Belfast socialists discuss Scotland after the referendum

A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

Last night I went to a meeting organised by the Irish Socialist Network (ISN) on Scotland after the referendum in the Realta Centre in Belfast.  The speaker was Colm Breathnach, who is Irish and a former member of the ISN but is now living in Scotland

He said at the start that he was not going to go over the pros and cons of the vote but look at the situation now.  In fact a lot of what he had to say was about the pros and cons of the referendum campaign and his impressions of it, and particularly of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) , of which he is a supporter.

He enthused about the activity of what he called this ‘mass movement’ the like of which he had not seen or been involved in before.  It was described as a grass-roots progressive campaign that effectively led the Yes campaign in the referendum and dragged it, and thereby the SNP, to the left.

He supported independence because it gave the working class a ‘better terrain’ on which to fight.  He gave a consistently positive and enthusiastic account of the pro-independence movement and of his impressions of those involved.  He criticised the fear spread among workers by the No campaign while acknowledging that their fear of the consequences of independence was at least partly justified.  He claimed the independence movement was a reflection of progressive working class politics while also acknowledging that a lot of working class people voted No.

He claimed to have no illusions in the SNP but his criticisms of it were muted, very muted in fact, and he didn’t find it necessary to provide any clear characterisation of the nature of that party. His attitude to the Labour Party on the other hand was scathing – a ‘husk’ that no one progressive could possibly support.

He rejected the charge that the left in Scotland were following reactionary nationalism and told me, it was me who put this to him, that I hadn’t been listening to what he had said.  The Yes campaign had been about the vision of a new fairer society and not about national identity or nationalism.

The debate therefore started and ended where it might have been expected to – impressions of a movement for independence that wasn’t nationalist and an incredulous denial that the campaign for a separate state had been a nationalist one.  Weren’t there different sorts of nationalism anyway e.g. British nationalism and Palestinian nationalism?  They weren’t all the same.  He was in favour of internationalism and working class solidarity and unity among Scottish, English and other European workers.

He said accusingly, that if I wanted the Scottish, Welsh and English working class to be united in one state why wouldn’t I want the Irish to be included as well?  Why wouldn’t I be in favour of the Irish Republic rejoining Britain?

Oh my god!  If ever an argument could be expected to crush opposition to nationalism (or whatever it is) in front of an audience from a republican background this was it!  How on earth could anyone succumb to a view that had this as its logical conclusion?

All this was at the end of the meeting so there was no opportunity to reply.  I’m glad however I have a blog.

Listening to a speaker it can be very easy to follow their stream of argument without noticing the holes and contradictions within it, especially if one hasn’t got a strong and considered view on it already.  But surely I cannot have been alone in wondering why it was necessary to claim there are different sorts of nationalism when the Yes campaign was very, very definitely not a nationalist one.

Surely it was noticed that the claim he wanted unity among Scottish, English and Welsh workers sat in flat contradiction to the view that he very definitely didn’t want them all to coexist in the one state. Was this not privileging the interests of separate (capitalist) states over the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality?  Well that’s how it looked to me.

I heard echoes of the view that working class unity among nationalities is possible without their being in the one state but the ridiculous argument that being inside one state doesn’t makes this easier was not advanced in justification. Instead I was asked why I supported the existence of the British state formation, the implication being that one formation of capitalist states is as good as another (although the implications of this for the demand for a separate Scottish state were probably furthest from the speaker’s thoughts).

I would have replied, had I the opportunity, that the British State has the advantage of already existing and containing within it a voluntary union of nationalities; that socialists are in favour of the voluntary union of nationalities; that the working class in Britain is united in one labour movement irrespective of nationality with a long tradition that includes exemplary struggle and that, yes ,this should even include the Irish if such unity could be voluntary and on the basis of equality.  That is, there would be an absence of the national oppression that has characterised previous and current British rule in Ireland and that has been absent from relations with Scotland except in relation to the latter’s role as oppressor

There is nothing special about the form of the British state in achieving this except that nationalist division would be a backward step away from it.  If the British state proved a barrier to wider unity on a continental state then calling for its supersession would be progressive.  In any case the creation of a European working class movement is required and every step in defeating nationalist division is to be welcomed.

None of this would have convinced the speaker because for him the British working class does not exist.

I put it to him that when I used to live in Scotland in the 1970s the Left in Scotland opposed Scottish nationalism as reactionary and it now supports this nationalism, but that this support does not make it progressive.  He said things had changed.  And so they have, in the way I have just described.

