Scottish pound: is there a plan B?

Pox on both houses

What is the communist stance in relation to the Scottish referendum? Sarah McDonald urges a boycott

The last few weeks have seen Scotland featured a good deal on front pages and in editorials. In the build-up to the September 18 referendum on independence, things are getting heated. First, David Cameron makes his speech - spun as being addressed to the rest of the UK - about making Scotland feel all loved and wanted. Cameron’s PR people clearly thought delivering the speech at the Olympic stadium in London would remind people of their pride at seeing Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis - not to mention Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy - take home gold for ‘Team GB’.

In doing so Cameron came across in Scotland as a bit of an English twat. The response from the Scottish National Party tops - the ‘high heid yins’ - was, ‘Why don’t you come up here and say that, if you think you’re hard enough?’ (or words to that effect). In all seriousness, every time David Cameron or some other cabinet minister opens their mouth on the Scottish question, it wins over more people to the ‘yes’ campaign.

Backing him up, the treasury published an analysis paper suggesting that there is “no evidence” that a currency union between an independent Scotland and England could work. This view is supported by the ‘impartial’ leading civil servant, Sir Nicholas MacPherson, who would strongly advise a future UK government against entering such a union. This will have come as a significant blow to Alex Salmond, who wants to keep the pound as part of a currency union with the rest of the UK, while enjoying complete sovereignty. In the event of a ‘yes’ vote, the UK government would be “unlikely” to accept such an agreement and a future Scottish government would, in such circumstances, have to relinquish control over interest rates and borrowing levels.

George Osborne then weighed in. His speech claimed that currency unions are based on either an arrangement between an advanced country and a subordinate country or the pooling of sovereignty. In other words, Osborne (with the agreement of the cabinet and also, one presumes, the shadow cabinet) is playing bad cop to Cameron’s (albeit ‘I’m a bit of a twat’) good cop. Because of its control of the Bank of England, it is the UK government that sets interest rates. In financial terms, Osborne is saying, ‘You can have your divorce, but we’re keeping the house, the car and the Elvis records.’

Salmond’s response is to stick up two fingers, blow a raspberry and say that Scotland would renege on its debt - in order to reassure the markets the UK government has stated it would cover all such debt. Of course, such a move by an Edinburgh government would not play well with the European Union and world markets, and, as a result, Scotland would essentially be reduced to the status of a third-world country in such circumstances.

Then came the intervention of José Manuel Barroso. According to the president of the European Commission, the acceptance of an independent Scotland into the European Union would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”,1 as its membership would have to be approved by every member-state. Of course, several EU countries - he specified Spain - have their own national antagonisms, and the accession of a breakaway Scotland would set an unfortunate precedent from their point of view (the Spanish government has made clear that an independent Scotland would have a “mountain of problems”).

But the SNP’s deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is undeterred. She is adamant that Scotland will succeed in negotiating its membership of the EU after a vote for separation: “Scotland is part of the European Union - we’ve been part of it for 40 years. Europe and the EU is an organisation which has existed to expand, not contract … There’s not a single member-state that says it will try to block Scotland being a continuing member.”2

On the rise

It is fair to say that the Better Together ‘no’ camp will be taking some comfort from the statements of such figures as MacPherson and Barroso. But as the British establishment ups its game to counter possible inroads by the ‘yes’ campaign, the perception that Scotland is being bullied by more powerful forces may actually bolster the separatist cause.

In the light of all this, is support for Scottish independence on the rise? Recent polls suggest that this is unequivocally the case. Those conducted by TRS BMRB show support for a ‘yes’ rising from 26% in November 2013 to 29% in January 2014.3 Ipsos Mori has support for independence standing at 34%4, similar to the findings of YouGov. So it is certainly the case that the ‘yes’ campaign is gaining ground. In Scotland, there is undoubtedly an attitudinal shift within certain sections of society. Back in the 1980s, at the height of Thatcherism, the SNP was commonly regarded, at least by left and liberal types, as ‘tartan Tories’. A little ironic, given that the most ardent leftwing advocates of Scottish secession cite this period as the time when Scotland suffered hugely at the hands of a Conservative government with no democratic mandate north of the border.

Although 34% is still a long way from a majority, those who are banking on the prevalence of the status quo would do well to take heed of these shifting allegiances. During the 1990s and into the 2000s the SNP saw increased support from the working class and the youth - in no small part as a response to disillusionment with the Labour Party (and the failure of the left to fill the void). This saw formerly safe Labour seats in the working class heartlands fall into the hands of the nationalists. Now, to an extent, support for the SNP and, more poignantly (the two are not to be confused), support for independence coming from liberal, creative types - writers, artists, actors and the like - has been more marked. It is now often perceived as the ‘progressive’ side of the argument in such circles.

In addition, many trade unionists support the ‘yes’ agenda, while some minor former Labour Party figures have also defected to the independence camp. For its part, the Scottish Trades Union Congress has not taken an official position. While it has been a long-time supporter of devolution, independence is regarded as a step too far, especially in terms of maintaining its relationship with the Labour Party. In a piece in the New Statesman, the STUC’s Dave Moxham sits uncomfortably on the fence, trying to have us believe that the national question is of no concern to trade unionists: “The constitution stands apart from things like workplace protection because people don’t become trade unionists in order to win independence or stay in the UK. If we were to declare for a ‘yes’ vote or a ‘no’ vote, we’d be projecting a complicated dynamic in binary terms. Where would that leave those constituent unions who voted differently?”

