The deal between Westminster and Edinburgh has truly launched the debate around the Scottish independence referendum. In this article Kevin Leetion looks at the options facing socialists, how to engage with the official Yes campaign, the prospects for a radical independence campaign and the relationship between the two.
With the independence referendum now less than two years away the respective campaigns are now underway. In the ‘no’ corner we have Better Together, the coalition of the three principal unionist parties who have reasoned that they should pool their resources and energy to argue for the maintenance of the United Kingdom. The opposite corner is mainly occupied by Yes Scotland, the official campaign endorsed by the SNP (as well as the SSP and Greens), which has been criticised by some for a stuttering start and inability to improve polling numbers. Some have also pointed to disagreements between ‘yes’ supporters as a sign of weakness and ineffectiveness. While there may be some validity in the first argument (although Better Together have hardly set the heather alight, so to speak, relying on relentless negativity and fear-mongering) the second somewhat misses the point. The ‘no’ campaign has been conspicuous by its unity: its rejection of universal benefits; its pledge to maintain nuclear weapons; its commitment to the current economic model and continued austerity. However, this is far from a strength.
Socialists now face a choice- where are our energies best spent and how do we organise ourselves? Is it right that the primary aim is to secure a ‘yes’ vote and that the political choices ought to be left to the first post-referendum election? If instead we believe that a socialist message is vital to ensuring that we actually get a ‘yes’ vote then what implications are there for our orientation towards other aligned and non-aligned independence supporters?
This is not the place to detail all the arguments for independence which have been well covered on the pages of Frontline and elsewhere, however, before deciding what to do we need to remember why we’re doing it. For this purpose, it’s helpful to think of three different types of arguments often cited in support of independence (it’s important to stress that this is not an endorsement of each and every one of the following arguments and is meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive).
The first of these we might categorise as inherent reasons- in other words, arguments that say that independence in and of itself would be an advance. This would include, inter alia, arguments like: independence is more democratic as decisions would be taken closer to the people affected by them; independence is the ‘natural state’ for a country and important for national self-esteem; independence would bring about the break-up of the British state which would be a blow to imperialism[i]; and the economic argument, if accepted, that Scotland is net contributor to UK and would therefore be financially better off. At the same time, some will argue that there are inherent reasons against independence e.g. the break-up of the British working class; the weakening of the Scottish voice on the international stage; and the opposing economic argument, if accepted, that Scotland is a net beneficiary and would therefore be worse off under independence. Supporters of independence may either counter that these assertions are subjective or baseless speculation, or would argue that they are outweighed by the positives.
A second set of arguments might be categorised as opportunity-based reasons- that it’s not so much independence that’s the aim, but the possibilities that are opened up that would not be available under the status quo. This might include: the greater likelihood of a abolishing the monarchy; that the Scottish electorate would be inclined to avoid the austerity policies of the Westminster consensus and make a socialist alternative possible; the creation of a fairer, more democratic polity; and the use of funds for sustainable and egalitarian ends rather than wars of aggression.
Here there may be a degree of overlap with some of the inherent arguments. For instance, the possibility of rejecting Tory rule once and for all is predicated on the idea that independence is more democratic and allows us to make that choice. Indeed, you might say that the very opportunity for a country to build something different, whether it is carried out or not, is an inherent reason to support independence (an extension of the increased democracy argument). What distinguishes the opportunity-based arguments is that they will be in direct competition with those of independence supporters with different political perspectives. For instance, a right-wing opportunity-based argument might be the ability to build a low-tax economy with minimal business regulations in order to attract investment. Either way, these scenarios are not the inevitable consequence of independence, rather a sample of the colours available on the post-referendum pallette.
Finally, there are a set of considerations based on the idea that the political terrain of Scotland will change after autumn 2014 as a result not just of the referendum but also of the continuing economic situation that will continue to have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable. No matter the result of the referendum the SNP faces an existential crisis. What does the party that unites a membership and voter-base of hugely divergent political views do when the single issue uniting them disappears? Political realignment may not be immediate but the basis will certainly be there. As such, there are a number of tactical reasons for socialists to fight for independence which would include: independence having greater support amongst the working class and young; the opportunity to work with leftists in other parties (and none) who are, at the very least, people that want change; and the possibility to work on a campaign that asks fundamental questions about how the economy and society are organised and which will undoubtedly capture the public attention.
It would be cynical and dishonest for anyone to base their support for independence entirely on these considerations without accepting any inherent or opportunity-based arguments. Instead we might think of these as ways the left can maximise its influence and rebuild in the context of a campaign to which it would otherwise still be dedicated. There is a future for an organised left, no matter the vote, but there is no other campaign that is so central to the resurgence of the left over the next two years. This means we have to enter into relationships with other supporters in a non-sectarian manner and reach out to new activists.
The categorising of these arguments is not just a taxonomic exercise but a distinction that should help inform the tactical choices that are in front of us. If we are to accept that there are inherent reasons, any inherent reasons, to support independence, and that these outweigh the inherent reasons against independence then it follows that we should orientate our efforts to ensure a ‘yes’ vote. Similarly, if we accept any opportunity-based reasons then we also have to accept that they cannot become a reality without first securing a ‘yes’ vote. As such, one obvious consideration is how best we can ensure a positive outcome to the referendum.
