No Short Cuts to a Progressive Scotland

The Yes campaign for Scottish independence is winning increasing support among forces of the left. But, says VINCE MILLS, this is based on wishful thinking about Scottish social attitudes and a failure to grasp the real difficulties of radical social and economic change.

The bedroom tax, changes to disability benefits and other benefit cuts are already causing massive anger and suffering in our communities. And it is estimated that about 80% of the coalition government’s cuts have still to come.

It is hardly any wonder, then, that some sections of the Scottish left, as well as individuals who want a more just society, are attracted by the argument that they would be better placed to achieve it if Scotland were independent of the UK.

What are the underpinning arguments for that position and what left strategies have emerged on the basis of these assumptions?Scottish flag & union jack

The first argument in favour of this position is that there is a significant difference between the Scots and the English in terms of the extent to which they favour progressive politics, the argument being that, on balance, the Scots are more favourably disposed than the English.

In fact, the evidence points in quite the opposite direction. A Nuffield foundation report in 2011 by Curtice & Ormston concluded that in terms of being “more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best”. They also note: “Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”

As Stephen Low points out on the Red Paper Collective website, the data extracted from British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys suggest that when it comes to our 15 million closest neighbours, the three northern regions of England, we are no different at all. Perhaps I  should add ‘unsurprisingly’ since they are areas of high unemployment and industrial decline, just like Scotland, and surely this played a significant part in shaping attitudes to the welfare state and neoliberalism.

The second argument to emerge from the left, the more revolutionary left, is that if Scotland left the UK it would lead to the break-up of the British state, with the implication that a progressive Scotland would then emerge.

For example, the former Labour MP and MSP, John McAllion, now a Scottish Socialist Party member, sees independence as a way of smashing  the British state where the British left has so signally failed. Writing in Red Pepper in 2012 he states:

“The choice is really very simple. Go on as before inside an antiquated and reactionary state that legally shackles trade unions and has no political space for socialism. Or begin to break that state apart in the name of progress and social advance and in doing so release the energy and the potential of a left across Britain that has for far too long been in retreat.”

There are two points to consider here. The first one is related to the previous assumption that the Scots are somehow being held back from adopting progressive politics by a reactionary Westminster. But, as we have just seen, there is no evidence to support the argument that there is really any more appetite for progressive policies among Scots than there is among the English.

Right-ward shift?

You could indeed sketch a case for a sharp shift to the right in an independent Scotland: the SNP’s capacity to fund increased public spending as it promises to do in an independent Scotland, depends on a commitment to raise the necessary funding. Counter intuitively they argue that they will reduce corporate taxation and that there will be no need to increase general taxation.Scotland oil rig

This is because they believe growth will follow independence through increased levels of inward investment premised on the lower corporation tax and continued growth in existing staples of the Scottish economy, such as oil and gas. Both of these assumptions are challengeable.

In the words of the Scottish TUC: “There is no credible evidence demonstrating a link … between low CT rates and high levels of capital investment or R&D spending.” Meanwhile, the loss of income to the state, necessary for social spending, may be considerable.

In addition, there is an acceptance at best that North Sea oil and gas reserves are reducing at a slower rate than previously expected, but not that the process of depletion is reversible.

In any case, the rate of extraction is not equivalent to the price at which the oil can be sold, although in late April 2014 the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility claimed that oil revenues have been falling for 13 years and will continue to decline.

Further, we have recently seen to our cost, with the near loss of the oil refinery and petro-chemical plant in Grangemouth, the fragility of significant elements of the Scottish economy in the hands of globally networked greed.

All of this means that public spending will be at the mercy of an unpredictable economic environment, left to the vagaries of the market, which the SNP shows not the slightest inclination to challenge.

In these conditions it strikes me that arguments for reduced public spending may well prevail. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in January showed that 56% of No voters and 46% of Yes voters think that benefits for the unemployed are too high and discourage people from finding a job.

