Murdo Ritchie raises questions for the Scottish Independence Movement.
WHAT NOW FOR THE INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT?
The issue should never be in what direction the Scottish national independence movement should go but what is the best way a new Scotland can be created. It is from this approach that the future political movements can be built. Organisations and movements can limp from political crisis to another if they fail to critically examine their initial purposes. Self-censorship in order to obtain a Yes vote may produce an outcome that could be very undesirable.
An “independent” Scotland under the Queen with the existing arrangement of aristocratic titles and supranational, interfering crown powers, suffering under non-stop European Union austerity measures designed to strengthen Central bankers while pretending sympathy for the migrants its imperialist policies have created, locked inside a military alliance many of whose members carry out aggression abroad and repression at home is unlikely to enthuse large numbers of previously disenfranchised voters.
It may not be possible to re-activate the energies that were unleashed in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. They cannot be switched off and on like water from a tap. The Scottish National Party has been the dominant political force advocating national independence. The Yes campaign was independent of the SNP, but the only party arguing the independence case with a mass base was the SNP. Therefore shifts in SNP policy indicated the kind of national independence the SNP was pursuing. Despite its enormous growth in membership, it still seems unable to create any shift in the popular mood moving towards national independence. The absence of any meaningful organised wider yes movement means that an important eye will always be the dominant nationalist force.
Its electoral representation has always been understated in Westminster by that institution’s practices. A very clear example of how an institution can impede a consciousness. It only gained power in the Scottish Parliament in 2007 allowing it to change its name from the Scottish Executive to the Scottish government. Support for Scottish national independence was never really directly tested until the referendum of 2014. This threw up the result of 55.3% against with 45.7% on the enormously high turnout of 84.59%. For the first, a far bigger support for national independence finally revealed itself.
THE SHADOW OF THE WIDER YES MOVEMENT
Despite the size of the Yes vote and the ever growing number of SNP members, the wider independence movement continues to defy organisation. The Greens although supporting independence have always been more concerned about environmental issues than national independence. The short lived Holyrood presence of the Scottish Socialist Party was established on the principles of acceptance of the personality cult of Tommy Sheridan and unconditional, undefined support for Scottish independence. When the leader left its only other pillar of support seemed irrelevant while the SNP held power.
Unwilling to create an independent distinct political identity from the SNP, the Greens and the SSP appear only to tail in the wake of the largest force. It was an ongoing joke in the various local Yes campaigns about the invisibility of either the SSP or Greens. Without any external challenge, powerful class forces within Scotland were able find an expression in the SNP while working class political aspirations only become wrapped up into their political hegemony. This is unlike Catalonia where different classes and traditions seeking independence can express themselves through different parties
The Independence Referendum of 2014 revealed a throbbing yearning for change. (As did the referendum on the European Union.) But the dominant Scottish National Party then and now want it to be as limited as possible. By reassuring the middle classes that much will remain the same after independence, it cannot explain why anyone should cease supporting the other parties of the status quo. This will not assist in mobilising the large numbers of people feeling disposed who previously voted Yes or for a future Yes Vote. The danger is that the Radical Independence Campaign appeared, until recently, to be uncritically following the SNP’s strategy and tactics. Indeed many in the RIC feel it wrong to criticise the SNP.
It is important to create a new “imagined community” for Scotland that abandons the middle-class based reassurances and again speaks to the disenfranchised and assist them to dream and organise for change. Although the SSP mentions a “modern, democratic republic” it plays no role in its political thinking, let alone a central one, in its political approach. Indeed an outside observer could conclude that its only distinctive policy is a ten pounds an hour national minimum wage.
For a radical Scotland to be built, breaking free of the existing international institutional constraints must occur. No domestic transformation is remotely possible unless these institutional blockages are removed. It is their intention to create illusions about their benevolent goals so as to conceal their real purposes.
