Scottish independence: Breaking up is good to do

John McAllion makes the socialist case for an independent Scotland
May 2012

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


Now is the time for a progressive alliance

Kenny MacAskill of the Scottish National Party says that only a progressive alliance can deliver us from Tory rule

Will Podmore 29 May 2012, 13.49

Let’s look at the real world, and at the SNP’s actual policies. Scotland faces a shortfall in energy supplies, but the SNP has pledged to block any new nuclear plants and has no plan to develop other energy sources. Even Alex Salmond’s own Council of Economic Advisers warned that his energy policy could cost Scotland dear.

The SNP government has funded Muslim schools, despite their poor record in producing pupils at ease in British society. The SNP has attacked pro-integration Muslims. In 2008, it gave the Scottish Islamic Foundation £419,000, while giving more moderate Muslim groups nothing. The SIF wants Islamic schools where children are taught the Koran, girls wear the hijab, and boys and girls are segregated. Its chief executive wants ‘a restored caliphate’ and defends Sharia law: he is an SNP candidate for Glasgow Central.

The SNP allies itself with Catalonia’s ‘pro-independence’ government, which distinguished itself in January 2009 by banning the commemoration marking the holocaust of Jews across much of Europe.

In 2007, Salmond said, “we are pledging a light-touch regulation.” In February 2008, he said, “the Scottish banks are among the most stable financial institutions in the world.” Then followed almost at once the failures of the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Halifax Bank of Scotland, when the British Treasury spent £38 billion bailing them out.

In August 2008, Salmond said, “I am certain that the RBS will overcome current challenges to become both highly profitable and highly successful once again.” On 19 January 2009, RBS reported a £28 billion loss, the biggest in British corporate history.

In September 2008, Salmond tried to blame HBOS’s woes on short-selling but Salmond’s theory was quickly discredited, as evidence emerged that the chief reason for HBOS’s demise was the extremely poor judgement of the bank’s senior officials in the mortgage market. According to bank insiders, it was the reckless actions of senior people in the HBOS management offices at the Mound in Edinburgh who placed the bank in such jeopardy. Scotland’s banks, far from building an independent Scottish economy, brought disaster.

One of Salmond’s closest allies, Jim Mather, enterprise minister since 2007, said in 2003, “We want more millionaires, and any notion that an independent Scotland would be left-wing is delusional nonsense … Most Scots have enough experience of left-wing policies to know that they only make matters worse.”

John McAllion ignores the important fact that the SNP is the most pro-EU political party in Britain. It wants ‘independence in the EU, a bit like wanting life in death. The SNP even wants Scotland to join the euro. How could Scotland safeguard its right to self-government in a European Union dominated by unelected entities which are acquiring increasing powers from national members?

The SNP is committed to membership of a continental federation where powerful cartels are intent on turning national Parliaments into conveyor belts for a uniform raft of policies. Inside the EU, especially if the SNP embraces the euro, Scotland would lose all semblance of economic independence.

A Millar 29 May 2012, 16.37

Interesting article, a good socialist case for independence. I think it’s really important for a range of views on the potential benefits of independence to be heard, and the socialist argument, with the opportunity for a progressive and socially just nation which looks after all in its society and with a positive role in the world, is certainly a robust one.

To address the above comment, I think Mr Podmore makes a common but unfortunate mistake. I do not wish to speak for him, but I don’t think Mr McAllion is endorsing the SNP, nor is his argument for independence an appraisal of their policies.

To confuse the SNP with the pro-independence movement means that disagreement with the day-to-day policies of the party or highlighting particular gaffes or actions by its members can lead to an outright rejection of independence, without actually considering the issue from a non-party political perspective.

Support for independence does not equal support for the SNP any more than support for the Union equals support for the Conservatives. Rather, independence is an opportunity for people in Scotland to have a full say on matters affecting them. People with different views have a variety of ideas about what an independent Scotland will look like, and by no means would the SNP be the sole voice in carving Scotland’s future. You may disagree with SNP policies but people of all parties and none would together shape the new society, democratically – unlike some believe Alex Salmond, for all his faults, is no dictator.

Although I do not personally identify as a socialist, I certainly consider myself left of centre and the argument that Scots can create a fairer, more equal society with complete control over its destiny is extremely compelling. I believe that with a great majority of Scots self-identifying as left-wing we could realise that vision.

After all, it’s not like the current arrangement, even with a potential Labour majority at Westminster, is making Scotland any more fair or equal. The devolved system has shown that Scotland can make itself more progressive and socially just – the policies of both Labour and SNP governments have shown that. It makes sense to cement that character and make Scotland the kind of society that Westminster rule prevents it from being.

Will Podmore 14 August 2012, 15.29

A Millar writes, “Support for independence does not equal support for the SNP any more than support for the Union equals support for the Conservatives.”
Support for the Union of course doen not equal support for the Conservatives beecause it’s not just the Conservatives who back the Union, but the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats too, as well as many trade unions and other organisations.
By contrast, the SNP is the most conspicuous of pro-break up bodies in Scotland.
The various ‘socialist’ grouplets are even more insignificant.
Arguments against the SNP’s commitment to breaking up Britain apply a fortiori to the ‘Scottish Socialist Party’ and its policies.

Council Worker 19 October 2012, 21.59

What an absolute load of shite Red Pepper is! This is just another failed attempt to re-invent the out of touch wheel outside of Scotland.

You people just don’t get it, the penny just never dropped! We are different, we do things different and just look at the overwhelming success stories to date that the Scottish Parliament has achieved and more under Alex Salmond and the SNP!

Labour are looking very stupid and have nothing to offer people in Scotland, as are the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

What progress have they made? …Er, none!
Bring on the YES vote! 2014 could not come quick enough for us jocks and the chance to get out and away from all things negative.

Will Podmore 20 November 2012, 13.44

Council Worker writes of “the overwhelming success stories to date that the Scottish Parliament has achieved and more under Alex Salmond and the SNP!”
Unfortunately, he/she doesn’t spell out what these are. Could he/she kindly provide us with this evidence?

Will Podmore 4 December 2012, 15.51

Council Worker wrote on 19 October of “the overwhelming success stories to date that the Scottish Parliament has achieved and more under Alex Salmond and the SNP!”
On 20 November, I asked Council Worker to provide us with this evidence. Still waiting!

Comments are now closed on this article.

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