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Socialism Today 156 - March 2012

Scotland’s referendum on independence

The direct interference of Britain’s Tory prime minister, David Cameron, into plans for an independence referendum in Scotland, sparked anger and outrage. It was seen as an arrogant attempt to dictate policy – and rekindled painful memories of the savage anti-working class policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The tactic immediately backfired, however, with polls showing increased support for independence or enhanced devolution. PHILIP STOTT assesses the situation.

ONE THING IS clear following the blundering, bullying intervention of David Cameron into the Scottish independence referendum debate: support for independence and the Scottish National Party (SNP) has increased markedly. The other certainty is that, despite the Con-Dem’s earlier demands for a referendum "sooner rather than later", the vote will take place in the autumn of 2014. For the first time since the partition of Ireland and the formation of the southern Irish ‘Free State’ in 1921, the British establishment is facing the possibility of the secession of a nation from the UK.

Cameron’s attempts to control the timing, wording and running of the referendum have created a huge backlash in Scotland. It also earned him the displeasure of the majority of the capitalist press who fear for the future of the union. The Daily Mail displayed "deep reservations about Mr Cameron’s threat to impose conditions on the format and timing of an independence referendum" (10 January). "The more Mr Cameron tells the Scots what they can do, the easier it is for [SNP leader] Mr Salmond to make the case for independence", warned Philip Stephens in the Financial Times (11 January).

Apart from Cameron’s colonial-type arrogance, the major resurgence of the national question in Scotland is due to a number of factors. A severe economic crisis, savage cuts in public spending, huge alienation by the mass of the people from the political elite, allied to the semi-radical populism of the SNP, have all led to this unprecedented conjuncture for the British ruling class.

The possibility of a majority vote for Scottish independence is a nightmare scenario for British capitalism. It would represent a major blow to the international prestige of a power with pretensions of still being a world player. But it would also inflame the national question in Wales, deepen sectarian division in Northern Ireland and, potentially, strengthen English nationalism. For these and wider economic reasons it will campaign ferociously for a defeat of the independence referendum. Cameron’s attempt to force an early vote was driven by the calculation that it would maximise the chances of defeating the SNP, rather than allowing a long drawn out campaign until late 2014.

The increasing centrifugal forces tending towards pulling apart the United Kingdom are rooted in the inability of a crisis-ridden capitalism to offer any viable alternative for the majority of the working class. This is an international phenomenon, with the national question sharpening in Spain, Belgium and Italy among others in the last period.

Public support in Scotland for independence is still a minority, albeit a bigger minority than it was before Cameron’s crass intervention. A plethora of polling evidence shows that backing for an independent Scotland has risen to around 40%, with one or two showing support for independence as a majority.

Analysis of these polls also indicates a marked differentiation in support for independence based on class and age. Ipsos/Mori for example, on 30 January, found that support for independence was 39% in Scotland as a whole. However, among 18- to 24-year-olds this rose to 45%. Among those from ‘deprived backgrounds’, 58% backed independence, as opposed to 27% for those from ‘affluent backgrounds’. This underlines the Socialist Party’s understanding that, for a significant section of the working class, independence is linked to the searching for a way out of poverty, mass unemployment and savage cuts.

The SNP’s rise

THE ACCUSATION BY SNP leader, Alex Salmond, that Cameron was ‘Thatcheresque’ and ‘dictatorial’ in the way he has attempted to control the referendum resonated with many in Scotland – indicated by the 10% rise in support for independence within a week. The SNP is polling around 50% in voting intentions, with Salmond miles ahead of the other party leaders in terms of public standing. His public ‘satisfaction’ ratings at 58% are significant. Moreover, he is the only party leader with a positive score when ‘dissatisfied’ is subtracted from ‘satisfied’ (+22%). In contrast, Cameron languishes at -28%. So many people failed to recognise the Scottish leaders of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories that they were excluded from a recent poll.

Salmond, a skilful populist, is widely perceived as the outstanding capitalist politician in the UK: "a shark swimming in a sea of minnows", according to the Financial Times. The important caveat is the array of nonentities he is up against – as the 15th century philosopher Desiderius Erasmus put it: "in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king". Nevertheless, given the semi-collapse of Labour and the outright hostility to the Tories, which boasts fewer MPs in Scotland than there are Giant Pandas in Edinburgh zoo (there are two of those), the British bourgeois face significant difficulties in finding suitable authoritative candidates to lead an anti-independence campaign in the run-up to 2014.

