Scotland’s Referendum: Why the Left Should Oppose Independence

Far from being a certain route to social democracy, as some suggest, Scottish independence is a short-cut to nowhere, says WILL BROWN. We need a longer term strategy for a progressive unionist future.

A key argument on the left of centre in Scotland, repeated this week by George Monbiot in the Guardian, is that independence will allow Scotland to achieve what it cannot in the UK: social democracy. Friends in Scotland echo this, saying people are fed up with the status quo and just want a chance to change.

Scottish flag & union jackAnd indeed, the referendum campaign in Scotland, especially at grassroots level, has revitalised activism, and encouraged people to question future possibilities and engage in discussions about political alternatives in a manner that stands in startling contrast to the pervading media image of disillusion, apathy and cynicism about politics. Organisations such as Common Weal and National Collective, and events like Yestival are signs of a political debate far more passionate and imaginative than that offered by the mainstream parties.

In these times, who could not be tempted by the chance to separate, to begin afresh, as many on the left are, in England as well as Scotland? It is an impulse that animates, not just nationalists, but many advocates of regional devolution too: a chance to govern ‘our own area’ freed from the constraints of Westminster and the City.

Yet, this position sits uncomfortably with the history of socialism and social democracy in Britain. Social democracy in post-war Britain was indelibly a unionist creation, as was the broader socialist movement that emerged from the late 19th century. One only has to skim through the profiles of ILP pioneers and politicians on this web site to understand that socialist and social democratic politics in Britain are … British.

No nation within the UK can claim a right to that heritage, separate from another. Indeed, one would have to acknowledge that it wasn’t even only a British creation, but one which melded and made room for politics from elsewhere too – including from Europe and from Britain’s colonies.

Denying the role of England and English political activists and politicians, the role of the union, in creating the very social democracy that many pro-independence campaigners seek to ‘rescue’, does a huge disservice to the many political activists who have worked and continue to work for social democracy north and south of the border.

One has to ask of the left who are supporting independence, what price solidarity? What of the solidarity across the UK that forged campaigns for the vote, against unemployment, for the NHS, and today, against austerity and the bedroom tax? It wasn’t the left in England – or even a majority of English voters for that matter – who inflicted the poll tax on Scotland.

But it was a united movement, north and south of the border, that brought an end to that Thatcherite abomination, and it could be too with the bedroom tax. One is tempted to suggest that some of the left-wing supporters of independence need to remove the blue Saltire from their eyes and see a bit more red.

Hard truth

Perhaps one could live with this traducing of history if the political prospects looked good, if indeed independence could propel Scotland towards a revitalised social democracy. The hard truth is they don’t look any better there than in the UK as a whole. The pursuit of separation, tempting though it may be, is more a sign of desperation than of long-term strategic thinking for those on the left.

Scottish independence badgesIn today’s global economy, the prospects for social democratic policies in any one country are poor. Certainly since the late 1970s, but before that too, almost every attempt to implement social democracy has had to face crises brought on by the reaction of capital, in the form of currency traders, bond traders and investors. In major economies, from the UK in 1945 to France in the early 1980s (and France today for that matter), social democratic governments have had to tack and weave in the face of adverse international economic winds.

Most 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 economy, as compared to a UK-sized economy, seriously underestimates the constraints small nations face in today’s international system.

There is an assumption among many on the left that political independence automatically delivers a real, de facto independence from international capital. Yet the strength needed to make such left of centre experiments survive is more likely to be found within a larger economy and, even then, would need the kind of broad public support and active popular participation that has been so lacking from so much of Labour’s history. Without these defences, the pursuit of independence seems more like a strategy for hiding in the long grass hoping the tigers of international capital will forget you are there.

It is true that the prospect of even a modest social democratic programme in the UK is fraught with difficulties. It is this that makes the temptation to go it alone in Scotland so strong. (Of course, independent Scotland, by denying Labour so many seats in Westminster, makes it even more difficult to achieve on a UK-wide basis.)

But independence is a short-cut to nowhere. At best, it offers a short-lived honeymoon. At worst it offers the kind of instant crisis-management, ‘facing up to economic realities’ and ditching of principles that have greeted so many social democratic governments. How long will it be before we hear a leader of independent Scotland echo Callaghan in ’76 and tell the disillusioned electorate that ‘in all candour this is no longer possible’?

The prospect of crisis, and the pathologies of diminished expectations that would surely follow, are all the more pressing given Alex Salmond’s amazingly ill-considered currency policy. About the only point on which I have ever agreed with George Osborne is the question of currency union. No UK chancellor with an ounce of sense (and, more importantly no English, Welsh or Northern Irish taxpayer) would agree to a currency union without cast-iron commitments, limits on Scotland’s fiscal and financial policies, and regulation. After the crash, after Greece, Spain, Iceland and Ireland, it would be astonishing if anyone would be so cavalier with future prosperity as to agree to the kind of deal Salmond is seeking – giving Scotland all the financial freedom and England all the liabilities.

In reality, ‘independent’ Scotland would have only tough choices: a deal in which Westminster and the Treasury put severe constraints on all the major levers of Scotland’s macroeconomic management; a deal for joining the Euro that would come with equally stiff requirements; or ‘unofficial’ use of the pound (‘sterlingisation’) in which the Scottish government operated without any control over interest rates, no central bank and almost no ability to borrow money from the markets. The choices are limited and however hedged about it might be with nationalist denunciation of ‘London’, the EU or ‘international capital’, Scotland would be forced to accept one of them.

Progressive alternative

So what is the alternative to independence? What prospects can be held out to those north of the border craving a change, any change, from the status quo of austerity?

The perception south of the border is that one of the signal failures of the No campaign has been an inability to articulate a Labour defence of union and vision for a progressive unionist future. Shackled within the all-party Better Together campaign, and by Labour’s own record in government, the very idea of an alternative unionist future has been hidden, allowing the Yes campaign to paint the referendum as a stark choice between unionist austerity and independent social democracy.

Alastair Darling’s woeful performance in the second TV debate owed something to this obvious trap, making it easy for Salmond and his jeering acolytes in the audience to taunt him about austerity, the bedroom tax and NHS privatisation. Questioned about what union had ever delivered, Darling even failed to make the obvious point that the NHS itself is a unionist, Labour creation. Of course Labour’s record in office also constrained what this particular Labour politician could credibly argue.

Thankfully, there is now some acknowledgement that the No campaign needs a clearer sense of what a Labour future might hold for the UK, a UK including Scotland. The absence of a Labour defence of union has belatedly prompted recognition from the Party that it needs to remind voters of the possibility of an end to Tory rule even without independence. It has also spurred Gordon Brown back into the political fray (although he too is shackled by his years of subservience to the City) and prompted Jim Murphy’s 100 streets in 100 days’ campaign.

From a more left-wing position there is the argument Vince Mills has made from the Red Paper Collective, pointing out that the short-cut of independence represents a failure to face up to the power of the City and the power of capital, and the constraints and difficulties this puts in place. The need to present a progressive alternative to independence, to challenge the SNP’s false dichotomy of independence or Tory rule, could hardly be more pressing.