The three major institutional impediments are:-
1. The Queen and Commonwealth;
2. The European Union; and,
3. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
REPUBLICANISM AND THE COMMONWEALTH
It is amazing how many on the radical left describe themselves as republicans yet do not make this the central feature of identification of their politics. Furthermore, they often hold membership of monarchist political parties (the SNP, Labour Party) seemingly unaware how central it is to their parties. The Queen’s intervention in the Independence Referendum still hasn’t registered with some of the middle classes. They fail to understand how the monarchy holds in place the doctrine of the Crown-in-Parliament, using Crown Powers based on the arbitrariness of custom and practice to keep the existing institutions and practices of UK government. To be a republican means to fight for the creation of a republic; not just affix it as an afterthought.
Politics is about government. In the UK, economic reductionism fixations with politics-from-below, as well as subconscious class deference has often helped take the focus away from the importance of the working class to shape and create the political institutions that comprise government. Nationalising various industries and providing extensive social welfare are useless if the monarchy, House of Lords and privileges of the archaic House of Commons remain intact and unchallenged. These are not simply quaint, outdated, decorative features but powerful mechanisms for the retention of class power. Together they make the keystone that holds the edifice together.
Most importantly, they prohibit many other essential features of national modernisation. It is impossible to have a written constitution because that would create an alternative basis of national, popular, legal sovereignty that would conflict with parliamentary sovereignty and the defensive, class privileged interpretations that stem from the dominant doctrine of the Crown-in-Parliament. Without a written constitution, it is impossible for individual, organisational or collective rights to exist. No UK subject has any constitutional or legal rights because any gains are cannot be secured anywhere but can be extinguished by the will of parliament or a judge pointing out that no entitlement exists beyond parliamentary sovereignty or custom and practice.
The privileged role of the Church of England with its seats in the House of Lords keeps religious worship obligatory in many non-church institutions, Parliament itself, the armed forces, but especially the schools system. Not only does this create a “league table” of religions, but a system of preferential funding for religiously based schools as well as reinforcing the divisions between private schools and the maintained sector. This further impedes the development of scientific education, especially biological evolution, and a fully rounded sex education covering contraception, abortion and homosexuality. The creation of a multi-cultured secular society that is genuinely inclusive of all religious views and opinions cannot be built while favour is given to one denomination of one religion.
The current Commonwealth grows from the British Empire even though it has enormously declined in influence and importance. Its Head is the UK monarch and a recent attempt has been made to effect a transition towards Prince Charles much to the annoyance of many former colonial members. Nevertheless, it is failing to be simply a mechanism for holding the former Empire together as countries with no prior connection such as Rwanda and Mozambique have obtained admittance. It is understandable that poor former colonies seek international sources to assist their development, but an independent Scotland could find membership would simply be to keep intact existing, entrenched class privileges, especially hereditary land ownership. Challenging the monarch or major aristocrats over the ownership, size or use of their estates would quickly escalate into an international issue.
Irish President Eamon De Valera was right when he thought it best to simply walk away from the British Commonwealth. Environmentalism, radical social reforms, secession, even left-wing socialist demands rarely disquiet the UK’s ruling classes. However, republican demands have struck terror into them because it more directly than any other doctrine challenges the way in which they govern and rule. It is a fundamental error to claim that it would be simple to establish a bourgeois republic and that nothing very much would change. The UK’s bourgeoisie has rarely needed to create mechanisms of rule because class deference to aristocratic rank has displaced judgements on their ability to govern. A more openly split bourgeoisie and its governing stratum makes it easier to contest them.
The creation of a Scottish republic has to become the central prism through which all future radical politics must be viewed. It is not enough to identify with republicanism while not making it the central purpose of politics. The republic is the egalitarian community we wish to create; the monarchy is the deference we accept in the UK’s hierarchical class structure. An independent Scotland –if one could be created- that does not remove the monarchy and its institutional and political obstacles would change so little that any national independence that could be attained would be reversed very quickly.
