We can’t wish away the National Question

Zoe McKeown provides a rounded view on the questions facing the left in Scotland - and across Britain - and the considers the potential of a campaign to achieve real Home Rule.
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Zoe McKeown, is the Chair of the YCL’s Lanarkshire Branch

Zoe McKeown provides a rounded view on the questions facing the left in Scotland – and across Britain – and the considers the potential of a campaign to achieve real Home Rule.

The independence issue can no longer be ignored or wished away, the result of the last general election and the current political situation offer a wide range of possible conclusions that can inform our strategy moving forward.

Scotland remains fractured over the national question, with support for the SNP as strong as ever. Britain grows further divided between a government of the few that has bought its election victory on the promise of getting Brexit done. For socialists, in the face of a Left Labour defeat, Corbyn resignation and Starmer victory it is tempting to revel in self pity and heartbreak.

To do so would be a disservice to the ten and a half million people who proudly voted for the most radical Labour manifesto in decades. However, we must engage with our situation as it really is. 

Scotland’s situation is far more nuanced, independence maybe in the offing and the reopening of the debate over the coming months and years to win the hearts and minds of the Scottish people will no doubt cover a plethora of issues: what does the future hold for Scotland? What do we hold in common with the rest of Britain? What are our differences? Should we go it alone? Can we afford to? Even if we can’t is it surely better to suffer initial economic uncertainty in order to free ourselves from Tory austerity?

What is clear is that the status quo cannot continue; a new world is struggling to be born. As socialists, we continue to believe that class issues – the class struggle – offers the solutions to overcoming the climate crisis, the destructive waste of capitalism, the political deficit and unwelcome return of racist ideas, opportunistic populism, and far right movements.

The Communist Party position is clear; we support Scotland’s right to self determination, for our country to forge its own path should it so choose. That doesn’t necessarily mean we support independence, even in the wake of an entrenched and invigorated Johnson Tory government. That’s because the arguments being put forward by the SNP as the main drivers of independence are nowhere near the kind of Scotland we wish to see. 

The Growth Commission differs little from the White Paper, in that it doesn’t aim to remove anti worker institutions like the Monarchy, the EU, NATO from our shores. It seeks Scottish sovereignty to maintain a tartan stamped British Capitalism and that simply isn’t good enough for our class, north or south of the border. The worry for independence is that austerity and homelessness would still be rife, yet because it would be “Scottish austerity” it would be different. The sticking point for discussion of progressive forces on the left seems to be “we’ll fix all that when we get independence”, or, “aw we don’t need to worry about that till were independent”, or even “I’ll vote for such and such in an independent Scotland.”

How many times have we had these discussions and debates, and heard time and time again these same rebuttals? Consistently the argument around poverty and austerity seems to be that socialism is idealistic whilst Scottish Nationalism is realistic, and we are the bad people for aiming to completely eradicate poverty, whilst it’s more realistic to want to help the few that nationalists believe would be helped by Scottish independence. As socialists and communists, we recognise that any child failed by the system is an outrage, but our empathy doesn’t stop at a border. One of the main worries for independence is that nothing would change; unemployment, homelessness and austerity would still be rife, yet this somehow wouldn’t matter, because it’d be Scottish unemployment, homelessness and austerity.

The Scottish national question has somewhat hindered and halted both discussion and the actual progress itself of the labour movement. How often when discussing the situation with independence supporters have we heard the phrases “we’ll fix all that when we get independence”, or “we just need to be independent first’, or even “in an independent Scotland I’d vote for such and such progressive party.” However, there are several things wrong with this statement – there’s no guarantee there would exist such a mass progressive party in Scotland to vote for. There is also the fact that its wholly possible the SNP would be held in high regard as “the party who broke free of the British state” and cement their hold on power here.

We only need to look at history to see that every country who has gained independence from Britain has continued to vote for the party that got them it. And whilst yes, many SNP voters do so purely because of the national question, we can’t deny the fact there are those who vote for their policies: economically conservative policies. The failure of the SNP to intervene in the Caley Rail Works in Springburn shows they don’t care about working people and our jobs, and the decision of all under one banner to plan an independence rally on the same weekend as they May Day march shows they don’t care about our history either.

Time and time again the poverty argument is used to discredit socialism as idealistic, whilst nationalism is realistic. History has taught us this is simply not true, from Cuba to Vietnam, the fight for socialism is exactly that, a long, difficult and arduous struggle but it is one which is entirely possible to win. But to win, we need a united working class, and a return to the levels of class consciousness we had in the 60’s and 70’s, one which recognises it is capitalism itself which is the problem, and not a border.

We need workers in Scotland to realise they have more in common with a worker in London than with a Scottish politician. It is exactly as Connolly said, when asked on the question of Ireland breaking away from British imperialism: “if you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic, your efforts will be in vain. England will still rule you. She will rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercialist and individualist institutions she has planted in this country.”

We can clearly see that even now, over 100 years since the 1916 rising that Ireland is a country riddled by austerity and poverty, as well as the fact a number of those involved in the Irish freedom movement then went on to found Fianna Fail an economically centre-right party, begging the question of nationalism for who?  

Respect must be shown to those in our movement, those who are independence supporting socialists; while we may differ in the tactics, our strategy is the same; building a socialist country which will work to serve, rather than shun the people.

Progressive federalism, or Home Rule, might be the strategy around which all Socialists and progressives can rally. Simply put, we should seek to give the maximum control over our country to the Scottish Parliament rather than Westminster, allowing decision making and economic strategy that might better serve Scotland whilst facilitating the radical redistribution of wealth across Britain, particularly from the South East of England and the City of London.. 

It’s often said that independence could be the mechanism to start a radical overhaul to the rest of Britain, offering inspiration to the rest of the movement in Britain to break the grip of Tory reaction. There’s nothing to prove this, but it is a plausible suggestion. In that vein, why not start by retrieving as much power as we possibly can and putting it in the hands of the Scottish Parliament. Too often we hear the refrain from the Scottish Government that they can’t do this, that or the next thing because powers are reserved to Westminster. Yet, British capital is largely not ‘just British’ – it’s still externally owned and therefore Scottish independence would do little to change this.

So across the Left, let’s take up the challenge, let’s demand Home Rule for Scotland, in tandem with the redistribution of political power across these islands; giving the people of Ireland the long awaited chance to unify their nation; giving more power to the Welsh government, empowering the English regions, putting power more squarely in the hands of working class people who for too long have been rendered abject and helpless by the inane machinations of Eton posh boys.

What is utterly clear is that the left, all of it, have been outmanoeuvred and out organised. We are simply caught up time and again reacting to events we have little control over. We are playing the enemy’s game, on their terms and on their turf. We would be wise instead to play our own game.

We must renew our labour movement, once more making the workplace the key arena to building class consciousness and worker power; we must engage with far more intensity in building the struggles of our class across each aspect of their lives, forging meaningful links, agitating, building and widening our networks of political education, discovering the organic leaders who can be developed, who can win the support and trust of our class and win the workers to the Socialist cause.

Progressive Federalism, Home Rule, regardless of your position on the national question, should not be seen then as an end in itself, or as an alternative to independence.

It should be viewed instead as the starting block in rebuilding a mass democratic, and socialist movement, armed with the correct political theory, armed with an understanding and appreciation of our rich working class history; and most importantly, hell bent on overthrowing anyone or anything that dares to stand against the forward march of our class.

Zoe McKeown

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