Communists on Scotland’s National Question in 2020

Johnnie Hunter, YCL General Secretary & Challenge Editor

YCL General Secretary, Johnnie Hunter, addresses the question of Scottish Independence and the options for working people in Scotland as we approach 2021.

Even in the depths of this COVID-19 pandemic, the question of Scottish Independence has remained top of the mainstream political agenda in Scotland.

The referendum result in 2014, far from settling the question, has continued to divide working people and the labour movement. Its gathered a new pace following, or perhaps because of, the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2019.

For those who want to fight for a dignified life for working people, democracy and peace in Scotland it is a fundamental question.

So what stance should working people take on the question of Scottish Independence?

The starting point for socialists

For Scotland’s Communists, our fundamental starting point is our clear and unequivocal commitment to the right to self-determination for the Scottish people. It is one of the foundational principles of the international communist movement.

We have never adopted the negative and pessimistic attitude that Scotland is “too small” or “too poor” to thrive as an independent country – if it has an economic and political strategy which puts working people first.

We haven’t adopted a tribal or divisive attitude to this question. We consider that the 2014 referendum produced a democratic result which should be respected but the question of any future referendum and independence generally is one for the Scottish people alone, which we are free to determine.

At the same time, the Communist Party maintains its other principle of judging the exercise of that right in terms of the class interests of the Scottish people and those of working people in Britain and internationally. In the context of globalisation and neoliberal blocs like the European Union, solidarity between working people has never been more important.

Its also important to recognise that the Scottish nation isn’t one unified, progressive, happy family. There is a working class and elements of the ruling class. As Lenin pointed out, there is a ruling class culture and a working class culture. Every nation has the basic elements of a democratic and socialist culture but every nation also possesses a ruling class culture which under capitalism is the dominant culture. Its for communists, socialists and trade unionists to identify, develop and build in Scotland’s national culture only its democratic and socialist elements. It is a dangerous myth that Scottish workers share any values or common interests with Scottish elements of Britain’s ruling class, just because we were born in the same country.

The 2014 Referendum

It was based on these principles that Scotland’s Communists were forced to conclude that so-called independence on the terms proposed by the Scottish National Party in 2014, was not in the interests of working people in Scotland. We were forced to conclude that it was in fact independence in name only.

All the key proposals of the SNP’s White Paper on Independence involved maintaining or even strengthening the control of external forces over the democratic will of the Scottish people:

  • On currency, continued membership of the sterling area would have subordinated Scotland to Tory policies without any power to change them – at the same time seriously eroding the opportunity for united working class action across the nations of Britain to do so.
  • Membership of or even closer integration with the EU would have forced Scotland to incorporate into any written constitution the terms of the EU’s 2012 Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, with its tough controls on government spending and debt. The SNP only admitted after the referendum that this would have meant Scotland suffering even harsher austerity than Greece in the years following Scottish Independence if it was to be part of the EU.
  • Scotland was to remain a member of the NATO aggressive nuclear first-strike alliance, meaning Scottish soldiers and funding would still go towards imperialist wars abroad. The claims that Scotland would immediately become nuclear free with the closure of Faslane aren’t consistent with NATO membership and various SNP ministers have since made noises about how nuclear weapons hosting could remain a “temporary” situation post-independence.

The Communist criteria for the constituational question

Britain’s Communists argue that what is key for working people in Scotland in any constitutional settlement are powers to intervene in the economy, to develop public ownership, increase labour’s power over capital and to chart an independent foreign policy based on peace. These are the key criteria which all those on the left, regardless of their past or current stance on independence, should have in evaluating the best course of action for working people and the national question.

What strengthens the ability of working people in Scotland to challenge the power of big business? What strengthens the bargaining power of working people across Britain?

These were the same priorities fought for by communists, socialists and the Scottish Trades Union Congress in the 1970s and 80s which ultimately led to the foundation of the Scottish Parliament. A parliament which after 20 years still hasn’t lived up to its full potential.

