Between now and the referendum scheduled for the autumn of 2014, the question of Scottish independence will take centre stage in British politics. For the next two years our print and broadcast media will be swamped with unionist and nationalist politicians making the case for or against the survival of a political union that has lasted now for more than 300 years.
That debate is likely to be dominated by parliamentarians from both Westminster and Holyrood. In studios up and down the country, the SNP’s parliamentary leader Alex Salmond will slug it out with his unionist counterparts. However, what will almost certainly be missing from the arguments of these centrist politicians will be any socialist perspective on the merits or otherwise of Scottish independence.
There is a socialist case for Scotland becoming an independent country. It’s just that not too many socialists outside of Scotland have heard it. For a long time it wasn’t much heard in Scotland either. With notable exceptions such as Tom Nairn, who published his seminal collection of essays foretelling the break-up of Britain in 1977 and has continued to articulate the left case for Scottish independence ever since, most of the Scottish left initially dismissed the nationalist surge of the 1970s as the antithesis of everything that socialism stood for.
Nationalism substituted national identity for class. If the history of all hitherto existing society really is the history of class struggle, then only right-wing reactionaries would countenance the breaking of working class unity across these islands. The SNP were written off as ‘tartan Tories’ or even the ‘Scottish Nazi Party’. They had helped to bring down the Callaghan government in 1979. They had opened the door to let Thatcherism in.
The left thinks again
Eighteen years of Thatcher and Major caused many on the Scottish left to think again. For four general elections in a row, Scotland had voted Labour only to have Tory extremism stuffed down our throats. Voting Labour was no longer enough. We needed institutional protection from the pro-Tory tendencies of voters in the south. We needed a Scottish parliament to act as a buffer against Westminster governments we had never voted for.
Some in Labour hoped that a devolved Scottish parliament inside the UK would kill the SNP version of nationalism ‘stone dead’. Instead, the campaign for devolution ignited a debate across Scottish politics that saw the emergence of a nationalist left inside and outside the Labour Party. Ex-communist Jimmy Reid and ex-Labour MP Jim Sillars were just two of the better known socialists who started out on political journeys then that would lead them towards the civic nationalism of a renewed and by now a social democratic SNP.
Others, such as Tommy Sheridan, expelled as a Militant from Labour, would help found the Scottish Socialist Party with its central aim of establishing a Scottish socialist republic. In doing so, they helped to revive the memory of a lost nationalist left in Scotland that included the likes of John Maclean and James Connolly. Nationalism was no longer toxic for many on the Scottish left. The break-up of Britain began to be seen in a progressive light.
Of course, not all on the Scottish left were or are convinced. The Communist Party of Britain continues to cling to its vision of the British Road to Socialism. The left inside Labour insist that they can still resurrect the Labour Party of 1945 from the neoliberal disaster of New Labour. Many of the activist left inside the unions instinctively recoil from a cause that would not only break-up Britain but their own trade unions as well.
They argue that Scotland is too small and insignificant ever to challenge the global power of capital. They argue that the real divide in politics is between left and right rather than between Scotland and the rest of Britain. They see a Scottish breakaway as a betrayal of working class solidarity and unity across these islands. They insist only British institutions such as a devolved Scottish parliament with increased economic and tax powers could rise to the challenge of 21st-century capitalism.
Posing as internationalists, they ignore the late Jimmy Reid’s insight that without nationalism there can be no internationalism. Consumed by their loathing for the Scottish version of nationalism, they are blind to the debilitating implications of their own British nationalism. They cling desperately to a British Labour Party that has resolutely led them down a parliamentary road that leads away from socialism. They remain trapped inside and subject to a British state that they neither fully understand nor know how to reform.
The price of union
There is a price to be paid for being part of Britain. A permanent seat on the UN security council comes at the cost of expensive nuclear weapons based on the Clyde. After the US and China, Britain is the third highest military spender in the world – nearly £40 billion in 2011 alone. Britain is a warfare state that has engaged in 22 separate wars and conflicts since the end of the second world war. British governments spent £1.2 trillion bailing out a deregulated banking and financing sector that they had largely created in the City of London.
That price, of course, is paid by the working class across Britain in public spending cuts, privatisation, deregulation and the harshest anti-union laws of any EU member state. It is also paid in terms of Britain’s deformed version of democracy. The term parliamentary democracy disguises more than it reveals. We remain subjects of a hereditary monarch who is also commander-in-chief of our armed forces. Sovereignty or political power in the state is invested in the ‘crown in parliament’ and not with the people. We have an unelected House of Lords packed with place people. We have an electoral system that underpins a two-and-a-half political party system offering voters little real democratic choice.
Is this a Britain worth fighting for? Or could Scottish independence open up new possibilities for socialist advance not only in Scotland but in the other nations of Britain as well? Issues currently frozen out by Britain’s politics would re-emerge as at least debatable. The case for a republic would be heard again. Trident would have to leave the Clyde and on cost grounds would likely have to be scrapped. The savage Tory anti-union laws would go north of the border, and be undermined south of the border.
Devolution has already protected Scotland from the Tory attempts to privatise the NHS and destroy comprehensive education. Independence would shut out the current welfare reforms that threaten the vulnerable and the poor. It would also open the possibility of a Scottish manufacturing future that did not depend on building giant Royal Navy aircraft carriers designed to rain death and destruction on workers on the other side of the world.
The capitalist has no country and is at the same time everywhere and nowhere in particular. Capitalism is neither Scottish nor British. It is global. To influence or control it will mean national labour movements cooperating across their national boundaries. Labour movements on either side of the border between Scotland and the rest of the UK would be ideally placed to demonstrate how such co‑ordinated action could and should happen.
The choice is really very simple. Go on as before inside an antiquated and reactionary state that legally shackles trade unions and has no political space for socialism. Or begin to break that state apart in the name of progress and social advance and in doing so release the energy and the potential of a left across Britain that has for far too long been in retreat.
John McAllion is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party and a former Labour MP and MSP