Terry Conway explains why the issue of Scottish independence should be of concern to socialists across Britain and what our strategy should be to win a majority yes in the referendum.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, has come out well on top in a series of attempts by David Cameron, Prime Minister at Westminster, to outplay him over the question of when and how Scotland should vote on independence.
Salmond’s SNP stormed to a remarkable victory in the elections for the Scottish
Parliament last May, winning 45 per cent of the vote and taking 69 seats (53% –
there are 129 seats overall) under an electoral system designed to prevent them
ever taking an absolute majority. He has demonstrated what an able politician he is
to people across Britain – many of whom have not followed what he has done in
The referendum on Scottish independence will take place in the autumn of 2014, and
those of us that support a yes vote have a great deal of work to do to secure a majority
at that moment. One of the reasons that this will be a steep hill to climb is that, as the exit polls made clear, many who voted for the SNP last May did not do so on the basis of support for independence. Rather, they saw the SNP as being to the left of the other main parties on offer – the Tories, the Lib Dems and also Scottish Labour. They supported policies such as free prescription charges, free care for the elderly and no tuition fees for Scottish students.
Another reason pro-independence forces have a battle on our hands is that ranged
against us are not only those parties and the majority of the media, but the resources of the British state, fully committed to maintaining the union. The new leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, addressing the party’s conference in Dundee at the
beginning of March, tried to put the memory of their humiliating defeat behind her, that night in May when the SNP took seat after seat in parts of Scotland that Labour has for ever considered its territory by right. She told delegates that the problem had been that they looked “tired and complacent”.
But the essence of her speech was more of the same: focus on attacking the SNP,
try to portray Scottish Labour as more radical but not by adopting any radical
policies. She will head up the party’s anti-independence campaign herself, while
welcoming support from Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown.
A further difficulty is that sections of the left on both sides of the border stubbornly
fail to recognise that the break up of the British state through a “Yes” vote
for Scottish independence is both the democratic right of the people of Scotland
and in the interests of workers on both sides of the border. The fight to remove
Trident from the lochs of Scotland, for example, will surely strengthen the antinuclear
movement across Britain.
The political debate about Scotland’s future could be used by the left across
Britain to expose the reality of where real power resides in the state under which
we live. For example, the Crown Powers which allowed the British-Crown-appointed
Governor General to remove the Prime Minister of Australia Gough Whitlam in
1975 were not apparent to most people most of the time.
And of course a debate on the benefits of the break up of the British state
strengthens the hand of the new leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, who is much
clearer than her predecessors have been about the need to have this debate for
Wales as well.
It is true that the people of Scotland have yet to be convinced in their majority
that independence is in their interests. However, it is also clear that the argument
of MP George Robertson in 1997 – advanced against arch-unionist Tam Dalyell
– that Labour should support a “yes” vote in the devolution referendum, as this would
undermine support for independence, was completely mistaken.
Rather, the fact that Holyrood has control of a number of decision-making powers
has highlighted those over which it has no control – such as defence – even more
sharply. At the same time, the fact that Scotland has in its majority voted well
to the left of the electorate in England, has deepened the alienation that people
feel from politicians based in remote Westminster.
But the other reason why the campaign for a yes vote in the independence
referendum is not yet won is that the SNP itself, the majority party in Holyrood, puts
Vote ‘yes’ for Scottish independence forward a view of an independent Scotland
which is lacking in a vision that one can have confidence will galvanise a majority
On the level of the economy, they are tied up in knots by the contradictions of their own longstanding policy positions. Historically, the position of the SNP was for an independent Scotland in Europe – and for taking Scotland into the Euro as part of this. The White Paper “Your Scotland Your voice” published in November 2009 put it like this:
“Scotland would continue to operate within the sterling system until a decision to join
the Euro by the people of Scotland in a referendum when the economic conditions
But this has been thrown into disarray by the depth of the crisis in the Eurozone, so
that while this policy has not been formally reversed, Scottish Finance Secretary
John Swinney said in January that he couldn’t envisage the economic conditions
being correct for the euro “for some considerable time”.
This creates a problem for a leadership, which rightly argues: “even under full
devolution…. it would be difficult to devolve monetary policy effectively while
Scotland remained part of the United Kingdom, as a common currency is a
feature of a unified state.” (Your Scotland Your voice).
In fact, an economy tied to the monetary policy determined by the Bank of England
would be independence light, rather than a fight for independence max that stands the
best chance of winning a majority of the Scottish electorate. Instead, there should
be a policy that an independent Scotland would need to create its own currency,
controlled by its own central bank.
Salmond and the SNP also propose to keep the monarchy as head of a new Scottish state, putting forward a miserable neo-colonialism with all that entails, rather than to establish a Scottish republic for the 21st century. The Scottish Socialist Party put it like this: “The Scottish Socialist Party….. believes in sweeping away the remnants of feudalism, inherited power and class privilege which the monarchy symbolises. We believe
that neither the 300-year old Union of Parliaments, nor the 400 year old Union of
Crowns meet Scotland’s needs in the new world of the 21st century”.
These are just two of the key areas in which the SNP are unlikely to rally the millions
that will be needed to win an independence referendum. And this is no accident – the
SNP believe that they can win by cuddling up to business interests in Scotland –
exemplified by Donald Trump and his golf courses and bible-bashing reactionaries,
such as Stagecoach’s Brian Souter.
From this point of view, while socialists in Scotland need to play a part in the
Independence Convention alongside the SNP – not least to have dialogue with
those in the party, who may well become increasingly critical of their leadership for
their feeble answers on some of these questions – more is required. The proindependence
forces with a radical vision of a Scotland for the 21st century, need to find a way of coming together in a vibrant campaign that can win the hearts and minds of the majority in Scotland as the debate opens up in the run up to 2014.
And at the same time, pro-independence forces south of the border need to explain
why the left across Britain should argue for a yes vote as well.