For nearly a dozen years the Scottish Left Review has worked hard to remain an ‘open space’, somewhere that people from the left can come to for debate and discussion irrespective of their own party political position (or lack of one) and where differences of opinion can be shared and not shouted. In many ways it has been remarkably easy – we have found the Scottish left, on most issues, to be much more united in its views than many believe. On the big themes which have dominated the decade (the abuse of corporate power, the financial corruption of politics, the attacks on civil liberties, inequality, war and peace) there has been a fairly strong agreement on both analysis and action required. But there have been two exceptions. One was the acrimony around the breakup of the SSP and almost anything to do with the Sheridan trial. But the other, the most enduring difficultly we have found in striking editorial balance, has been the issue of independence. So in the spirit of seeking to maintain that ‘open space’ we have been cautious on the constitutional issue.
But for what are the most obvious of reasons, we – and the Scottish left – cannot be too cautious any more. There needs to be a real debate about Scotland’s constitutional future and it needs to be embedded in the wider question of Scotland’s political future. Until now the debate has been unduly skewed towards the usual corporate-induced questions. So we have heard whether big business likes independence or doesn’t like independence. We have heard whether economists believe an independent Scotland to be a good neoliberal bet (can we balance our budgets and keep tax down like a good pupil). We have been invited to the Tartan Tea Party – would an independent Scotland result in financial gain for you and your family as if the sole role of the nation is to stuff your purse. But these are the three gangs responsible for our current economic woes – the big business lobby, the neoliberal bean-counters and those who measure success solely in individualist terms. Scotland contains within it the multitude of humanities of the 21st century nation and the rich tapestry of everything from our arts and culture to our enduring poverty. This multitude deserves more than a shouting match within the tiny minority which sit atop.
The argument simply can’t be seen as cut-and-dried. Right now we can look at the UK and see opposing evidence. Just as the Tory-LibDem Government proposes to reduce workers’ defence from unfair dismissal even further, so the trade unions are balloting for what on November 30 could be the biggest day of strike action in Britain since the General Strike. On the one hand we see that government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich is transforming Britain into a Latin American ‘hire them in the morning, fire them at night’ casualised economy. On the other we see the prospect for a mass-movement of working people collectively showing that there are forces within the UK with the potential to bring change if they can work together effectively and with focus. Would an independent Scotland be any less inclined to offer policies sympathetic to business interests? Or would a mass-movement of workers in Scotland have more chance of influencing an independent government in Edinburgh than they current UK-wide movement has of altering the mind of Whitehall? These are real questions to debate.
And so this issue has two goals. One is to try and redefine the debate in new terms, asking not what would be the fate of corporation tax in the ‘two possible Scotlands’ but what vision would each offer for a better nation for its people. And the other was to seek to ask the question ‘but what is the relationship between the left and the constitution anyway?’. We shall begin here with the latter.
As many of you reading this will know, we put a poll round our regular readers. We emails 500 peoplr asking them to vote for or against independence (only one vote per email address) to which half responded – almost exactly 250 of you. The result was that 74 per cent of you would vote for independence and 26 per cent of you would vote against. At a three-to-one majority, it would certainly seem that the readership of the Scottish Left Review sees more opportunity than threat in constitutional change, but still there is a significant minority which see smore threat than opportunity.
There are 193 member states of the United Nations. Only Scotland appears to have a problem with what ‘nation’ means. This silly smokescreen is wasting everyone’s time.
As another attempt to make some sort of judgement on where lies the left on the independence question we asked a young Glasgow activist who himself was undecided but slightly sceptical about independence to investigate the views of a range of people and organisations. Organisations were approached to see if they had agreed a position, individuals (from both sides of the debate and none) were asked what they thought was happening. The outcome of this is (unsurprisingly) not exactly conclusive but nevertheless offers some clear indications. If the question is ‘does the left support independence’ there is more hesitancy. The left-of-centre political parties (with the exception of Labour) support independence but the issue may not be at the top of every party member’s agenda. The campaigning sector may not always have instinctively supported independence but a high degree of disillusionment with London-based politics makes it hard to find people wedded to political union and has moved many doubters (especially around anti-war and civil liberties issues) towards a pro-independence stance. And the trade unions appear to find themselves caught between ties and relationships instinctively unionist, a membership base many believe to be increasingly hostile to Westminster policy and the prospect of a potentially long period of anti-worker Tory rule in Britain.
It is when the question is reversed that the picture becomes perhaps a bit more telling. If you ask the question ‘but who on the left will come out and campaign for a No vote’ the outcome appears less ambiguous. The view was expressed more than once that even among (for example) Labour-supporting trade union activists the enthusiasm to come out fighting to save the union we have is lacking. This is of course not a finding anyone should consider conclusive – there will be leading figures on (or identified with) the left who will be vocal advocates for a No vote. But generally, it looks like a ‘No’ campaign will be fighting from the centre and from the right.
And so we come to our other focus – how do we get the debate on the constitution out of the realm of the neoliberal, corporatist and individualist agenda and towards a positive, people-focussed agenda on greater equality, greater (real) democracy and values other than financial ones? In this issue we have positive cases for and against by Neil Findlay and Tommy Kane and Stephen Maxwell. Both make a valiant case – let’s have more of this and less party-political sniping. But in encouraging this perhaps it might be possible to propose some sort of ‘ground rules’ to encourage a more positive debate.
