We are living in time of great change. The situation in Greece, the Indy result, the near wipe out in Scotland of established UK parties and the anticipated Holyrood victory for the SNP next May highlight great instability between the people and the powerful. Where there is opportunity there is also danger. The SNP are pro capitalist, pro monarchy, pro NATO. That they are the beneficiaries of popular anger toward Westminster and austerity is a clarion call to the current fragmented left.
The Republican Communist Network supports, and is active in, developing the Scottish Left Project and, in that spirit, we offer the following perspective.
The Scottish Left Project paper,
Together We Can Change Scotland, has the slogan, ‘Our Scotland, Our Republic’. In this article we hope to explore some of the issues that make this slogan relevant and significant.
Sovereignty of the people
For us, Republicanism is at the heart of any democratic revolution. To have a republican perspective is to put the ‘sovereignty of the people’ as the founding principle of any democratic structure. This democratic struggle is called republicanism in the UK because it highlights that we live in an undemocratic, constitutional monarchy.
Others may think republicanism equates only with the opposition to the monarchy and, moreover, since our monarchy is largely symbolic, why bother when there are more pressing issues such as austerity and the democratic struggle for self determination.
In the first instance, our monarchy is a very real, well hidden from view, power structure. The pomp and circumstance is for public consumption whilst the business of government by the unelected, unaccountable and the unseen goes on in alliance with parliamentary collusion.
Secondly, putting the principle of the sovereignty of the people into practice goes well beyond merely abolishing any monarchy; it is concerned with control, at the lowest feasible local level, of all aspects of our life – the political, the economic, the environmental and the cultural.
Returning briefly to the monarchy itself, senior royals can refuse Royal Assent to parliamentary bills (usually only the threat of this is needed and committees will alter the bill in advance of a vote in parliament). The Guardian report of 15 Jan 2014 exposed numerous examples of where the royals being ‘consulted’ in this way. This is in addition to the revelation in 2013 that prince Charlie alone had had 36 private meetings with government ministers since 2010. That’s about one a month!
But perhaps the most anti-democratic feature is the operation of the Privy Council. This unelected, 500 member body comprising of representatives of the military, the established church, peers, and the city of London, as well as leaders of the main parliamentary parties, meets monthly and exercises real power. It only needs a quorum of 3, i.e. the monarch and 2 others.
More serious even than that, it can and does act independently of parliament and even the courts. It has authorised the continuation of phone tapping, justified the use of illegal interrogation techniques (torture) within the UK and NI during the 70’s and in the late 1960’s the inhabitants of the UK controlled Diego Garcia Islands were forcibly removed to make way for a US military base. Twice over the next three decades UK courts declared this illegal and twice the Privy Council overturned the ruling. Not even parliament can overturn a high court ruling without changing the law itself. The Privy Council has the power to ignore the law and that deeply antidemocratic power will be used against us if we retain the ‘constitutional’ monarchy, the crown in parliament.
This is a major issue with the SNP. It is not just that they turn a blind eye to this, they are complicit in the system. The leader of the SNP in Westminster has always been a member of this Privy Council. They know exactly how hollow ‘Independence under the Crown’ really would be.
Suppose the monarchy were abolished tomorrow, would that give us full control over our lives? What would happen to the Privy Council and the panoply of crown powers?
Would we, for example, have control over the land, how it is used and the wealth that is generated from it? No, because ownership derives mainly from the feudal past with capitalist acquisition grafted on. Fewer than 500 people own around two thirds of Scotland’s territory, control it’s use and appropriate the wealth that derives from it. If we decide to replace the idea of private ownership with that of public custodianship and further state that decisions about land use will be made at local level then we open up the potential for development of Scotland’s vast tracts of land that could reverse the continuing rural population decline and expand the economic growth.
