Illustration: Hey Monkey Riot (Edd Baldry)
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
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace