The narrow defeat of the Scottish independence referendum was seen as a relief by the core of the British ruling class. But in a sense, it is a relief for partisans of the working class also. To the superficially minded, this may seem illogical or incongruous. How can what seems like a victory for the core of the ruling class not be a defeat for the working class? A pointer to this is contained in a salient point once made by the Russian Revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky:
“In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat.” (Learn To Think: A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists, May 1938)
The British ruling class, in its dotage in terms of capitalist de-development and decline, is no longer able to guarantee the coherence of its own national state in the face of centrifugal nationalist forces, including some within its own class, and faces a real possibility of state fragmentation. This might be true, but that does not make it a progressive development.
More to the point is that there is a historically constituted working class on the island of Great Britain, which has in living memory engaged in major waves of class struggle in a coordinated manner across the borders of England, Scotland and Wales. It is not in the interest of the working class to fragment along national lines just because bourgeois politics is tending to manifest that tendency. For the working class, unity is strength, and it is in our interests as a class to seek the greatest possible voluntary unity of the working class of different nations. National antagonisms are poison to the working class movement. In the absence of a good reason to do so, in terms of overcoming a real situation of oppression or some other existing deep divisions in the class, to advocate separation of workers into different states is to advocate destroying what working class unity actually exists. Even if class struggle is at a very low ebb, that remains the case.
It is a sign of the weakness, not primarily organisational but political, of the existing left both in England and Scotland, that so many of them failed to make these elementary points. Indeed, many did exactly the opposite, from the SWP to the Socialist Party, to the remnants of both sides of the Scottish Socialist Party split, to smaller left fragments like Chris Bambery’s International Socialist Group, and the feeble rump of United Secretariat people in England and Scotland. All basically gave up on the working class struggle across this island and advocated Scottish independence as a supposed short-cut to a miniature social-democratic utopia.
Of course, even within the working class movement, many of those against campaigned for Scottish independence were reformists whose propaganda was flawed by British nationalism. The most obvious being the Morning Star/Communist Party of Great Britain, whose formally correct position on this issue is a bit like a stopped clock – right twice a day, but otherwise completely wrong. The chauvinism against the EU characteristic of this party is hardly conductive to working class unity on a broader scale, as shown by their initiation of the No2EU in the past two European elections. Trotsky’s warning about the incorrect strategy of putting a minus where the ruling class puts a plus also applies to these Stalinists.
A more left-wing reformist is George Galloway, who to his credit in the early days of No2EU, refused to support this campaign because of its anti-European nationalism. The Respect MP campaigned tirelessly against separation, independently of the chauvinist ‘Better Together’ crowd. Instead of indulging in their kind of chauvinistic bullying and scaremongering about the terrible consquences of independence for Scotland economically, he put basic and correct working class arguments about the need to defeat the bosses across the whole of this island through class unity. His arguments were marred to a limited extent by his utopianism over the Second World War – the argument that together ‘we’ (the English, Scots, Welsh) etc. beat Hitlerite fascism. I suspect this did not mean very much to today’s young people and was something of a blank shot.
But such was his effectiveness that in desperation, after the opinion polls turned briefly in favour of separation a week or two before the actual referendum, the No campaign turned to Galloway to represent them in the final BBC Question Time show before the vote, in a setting that was more like a large public rally than the usual format. How effective this was is not entirely clear, he was possibly slightly below par, though this may be explained because he had only just over a week sustained a vicious assault and battery at the hands of a Zionist thug in London. But the SNP were incensed and some claimed that Galloway had accused them of being Nazis, a nonsensical allegation that they could not substantiate from the programme itself.
Such antics are beneath Galloway, who however flawed and linked to the need for a ‘real’ Labour government across the UK, hardly a genuine strategy to abolish capitalism, at least put forward some arguments with real working class content against the nationalists, including the ‘left’ fringe.
However, they are not beneath some of the more stupid elements on the centrist left. the Weekly Worker/CPGB. The actual political line they (or rather their majority) advocated was utterly absurd and pathetic, calling for a boycott of the independence referendum, which in the real world (as opposed to craven self-delusion) meant that they were indifferent whether Scotland broke away from the UK or not, and indifferent to the inevitable result from such a break of a deep schism in the working class movement in these islands. To cover this craven nonsense, as the referendum approached, some of the propaganda they aimed at the issue got more and more demented, with some of the illusory left-social democratic nonsense of the Scottish left, Sheridan etc, being compared with fascists and the Nazi party, and in particular “Benito Mussolini, Joseph Goebbels and Gregor Strasser” (see Jack Conrad’s article on Yes campaign: In false colours, Weekly Worker, 11 Sept.)
