Scotland: Independence from what?

The Scottish National Party’s support for Nato confirms Alex Salmond as a canny bourgeois politician, argues Paul Demarty

The most striking thing about the Scottish National Party conference was that it was, in all fairness, a conference. Debate was allowed, and on one particular point it raged fiercely.

That point has been a sore one within the SNP for some time now. Alex Salmond, its slick operator of a leader, has long proposed to drop the SNP’s formal opposition to an independent Scotland’s membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. That opposition has been in place since Nato’s formation in 1949, based on a general revulsion towards nuclear weapons within the ranks of the SNP.

The policy was finally overturned at the SNP’s conference last week, after a fraught discussion, and by a slim margin. Anti-Nato feeling is well rooted in the SNP - the rebellion against the change was led by eight MSPs, two of whom have now resigned. John Finnie, referring to the slightly contradictory terms of the conference compromise, said “I cannot belong to a party that quite rightly does not wish to hold nuclear weapons on its soil, but wants to join a first-strike nuclear alliance.”

Of course, that is not exactly what is on offer - because Scotland is already in Nato. The underlying problem is exactly what form a putative independent Scotland will take. What commitments will be broken along with the union? How independent is independence? According to Salmond’s grand plan, the answer is on the whole: ‘not very.’

The problem is less and less a purely academic one. Salmond now has his first shot at a referendum to make the SNP dream a reality. Before the end of 2014, the Scottish people will be given a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question: should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?

This is being spun by the SNP as a result, but it has not escaped notice that it is really a setback. Gone is the much-mooted third option, so-called ‘devo-max’, which would concede to Holyrood powers over fiscal policy, while retaining control of foreign policy in Westminster. Devo-max was widely believed to be a more attractive option to the majority of Scots than full independence; the shrewd pragmatist, Salmond, would be quite happy to salami-slice his way to independence.

If a straight yes/no vote was held tomorrow, the nationalists would lose by a considerable, but hardly crushing, margin. It is possible that the Westminster government will, by the end of 2014, be so virulently hated north of the border that the ‘yes’ camp wins; but at present it is the unionists’ to lose, and there is no reason to assume Cameron and Clegg (and, for that matter, Miliband) will bungle things so disastrously as to change that.

A victory for the ‘no’ camp will not settle the issue, however. The SNP is no longer the near single-issue campaign it once was. Above all else, it has become a credible party of government in Scotland, cementing its power, just as Scottish Labour accelerates its process of political suicide. Defeat in the referendum would not kill the SNP.

What, then, is Salmond’s plan? He has understandably gone quiet on his Celtic-Scandinavian ‘arc of prosperity’ line - an arc which connected up the once wildly successful economies of Ireland, Iceland and Norway. Norway is still in a vaguely fit economic state, all things considered; Ireland and Iceland are transparently basket cases. Still, it gives us some idea of what is in his head - favourable tax arrangements to attract foreign investment on a relatively thin economic basis. That plan is to be firmed up by taking hold of North Sea oil.

Beyond that, the story is more about what is not going to go: Nato membership, obviously, which would place Scotland firmly in the US sphere of influence, is the point that is being talked about right now. But Salmond wants to retain European Union membership as well. He also wants to keep the British pound sterling as Scotland’s currency, and retain the British monarch as head of state.

It is unlikely that Cameron would oppose the retention of her maj. Everything else at least offers an opportunity for obstruction, a sticking point in the hard negotiations that would follow a ‘yes’ vote. The Nato question is tied up with the relative military capacities of Scotland and the rest of the UK; Cameron could quite easily claim that British army units stationed or recruited from north of the border are the crown’s, not the SNP’s, to dispose of. The SNP admits that it would have to buy serious naval military ordinance in combination with the UK government, a proposal that would likely be met with the traditional middle finger.

There are legal disputes in the offing about Scotland’s EU membership; Salmond expects automatic membership, but other opinions exist that would force a rather punishing readmission process on a newly independent country, giving Cameron at the very least something to scare the Scots with in the lead-up to a referendum. Salmond claims that 90% of North Sea oil falls in Scottish territorial waters, but Westminster will certainly find ways to disagree with that.

Keeping the pound would tie Scotland to the Bank of England, and to substantial parts of British fiscal and monetary policy by default. ‘Devolving’ the currency would in any case be unacceptable to unionists, and is hardly that attractive an option, given the endless troubles across the channel in the euro zone. Scotland could be forced into competing with the City of London on terms decided by a government in the same City’s pocket. The result, presumably, would not be pretty.

To back up their negotiating position, the defenders of the union have all the might of the British imperialist state behind them. To back up his, Salmond will have whatever democratic mandate he can get in a referendum; a marginal result on a small turnout will not represent the kind of critical mass of popular support needed to get a decent deal for the fledgling state.

In spite of all this, it has to be said that - apart, maybe, from the currency question - Salmond’s plan for independence has a serious basis in reality. These are all legitimate points of dispute, which would be settled ultimately by the balance of forces at work.

Salmond is canny enough to know that independence is a relative matter. To obtain a workable state order, Scotland will have to find a place in the global order. Giving way on Nato membership, that very un-nationalist line on the EU: all these things point towards a single priority, which is establishing Scotland as a responsible and credible member of the ‘international community’ - which is to say, firmly within the US sphere of influence.

Thus, his plan has a credibility utterly lacking from the 57 varieties of ‘left’ reasoning for a ‘yes’ vote. The title of a new Socialist Workers Party pamphlet on the subject - ‘Yes to independence, no to nationalism’ - sums up nicely the utter stupidity of the left on this subject. The supposedly non-nationalist arguments amount to the idea that breaking up the British state is a blow to the effective unity of imperialism. This is flagrantly ludicrous on the Salmond plan - which would see all of the island of Britain still in Nato and still in the EU.

To dissent from Salmond’s plan, however, demands an alternative vision. And no alternative vision is available from the SWP, the Scottish Socialist Party and Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity other than left nationalism. The latter, unlike the SNP’s policy, has absolutely no basis in reality. It amounts to a repackaged version of socialism in one country - except this time it would be in a tiny country, not even self-sufficient in food production, but with a small hint of Chávezesque petro-socialism attached.

The SSP, and all those left fragments north of the border backing the ‘yes’ campaign, will no doubt issue the fiercest calumnies against Salmond for ‘selling out’ over Nato. If their alternative was an international revolutionary movement, then there would be a case for the slick leader to answer. In truth, the left nationalists are pushing the most absurd petty bourgeois fantasy, while Salmond is pushing a potential bourgeois reality. He will brush advocates of a leftwing ‘yes’ vote aside like so many flying ants.

However much it is being presented as an existential choice for Scotland’s future, it is striking how little is on offer from either camp. The battle is not between the butcher’s apron and the saltire, but rather over whether or not Scotland is to have American and/or German patronage filtered through London. The defenders of the union - including the shambolic Labour operation north of the border - have nothing to offer but subjection to a decrepit, reactionary constitution and economic devastation. The nationalists offer a marginal change in paymasters. Whoever wins, the Scottish people will lose.

A serious left intervention has to fight for Scotland’s right to self-determination. It has to fight to destroy that decrepit state regime that squats upon us all. But it also has to fight for a meaningful, voluntary union of the three British nationalities, for the fullest flowering of democracy, on the basis of the historic and hard-won unity of Scottish, Welsh and English workers, in a federal republic.