In the aftermath of the referendum, Allan Armstrong examines the potential for the Radical Independence Campaign
The campaign for Scottish independence has been the largest movement for popular democracy seen in these islands since the Irish War of Independence. In terms of electoral participation it was unprecedented. Voter registration was 97% and voter turnout was 85%.
The ‘Yes’ alliance faced the biggest ruling class offensive, backed by the UK state, since the Miners’ Strike. Only this time it brought together the combined Tory/Lib-Dem/Labour ‘Better Together’ ‘No’ alliance, UKIP, Ulster unionists, the Orange Order, other Loyalists, British fascists, the BBC, the Pope and the Free Presbyterian Church, and the US and Chinese governments!
Yet we still won 45% of the vote, and badly rattled the British ruling class in the last two weeks before September 18th. Cameron had only conceded the referendum, and signed the Edinburgh Agreement, back in 2012, because he thought the prospect of any alternative to the ‘Westminster way’ would be trounced – “There is no alternative”. We showed that, “Another Scotland is possible”. Furthermore, since September 18th the mood of anger and defiance has continued.
From September 19th, the day after the referendum, and despite all the illusions and contradictions involved, tens of thousands joined the SNP, with several more thousands signing up to the Greens and SSP. RIC branches have had the largest attendances they have ever seen. Today’s RIC’s national conference in Glasgow will be the biggest yet.
RIC has the potential to reconstitute itself into a republican movement that unites struggles in the economic, social, cultural and political/democratic arenas, and provides an inspiration beyond Scotland. RIC’s specific Scottish contribution to the Global Movement for Social Justice would lie in its recognition of the need to break-up the UK state and its alliance with US imperialism.
This potential is already latent in the updated RIC principles agreed at the September 27th National Forum; in our reaching out to working class communities that have been abandoned by mainstream politicians; and our linking up with socialist republicans in England, Wales, Ireland and Catalunya. Being republican does not mean merely having an aspiration for a future monarchy-free Scotland. It means making the democratic affirmation, in the here and now, that sovereignty lies with the people, and not with Westminster.
In contrast, the SNP leadership believes its authority lies in the mandate it achieved by getting elected to Westminster’s devolved Holyrood parliament in 2011. This is why, in the event of a ‘Yes’ majority on September 18th, the SNP government would not have acted as if this vote had transferred sovereignty to the Scottish people.
Instead, they intended to bring Holyrood’s unionist parties into their negotiating team with Westminster. The making of any future constitution would have been left to the ‘great and the good’. Profoundly antidemocratic features would have been hardwired, such as acceptance of the monarchy, and hence the long reach of the UK state’s Crown Powers.
The ‘Yes’ vote would only have been used as a bargaining counter to be used in negotiations with the Westminster unionist parties, not as the basis for beginning a process of popular consultation leading to a constituent assembly, where Scotland’s constitution could be determined.
Self-determination – two clashing class views
The underlying democratic principle, which brought the SNP government and a much wider array of democratic forces together, including RIC, was the exercise of Scottish self-determination.
However, the SNP government’s own ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals accepted of the continued role of the Crown, the Bank of England, the British High Command and NATO. This highlighted the class nature of the SNP government’s own decidedly limited version of self-determination. They act in the interests of a wannabe Scottish ruling class, which seeks no more than a junior managerial buyout of the local branch of UK Ltd, and is ready to make its own deals with Global Megacorp.
In the event of a ‘Yes’ vote on September 18th, RIC would have become involved in a major struggle with the incumbent SNP government and their new Holyrood unionist allies. At our May 17th National Forum, we had already agreed to reach out to all those autonomous local ‘Yes’ groups, inspired by the process of active political participation they had just been involved in.
The aim would have been to counter the SNP government’s return to an acceptance of self-determination limited by Westminster sovereignty. Instead we would have championed Scottish self-determination based on the sovereignty of the people. The building of a popular constitutional movement is the only way this democratic principle can be exercised in practice.
What now in the aftermath of the ‘No’ vote?
The dramatic change in our political fortunes could be seen within days of the ‘No’ majority. The unionist parties’ combination of threats and “vows” gave way to a new reality. The overwhelming majority of unionist MPs, Conservative, Lib-Dem and Labour gave their assent to the third Iraqi war. In order to cut taxes further for the rich, the Conservative Party conference promised an even greater attack upon welfare recipients, including their new majority – the low paid. There was also the attempted drive to remove many of the newly signed-up from the electoral register, using the fear of debt collection as a threat.
For now, the political initiative, over the future of Scotland, has passed to the Westminster government. Their overriding concern will be to ensure that the unforeseen democratic pressures exerted by the mass popular campaign are demobilised and channeled into the official channels.
Lord Smith has been summoned for this purpose. His lordship is very much part of UK state’s Crown-in-Parliament set-up – his title is a bit of a giveaway! Although anyone can make a written submission to Lord Smith’s commission, the only real players are the Conservative government along with Labour and the SNP government.
Despite their own heavily trailed, pre-September 18th federal/‘Devo-Max’ “vows”, the Conservatives and Labour can be expected to unite against these, now they are being advocated by the SNP government. Where they hope to find common ground with is over devolved income tax-raising powers, so that Holyrood takes increased responsibility for implementing austerity.