There are some on the left who believe that this outcome can only be secured by a disciplined and united ‘yes’ campaign that must put political differences to the side in pursuit of the common goal. However, there is a second consideration to the opportunity-based reasons for support. We cannot just presume that they will come to pass, neither can we presume that these issues can be dropped for the next two years and neatly picked back up again once the vote has been secured. There will be pressure from both opponents and proponents of independence, many of whom make up the leadership of the independence movement, for the nascent state to pursue an economic and political model that will ensure there is as much continuity as possible. This can only be challenged if there is a momentum to push beyond the cosmetic change of flags towards substantial and lasting change. This has to be achieved not only by ensuring that radical alternatives are debated and support for them is built but also by ensuring that the campaign itself organises and meaningfully involves as many as possible. This not only increases to chances of a ‘yes’ vote (a friend, neighbour, or colleague is more likely to persuade you than one of the ‘great and the good’) but instils a culture of activism and democratic engagement that should bode well for the new Scottish state. If thousands of activists have actively contributed to securing a ‘yes’ vote then they should be less willing to subsequently sit back and be passive in the vital period following the referendum.
Of course, the importance of raising socialist politics throughout the campaign is not just about getting us in a position to continue the process of transformation beyond 2014 but is also, we would argue, more likely to secure a ‘yes’ vote in the first place. The ‘yes’ campaign needs the votes of those that have been disproportionately let down by the union and a succession of governments, people who are also less likely, in general, to vote. These are people who could be excited by radical ideas, by a vision of a country where their needs and interests are put first for a change. An anaemic, uninspiring, apolitical campaign is insufficient to gain independence.
So how do these considerations fit in with our organisational options? There are some who argue that we should focus our energies within Yes Scotland (YS). Certainly, it is by far and away the biggest organised component of the campaign, officially endorsed not just by the SNP but by the SSP and Greens too. They have already organised a large and successful pro-independence demonstration and have weekly activities in all parts of the country focussed on discussing post-independence options, speaking to undecided voters and gathering 1,000,000 signatures.
Radical Independence Conference
An alternative lies in the building of the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) as a means to propagate a leftist alternative to the official campaign. A start has been made with the inaugural conference due in November and well-attended organising meetings held in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is noticeable from meetings thus far how many young people are involved, and others who are unencumbered by the negative experiences of the SSP split. In terms of building relationships and working with people who are crucial to the future of the left, the RIC is crucial.
YS is sometimes attacked as a mouthpiece of the Scottish Government, and there is a habit of conflating SNP policy with its own. At the very least, the RIC provides a space for discussing and promoting the opportunities presented by independence that a broad and ostensibly politically neutral campaign such as YS ever can. However, while YS certainly has to do more to convince people that it is not merely an extension of the SNP, the day-to-day work in which it’s engaged and the sheer scale of the campaign makes it integral to securing a ‘yes’ vote[ii]. While some may talk about building RIC so that it will come to lead the movement over the next two years this does not reflect the reality of the situation. There is already a level of involvement in YS from people of all political persuasions that cannot be competed with within this time-scale. If the left had been in a stronger position over the last couple of years then perhaps this dynamic would be different but as it is the aim should not be to replace Yes Scotland, but to work critically and constructively within it, while simultaneously building RIC to push beyond 2014. To spurn the opportunity to work with thousands of activists, many with similar political views and ambitions as ourselves, would be nonsensical. If nothing else, how do we expect to propagate a radical message if we pass on the forum where we can work and build relationships with a sizeable number of people with whom we’d expect to find sympathy? A refusal to work with YS closes off avenues of engagement with pro-independence activists and considerably restricts our wider outreach- this is counter-productive in terms of securing a ‘yes’ vote, promoting a socialist alternative, and rebuilding the left beyond 2014.
The SSP has chosen to endorse both YS and RIC. This is right. While it is a challenge in terms of time and resources it is only this approach that can work. Indeed, there are even more organisations that are being built by socialist activists. The biggest of these is perhaps Women for Independence, which is working to address a problem not just with the campaign but with politics and society in general- ensuring that women have a voice. They are adopting an approach of listening as much as talking and include activists from across the political spectrum. Again, this is consistent with doing what needs to be done to secure a ‘yes’ vote while working with others with whom you can build positive relations going forward. Another smaller group, Trade Unionists for Independence, has the primary aim of building a network of activists to challenge the dominant arguments heard in the regional committees and branches of the unions, getting into areas where the SNP has limited reach and YS may not see as a priority. Again, it is drawing together activists from different parties (including Labour) and none. Neither of these organisations see themselves as in competition with the official campaign, but do a job that complements the single YS objective of campaigning for a ‘yes’.
The aim for socialists is to create an environment where genuinely democratic and radical politics can take hold. To do that we need to work to get a ‘yes’ vote and promote radical alternatives- these are not mutually exclusive (the latter will contribute to the former). People need to mobilise and be inspired on a scale not seen in the last 10 years and that needs SSP members and others to maximise avenues of influence and get out to stalls and meetings. The campaign has started- we can’t get left behind.
[i] One might argue that the ‘break-up of the British state’ depends as much on the choices made after the referendum as much as the act of independence itself, in which case it should be considered amongst the arguments in the following paragraph.
[ii] A look at their website shows 30 official events for the month of November 2012 and there are likely to be even more organised locally by groups of activists, covering all parts of Scotland.