The politics of the Scottish independence referendum

Issue: 134

Neil Davidson

David Cameron chose to open 2012 with one of those tactical misjudgements increasingly typical of the overconfident, untested politicians of the coalition. On this occasion the subject was the timing and content of a future referendum on Scottish independence. Under the Scotland Act (1998) all constitutional issues relating to the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland are reserved to Westminster. If the Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh held a consultative referendum on the question of independence it would certainly carry great moral and political weight, at least in Scotland, but in legal terms it would be little more than a gigantic opinion poll. Cameron presumably hoped to outmanoeuvre Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond by offering to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum, but only if the latter accepted that it be held within 18 months and that it consisted of a single question, for or against Scottish independence.

Within days of Cameron making this offer on 8 January the entire episode had backfired. For one thing, he had now conceded that there would definitely be a referendum (which the Tories had not previously accepted). And his blundering attempt to bully Salmond left the SNP leader with the moral advantage, leading to increased levels of support for independence and an influx of new members to the SNP (over 700 in the second week in January) in response. At the time of writing (mid-February) it looks as if Salmond will hold the referendum at the time of his choosing in autumn 2014, although the nature of the question or questions is still unresolved. Salmond is probably the most effective British bourgeois politician of his generation; Cameron, on the other hand, is not, but there is more at play here than their respective qualities. Why was Cameron so insistent on setting conditions for timing and content of the referendum and what attitude should revolutionary socialists take towards it?

The timing issue was a relatively trivial piece of political gamesmanship. The SNP’s 2011 manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary election said that a referendum would be held in the latter half of the parliamentary term (ie after May 2013). Salmond allegedly had plans to arrange it for 24 June 2014, the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, the battle which is usually, if inaccurately, supposed to have secured the independence of the feudal Scottish kingdom from England. Regardless of the truth of this (and it would be untypically crass of Salmond, who never indulges in vulgar anti-English posturing), imposing a deadline would have narrowed the range of dates in which a vote could be held while, if he refused to accept such a timescale, the coalition could pretend that the SNP were running scared of the referendum because they knew there was not a majority for independence.

The attempt to confine the choice to either the status quo or independence results from more fundamental considerations. Cameron has no desire to be responsible for the break-up of Britain: if Scotland seceded from the United Kingdom there would be a real threat that the state could unravel. One immediate consequence would be to place a question mark over the viability of Northern Ireland, since the union has always been with Britain, not England and—as Loyalists of all varieties are well aware—Sinn Fein would almost certainly begin agitation for an all-Irish referendum on reunification. British state managers would find their geopolitical position weakened by the loss of territory involved, leading, for example, to the removal of the rest of the UK (“Little Britain”) from permanent membership of the UN Security Council. There would also be difficulties if the SNP fulfilled its promise to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde, since there are virtually no other deep water bases on the UK coastline where the submarines that carry them can be docked, and to construct them would involve massive expenditure.

It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the political situation is simply reducible to SNP support for independence and Tory support for the status quo. In fact, the majority of the leadership of both parties would find a third option, so-called “maximum devolution” or “devo max”, preferable, although for different reasons neither can publicly admit it. Devo max is the option overwhelmingly supported by most Scots: it would leave the Scottish Parliament in control of all state functions (including taxation) with the exception of those controlled by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Bank of England (ie in relation to setting interest rates). Most of the SNP leadership recognise that there is not a majority for independence, or at least not one that would currently make the transition from opinion poll to voting booth. Devo max is what they hope to achieve—and more importantly, what they think they can achieve—in the short to medium term.

But although Salmond would prefer three options to be included in the referendum—status quo, devolution max and independence—he cannot openly argue for this without incurring the wrath of the fundamentalist-nationalist wing of his party, for whom anything less than independence is a betrayal. What he seems to want is for enough popular pressure to be expressed through “civil society” (ie the institutions of the Scottish professional and technical-managerial middle classes, plus the Scottish TUC and its constituent trade unions) to make it impossible for the devo max option to be excluded from the ballot paper, but without his direct intervention.