Not that I need to make the case to a progressive readership like this, but Dr Jan Eichhorn, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, produced a report based on a Europe-wide study in November 2013, which showed that decent levels of benefits for the unemployed do not lead to a lack of motivation to find work.

But what value has evidence in the face of political spin. And the political forces behind the SNP, including Brian Souter of Stagecoach, Jim McColl of Clyde Blowers, and former Royal Bank of Scotland chairman Sir George Mathewson, will be keen to promote the virtues of public penury. In light of which, the possibility of a much more right wing Scotland emerging post-independence is very real.

It is also clear from what  John McAllion writes that he believes that the power of capital somehow depends on, and is sustained by, the constitutional relationship that exists between Scotland and the United Kingdom. Neither John, nor other socialists who make this case, explain how the power of capital, which would remain vested in the City of London, would be undermined by what SNP leader Alex Salmond recognises is a mere geographical re-arrangement, not a social and political transformation of society.

Capital power

As the Red Paper 2014 points out, the Scottish Business Insider list of the Top 500 companies in Scotland in January 2013 showed a top 20 dominated by wholly-owned subsidiaries of foreign multinationals and corporations quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

A secession by Scotland would not change this, quite the reverse. According to Eric Hobsbawn in Nations and Nationalism, secession increases small states’ dependence on global capitalism.

“They are economically dependent in two ways: generally, on an international economy they cannot normally hope to influence as individuals; and specifically – in inverse proportion to their size – on the greater powers and transnational corporations… The optimal strategy for a neo-colonial transnational economy is precisely one in which the number of officially sovereign states is maximized and their average size and strength … is minimized.”

Independence would mean that Scotland would be subject to the power of corporate capital vested in the City of London without any say in how that power is exercised because we would not be able to vote for the UK politicians who have political jurisdiction over those institutions.

Undeterred, the Jimmy Reid Foundation has come up with a detailed strategy for pushing an independent Scotland towards the left, but it is hardly one, I would argue, that grips the socialist imagination. It is called the ‘Common Weal’.

On ownership of the economy, it says nothing about the top 20 companies and instead emphasises the role of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in transforming the Scottish economy.

There are upwards of 80,000 such firms in Scotland, mainly in services, employing between two and 250 people. Few export directly. Many are suppliers to single, larger firms like Ineos Grangemouth or BAE systems and hence vulnerable to changes at that level, as we saw over the Ineos crisis. These are hardly the engines of economic transformation.

Furthermore, in so far as the Common Weal promotes public ownership, it is not primarily in terms of economic power – giving democratic control of the economy to those who produce the wealth – and there is no serious discussion of how, for example, key sectors of the economy such as transport could be brought back into public ownership. Instead, the Common Weal focuses on state interventions necessary because of market failure.

From a left wing perspective the section on democracy and governance is positively alarming. It adopts an unashamedly partnership model for trade unions. It argues for “strong trade unions working collaboratively with employers not only on employee remuneration issues but also on strategic management issues”.

This is the model which some Irish trade unionists argue has devastated their capacity to resist austerity. It sits very well, by contrast, with the corporatist thinking of the big business backers of the SNP.

The Red Paper Collective is only too conscious that exposing the limitations of arguments for a Yes vote from the left might be taken as counsel for despair.

On the contrary, if the English working class is, as it must be, as likely to challenge the exploitative nature of capitalism as their brothers and sisters in Scotland, then together we can challenge capital at its heart in the City of London.

I say this without the slightest doubt that winning the people of Britain to a radical anti-neoliberal project is enormously difficult. But if we want to challenge the power of capital that is what we must do. There are no short cuts.

We need a strategy built on existing working class institutions, primarily the trade unions, but which can grow beyond that into a British-wide people’s movement, which the People’s Assembly aspires to, a movement that advances the case for social ownership of the economy, starting with the banks and financial institutions, the energy companies and the communication and transport infrastructures.