Admittedly, the idea of a progressive political future is a hard sell wherever you may be. The forces ranged against us, the antipathy to socialist values (north and south), the dead weight of past Labour governments, and the absence of a clear progressive voice from today’s leadership all make the siren call of independence so much the stronger.

But a longer-term strategy is needed, one which acknowledges the difficulties faced by left-of-centre politics wherever they may be: a strategy that is aware of British social democracy’s shared unionist history (warts and all); a strategy that builds on past solidarity between socialists north and south of the border, rather than one that abandons that shared struggle; and, perhaps above all, a strategy that learns from, and is energised by what has been so good about Scotland’s referendum campaign – the grassroots activism, the popular participation, the opening up of the parameters of political debate, and the willingness to imagine a better future.


See also: ‘No Short Cuts to a Progressive Scotland’, by Vince Mills, and ‘Want to Escape Austerity? Move to Scotland’, by Ernie Jacques.


  1. Harry Barnes
    22 September 2014

    Ernie : The Scottish Referendum has opened up a new situation in the politics of the United Kingdom. The electoral registration and turnout figures were astonishing in contrast to what has been happening in Scotland and the United Kingdom over recent decades.We should try to build on that development, whether we are still “yes” or “no”. The lesson being that if you give people real and significant choices that will shape their future, then they will respond. I appreciate, however, this is not something those running the current Labour Party Conference will suddenly have learnt.

    Sometimes we have to change our stance, whilst not selling out our values. When you lose out in politics and a new situation emerges, you sometimes need to adjust your tactical approach. During Wilson’s referendum as to whether we should remain in the then Common Market, I campaigned fully for our coming out. Clearly the Common Market was designed as a capitalist club, which lacked a democratic structure and cut us off from the type of trading links we had with various Commonwealth nations. But the overwelming referendum decision changed the game. We were stuck in the Common Market and had to operate within a newish alien and developing framework, which had its own dynamic. The day the result was announced, I discussed the new situation with the person who had run the anti Common Market campaign in North Derbyshire, we decided that we had not only to accept that the referendum result could not be challenged, but that it had changed the whole game. The Common Market would develop based on its existing principles. But we were stuck in it and its economic norms looked as if they would then be advanced and would also come to further shape our own trading and economic development. Nothing had changed about what was wrong with the Common Market from the day before. But we now had to work within a fresh framework. So we decided to become pro Common Market immediately; but press for a federal, democratic and social Europe. It remains our podsition today, even though the European Parliament has only made tiny inroads into the powers of both the Council of Ministers and the European Commission. But if you examine the policy of the Party of European Socialism (PSE) at the last European Elections, you will find a partially socially progressive programme – which was unfortunately entirely ignored by one of its affiliated bodies. Namely, the British Labour Party. But the PSE (and hence its affilates) are worth pressing on federal, democratic and social issues.

    Of course, the attitude my friend and I adopted (and continue to work for) can not itself be set in stone. If UKIP helps to take us out of the EU, then our agenda is again likely to change again. For you can only work from where you are at – and with the tools that are to hand.

    So should your own agenda not also shift, now that Scotland has not gained its independence? I agree with you that UK and Labour Movement politics are mainly in a mess. But we need to look for avenues to advance democratic and socialist ends, from where we find ourselves. For the problem is likely to be much the same whatever constitutional structures we inherit. Although as you will see from my article “Constitutional Conundrums”, we can always try look for structures which might ease our efforts.

  2. Ernest Jacques
    19 September 2014

    Well the people have voted and democracy has spoken and the political elite can breathe a huge sigh of relief insofar (as despite all the VOW rhetoric) its back to normal and the way things should be now that those ignorant, unpatriotic and dangerous nationalist have had their comeuppance.

    So it’s UK – OK – then as we keep Trident, our nuclear weapons, permanent seat on the UN Security Council and place on the top table of world affairs, etc. Oh and our unbalanced, unequal and “all in it together” union is safe . Great, the UK nationalist (and their left wing supporters) won fair and square but it proved a bumpy ride and a bit scary at times.

    And now that that little matter is over the Scottish TUC (safe and predictable supporters of the union) have organised a post-mortem conference for Labour Party members, in Glasgow, 25th October titled:
    After the Referendum – What should Labour Do?

    Well that question will vary considerably depending on whom you ask, but certainly not many, if any, will agree with my thinking about what should be done. No change there then, but what they will do is never in doubt, its business and usual.

    And a primary reason for such pessimism from a life-long 76 year old trade unionist, Labour voter and one-time Labour Party member is because despite all the warm words and heady rhetoric about Labour values, solidarity and bluster about past achievements (sic), Ed Miliband One Nation Labour Party, and shadow cabinet is overflowing with unrepentant Blairites (experts at political spin, conference pomposity, crocodile tears and playing the system) are primarily intent on managing the system and their own careers with no convincing economic strategy for change nor even a vision of what a democratic, fair and inclusive society might be. Either that or they are good a keeping secretes.

    So if Unison, the GMB and John McDonnell MP and assorted No Vote supporting lefties want to discuss “What Should Labour Do?” – I say you don’t need to be clairvoyant, because it’s more of the same and No Change.

    Instead have a day out with your families, or in the garden, a bit of DIY maybe but please don’t kid yourselves that these self-serving politicians and Labour grandees and luminaries like Gordon Brown, Lord John Reid, Baron of Cardowan, Lord John Leslie Baron Prescott, Alistair Darling et al, will listen. Or be convinced by conference rhetoric that they are about to become agent of change determined to reverse the exponential growth in inequality, unbalance, unfairness, workplace exploitation or support a compulsory living wage or use the state to invest in bomb-sites like (Gordon’s) Kirkcaldy or regenerate deprived neighbourhood communities and sink estates or heaven forbid design a truly professional and world class network of vocational training and education programmes and proper career paths for the long term unemployed and socially excluded.

    Now if the TUC were to give some thought to that sort of programme and to funding politicians and agencies who embrace such a progressive agenda rather than being complicit in gerrymandering Labour Party democracy or even, heaven forbid, get into the 21st century with relevant support programmes for redundancy workers by turning away from stale strategy and tactics and demonstration that for 40 year or more have been a road to nowhere and have wasted hundreds of millions of trade union subscriptions for no payback, then maybe a post referendum conference might have merit.

    But should you think that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party north of the border, is about to have a Road To Damascus-Conversion – dream-on.

    Bit of a rant, I know, but not a patch on Gordon’s Brown’s rant, widely lauded and which might well have turned the tide and convinced many traditional Labour voters to return to the fold.

    But if you think Gordon Brown’s passion for the union and his undoubted talents as a speaker for the big occasion will now be used on plans for the regeneration of his Kirkcaldy constituency and countless sink estates or that some of the energy, innovation, skill and passion associated with his time as Chancellor – when he bailed out the banks to the tune of billions and through Quantitative Easing spent billions more to compensate the city and the very bond traders who brought about the world wide credit crisis and austerity – you might have a long wait.

    Because from my perspective, – being just a little less greedy and nasty than Cameron’s Tories is unappealing.

