Salmond banks on Tories

The Scottish National Party has called for a referendum on independence, writes Sarah McDonald. How should the left respond?

A fortnight ago Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond unveiled the SNP’s legislative programme for the coming parliamentary year. The most significant among the proposals calls for a bill to be put to the Scottish parliament demanding a referendum on the question of Scottish independence, to be held in 2010. Putting forward a proposal for a referendum on independence is one of the SNP’s election commitments that it has been able to keep. Though getting the bill through the parliament is another question entirely.

Of course, the Scottish parliament itself does not have the constitutional power to secede from the UK state. The best the referendum can offer supporters of independence is to begin negotiations with Westminster. Yet the question on the ballot - should it ever see the light of day - is unlikely to be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The nationalists are taking a more open position as to what the ballot paper may look like and are entertaining the possibility of a multi-option voting slip. This would include some of the proposals put forward by the Calman Commission (set up by the main parties opposed to independence to try to quell nationalist sentiment in Scotland) - for example, the extension of devolved powers on fiscal issues.

Were the SNP successful in getting the bill through, the timing of such a referendum would certainly please advocates of Scottish separatism. While the Labour Party continues to flag in the polls, the SNP minority government remains relatively popular. Unlike in England and Wales, disillusionment with Labour has not seen a rise in support for the Tories. The disaffected have consistently drifted to the nationalists.

Though there has been significant criticism of the SNP over the release of ‘Lockerbie bomber’ Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi (mostly from the right), the involvement of Gordon Brown has detracted from the idea that this was a Scottish debacle, as it was originally played in the press, and more questions are now being raised surrounding the political motivations behind Megrahi’s release.

Those of a more liberal disposition may well have accepted Kenny MacAskill’s incredibly sanctimonious defence of the decision as having been made simply on the grounds of humanitarianism and compassion. Regardless, it is unlikely that this story will remain a prominent feature in the media through to next year.

Though support for the SNP remains fairly strong, it is important that we do not automatically equate it with support for independence. Often, a vote for the SNP is a protest against Labour. Still, it is true that support for Scottish independence has grown significantly over the past couple of decades - an unfortunate reflection of the ascendancy of nationalism over class.

At the moment, according to a YouGov poll, backing for independence is at a low compared with recent years, sitting at 28%. This is due to the affects of recession, where the vision of a Scottish equivalent to the Irish ‘Celtic tiger’ no longer seems aspirational. However if a Tory government is elected next year polls predict that a further 25% will shift in that direction, which would mean a majority of Scottish voters favouring separation.

Should, as is widely expected, David Cameron successfully lead the Tories to a general election victory, it will not be reflected in the Scottish vote. The Tory vote here remains marginal. In which case the absence of a Scottish mandate for the government in Westminster will give credence to the view that the working class in Scotland should not be made to suffer the ravages of a Tory government they did not elect.

Of course, this rather petty mindset fails to take into account the fact that this is an issue for our class as a whole, not just sections of it. The effects of a Tory government on the working class south of the border will be just as damaging as they are to the north of it. Our class is far better placed to effectively protect itself if it organises on the basis of strength through unity against its common oppressor, the UK state.

Yet the question of a 2010 referendum is seen by almost everyone as being largely academic and the proposal itself as merely gesture politics on the part of the nationalists. The SNP runs a minority government and the balance of political forces within the Scottish parliament still shows a clear majority against independence. Most MSPs will oppose a 2010 referendum. While some may echo former Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s “bring it on” challenge last year, most would be keen to avoid a referendum in the current climate.

So is Alex Salmond right when he said, “This parliament must not stand in their way - let the people speak”? Should we support the call for a referendum on Scottish independence on the grounds of democracy? Certainly, it would be undemocratic to oppose the very idea of posing the question. After all, communists recognise and champion the democratic right to self-determination. That said, there are key matters of political principle and also questions of tactics at play - as yet we do not even know what the question or questions on the proposed ballot paper would be. Whatever happens, it is imperative that we fight for working class unity.

Sadly, advocating unity has certainly not been the approach of most of the left in Scotland - in fact, quite the opposite. The Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity have both chosen opportunistically to support, rather than challenge, rising nationalism within the working class. Unsurprisingly the SSP is urging MSPs to vote in favour of the bill and will be calling for a ‘yes’ vote in any referendum.

Co-spokespersons Frances Curran and Colin Fox said in a statement endorsed by the SSP’s national council: “The SSP for our part will campaign energetically for a vote in favour of independence as a first step towards Scotland becoming a democratic republic. We believe working people will be economically, socially, culturally and politically better off in an independent Scotland.”

All rather dubious assertions, not to mention insular. The statement goes on: “Only with independence can we ensure that Scottish troops will not be sent to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, that the Clyde will not be a centre for nuclear weapons and that we can move towards a socially just, green future.”

Firstly, would an independent Scotland (presumably with an SNP government) have no part in imperialist wars? No desire to retain nuclear weaponry? Secondly and more importantly, what of the working class in England and Wales? Surely only through the unity of our class can we fight against war, social injustice and environmental disaster - first and foremost by unitedly fighting the UK state, which serves the interest of global capitalism.

As for Solidarity, at the time of writing I have had no response to my enquiry regarding its position. While it is likely it will take a similar view to the SSP, there will be forces within its ranks (not least the Socialist Workers Party) who would rather not discuss the national question at all. Yet it is clearly not going away.

It is important that we do not ignore the issue, take a chauvinistic position or one which downplays the national rights of the Scottish people. The working class in England ought to champion their right to self-determination, up to and including secession, should they wish it. Crucially, however, we must call for the working class in Scotland to advocate unity rather than separation.

In these circumstances, when national antagonisms are high, the call for a federal republic can promote the unity of the working class in Britain, while recognising the democratic questions posed by increased support for separatism. The principle, though, is always for the maximum possible unity of the working class.