The international consequences of the Commonwealth are less direct because they are the outward projection of the UK’s ruling classes making them seem more “natural.” Nonetheless, the consequences of membership of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation seem more imposed although they are the outcome of voluntary decisions to join with outside forces taken by the UK’s rulers. Since the Second World War the state ie a body of armed men with a monopoly on violence has stopped being solely confined to the geographical parameters of the nation-state, but has been expressed through international treaties, pacts and alliances. These have massive consequences for the domestic policies of every country that signs up to them.
THE EUROPEAN UNION
The UK’s governing stratum thought it would win the referendum on continuing membership of the EU. Apart from some mavericks the bourgeoisie wanted to stay attached. Their calculation was wrong. Popular anger and disaffection with the leading political actors was expressed in the No vote. The officially sanctioned and funded campaigns did not speak for all, so their reasons should not be taken as reasons why people voted. In many ways the outcome was a misshapen class revolt. Although it did not express clear political aspirations, the result was a firm refusal to give assent to the status quo. It was hard to convince mining, steel and fishing communities that the EU protected workers’ rights. It was hard to tell EU migrants, that it protected their rights while the European Central Bank crashed their home economies. It was hard to tell non-EU migrants, especially from former colonies, why the EU now manned the wall to keep them out.
Membership of the EU is not a marginal issue but places enormous limitations on economic and social policies within all countries. The recent experiences of Greece Portugal Spain and Ireland show that. They have also included quotas on many industrial goods, limits on the amount of foodstuffs grown and fish caught, privatisation of postal services and other formerly publicly owned services, as well as severe restrictions on “state aid.”
Scotland voted differently because of the high prestige the SNP obtained from the Independence Referendum in 2014 and the massive demolition it made of its opponents in 2015. It was not a firm endorsement of the EU. A trust was given to the SNP it did not deserve. Unable to chart a course after the result of 2014, it became more and more reactive to the EU referendum and result; so much that it ceased arguing the case for national independence in Scotland. The headline in the … Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy was to remain in the EU on the basis of Mrs Thatcher’s opt-outs and Gordon Brown’s refusal to join the Euro. These advantages will not be open to an independent Scotland if it chooses to re-join the Union.
Nevertheless, the SNP’s illusion management has gone into overdrive to claim that an independent Scotland will not have to face the same austerity regimes on debt and public spending to get in that have been compulsory for every new entrant since 1999. As the UK leaves the EU, these issues will become clearer and wishful thinking will evaporate. The claim that the Sustainable Growth Commission has made recently about the need to stay with sterling for approximately ten years until a new Scottish currency can establish itself are misleading. It is a mistake to believe the Independence referendum was “lost” for economic reasons, let alone because of the confused policy on the currency. The myth that an independent currency needs a long gestation period is spread as a way of keeping nationalist discontents quiet. Rather the Wilson Report has signalled the future Scottish government’s attempt to negotiate privileged terms for re-entry into the EU and to condition the Scottish public to accept the Euro. .
No attempt was made to discuss the behaviour of the EU as a set of elite institutions that lack any accountability even to themselves but rather the focus was placed on a one-sided interpretation of workers’ rights, a proxy debate on immigration that failed to state how far the remain camp under Cameron had already attempted to restrict migrants’ rights. No truly radical Scotland could accept the conditions that the EU would place on Scottish sovereignty, industrial and economic policies, working people’s ambitions or ability to set policies for themselves. It was a vote that despite its many failings cleared the decks sufficiently for a future independent Scotland to attempt to make its own way in the world. Yet the EU Referendum was a UK-wide election, and its vote should be respected regardless of any geographical differences
Soon, the UK and Scotland will be formally outside the Union. This will not be easy even if all the arrangements are made and agreements are signed because “regulatory alignment” will still have to occur to trade within the EU’s borders. So far, only the Greens have declared their intention to campaign to re-join the EU. The SNP have been more circumspect; they are aware that re-entry may not be well received. Popular hostility to the EU is still palpable in Scotland; it has been masked by the SNP’s high prestige. Once outside, however, it may not be so easy to hide the real consequences of EU membership. Would those seeking to create a new Scotland really want to spend the next generation, perhaps two generations, campaigning to re-join this elite club?
