Left nationalists: serving SNP

Scottish independence: Those wanting a break-up will be disappointed, whatever outcome

What position should communists take on next year’s referendum? Sarah McDonald urges a boycott

The date is set. The preparations are well underway. There is a general nervous tension (among Scottish media types and politicians, at least). September 18 2014 is the day when it is a divorce that is on the cards.

Just to make clear to readers outside Scotland, whose notice this may have escaped, we are referring to the independence referendum. It is safe to say that, while this might be getting big play in the media north of the border, there has been relatively little coverage of the story elsewhere. Remarkable perhaps, given the implications for the UK state, should the Scottish people opt for divorce.

As things stand, this is an unlikely scenario, since support for an independent Scotland has remained constant at around the 30% mark for decades. In fact, all things being equal, it is likely that this figure could drop somewhat, once the UK state and the British nationalist media start to crank up their efforts to maintain the union. That is not to surmise that it is in the bag for the ‘no’ camp (more positively officially spun as the Better Together campaign). Yet all things might not be as they are now in 18 months time - plus there is the matter of 16-18-year-old voting intentions, not yet factored into the polling stats.

The ‘yes’ camp (which perhaps ought to be called ‘Better Off Alone’) is banking on the continued unpopularity of the coalition government - the notion that independence would see off the Tories once and for all. This sentiment strikes a chord with a large section of the Scottish population, which views the Conservative attacks of the Margaret Thatcher government in particular as anti-Scots rather than anti-working class in general - no UK Tory government is perceived to have had a democratic mandate in Scotland, where the Conservatives have polled increasingly small returns since the 1960s. Shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran’s very sophisticated response to the ‘let’s break up the UK and get rid of the Tories’ argument is to tell people to vote Labour - clearly, she is the strategic mind behind Scottish Labour’s PR machine.

Following the Scottish National Party’s clear majority at the last Holyrood election, the Westminster government was forced into a position where it could not be seen to deny the SNP a referendum. In some ways, for David Cameron, the sooner the better. As things stand, his government is not likely to gain much in popularity, and there is still relatively little support for separation (electoral support for the SNP should not be confused with a desire for independence - many people vote SNP as a protest against Labour as well as the Tories). On top of which, British national spirit can still be invoked on the back of last summer’s Olympic Games success.

The question really to be asked is: what would losing the referendum mean for the SNP? If the result is clear-cut (eg, 70:30 in favour of maintaining the union), then the call for independence will have to be put on the back burner for the foreseeable future. Yet independence is the party’s ostensible raison d’être, so it could be facing a bit of an identity crisis. Since taking the reins at Holyrood, its popularity has increased. It has, by and large, implemented small, tinkering changes that have been crowd-pleasers and has been able to point to Holyrood’s limited powers and the dominance of the Westminster government as the reason it has not been able to do more. Cynically, some might argue, the current arrangement suits SNP leader Alex Salmond right down to the ground - a rather cushy little number. Keep the SNP brand name, keep independence on the medium-term agenda, agitate for greater powers for the Scottish parliament and repaint the party’s politics a soft, social democratic hue (a yellowish pink perhaps?).

Let us just imagine, for the sake of argument, the unlikely scenario of a clear vote for independence. What are the implications? Maybe not as much sunshine and puppies for Salmond. He is then in the situation where he would have to implement austerity cuts hard and fast. He would have to renegotiate the status of Scotland as an unknown economic quantity within the European Union - there are some unpleasant precedents, like Ireland and Iceland (once examples used by the SNP to demonstrate the great potential of small countries). Even if Scotland were to avoid economic catastrophe, the shine would surely come off the SNP - it could no longer avoid the finger of blame, as it presided over harsh cuts in public services and social spending.

What would the political implications be for the rest of the UK in this event? Though the Tories are obviously opposed ideologically to the break-up of the UK state, removing Scotland from the picture would most certainly benefit them electorally, as cutting off Scotland would also take 59 Scottish MPs out of the equation (right now 41 are Labour, 11 Liberal Democrat, six SNP and just one Conservative). Such an outcome would definitely come as a big blow to Labour, severely damaging its chances of ever being able to form a majority government in Westminster. In short it would result in seismic changes to UK politics.

