Referendum has nothing to offer

Neither Scottish independence nor British unionism. Sarah McDonald looks at the launch of the "Yes" campaign

Alex Salmond would keep her as head of state

On May 25 the Yes Scotland campaign was launched. Unlike most election or referenda campaigns, this new drive for independence has been declared not months, but years in advance of the likely date of the vote.

The Scottish National Party wants the referendum to be held in the autumn of 2014, something that the Scottish secretary, Michael Moore, and prime minister David Cameron claim they are “not to be fussed about”.[1] But obviously they are concerned about when it is called, as the timing of any referendum will affect its outcome. A tarnished (and already deeply unpopular) Scottish Conservative Party, coming to the end of its first term and presiding over economic recession, job losses and public service cuts, would be used as a reason to vote ‘yes’ - independence is one sure way of being rid of the Tories.

The Scottish National Party’s campaign, subtitled ‘Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands’, will focus on the great cultural and mineral wealth beckoning. The anti-independence campaign will be launched in a couple of weeks (incidentally, it will not actually be featuring the word ‘no’ in any of its publicity, as it wants to run a ‘positive’ campaign) and will be made up of an alliance of unionists of all hues from the Scottish Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, through the Labour Party, to George Galloway.

What would Devo do?

So what would the ballot paper look like? Here, it appears, is where Cameron and Moore are a little more “fussed”. Most of those on the ‘We’re not saying no, but no’ campaign are in favour of a single, straightforward question - Galloway is an exception in supporting a two-question ballot paper.

SNP leader Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, also wants two questions, since something short of full secession would provide the SNP with a fallback position, should it not get the desired outcome of a majority in favour of separation. The option known as ‘devo max’ would further extend the powers of the Scottish parliament. But, to repeat the question asked by the band, Devo, on its famous T-shirts, “What would Devo do?” The answer is that no-one really knows what maximum devolution (or ‘independence light’, as it has been satirically rebranded by sections of the media) would mean.

A rejection of outright independence is quite likely (given that support for it consistently fluctuates between 30% and 35%, and has done for decades). Should that happen in the context of a single-question ballot, the whole issue would be taken off the agenda for a very long time and that would represent a severe setback for the SNP’s whole project, given that Scottish independence is supposed to be its raison d’être. If, however, the Scottish people reject secession, even by a sizable majority, but favour ‘devo max’, the SNP can push to extend the powers of the Scottish parliament, with the long-term goal of full independence still in view. The SNP could still claim, with a degree of legitimacy, that the majority of Scottish people want some form of constitutional change.

The polls are not in Salmond’s favour right now. According to YouGov, the same old 33% are for separation. However, its poll also shows that only 58% of those who backed the SNP in the last election would vote for independence in a snap referendum, while 28% of its voters actually oppose it.[2] This is something that Cameron knows all too well, so, while it might not be in his interest to hold off till the autumn of 2014, he would be happier if he could secure a single-question ballot. He would be prepared to gamble on Scotland returning a clear ‘no’ vote. That would not only push the Scottish national question off the political agenda and damage the SNP, but boost the Tories’ own standing - in Scotland as well as the UK as a whole.

The Tories are, to their core, unionists and therefore will fight from a British nationalist perspective to retain the United Kingdom in its current form at all costs. However, they would undoubtedly gain electorally if Scotland departed from the UK - after all, since the 1950s the Conservative Party has been steadily losing support north of the border, to the extent that it is now the no-hope third party at best. In 1997 the Tories were completely wiped out in Scotland and in the last general election they won just one seat. Added to that, in proportion to its population Scotland is overrepresented at Westminster, so if Scotland were to go it alone that would, on the face of it, almost guarantee electoral success for the Tories in what remained of Britain.

What, then, of Labour? Of course, not only is the Labour Party ideologically opposed to Scottish separation but, of the mainstream parties, it has the most to lose from seeing Scotland secede. Without Scotland, Labour would find it hard to secure a majority in any Westminster election.

Imagine

Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that Yes Scotland bucks the odds and emerges victorious (happy and glorious). What would this actually mean? Well for starters it would mean that Elizabeth Windsor or her successor would still be ‘long to reign over us’ - the SNP does not want to see a Scottish republic of any form.

No future for the British army in Scotland? Think again. The SNP has suggested that it might allow Scottish regiments to remain part of the British Army should they choose to do so - the possible complications are multifold. No future for Trident? Potentially, but the implications and cost of moving nuclear warheads to Southampton or the like are significant - would the British government allow such a situation to arise?

No future for the Scottish economy? Well, here we might be on to something. Not too long ago we were told by Alex Salmond that Scotland as an independent state would thrive along the lines of the ‘Celtic tigers’, such as Ireland (enough said). The reality is that this small country with limited resources, independent of the City of London, would be badly hit in a time of global economic recession. The SNP can currently promise the world and lay the blame at Westminster’s gates, but an independent Scotland would be a far cry from the one it has painted.

Not quite as far removed from reality, though, as the fantasy in many Scottish comrades’ heads of what an independent ‘socialist’ Scotland would look like. Sitting pride of place on the Scottish Socialist Party’s website is an updated article from 2005, written by Alan McCombes, ‘Why the left should back independence’. It is so riddled with stupidity, you could pick it apart virtually sentence by sentence - perhaps mercifully, there is not the space to do that here.

