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
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
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
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.