At least, with the SNP, there is a sense of realism about what independence for Scotland would actually mean. All but the most naive of its supporters understand that it would mean harsh cuts and significant economic uncertainty. It would also mean the retention of the monarchy as head of state. Scotland would remain in Nato - as agreed at the SNP’s last conference with much in the way of ruffled feathers.

Fantasy left

This realism stands in sharp contrast to what sections of the left envisages as the possibilities for socialist advance that will be embodied in an independent Scotland (renowned for its long coastlines, temperate climate and mineral and cultural wealth - to paraphrase a certain comrade Alan McCombes).

At the forefront of the pro-independence left is the Radical Independence Campaign - an initiative of Chris Bambery and the International Socialist Group (an SWP breakaway now affiliated to Counterfire). Given the 800 who turned out for the November 2012 launch rally, this is not yet another fake front. No, it is a veritable popular front involving left nationalists, left opportunists, left SNPers, etc, etc. This motley crew want to turn the ‘yes’ vote into a vote against austerity, against Trident and for a “society that cares about welfare, employment, peace and the environment” (sic).

Slightly less starry-eyed about the consequences of a ‘yes’ majority vote is the programmatically rudderless Committee for a Workers’ International. These comrades choose to ignore the harsh reality of what independence would mean for working class people in Scotland by giving it a leftish tinge. One gets the impression from speaking to CWI comrades that they do not actually favour independence themselves, but it is important to, you know, ‘meet the class where they’re at’ and therefore support independence in order to win the working class to socialism. And not just any old independence, of course - according to the fantasy, it must be socialist independence! But these so-called Trotskyist comrades would be the first to admit that socialism cannot exist in one country ... so all one can gather from what they have to say on the subject is that they are consistently opportunist and otherwise thoroughly inconsistent.

The Socialist Workers Party - which was just a little bit late to the party - is equally opportunistic in its current position: “For independence, against nationalism”. The SWP feels the need to adopt a pro-independence line in order to ‘hold the conversation’ with trade unionists and win workers to a ‘left’ version of independence. This is a step backwards from its already appalling previous position - which had of necessity been a fudge in order to ingratiate the SWP with the Scottish Socialist Party leadership during the days before the SSP was wrecked by Tommy Sheridan’s defamation case against the News of the World.

The SWP position has been that essentially it doesn’t matter that much. In any case, we should shed no tears over the break-up of the UK state: it would, after all, be a blow to British imperialism. That may be true, comrades, but the resulting national divisions would also be a blow to the working class - and you should shed more than a tear over that. Of course, what remains of the SSP itself is now a hardened nationalist outfit (the nationalism that was once adopted supposedly just to gain an audience is now embedded in the organisation’s DNA). It will be a pathetic cheerleader for a ‘yes’ vote. Not that many people will be listening - anyone with any genuine belief in the SSP’s politics really ought to leave and join the SNP. The practical politics of the two organisations are now pretty similar (although possibly the SNP is less committed to nationalism).

As we have repeatedly said, it is important that we take the national question seriously. The working class must be armed with the best possible answers on all matters if it is to become the future ruling class. We must fight for democracy and champion the right of nations and nationalities to self-determination. This does not mean that we ought to go around shouting for secession at every opportunity, in every scenario - contrary to left-nationalist opinion. In fact, we need to fight for the greatest voluntary unity of peoples as the strongest weapon of the working class against the state. In the case of the British Isles we fight for a united Ireland alongside a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales as the best means of overcoming national antagonisms and moving towards greater unity.

This, of course, will not be an option on the ballot paper on September 18 2014. The choice will be between a ‘no’ vote - effectively lining up with the British state; and a ‘yes’ - the equivalent of siding with the SNP nationalists. The genuine left in Scotland would be well advised to build for an active boycott if it wants to take a clear and independent class position.