The situation is further complicated, however, by the fact that, in certain circumstances, devo max would probably be acceptable to a majority of Tories if it was politically necessary. Cameron certainly wants to win a vote against independence but, tactically inept though he is, he is also aware that even if this is achieved, the demand for further devolution will be unstoppable, and would probably result in pressure for a subsequent referendum asking Scottish voters to choose between the status quo and devo max. Cameron effectively conceded this in his speech in Edinburgh on 16 February, when he offered further measures of devolution if voters rejected independence. Salmond for tactical reasons affected to believe this was a ruse to lull the Scots into voting for the status quo, after which the promise would be quietly forgotten. It is usually wise to believe the worst about Tory intentions, but in this case Cameron is probably genuine.

If the essential integrity of the British state were maintained at the military-diplomatic level, the latter would be an acceptable outcome, particularly since it would place the responsibility for raising taxation and cutting expenditure on the Scottish government. Indeed, some Tory intellectuals, notably Tim Montgomerie, are arguing that Cameron should seize the opportunity to reconstruct the British constitution on a federal basis—a position which would bring the Tories into harmony with the Liberal Democrats, for whom this is a policy dating back to the days of the original Liberal Party.

Where is the Labour Party in all of this? The leadership has effectively entered a bloc with the Tories and Lib Dems against both independence and the inclusion of a devo max option on the ballot paper. As a demonstration of Labour’s apparently insatiable appetite for self-destruction this is almost on a par with Ed Balls’s recent declaration that a future Labour government would not reverse coalition spending cuts. Most party members, like most Scots, favour devo max, but they now have very limited mechanisms for influencing policy. There have, however, been initiatives by Labour-affiliated unions, above all Unite, to put pressure on the party hierarchy to shift position, and these provide an important forum for debate and intervention.

Although this retreat to outright Unionism will almost certainly be abandoned before the referendum, it is indicative of the sectarianism which Labour has always displayed towards the SNP, even its left, long after it became clear that the “tartan Tories” label had ceased to be applicable. The simple reason is that, of all the mainstream parliamentary parties, the SNP is the only one which has had the possibility of attracting a significant part of Labour’s working class electoral base, and is now beginning to do so—indeed, this was why it was able to form a majority administration in 2011. Labour’s greatest immediate concern in this respect is that the SNP will win Glasgow, the largest Scottish council and one of two which it still controls, in the May 2012 local elections.

The SNP stood a realistic chance of doing so even as things stood, but—in another manifestation of the suicidal tendency mentioned above—the Glasgow Labour Party has split. After voting against Labour proposals to cut services and jobs at a fractious council meeting on 9 February, an increasing number of Labour councillors (eight at the time of writing) have resigned and announced their intention to form a new party, provisionally called “Glasgow Labour”, to contest the May elections. Unfortunately, this split is not based on a principled opposition to budget cuts—their own proposals, like those of the SNP, merely rearranged them—but is a calculated opportunistic response by a group of councillors who had earlier been deselected and who hope to retain their seats by avoiding the opprobrium which will attach to the Labour group. The outcome is to make an SNP victory all the more likely.

Faced with the ongoing self-immolation of the Scottish Labour Party, it may seem redundant to ask why working class people are increasingly turning to the SNP, but there are also what Gramsci called “organic” as well as “contingent” reasons. Like similar social democratic organisations in Europe and Australasia, Labour has moved extraordinarily far to the right, although its attitude to devolution has never been comprehensible in left-right terms. Nevertheless, despite the rightward shift, Labour will remain a social democratic party so long as it at least retains a role in articulating the interests of the trade union bureaucracy, thus holding open the possibility that working class demands—in however mediated a form—might once again influence what it actually does. Since reformism remains the dominant form of consciousness
within the working class, it may appear that nothing much has changed and that this reformism will continue to find expression in the Labour Party as it has for the last hundred years or so. But there is no necessary connection between reformism in general and the specific form taken by Labourism.

