Yes or No? A Marxist view on Scottish independence

In a year’s time, on 18th September 2014, Scotland will go to the polls over a key constitutional change – over whether to support an independent Scotland or not. This will be a vital issue, the outcome of which will have profound consequences for the fight for socialism in Scotland and the rest of Britain.

So far the referendum debate in Scotland has been fought out between the pro-independence “YES” camp and the official “NO” Better Together campaign, fronted by right-wing Labour figures and backed by the Tories and Lib Dems.

While the “YES” campaign looks forward to the break up of the UK, the “Better Together” camp, with its position of “Queen and country” style British nationalism, is being portrayed as the voice of those voting no to independence. Given this limited suggestion, it is not surprising that at present a significant minority of Scots, particularly young people, are looking to vote “Yes” in 2014, as a radical alternative to the status quo.

From this standpoint, independence is being portayed as a way of breaking with ConDem austerity budgets in London, while a “No” vote by extension is viewed as a vote for a rotten status quo.

Marxists take a different class position. The prospect of a break-up of the UK and the division of the British working class on nationalist lines would be highly counterproductive in the struggle for socialism. We put forward the case for the unity of the working class in Britain and internationally, in the fight for the socialist transformation of society.

On this basis we advocate a “No” vote in the independence referendum, while clearly rejecting the “Better Together” campaign and support for the status quo. Socialist Appeal backs the idea of an alternative Labour movement “no” campaign. Such a campaign would advocate a no vote, while maintaining working class unity and fighting for socialist policies as the only alternative to capitalist crisis.

We supported devolution and the setting up of the Scottish parliament as a means of delivering real gains for the Scottish people. We also recognized the restricted economic powers of the Parliament, dependent on the block grant from Westminster, and therefore supported much greater powers for the Scottish parliament to raise its own taxes and to be able to nationalize industry in Scotland.

Independence would offer no way out under capitalism and would only serve to foster divisions in the working class. With the domination of capital in Scotland and throughout Britain, such a solution would not offer true autonomy. The independence put forward by the SNP is one which includes the queen as head of state, retaining the pound sterling, British military bases to remain as well as continued membership of NATO.

It is true that the SNP have seen a considerable rise in their support from 2007 to the present. The reason for this is the dismal performance of the Labour Party, which has little attraction given its stance, while the SNP apparently offers a far more “left” programme based on independence.

It is true that the SNP have seen a considerable rise in their support from 2007 to the present. The reason for this is the dismal performance of the Labour Party, which has little attraction given its stance, while the SNP apparently offers a far more “left” programme based on independence. When one reflects upon the programme being put forward by the Labour leaders this is hardly surprising. It centred around personal attacks on Alex Salmond - rarely political in content - and harsher penalties for those caught carrying knives. Very little of anything progressive for the future was to be found. Since then, this has been reinforced by Lamont’s ridiculous comments on Scotland’s supposed “something for nothing” culture. With such a pathetic stand being offered by the Labour Party leaders many have looked towards the nationalists as a more progressive and social democratic option, seeming to offer a traditional Labour-type programme.

However, it must be recognised that all those voting SNP do not support independence and the good results for the SNP in the Scottish Parliament have failed to be repeated at the Westminster election or even last year’s council elections.

Nevertheless, a right-wing Labour Party has little attraction with the SNP offering a far more egalitarian future based on independence. However, independence must be seen as a move backwards rather than forwards. It would be a disaster for working people as the crisis of capitalism deepens.

We are just as much against the British capitalist state as we are against capitalism. We stand for the overthrow of capitalism throughout these islands. A precondition for this is the unity of the British working class in this common struggle for socialism. This does not arise out of any sentimental attachments, but out of necessity.

Capitalism is now a fully globalised system, which has been shown in the worldwide nature of the capitalist crisis. We have seen revolutions in the Arab world, Turkey and Brazil and political crisis in Europe. Even China, supposedly the next superpower, has seen a slowing down of economic growth and the emergence of mass wildcat strike action. What does this mean? Well, it shows that the crisis of capitalism lays the basis for international solidarity, leading to workers and unemployed people across the world shaking off the shackles of oppression.