  3. Harry Barnes
    18 September 2014

    Ernie: The big things that offer hope from the referendum are high electoral registration figures and the likely high turnout right across all the age ranges. This degree of electoral engagement needs to be understood and worked upon – not just in Scotland, but in the rest of the United Kingdom. Then also, at least Gordon Brown and company have finally realised that there is a need to appeal to some of the concerns and well-being of the working class – even if this has only so far been done on the basis of “stronger together”.

    But are the acorns in Scotland any different from those we have been failing to nurture throughout the UK – the possibilities which come from people having decent jobs, homes, health provisions and the nurturing of their bodies and minds? These are common tasks we need to share. How does cutting ourselves in different territories enable us to further what should be a common task?

    The task is surely to seek to turn around (or replace) a failing Labour Movement across the whole of the UK and also on a wider basis. It is only if an independent Scotland become a catalyist for a change which could then be exported, that a ‘no” vote would give us hope. But I don’t see this. Perhaps I have just failed to place enough faith in Tommy Sheridan, the left wing of the SNP and what Scottish Labour is just about to change itself into.

  4. Ben Saltonstall
    18 September 2014

    I think Harry asks some pertinent questions. But, if I were Scottish and about to vote, I would also ask the question, ‘Why should I stay with England?’ This is a question that the Left needs to answer positively. At the moment, it seems to be struggling although the Guardian was very good this morning.

    It’s up to us to help the Left come up with some answers, not dismiss those who believe in independence as balkanising and uncertain, where what seems most uncertain is where change is going to come from in a union dominated by England as it drifts towards isolation and away from international norms that even most other capitalist countries support in principle (if not always in practice). That is our most urgent task, in my opinion because arguably some of the ‘yes’ vote is a response to the dissolution of Labour and the far rightwards drift of politics in England.

  5. Ernest Jacques
    18 September 2014


    I accept much of what you say insofar as Scottish independent is not going to bring about fundamental change and total social justice and certainly not overnight.

    But – as my wise old mum used to say- from tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow. And the acorn in the Independence debate is the possibility (just) of a proper working democracy and one-person-one vote system without the gerrymandering, machine politics and big money, big egos and establishment influence that makes such a mockery of our party, electoral and Parliamentary system which is rooted in the 17th century and, in my opinion, is unfit for purpose and way past its sell by date.

    A Parliamentary and electoral system that is conservative and regressive in the extreme and the antipathy of change (well the sort of change we in the ILP would like to see) and is fundamentally part of the problem and not the answer vis-a-vis fairness, social justice, one nation and a good society.

    And while I have little admiration for Alex Samond (another machine politician and big ego) and would never support the SNP, I do nevertheless like his deputy Nicola Sturgeon who in earlier times was a member of CND and came into politics because of her outrage at Thatcher’s de-industrialisation and privatisation programme the way working people, their families and communities were simply discarded and left to rot like yesterdays’ newspaper.

    And Harry, as a former MP and someone at the heart of the British Parliamentary system and the Labour Party political machine (but thankfully not part of it) for many years you know full well that part of the problem and the reason these shysters get away with what they do is, in large measure, because of the democratic deficit where the trust, loyalty and votes of working people has been taken for granted and abused decade after decade.

    A this democratic deficit that is about to shade into insignificance once the coalition government and EU leaders complete the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement with Obama’s America allowing big money to take over any public service including every aspect of the NHS and should a future government (of any persuasion) try to take the service back into community and/or state control they would be sanctioned by massive fines and huge compensation. Prime minister Cameron is delighted saying this trade agreement agreement has “immense potential”. You bet it has Dave!

    And while Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has asked for asked for the NHS to be exempt from any such agreement that “threatens its future”. A statement (weasel words) which speaks volumes and means that on behalf of One Nation Labour (and of that passionate defender of Labour values and the union Gordon Brown) he has already conceded defeat with all other areas of state provision, police, justice, probation, education, whatever. What next defence and privatised army’s?

    And that’s even before the ink is dry and he gets back into government on the basis of buggins-turn and collective amnesia over a governmental career we would all like to forget.

    No wonder the money bags in the city and in the USA are salivating at another huge bonanza in the making. All done of course, as ever, on the premise of best value and that the British Public will get more for less because the private sector is hugely innovative and efficient at stripping out unnecessary costs and meeting customer needs. Aka zero hour and minimum wage contracts. But as we also know, like the utilities, rail, PFI the reality is often the reverse where the public get less for more and millions of working people and consumers get shafted.

    And Cameron’s icing on this latest outsourcing cake is his poison pill privatisation contracts that will guarantee companies get a minimum of 10 year profits no matter how badly they perform and in the event that a future government dare terminate these crony contracts. But does anyone seriously believe that One Nation Labour would be that radical?

    So my answer to Harry’s question is democracy – or at least the best that we can conceive of – in the hope that the voice of the people of Kirkcaldy, Fife and Scotland can be heard and politicians like Miliband and Brown will act accordingly and in line with all the spin about Labour values, solidarity , fairness and social justice.

    No magic bullet, I know, and as Harry, Will, Matthew and Barry would rightly say, it begs more questions than answers and that’s hugely problematic. But nevertheless, that must be better than the status-quo and the uninterrupted advance (and embrace by the Party of Labour) of the neoliberal horror story.

  6. Harry Barnes
    17 September 2014

    Ernie: Even if everything you say about “no” campaigners is correct, how will a “yes” vote move Scottish politics in a significantly different direction? What dramatic changes will the SNP, Scottish Labour and the rest come up with that will grab the Scottish people so that they rid themselves of the mess you point to? If not, where will a new form of Scottish politics be likely to come from? Will the source of possible changes to politics and economics differ if Scotland gains independenc or if it remains part of the UK?

    I don’t wish to claim that the present boundaries of nations should never be adjusted. Moves to independence or to new combinations of territory may in the end be part of solving problems in, say, parts of the Middle East. But is the Scottish case for indendence special, or could the same arguments apply to the independence of Bavaria, the northern island of New Zealand, the Shetlands or Cornwall? Is Scottish independence just a case for Balkanisation for its own sake, or is it an essential move towards a better Scotland? If the latter, what is the future likely to hold and from what sources?

    I am unclear as to how independence will aid social progress in (a) Scotland and (b) the rest of the UK? And how far do the interests of the Scottish working class outweigh that of the working class in the rest of the UK? Such uncertainty (and non-answers to these questions) tell against independence. This does not mean that my questions can’t be answered. But who has the answers? And why have we not heard them? Is it due to a media blackout? And will a Scottish media’s black-out be lifted in an independent Scotland, and how?

    If no-one seeks to convince me on these matters, then I will remain unconvinced. But we now need to see the result and then immediately decide “what happens now?” But that would still be the question if there had been no referendum.

  7. Matthew Brown
    17 September 2014

    Anyone who’d like to see Brown’s speech for themselves can find it here:

  8. Ben Saltonstall
    17 September 2014

    Reading Ernie’s post, it makes me think that perhaps the only alternative to nationalism, good or bad, progressive or divisive, is social ownership.

