Lessons of the Scottish referendum

The referendum campaign in Scotland is over. Now in the cold light of day it is necessary to draw all the conclusions. The first and most important is that this represents a decisive turning-point in the development of the class struggle in Scotland and in the rest of these islands.

scottish-independenceMillions of workers and youth have been brought to their feet in a hard-fought struggle against the Establishment, which was shaken to the core by this unexpected turn of events. To the last moment, the future of a Union that has lasted for over 300 years was threatened with extinction. When that did not happen, the collective sigh of relief from Downing Street and the City of London was audible in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But that is not the end of the story. The referendum campaign was neither more nor less than the political reawakening of Scotland. People who had been apathetic and alienated from politics suddenly began to participate actively. There were passionate debates in every pub, street corner, shop and bus stop. It was as if a sleeping giant had awoken from a lengthy slumber and sprung into life. The Scottish people have given an example that ought to serve as inspiration to the workers and youth of the whole of Britain.

Irrespective of the final outcome, all this represents a fundamental change in the situation. Trotsky explained that a revolution is in essence a situation in which the masses – the millions of ordinary men and women – begin to become active in politics and begin to take their destiny into their own hands. That is exactly what happened in Scotland, and it has revolutionary implications for the future. The great Russian revolutionary also said that nationalism can represent “the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”. And that is worrying the ruling class more than anything else.

Hatred of the Establishment

The first question that must be asked is: What has brought about such a seismic change? It cannot be explained purely in terms of the national question, or even of the specific problems of Scotland. Indeed, it is an international phenomenon. Everywhere, beneath the superficial veneer of calm and tranquillity, there is a seething undercurrent of rage, indignation, discontent and above all frustration at the existing state of affairs in society and politics.

After six years of deep economic crisis, there is mass unemployment, falling living standards, constant attacks on the welfare state and democratic rights. We have the scandal of bankers, who have destroyed the world’s financial system through greed, speculation and swindling, walking away with huge bonuses. We have the spectacle of politicians who have slashed public services and squeezed the wages and pensions of millions, awarding themselves a ten percent wages increase.

There is unprecedented inequality, with obscene wealth at one end and extreme poverty and squalor at the other. The attitude of many working class people was reflected by one of those interviewed by the Financial Times: “ 'I’ve made up my mind,' the first woman says, 'I’m voting yes.' Why? 'The rich keep on getting richer and the poor get poorer.' Looking up the street, she adds: 'We need a change'.” These few words from a working class woman go right to the heart of the matter.

It is significant that the Yes vote won a majority in Glasgow, the heart of the Scottish proletariat. The aforementioned FT article was published under the title: “Working class voters key to Yes victory”. It said: “Polling data suggest that the Yes campaign, led by the Scottish National Party, has the support of a majority of Scots on lower incomes.” In other words, the Yes vote, in a confused way, represented a class vote, a protest against inequality, poverty and social injustice, in other words, a protest against capitalism, which is identified in the minds of the Scottish workers with the “posh boys” sitting in their exclusive Club in Westminster.

Better together?

The capitalist opponents of separation and their right wing Labour shadows presented a lamentable spectacle. The Better Together campaign was criticised for its lack of passion and the absence of a positive message. But that was an expression of an initial feeling of smug complacency. It was so obvious that the Union must be preserved! But when they came to think of any reason why it must be preserved, they scratched their heads and were unable to think of one.

It is hard to be passionate in defending the status quo, especially if it consists of unemployment and poverty, together with bankers’ bonuses and Trident. Lacking any positive argument, they tried to frighten people by constantly repeating the mantra that an independent Scotland would face an uncertain future. That may well be true, but it is equally true that after more than 300 years, almost half of Scots preferred economic uncertainty to rule by the British ruling class. After their experience of different Westminster governments, Tory, New Labour and Lib-Con, who can blame them?

To the people in Scotland the well-heeled, smartly dressed politicians in Westminster speak in a language which bears a remote resemblance to English, but is really a kind of Newspeak designed not to inform but to deceive, lie and cheat. Worst still, it is pronounced in the sort of upper middle class, public school accent that produces in normal people (not only in Scotland) approximately the same effect as the whining of a dentist’s drill.

