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?
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.
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.
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.
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: www.redpaper.net