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Scotland and the nationalist left

 

Most of the far left forces in Scotland supported independence. KD Tait looks at how they have followed this through

The decision by most left organisations in Scotland to pose a vote for independence as the way to oppose austerity, defend the NHS and strike a blow at the “establishment” was an opportunist concession to nationalism.

Scotland already has the means to obstruct certain cuts (tuition fees, the bedroom tax, etc.) and will probably soon receive greater freedom to do so by gaining more control over NHS spending.

The demagogy about the English establishment ignores the fact that Scottish capitalists are an integral part of this British establishment. And if Scotland became independent on the SNP’s model there would be an Edinburgh establishment – a Scottish ruling class – to replace the British one.

The pro-independence left ignored the fact that the SNP project is the project of the secondary tier of Scottish capitalists, chafing at the dominance of British and international capital – a project that seeks to win support among the working and lower middle classes for its own independence from dominant capital, at the expense of the working class.

Given the enormous integration of Scottish with British capital, it would undoubtedly remain a subordinate and subservient class to its big brothers, even in an independent Scotland, but no less harsh a master to Scottish and semi-colonial workers.

Most of all this left ignored the fact that the great movements of the working class in Scotland were always advances of a working class united across “borders”, made on the basis of class interest. This was true of the Chartists, the Labour Party, the shop stewards, the early Communist Party, the 1926 General Strike, the miners’ strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984-85, the Poll Tax and the antiwar movement.

They were class struggles, not waged in collaboration with bourgeois nationalists, whose goals are antagonistic to the working class, however much they may dress them up in social democratic language.

Of course “revolutionary” support for a historically regressive, not to say reactionary project of nation building was usually wrapped up in all the right phrases about democracy, anti-imperialism and so on. Perhaps the socialist left counted on the inevitable post-independence SNP austerity provoking spontaneous working class resistance, which they would capitalise on.

Naturally independence as a short cut to a major ruling class offensive is not an easy sell, so they peddled the illusory hope that it would provide a measure of protection. According to the schema, the shattering of these promises would expose the SNP, but not the left. This was a schema whose opportunism was matched only by its dishonesty. Ultimately it amounted to nothing more than “First the nationalists – then us”.

Sheridan

Tommy Sheridan of Solidarity has recently revealed that he is a nationalist before everything else. He has shamefully abandoned any pretence of a class standpoint by calling for a vote for the bourgeois SNP. Let his own words be his condemnation:

In order to maximise the pro-independence vote at next May’s general election, I believe all yes supporters should vote for the SNP and all pro-independence parties should not stand if the SNP candidate will commit to fight for a new referendum as soon as possible AND against all Westminster austerity cuts to welfare and public services. In other words I suggest we in the yes movement promote continued unity by backing the most likely independence supporting candidate at next May’s election. In concrete terms that means advocating an SNP vote to try and unseat a many pro-no party supporters as possible.” (Post on his personal Facebook account)

He will no doubt be delighted then that 20,000 people have joined the SNP in three days – as against considerably less for the revolutionary forces. He is obviously in agreement that an independence coup by an SNP-majority parliament would be a justified. What part of “No” by a 10 per cent margin didn’t he understand?

The idea of breaking with the British establishment has within it the idea that working class forces in Scotland could more easily defeat the bosses if they were on their own. Such a schema underestimates the capacity of a victorious nationalist ruling class to demand sacrifices from a working class whose consciousness had been soaked in Scottish patriotism.

It would be able to blame all its problems on foreigners (probably still “the English”). Is it likely such appeal would fall on deaf ears? After all in newly independent Ireland most trade unionists and socialists accepted the nationalist leaders’ insistence that “Labour must wait”.

Doesn’t it occur to these people that the working class in a new Scottish state will also be smaller, less powerful and less able to resist global capital’s counter-offensive? There are many small capitalist countries in the world, but they do not always appear at the top of the class struggle league tables because of that.

Quite the opposite. In fact a successful revolution in a small country, even more than in a large one, would have to expand beyond its borders to survive. And a working class that has drunk so headily from the nationalist glass is not best placed to recognise this.

The frenzied propaganda for independence by the left – even when presented as an act of resistance to austerity – was in fact displacement activity on an epic scale. It could have been a massive rallying of Scottish workers and youth to take direct action against all the cuts and austerity. If indeed Scottish workers are more socialist, as the social nationalists claim, then such a campaign would indeed have acted as a beacon to everyone in the UK and started a revolt that could have driven the Coalition from power.

The problem is that the left forces who advocated independence are themselves largely to blame for the weakened state of the working class resistance to austerity. Having squabbled for years in their competing anti-cuts front campaigns, they managed to unite only once the nationalist section of Scottish capitalism gave them a lead to follow.

Podemos panacea

The success of the Yes campaign in mobilising active participation has left the pro-independence left with a problem – how to crystalise the thousands of activists drawn around them into an organisation now that independence is off the table? This is particularly so for the Radical Independence Campaign – an alliance including the Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Greens.

Some on the left, like the International Socialist Group, have a model they think could transform the part of the yes campaign that was not directly hegemonised by the SNP. Their model is the Spanish party, Podemos, which though scarcely 100 days old won 1.2 million votes and five seats in the European elections in May.

This experiment claims to offer a “new kind of politics” which rejects the traditional terminology and symbolism of the left – no socialism, no red flags, just radical democracy and defence of the welfare state.

For the Podemos leadership clique around the Madrid Complutense university intellectuals, not only is the working class dumped as the main agency of social change, but its traditions totally compromised by the distortions of Stalinism and social democracy. This leaves only one solution and not a new one: “classless” populism. For the iconoclastic anti-party left in Britain this can dovetail nicely with multi-class nationalism in Scotland.

But adopting the populist demagogy of left nationalists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales is an uninspiring model for rebuilding a fighting organisation of the Scottish, or British working class. The massive mobilisation of activists in the referendum campaign was an impressive achievement, if for the wrong goals. The sequel – sweeping them up into a demagogic, populist party – would be a disaster.

Scottish Labour and a new party

Such a perspective also ignores one crucial matter: the labour movement. And it was this force, however sclerotic and ham-fisted its campaign, which defeated the independence movement.

True, up to now the Scottish Labour Party has been paralysed by its slavish adherence to the minimalist social liberal politics of the UK party. But Gordon Brown’s intervention makes it clear that north of the border at least the Labour Party has to fight for its life against the SNP. It is very likely to reclaim its Old Labour, perhaps even its socialist clothes. The SNP will not forever be able to steer to its left.

It will not be easy to displace the Labour Party and tear up its roots in the trade movement either with an amorphous populist organisation or by slipstreaming the SNP, as Tommy Sheridan wants to do.

In fact the latter would be a terrible step away from class politics altogether. But the Podemos route is in the end no better. It too is substituting or at best subordinating the determining factor of class politics to the spreading of democratic as well as nationalist illusions.

In fact the whole project – undertaken by the two main far-left groups in the late 1990s – of forming independent parties in Scotland and espousing independence has proved disastrous. To continue down this path will lead irrevocably to their complete liquidation into bourgeois nationalism.

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2 Responses to Scotland and the nationalist left

  1. John Penney

    October 31, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Yes, this article is absolutely spot on in every comment it makes on the truly gobsmacking capitulation of most of the “radical” Left in Scotland, and all too many in the UK generally, to the siren appeal of grossly simplistic opportunistic Left nationalism.

    As an emblematic example of the political degeneration that this adoption of Left nationalism in the place of class politics generally, and the analytical power of Marxism in particular, has wrought on supposed Leftists – I suggest a quick read through of the (admittedly long and turgid) rubbish produced by the supposed “Constitution Commission” (ie, Steve Freeman and his “Republican Socialist cronies) for the November Left Unity Policy Conference. The entire proposal seems to exist in a bourgeois Liberal circa 1814 timewarp – before an organised mass working class movement had appeared, or Marxist socialism either. It is a form of entirely bourgeois liberal analysis owes everything to Thomas Pain of “Rights of Man” fame and the radical bourgeois liberals who formulated the US Constitution, with nothing whatsoever to do with socialist thought. Where is the recognition of social class and class struggle, the inevitable imbalance of power between the capitalist class and every other voting “citizen” in any capitalist state, no matter how “democratic” the constitution ? Nowhere mentioned.

    With selective political Alzeimers Disease like this afflicting sections of the Left it is, as the article says, ever more important to steer decisively Left, to socialist internationalism and class struggle, and to reject the opportunism and political infantilism of Left Nationalism.

  2. ian hill

    October 8, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    i was still living in the Highlands during the campaign and vote and despaired as I tried to involve myself in the campaign. I tried to find anyone who campaigned for a ‘no’ (or abstention, I wasn’t sure but I hate abstaining on anything) vote. I was shocked to see the enthusiasm with which the left saw a ‘yes’ vote almost as an anti-capitalist struggle. it baffled me how a vote for a nationalist party which has no anti-capitalists credentials in a country where its own ruling class have co-operated for years in condemning millions of workers to deaths in world wars or harsh austerity programmes.

    What irony! Apparently the largest amount of registered voters in Scottish history is to be utilised by SCOTTISH councils, many lead by the SNP to chase up rent and even poll tax arrears.

    This highlights yet again that there is no alternative to a class not ‘nationalist’ fightback against cuts and austerity. I hope to see all those on the left whose undoubted energy revitalised politics during the campaign now focus their energy on trying to form a new anti-capitalist Workers Party in Scotland and throughout Britain. Thanks for this article, it actually cheered me up to read some sense for once.

    cheers

    ian

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