It is not only in Scotland that we find a growing feeling that the existing political establishment is out of touch with everyday life of ordinary people. “These people in Westminster are remote. They do not represent us. They have no idea how we live.” That can be heard in every bar of every pub from Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides. It can also be heard in every bar of every pub in Wales, Liverpool, Newcastle or the London Borough of Hackney.

Beneath the surface of apparent calm there is a seething anger, discontent and frustration. People everywhere are sick and tired of the present situation. There is a burning desire for change. In Scotland this was expressed by a sharp shift of public opinion in the direction of a Yes vote. This was not so much a manifestation of nationalism as an expression of hatred of the Tories and the parasitic establishment in London.

The role of the Labour leaders

Until recently there was no real tradition of nationalism in Scotland. The authentic traditions of Scotland were class traditions, socialist traditions that go back as far as the Glasgow rent strike of 1915, the Revolt on the Clyde in 1919 and in more recent times the revolt against Margaret Thatcher’s hated Poll Tax. The deep hatred felt by most Scots for the Tories was greatly exacerbated by the Thatcher government, which destroyed Scotland’s coal and steel industries as part of a deliberate policy of deindustrialization that turned Britain’s manufacturing districts into industrial deserts.

Scotland and Wales suffered disproportionately. Whole communities were destroyed and the lives of countless families ruined. A generation of young people were condemned to the misery of life on the dole. And Thatcher and her clique rejoiced at the massive act of vandalism they regarded as “creative destruction”. As a result, the Tory Party in Scotland was practically wiped out and now has only one Member of Parliament in Westminster.

The Labour Party in Scotland enjoyed mass support for decades. But that changed after the betrayals of the Blair government. Disillusioned Scottish workers came to regard Labour as part of the Establishment. The right wing Labour leaders in Scotland are mistrusted, as we saw clearly during the referendum campaign. Putting up a right wing Blairite like Alistair Darling to front the Better Together campaign only served to confirm the growing suspicion that New Labour was essentially no different from the Tories and Liberals.

As could be expected, Alex Salmond made mincemeat of him in the public debates. That was really not very difficult. Labour leaders like Darling are now seen by many as Tories in disguise. Their policies are hardly distinguishable from those of the Tories. Instead of opposing the Tory policies of cuts and austerity, they always say: “Me too”. They are more eager to please the bankers and the City of London than the workers who vote for them. More than anyone else, they are responsible for the growth of nationalist sentiment in Scotland.

The farcical spectacle of Labour leader Ed Miliband scurrying up to Scotland together with David Cameron and his Liberal sidekick Nick Clegg to plead the cause of the Union merely hardened people’s determination to vote Yes. Disgusted with the right-wing Labour leadership many Labour voters were attracted to the idea that independence could be a way out. That was made clear by the Yes vote in Glasgow, something that would have been unthinkable in the past.

The SNP’s false promises

youthunemploymntWe must freely admit that the Yes campaign served to reinvigorate political life in Scotland. No other election campaign ever achieved anything like this. The supporters of Yes – especially the youth – have been inspired and enthused by it. The reason for this is not hard to find. The people want a fundamental change in society. That is not just true of Scotland. It is the case everywhere. Whereas the old parties do not offer anything like a fundamental change, the SNP apparently was doing precisely that. Its message was one of hope for the future: a free and independent Scotland, no longer subject to the old Tory Establishment in England would be a sure way for progress and democracy.

However, all that glistens is not gold. Read the small print of the SNP’s recipe for an independent Scotland and the mirage starts to disappear. Salmond’s independent Scotland would have kept the pound, retained the Monarchy and remained in Nato and the European Union. This “independence” is almost indistinguishable from the famous devo-max, which has belatedly been offered by the other side.