However, it asks three central questions, and so I will answer them:

“First, does socialist internationalism mean that we are striving to replace capitalist globalisation with socialist globalisation? Are we aiming to build gigantic socialist mega-states? Or should our more immediate goal be to build socialism from below - a socialism that is based on decentralisation, diversity and voluntary cooperation?”

Yes, we should be striving for socialism globally. Would a revolution be more likely to succeed in a larger entity - eg, a United States of Europe - than in smaller, more backward states, where it would quickly and easily be crushed? Well, again, yes. Should the movement be a voluntary one, based on cooperation? Of course. Does that mean decentralisation? Once again, of course. But in certain circumstances that might be a part of the process (ie, the demand for a federal republic as a way of overcoming national antagonisms with the aim of achieving a deeper unity).

“Linked to that is a second question. Should socialists be in favour of larger, broader states under capitalism? Is bigger always better? Do large-scale, multinational states unify and strengthen the working class or can forced unity from above sometimes aggravate national conflict and resentment?”

As communists we would wish to see the largest voluntary unity of people, the breaking down of national barriers under capitalism and thereby the opportunity for revolution on the largest possible scale, lessening the chances of it being defeated. Yes, forced unity can create national antagonisms and resentment - people should have the democratic right to national self-determination. Communists should, in these circumstances, champion that right while in general advocating unity.

“The third question revolves around the process of change. Will socialism be achieved as the product of a single big bang, a simultaneous, worldwide revolt of the working class and the oppressed? Or, because of differing national conditions and traditions, will social change be more fragmented and disjointed? Will it tend to develop at local and national level first, before spreading outwards?”[3]

If the former were to happen that would provide the best conditions for a successful transition. Historically the failure for revolution to spread (from Russia to Germany and the rest of Europe) was the reason why the 20th century played out the way it did and our movement was set back for generations. However, the global development of capitalism and the subsequent increasingly common conditions encountered by the international working class would tend to suggest that simultaneous revolution could be less disjointed than comrade McCombes thinks.

But the point is that socialism in one country is an impossibility, as comrade McCombes once knew. Revolution may occur first in a single country, but it is crazy to aim for it. Especially in the circumstances of Britain, where we have historically constituted working class capable of taking on the British state. Given the disaster of the last eight years, with the SSP destroyed and the left now completely marginalised, Scotland is not exactly in the forefront of world revolution. Judging by the state of the organised left, you could make a better case for the London boroughs of Haringey and Hackney going it alone.

The Socialist Party Scotland is also for a ‘yes’ vote, though its reasons for doing so, if you follow the logic of Philip Stott’s article on the SPS website, seem thoroughly opportunist. In short, support for Scottish independence is to be found primarily among the working class and youth (the people we must aim to win over first and foremost), because many are under the illusion that it will provide an escape route from unemployment and austerity. We, the SPS, know that it won’t, of course - so we’ll campaign for a ‘yes’ vote, but put working class economic demands at the heart of our campaign. Of course, as socialists, we are internationalists, so we would want to see voluntary unity with England and Wales in a socialist future. And we will somehow get there by opposing the cuts in the here and now.[4]

Let us not bother with the big constitutional, political questions that the working class must engage with if it wants to become the hegemonic class. While, of course, job losses, hospital closures and so on can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, workers can only hope to emancipate themselves if they fight for political change, not least concerning the way we are ruled. In fact an independent Scotland would hardly provide an escape route from austerity - just look across the water to Ireland.

Active boycott

So what position do we adopt when faced with this referendum? Well, for us, it is not an ideal situation to be in. As communists and internationalists we cannot give support to the ‘yes’ camp. We are against breaking up the historically constituted working class in this country along national lines. We are for the greatest voluntary unity of people. So, we must call for the right for the people of Scotland to decide if they want to remain part of a British state. That is clearly not the same as advocating independence. We champion the right to national self-determination, but advocate unity as its outcome. That said, we are against the current UK state - the monarchy, the unwritten constitution, the House of Lords and the whole shebang! We are for a democratic, federal republic, where Wales and Scotland have the right to self-determination, up to and including secession, and we are for a united Ireland.

Sadly, however, we do not get to write the question on the ballot paper and we do not favour any of the options likely to be on the table - ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘devo’. That will leave us in the unenviable position of calling for a boycott - not because we have nothing to say, but because nothing that they will offer us is in the interests of our class. It is unlikely, given the balance of forces on the left and their politics and the level of political struggle in Scotland (just as in the rest of Britain), that an active boycott campaign will see a vast groundswell of support. (Still two and a half years is a long time in politics …) Yet it is the only principled stance to take.

Notes

1 . The Scotsman May 17.

2 . The Guardian May 25.

3 . http://www.scottishsocialistparty.org/new_stories/issues/socialists-should-back-independence.html

4 . http://socialistpartyscotland.org.uk/news-a-analysis/scottish-politics/397-yes-scotland-independence-referendum-campaign-launched.