Climax of tartan nationalism

The Scottish independence referendum is a choice between Westminster and Berlin, argues James Turley - yet the left offers no alternative to nationalist illusions

Since Alex Salmond’s Scottish Nationalist Party won overall control in Holyrood, the question of Scottish independence has presented itself all the more forcefully on the British political agenda. As all sensible voices have predicted, the political battle looks set not to be a great climactic confrontation between British unionist chauvinism and petty Scottish nationalism, however, but a insidious and frankly undignified backroom struggle over every miserable detail.

Both Salmond - whatever else one might say about him, an able and experienced politician - and his principal opponent, David Cameron, are alert enough to know that the battle starts now, and will end long after the dust has settled on a referendum.

The principal points of contention at present amount to choosing the ground where the two sides will eventually join battle. Salmond wants a referendum to take place at the end of this parliament; Cameron would prefer it to take place much sooner. Salmond wants a third option on the ballot - so-called ‘devolution max’, which, if you were wondering, means pretty much whatever you want it to - while the Tories want a straight ‘yes or no’ choice on the question of independence.

It is no enormous mystery as to why this is. The government’s popularity may not be soaring (especially not in Scotland, where the Tories have effectively been wiped out), but in 2014 - after two more years of Cameron/Clegg-fronted austerity inflicts further social devastation - it will be considerably lower. A third option on the ballot would soak up some softer nationalist, or even localist, sentiment (it has even been mooted, somewhat ridiculously, that a three-option referendum could be taken according to a preferential voting system), and would thus be another Salmondian salami slice closer to independence.

All these wrangles have not stopped the two sides starting tomorrow’s squabbles today - in particular, there are the vexed questions of North Sea oil (the nationalists want the lot), the national debt (the nationalists want as little as possible), and Trident nuclear submarines. The latter are based in the Clyde naval base, and Salmond has very publicly declared that they have no place in an independent Scotland - the British military brass would not exactly be keen to let him keep them, but they will use the excuse to extort considerable ‘compensation’ from the Scots to cover the costs of relocating this obscene monument to post-imperial hubris.

Vision thing

There is, of course, nothing wrong with grubby struggles as such. The path to socialist revolution, certainly, is not a smooth one - as our movement has learned to its considerable cost. The more fundamental problem is one of vision.

What do David Cameron and his unionist allies have to offer the Scottish people? In a word, Trident; not simply the dubious privilege of having the submarines parked in the Clyde, but the whole weight of the union’s glorious imperial history (which saw the Scottish establishment perhaps even more enthusiastic about colonial plunder and butchery than their English counterparts) that accompanies Britain’s nuclear-armed status. Beyond that, nothing - or at least nothing more than he offers the rest of us beleaguered Brits: austerity, leading to a lost decade, accompanied by thoroughgoing social reaction and subjugation to a decrepit constitutional order.

That much is obvious; and Salmond relies on it being so. But what is his grand vision of the future? An independent Scottish statelet that assumes membership of the European Union. He no longer rabbits on about the so-called ‘arc of prosperity’, of which only Norway remains even a remotely attractive model, but the basic scheme remains the same; given developments in the EU, he seizes Scotland from the English to hand it gift-wrapped to the Germans. Such is the ‘choice’ offered to the Scots when this sorry farce comes to a vote: domination by the Westminster bureau of the White House, or the Brussels bureau of the Bundestag?

Given such a shop-soiled selection of non-answers, it was once possible for people to turn to the far left for a more compelling vision. Unfortunately, in this instance, no such vision is available. Scotland has represented a peculiarly weak programmatic spot for the British far left for some years now; the de facto death of the Scottish Socialist Party has not acted as a cautionary tale as regards the merits of adopting petty bourgeois nationalist politics, and numerous organisations seem to have coalesced around a single, particularly dismal political line in support of a vote for independence.

Emblematic is an editorial in Socialist Worker1: socialists should first of all campaign for the ‘devo max’ option to be included on the ballot, and then campaign for an independence vote in any case. To justify this, the SWP - in this instance, comrade Kier McKechnie - has picked up on a frankly idiotic line beloved of Scottish left nationalists, that a Scottish breakaway would be a blow to British imperialism: “Britain is a major imperialist power that still wants to be able to invade and rob other countries across the globe,” he writes. “A clear ‘yes’ vote for independence would weaken the British state and undermine its ability to engage in future wars.”