This is utter demented crap, and reminiscent of third period and Maoist ‘fascist’-baiting of rivals on the left. it is also a form of political Tourette’s, a feeble verbal tic, a sign of a contradiction in the organisation of the CPGB, and possibly even of a cleavage in the psychology of its author. For if the Yes campaign, and even or especially its most left-wing exponents, can be validly compared with Mussolini and Hitler’s henchmen, why then did Conrad not even dare to advocate a No vote to this terrible thing? Perhaps Conrad might retort that voting is powerless in face of such a threat, thus digging himself deeper into a third-period hole. Or perhaps he does not want to venture that near to bedlam … as yet.
It is a pathetic example of an attempt to compensate for programmatic weakness by verbal violence. The programmatic impact of the CPGB’s abstentionist position, apart from its indifference to separation itself, is that it fails in programmatic terms to burn its bridges to either side. It can be all things to all people, or perhaps engage in a tame and meaningless platonic ‘tactical’ disagreement with both sides while pretending in its own mind to be ultra-‘radical’. It was interesting to observe the way this question developed in the CPGB, having gained some access to its internal political life during the period of my bloc with them in the Communist Platform.
This is a riven organisation, with three or four hacks who really will lie blatantly in political debates when it suits them. Then there is a slightly less-central layer who fear conflict, and seek to hold the organisation together. Such people can be partly won over in debate over things like the Scottish independence referendum, because they have some real sense of political reality. But as soon as pressure is applied by the hacks, they spring back, and will renounce their recent rationality with a fervour. The hope of the organisation is that there is a younger layer, and also several middle-level cadre of real independence of mind, who though they are politically soft on the hacks and their critique is sometimes less than fully robust, nevertheless do have a window on social reality outside of the environs of Hampstead Heath and therefore are likely to find themselves at loggerheads with Conrad’s ‘eccentricities’ again in the future. Those who develop their own independent view of social reality through experience are always a danger to the leaders of left-wing cults and sects.
In the aftermath of the referendum result, and the promises of ‘devo max’ that were made by the No side in a desperate attempt to shore up the union, there is now some disarray both in the Tory/Liberal coalition, and in the Labour Party. Salmond has stepped down now that his referendum plan has failed. The Tory ranks are in revolt, this time not over Europe, but over ‘devo max’ concessions made by Cameron (and the other parties of course). They are demanding the exclusion of Scottish MP’s from deciding matters concerning England, the old ‘West Lothian question’. This is implicitly pointing to possible attempts of the Tories to use English nationalism as a weapon in the General Election, or, alternatively, to this being another issue that can pull the Tories in different directions as with Europe.
The demand for an English parliament is implicit in this, and is a deeply reactionary idea that must be opposed. You can sort of imagine UKIP going for this in terms of right-wing populism, except that it might be viewed by them as a dangerous innovation that itself could foster centrifugal forces leading to more threats to the unity of the UK.
Labour meanwhile is in a different quandry. In solidly working class Glasgow, historically its heartland, the majority of the electorate voted Yes. Not only that, but their performance was so lacklustre that they had to rely on hitherto despised figures such as Gordon Brown, seeking to re-invent himself as something to the left of his role as Blair’s neo-liberal sidekick and rival. They even had to turn to Galloway for help at the end of the campaign. The possibility of a Tory campaign to exclude Scottish MPs’ votes from ‘English’ issues could potentially cripple a future Labour government, even though for reasons of self-interest such proposals will likely be vetoed by the Lib Dems prior to the General Election.
Democratic demands and socialism
All this leads to a fraught mix. There are democratic deficits on this island even in formal, bourgeois terms. These can create divisions in the working class, and exacerbate existing divisions, making united working class struggle against capitalism more difficult. Thus we need to raise democratic solutions to such questions – we cannot just leave them till after a future revolution. Since such questions are among the many obstacles to such a revolution, failing to advance solutions here and now only helps these obstacles pile up higher.
A federal republic would seem like a a reasonable demand to make, giving the right to secede formal constitutional status and thus helping cement a genuine, voluntary unity. But there is one important drawback, and that is the question of the English parliament. Given the lop-sided social and economic development of England over the last several decades, an English parliament will be dominated by the South East and London, which means neo-liberal, overtly capitalist forces, sucking the blood out of the rest of the country. This is profoundly undemocratic, and needs to be done away with.
A federal republic of England, Wales, and a federation of autonomous English regions could be a real democratic advance in that sense, with regional assemblies in the North, Midlands, South West, Cornwall, as well as London/South East, having devolved to them similar powers to devo-max in Scotland (and Wales). Only the overall finances of the federation should be in federal hands, and this should be dealt out on the basis of equal say for all components of this federation, not London domination through Westminster as now. Much of this idea has yet to be elaborated, but it needs to be linked with a political re-arming of the working class through the use of democratic slogans, combining them with economic demands and demands for freedom from Britain’s oppressive, anti-working class, Thatcherite trade union laws.
Obviously this need to be linked to a much broader programme for working class state power, and the abolition of the repressive forces of the state that defend capitalism. That is somewhat beyond the scope of this article, but hopefully it does provide some pointers in that direction.