Steve Freeman, the Republican Socialist and Anti-Unionist candidate in the May election, considers the relationship of the Scottish and English left.
The Scottish Left Project conference on 29 August provides us with an important opportunity to assess the state of the class struggle not only in Scotland but in England, Wales and Ireland. The prospects for the Scottish working class are inextricably bound up with the politics throughout the UK and especially England which has by far the largest working class. In this article I want to consider the current situation, from a working class perspective, viewed from England.
In the September 2014 Scottish referendum, Republican Socialists in London organised a “London Says Yes” rally in support of the Radical Independence Campaign call for a Yes vote. In the 2015 general election we followed this up by standing a Republican Socialist in Bermondsey in south London as the first and only “Anti-Unionist” candidate in England. I spoke at the RIC AGM, explained our aims and received full support.
The 2015 general election was the first public political platform since the referendum from which to proclaim and explain why working people in England must choose the path of republican Anti-Unionism. It was not the time to hide our politics under a bush. The referendum changed the shape of UK politics forever. Republican Socialists had to make a stand even though we had no party and hence little or no prospect of winning votes.
Our ‘Manifesto for Democracy’ asserted that
Another England is possible adapting the RIC slogan. We called for a democratic and secular social republic, the
Commonwealth of England named in reference to England’s first Republic of 1649. We explained that a republic cannot be won by normal constitutional-parliamentary means. It requires and demands a ‘democratic revolution’. Scotland had already begun on this road. England must catch up and go further.
A social republic rests on the power of the people built from below by the active involvement of citizens and workers in self government. The present Westminster system, based on the constitutional settlement of 1688-1707, is in crisis. Yet it will remain, like the House of Lords, resisting democratic change for decades, unless and until there is serious and active democratic opposition outside parliament.
The Scottish referendum was precisely one of those periods of extra-parliamentary mobilisation. The 1707 Act of Union is a reactionary anti-democratic law, which denies Scotland self determination and helps sustain Toryism in England. It is one of the gateways to the core of the constitution. A Yes majority would have broken down the rusty gates and chains which protect the Westminster pantomime from the demands of the people.
In England, the widespread culture of liberal unionism has long kept the gates locked and the chains in place. It enabled Thatcher, Blair and Cameron to pursue their free market agenda. It sustains the Labour Party and reinforces trade union economism and replicates itself in the Left Unionist politics of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and Left Unity.
In Bermondsey the Left Unionist parties, TUSC and Left Unity, formed an alliance claiming the mantle of the socialist alternative and demanding we stand down. They hyped up their own prospects and ignored the fact that Left Unionism and Republican Socialism are diametrically opposed in England as in Scotland.
In England the socialist vote (i.e. the vote for openly declared socialist parties) was universally poor and Bermondsey was no exception. Here the Left Unionists took 88% of the socialist vote and Anti-Unionists took 12%. It is the only measure of the mountain we have to climb before Anti-Unionism is the majority or better still the norm in English socialist and working class opinion. If this happens the next Scottish referendum will have a different outcome to the last. To see why this is an achievable objective we have to look to the bigger picture not least the development of the Scottish Left Project.
In considering the bigger picture, the Scottish referendum was hugely important not merely or even mainly in the final vote but in the popular mobilization and politicisation which accompanied the growing support for Yes. One important unrecognised, or under recognised, factor in the defeat of the democratic movement in Scotland was the passivity of the working class in England. The English working class movement took no part in the struggle to end the Union. There were no mass protest actions or petitions. There were no political strikes or solidarity demonstrations. In England, Labour‘s conservatism, combined with trade union passivity and neutrality, left Scottish democracy isolated from its natural allies south of the border.
The 2015 general election was not decided on the playing fields of Eton but in Scotland’s polling booths on 18 September 2014. The No victory handed the power back to Cameron, the Coalition government, the Whitehall machine and the Westminster parliament. On the following morning Cameron promised Scotland more powers and took the opportunity to call for
English votes for English laws. He gave us a glimpse of his trump card.
Yet Cameron could not turn the clock back. The SNP confirmed the shift that had taken place by sweeping the board in the general election. From England, the election appeared to become an unequal contest between the Tories and the SNP with Labour in the squeezed middle. The Tories and their press barons pumped up the ‘threat’ from SNP nationalism and the ‘danger’ of an SNP-Labour coalition. In English marginal seats, disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters concluded the best way to stop ‘Red Ed’ and the nationalist threat was to vote Tory.
The Conservative and Unionist Party is skilled at exploiting English national chauvinism for right wing purposes. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have great historical precedents. Scotland’s Covenanter rebellion against Charles 1 in 1639, the so-called Bishops war, provided the opportunity for the English parliament to rebel against the Crown. In 1644 it was the joint army of Scottish Covenanters and Cromwell ‘ironsides’ which defeated the royalists at the decisive battle of Marston Moor.
In one of Aesop’s fables about the lion, the bear and the fox, the lion and the bear fight over a small deer to the point of exhaustion. Then a fox, who has been watching, makes off with their prey. In the socialist version the bear is fast asleep and the contest of lion and fox has only one outcome – the lion eats and the fox starves. If the fox can wake the bear up a different outcome is possible. Will the bear be angry and lash out? Or will the bear and the fox face the lion together and share the food?
The Scottish left has adopted a republican perspective, since the Declaration of Calton Hill (2004). The Radical Independence Campaign confirmed and reinforced this. The fourth pledge (‘The People’s Vow’) says that RIC intends to establish a republic. But republican aspirations will have little substance without a republican party to organise and mobilise the working class.
The SNP wants Scotland to remain a constitutional monarchy. It has a serious party organisation to enforce this aim. Those who want a republic have no party organisation. Had there been a Yes majority, the absence of a republican party would have been cruelly exposed. Can the Scottish Left Project fill the vacuum? The publicity says yes.
The people demand a project to democratise Scotland and
full independence from the British state and its monarch.
But is this matched by a determination to create a militant republican party? In England, like Scotland, there is no mass republican party. But unlike Scotland, the English left is still largely committed to Labourism not republican democracy which is an after thought not a serious political intention.
Nicola Sturgeon (and Alex Salmond) appealed to the electorate in England. It was said that Sturgeon was the most popular politician in England because of her Anti-Toryism and proclaimed opposition to Austerity. SNP ‘internationalism’ carried some clout. It was deployed recently in the vote to defeat the Tories on fox hunting. The SNP has a branch in London, even if its remit is restricted.
It is relatively easy to be an internationalist in solidarity with struggles in Greece or Cuba. This is not to belittle such solidarity in any way or recognise there is not enough of this. But the acid test of internationalism is ‘at home’ in strengthening the unity of the Scottish and English working class. Anti-Unionism in England is an essential part of this and a point of unity.
Finally the Scottish Socialist Party in its day was a major step forward for the Scottish left. But in the post referendum world we should not simply reinvent another ‘Scottish only’ party but consider the possibility of an Anti-Unionist party which is republican and inter-national in the sense of organising in England. This is what Anti-Unionists and Republican Socialists in England would like to see – a Scottish Left Project breaking out of Scotland and out gunning the SNP’s ‘internationalism’ by organising in England.