    I am becoming increasingly convinced that we need to be talking about how to put that back on the agenda.

    But first we need to work out what we mean by it in a market based economy.

  9. Matthew Brown
    17 September 2014

    Ben, my point is that Will did not say that. He did not mention Milosevic. Indeed, the point he was making (and McAsh too) is that many supporting the yes campaign are doing so for progressive reasons – quite unlike Milosevic and his ilk – and believe independence will make those aims more achievable.

    His argument (and I agree with him) is that separation will make it more difficult for the left, and can lead in dangerous directions which those on the left should be extremely wary of, towards division based on geography, culture, nationality…

    By the way, I was not attempting to address the ‘substantive points’ in your later contribution. Sorry if you’re disappointed by that, but it wasn’t my aim, partly because I agree with your general argument about the ‘crisis of socialist economics’. I was merely trying to direct people towards a piece on nationalism which I thought made some useful points.

  10. Ernest Jacques
    17 September 2014

    Well it looks like the totally negative Westminster coalition, TORY, LABOUR, LIBERAL, supported by the establishment, the great, good, greedy, plutocrats, City, non-Dom’s, celebrities and multitudinous white collar thieves (everybody but the needy) will get their way on Thursday after scaring the Scottish people that the world will end – if like New-Zealand, Norway, etc.. they were foolish enough to support independence.

    And Miliband and his safe little team of (one nation) wannabe ministers will be able to breathe a sigh of relief insofar as the forces of the status quo will have triumphed and it’s back to business as usual. So that’s OK then!

    Well no, not really – despite the VOW – it is a vote that will have little to do with democracy, fairness, social justice or inclusion and every-thing to do with corporate and vested interests and the self-serving influence of Labour politicians like our Gordon, Lord Prescott, et al who have history and who despite all the warm words and marketing spin unashamedly promoted PFI and wider the privatisation agenda, the outsourcing of public sector work and jobs, who lauded the city and light touch regulation, risk takers and wittingly or otherwise the venture capitalists, bond traders, city slickers, and all those who’s overarching greed brought about the world-wide financial crisis and austerity to millions of working people who they claim so earnestly to support and represent.

    And while on Wednesday evening Gordon Brown was making the speech of his life and a passionate defence of the union it turned my stomach to hear him finish with the siren cry:

    “ Let us tell them what we have achieved together.”

    Well friends, if you want to see what the union, Labour and our Gordon have achieved together, over decades, just visit his constituency home of Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath and the other staunchly Labour supporting (Fife) towns of Leven, Buckhaven, Methyl, Glenrothes, etc, and see for yourself the shocking dilapidation and general disrepair and lack of investment. But he was able to pump hundreds of billions to bail out the banks and the city and via Quantitative Easing to support the people responsible for the credit crises and austerity.

    And as surely as night follows day, come Friday and into the foreseeable future the good people of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath will be left to rot and survive as best they can while their sons and daughters compete for zero hour, minimum wage jobs and the unemployed are forced to work onto hideously expensive workfare programmes, work nothing in Poundland and/or spend five days per week, writing and rewriting CV’s and downloading databases of jobs that often don’t exist. That’s some achievement that is Gordon.

    And we all know, don’t we, that if Rachel Reeves MP takes over from Iain Duncan Smith at the Department of Work and Pensions, next year, nothing of substance will change.

    And things are about to get worse much worse with the coalition government and EU leaders in the process of widening the democratic deficit exponentially with poison pill privatisation contracts that will ensure companies get a minimum of 10 year profits no matter how badly they perform and should another government dare to end the contract. But there is not much danger of a New Labour government doing that, is there Gordon!

    And a primary reason for such pessimism is because despite all the warms words, political spin and talk of One Nation Labour and Were Better Together (as Ben Saltonstall said in an earlier post) Miliband has no credible alternative economic strategy nor even a vision of what a more egalitarian, democratic and inclusive society might look like.

  11. Ben Saltonstall
    17 September 2014

    Point of information, I didn’t suggest that ‘identifying the Yes campaigners’ nationalism, and the dangers that follow from that, means they are somehow being aligned with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic’. It was Will:

    “Sadly, such sentiments are manifest in the world today – in the Balkans in the 1990s, in Catalonia, South Sudan and many other places where secessionist movements seek to turn existing (or at times manufactured) cultural or ethnic divisions into political concrete”

    I note with regret that none of the substantive points that I made in my contribution were addressed in Matthew’s post.

  12. Matthew
    17 September 2014

    Like it or not, the question and nature of nationalism is at the heart of these debates about Scottish independence. As this piece by James McAsh on the Open Democracy website points out, the Yes campaign is by definition nationalist, even if those involved don’t recognise it as such, and despite the entirely laudable aims of many Yes supporters to create a more socially just society.

    That’s not to say, as ‘Ben’ seems to suggest above, that identifying the Yes campaigners’ nationalism, and the dangers that follow from that, means they are somehow being aligned with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic.

    As McAsh writes: “For many of its supporters a Yes vote bears no relation to nationalism; it is a vote for democracy, fairness, and progress. This is not deceit either. They are not trying to sell nationalism falsely. They believe that their progressive ideals can be best realised through Independence. They are socialists, progressives and radicals, not nationalists. Nonetheless, they have joined a nationalist campaign, justified primarily by implicitly nationalist arguments.

    “The Yes campaign is the largest nationalist mobilisation in modern Scottish history and it is bolstered by every Yes supporter. The inability to recognise this prevents the progressive Yeses from seeing the danger ahead.”

    This chimes with Will’s argument above, that: “Nationalism anywhere is a divisive creed. Drawing lines between who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ is their stock in trade and socialists should have nothing to do with it. But many who claim to be more progressive seem to be lending support to this kind of divisiveness.”

    One of those Yes supporters is Billy Bragg, who claims in today’s Guardian that there’s a difference between Scottish and British nationalism. His argument is that Scottish nationalism is akin to an anti-colonial struggle for self-determination, that it’s inclusive and progressive, not like the BNP’s ethnically-based, exclusive nationalism.

    Self-determination may be progressive where there is colonial or imperial oppression, but it is difficult to argue credibly that the British state is today colonially dominating Scotland.

    What’s more, we know from many post-colonial states how quickly the ‘progressive’ nationalism of liberation can turn into a much more oppressive ideology. What Bragg doesn’t seem to acknowledge is the separatism that’s inherent in the ‘self’ of ‘self-determination’; that, as Will says, it necessarily creates an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.

    This is how McAsh puts it:

    “Nationalism makes a lot of sense, and is even progressive, when the nation in question suffers under colonialism or another form of national oppression. For nations where this is not the case nationalism serves to divide working people from their foreign counterparts, with whom their interests are aligned, and unite them with their own exploiters at home – the local rich.

    “Scotland is clearly not oppressed as a nation so Scottish nationalism must be understood as a negative force in society. It emphasises differences between Scots and the rest of the UK and masks the conflicts within Scotland. Sadly, the Yes campaign is a campaign for Scottish nationalism…

    “The purpose to identifying the nationalism inherent to the Yes campaign is not to throw slurs at its supporters. The majority of Yes campaigners have the noble goal of creating a fairer, more equal society. The great tragedy is that they now see nationalism as the best way to achieve it – although few would put it in those terms.

