George Mackin considers the approach the left should take to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
1. The SNP as far as electoral politics goes, are at the moment the only show in town.
“Something has fundamentally changed. Scottish Labour no longer holds exclusive rights to the votes of working class Scotland. People have had a lick of a different ice cream cone, and found it doesn’t taste of puppy dog tails.” Jo Harvie, editor Scottish Socialist Voice
I have never tasted puppy dog’s tails but ah ken what Jo is on about. What does SNP ice cream taste like? I think a little like the poisonous chocolate mousse offered to Rosemary in Rosemary’s baby. It’s creamy and yummy, but with a chalky under-taste to it. Delicious yet soporific.
Like all ‘isms’, Nationalism even the civic nationalism of the SNP has its potential threats. Nationalism as a state of yearning leads to the romantic pulling of heartstrings and can be intolerant of competing identities, the recent draconian football bigotry legislation being a case in point. Sing any song you like, display any symbol you like as long as it is Scottish.
The SNP strides the political scene as all other political parties wilt in general disarray under their revolutionary and all conquering slogan of ‘good governance’.
The SNP have learned from the New Labour experiment. They are a benchmark of political triangulation, just as New Labour were in their heyday. To borrow an old American saying they know how to politically work ‘both sides of the street’.
Pssst, Tories want a council tax freeze, there ye go, middle class parents anxious about student tuition fees, look no further. Hey if you are multi-national company and want a substantial cut on our Corporation Tax then buddy we can spare a billion or so.
There is a flip side to this largesse. For every spending commitment, there is an opportunity cost of lost social spending. The significant cuts in Further Education Sector, the drastic cuts and privatisation of local government services and subsequent job losses are all hidden from view. To even speak of them is to be slapped down as being a unionist as was my experience when discussing the fiasco that is the SNP/Liberal administration in Edinburgh.
The SNP may be politically defter, than the train crash that is the Scottish Labour Party but in reality they are two sides of the same coin.
2. You can’t chuck stones or half bricks 400 miles.
One argument for independence that is not mentioned often but for me is a key one comes from the arch-unionist Walter Scott: Ye cannae chuck stones 400 miles, or half bricks. Let no one fool you, Scottish bosses are no less malign than English ones but with independence they are closer to hand.
3. Middle Class Nationalism is not the worker’s friend
The SNP have no coherent political or economic philosophy. Once we have independence then we can have class politics they tell us, whilst draping a saltire around everything. Worker and bosses, we are pals here. Come in your Majesty, ye will have hud yer tea, allow me to sit upon my bended knee. “Oh hello Donald Trump that is lovely head of hair on you, I didn’t know your relatives were from Scaatlaanndd”.
“Once we have independence then we can go for socialism”, I have been told by an ex-SSP comrade now in the SNP; as if changing history was as easy as forgetting a shopping item and then going back to the shop because you forgot the frozen peas. Puuurrleease. Gonnae no say that.
The rightist Winnie Ewing famously said “stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”, to great applause year after year after year after year. In fact I think she gave the same speech at the SNP conference for nigh on a couple of decades to the enchanted faithful. Yet how can you stop the world as the world heats up and people starve and are in poverty in order to keep capitalism growing at the compound rate of 3%?
As James Conolly said in his article ‘Socialism and Irish Nationalism’:
(In this case replace Scotland with Ireland)
“as a socialist I am prepared to do all one man can do to achieve our motherland her rightful heritage – independence; but if you ask me to abate one jot or title of the claims of social justice, in order to conciliate the privileged classes, then I must decline”
4. We wish to see an end of the British State as much as we wish to see Scottish Independence.
In many ways the Scottish National Party is a very British party – think of the ‘Save our Regiments‘ campaign, or its active and open support to retain the Queen and its deeply reticent attitude about speaking up about Ireland. For fear of giving offence they have one leg in the British and one leg out. The much trumped Devo-Max as second favourite option, is in many ways reminiscent of Gladstone’s ‘Home Rule All Round’ slogan.
In Scotland, the SNP (who I voted for in the first ballot, this year) are keen to spin the line that the Queen is a harmless old lady. And we should keep the monarchy and only talk about Ireland. If we mention the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and since the banking collapse, we are not to discuss our sister country at all – like that mad wife in the Charlotte Bronte novel that is kept up in the attic and never discussed.
Now all the talk is back to us being Norway like in the Seventies! A confident wee nation at ease with ourselves, with no real divides between the haves and the have not’s. Yet still deeply disciplined in self-censorship. The Say Nothing Party.
A douce wee polite Jock-Brit nation. More tea and Battenburg cake Lizzy?
Such is the paranoia over the republican issue that the longstanding policy of a referendum on the retention of the royal family has been dropped and a Facebook page called Scottish Nationalist Republicans has been pressurised to drop its page from the social network system.
5. You can’t insult your way to socialism. Calling the SNP a ‘Tartan Tory’ party is inaccurate.
The SNP like the Labour Party is a mass party with many talented people and decent people and like all large political parties blessed with the usual group of malcontents, miscreants, oddballs, arse-lickers and careerists. If you live in Scotland or have ever been witness to an election count, you will notice an almost Life of Brian hatred between the two main political parties. There is a visceral hatred which is certainly not healthy or conducive to political discourse. The narcissism of small differences.