It is unsurprising in the current period to see trade unionists take such a shallow, economistic approach to political issues, where its members, a section of the organised working class, should be using their collective strength to fight for their own interests. The New Statesman, in its introduction to the article, quotes the Scottish leader of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, Mick McGahey, for whom the principle of working class unity was the starting point when addressing the Scottish national question: the Scots are “entitled to decide the form and power of their own institutions”, he said at a specially convened trade union conference on devolution. “But Scottish workers have more in common with London dockers, Durham miners and Sheffield engineers than they have ever had with Scottish barons and landlord traitors.”5

The national question is not, as some political philistines would have it, a ‘bourgeois concern’ that has nothing to do with the working class. If we want our class to become the future ruling class it must be capable of dealing with more than immediate economic demands and come up with answers to questions regarding state power. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, sees the question mainly in terms of ruling class power - the break-up of the UK state would be a blow to British imperialism. True, but as we have written ad nauseum in this paper, it would also deliver a blow to the historically constituted British working class.

This is something that is ignored by most of the left in Scotland and increasingly in England and Wales. The idea that Scotland has a long tradition of anti-imperialism, as the downtrodden victim of the English, has taken hold in Scottish (and liberal English) consciousness. From the myths surrounding the clearances perpetrated by the English (not Scottish lairds) to the amnesia concerning the most bloodthirsty Scottish regiments in British colonial armies, there is widespread ignorance (or at least the appearance of ignorance) about the integration of Scotland into the highly successful British imperialist project, albeit as a junior partner.

This fairy tale is given a new twist by Colin Fox, co-spokesperson of the Scottish Socialist Party. In the February 11 edition of the Morning Star, comrade Fox comments:

So what are the perceived advantages of independence for working class Scots? The list is a long one. There would be no measures like the hated bedroom tax here after independence, no privatisation of Royal Mail, no more poll tax experimentation, no more blaming immigrants and claimants for an economic crisis caused by City bankers, no more Trident nuclear missiles stationed on the Clyde, no more Scottish soldiers sent to die in Iraq or Afghanistan and above all no more hated Tory governments. Scotland would, according to the latest OECD report, be the eighth richest country in the world.

This does beg the question, what planet is the comrade living on? The idea that Scottish independence would lead to the end of austerity, privatisation and xenophobia (because all Scottish people are genetically anti-racist) and the transformation of Scottish troops (who would never again fight in a war of the ruling class), not to mention the abolition of capitalist economic crises, is nonsense on stilts. If the aforementioned threats from the Bank of England and precarious relationship with the EU were not enough, would not the Celtic tiger economies be a lesson worth studying? This is nothing more than a wish list - and an uninspiring one at that.

Federal republic

On a more positive note, the Star’s February 5 editorial, entitled ‘Scotland needs a better debate’, adopted a far better position:

There is a progressive case for maintaining the unity of the peoples of Scotland, England and Wales, based on their common interests and working class organisations …. There is also a progressive case for maximising devolved powers to parliaments in Scotland, Wales and to the English regions, so that they can act in people’s real interests without splitting us apart in the face of monopoly capital. The failure of both official campaigns to advance them is why neither deserves victory on September 18 this year.

This ‘pox on both houses’ is a welcome stance from the Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain - although I am not sure that the CPB will not in the end be drawn to vote ‘no’. It pushes the principle of working class unity, acknowledging the common history, common organisations and common interests of workers in Britain. But it does not ignore the national question in Britain and calls for the greater autonomy of Scotland and Wales through further devolution.

However, the CPGB goes further and calls for a federal republic as a means of addressing the national question, while promoting maximum unity (though we do not propose federalism as a principle, in general). Note also the second word in the phrase, ‘federal republic’. It is important the working class pushes for maximum democracy - the abolition of the monarchy, the secret state, the unwritten constitution and the unelected second chamber - in its struggle to win power and transform itself into a ruling class.

That is why the last sentence in the above editorial is important. Neither camp fights for the interests of the working class and we can give support to neither. If the left were stronger, it could have carried more sway in this debate. It could and should have fought a militant campaign for republicanism, for the democratic right to self-determination and the principle of working class unity, encapsulated precisely in this demand for a federal republic. Obviously none of this is on offer from either Alex Salmond or David Cameron. That is why we urge workers in Scotland to rally to the cause of working class independence ... and, in the meantime, a boycott of the September 18 referendum.


1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26215963.

2. www.thecourier.co.uk/news/scotland/common-sense-will-prevail-sturgeon-1.227128.

3. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/02/02/uk-scotland-referendum-poll-idUKBREA1108U20140202.

4. www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3310/Support-for-Scottish-independence-goes-up-in-latest-Ipsos-MORISTV-News-poll.aspx.

5. www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/04/how-scottish-trade-unions-are-shifting-favour-independence.