    “But recognising it as nationalism is crucial for understanding the risks ahead of us. If the referendum returns a Yes vote the fraught negotiations between Westminster and Holyrood will inevitably create further division between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Politicians on each side of the border will have every incentive to get the best possible deal for their constituents, at the expense of their now foreign neighbours.

    “Scotland will continue to face the perils of international capital and its problems will not disappear. But when the left fights for concessions from the Scottish establishment it will start from a weaker place. It will have lost large chunks of support from the rest of the UK’s labour movement – not due to animosity or hatred but because their priorities are no longer aligned. Moreover, it will be all too easy for the Scottish political elite to blame Westminster bullying during the negotiation period and after. This will continue to obscure the conflicts at home, inherent in all capitalist societies.”

  13. Ben Saltonstall
    16 September 2014

    I should make my position clear because I seem to be included amongst the nationalists. I am undecided about Scottish independence. My contributions were intended simply to point out the flaws in Will’s arguments that, I feared, would simply add fuel to the fire of the ‘yes’ campaign’ because of the lack of positive messages.

    One of the things that the Left – including the ILP – need to do after the campaign is to consider why they have been wrong-footed by the ‘yes’ campaign and why they have so little to offer by way of compelling arguments for their politics.

    Will has begun to address this by referring to the ILP’s excellent work on ‘unbalanced Britain’. But even that fails to get the real issue for most people, which is how to balance an economy over reliant on financial services and international capital (even in the context of a globalised world). Despite the Tory propaganda in the article, this, from the Telegraph, is worth reading as supporting evidence for that view

    At the end of the day you can have as many papers and strategies as you like, but no one is going to be the slightest bit interested unless you can offer a credible alternative way of organising the economy.

    Given the ‘crisis of socialist economics’ (or its terminal decline), this poses a very real problem for the Left. And tax justice arguments on their own just add to the impression that the Left has no idea how to make things better except try to find hidden pots of gold (also it’s not an entirely attractive argument for a workforce which now has more self-employed people in it than public sector workers, many of whom are on low wages and have little access to social protection or benefits such as sick pay and maternity pay).

    I say this not to argue for right wing economics – with its arrogant socially and environmentally destructive assumptions – but to point out the scale of the problem. Something the ILP previously has been unafraid to do.

    The reason why those who favour the ‘No’ campaign have been wrong footed is that they don’t have a credible alternative vision. That’s a very serious matter for the Left to consider.

  14. Will
    16 September 2014

    Thank you to Richard and Ben for your comments.

    I don’t think there are any easy routes available. You seem to think an independent Scotland will deliver a left strategy for change, that this is readily available north of the border. I don’t. I think it is hard to find anywhere but that independence will make it more difficult and I’ve set out why. So when Ben says ‘anything without credible policies – particularly economic ones – are pointless’, I agree to some extent (I wouldn’t go as far as to say ‘pointless’ but let’s let that pass). But I haven’t seen much that is credible in what is proposed for an independent Scotland, especially on the economic front.

    As you will know, the ILP in its small and limited way is trying to explore possibilities as set out in Our Politics and in the discussions around Unbalanced Britain. Granted, the notion that opting for independence will immediately deliver a socially just future has an obvious attraction compared to this.

    Richard’s argument is more obviously nationalist and embodies the kind of divisiveness I noted in a previous comment. When it is said independence is ‘about Scotland and its people taking control of its own affairs’ one is by definition imagining a political community that includes an ‘us’ north of the border as against a ‘them’ south of the border who are excluded from consideration. Richard is explicit about this: ‘The fact that one implication of Scottish independence is that Labour has 40 MPs less at Westminster is of no concern to Scotland.’

    One might question Richard’s ability to speak so confidently about what are the concerns of the whole of Scotland given that those north of the border appear to be pretty divided about what they want. One might also wonder what kind of Scotland this would be, that lacks any concern for the fate of 50 million people in a neighbouring country. One might also suggest that in very real and practical terms it will matter a very great deal to Scotland – independent or not – what kind of government there is in Westminster. Such are the delusions of nationalism.

    As for the claim that ‘the poor in Scotland are voting Yes and the rich are voting No’, well there must be a lot of rich people in Scotland if somewhere near half of the population are currently saying no.

    Best wishes

  15. Harry Barnes
    16 September 2014

    Richard, Benn and Ernie: If Scotland votes “yes”, then what feasible constitutional, social and economic strategies of a democratic socialist nature are likely to emerge in Scotland and how? The fact that UK is in a mess, does not mean that separation will offer some shortcut to progressive reform. Or have I missed something about the dynamic that is likely to drive the SNP or others into the democratic socialist camp?

    As the UK is in a mess, is there not a case for us trying to transcend the current situation together – and with other like-minded people in a wider European and international framework?

    The best thing, however, about the referendum campaign has been that the Scottish people (including the young) have taken a serious interest in a political issue. Whatever the result, that is something which can be built upon. But it is not in itself a case for separation.

  16. Ben Saltonstall
    15 September 2014

    To be frank, I don’t think it’s a winning argument to compare those who want independence to Slobodan Milosevic. The people I talk to who are in favour of independence are not anti-English; they just think that the economy is being run in the interests of the south east and in particular the City of London and Westminster politics doesn’t address that reality.

    I also think it might be worth considering the biggest political bloc in the Westminster parliament after the next election may be those who want to take us out of the EU and even the European Convention of Human Rights. So an independent Scotland may be more, not less connected with the rest of the world if it becomes independent. It might be those of us in England who are the Balkan secessionists!

    I think a more persuasive argument might be to show how the Common Weal agenda for a balanced and productive economy, which produces a more equal society, can best be achieved through a UK-wide approach.

    It does worry me that at this late stage we say we need a ‘longer term strategy’. If we haven’t got one, no wonder the independence movement is so strong! I wish the article had given me some idea of what this strategy might contain rather than what historical movements might inform it, and how it needs to embody the sort of enthusiasm we see in the referendum campaign. Any suggestions?

    Personally, I think that anything without credible policies – particularly economic ones – are pointless. If Labour were talking up economic transformation, then it might have half a chance of stopping the ‘yes’ bandwagon. As it stands, it will only win if people despair of change in Scotland.

  17. Richard MacKinnon
    15 September 2014

    This article sums up exactly why half of the Scottish electorate are about to vote Yes to independence (maybe 50.01%).

    It offers no ideas and no hope to the Scottish people. Read it again if you don’t believe me. The author takes seven paragraphs to draw his conclusions (subtitled) “Progressive alternative”. It is noticeable that he then doesn’t even attempt to give an alternative vision, there is not even one example that might be seen as thread in a bigger fabric of a left of centre alternative to independence.