A combination of Labour’s own behaviour in office and opposition—above all its acceptance of neoliberalism—together with structural changes in the nature of the working class and the current diminution of trade union membership and consciousness in the private sector, means that for many working class people, Labour does not appear to be fundamentally different from the other parties, but is simply “the least worst” of the choices on offer. In this connection it is important to remember that, although the “typical” member of the organised working class may be a public-sector employee who belongs to a Labour-affiliated union like Unite, the “typical” member of the working class as a whole is a private sector service worker in no union at all. In these circumstances, if a party other than Labour was to appear, offering reforms, sounding as if they actually believe in them, and invoking the social democratic tradition, workers, especially in the latter group, might well consider transferring their vote to it. In England no such party yet exists, and for several historical reasons one is unlikely to appear, but in Scotland it does, in the form of the SNP. It is worth noting that, even in the context of organised workers, over 40 percent of Unite members in Scotland voted for the SNP in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections

In general, the SNP accepts the neoliberal economic agenda—but the point is of limited importance since this is true of all the parties in the Scottish and UK parliaments, with the possible exception of the Greens. But the SNP has also positioned itself as the inheritor of the Scottish social democratic tradition and to make this credible it has adopted three tactics. First, it has retained all the reforms introduced by the previous Lib-Lab coalition, above all free care for the elderly. Second, it has legislated for its own reforms, such as free medical prescriptions. Third, and this is in many ways the most important, it has simply refused to carry through the counter-reforms of the previous Labour and current coalition governments in the areas where it has power: water privatisation, student fees and the fragmentation of the NHS. In many respects it is what the SNP has not done that has gained it support, rather than its relatively limited reform programme.

In these circumstances, revolutionary socialists have to argue four positions. First, only the Scottish people (ie people of whatever origin who actually live in Scotland) should have the right to vote in the referendum. Second, and quite independently of our attitude towards the SNP, the date of the referendum and questions on the ballot paper should be set without interference from the coalition at Westminster. Third, the devo max option should be included on the ballot paper. Fourth, working class people should nevertheless vote for independence. The first three are basic questions of democracy; the fourth perhaps requires further explanation.

Unless we put forward an argument for class politics within the referendum campaign, the alternatives will simply be between nationalist and unionist positions, with the rest of the left tail-ending the former, helping the SNP towards the hegemonic position it seeks in Scottish politics. This means active involvement in the campaign, including participation in bodies such as the cross-party Scottish Independence Convention. Among other things, we need absolute clarity that there is nothing intrinsically beneficial about Scottish independence; otherwise we face the danger of encouraging the popular but wholly false assumption that Scottish people are automatically more left wing than English people, which will in turn encourage dangerous illusions in a Scottish parliamentary road to socialism, or at least to a revived social democracy. The reasons for supporting independence lie elsewhere.

Britain is an imperial state at war. A referendum called while the occupation of Afghanistan is still ongoing, with the Iraqi and Libyan interventions a recent memory, would be inseparable from the arguments against these wars and the British state’s subordinate alliance with the American empire. Scottish secession would at the very least make it more difficult for Britain to play this role, if only by reducing its practical importance for the US. Britain has always been an imperialist state, but socialists have not always have called for support for independence and in other situations they were correct to oppose it, for example in the early 1920s. But devolution has changed the context in which we operate. The British state has already begun to fragment and so to call for its further fragmentation on an anti-war basis, in a situation where a majority opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, means that independence can be supported as a means to an anti-imperialist end, rather than as the political logic of Scottish nationalism.

A related reason is that the campaign for a “no” vote will effectively be asking voters to endorse a conception of Britishness which is built around racism and anti-migrant, anti-Islamic hysteria. No doubt some well-meaning but deluded members of the left will argue that the issue is the unity of the British working class, but we should be clear: for the anti-independence side, this will not be about the Chartists, the Suffragettes, anti-fascism or Saltley Gates; it will be about the virtues of white, Christian, imperial Britannia, at best alloyed with a little official multiculturalism. For socialists to give this “left colouration” to the pro-union cause would be politically fatal.