The outcome of the 2011 Scottish elections saw the SNP win an unprecedented overall majority, supposedly impossible given the mixed-member electoral system introduced for the Scottish parliament. Labour, traditionally the largest party in Scotland since the 1950s, was humiliated in its traditional working-class heartlands, polling less than a third of the Scottish vote. The SNP won a majority of the seats in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and across the central belt of Scotland. Since then, support for Labour has haemorrhaged and currently stands at 23%. The May council elections are likely to see the SNP capture the Labour citadel of Glasgow. It is increasingly unlikely now that Labour can recover its position in Scotland.

Setting out to disprove the saying that ‘two Eds are better than one’, Balls and Miliband made the catastrophic announcement that Labour would not promise to reverse any of the Con-Dem cuts if it returns to power. No less a calamity for Labour in Scotland was the pledge of its new leader, Johann Lamont, to share a platform with Cameron as part of the anti-independence campaign.

The rise of the SNP is in part due to the fact that it has partially filled the space to the left of the main establishment parties. There is a vacuum that needs to be filled by a genuine mass party of the working class with a fighting anti-capitalist and socialist programme.

Two sides of the SNP

BETWEEN 2007 AND 2011 the SNP carried through some relatively progressive policies. The abolition of tuition fees in Scotland was popular - now partially reversed by allowing the charging of massive fees for students studying in Scotland from the rest of the UK. As was the scrapping of prescription charges and the reversal of the previous Labour/Lib-Dem coalition plans to shut A&E units in a number of hospitals.

The SNP has shunned the market-driven madness of the Con-Dems in relation to the health service and education. It has come out against the savage Welfare Reform Bill, using these attacks to justify independence.

However, the SNP leadership has implemented, to the penny, the public-spending cuts passed on from Westminster – all £3.3 billion of them. This has included pension contributions increases for civil servants, teachers, fire-fighters and NHS workers in Scotland. SNP ministers, including John Swinney, SNP finance secretary, and Salmond, made a point of crossing the PCS picket lines on 30 November. Swinney claimed it was his "duty as a government minister" to break the strike.

The SNP regularly displays two faces. On the one hand, a radical populism aimed at the working class. On the other, a determination to make cuts and prove itself as a safe pair of hands for capitalist interests. Its economic models for a capitalist independent Scotland were Ireland and Iceland, which have collapsed. Now there is more emphasis on the ‘Scandinavian model’ of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. However, mass privatisation and deep social cuts are being implemented in Sweden and Denmark.

The absence of a mass workers’ party in Scotland has contributed to the SNP getting a ‘free run’ for its mainly phoney radicalism.

A multi-option referendum?

THE SNP GOVERNMENT has, as of the end of January, published its proposals for an independence referendum in 2014. It has also made clear its preference for an option of ‘devolution max’, or enhanced devolution, to be included on the referendum ballot. And it has asked the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), and other organisations dubbed ‘civic Scotland’, to formulate a third option during the consultation period that runs until the middle of May.

A multi-option referendum would suit the SNP leadership. It believes that, even if independence was defeated, the current majority public support for ‘devo-max’, involving a major extension of powers over tax, benefits, the minimum wage, etc, would see it in a win-win situation.

Devolution max is a safety net for the SNP, which it would claim as another step towards independence at a future stage. Ironically, despite Cameron, Miliband and their Scottish equivalents’ insistence on a single question – for or against independence – a multi-option referendum could also be beneficial for the British ruling class under certain circumstances. If the run-up to 2014 saw a significant rise in support for independence the ruling class could be forced to back a third option to act as a lightning conductor, in an effort to avoid a majority for independence.

The Socialist Party Scotland fully supports a multi-option referendum and will oppose any attempts by Cameron and company to undemocratically block a devo-max option being put forward. We will campaign for an independent socialist Scotland and for a parliament with full powers that could be used in the interests of the working class.

The SNP leadership, pro-capitalist to the core, has long accepted a ‘gradualist’ path to independence. It would happily settle for an accommodation with the British capitalists for a form of extreme autonomy, within a newly designed federal UK state. In many ways, the SNP proposals for independence are a form of maximum devolution in themselves.

A safe haven for big business

"WE WILL SHARE a currency, we will share a monarch, we will have a social union", Salmond said on 22 January, making it clear that an independent Scotland would maintain the queen as head of state, and sterling as the Scottish currency, with monetary policy run by the Bank of England.