Radical federalism

Britain’s communists continue to call for radical federalism as the best way of developing class cohesion across the nations of Britain: national parliaments with powers of economic intervention, ownership and control and a federal parliament with overall powers over economic policy and a constitutional obligation to redistribute wealth in terms of social need.

We believe that this provides the best framework for uniting working people on class terms against the state power of big business. Currently that power is concentrated at a British level and represents, above all, the interests of the City of London. 

Many people might say but, that radical federalism is a long way off – a pipe dream even while we’ve got Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street – that the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn last year was the final nail in the coffin for any type of federal state for the peoples of Britain.

Time will tell whether that will be the case. Scotland’s Communists argue that it would be short term and pessimistic to inevitably come to that conclusion. Working people and the labour movement continue to fight austerity across Scotland, Wales and England. These collective struggles, if brought together, would be more than enough not just to defeat a Tory government but to create a new federal set up based on increased democracy and the radical redistribution of wealth.

Even if you take the opposing view, there are serious questions to be answered. The SNP, who would almost inevitably dominate post independence and write any future Scottish Constitution, continue to advocate a fake independence which if written into law would leave the Scottish people even more at the mercy of international corporations and banks.

In the immediate context Scotland’s Communists argue that the left have to put these differences aside and to prioritise the fight against Tory and SNP austerity and Tory and SNP incompetence in battling COVID-19. We have to prioritise saving lives during the pandemic and prioritise fighting for a dignified life for working people in Scotland after the pandemic.

Current dangers

The current divide in Scotland’s left and labour movement poses a number of keys dangers to our ability to fight and win these struggles:

  • Firstly we have to oppose crude nationalism on both sides. The problems facing Scottish people can’t be blamed on ‘the English’, these are the same problems facing working people in England and Wales. They are caused by the capitalist system and private greed. By the same token we’ve got to oppose right wing unionism and attempts to undermine the democratic rights of the Scottish people. We have to put a working class analysis and an anti-capitalist argument to the fore.
  • Just as importantly we can’t have a situation where the SNP Government in Holyrood are given an effective carte blanche and escape any criticism for simply being slightly ‘less bad’ than the Tories. The lesser of two evils is a dangerous trap for working people in Scotland as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. England has the worst mortality rate in Europe very closely followed by Scotland, but Nicola Sturgeon has largely escaped criticism. Why is that? Working people shouldn’t fall for their vanity contest when our lives are at stake. We deserve better than incompetence regardless of whether its touting Tory blue or SNP yellow.
  • We also have to guard against complacency across the movement. The SNP government would like you to believe there is no need to struggle, no need to fight for a better life. They’re already doing a great job running the country despite the fact that more than 1 in 4 children in Scotland grow up in poverty while they’ve been underspending budgets by over £400 million pounds in recent years.  They say you don’t have to fight for a better life because their version of independence will sort it all anyway.
  • Unfortunately some people in Scotland have fallen into the trap of thinking the struggle is on hold. That the real fight starts after independence. While independence may well bring new opportunities to advance the struggle of working people in Scotland it would also bring new challenges and would at least face the same obstacles as we do now. There is a dangerous complacency among some parts of the left about how easily an independent Scotland might achieve key aims such as nuclear disarmament. The reality is an independent Scottish state would still be dominated by a British ruling class, within the confines of capitalism and, according to SNP plans, under the jackboot of the EU and NATO.

The fight is now

Even if independence is your ultimate goal, Scotland’s Communists say that the fight is already here and its now. It’s not a fight that can wait till Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson have had their own dust up. Its not a fight that should be waged on their terms.

 It’s the fight for effective measures to defeat COVID-19, it’s the fight against blue and yellow austerity. It’s a fight to return powers from Brussels to the Scottish Parliament and to ensure they’re actually used for the benefit of working people.

Scotland’s Communists say that it’s possible to fight and win now but that it is a fight that needs all working people – regardless of how they voted or how they plan to vote in future on independence.

We’re calling on working people across Scotland to join this fight – the fight for democracy, peace and a dignified life.

Johnnie Hunter

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