The idea of sovereignty of the people extends to many aspects of our lives. If we, not parliament in Holyrood, are to be sovereign, then parliament must be restructured to allow this. One idea is that elected representatives should be subject to recall where they break their mandate or ignore the wishes of the people. In other words, politicians need to be accountable, not once in five years, but in the here and now. Can you imagine MPs being so willing to follow Blair like sheep and vote us into an illegal, unpopular war if, the next day, hundreds of constituency assemblies began moves to have their MP recalled and perhaps dismissed?
Another idea is that of ‘workers’ representative on a workers’ wage’ i.e. that our representatives receive the average wage of skilled workers. This discourages those who are only in it for the money, and encourages our representatives to rise with our class rather than out of it. Further, should we consider a limit to the number of terms an MSP can serve? Is a long term, career driven political elite the only alternative to a monarchy?
Republicanism in the workplace or trade union means spreading action outwards and upwards from the origin of the conflict or from its most militant site. Industrial republicanism recognises the sovereignty of the members in their workplaces and branches, and not the sovereignty of the Union head office or full-time officials.
Method of moving toward socialism
In short, republicanism is putting the ‘sovereignty of the people’ into action in the here and now. Republicanism in action is about releasing the latent power of the people, and it means recognising the legitimacy of democratically agreed, direct action taken by ourselves at whatever level. Republicanism challenges not just the ruling class but also their knowing collaborators in and out of parliament (e.g., trade union bureaucracies).
Also, for a republican, housing, food production, environmental protection and transport should likewise be democratised. It is not that republicanism is an alternative to socialism; rather, under the crushing force of so called, “constitutional monarchy”, republicanism is really the only viable method of moving toward socialism.
The real question is about who has the sovereign power – the people or the ruling class in alliance with the crown powers of the monarchy? Socialists see republicanism today as directly linked to the struggle for the socialist republic tomorrow. It helps us develop a strategy and tactics to directly oppose today’s oppressors and exploiters. To declare for the democratic republic is to declare war against the existing bourgeois state. It is central to our struggle for emancipation and liberation.
Making our organisations democratic
Republicanism is fundamentally about the highest form of democracy: that is, democratic control held by the basic units of the society – workplaces and effective networks within communities. Elected representatives must always be accountable and subject to recall and dismissal. As previously suggested, where they are paid, they should receive no more than the average wage of skilled workers. This is a vital weapon against careerism and will help eliminate those powerful forces that drive a wedge between the elected and the electorate, the union member and the full timer.
It is imperative that socialists lead the struggle within society to extend thoroughgoing democracy to all areas of our lives. To achieve this it is absolutely essential that our own organisations are democratic. This must include trade unions and socialist parties.
The Republican Communist Network stresses the importance of republicanism and a democratic constitution within our own class organisations, because we recognise this as the most effective method of decision making, i.e. it creates the best framework for the most open and democratic debate which in turn maximises our ability to produce correct answers to problems we face. It facilitates collective decision making through mutual education and discussion. An active, living democracy allows us to harness the creativity of the membership and honestly reflect on the results of our practice and to quickly amend it in the light of this learning.
Whatever the final form of the Scottish Left Project, it should be a role model for that better society we yearn to see. The republican call for the sovereignty of the people should be mirrored by an organisation based on the sovereignty of the members in all aspects of the organisation – decision making, policy formulation and selection of office bearers and elected representatives. Many groups, trade unions and Parties claim ‘ownership by the membership’ but are, in reality, controlled by an inner elite protected by a rule book and constitution that they largely framed.
There is an opportunity to create an organisation that rejects that outdated framework, based as it is on,
We know best, better than the membership. There is an opportunity here to say,
There is no ‘we’, there is a multi-faceted membership and an inclusive organisation that facilitates debate and discussion within the membership.
The RCN is not naïve. Of course there is necessarily a ‘we’ or an ‘us’ that seeks to launch the SLP initiative. The issue here is, do those of us involved in this venture want to promote a ‘we first forever’ model or, instead, adopt the ‘sovereignty of the members’ model?