The previous SNP policy, to hold a referendum on joining the crisis-ridden euro, has been blown out of the water by the European crisis. "I can’t foresee a set of circumstances that will see the economic conditions being correct for the euro for some considerable time", said Swinney. (8 February)

Fiscal independence, with all tax and spending decisions taken by the Scottish government, including over welfare benefits, pensions, etc, is the aim of the SNP. But the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland would also be as a safe haven for big business. Salmond wants to use powers over corporation tax to reduce the ‘burden’ on big business and encourage a low-tax enclave for inward investment. It would be one where the interests of the rich and powerful would predominate over those of low-paid workers, the unemployed and pensioners.

As Swinney commented in a recent interview: "Whoever you are – Greece, Germany or an independent Scotland – you must have fiscal discipline". In other words, cuts and austerity would continue to be dictated by the banks, bondholders, and the policies of the Bank of England and EU institutions. Swinney has said that Scotland would have to demonstrate its creditworthiness to prove its AAA status to the rating agencies – which would demand savage cuts to public spending as a result of any downgrade.

Whose Scotland?

AGAINST THE BACKDROP of an unprecedented economic crisis, which is likely to last for many years, it is clear that the SNP would carry out the dictates of the market. In the firing line would not be the bankers, oil companies and big business, but the wages, pensions, jobs and public services of the working class.

The SNP referendum document was dubbed ‘Our Scotland’, and yet the nationalists cannot have it both ways. They either stand up for the interests of the majority of the people, made up overwhelmingly of the working class alongside the increasingly insecure middle class, or they back the interests of a system intent on making us pay for a crisis created by the bankers and billionaires.

There is a gaping chasm that separates ex-sir Fred Goodwin, Sir Tom Farmer, Sir Tom Hunter and the rest of the Scottish elite, and the lives of working-class families across Scotland. Unfortunately, Salmond has shown whom he prefers by cosying up to Goodwin, Rupert Murdoch and their ilk, while imposing wage freezes and attacks on the pensions of public-sector workers.

"We will provide a secure, stable and inclusive society. And by doing so we will encourage talent and ambition. Doing this has required some difficult decisions – such as major efficiency savings and a freeze in public-sector pay. But those are easier to implement if your policies clearly have fairness at their heart". (SNP statement,

What is fair about cutting the wages of low-paid workers while wining and dining the bankers who precipitated the crisis in the first place? How do you "encourage talent and ambition" by axing thousands of college places for young people and carrying out billions of pounds of Con-Dem cuts as the SNP government has done?

Shifts in consciousness

THE SOCIALIST PARTY (previously Militant) has consistently defended the right of the people of Scotland to decide their own relationship with the rest of Britain, up to and including the right to form an independent state. During the 1979 devolution referendum, Militant campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote. It was clear that significant layers of the working class supported devolution as a democratic advance. This in turn was bound up with an outlook that more devolved power for Scotland could assist in the struggle to change the lives of working-class people.

The genuine method of Marxism has always been to defend the right of nations to self-determination – which does not mean advocating separation in every circumstance. In 1979, support for Scottish independence was no more than 7% – it would have been wrong for Marxists to have advocated independence. We linked the struggle for the democratic rights of the Scottish people to the need for socialism. In 1979, this was summed up in our slogan: For a socialist Britain with autonomy for Scotland.

The 1997 devolution referendum took place in the wake of the experience of Thatcherism: the poll tax and mass de-industrialisation in Scotland. As a result, there had been a qualitative strengthening of Scottish national consciousness. The slogan of a socialist Britain with autonomy for Scotland had long been insufficient to take account of the changing outlook of the majority of the working class. Therefore, the demand for a socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist federation with England, Wales and Ireland was necessary to reach workers and young people at that stage.

We did not simply call for a ‘yes’ vote for devolution. We also explained the limits of the powers of the parliament. We stood for a parliament with real powers over the economy, the powers to nationalise big business and implement socialist measures in the interests of the working class. Linked to this was the need to fight for a socialist majority inside the parliament and to build mass opposition to capitalist policies in society as a whole.

By the late 1990s, independence for Scotland had the support of around 30-40% - in late 1998, one poll showed 50%. In particular, a majority of the youth and a significant section of the working class supported independence. For many, this was intimately linked to finding a solution to poverty and the inequalities under capitalism. In other words, it was a class outlook wrapped up in a national consciousness. To turn our backs on this mood would have led to the danger of cutting ourselves off from key sections of the working class who could be won to socialist ideas.