That kind of movement will give us the basis for transforming this rotten, unjust society into one which is fit for human beings.


Vince Mills is a member of the Red Paper Collective and a contributor to Class, Nation and Socialism: Red Paper on Scotland 2014.

See also: ‘Socialism and Nationalism’ by Greg Philo

and: ‘Want to Escape Austerity? Move to Scotland’ by Ernie Jacques.

More about the Red Paper Collective:


  1. […] Independence’, by Will Brown ‘Scotland’s Referendum: Reimagining a Nation’, by Barry Winter ‘No Short Cuts to a Progressive Scotland’, by Vince Mills ‘Want to Escape Austerity? Move to Scotland’, by Ernie Jacques. Tags: […]

  2. […] have eventually changed course; many capsized in the storm. As Vince Mills has argued cogently on this web site, the idea that such experiments would be more sustainable at the scale of a Scotland-sized […]

  3. […] have eventually changed course; many capsized in the storm. As Vince Mills has argued cogently on this web site, the idea that such experiments would be more sustainable at the scale of a Scotland-sized […]

  4. […] also: ‘Scotland’s Referendum: Why the Left Should Oppose Independence’, by Will Brown ‘No Short Cuts to a Progressive Scotland’, by Vince Mills ‘Want to Escape Austerity? Move to Scotland’, by Ernie Jacques. Tags: […]

  5. […] have eventually changed course; many capsized in the storm. As Vince Mills has argued cogently on this web site, the idea that such experiments would be more sustainable at the scale of a Scotland-sized […]