I also put it to him that the rise of Scottish nationalism had divided the British working class and divided the working class in Scotland.  The demand for independence if successful would mean dividing the British working class movement including its trade unions.  It was in reply to this that I was told that the British working class doesn’t exist ‘except in some peoples’ heads.’

This is no doubt why left supporters of Scottish separation hardly ever consider the unity of the British working class or factor it into their analysis.  It’s much simpler to pretend it simply doesn’t exist. We have had this argument on the blog before.

What we might have expected was some explanation of why socialists should support a separate Scottish state.  Providing a ‘better terrain’ was as much as we got, yet no one thought to ask what this meant or, more bluntly – is that it?

All in all I didn’t learn anything new from the meeting but most of the participants will at least have been exposed to some of the arguments and will have found it in some way informative.  The meeting was therefore a modest success.

I had however hoped that I would have learned more, which is why at the start of the meeting I asked some questions.

Colm said during his speech that he accepted the result of the referendum so I asked him what he meant by this and in order to explain what I meant by asking him this I said did he accept it as an exercise in self-determination by the Scottish people.

In reply he said that in saying he accepted it he meant he did not go along with the conspiracy theorists who claimed the result had been the subject of fraud, as some nationalists have claimed. But he asked what I meant by the question to which I explained – did he think the referendum was a legitimate exercise of self-determination?  His answer was less than clear.

He criticised the pro-union bias of the media – the newspapers and particularly the coverage of the BBC in Scotland.  The bias of the media is not new but such bias is a part of what Marxists call bourgeois democracy and the referendum was a part of this democracy.  He did not address the real point of the question and by failing to do so he and the nationalist movement consciously or unconsciously avoid its implications.  That is the implications of having lost.

The point of the question was to elicit his view whether, in saying he ‘accepted’ the result, he was accepting that the Scottish people had been given the opportunity to freely exercise self-determination and had done so by supporting union within the UK state.  Many nationalists appear to believe that self-determination only exists if it results in a separate state, as if determining one’s future only takes place when you vote the way they like.

The very non-committal answer showed an unwillingness to accept that the referendum was a legitimate exercise in self determination that should be accepted as such.  Whatever grounds for demanding separation exist they can not therefore include the claim that the Scottish people have not been given the opportunity to freely vote for ‘independence’ and were thereby subject to some form of national oppression. In this respect the answer showed that the left supporters of separation appeared no more inclined to really accept the result than the broader nationalist movement.  In doing so they ignore the implications for what they do next.

And this was my next question.  I asked what the strategy of the left supporters of independence was now?  Did they still hold that independence was necessary for the working class to move forward?  Or did his claim that this was really not a nationalist movement but a movement for social justice mean they would fight austerity without also requiring unity around independence?

Would they recognise that the austerity offensive from the Government in London is enforced by the Scottish Government, just as it is being enforced in the North of Ireland by Stormont, and seek unity with English and Welsh workers to oppose it?  Or would they seek to fight alone, so unnecessarily weakening themselves and the rest of the British working class?

I got a very unclear answer which involved acknowledging that whether the demand for independence was a high or low priority would be determined.  He was still strongly in favour of it.

Since the immediate requirement is to fight austerity and a new referendum is not immediately on the cards the prevarication revealed the divisiveness of the nationalist project.  In practice this means continued division of the British working class, which the nationalists appear to think doesn’t exist but the Condem Government is screwing nevertheless.

Repeatedly the speaker said that the Radical Independence Campaign was not a nationalist movement but he admitted that half of its supporters were members of the SNP, which has grown very significantly since the referendum.  They will no doubt campaign for and vote for this party.  The SNP is riding high and is reaping the benefits of relative success in the referendum.  Majorities in favour of ‘independence’ were recorded in Glasgow, Dundee and many other mainly working class areas.

Only by being unclear about what the SNP is; only by denying that a separate state is a nationalist and divisive demand and only by failing to recognise the harm this does to a united working class response to austerity can this be seen as in any way progressive.  Nationalism is what was on offer in the referendum and nationalism is what many voted for regardless of what they thought they were doing.  Colm mentioned false consciousness in his speech but didn’t properly identify who was falling victim to it.

Already figures on the Left are calling for a vote for the SNP at the next election.  The same SNP that colluded with the Tories when first entering into government in Scotland.  The same SNP that repeatedly accused the Labour Party of cuddling up to the Tories in the No campaign and the same SNP whose leader was such an ally of Rupert Murdoch.

This makes perfect sense if, as much of the Left appears to believe, ‘independence’ is the indispensable condition for progress.  The left voting for a right wing, pro-capitalist, pro neo-liberal party is the result of its collapse into nationalism.  Going by the meeting there is precious little sign of re-evaluation

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