For Britain, this can be related to the nature and history of the working class. The Scottish, Welsh and English working class have not developed separately but, because of capitalism, have developed as part of one united working class. The same shared experience that once linked dockers in Glasgow and Liverpool now manifests itself in the precarious nature of service sector employment, which has become more dominant since the advent of deindustrialisation. Of course, it would be nonsense to say that Scotland does not have its own national culture and identity, but it would be equally absurd to say that class interests have diverged. Large strikes have often evoked sympathy strikes elsewhere (and across the border), and is particularly true in periods of heightened class struggle such as the 1920s, 1970s and 1980s, where we saw the working class become increasingly militant and thus more unified. The great Scottish socialist John MacLean had mistaken a period of relative calm in the early 1920s after the storm of working class radicalisation post World War One, as meaning that the Scottish working class had become more radical and advanced than its English counterpart. However, this was shown to be false with the general strike of 1926 less than five years later, a strike which asked the question of who runs the country. Similarly in the 1970s, UCS in Clydeside was one of the first big disputes which was followed by nearly two decades of unrest across Britain. This period led to Britain being characterised as one of the most strike prone countries in Europe, even ahead of France!

In relation to modern-day Britain, some have said the large increase in votes for UKIP at the last county council elections and some by-elections have shown the English working class to be conservative, and certainly less radical than the Scots. There are several flaws with this view. As Socialist Appeal has explained elsewhere, these were county council elections held in mostly “Little Englander” Tory strongholds where turnout was low. The Tory vote disintegrated with UKIP gaining from this, as did Labour. Also we must consider that whilst Scottish voters have had the supposedly social democratic SNP to vote for as an alternative to Labour, such a “left” party does not exist in English politics. The UKIP have placed themselves as an anti-establishment party whose populist rhetoric appealed to some of the disillusioned voters, but not the mass. The biggest vote belonged to those that chose to stay at home. Characterising the English working class as conservative is something that is encouraged by the British ruling class as not only does it create division but also sows the seeds of disillusionment among radicalised layers in England. Just consider the extent of media coverage received by UKIP.

What would an independent Scotland mean? On the basis of continued capitalism in Scotland and the rest of Britain, Scottish and English workers would be placed in direct competition. This is especially true if we consider SNP plans for a more “business friendly” environment, with lower corporation tax and other incentives, in an attempt to encourage businesses to relocate from England to Scotland. The whole approach would be to drive down costs, i.e., wage to become more competitive. They would encourage a race to the bottom and pit worker against worker. Such competition between Scottish and UK businesses would result in a driving down of wages on both sides of the border. Historically the way Scotland was able to compete by exporting was to lower wages, which retarded the development of the domestic Scottish market and made the economy highly vulnerable to falls in international demand. A loss of jobs or fall in wages would also be used by the British ruling class to stoke up resentment south of the border, and vice versa.

As a small nation state, particularly one that has traditionally a constituent part of a much larger one, it is likely that Scotland would continue to be dominated not just economically but also politically. Again, this has been borne out by the experience of countries that have broken from the former USSR or ex-colonial nations. These countries have continued to be dominated by both old and new powers. Closer to home, Ireland is a sharp example of such domination. At the time of partition in the early 1920s the British state retained power in the north, which was then the most industrial area with the majority Protestant population giving a better basis for political control. As James Connolly once said, “If you hoist the Green Flag over Dublin Castle, the English would still rule you through their capital”. Whilst Scotland would clearly not be partitioned in this manner, England would dominate the Scottish economy as now.

Even now we can see the SNP having succumbed to pressure from London on the issue of the military. There is a genuine belief that independence would rid Britain of nuclear weapons, as Scotland is one of the only viable locations for submarine bases. Would the British ruling class really give up nuclear weapons and their permanent UN Security Council seat so easily? Most likely Britain would still retain the weapons, if not elsewhere in Britain, then by pressuring the Scottish government to keep nuclear submarine bases in Scotland. Salmond, despite being seen to tackle Westminster would ultimately in an independence scenario remain deferential to the political power of Scotland’s southern neighbours as evidenced by his support for an independence that remains aligned with Britain and British interests. There could even be other means by which Britain retains influence over the oil fields. For example, in the devolution referendum of 1979, had devolution been successful across the country but not in Orkney and Shetland there were plans for the islands to gain the same status as the Isle of Man/Channel Islands, which would allow unfettered access to the oil fields. Whilst these plans have been abandoned today they demonstrated the determination of the British state to retain power over North Sea oil. Therefore unless you actually challenge the power of the British state, namely the British ruling class and capitalism, then breaking Britain will not actually break British power.

