Scotland, again

[Saturday]

I thought I’d write a bit more on the Scottish elections and the case for breaking up Britain; I’m not so sure I nailed it the last time. By the way: an “independent international expert” is to be appointed by the Electoral Commission to investigate the farcical elections to the Scottish Parliament. Hmm… Will the 140,000 discounted votes be recognised? An investigation into the role of the Electoral Commission is needed, too.

Incessant talking
Negotiations for a coalition of the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens have resulted in an agreement guaranteeing Alex Salmond as First Minister in the Holyrood parliament. The length of the negotiations suggests that they were drawn out to lure the Liberal Democrats. So far, no good: the Liberals aren’t biting, and will not enter talks until the SNP abandons its promise of holding a referendum on independence within the next four years. I would bet that the Liberals are plotting with Labour to scupper the formation of a minority nationalist government.

Though it would still be a minority government, a coalition of the SNP and the Greens would be unconstrained by Unionist politics: the Greens are impendent from their sister party in England and Wales, after all. If the Liberals come on board, chances of independence go overboard. There are rumours that when (or if) Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister he will seek a deal with the Liberal to cling to power – the next general election could result in a hung parliament, and they would be Labour’s natural ally.

Lose the plot
The SNP leadership could give up the hope of independence, no problem. It has already been delayed as an issue; their stated intention is a referendum within the next four years, probably at the end of the term. Formally abandoning a commitment to Scottish independence would undermine the party’s credibility and demoralise its activists. The leadership would only be able to dump the party’s stated objective, its reason for being, if they kept losing elections.

There are suspicions that the SNP might end up as a regionalist party: an electoral entity carving out a niche for itself in an area that has a strong cultural identity. Don’t get me wrong, I believe Scotland is a nation, not a region of Britain. But the end result for the SNP might consist of a settlement with Westminster rather than a split. I stress might.

A civil war
A decisive break with Britain is not on the cards; we can expect years of guerrilla warfare between the Scottish government of Alex Salmond and the British government of Gordon Brown. It will be warfare, but it’s hard to tell how bitter it will become. Asked if he could work with Brown, Salmond replied brusquely in the affirmative. The interviewer, Channel 4’s Jon Snow, was surprised at the brevity of his answer. Thinking about it, I wonder if Salmond and Brown have a lot in common.

Consider: both men are Scots who have moved from a hard left position to the centre-left, abandoning a commitment to socialism and accepting the rule of the bourgeoisie. Perhaps that’s where the similarities end. Salmond comes across as a shrewder political operative; he has charm and is more obviously humorous. Brown seems a more shadowy figure, forever crunching numbers and scheming against his colleagues; he is not entirely humorous, it’s just his jokes are as technical as his speeches.

Gordon Brown said at the launch of his leadership campaign on May 11 that he would not work with someone who wanted to break up Britain. Brown’s embrace of Britishness would be made all the more embarrassing by the presence of Alex Salmond as First Minister. It will seem odd to English voters, who are more supportive of Scottish independence than Scots, that Brown is cheerleading the Union. Salmond made much of Brown’s assertion that he would not work with a Scottish nationalist, originally made during the elections, correctly inferring that Labour were supportive of the Holyrood parliament – as long as it was led by Labour.

Brown will struggle to lead his party at all, if he has clumsy with open politics with the dark arts, Salmond will beat him easily. A constitutional settlement could be won, and would be offered if there was the prospect of a yes vote in an independence referendum. (And especially if it appeared that a Scottish state would encroach on the rights of capital.) But if the SNP have to go forward as a minority government and find their programme is blocked by the other parties, it may strengthen support for independence and make the SNP more “fundamentalist”.

I suspect that the British government will adopt the position, in the event of the emergence of a clear majority in favour of a split with the UK, that the Scots cannot leave the Union. The argument would be that there is no precedent for secession without a referendum in the whole territory. This would be an opportunistic, especially in light of the UK’s support for the “independence” of Kosovo against Serbian public opinion. If this line was trotted out, it would have to be trotted in again: there is not widespread opposition to Scottish independence.

Catching a Celtic Tiger
Whatever happens, it is certain that the SNP are not looking to develop an entirely new model – forget Scottish answers for Scottish problems – their wealthy backers are happy with the promises of low tax economy like that of the Republic of Ireland. If the SNP are leading it, the national democratic revolution will not spill into a socialist revolution.

The derogatory description of the SNP on the left has traditionally been Tartan Tories; implying that the Scottish nationalists were One Nation conservatives, only the nation in question was not Britain. That the progressive gloss of the SNP’s programme has been so easy to apply is entirely down to the reactionary nature of New Labour. Fifty two years of Labour hegemony in Scotland have ended because New Labour has failed to deliver, not what it promised, but what the people expected of it. It has taken a long time for people to understand the truth of New Labour: that it is no longer a social democratic party.

It was amazing to see how close the Scottish TUC came backing the SNP in the 2007 elections. Not because the SNP are going to advance the interests of workers above the interests of bosses, but because there is so much opposition to Labour. Labour and the Tories are indistinguishable, in fact, Cameron’s young Blair take-off and hazy feel-good vibe appears more progressive.