As a factual statement, this is questionable (as a rule, no evidence is ever offered for it). Let us be blunt: it is not the pluckiness and military prowess, however impressive, of the Scots that allows Britain to do these things, but the technological and logistical largesse of the United States. In effect, the SWP line is informed by a moral glee in any misfortune that befalls an allotted ‘bad guy’, rather than any serious analysis of - you know - what would actually happen.

The real fun is yet to follow, however. “We are internationalists, not nationalists,” comrade McKechnie soberly reminds us, “and we should not become cheerleaders for Alex Salmond.” What ingenious method, then, should ‘socialists’ employ to distance themselves from Salmond at the same time as repeating his political line? By making a laundry list of worthy but dull-as-ditchwater anti-austerity demands on Salmond’s cabinet, against cuts, against bailouts for the banks - “and that includes the Royal Bank of Scotland” (oh, surely RBS is going too far, comrade!) - and so on, and so forth.

The SWP is renowned for its contempt for ‘propagandism’; but what it proposes here is to overload a simple political choice - between independence, devo-max, the status quo or none of the above - with all manner of additional political points. Whether the SWP likes it or not, it is doing propaganda rather than agitation - and what utterly dreadful propaganda this is.

The neat summary of this policy is provided, not unironically, in a piece by Chris Bambery - who, readers will remember, left the SWP on a completely apolitical basis last year, taking a good chunk of the organisation’s young Scottish comrades with him. That summary is: “an anti-austerity, anti-imperialist ‘yes’ vote”.2

It is a neat name, because it aptly condenses what is so catastrophically wrong about it. Bambery, the SWP and the Mandelite Socialist Resistance (who, of course, wheeled out the Scottish question as cover for an apolitical split from Respect) all share a commitment to making the vote on independence about the current regime in Westminster. The “anti-austerity ‘yes’ vote” amounts to the cynical employment of this referendum as an opportunity for a big protest vote against the coalition. The Socialist Worker piece can only find five lines to justify a vote for Scottish independence, but dedicates eight paragraphs to humdrum anti-cuts material. Readers may decide which side of the equation has been given the most thought.

Democratic solution

The tragedy in all this is that, while Salmond’s referendum is merely a choice of butchers, the Scottish question - and more broadly the British question, of the relations between the constituent parts of this state and its arcane constitution - is hardly a non-issue.

The standard left-nationalist claims to Scotland’s status as an oppressed nation are historically illiterate, to put it kindly; but Scotland finds itself in a union which is politically and economically centred overwhelmingly on London (rather than England). That union is complicated by the unity of the British working class. It is paramount for communists to support the right of Scotland to self-determination, and also to protect the hard-won unity of our class.

Squaring that circle means taking democracy seriously as a political task for the working class; and that means first of all pointing out that this merry dance between the SNP and Westminster is a sick parody of self-determination from beginning to end.

It begins with a referendum, which is in itself a profoundly anti-democratic manoeuvre, the favoured method of rule among Bonapartists, fascists and every other species of crooked demagogue. Inordinate power is granted to he who sets the question, the possible answers and the time and manner of the plebiscite - hence the bun fight between Cameron and Salmond over exactly those matters. It ends either with a sham ‘independence’ which is, in reality, junior membership of the EU, or a sham mandate for the continuation of the blood-soaked union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as presently constituted.

The only appropriate response to such a referendum is a spoilt ballot - combined with serious propaganda for a democratic federal republic in Britain, in which the Scotland and Wales have full national rights, up to and including the right to secession. Our job is not to provide left cover for the break-up of existing states - no matter how far up the imperial food chain they are - but to build the unity of the workers’ movement across all borders, and fight to place the workers’ movement at the vanguard of the struggle for extreme, republican democracy.


1. Socialist Worker January 21.

2. http://counterfire.org/index.php/articles/opinion/15409.