Resounding success

Theses on the results of the September 11 referendum

1. The result of the September 11 devolution referendum in Scotland is open to many interpretations. Obviously Tony Blair and Donald Dewar scored a big victory. New Labour’s plans for a ‘modernised’ constitutional monarchy is taking material form. However, all parties and interests backing Scotland Forward put their own spin on the result. The pro-Labour left, SWP, etc, highlight their role in inflicting another crushing defeat on the Tories. Dissident Tories see their argument strengthened for greater organisational autonomy. Liberal Democrats look forward to government via coalition politics. Scottish nationalists and national socialists celebrate a first step towards independence.

2. The CPGB must come to a correct understanding of its role in the referendum campaign. Was the boycott call correct? Did it succeed or did it fail? Different views have been expressed in our ranks. They have been those of nuance or shade. There are as yet no sharp lines of demarcation. Nevertheless there exists a tendency towards pessimism and confusion that ought to be countered and overcome.

3. It has been stated that the Provisional Central Committee somehow “overestimated” the movement for self-determination. That without “political strikes, meetings and demonstrations, occupations and civil disobedience” we have no way to “measure our success” and that the absence of strikes, etc, is “evidence of failure”. On the same theme other comrades tells us that our “predictions” were mistaken.

4. The truth is clear. Neither the PCC nor Jack Conrad’s Blair’s rigged referendum and Scotland’s right to self-determination “predicted” mass actions. Time and again it has been stressed how things are open-ended. That within the limits set by objective conditions the future will be made by people and their practical actions. We therefore eschew clairvoyancy. Fight for what is possible and necessary is our slogan.

5. Every opinion poll in the run-up to referendum day showed a substantial body which wanted a new constitutional settlement far beyond what was on offer from Blair. Some 30% are recorded as favouring complete independence. Undeniably political life in Scotland has been coloured by the growing national question over the last two decades.

6. Under these objective conditions the only correct path was to argue - propagandise - for militant methods: concretely an active boycott of Blair’s referendum. The CPGB was neither seduced nor cowed by the STUC, New Labour, Lib Dem, Nationalist, big business Scotland Forward consensus. Unlike the Scottish Socialist Alliance majority we did not liquidate or suspend our principles.

7. The CPGB and the Campaign for Genuine Self-Determination, virtually alone, stood out against Blair’s plan for a ‘modernised’ constitutional monarchy. Naturally that did not mean defending the status quo or adopting an “extreme-nationalist” position - as erroneously reported by The Times (September 9).

8. Programmatically the CPGB is committed - as a minimum - to the right of Scotland’s people to self-determination. Obviously that does not automatically denote independence. Communists are duty bound to work for the closest possible voluntary unity of the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Today that can best be achieved with a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, and a united Ireland. Hence we used the referendum-boycott campaign to promote the idea that self-determination be exercised for a federal republic.

9. Some critics believe that the CPGB mechanically copied the tactics of Russia’s Bolsheviks in 1905. Needless to say the charge is unwarranted. In 1905 the Bolsheviks organised a hugely successful boycott of elections to the first Tsarist duma. Against this toothless parliament they did not predict - but counterposed - a constituent assembly born of a proletarian-led democratic revolution. However, in the aftermath of the unsuccessful December 1905 uprising and the unsuccessful boycott of the tsar’s second duma, Lenin demanded an immediate change of tactics. The Bolsheviks must energetically contest duma elections.

10. Lenin met fierce opposition. The ‘left’ Bolsheviks around Bogdanov were in principle committed to a boycott. A bitter struggle followed. Suffice to say Lenin secured a majority. The boycottists were expelled from the faction (not the Party). The Bolsheviks, let it be noted, went on to brilliantly exploit the agitational and propaganda opportunities that came with duma deputies.

11. With the formation of the Communist International there began another fight against those who on principle opposed participation in parliamentary elections - Sylvia Pankhurst, Amadeo Bordiga and Anton Pannekoek. Illusions in parliamentarianism could only be overcome using parliament, insisted Lenin. The 2nd Congress of the Communist International formally agreed his stance.

12. Except in the most exceptional circumstances - eg, a revolutionary situation - it is “obligatory”, said the congress resolution, to use parliament and parliamentary elections. That, it should be emphasised, has nothing whatsoever to do with choosing the lesser evil - choosing between Liberals and Tories, Democrats and Republicans ... or one form of monarchy as against another. No, it means communist candidates and independent working class politics. In essence that sums up the CPGB’s approach to September 11.

13. The claim that a boycott of a catch 22 referendum is synonymous with considering Scotland in the grip of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation is unsustainable. Would our critics consider it necessary to vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a rigged referendum designed to legitimise the abdication of a senile Elizabeth Windsor in favour of Charles Windsor? One trusts not. Maintaining that boycotting a rigged referendum - the classic device of a dictator - can only be countenanced in a revolutionary situation is not so much dogmatism. It is a pathetic ruse designed to hide capitulation to Blairism.

14. Undeniably the masses in Scotland were no longer prepared to be ruled in the old way and the state, as represented by New Labour, was offering no more than a sop. However true to their method the opportunists - SWP, SLP, the SSA majority - took the easy road of choosing the lesser evil. In the name of anti-Toryism they tailed Blair and Scotland Forward.

15. Of course, it was impossible to secure a communist option in Blair’s rigged referendum: ie, the federal republic. Independent working class politics could not thereby be directly expressed. But it could find indirect expression. Hence we did not boycott the referendum campaign. On the contrary. The CPGB utilised the official campaign in an exemplary fashion by calling for an active boycott of the vote on September 11 and making mass propaganda for self-determination and a federal republic (posters, tens of thousands of leaflets, interventions at mass meetings, coverage in the bourgeois press, debates on radio and TV, etc).

16. So how should the outcome of our boycott campaign be evaluated? Some comrades express “utter disbelief” when Dave Craig dares suggest that we claim some of those who refused to vote on September 11. This is foolish. Abstentions and spoilt ballot papers must have a positive side. They cannot be dismissed because the boycott campaign did not get the masses out onto the streets.

17. Take Glasgow - perhaps the most political city in Britain. The turnout was only 51.6%. Dundee was also low at 55.7%. The all-Scotland figure stood much higher at 60.4%. Moreover a total of 30,999 ballot papers were spoilt. In Glasgow itself 1,909 ballot papers on the first question and 2,765 on the second question were spoilt. According to The Herald “one of the real mysteries of the poll is the number of rejected ballot papers throughout Scotland” (September 13 1997).

18. Claiming every single abstention or spoilt vote is ridiculous. However it would be equally ridiculous to imagine we had no effect. The boycott campaign was based in Glasgow. The CPGB has a record of electoral support in Dundee.

19. If, as it did, the boycott campaign “had an impact ... on layers of the working class” - the fact has been readily admitted - then there is every reason for us to “measure our success” in terms of tens of thousands of abstentions and thousands of spoilt ballot papers.

20. Given our resources and the collapse of almost the entire revolutionary left into the camp of Scotland Forward, the Campaign for Genuine Self-Determination has to be considered a resounding success. We have done more than raise a flag. We gave a political voice to the hundreds of thousands in Scotland - including those in the ‘yes, yes’ camp - who view with contempt both the old status quo and Blair’s sop.