I would never suggest that Scottish workers are inherently more advanced than those in England. Evidence does suggest a higher level of class consciousness in Scotland, though. It is manifested in higher levels of unionisation (perhaps because of higher levels of public sector employment) and stronger opposition to the continued presence of the armed forces in the Middle East. The new Trident missile system faces more opposition in Scotland, but then, it will be based in the country rather than England.

It’s been pointed out that the rich individuals who backed the SNP financially do not profit from the imperialist wars in the Middle East, so pulling out of Iraq and/or Afghanistan won’t hit their pockets. For sure, what the SNP’s backers are after is a carbon copy of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger: neo-liberalism, not national liberation.

A better process
An independent Scotland, or an effectively independent Scottish Parliament, would lead to demands by the national bourgeoisie for greater investment and less regulation, and anti-monopoly measures might go unopposed by the national bourgeoisie if accompanied by measures to cut ‘red tape’ – reducing form-filling and other administrative measures, not the rights of workers and consumers – on small and medium enterprises. There might also be the possibility of the state giving low-interest loans to small- and medium-sized enterprises on condition of environmental sustainability and the provision of some form of workplace democracy.

These would be reforms, and not ends in themselves – they would placate the national capitalists and petty-bourgeoisie and would free up space for the self-activity of the working-class. And those gains that were won in Scotland would galvanise workers in England and Wales, and vice versa. But this scenario is predicated on a revival of the socialist movement in Scotland – which looks unlikely at the moment.

W’happen?
If the Scottish National Party’s reforms are implemented they would be progressive: replacing the council tax with a local income tax would ease the burden on many low- and fixed-income households; student grants would be allow students from poorer families to stay in education; scrapping Trident would be a blow to the military power of British imperialism; there would be a withdrawal of military forces from the Middle East, and the army of an independent Scotland would be less likely to be part of the occupying coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tragedy is that there is no socialist presence in the Scottish parliament to hold the SNP to account and the minority nationalist government may find that its reforms are blocked by the Unionist parties.

Scottish independence, if it came about tomorrow, would most likely lead to the creation of a capitalist state, within the European Union if not the Eurozone. To prevent the capital flight that Unionists warn of and to attract investment, an independent Scotland would have low business taxes and would not countenance the restoration of workers’ rights unless there was strong pressure from below. It is unlikely that an independent Scotland could return to the paradigm of ‘welfare capitalism’ – neo-liberalism would still prevail, albeit stalled by the need to placate the population with reforms.

The demands for a strengthening of the powers of the Welsh Assembly would grow and could lead to the complete break-up of the UK as a centralised state, with the Westminster parliament acting as an English Parliament and the Welsh Assembly becoming the parliament of Wales, in a form of federation or as three separate states. The Labour Party would be shattered by this in England, and the Conservative Party would be weakened in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales. With no United Kingdom with which to unite, there would be the possibility of a united Ireland, with the six counties financial interests lying with the South.

Participation
The chances of electoral reform and a written constitution might increase in coming years. Certainly, proportional representation and an instant-runoff single-transferable vote would allow socialists intervene in elections in England more effectively. If the promises of legislation to allow citizens’ initiatives in Wales by Plaid Cymru are fulfilled, there would be an appetite for similar electoral reforms in England and Scotland.

The citizens’ initiative involves a referendum is being held on an issue if a certain number of people sign a petition and would allow particularly contentious legislation to be brought before the electorate. Naturally, this would allow propertied interests to bring about challenges to progressive measures. But that is not to say well-funded petition drives aimed at cutting health and welfare spending and increasing defence and police spending would be successful. The indirect representation that currently exists in Parliament allows lobbying to be conducted behind closed doors and entrenched interests are not forced to argue their case overtly, and it is harder to resist regressive or repressive legislation or hold legislators to account.

Independence and Scotland and Wales would cause a constitutional crisis in England – primarily due to the absence of a written constitution. The need for some kind of settlement, on the part of a weakened bourgeoisie, might result in social rights being enshrined in law as part of written constitutions in England, Scotland and Wales.

Ideally, the process of drawing up these constitutions would be fully democratic. This is to say, elections would be held to a Constitutional Assembly. Its members would then proceed to draw up a constitution and which would be presented to the electorate in a referendum. The process of advancing national liberation towards socialism has taken this route in Ecuador and Venezuela, the latter’s 1999 constitution forming the basis for a shift towards a more participatory democracy through the enshrining of the citizens’ initiative and the right to recall elected officials, including the President.

In-conclusive
The argument that the break-up of Britain would break up the working class is unconvincing. However, as it stands, independence for Scotland would be illusory as it would become a member of the European Union and thus subject to EU law.

British national identity is coming unravelled and though it was only a matter of time, devolution may be partly to blame, as is the failure of the Labour Party in power to placate its base. This leaves some problems, for example in terms of the identity of immigrant communities who have traditionally identified as British – but this might just be a semantic issue.

The case for independence is amounts to more than weakening imperialism or allowing national self-determination; independence would strengthen the electoral representation of the working class. Though currently there are no workers’ parties represented in either the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, this situation is sure to change and in order to placate the workers in Scotland, the SNP and the Greens will introduce some beneficial reforms. The socialist movement in Scotland will have to work out whether it can afford to be divided at this crucial time. I hope that socialists in Scotland can unite in the future to dispel any illusions in the SNP and fight for a truly independent and socialist Scotland.

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