  6. Vince Mills
    4 June 2014

    Thanks to Harry, Ernie and Johnathan for their comments.
    To take up Johnathan’s point about the engine of social change, I would interested in what he sees as the alternative to trade unions which, although numerically much smaller than their 1970s heyday, remain the only viable social and economic formations capable of forming the basis of a challenge to the inequity of contemporary Britain. Interestingly other formations, like the SSP in Scotland, have sunk without trace, or be more precise are now cheer leaders for the Yes campaign, without any significant influence. And whatever happened to Occupy and other anti austerity campaigns? I am anything but hostile to these attempts to mobilise; I was secretary to People’s Charter in Scotland for several years. The truth is we barely got beyond our supporting trade unions in terms of appeal. An electronic Scottish Parliament petition on the People’s Charter on got us a mere 3000 votes. If we had been trying to save bumble bees we would have no doubt been overwhelmed.
    I want to focus on Ernie’s point about exactly what is on offer in terms of the current independence debate. Incidentally Ernie, I would be interested in which statistics you think suspect. I do not accept any of them are questionable. Here are a couple more. 7 out of 10 Scots support UKIP’s policies on immigration and 32% are in favour of withdrawal from the EU ( as opposed to 40% in England) So while the Scots are different, I don’t think it is of the magnitude that would generate a qualitatively different politics in Scotland. I will be more precise later. And to answer Johnathan’s point I think this similarity to Norther England means Scotland should vote No and that we should also look to English regional assemblies as a very effective way of limiting the influence of Westminster ( assuming a continuation of the grip of right wing ideology), especially if there could be an alliance of regional parliaments and assemblies to oppose the worst excesses of neo-liberal barbarism.
    Here, I freely admit that the Scottish parliament has done this,( for example in Education there are no academies and health has avoided extensive privatisation, though neither avoided PFI/PPP) but that is the minimum you would expect; it was set up to allow the Scots to have distinctly different approaches to health and education. Labour in the Welsh Assembly has been more effective than Labour or the SNP in Scotland.
    So to some extent, Ernie is right that the decisions taken by a Scottish Parliament would reflect a more progressive stance. “Whatever one’s view on the SNP, it surely cannot be denied that democracy is better served if decisions on issues such as Trident, bedroom tax, welfare, community services and state investment are taken by the Scottish people and not by some Westminster elite serving the interests of the City and big money.”
    Nevertheless the SNP is explicitly in favour of an ideological position that embraces capital at the expense of working people and I would argue are not likely to be in favour of progressive politics in welfare, community services and state investment if these fundamentally challenge the balance of power between Labour and Capital or make it difficult to balance a budget thereby undermining Scotland’s rating as determined by ‘the market’. Only a couple of weeks ago the Scottish Labour Party tried to amend a Bill going through the Scottish Parliament on public procurement to include the Living Wage. The SNP opposed.
    This has to be seen in a wider context. In his recent book: Seventeen contradictions of the end of Capitalism David Harvey writes: “The world is broadly polarised between a continuation (as in Europe and the United States) if not a deepening of neo-liberal, supply side monetarist remedies that emphasise austerity as the proper medicine to cure our ills; and the revival of some version, usually watered down, of a Keynesian demand side and debt-financed expansion ( as in China) that ignores Keynes’s emphasis upon the redistribution of income to the lower classes as one of its key components. No matter which policy is being followed, the result is to favour the billionaire’s club that now constitutes an increasingly powerful plutocracy both within countries and (like Rupert Murdoch) upon the world stage.”
    Both of these strategies are being offered by key supporters of the independence project and have some purchase in the SNP. On the one hand there is the commitment to lower corporate taxation and straight forward rejection of any strengthening of workers’ rights as advocated by the SNP leadership and on the other hand there is Commonweal strategy, as outlined by the Jimmy Reid foundation, supported by some left SNP activists and MSPs, , that seeks to build on the limited welfarism of the Scottish Parliament posing at its core the need for partnership between Capital and Labour. It hardly needs stating that since neither advocates a fundamental challenge to the basis of class society nor a significant transfer of ownership in terms of wealth, they do not constitute the basis for either a secure welfare system in Scotland or a serious reduction of inequality.
    Closely related to the overarching political and economic strategies there is the question of democratic accountability. The current Scottish government has continued in the tradition of Thatcherism and Blairism in stripping out local democratic control of a range of services including Policing, and Fire and Rescue. Meanwhile initiatives like Community Planning Partnerships and Best Value have reduced the role of elected councillors in favour of frameworks both regulatory and voluntary. Recently the SNP has overseen the integration of health and social care. Once again the local democratic control will be lost in favour of unelected boards no doubt because integration is deemed to be necessary in light of the alleged pressure on the NHS and local services that demographic changes will generate. Taking services out of democratic control is one way of reducing resistance to the inevitable cuts that will follow Scotland’s failure to balance its budget.
    The consequence of a Yes vote is that the vulnerability of welfare provision to cuts will increase and the capacity of the left to win more fundamental social change will be undermined, because there will be no Barnett formula to ensure the redistribution of wealth across the Britain. Simultaneously working class institutions, like trade unions will be undermined ( with the exception of the EIS there are no Scottish Unions, so divisions, for example in the public sector unions are inevitable) and there will be no more Scots Labour MPs in Westminster, increasing the likelihood of Tory survival, at least in the short term.
    I have no idea how you write a Left economic strategy which works on the premise that the socialists of one country (Scotland) ask the socialists of another (England) if they would kindly take the banks and finance houses of England into public ownership because they are running the Scots economy (as they would) in a way that is detrimental to welfare and egalitarian aspirations of the Scottish Parliament. But such would be our relationship. It is difficult to imagine left advance in those circumstances and that is why I intend to vote No.

  7. Ernest Jacques
    21 May 2014

    Good question Harry. On balance you may be right which shows what a sad life I have led. But thanks anyway because your comment did make me laugh.

  8. Harry Barnes
    20 May 2014

    Ernie : If for the first time in over 50 years you are on the winning side over the Scottish Referendum, will that prove that you got this one wrong?

  9. Ernest Jacques
    14 May 2014

    I hope you are right Harry. As you know, I am much more pessimistic than you about Ed Miliband’s policy intentions and his ability to delivery on the One Nation Labour spin. But even if he is elected and keeps his (more) devolution promises, when it comes to financial, economic and foreign affairs and pensions and welfare benefits, he is unyielding and these will remain the preserve of the Westminster Parliament.