But before a discussion of ground rules, a brief mention of the battle under way. The following might be a contentious point, but it is worth considering whose campaign has begun and where it has reached. Contrary to the comment we see in the (usually) London-based media, the UK is not ‘sleepwalking’ into independence. That would suggest that supporters of the union have been lax in taking the argument against independence into the public domain. In fact, this is one part of their argument – that somehow the constitutional agenda is being driven without proper public debate. In reality, it is the independence supporters who have been slow to start a campaign – the ‘No’ campaign has been underway fairly relentlessly since 1999 (Divorce being an expensive business and all that). In fact, the No campaign is in full flight – there is no day when a blast-from-the-past like Michael Forsyth or a small-squeak-from-nowhere like Danny Alexander can’t be found in the paper, never knowingly under-hyped on the similarities between supporters of independence and crypto-fascists. In fact, at the end of 2011 there is little sign of a Yes campaign, or at least not much more than by-the-numbers press releases from SNP politicians. So if the following sound a bit more focussed on the approach by opponents of independence it is simple a function of who has been doing the talking…
Numbers prove nothing. Despite everything we have learned since the banks fell apart in 2007, some people still believe that numbers prove things. In part this is because people misunderstand the difference between mathematics (a pure science) and statistics (a sequence of assumptions built on a guess balanced on a number). Of such things is neoliberalism built – don’t think, count. And since we live in a logical system in which a neoliberal economist can ‘revise’ growth projections three times in a month and still have the temerity to refer to them as ‘projections’, we need to recognise that numbers are only echos of something that has happened in the past. This does not mean that numbers are irrelevant (while they prove nothing, they can suggest certain things as being more likely than other things), but it means that the onus is on us and not on a calculator.
Fear will not do. We have heard enough about how ‘the other side’ would lead us to a sort of desolate wasteland if we let them. This is just not good enough. Right now the Western economies are staring into the eyes of just such a wasteland and what we need is an alternative. Britain is not ‘OK’, and Scotland won’t just be ‘OK’ if it tries to be a Little Britain. Fear of Britain is not in itself a reason for Scotland any more than a fear of Scotland is a reason for Britain. We need a much bigger story than that.
‘How’ is as important as ‘could’. It is to be hoped that an independence debate can be filled with ‘coulds’ – an independent Scotland could…, a reformed UK could… – but these must be balanced with ‘hows’. It is insufficient to say that Scotland ‘could’ greatly reform its economy without discussing ‘how’ that might be done. And it is important to add to the idea that the UK ‘could’ be a powerful force for good some sense of ‘how’ that could be possible. All the best utopias exist in the tension between what they could be like and how they became that thing. We deserve – in our arguments at least – the best of utopias.
Stop treating Scotland as an exception. Both sides have a habit of placing expectations on Scotland based on expediency rather than the interests of the nation. Nationalists have the habit of seeing in Scotland a pre-existing successful nation requiring only freedom to make it exist. This expectation of success is more than any small country should have to stand. But the unionists expect even more – they expect Scotland not simply to justify its existence as an independent country but also justify everything it will do, ever, as an independent country. The flood of ‘questions’ demanded of Nationalists by the Scotland Office relate not only to independence but to what a future Scottish state would do, like John Wayne expecting a promise that we ‘won’t do anything stupid’. It is insulting to expect Scotland to answer questions that the UK wouldn’t. Scotland should answer to the expectations and standards of any other country – no more, no less.
Quit the ‘what’s a nation anyway’ nonsense. Both sides are guilty of this. There are 193 member states of the United Nations. Only Scotland appears to be an exception to this rule. It is a very simple designation – it means to have sovereign control over a territory. A nation may choose to cede some of that control to another body (the EU or the UN for example), to sign up to various clubs which require certain rules to be followed (NATO or the IMF) or to form soft and hard alliances which limit its scope for doing as it pleases. But it remains sovereign and can choose not to join these clubs. This silly smokescreen is wasting everyone’s time. If there are questions about whether Scotland could really be ‘independent’ then the same applies to the UK or the US. If being a member of the EU precludes Scotland being ‘properly’ independent then neither is France or Germany. If we never hear this wishy-washy dinner-party provocation again it will be too soon.
Nationalism is not fascism. This really only applies to one side, but it has to stop. You do not have to be a supporter of the SNP to feel deep discomfort at the barrage of loose talk linking Salmond to Mussolini or Mugabe. Suddenly winning a majority in a democratic election is ‘dangerous’ or leads to a ‘one-party state’, despite being the British norm. And if civil servants follow the policies of one government they are ‘neutral’ but if they follow policies of another they are ‘politicised’. This narrative is repugnant and is an insult to anyone who voted in the 2011 election – not just those that voted SNP.
‘He said/she said’ gets us nowhere. In the vacuous world of ‘Come Voting’ the opinions of ‘celebrities’ carry a weight out of all proportion to reason. The CBI told us that if Scotland voted for devolution no company would invest here. Any businessman who said they ‘might’ leave Scotland if there was a yes-yes vote was reported like a prophet. The fact that there is scant evidence that any of this happened doesn’t seem to have stopped anyone. The conflation between self-serving business leaders and the actual economy (people buying and selling things) is complete – despite all the evidence to the contrary. There is nothing wrong with endorsements, especially where they argue a case. But anyone who instructs us on the consequences of our choices – either way – must be treated like a politicians and must be interrogated with the same degree of rigour. If the businessman in question opts to speak for ‘the economy’ then he must be made to answer for the failures of that economy and not simply be allowed to throw mud. For either side.
If the left could argue its different cases on these bases we might end up with a vision for Scotland, either in the UK our out on its own. But infinitely more importantly, it might end up with a vision which speaks to the people of Scotland and is not simply herded down the same old neoliberal road, the one that grants those who brought our economy to its knees a privileged voice in deciding our future. Nationalist or unionist we all need independence – from the same old story with its same old superstitions and its tired old heros and villains. One way or the other it is time to begin on the first page of a new story. And the Scottish Left Review will do what it can to help that story be told.