John Swinney and other SNP Right wingers such as Michael Russell, who openly advocate neoliberalism, would very likely go along with this. However, it is quite clear that any Westminster government demands for meaningful change will only bring about small-scale concessions, which do not address genuine popular concerns.
The 2015 Westminster election offers no way to exercise genuine Scottish self-determination
Lord Smith, Westminster and the unionist parties have already been successful in ensuring that the SNP government sees its new role in “holding their feet to the fire”. So, everything is now to be directed towards the 2015 Westminster elections. The aim is to maximise the number of SNP MPs (whilst possibly allowing for a few selected cosmetic non-SNP ‘Yes’ candidates), to hold the balance of power in the event of another hung parliament.
Beyond this things get murky. What would an SNP government trade-off in return for some already watered down political concessions? The 2007 SNP Holyrood government was quite prepared to go along with Conservative budget proposals to obtain their support for the formation of a minority government. Catalan Convergence, which forms the Spanish state’s devolved Barcelona Generalitat government, resembles the SNP in its desire to be the mouthpiece for domestic business interests. It has been quite prepared to prop up Right wing Spanish neo-liberal, pro-war governments in return for minor constitutional concessions.
When Bernadette McAliskey addressed last year’s RIC Conference, she warned of the demand made by the new post-1918 Irish government, “labour must wait”. As she pointed out, nearly a century later, the Irish working class is still waiting!
The SNP government knows, however many MPs they gain in 2015, they will not be granted another referendum by the UK state. However, they still hold illusions that this could be possible later. The September 18th result was far narrower than the mainstream unionist parties initially thought possible. They have learned their lesson, and will not make such a concession again. Furthermore, the whole unionist camp is moving further Right, with UKIP now dictating much of their direction.
The SNP have no answer to this. Some, on their ‘Independista’ wing, may conjure up future scenarios, such as winning a majority of SNP Westminster MPs, or Holyrood MSPs, to provide an alternative mandate for independence. However, it is very unlikely that the very constitutionalist SNP leadership, keen to keep its big business backers on board, would adopt this course.
Furthermore, from a democratic point of view, the only democratic mandate for the exercise of genuine Scottish self-determination lies in winning majority support. However, for this to be achieved in defiance of Westminster, there would need to be a break with the UK’s Crown-in-parliament sovereignty. There would need to be a recognition of popular sovereignty, which can be exercised either by a Holyrood government elected with such a mandate, or by a Citizens’ Initiative referendum.
Ambitious though it may appear, RIC should start building support for a social, secular and democratic Scottish republic on the basis of popular sovereignty, with the aim of taking the leadership of the movement for Scottish self-determination from the current SNP government. This means having a long term strategy, and not just making knee-jerk responses to every call to action or top-down initiative presented to us.
The SNP’s constitution prevents the formation of distinct platforms, and has the power to suspend branches. What the SNP leadership wants from all their new members is electoral campaigners on the ground and more money. What they don’t want is a radical alternative to the party’s current neo-liberal and pro-imperial course. John Wilson, MSP, who belatedly resigned from the SNP, after the referendum, over its pro-NATO stance, obviously understands the limitations in challenging the party leadership from within.
The need for an internationalist approach
One of the biggest obstacles we faced in campaigning for a ’Yes’ vote was the ability the UK state to use its unionist set-up to promote divide-and-rule against any meaningful self-determination. The Irish have long appreciated this, which is why republicanism, or the recognition of sovereignty of the people, has greater roots there than elsewhere in the UK.
However, we must look beyond the false choice being offered by both the mainstream unionist parties and the SNP government. They realise that there is a growing reactionary unionist challenge to the current New Unionist’ ‘Devolution-allround’ settlement. This is currently being organised by UKIP, but also with Ulster unionist, loyalist and British fascist support.
However, the alternative mainstream unionist, minor liberal constitutional reforms, coming from Lord Smith, will not hold back the growth of reaction. This draws its support on all the most reactionary features of the UK constitution, which the mainstream unionist parties do not challenge.
No matter how reluctantly, the SNP government is likely to accept the outcome of the Smith Commission, because it accepts the principle of Westminster sovereignty. Even in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, they wanted to enter into a new relationship with a continuing rUK.
RIC however, has sought support in in England, Wales and Ireland for the break-up of the UK state. This state acts against the interests of the exploited and oppressed throughout these islands. People like Tariq Ali, Billy Bragg, Paul Mason, George Monbiot and Will Self, have also begun to appreciate that the peoples of these islands can enter into new relationships that do not depend on the existence of the UK state.
We are lucky to be living at a time of a growing popular clamour for democracy. As an alternative to the mainstream unionists and the SNP government, RIC should become the movement which campaigns for a social, secular and democratic Scottish republic. Here, the national democratic principle of self-determination is linked to the international democratic principles of solidarity and unity from below.
After our first conference in 2012, the ‘C’ in RIC’s initials changed from ‘Conference’ to ‘Campaign’. Perhaps it is time to think of RIC’s initials as the Republican Internationalist Coalition in Scotland.