To take account of this change in consciousness, in 1998, Scottish Militant Labour, the then Scottish section of the CWI, updated our programme on the national question. With the support of the CWI internationally we put forward the slogan of an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland. This change was a reflection of a hardening of the mood and an anticipation of future developments.

In the first period after the setting up of the Scottish parliament in 1999 there was a falling back in support for independence as wider class issues came to the fore. The initial electoral success of the Scottish Socialist Party between 1999 and 2003 was a reflection of this and the SNP were pushed back.

The 2014 referendum

AS WE APPROACH the 2014 referendum what should the approach of socialists be? The political establishment, with the backing of the overwhelming majority of the capitalist class, will ferociously oppose the breakup of the UK. This campaign can have an effect on layers of the working class fearful that an independent Scotland would be in an even worse economic position outside of the UK. For example, in the initial phase of the banking crisis in 2008/09, support for independence fell in Scotland as major Scottish banks had to be nationalised by the then New Labour government. The instinctive opposition among many workers to the dangers of deepening national divisions emerging among the working class can also be a factor in cutting across support for independence.

By 2014, the economic and social crisis will have deteriorated even further. Years of cuts, recession and mass unemployment can lead many to draw the conclusion that independence can offer a route out of the prison of austerity. The SNP will lose no opportunity in arguing that only with the powers of independence can the cuts agenda be at least slowed down.

It is still most likely at this stage that, if a multi-option referendum were held, the devo-max option would command majority support, perhaps with a significant minority vote for independence. In approaching workers and young people, socialists will need to take account of the different outlooks among the working class. What is clear is that the mood for a significant strengthening of powers for Scotland, either devo-max or outright independence, form the overwhelming majority opinion in Scotland.

If the referendum were a straight yes or no to the SNP’s independence proposal, it would be correct for the Socialist Party Scotland to advocate a ‘yes’ vote for independence. However, while being sympathetic to workers and young people who support independence, we will campaign to expose the SNP’s pro-big business agenda. An independent Scotland locked into a nightmare of cuts and austerity, inevitable on the basis of capitalism, would not be ‘secure’, ‘stable’ or ‘inclusive’. An independent socialist Scotland linked to the struggle for socialism internationally would be the only long-term viable future.

Even in a multi-option referendum, depending on the proposals on offer, we could support both maximum devolution and independence as legitimate expressions of the desire for a parliament with real powers to tackle austerity and the cuts agenda.

We would demand that the powers of devo max or independence were used for the interests of the majority. For a start, bringing the oil resources of the North Sea into democratic public ownership. This would create a real ‘oil fund’ by releasing hundreds of billions in resources to invest in an emergency programme of job creation, as well as increasing the minimum wage, improving schools and public services.

The SNP’s timid proposals for independence would leave multi-national oil companies with over 70% of the revenue from the North Sea, salted away for private profit. The SNP leadership would scream the house down if even a penny of tax increases were threatened on the oil companies’ profits.

Socialist demands

SOCIALISTS STAND FOR all major industry, including large-scale renewable energy projects, and finance to be publicly owned under the democratic control of the working class and society as a whole. The ruinous policies of privatisation, which drain millions from public services, should also be ended.

We campaign for the minimum wage to be a living wage, not a guarantee of being locked into poverty pay. All anti-union legislation should be abolished. It is being increasingly used against workers taking action to defend themselves against the onslaught on their pensions, jobs and working conditions. We would ensure free education and a living grant for young people and all those studying at college or university - not a life of debt. Everyone should have a living income to end the scandal of poverty and welfare cuts. In short, we stand for a socialist Scotland as the only sustainable answer to the nightmare of cuts and austerity.

In the debate over the future of Scotland, we will fight for the interests of the working class, young people and the elderly to be heard centre-stage. We call on the trade union movement to help build a campaign, independent of the establishment parties, to fight for the necessary powers for the Scottish parliament, up to and including independence, and for those to be used in the interests of the working class.

However, with the SNP and the rest of the political establishment committed to defending the interests of capitalism, we also need to build a new mass party of the working class to fight for a socialist majority in the parliament.

Central to this is the need to stand implacably for the maximum unity of the working class across Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. We oppose any attempts to divide the workers’ movement on national lines. A socialist Scotland as part of a genuine, voluntary and democratic socialist federation with England Wales and Ireland – and as a step towards a socialist Europe – is the only way to end the nightmare of austerity, cuts and capitalism once and for all.

For further reading:

Scotland and the national question (September 2003 - Socialist Party Scotland website)

The end of the union? (March 2007 - Socialism Today No.107)


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