6. Political parties are only the echo of the battle not the battle itself.
Every week or so our hard-working SNP councillor pops through the door a new, well produced and well funded leaflet full of tired nationalist politicians and lots of saltires, so many saltires. Scotland this, Scotland that. Freedom and Scotland and yet more freedom and those nasty other parties that are denying Scotland’s destiny and not speaking for ‘us’ unlike Scotland’s party which truly speaks and stands up for Scotland. Fade and repeat. Same leaflet, week after week, slightly different format and pictures. The same text. More police, less council tax and yet more good governance. The couthy, canny and canty party. Good for business, good for the people of Scotland. The sensible party. And the sensible party never use the C word – class. People who vote for the SNP = aspirational and people who do not and especially people who are not in the SNP fold are beyond the pale. Not truly Scottish or even better, the catch all phrase a ‘unionist’.
Having said that, I like my councillor. To be honest I am ambivalent about the place of my birth, yet I hate the British state and I support independence (always have done) and will reluctantly vote for the Scottish National Party when there are no Green Party or SSP candidates. They are a broad church of people and on the whole I like them. Some played an honest role when it came to the public sector strikes. Mind you some of the Labour Party members also did. Yet if I am honest about these political traditions, I feel alienated, disenfranchised and downright scunnered by them. The whole ‘show business for ugly people’ and the parsimonious democracy that is 21st century capitalism leaves me cold
7. Beware of the building up of the dichotomous sophistry of bourgeois nationalism. The war is with the outdated fetters of capitalism not with England and Paul.
It seems that the whole of Scotland is to be parcelled out in Calvinist fashion into those who support independence or those who are in favour of the union. I have always hated and resented the building up of the dichotomous sophistry and this ‘with us or agin us’ political tactic annoys the crap out of me. Also Scotland is not Ireland so cut this nonsense out especially if you are a pro-monarchist, British Army and pro-multinational big business party.
8. Political parties that court favour with powerful elites when achieving power almost certainly will not stand up to power when in power.
New Labour are a case in point. Obama in power, the same. How many examples would you like? They were never on the left.
Can you think of an example where a political party has been more radical than its stated objectives whilst out of power? I can think of a few, Thatcher and the like, all from the Right.
The SNP may be recruiting members by their thousands at the moment but more and more of them will be careerists rather thanidealists. Ever was it thus.
Independence is the repository of everyone’s wish lists like a child’s letter to Santa. Post independence tough choices will be made. You can have lower Corporation Tax but do expect cuts in social welfare.
As Aneurin Bevan was oft to remark Socialism “is a religion of priorities“.
9. Scotland being independent opens up opportunities for the left.
At the heart of this debate is what do we understand by the term internationalism? Are we seeking to build a truly democratic society from below – a politics that is based on decentralisation, diversity and cooperation?
Do we, like HG Wells, envisage replacing capitalist globalisation with a world government? Do we believe like the Morning Star that the left should be in favour of larger broader states and any break from this would be a regressive step since it would divide working class forces?
However, Alan McCombes in a recent article follows this logic to its logical conclusion-
Logically the same arguments should be applied to the development of the European Union. Those trying to push forward towards a European superstate represent historical progress; while those Swedish and Danish trade unionists and women’s organisations who successfully campaigned against the euro were putting their own narrow interests above the greater historical project of internationalism.
Moreover, socialists in Canada and Mexico – and the rest of Latin America too, for that matter – should be advocating union with the United States of America on the grounds that such a continental state would unite hundreds of millions of working people from the Amazonian jungle to the Arctic Circle. After all, a manual worker in Toronto or Guadalajara has more in common with a worker in a Detroit car factory than with a Canadian banker or a Mexican landowner.
Also to take this particular tact is to understand the key forces which created the United Kingdom. The British state was created to unite the ruling classes of the respective nation states and you only need to take a look at Ireland to realise that this particular historical project played in disuniting the working class of the constituent nation states.
Will socialism be achieved as the product of a single big bang, a simultaneous, world-wide revolt of the working class and the oppressed? Or, because of differing national conditions and traditions, will social change be more fragmented and disjointed? Will it tend to develop at local and national level first, before spreading outwards?
10. The Radical Left should support independence in a non-sectarian and positive manner. No one likes a smart arse and no one has the monopoly of truth.
The 2014 referendum presents an opportunity to energise the radical left forces in Scotland.
The Scottish Socialist Party and the radical left in general is in a beleaguered and fragmented state at present. There is no use in pretending that it will be play the major role in campaigning for a yes vote. The Scottish National Party will dominate the agenda.
The left needs to organise a separate campaign outlining a radical vision of what an independent Scotland may look like, if we are willing to fight for it.
That is not to say that we do not help out in the main campaign and engage with the widest possible pro-yes constituency- to quote Jimmy Maxton if you cannot ride two circus horses at the same time, then you shouldn’t be in the circus.
11. There is no such thing as a completely free nation. We are all Jock Tamson’s Bairns. We all share a common humanity.
There is no such thing as a completely free nation- we are all economically and environmentally
If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.