The SNP leadership represent a capitalist trend that has nothing in common with socialism or the working class. To imagine that the workers of Scotland would get a better deal out of the nationalists than they did from the Tory-Liberal gang in London is a foolish illusion. Throughout the referendum campaign, Salmond was at pains to appeal to the bankers and capitalists for their support.

When a host of companies including BP, John Lewis, Asda, Standard Life, BT, EE, O2, TalkTalk, Vodafone RBS, Lloyds and B&Q warned of the dangers of independence, Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the SNP, reacted by threatening them with nationalisation. He warned that oil giant BP would be nationalised “in part or in whole”, while bankers and “scaremongering” big business chiefs would be punished for “being in cahoots” with the Tories. He added: “This referendum is about power, and when we get a Yes majority, we will use that power for a day of reckoning with BP and the banks.”

But his remarks were immediately contradicted by Salmond who said: “the day after a Yes vote will be a day of celebration for the people, not reckoning for big companies drawn into the No campaign by Downing Street.” Salmond continued to appeal to them to remain in Scotland and support the Scottish economy.

An SNP government in conditions of crisis would have to inflict deep cuts in living standards – even deeper cuts than the ones inflicted by Westminster. For that very reason, right at the end of the campaign, Salmond insisted on the need for an “all-inclusive government”, including those politicians who campaigned for a No vote. In making these statements, he was preparing the way for a coalition government, including the Scottish Labour Party, in order that the inevitable wave of anger and disappointment should not be directed against the SNP alone. As the saying goes, “Misery likes company”.

Long ago, James Connolly warned that even if Ireland was independent, England would still rule it through the banks. If an independent capitalist Scotland had kept the pound sterling (something which is very much open to doubt), the unelected bosses of the Bank of England would have had a big say in determining its economic policies.

How can any democrat support keeping the Queen as the Head of State of an independent Scotland? And how does membership of NATO square with a break from imperialism and imperialist wars which was one of the arguments for breaking the Union? Last but not least, an independent Scotland within the EU would have to obey the rules and regulations from Brussels, whether it wanted to or not. All this means that Scottish independence would have had a purely illusory character from the very beginning. It would not solve any of the fundamental problems of the working class.

The Left capitulates

Some hopeless people who describe themselves as “Marxists” have completely failed to understand what Lenin wrote on this subject. Lenin defended the right to self-determination as a democratic demand, but he did not believe that the right to national self-determination can be justified in all circumstances or at any price. On the contrary, he always regarded it as subordinate to the general interests of the international proletariat and the socialist revolution. 

Rosa Luxemburg had a wrong position on the national question. But her mistake, as always, was dictated by her strong internationalist beliefs. She not only denied Poland’s right to self-determination, but even denied the very existence of the Polish nation. Nevertheless, Lenin respected the fact that Rosa Luxemburg, who was Polish by nationality, was conducting an implacable struggle against the capitalist Polish nationalists and the so-called Polish Socialist Party led by Pilsudski.

Lenin said: I understand that it is your duty to fight against Polish nationalism, but, as a representative of the Russian Social Democracy (since Russia was the oppressor nation), I have to defend the right of the Polish people to self-determination, even up to the point of forming a separate state. At the same time, Lenin stood implacably for the unity of the working class above all lines of nationality, language, religion, etc. He would have regarded it as anathema and a betrayal to make any concessions whatsoever to bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalism. On that question he and Rosa Luxemburg were in complete agreement.

If you apply Lenin’s position to the Scottish referendum, it is clear that Marxists south of the border had a duty to defend Scotland’s right to self-determination while systematically exposing the reactionary role of British imperialism, the reactionary Lib-Con government and the shameful conduct of the Labour leaders. On the other hand, the Scottish Marxists had to emphasise the need for unity of the working class, concentrating their fire against Scottish nationalism and the capitalist SNP.

Unfortunately, the Scottish Left allowed itself to be carried away on a wave of nationalist sentiment. It abandoned the class position and shamefully tagged along behind the capitalist SNP. Such behaviour has nothing in common with the position of Lenin or, for that matter, that of James Connolly or John MacLean. The majority of the Scottish Left in the referendum campaign were even more enthusiastic about the prospects for an independent Scotland than even the leaders of the SNP who they shamefully tail-ended.