THE NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANISATION
In May this year, Colombia became a “global partner” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Although not yet a full member, it is joined in the same alliance as the country in the world that imprisons most journalists and trade unionists –Turkey. It is amazing how often NATO’s political representatives emphasise the reason for joining NATO is a commitment to shared values.
Immediately prior to the Independence referendum, the SNP pushed through a commitment to membership of NATO1. It prompted two Holyrood resignations, but was accepted by the membership as being of small consequence. However, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the commitment to removing nuclear weapons from Scotland’s territorial land and sea boundaries may become very difficult. It would be impossible for a NATO member to oppose the presence of nuclear weapons on the aircraft, ship or submarine of another NATO member. The high number of NATO exercises requiring Scottish anchorage will make this an immediate challenge. Unless contested from the outset, an erosion of the principle will commence very quickly.
NATO membership comes with ready-made foreign and military policies. These are usually set by the United States of America. It is very rare for any smaller country to diverge from them. Indeed none have for a prolonged period. At the moment, the US’ supranational sanctions regimes extend well beyond Russia and Iran affecting European banks and businesses trading with Cuba and Palestine. The Cuba, Venezuela, and Palestine Solidarity Campaigns in the UK have recently experienced enormous difficulties keeping bank accounts open. NATO membership makes it hard for smaller countries to break ranks to pursue an independent foreign policy; a constant pressure for compliance with the most powerful forces always exerts itself. The defence proposals outlined in the White Paper (Scotland’s Future) would be incompatible with NATO’s wishes because it promotes an almost entirely defensive posture over a highly flexible, mobile, integrated that can intervene in other countries.
CONFINING OR LIBERATING TO WIN NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE?
These international, institutional impediments will make it difficult to set up any policies that are capable of mobilising large numbers. Promoting illusions about how an independent Scotland could all be different while knowing that these external requirements will run counter to these popular wishes is a dishonest form of politics that will discredit anyone who practices it. Switching off reality to project illusions can only produce catastrophe. Unlike 2014, when there was a very low level of consciousness about the consequences of NATO and EU membership, there should be no reason now not to challenge these features.
Unfortunately, the false illusions that are now present in large parts of the left regarding the EU are an impediment to building a genuinely working class socialist republicanism. The seeming remoteness of NATO and Commonwealth membership does not permit them getting the prominence they deserve. Yet there is a wilful blindness to the easily observable effects of the EU’s strictures.
Issues which could mobilise many such as building a more representative inclusive politics cannot come into existence before overcoming these obstacles. A Sovereign Wealth Fund for defined areas of social spending would require firm, legally binding rules to be implemented by a Westminster (or Holyrood) that can brook no external challenge to its legal sovereignty. Likewise a written constitution that places limits on Westminster conduct.
At the moment, many think they can re-launch the Yes campaigns to fight for “independence” just like the last time. It will not happen like that. The ability to express the views people wished have been taken away by making these seemingly international commitments. More importantly, genuinely bold policies must be attached to people who display a will to win them. At present the SNP wants to become members of elite clubs. It was no accident that supposedly six thousand new members joined the SNP when they walked out of Parliament in a demonstrative act of defiance for a day. This is a lot more than felt energised by the online publication of the Sustainable Growth Commission report a fortnight earlier. A will not to accept the status quo was shown that brought respect. Only by showing an intention to challenge existing powers and authorities as well as a belief that breaks with the status quo can large numbers be mobilised again. But as the SNP grows its new “respectable” membership may become yet another obstacle to mobilising millions for national independence. That is why a radical independence movement that holds distinctive policies needs to be built.