    Of course, those a little more cynical than me, might say these devolution concession are a desperate attempt to shore up Labour support in Scotland in the run-up to European and local government elections, especially as there are more signs of unrest in the Labour camp in Scotland with senior representatives like Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow South West, and chair of Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, openly blaming the Blairites for the growth in Scottish Nationalism and for the haemorrhaging of Labour membership and support north of the border, saying, “Quite clearly why we have got into our referendum in Scotland is because people were enormously unhappy with (Labour’s record in government). I think that is our fault … the Labour Party’s fault.”

    He goes on to say: “When it attached itself to New Labour with their policies of privatisation and cow-towing to the Americans, we quite clearly got ourselves out of step with the majority of Scottish opinion … I don’t think at that stage people were voting SNP in order to vote for separation. They were voting for the SNP because they weren’t us and more importantly they weren’t the Tories either. They were the acceptable alternative.”

    At the same conference Jenny Marra, Labour’s MSP for North East Scotland, put the boot in, saying, Labour must take some blame for the imposition of the Scottish referendum and for growing calls for an in-out EU vote. She went on to say, “This referendum in Scotland has come about because as a Labour Party we have been complacent and we haven’t rejuvenated ourselves.”

    This blame game exercise came on top of reports over the weekend that Alistair Darling has been quietly sacked and is to be replaced by (arch Blairite) Douglas Alexander, news which came on top of reports that our government is suppressing the results of an opinion poll (costing £50,000 worth of public money) suggesting a surge in support for Scottish independence. All this seems to point to anxiety if not panic in the Vote No – Better Together camp.

    While these might be difficult times for Alistair Darling, Scottish Labour and the broad church pro-union campaigners, they might take heart from the fact that I’m not on their side, in so far as in over 50 years of militant trade union activity and political campaigning on all sort of issues, I’ve never yet been on the winning side. Small comfort I know Harry.

  10. Harry Barnes
    9 May 2014

    Ernie: Ed Miliband has just taken the line I advocated with you elsewhere on this website. Vote ‘No’ and then vote Labour in the general election and we will deliver the popular Scots’ demand (which is not on the ballot paper) of Devo Max (well a lot more devolution anyway). Who knows, he might yet come up with other lines I keep advocating. Perhaps he is just a sophisticated version of his Dad.

  11. Jonathan
    9 May 2014

    I do have difficulties with this however: “if the English working class is, as it must be, as likely to challenge the exploitative nature of capitalism as their brothers and sisters in Scotland, then together we can challenge capital at its heart in the City of London”.

    As if the working class was like the Borg and thought with one mind!

  12. Jonathan
    9 May 2014

    I can’t decide one way or the other what I think about independence. I still believe that the Vince’s Hobsbawn quote carries weight.

    Look at the way that the Republic of Ireland is operating: it’s actually turning itself into a tax haven as the UK tries to tighten up its tax rules (the coalition – shamed by UK Uncut and the Tax Justice Network – has made some significant gestures in tackling tax avoidance). The same is true of Portugal, which has abolished taxes on ex-pats, and it is now poaching them from Spain, which is trying to tax them more heavily.

    So the record of small independent nations within the EU is hardly an inspiration, unless Luxembourg, Lichtenstein and Monaco are your ideal.

  13. Ernest Jacques
    9 May 2014

    I have enormous respect for Vince Mills and his Red Paper collective and fully accept that there can be no quick fix when it comes to combating the toxic effects of neoliberalism and our conservative culture, north and south of the border.

    But Vince’s perspective on the referendum debate, and what might happen should the Scottish people vote Yes, together with his recipe for change and social justice, is (to my mind) overly pessimistic and somewhat dated. I also consider some of his statistics to be suspect and designed to fit a particular screwed perspective on change and the mood of the Scottish people.

