Today marks one year until the Scottish people vote on whether Scotland is to be independent and this morning I listened to an interview with Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on radio 4. It was an interesting interview both for what was said and what was not said.
Invited by the interviewer to agree that the Scottish people will decide based on what was economically good for them she agreed. What made the difference she said was that decisions on what should happen in Scotland are best taken in Scotland.
There was no mention of the issue being in any sense one of national and democratic rights, nothing about national oppression. This would of course be a hard argument to make given that Scotland can exit the UK without facing the sort of threats and war that Ireland suffered almost 100 years ago.
The argument that decisions under independence would be taken in Scotland took something of a battering when Sturgeon accepted that the Scottish National Party favoured retaining sterling as the currency. That’s a bucket load of decisions still being taken in London then, either in Downing Street or Canary Wharf. It was also somewhat embarrassing when the interviewer quoted a statement by the SNP leader Alex Salmond in 1999 that described sterling ‘as a millstone round Scotland’s neck’. For many years he had supported joining the Euro until the crisis in the Eurozone made this a less easy and obvious sell. The change she said had been prompted by advice from ‘experts.’
Since the SNP also favour Scotland’s membership of the EU and NATO plus keeping the British monarchy the elements of independence start to look less impressive. More decisions from Brussels and Washington here.
The interview elicited the real concern for independence mentioned by Sturgeon, which is increased control over the levers of the State and its ability to tax and distribute the proceeds, including operation of the welfare state. On this score the SNP have simultaneously attempted to present a future independent Scotland as some sort of social-democratic nirvana while also promising lower corporation taxes for foreign companies.
In this respect it seeks to emulate the Irish State and previously held the latter up as a model of what an independent Scotland could achieve until the proverbial hit the fan and the Irish became a model for austerity instead of prosperity. The Irish are no longer referred to as the future and nationalists have to defend themselves against the charge that a newly independent state could not afford to support the large Scottish financial sector should it go into the same sort of crisis as the 2008 credit crunch. Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS (Halifax Bank of Scotland) featured prominently in that financial crisis.
The case for independence then revolves around the respective ownership shares by Scotland and rump UK of the oil reserves and the national debt. Ownership is a question of geography not of class. Once again ownership by the state or at least increased capacity to tax resources is held up as in the interests of Scottish workers.
The state, in this case an independent Scottish one, is presented as the vehicle to deliver on the needs of workers. The concern of the SNP to capture control of the state machine, irrespective of its actual power to control the economy – absent an independent currency and insertion into the EU – betray the real class forces behind the pursuit of independence.
Those on the left in Scotland supporting independence in effect tail end the promises of these forces that the capitalist state, in this case an independent Scottish one, can be the vehicle for working class advance. As I have been at pains to point out in numerous posts it is the independent movement of the working class itself that will deliver and represent such an advance. It cannot be devolved to the capitalist state whether newly minted or not.
The attractions of nationalism boil down to the attractions of state power which have less and less substance the smaller the state but which seemingly have greater and greater attraction the smaller and therefore closer it comes to some people being beside it.
In a debate that assumes capitalist ownership, that assumes a capitalist state, that revolves around nationality but excludes any opposition to national oppression the tasks of Marxists is a difficult one.
The first is to base oneself on the commonality of class interests regardless of nationality as the bedrock of working class unity and need for internationalism. This requires defence of the Scottish people’s right to self determination free from any sort of outside threat or force. It involves opposition to nationalist arguments and those which present the state as the vehicle for progress. It requires being alive to the prospect that such a debate will increase the divisions between Scottish and other British workers and also divide the Scottish working class itself between those more and more committed to nationalist solutions and those who see no reason for an independent state.
Opinion polls appear to show a comfortable majority against independence and it looks likely at this point that the referendum will result in a vote against it. In the meantime the referendum is an important event that has important implications for the development of working class politics not only in Scotland but also in the rest of the UK. The parallels drawn with Ireland by many in the debate demonstrate that it has important implications here as well.
Some Scottish commentators have noted the dominance of the issue in the media inside Scotland and comparative absence in the rest of Britain. I hope the blog will be able to keep up with and contribute to understanding this important struggle. The relationship between socialism and nationalism is one that has repeatedly proven a difficult one for socialists and the Scottish debate may allow us to learn more about how best to address the difficulties.