We have already considered the fact that an independent Scotland would very much remain under British domination. It is also true that an independent Scotland, as promoted by the pro-independence campaign, would remain on a foundation of capitalism, that is on the basis of an on-going capitalist austerity. The attempt to say Scotland is different is completely false. It is painfully obvious that it is not just the British state that is pushing through draconian measures but international capitalism as a whole. One only has to consider riots of unemployed, disaffected youth in Sweden, supposedly the home of a different, social-democratic capitalism, to see that social inequality is likely to remain.

Figures showing that Scotland pays into the British state more than it receives in expenditure have regularly been cited as reasons for independence. It is true that ostensibly an independent Scotland could survive, but it would be crisis-ridden in the current climate of global economic downturn. The economic storms that are engulfing the world would completely consume the fledgling economy of a small country that is largely dependent on its economically stagnant neighbours for trade.

If Scotland had been independent at the time of the financial crisis of 2007-8, when the Royal Bank of Scotland went bankrupt, the resources of the Scottish state would have been insufficient for a bailout, as happened. The bank would have collapsed, and Scotland would have been declared bankrupt on the line of crisis-ridden Iceland or Ireland. Not surprisingly, the SNP, in their argument for independence, no longer talk of “the Ark of Prosperity”! This has now become the “ark of crisis-ridden economies”.

Norway in particular has been used as an example of a small, oil rich and economically successful nation - of similar size population to Scotland. However, it must also be said that Norway has not developed as part of a much larger union and its economy (including oil) has developed in a significantly different way, and time period, to Scotland. The British state has failed to capitalise upon the opportunity offered by the discovery of North Sea oil during the 1960s. With the oil crisis of 1973 there was a great incentive to extract as much oil as quickly as possible even if this meant a cavalier attitude to rig health and safety - culminating in Piper Alpha - and longer term economic planning with Tory and Labour governments giving massive tax breaks to multinationals. Conditions of low tax and multinational domination have arisen within the North Sea oil industry. It is true that oil has provided an economic boost to North-East Scotland but it has far from fulfilled its once dreamed of potential. The government of a small capitalist country would neither have the will nor the economic might to tackle multinational corporations.

The only real future for the people of Scotland is directly linked with that of England, Wales, and the rest of the world. That fate is linked to the overthrow of capitalism and the move to socialism. We are fighting for a Socialist Britain as part of a Socialist United States of Europe, as a step to a world federation of socialist states. The idea has been raised by some of an independent socialist Scotland, as if in some way it is linked to support for independence However, a yes vote in the referendum must not be confused in any way with socialism or the creation of an independent, socialist Scotland. To begin with, it is utopian to think you can have a socialist Scotland isolated from the remainder of a capitalist Britain (and world). If it was impossible to create socialism in one country in the Soviet Union (covering one-sixth of the world’s surface), then it is clearly impossible in Scotland! Also, a real movement towards socialist revolution would not be confined to the borders of Scotland. If there were a mass movement of the working class in Scotland, which was on the point of overthrowing capitalism, such a movement would not stop at the River Tweed. In reality, a socialist transformation of Scotland could only take place in a British (and European) context. Mass movements would take place also in Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield, etc, as well as in Glasgow. A socialist transformation would be on an all-Britain scale, as was the struggle against the Poll Tax. On the basis of a socialist Britain, as part of a socialist Europe (and beyond), a socialist Scotland would be possible.

We’ve seen here the arguments against independence on socialist principles. That is why we encourage a “no” vote, not out of enthusiasm for the United Kingdom but out of a desire to see socialism. Of course, voting “no” is not enough for this. We need the unity of a British working class armed with a socialist programme and a fighting labour movement. That is why Socialist Appeal welcomes a socialist “no” campaign as well as fighting for socialist policies in the labour movement.