England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.
England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed.
Nationalism without Socialism – without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin – is only national recreancy.
It would be tantamount to a public declaration that our oppressors had so far succeeded in inoculating us with their perverted conceptions of justice and morality that we had finally decided to accept those conceptions as our own, and no longer needed an alien army to force them upon us.
As a Socialist I am prepared to do all one man can do to achieve for our motherland her rightful heritage – independence; but if you ask me to abate one jot or tittle of the claims of social justice, in order to conciliate the privileged classes, then I must decline.
12. The key reason for the rise of nationalism in Scotland is a political revulsion against neo-liberalism.
By the end of Second World War people from the British Isles fought together successfully to defeat Fascism. This brought a great sense of purpose and solidarity. The election of the Labour Party saw the delivery of the welfare state and the national health service – those two key reforms played a big part in putting a human face on the British State.
The break in the political consensus in the mid to the late nineteen seventies saw an attack on these institutions and were deeply unpopular with huge swathes of Scottish people, who in turn were anxious to maintain the benefits of the welfare state.
It was natural that people voted for the Scottish Labour party but rather than seeking to reverse Thatcher- ism in many ways New Labour picked up the neo-liberal baton and ran with it. Hence their current malaise.
The Scottish National Party after eighty or so years of immense hard work and self sacrifice were the main recipients of votes from an ever growing, angry, disenchanted Scottish electorate. Yet I would not write off all ordinary members of the Labour Party, especially the trade unionists. As for the leadership and Jim Murphy I am mindful of my granny’s quip, God rest – “ah ma wee torn-hole, the things ye see when you huvane goat a gun“.
13. The Scottish radical left has a proud tradition of supporting the break up of the British State. Marx is central to our understanding of this historical epoch. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The mainstream middle class nationalist parties have only been around in the last 80 years or so the radical left in Scotland has a proud tradition for calling for a Scottish Republic, stretching at least back to Thomas Muir and Robert Burns in the late eighteenth century.
Scotland has also a proud Marxist tradition. James Connolly and John MacLean in particular and both from poor backgrounds, which is unusual – most of the main socialist theorists have been primarily bourgeois in origin.
Those particular thinkers have plenty to say about the current situation we are under; in particular the nature of the British State and how nationalism relates to internationalism. Both were adamant in stressing that affluent elites should not define what constitutes nationhood and freedom.
I know the left in Scotland is in a mess and is deeply fragmented but Marxist ideas are still I believe pertinent for the here and now. Let’s not keep our mouths shut and rely on the well read, the well wed and well fed define for us our freedom for fear that we wake up to meet the new boss who is the same as old boss. This is a time for ‘Imagine’ but it is also, as many Irish people on the left would no doubt warn you, a time not to be fooled again.
Tradition only takes you so far in politics. In the last fifty years or so there has been a lot wrong with the radical left and in particular the vulgar Marxist tradition.
(I find it deeply regretful that a lot of younger people, some even within the SSP do not have a deeper understanding of Marx and his deep humanism).
At the risk of sounding like a posh third year drama student – what is needed is a counter hegemonic project worldwide, not daft guys wi’ tartan trews singing Killiecrankie- although let it be noted for the record I’m not averse to a wee sing song, from time to time.
Whether Capitalism will resolve the problems and the injustices that the world faces remains to be seen. I don’t think it will fall through its own contradictions; it will need to be pushed.
Marx who famously decried that he was not a Marxist was asked by his beloved daughters in a family game what was his favourite maxim? He replied ‘nothing is alien to me’ and as for his favourite motto he replied ‘everything should be doubted’. Translated from Latin, naturally.
No-one has the monopoly of truth and nothin’ is alien. Although we may love aspects of the Scottish culture we are people of multiple identities and we belong to this blue planet rather than some arbitrary boundary line.
We are fundamentally humanists caught up in the nexus of this world for such a very brief and wonderful time. Let us reject all smelly orthodoxies and all forms of primate dominance. We will be long gone of course. We are close to the dead and soon will be food for the worms. Yet what we do matters on this earth and we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and judge how we lived and what we did with our lives. Fundamentally socialism is matter of humanist ethics.
14. If Scottish people can run their own affairs. Scotland people can run their own industries.
We are the country who decided in the Sixteenth Century we had the right to pick our own church ministers. Democracy and mitigated scepticism is a central plank of the Scottish Enlightenment thinking and indeed Scottish Working people’s culture. The democratic intellect runs deep within Scottish culture.
All hail the Scottish Republic. We are citizens not subjects and we bend our knee to no one. Not only do we protest but demand a democratic future for our children’s children and for this blue planet and all living things upon it large and wee.
To quote, John Holloway in his book ‘Crack Capitalism’-
“We do protest and we do more. We do and we must. If only we protest, we allow the powerful to set the agenda. If all we do is oppose what they are trying to do, then we simply follow in their footsteps. Breaking means that we do more than that, that we seize the initiative, that we set the agenda.”
Let’s raise a glass to a far off time when there is no state, or flags or boundaries.
Get in tae them! We have a world to win.