Scotland at the crossroads: the path to a new-born star?

Will 2014 be the year of Scottish independence? Roz Paterson sees new political alignments and vibrancy on the left in the campaign for a yes vote

January 19, 2014
10 min read

‘This is a shitty government, but it’s our government!’ This, rather qualified, statement of solidarity appeared on a demonstration in Chile during the presidency of Salvador Allende, who was so tickled by its stolid sentiment that he waded into the crowd to shake the placard‑bearer by the hand. In Scotland, with the independence referendum coming up this September, the same sort of sentiment is rearing its head.

‘Our’ government is based at Holyrood, and is unequivocally an independence-minded one. Not only that, but for seven years the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration has been on its best behaviour, delivering on its headline manifesto promises while amplifying the disadvantages of being shackled to Westminster and a devolution deal that prevents Scotland from making her own decisions on spending and borrowing, foreign policy and defence.

Few people run up and down the street plastered in SNP stickers shouting the praises of Scottish finance secretary John Swinney’s budget proposals. But then again, most of us are glad we have them, and not them. Them being the other government, down south, the one we did not vote for and which seems less and less in touch with reality north of the border. From immigration to Trident to taxation, our priorities are more and more at odds.

Yet the polls suggest that, were the independence referendum to be held tomorrow, the No votes would triumph. The press coverage suggests that the debate is little more than a spat between the pro-union Alistair Darling – alongside everyone else in Scotland, England and the rest of the known universe – and first minister Alex Salmond.

The pro-independence voices on the left, within the environmental movement, among women and young people and immigrant communities, low-paid workers and people surviving on benefits, fail to break surface in the mainstream media. Yet they are a growing force and are very much the untold story of this long road to referendum.

At the heart of the issue is democracy. To cut a long story short, since the Treaty of Union in 1707, Scotland has laboured under a democratic deficit, whereby no matter which way the Scottish people vote, it will always be the majority in England who decide the government. Thus, for 18 years, we had a Thatcherite government whose priorities were the south east of England but whose laboratory for social engineering and flat tax policies was North Britain, as Scotland may be no more after 18 September 2014.

In the referendum we will be asked if we want Scotland to be an independent country, not whether we agree with the SNP’s pension proposals, whether we stay within Nato and the EU, what currency we use and whether we want the queen’s head on our stamps, or on a spike. Do we want to run our own affairs or not? That is the question.

Muddying the waters

Better Together, as the No campaign calls itself – an unholy alliance of Tories, Lib Dems and Labour Party members – is keen to muddy the waters on this. The campaign is conducted almost solely through the media, and seems to consist largely of scare stories and attacks on Alex Salmond.

Of course, Better Together cannot argue that the union is working well for Scotland. Ever since the Tories lost four general elections in Scotland between 1979 and 1992, yet formed the government at Westminster every time, it’s been a dismal marriage. Thus, it can only insist that independence will be even worse, playing on the generally fearful atmosphere of a recession with tales of pension black holes, banking failures and diplomatic isolation. Another common ploy is to focus on Salmond. Anas Sarwar, the deputy leader of Scottish Labour, ludicrously called the SNP government a ‘one-man dictatorship’ – while ignoring all the other pro-independence voices.

But it is just a ploy. Salmond regularly wipes the floor with his major party political opponents, but he is not the architect of the Yes Scotland campaign, nor is he its main voice. Indeed, the chair of the Yes campaign is Dennis Canavan, a hugely popular ex-Labour MP and MSP. The chief executive is Blair Jenkins, former director of news and current affairs at STV and BBC Scotland, who resigned over staff cuts and, until now, has never nailed his colours to any political mast and remains party politically neutral.

As for the rank and file, cast a glance at the recent pro‑independence rally in Edinburgh, where 20–30,000 people marched to Calton Hill, and you will see every political stripe and none, from Green groups to red-hot socialists, trade unionists, professionals, individuals and families.

scotland-fullIllustration: Hey Monkey Riot/Edd Baldry

View from the left

Talking of socialists, when the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) first argued for independence in the late 1990s it was a contentious issue, even within the party, where UK-based platforms, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), cleaved to the union on the (rather arguable) basis that working-class solidarity is weakened by geographical boundaries. These days even the SWP and CWI are committed to independence, perhaps fearing being left behind as the tide of progressive opinion flows away from unionism.

The Scottish TUC has committed itself to neither position – which, in itself, marks a serious breach with the fervently pro‑union Labour Party. It is at least possible that some trade unions could end up in the Yes camp in the months leading up to the referendum. There is already a Trade Unionists for Independence campaign, and even a Labour for Independence one.