    What he does say however is revealing. (last paragraph first sentence) “But a longer-term strategy is needed, one which acknowledges the difficulties faced by left-of-centre politics”. This tells me and Scotland that ‘the British left’ is bankrupt of ideas. We are three days away from our momentous vote and willb and ILP think they need a plan. It is laughable how out of touch rUK is, no more so than those that like to claim they are on the left in British politics.

    That last sentence unwittingly tells you something else. The long term strategy that willb thinks is needed, is needed, not for the good of Scotland, it is needed (so we are told by willb) by ‘left of centre politics’ (presumably UK left of centre politics).

    The reason why Scotland has moved on and away from British Labour (there is no such thing as Scottish Labour because those that call themselves by that name take instructions from Westminster Labour) and toward independence is not complicated. It has nothing to do with finding a new left strategy to challenge nationalism, it is about Scotland and its people taking control of its own affairs. It is as simple as that.

    The fact that one implication of Scottish independence is that Labour has 40 MPs less at Westminster is of no concern to Scotland. Labour has had plenty of chances to reform the rotten Westminster system, but when it had its chance chose instead to jump on board that corrupt citadel of greed.

    The problem that the left in rUK now has is that it is on the wrong side of history. It should have seen, as Ernest Jacques points out, that the poor in Scotland are voting Yes and the rich are voting No. They should have supported the independence campaign from the outset. They now find themselves not only on the wrong side, but in bed with the Tories and big business and their contorted arguments to justify that position make them look ridiculous in the eyes of the Scottish people.

  18. Ernest Jacques
    15 September 2014

    Harry & Will

    Both of you make lots of thoughtful and valid points but seem to me to approach the possibility of Scottish independence very much from the perspective of those who feel that the union and what we have got now is worth saving, and that somehow and sometime in the future the neoliberal horror story will run its course and the Labour Movement can be (will be) an agent for change and social justice.

    What also comes through loud and clear via Will’s contributions is he detests nationalism with a vengeance, and with good reason, but also both of you seem a little nostalgic about a labour movement and concepts of solidarity, community and decency that to a large extent no longer exist, and which for someone stuck on a sink housing estate – north or south of the border – whose career prospects at best amount to zero hour, minimum wage contracts and a life of struggle and drudgery, is a pretty meaningless concept.

    One of the enduring themes of the Labour Party No voters, people like Jim Murphy MP, Gordon Brown, Johann Lamont, and Alistair Darling, etc is that we are indeed Better Together with our shared history, Labour movement successes (sic) such as the NHS, welfare state, Britain’s status and seat on the top table of world affairs and on some abstract notions of status quo solidarity and community which would be lost forever if the foolish Scots don’t stay with the union.

    But as mentioned elsewhere on this website, I don’t buy this solidarity sob-story from people who never, ever support workers fighting to safeguard their jobs and their conditions of employment and who are often desperate to escape unemployment, social exclusion and Iain Duncan Smith’s latest version of Gordon Brown’s much trumpeted and hideously expensive (work-for-nothing) workfare scheme.

    While more than happy to take the trade union shilling, none of them would demean themselves on a picket-line or unambiguously voice their support (and incur media and establishment wrath) for those trying to escape the dole and who, like thousands of miners before them, might never work and receive a living wage again.

    Talking of Gordon Brown, why do we think that a politician who had a 60% majority at the last general election representing the overwhelmingly working class constituency of Kirkcaldy is seeing his 2010 supporters abandoning Labour’s Better Together campaign in droves with a local opinion poll putting Don’t Knows at 22%, the No camp at 24% and Yes at 54%. With don’t knows excluded this is a near 70/30% spilt in favour of Yes.

    And please don’t suggest that the good people of Kirkcaldy and Fife, who have always supported Labour, have suddenly become rabid nationalists. Could it be that while Gordon and New Labour was so was busy baling out the bankers and hedge fund traders, and pumping trillions into the financial system via (the magic formula) Quantitative Easing, that he forgot about the dire and dilapidated conditions of Kirkcaldy which, like so many other parts of the union, consist of a ubiquitous mix of betting, charity and pay day lenders and pound shops.

    And for the long term unemployed things are about to get even worse as in addition to being demonised as skivers and the lowest of the low, from October, they are going to be imprisoned in a job centre, 9am to 5pm, five days a week in a job centre, writing meaningless CVs ad nauseam and accessing online job ads that often don’t exist. And when they fall ill, turn up late or simply lose their rag, their benefit (job-seekers allowance) will be stopped. And if they foster illusions that all this will change should, next year, Racheal Reeves take over as head of Work & Pensions, dream-on.

    And while Jim Naismith, like many others, is troubled by “the prospect of being divorced from a wider community”, for many of those voting Yes in Scotland, it is their own personal circumstances, atomisation and the fact that they don’t feel part of anything approaching a community and a decent inclusive UK (we’re all in it together) society that is the dominant motivating factor vis-à-vis their voting intentions

    For hundreds of thousands of UK citizens then, concepts of community and solidarity are abstract and sadly meaningless. For far too many, life is a living hell of sub-standard housing, food-banks, reliance on charity and being ripped-off every-which-way in a scam, casino economy where being poor means you pay top dollar just to keep warm, where desperation and treating for your children and family at Christmas and birthdays often forces you into the hands of the likes of Wonga and a multiplicity of companies and agencies that grow rich preying on those who have nothing.

    A good society where I have experienced those in my own family who were too frightened to open a brown envelop that pops through the door because they knew it is bad news, more charges, debt and threats from those friendly (often council sponsored) bailiffs. Both my two sons, Steven and Karl, who are good, honest and are extremely hard working family men, have been through this mill now for over a decade and have had to endure having a few worthless possessions taken and sold for pennies, houses repossessed and worst of all when my eight year-old grandson was attacked and strangled on a Leeds sink estate, West Yorkshire Police and those in authority did nothing and didn’t even want to know. The result is that a family of four, including a two year-old, felt it necessary to flee in the night and move hundreds of miles to Scotland and away from family, friends and the community they grew up in. And they (and many, many similar such families) did this because Jim’s wider community did not want to know or didn’t care.

    While this is a very personal experience we know – don’t we – that in all our major cities, thousands of working class families are being forced to move home into awful bed and breakfast accommodation, often in sad and dilapidated seaside towns (a form of social cleansing) while Labour local authorities salivate over the new investment money, the new gated communities and the yuppies who then move into these new super-duper regenerated communities. And for those people who have to suffer this sort of indignity there is the added bonus of feeling that it is they who are the problem, are unimportant and are worthless. It’s happening daily as I write this piece and there is not much solidarity there, from anyone.

    Having said that, it is important, I think, to remind ourselves that not all nationalist are the same and that historically the left and the labour movement has supported (especially in days of Empire) the fight for self-determination and national independence. Well in my book the evil empire today is the coalition of plutocrats, Westminster politicians, the establishment, big money, City of London and all those new labour and neoliberal apologists who support or are complicit in the creation of a society where inequality, unbalance, greed, unfairness, food-banks and social cleansing proliferate and where scamming and cheating is the new norm. And where when banks, finance houses and the great and the good defraud and thieve their own customers of trillions, its renamed mis-selling and no one is held to account. While that picture may sound a bit jaundiced, if not prejudiced, it is just as relevant as any appeals coming from the Better Together camp, who from where I stand, seem to be saying support the status quo and get more of the same.

