Make a federal republic fifth option

The question of Scottish independence is not going to go away, writes Sarah McDonald

A little over 10 years since the Scottish parliament first came into being, the Scottish National Party revealed its white paper, putting forward the options for constitutional reform in Scotland. The paper, published on November 30 (St Andrew’s day), follows on from the SNP’s ‘national debate’ on the question of independence.

The nationalists hope to pass a bill through the Scottish parliament calling for a referendum on the national question to be held next year. The SNP is trying to persuade the other main parties in the parliament, where it has no majority, of course, to support its referendum proposal by offering at a multi-option ballot paper rather than a clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to independence.

The SNP’s white paper considers four options for the constitutional future of Scotland. Firstly, the status quo, secondly, Scotland retains its current responsibilities, with gradual evolution in response to particular events or pressures. Thirdly, implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Scottish Devolution - the maximum range of responsibilities - while remaining in the United Kingdom (known as ‘devolution max’ or ‘independence light’). Or, fourthly, full independence. The nationalists favour the latter option, although, bizarrely, the UK monarch would remain head of state. Incidentally, the Scottish parliament does not have the power to grant Scotland independence. If a majority of people voted for such an option in a referendum, the best the nationalists could offer would be to begin negotiations with Westminster on the subject.

Despite the courting by the SNP minority government of the ‘unionist parties’, the referendum proposal will not be get through the parliament - the bill will not be supported by any of the main parties, multi-option or not. Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats all declare that constitutional reform is not a major question and the parliament should focus its energies on dealing with the effects of recession. Of course, there are elements of the left that take an equivalent view - that the working class should not concern itself with questions of constitutional change, but rather deal only with ‘real’ working class issues like wages, jobs and cuts.

But the question of Scottish independence is not going to go away. At some point in the next few years people in Scotland could be asked to vote on the constitutional question of devolution and independence, so it important that the left engages in the debate and takes up a principled position. Moreover, it is important that the left recognises that the working class, if it is to become a hegemonic class, must be politically equipped to deal with such questions.

So what position should communists take? Well, there are two separate questions to be addressed here. Firstly, should we support the call for a referendum? And, secondly, what position do we take as regards backing any of the options on the ballot paper?

The fight for socialism in inextricably linked to the fight for democracy. It would be thoroughly undemocratic to oppose the very idea of a referendum on what is, whatever the mainstream UK parties say, a key question in Scotland. That said, the campaign for a referendum in bound up with separatism. In current circumstances it would be tactically unwise to effectively give our backing to the nationalist movement by actively campaigning for a referendum. However, should support for a referendum become more widespread, it is important in the interests of democracy that we support the right of people in Scotland to have their say on the matter.

So how can we engage with the referendum debate in a principled way without pandering to nationalism, while still championing democratic rights? The left in Scotland has not had a good record on this matter so far. Its organisations have adopted a position that attempts to be more nationalist than the nationalists themselves. The Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity demanded an immediate referendum on the question, even though they knew the SNP was in no position to deliver it and there would be no chance of a ‘yes’ vote.

Both organisations, of course, back a vote for independence, as both ridiculously imagine Scottish independence will help further the cause of socialism - rather than a militant fight for the greatest possible unity of our class. Solidarity makes it clear it will be fighting for an independent socialist Scotland - even though socialism will not, of course, be on the ballot paper. Never mind - they will just go ahead and place their crosses against the option for an independent Scottish monarchy.

To put the word ‘socialist’ between ‘independent’ and ‘Scotland’ is meaningless sloganising, which attempts to justify a thoroughly unprincipled position. As experienced comrades in Solidarity well know, socialism within the confines of one country is not possible. Those Trotskyists who have spent decades trying to distance themselves from the legacy of the Soviet Union ought to know better than to promote such a concept.

As for the Scottish Socialist Party, there is not even an attempt to mask its left nationalism, as it would urge MSPs to back the referendum bill as a step towards the key aim of Scottish independence.

According to an article by Eileen Boyle in Socialist Worker, the Socialist Workers Party, whose comrades in Scotland remain unenthusiastic members of Solidarity, will almost certainly support a ‘yes’ vote too. Comrade Boyle seems a little confused as to why it is that working class people should back independence. She does not believe that this will deliver an independent socialist Scotland “so beloved of some sections of the Scottish left”. In fact, she accepts that the working class in Scotland would “continue to be exploited by Scottish and international bosses alike”. Her main argument for calling for a vote for Scottish independence seems to be that the union has a history of exploitation of workers both at home and abroad and has only ever served the interests of the ruling class. She argues that “socialist should have no interest in maintaining the unity of this state” (December 5).

In the latest SWP Pre-conference Bulletin (No3), a certain “Neil (Edinburgh)” contends that, while “the party as a whole has no formal position agreed by national conference”, the SWP “approach in Scotland is ... tactical, as no questions of principle are involved”. He then goes on to identify one such question of principle when he states: “... some well-meaning, but deluded, members of the Labour Party will argue that the issue is the unity of the British working class”, when actually it is about “the virtues of white, Christian, imperial Britain, alloyed with a little tame multiculturalism at best.” In fact “there is no reason why workers in Scotland could not belong to the same unions in the rest of the United Kingdom.”

In other words, the “unity of the British working class” - which, strangely, is a demand he associates only with Labour Party members - is perceived as merely unity in the workplace against the bosses, not the unity of our class against the state. Comrade Neil concludes that by campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote socialists will “neutralise the issue of independence”. I must say that campaigning for independence is a peculiar way of neutralising the issue.

These comrades fail to recognise that it is important we do not advocate separation because we do have an interest in maintaining such unity of the working class.

Like Neil, comrade Boyle is of the opinion that socialists can “never defend the union”, and she is right that we should never defend the ruling class, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the like. Neither can we support an imposed unity and the denial of self-determination or take national pride in British imperialism. But we would surely defend the unity of the working class and the historical struggles that the working class across Britain have fought against our ruling class.

If we are to have a genuine discussion on constitutional issues, we must raise the question of the constitutional monarchy and the democratic fight for republicanism. Not from the nationalistic and deeply misguided view of a ‘Scottish socialist republic’, as envisaged by the SSP and others, which would divide the historically constituted working class in Britain, as well as promote the false concept of socialism within the boundaries of one small country. Instead, the left must see the demand for republicanism as part of the democratic fight not only for the removal of the monarch as head of state, but also for the scrapping of the whole constitutional monarchy system of government: unaccountable MPs, the ‘checks and balances’ against democracy of the second chamber, the system of patronage, the state church, the standing army.

We must recognise that there are national antagonisms within the UK and actively engage with the national question. We must link it to the question of republican democracy, championing the democratic right to self-determination without advocating separatism. We should insist that the option of a federal republic - the only way in current circumstances to promote self-determination while upholding working class unity - must be on any referendum ballot paper.