify that class, not add to its divisions. Supporting the right of self-determination is an elementary democratic approach, which places communists on the side of oppressed nations.
However, if we support the right to separate, we do not necessarily advocate separation. Guaranteeing this right builds confidence between the workers of different nations where there is a disputed national question and strengthens working class solidarity. Thus, as we have argued consistently, Scottish independence and the Balkanisation of Britain is neither in the interests of the Scottish or the British working class nor, from the standpoint of the working class internationally, does it represent an advance for our movement as a whole.
Comrade Hunter and his CPB co-thinkers fail to grasp this wider context: he further compounds these economistic errors by limiting his ‘political’ demands to a “progressive federalism”, which ostensibly rejects both the “status quo Tory-SNP austerity” and “the SNP’s model of so-called independence”.4
What is progressive federalism? The CPB wants parliaments in Scotland, Wales and England with powers to legislate for public ownership and redistribute wealth through progressive taxation. On top of that there should be an elected federal parliament and the replacement of the unelected House of Lords by an upper chamber elected by the Scottish, Welsh and English parliaments (and a Cornish assembly). The monarchy seems to go unquestioned. So not a progressive federalism, but a royalist federalism with lots of extra politicians. If there is going to be another referendum in Scotland, comrade Hunter wants this to be a third option on the ballot paper. Some hope.
We Marxists have, in general, rejected referendums as a matter of principle. They are not a higher form than the representative democracy we favour. Marxists aim to form the working class into a political party, not split it with simple questions that reduce the complexity of politics to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.
Nor do Marxists support upper houses. We do not want the constitutional checks and balances so beloved by the bourgeoisie. Nor are we monarchists. The CPGB stands for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, in which Scotland and Wales have the right to self-determination, up to the right to separate through nothing more than a majority vote in their parliament.
As for Europe, we envisage the working class coming to power on a continental scale. A Europe ruled by the working class is both a strategic possibility and a strategic necessity. A Europe united under the working class has the material wealth, population numbers and international connections to stand up to the US global hegemon and spread the flame of liberation to Asia, Africa, Latin America and finally to North America itself. This cannot be said of an isolated ‘socialist’ Britain, let alone an isolated ‘socialist’ Scotland.