    While I think it highly likely that Harry is correct in what the consequences might be for the rest of the UK should the YES side prevail, implicit in this argument is the notion that the Labour Party and the wider trade union movement can once again be agents of change (for the better). Well I don’t buy that argument anymore. And certainly not under the present unfit for purpose and undemocratic electoral and Parliamentary system, and with a Parliamentary Labour Party which now positively reinforces our conservative culture and seems set to perpetuate the free market, neoliberal horror story and austerity should they get back into office next year via the usual marketing spin, collective amnesia and buggins-turn politics.

    And while Will and Harry are most likely correct when they predict a flight of capital, would that be a bad thing when it is this type of short termism and hedge fund gambling that has got us where we are today?

    We don’t make much anymore but we do live in a casino economy where scamming and cheating is the norm and where the most ruthless and most nasty capitalists, CEOs, celebrities and political elites live in gated communities, are lauded as special people and who get gongs galore and who end up in the House of Lords making laws on behalf of those less successful and for those who (like the unemployed) live in a parallel universe where never-the-twain-meet.

    Rightly or wrongly that is not a status quo and a world I want to live in (I’ve had my day now anyhow), and if Scottish independence changes any of that that and starts a debate about politics and the sort of society we want, and the politicians we need – not before time – because to paraphrase the self-serving Blairites, things can hardly get worse.

  19. Will
    14 September 2014

    Hi all

    I very much agree with Harry’s comment. The more one contemplates the after-effects of a yes vote, the worse it seems.

    There was a discussion on the BBC Radio 4 programme iPM ( that I chanced upon driving home from work yesterday. It comes at the issue from a different angle from that we have been discussing here, focussing on identity rather than strategies and options for the left, but it raises some important questions for all of us.

    Quite coincidentally, it features someone (Alex Woolf) I knew in my first year at university in Sheffield. Unlike some of the more acrimonious and divisive aspects of the campaign in Scotland, this is a considered and thoughtful exchange between someone born in England but working in Scotland and voting yes, and a Scottish academic (Jim Naismith) voting no.

    But despite coming at the question from the point of view of identity, it does raise some issues that are important in our discussion. Ernie has rightly pointed out how powerful an idea ‘self-determination’ is – the argument being that if ‘we’ make decisions, even if they lead to mistakes, they will at least be ‘our’ mistakes.

    However, a deeper question lies beneath this point – that is, who is the ‘we’ that is included in self-determination? Here the most depressing (and in some guises offensive) aspect of the Scotland referendum is the way progressive voices north of the border (though cheered on by some south of the border) can so easily dismiss some of the rest of us (south of the border) as no longer belonging to the same ‘we’.

    Nationalism anywhere is a divisive creed. Drawing lines between who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ is their stock in trade and socialists should have nothing to do with it. But many who claim to be more progressive seem to be lending support to this kind of divisiveness.

    In the Radio 4 discussion I mention above, Jim Naismith gets at the heart of what is so depressing, perhaps, as he says, heart-breaking, about support for independence: it is giving up on the fight for social justice on a UK-wide basis. When you’re part of a group of five million within a population of near 70 million, that is a lot of people you are turning your backs on. It is saying, we’re never going to win on a UK basis, let’s look after ‘ourselves’ and forget about ‘them’.

    For Naismith and those of like mind in Scotland, it is the prospect of being divorced from a wider community of fate to which he feels belonging, that is so troublesome. For those of us in the labour movement, it is being told, in denial of so much history, that there is a ‘we’ north of the border and a ‘you’ south of the border, an ’us’ and ‘them’ dictated not by interest or political allegiance but by arbitrary geography. Yes, heart-breaking is right.

    Sadly, such sentiments are manifest in the world today – in the Balkans in the 1990s, in Catalonia, South Sudan and many other places where secessionist movements seek to turn existing (or at times manufactured) cultural or ethnic divisions into political concrete.

    There is never much prospect of going back from division, of barriers being removed or overcome, of re-union. As Naismith notes: where does this end? Should every group that feels it has not achieved its ends within a larger polity, just give up on that larger unit and seek separation? In a world of deepening interdependence, can endless political fragmentation ever be progressive?


  20. Harry Barnes
    13 September 2014

    The 2010 General Election was focussed upon who was going to form a UK Government. In Scotland this led to the following result in terms of seats (and percentage votes) – Labour 41 (42%), Lib Dems 11 (18.9%), SNP 6 (19.9%) and Conservatives 2 (16.7%). But then the focus turned to the make up of the Scottish Parliament. The 2011 election result for the Scottish Parliament was based on a different voting system and a different focus. It delivered seats on a mixture of Constituency (C) and Regional (R) lists. The results were SNP 69 (C 45.4%, R 44.0%), Labour 37 (C 31.7%, R 26.3%), Conservatives (C 13.9%, R 12.4%). 2 seats went to Greens and 1 to an Independent.

    Unless there is a massive economic collapse, the SNP will have a great deal going for it in both next year’s UK General Election and in the subsequent Scottish elections. For it will have triumped in its major objective, then why should it not then defeat its rivals? Nothing suceeds like success. This could help bury Labour’s chances in the UK General Election and ensure that the SNP would form the first government in an independent Scotland, thus shaping the direction of its new constitutional arrangements. Will a Labour Party that is defeated in the referendum, really be in any shape to put forward a programme that will appeal to the interests of the Scottish working class?

    Of course, in time things might change – just as they might change within a retained UK. Yet there will be a period in the early history of a newly indepemdent Scotland where it will probably have a mass of issues to confront – economic adjustment, constitutional transformation, its relationship with another nation on a divided island and its arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world. Will politicians have the time or inclination to look into social problems?

    Then what of the UK of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? What will happen to what is likely to be a minority Labour Party in parliament? Deals with the Tories, the Lib Dems and UKIP? Things will be bad enough without the loss Scotland. At least a ‘no’ vote might help Labout to hold onto numbers of its seats in Scotland. That will not deliver us perfection. But it might give us a chance to push our own party into a better future.

    I can’t see how an independent Scotland offers any of us a shortcut to anywhere.

  21. Ben Saltonstall
    10 September 2014

    I am undecided about Scottish independence.

    However, I don’t find all of Will’s arguments very persuasive. I don’t think voting for independence can be construed as an insult to the tradition of British socialism. Nor do I think that our present constitutional arrangements make socially progressive governments more likely. There is no evidence that Westminster is more likely to defy international capital than Holyrood might be.

    There is more mileage in saying that the issue isn’t about the constitution; it’s about economic power. And independence does not address that issue. However, there is a counter argument to this which says that there is more than one version of capitalism and that Scotland may wish to opt for a more inclusive and economically-balanced European style of capitalism than the ‘Anglo Saxon capitalism’ (not Scotland’s term, but the Economist’s, I think) of the City.