They are seeking to win short term popularity by climbing on the nationalist bandwagon, but this opportunism will not succeed. If people want to join a nationalist party, they need look no further than the SNP. The duty of the Scottish Left is not to join hands with the SNP but to expose it as a capitalist party that does not and cannot represent the interests of the working class. This will become clear in the next period when it forms a Scottish government which will have new economic powers. Under conditions of crisis, that can only mean one thing: new powers to attack the working class.

All this was clear to Alex Salmond, who was honest enough to admit that there would be serious problems “in the beginning”. This is the understatement of the century. Under conditions of capitalist crisis, the Scottish economy, already in a weakened position, will enter into difficulties which will be reflected, not in an improvement in the conditions of the working people, but the reverse.

For the unity of the working class!

For the Tories, Lib-Dems and the right wing Labour leaders, “Better Together” signifies the unity of Scotland with the English bankers and capitalists and the Westminster Establishment which is merely the political expression of their interests. The workers of Scotland do not want that kind of unity and that is why so many of them voted Yes in the Referendum. However, there is another kind of unity that the workers of Scotland are very much in favour of: unity with their class brothers and sisters south of the border.

The working people of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales suffer the same problems: unemployment, poverty, low wages, the lack of homes and social amenities, and they face the same enemies. Marx once wrote that the red blood of revolution in the British proletariat runs through the veins of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish workers. In this unity lies their strength. That is why the ruling class always tries to divide the workers on lines of nationality, language, race, religion or gender.

Immediately after the result of the referendum was declared, Cameron tried to play “the English card”. Why should the Scots have more devolution than us? Why should English taxpayers subsidise free prescription charges and university fees in Scotland? Why should Scottish MPs in Westminster vote on English issues when English MPs cannot vote in the Scottish parliament etc, etc.

This constitutes a blatant manoeuvre to divide and weaken the working class and the Labour Movement on national lines. The Labour leaders have protested, but in their usual mealy-mouthed and cowardly manner. “We need more time”, they bleat like frightened sheep. “We cannot discuss this in isolation”. As an alternative, they tentatively suggest convening a “Constitutional Convention”, although when it is to be convened, who is to be in it, and what its terms of reference will be are not mentioned.

We Marxists are sometimes accused of ignoring immediate demands and confining ourselves to calling for socialism as the only answer. Well, socialism is the only answer. But Marxists will always fight for any demand or reform that retains even the smallest progressive content. That includes democratic demands. So we must fight for the right of the Scottish people to have the maximum control over their lives, for the maximum devolution without delay.

We also advocate the same democratic rights for the people of Wales, Northern Ireland and every English region that wants it. And yes, if the people of Scotland have free prescriptions and Scottish students do not pay fees that must be the case everywhere else in these islands. And before we come to discuss whether it is democratic for Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote in Westminster, should we not first ask whether it is democratic for the Upper House of the Mother of Parliaments to be full of unelected aristocrats and retired MPs? Last but by no means least, is it not time to abolish the Monarchy, that anti-democratic relic of feudalism?

How will we pay for all these reforms? The abolition of the House of Lords and the Monarchy will save many millions, which will be better spent on the old, the sick and the poor. But the real answer is to expropriate the banks and big corporations that are draining the lifeblood from the people of Britain: Scots, Welsh, English and Irish alike. The prior condition to achieve this end is to unite the workers of Britain in struggle against the common enemy – Capital.

Whoever strays even one millimetre from the class standpoint will inevitably land up in the swamp of capitulation to bourgeois nationalism. It is necessary to proceed from the fundamentals. The two greatest obstacles to the development of the productive forces and therefore the two greatest barriers to human progress in the modern world are private property and the nation state. We stand, not for the erection of new national frontiers but for the abolition of all national frontiers; for a Socialist Federation of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales as the first step towards the Socialist United States of Europe and a Socialist World Federation.

London, 20th September, 2014

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