That said, there are voices on the Labour left that are calling for a No vote, notably through the Red Paper on Scotland 2014, the largely untrumpeted outpouring from what remains of Scottish Labour’s socialists, whose inception in 1975 was famously authored by lapsed radical Gordon Brown. Its arguments seem to equate a Yes vote with the SNP and its free-market tendencies, clearly having given up on a Labour resurgence, or any credible left‑wing alternative.

Rather than independence, says the Red Paper, we should aim for a federal UK, with ‘sweeping new powers’ for Scotland. These would allow a Scottish government to borrow more money and nationalise industries, but would not include foreign policy and immigration. A federal UK would also require the consent of Westminster, which has been decidedly lukewarm on sharing out its powers.

The contributors, including Katy Clark MP and STUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham, believe that the independence debate lacks any radical vision, which is to ignore the work of Radical Independence, a very loose body of activists and enthusiasts from across the political spectrum, including Greens, SSP, CND, trade unionists, anti-monarchist republicans and non-aligned others. Radical Independence kicked off with a conference in 2012, which attracted 900 people, in a bid to pull the referendum debate to the left. It is perhaps best known south of the border for its bracing treatment of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, when he sought to conquer Scotland from a base in an Edinburgh pub, but its ideas and enthusiasms go much further. They include scrapping Trident and the British Empire baggage that goes with it, reforming land ownership so that the people who work the land also own it, and basing Scotland’s new economy on renewables, not the black gold that bubbles beneath the North Sea.

Mood for change

Radical Independence provided a large and colourful contingent at the Calton Hill rally, revealing itself as a very young, vibrant, diverse – and growing – movement: one that could come together as a new, realigned left-wing party after the referendum.

The Edinburgh rally ranked as one of the biggest political demonstrations in Scotland in the past half-century. And this isn’t a blip. Yes Scotland runs regular meetings, every night of the week, up and down the country, at which the attendance is staggering. At a meeting in Leith recently, those who were pro‑independence were actually asked to leave, so that those who were as yet undecided could fit into the hall to hear the arguments. Rural and urban communities turn out in their hundreds to hear the case for independence, making these the biggest public meetings in Scotland since the anti‑poll tax movement.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that when people start talking about the issues around Scottish independence they tend to move from No to Yes, not the other way round. According to Carolyn Leckie, former SSP MSP and an activist in Women for Independence (WfI), ‘The campaign has tapped into a mood for change; it is an expression of this desire.’

At stake is the chance to start again from scratch. Will Hutton, in The State We’re In, spelled out the near impossibility of reforming a political establishment as entrenched as the British state; even a Labour government with a clear mandate was hemmed in by the non-elected bastions of privilege and tradition. In Scotland, if the Yes vote is won, we turn to a clean page, and start anew.

Swept up in this push for change are increasing numbers of young people and women. They are by-passing the existing party political structures through organising bodies such as WfI, which ensure that public meeting platforms are gender balanced but, more crucially, are working to create spaces for women to talk to women, without being shouted down by political hacks and men in suits, and where they are given real information, real food for thought.

This is not just about democracy, says Carolyn Leckie, but issues such as ‘poverty, public ownership, welfare changes and the demonisation of the poor. They want to know what the impact [of independence] will be on their daily lives.’ Reading the papers won’t tell them. For intelligent, articulate arguments and ideas you must look to the blogosphere, which is exploding with information, illustration and, yes, optimism.

Optimist opinion

Should we be optimistic? Polls suggest not, with the Yes vote trailing the No by a country mile. Had we been allowed to vote for ‘devo max’, aka full fiscal autonomy, polls suggest the day would have been won hands down. But the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour all opposed it, even while claiming that they wanted greater powers for Scotland. The bloc of voters who would prefer devo max – perhaps around 40 per cent of the electorate – is likely to prove decisive. Some polling evidence suggests that if the choice is between the status quo and independence, a majority of this group will vote Yes.

Put this into the pot with Scottish Labour’s leader Johann Lamont saying that the whole debate is ‘Scotland versus Salmond’, and you may well end up with someone carrying a placard defending this ‘shitty government’ purely on the basis that it’s ours.

As for the future, if the Yes vote is won, the political map will almost certainly be redrawn. The Labour/Lib Dem/Tory distinctions are fast blurring, and new alignments, from the left of the SNP, the left of what’s left of Labour and the socialist, green left, will surely emerge, as well as a new centre ground, and perhaps even a little bit of Tory sentiment out there in the margins.

One thing’s for sure, as Scotland’s late poet laureate and enduring enthusiast for Scottish independence Edwin Morgan once imagined. Scotland, in the wake of independence, could shine with such hope and energy that you might see us from outer space, twinkling like a new-born star.