    It cannot be discounted that, should the SNP move on from a Yes vote into government, things might go terribly wrong and the Scottish Parliament might become a pale shadow of Westminster and the EU capitalist club, and that nothing fundamentally will change. But that will only happen if there is no viable alternative options and with the consent of (a majority of) the Scottish electorate. Whatever one’s view on the SNP, it surely cannot be denied that democracy is better served if decisions on issues such as Trident, bedroom tax, welfare, community services and state investment are taken by the Scottish people and not by some Westminster elite serving the interests of the City and big money.

    While Vince and Harry seem content to wait for the trade union movement (which sadly is shrinking and becoming less relevant by the day) and Labour’s Westminster elite to get their act together, socialists north and south of the border are supposed to put their faith in a Union which is part of the problem and is making things worse and more shockingly unfair by the day.

    Placing our hope in a bunch of look-a-like, self-serving Westminster-based Labour politicians like Alistair Darling – architect of Quantitative Easing and the biggest bank robbery in history, whose ultimate aim is managerial, maintenance of the status quo, and support for neoliberalism and everything I hate – is a policy of despair and no change.

    I much prefer the option of some change towards a more inclusive and less wasteful society today and the possibility of fundamental change tomorrow.

    And while I totally agree that there can be no quick fix, if Scottish independence becomes a catalyst for some progressive change, for establishment panic and for a little social justice, bring it on and vote Yes for an independent Scotland.

  14. Jonathan
    8 May 2014

    I’m strongly attracted by the arguments in the first two thirds of this article, though I think there may still be some more discussions to have about the subject. If Scotland is no more left-wing than the Northern regions of England, does this not suggest that the North should consider regional government rather than that Scotland should vote ‘no’?

    I am not sure that the Scotland should vote ‘no’ because it faces losing power and influence over the City of London because it has no say over the government where the city is located. I’m not sure that Westminster has much say over the City of London. You might as well argue that we should all be able to vote in GLA elections.

    I don’t understand the last part at all. The Trade Unions are a very marginal force in British politics and society today. It’s arguable the extent to which they do represent the working class – a very large proportion of whom are now self-employed, unlike their more middle class public sector counterparts in the trade unions. They still have an important role to play in wider society, but I don’t see them as the main focus for change. Those days are long gone.

  15. Harry Barnes
    4 May 2014

    The big reason why Scotland should vote “no” in the referendum is that Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom desparately need each other. We came together over 300 hundred years ago and then shared the exceptional conditions of being the first people ever to experience the dramatic changes of an industrial revolution.

    Together we developed an interlinked industrial working class who shared common and massive problems of capitalist expliotation. Together we mobilised and organised, following the ideals of socialists such as Robert Owen and Keir Hardie. We struggled for votes for working class men and then women as a means to tackle our common problems. This enabled us later to transform the very shape of society, introducing a mixed economy and a welfare state.

    The fact that capitlalism struck back under Thatcher, Reagan and globalisation is no reason for the working class of Scotland to cut itself off from rest of the working class in the United Kingdom. We have masses of problems, which can best be faced together.

    We need to push together to democratise the EU and see that it develops a social agenda. Within the UK itself, we need to end the monarch’s prerogative powers which, in practice, give undemocratic authority to prime minsters. We need a democratic second chamber, as the present Lords is full of placemen and women put there by Party leaders. We need governments elected and controlled to deliver measures of social justice and restrain the powers of capital. And we need devolved powers to allow people locally to participate fully in the democratic process.

    Scotland can be at the cutting edge in such matters – especially in developing devolution, a pattern which the rest of the UK needs to develop and follow. It would help if we could press the Labour Party into taking up such an agenda and put such a case to the people. Elections and referendums provide the opportunities to do this. Immediately, we face EU elections, the Scottish referendum and a general election. The time is now. We need to explain why the party of Labour needs Scotland to be part of the UK in this struggle.

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