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Interview: why voting for Scottish independence is not a way forward

Sandy McBurney, Glasgow South Left Unity member, talks to Workers Power about why he is against voting for Scottish independence in the upcoming referendum on 18 September

Workers Power (WP): What effect do you think independence would have on the unity of workers north and south of the border?

Sandy McBurney (SB): It is obvious that the unity of the working class across Britain would be weakened. Firstly, if a Yes vote is achieved, the common project of establishing a workers’ government in Britain, which is implicit in the organisation of a labour movement, would have suffered a major setback at the hands of the Scottish nationalists and their project of winning Scottish workers to support an independent capitalist Scotland.

The main culprits responsible for this defeat would be the trade union and labour bureaucracy, and in particular the New Labour project of Blair and Brown, which so far has succeeded in marginalising the working class voice in British politics.

The goal must be to combine workers together to oppose the dictates of capital by forming themselves into a class – and this is something that will have to be fought for in the teeth of opposition from the labour bureaucracy, whose aim is to restrict working class self-activity to that which is compatible with the continuation of capitalist rule.

Secondly, the success of the Yes campaign would mean the victory of nationalism over class-consciousness in the heartlands of the working class in Scotland. It would be a sign that workers in Scotland no longer identify themselves as part of the British labour movement.

Thirdly, as a result there would be a trend towards separate Scottish trade unions, which are likely to be even more dominated by class-collaboration politics than the existing UK-wide unions.

Fourthly, the Marxist project of a British-wide socialist party fighting to give political answers to the struggles of the working class in Britain and beyond would also suffer a major setback. Already much of the old left in Scotland have rejected the idea of a British-wide socialist party, opting for a Scottish “left” party in favour of giving support to the anti-working class independence project of a section of the Scottish bosses led by the SNP government. So a Yes vote will signify a setback for working class solidarity, strength and class-consciousness.

WP: Why do you think the independence lobby is gaining support, particularly from the poorer strata of society and the youth?

SB: The support for independence has grown, but only a minority of the working class backs a Yes vote at present. It is also doing poorly among first-time voters and women, where support for independence in the latest polls is at 29 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively. However, some working class people are becoming desperate, especially given the attacks on their living standards. As elsewhere in the UK, we are seeing a rise in food banks, zero-hour contracts, benefit sanctions, rents are increasing, etc.

The labour movement and its leadership are not offering any real fightback. It is dominated by middle class careerists, who are totally subservient to big business and the establishment. Given the absence of a working class fightback in Britain currently, as well as the experience of the anti-working class nature of the last New Labour government and its subservience to finance capital, sections of the working class in Scotland see little alternative than to vote for the independence project. The SNP claims that independence will create a fairer society, and people in bad situations need hope. The snake oil salesmen have a market for their wares.

Remember, however, the majority of the working class still doesn’t support the call for Scottish independence. Among those workers who do support independence, the support is weak and not based on any great enthusiasm – it is widely understood that Scots do not suffer national oppression within Britain. The independence project of the SNP has always been based on keeping the working class quiescent. There has never been any mass working class action for independence – no strikes or mass demonstrations.

WP: In your opinion, have the pro-independence socialists conceded ground to nationalism? If so, in what ways have they done this?

SB: I think it would be more accurate to say that the pro-independence socialist groups have transformed themselves into left nationalist groups. Their function is no longer to promote working class solidarity and class-consciousness, but rather to attempt to sell to workers the anti-working class neoliberal independence project of the SNP by painting it as “progressive” or as a step towards socialism – or even as a major blow against imperialism.

The trend to nationalism is obvious, from flying the Saltire on Mayday to slogans such as the Radical Independence Campaign’s “Britain is for the rich; Scotland can be ours.”

Let’s be clear, the left nationalist groups (Scottish Socialist Party, International Socialist Group, Socialist Party Scotland, Solidarity, etc) are supporting the project of an important section of the Scottish establishment – the project of an independent capitalist Scotland. Unlike Marxists, they are not fighting for the political independence of the working class from the forces of capital but quite the opposite: the continued subordination of workers to the ideology of their bosses – nationalism.

The left groups have downplayed or dropped any criticism of the SNP government or its white paper on independence during the referendum campaign, in case it may harm the Yes vote. When the SNP government recently voted down (with Tory support) a Labour motion in Holyrood for the living wage to be paid on all Scottish government contracts, the left nationalist groups disgracefully stayed silent on the matter.
Of course, it is important that socialists give no support to the Better Together Campaign, and stress that we are for the unity of the British working class and are fierce opponents of the British state and its imperialist role around the world.

Most workers who support a Yes vote do so in the hope that things will be fairer if independence is achieved. We have to reach these workers with the argument that in order to defend their interests we need workers unity with our comrades south of the border. What will not bring pro-working class reforms is “unity” with the likes of [Stagecoach bosses] Brian Souter, George Mathewson and Rupert Murdoch!

WP: If there is a Yes vote, what do you think are the main tasks facing socialists in Scotland the day after the referendum?

SB: If the majority of Scottish people vote for independence, we must defend their right to national self-determination if it comes under attack from Westminster. I think such an attack is very unlikely, even given the fact that bourgeoisie politics are more unstable and populist than in the past (witness the rise of UKIP).

However, during the negotiation process between Westminster and Holyrood to divide assets and liabilities, which is expected to last at least 18 months, there is a real danger that chauvinists on both sides of the border will stir up national antagonisms over the terms of the “divorce”. This could be a very difficult time for socialist politics since what is a fair and democratic division of resources between the two capitalist states is difficult to determine, and the fact that socialist politics do not thrive in periods of national antagonism.

We must strive to maintain the existing unity of the working class in Britain and promote a common struggle against austerity and “our” respective rulers. There is a real danger that during the negotiation period the left nationalist groups may try to “out nationalist” the SNP by posing as the real defenders of the Scottish “people”. There are already signs of this, with a leading member of Radical Independence Campaign calling for hard negotiations so that the Scottish people get their fair share, which apparently includes 22 stops of the London underground!

We should continue to argue for a British-wide socialist party and the need to create a united socialist party of the working class in Europe. I think that very quickly after a Yes vote the pro-independence wing of the working class in Scotland will lose any illusions it has in the progressive nature of an independent capitalist Scotland.

However, there is also a danger that the reality of independence may simply lead to a period of further demoralisation and atomisation of the mass of the working class. This is an outcome we must fight hard against.

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