The unity of workers and the oppressed in the British Isles is not secured by the constitutional form of the state or by the bureaucratic structures of union organisation; but by the willingness to show solidarity and take joint collective action, across borders if necessary. Many workers in Southern Ireland belong to the same unions as workers in Britain; workers in Canada often belong to the same unions as workers in the US: there is no reason why workers in Scotland could not belong to the same unions as workers in the rest of the UK. To argue that this is a decisive reason for opposing independence is either scaremongering or a concealed defence of the British state. Part of the process of maintaining unity is for Scottish workers to support the struggles of English and Welsh workers, and for English and Welsh workers to support the right to self-determination of the Scots.1

What of the alternative? The meaning of devolution has changed over the decades, which is why, as I suggested earlier, the Tories could accept devo max if necessary. Previously, it was a way of meeting popular aspirations without threatening the economic order; now it is also potentially useful for further implanting social neoliberalism. The more politics is emptied of content, the more social neoliberal regimes need to prove that democracy is still meaningful—not, of course, by extending the areas of social life under democratic control, but by multiplying the opportunities for citizen-consumers
to take part in elections for local councillors, mayors, members of the Welsh and London Assemblies, and the Scottish, British and European parliaments.

It has not, of course, reversed the growing public withdrawal from official politics and in that sense has failed as a neoliberal strategy of legitimation. On the other hand, devolution is also part of a neoliberal strategy of delegation, and in this respect has been much more successful. Here responsibility for implementing anti-reforms is spread beyond governing parties and central state apparatuses to elected bodies whose policy options are severely restricted both by statute and—as in the case of local councils—reliance on the Treasury for most of their funding.

In the case of the devolved nations the assumption is that the people most likely to participate in local decision-making will be members of the middle class, who can be expected to behave, en masse, in ways which will impose restrictions on local taxation and public spending, and thus maintain the neoliberal order with a supposedly popular mandate. The distribution of responsibility for decision-making downward to the localities will continue
and gather further momentum following the onset of recession and still greater spending restraints. We too easily dismiss the “Big Society” as a joke, but what it ultimately means is atomised citizens voting for which services they want to close. If nothing else, in a separate state the responsibility could no longer be passed up the line to Westminster, by either the SNP or Labour.

Finally, participation in a campaign for independence will involve revolutionaries working alongside SNP members: what attitude should we take towards them? We approach the Tories and Lib Dems in one way (as open enemies) and Labour in another (as someone we expect to be a friend). Neither approach fits exactly in the case of the SNP, but it would seem more productive to tilt in the latter direction, partly because—unlike the Tories or Lib Dems—there are actual socialists in the SNP, but partly because it claims to be governing in a social democratic model.

In that case our demands should be for the SNP to prove it, in relation to refusing to implement the cuts, remaining opposed to student fees while reining in university principals, getting on with removing Trident from Scottish soil, etc. The contradictions for the SNP are already enormous, but as long as large sections of the working class regard them, however wrongly, as a viable reformist organisation, we should take that as our starting point. It should go without saying that none of this is meant to imply that we should stop working alongside Labour activists: our attitude towards them should continue to be one of fraternal engagement in the unions and campaigns.

All this is conditional upon class struggle—there are circumstances in which working class resistance could reach such a level that the question of independence would be irrelevant or even reactionary; we are far from that stage yet, although we may be at it by the time the referendum takes place, so the position set out here has to be kept under constant review. Nevertheless, we should beware of assuming that high levels of class struggle will result in “normal service being resumed”, with workers returning to Labour. There is no historical warrant for this: in 1974, after six years of the most intense class struggle since 1919, Labour limped into office at Westminster and the SNP received the biggest vote it had ever received (and bigger than it has ever received since) in a UK election. Nor will the Scottish national question simply disappear in a wave of strikes and demonstrations: workers—and the biggest increase in support for independence has been registered among young, unskilled workers—might understandably still see a logic in separating themselves from a Tory-led Westminster government, even when the class struggle is on the rise. Economics and politics are not autonomous from each other, but the mediations between them are deeply complex. Revolutionaries, not least in Scotland, ignore this at their peril.


1: Contrary to what Lenin sometimes suggested, “the right of nations to self-determination” does not necessarily mean the right to separate, it means the right to decide whether or not to separate; if the Scots voted to remain part of the UK they would nevertheless have exercised their right to self-determination.