    I’ve recently been to Germany and seen the difference. Everywhere you go there are solar panels and windfarms, and fields of biomass. Ordinary families are anti-nuclear, and the state and industry are working hand-in-hand to make an economy based on alternative energy a reality.

    Whilst Germany is no workers’ paradise, it does show that there may be different options available within capitalism. I should add that I first came across this in the same redundancy support project as Ernie, who was my manager, and visionary leader of the project. And I don’t use the term visionary lightly.

    Whether Scotland has the same room for manoeuvre as Germany does, frankly I don’t know. If the Scottish people opt for independence, only time will tell.

  22. Ernest Jacques
    10 September 2014

    Will & Harry,

    The article by the BBC’s Allan Little is most interesting insofar as it focuses on some of the social consequence of deindustrialisation and how work and jobs in the days before Thatcher were much more than atomised individuals struggling for a living wage but were a sort of glue that linked up working people in terms of our community, life styles, sense of fairness, where we were in the pecking order which also engendered a solidarity that crossed borders. It was a time when trade unions and collectivism was often the only countervailing force to the power of capital, injustice and social exclusion. It was also a time when companies like Joseph Rowntrees in York and many more throughout the UK gave something back to their workers and to local communities unlike today when is all about the bottom line, the interests of shareholders and screwing of every last dime out of the people they employed.

    What struck me about those days (without getting all gooey-eyed and nostalgic) was that work was much more than a salary and a greasy pole career but involved a wide range of social and sporting activities associated with the factory and industry you worked in and the job you did. And that when I was working in the engineering industry and before I joined the engineers union, the Labour Party and later in 1975 the ILP, I simply did not know what a career was and did (unthinkingly) what everybody else at work did. And in those days, for shop floor workers, the route to a better life and, for some, political education, was through these institutions and via further education colleges. And by this route some of us escaped the drudgery of the shop floor, but many more didn’t and were left to rot on the dole, stuck in deprived neighbourhood communities for decades.

    In this respect, sometime after the end of the miners’ strike I went with my family down the National Mining Museum in Wakefield and just couldn’t believe that people had had to work all their lives in those conditions just to keep the posh boys and middle classes warm. At the time I said to my family – is that what we struggled for over a year to keep open? So that working people might spend the best part of their lives in an environment that is worse than most jails? It was a great shock that woke me up and made me realise that some jobs are not worth fighting for, and that the victims of redundancy should be given more than a just a basic safety net survival package but real opportunities and pathways into skilled work and business opportunities and the minimum of a living wage.

    And with all the bureaucracy, waste, criminal activity and horrendous costs associated with decades of Tory and Labour welfare to work programmes – it would have been easily affordable.

    William and Harry, this is one of the reasons I support the Scottish Yes campaign – because if you were to visit the staunchly Labour and working class heartlands of the Kingdom of Fife, such as Gordon Brown’s constituency in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, and towns such as Dunfermline, Glenrothes, Leven, Methyl, Buckhaven, etc, you would see that the scale of deprivation and neglect, and the lack of job opportunities, is truly awesome and horrific. And whatever you might think about Gordon Brown (I believe, unlike Blair and Mandelson, et al, he is a decent and sincere man) he nevertheless shovelled trillions into the hands of the bankers, hedge fund traders and City of London, while his own constituents rotted in a living hell.

    That that is the legacy of neoliberalism and of decades of Labour and Westminster rule. And despite all the scare and horror stories by the No campaign and by the Westminster elites, for far too many people, nothing short of civil war could be worse than that.

    And, rightly or wrongly, for some Scottish people, including my own family, it’s payback-time.

  23. Will
    8 September 2014

    Hi Ernie, Harry

    Many thanks for your comments, much to think about.

    As both of you mention the issue of working class history and current allegiances, you might be interested in this piece by the BBC’s Alan Little (the article is good if you can get past the awful formatting –

    Part way down he makes an interesting observation – that in many respects the concrete symbols of Britishness in Scotland in the post-war era, the things that tied communities together and tied them to English and Welsh communities, were things like the nationalised heavy industries, transport, energy utilities, and so on. All of which have been got rid of and either replaced with the market and private companies or just got rid of entirely. And in that void, with a more atomised society, nationalism has been able to build a stronger base.

    So when you say, Ernie, ‘it is possible to have change and to modernise in a productive, compassionate and inclusive way. It’s a vision thing that would not come cheap, but which could pay rich dividends and change the world…’ I do agree. There hasn’t been anything to replace those British institutions, or to articulate anything like that idea of positive change on a British basis. I see Owen Jones makes some similar-ish points towards the end of his Guardian article today:

    Best wishes,

    (PS: I agree with Harry – you under sell yourself Ernie!)

  24. Harry Barnes
    8 September 2014

    A huge error was made in not allowing “devo max” onto the ballot paper – it was the popular option until a straight yes-no vote was provided instead. Now the “no” campaign is making a last minute effort to say that a “no” vote will lead to some form of “devo max” – although Gordon Brown and others had earlier been claiming that this as more or less Labour’s position.

    If the “yes” vote wins the day, initally sterling is likely to crash. The international markets don’t like uncertainty. When sterling and a probable emerging Scottish equivalent emerges, then just when will these currencies recover? Or which of them will?

    The constitutional complexities of a “yes” vote may well dominate Westminster politics for (a) the remainder of this parliament and (b) for the early years of the next parliament. Key issues such as the future of the NHS are likely to be placed on the back-burner.

    It is very unlikely that an independent Scotland will become a European version of Cuba, as some on the far left seem to think.

    However, a narrow “no” vote opens up the possibility of a move to”devo max”, with even Wales and the English Regions wanting to get in on the act. What would then happen in Northern Ireland is anyone’s quess. Perhaps even the whole island of Ireland would like to join-in with a full federation of our islands. At least such dreams get us away from notions of balkinisation.

    The British working class have the unifying experiences of sharing in capitalist expliotation during the industrial revolution and then struggling together to overcome this via Owenism, Chartism, the ILP and the Labour Party. They helped bring about the establishment of full employment, the welfare state and a mixed (and a “you have never had it so good”) economy. This all started to be undermined by Thatcherism and then New Labourism. We need a modern framework in which to rebuild what we have lost over the recent decades.

    We had a good discussion on the referendum at our Dronfield Discussion Meeting yesterday evening. A thing which surprised me when I first visited Scotland as a young man was that it didn’t look nor feel all that much different from my native North East. Going back to before 1707 is romantic, but irrelevant to today’s needs.

    Ernie: I just don’t fall for your regular trick of under-selling yourself. I would not waste my time tackling a paper tiger.

  25. Ernest Jacques
    7 September 2014


    Just like all marriages where there are fundamental problems, that can’t be fixed, it is often better to part as friends than to stay in a relationship that doesn’t work. But that does not mean – a-priori – turning your back on other friends and family linked to that relationship.

    When it comes to NATO most definitely! On the World Bank – most likely, insofar as (despite being an economic illiterate) I believe that people in debt who turn to the likes of Wonga and the pay-day-lenders for salvation usually get screwed every-which-way.

    On the question of the European Union things are not quite so black and white insofar as there is much to like about the EU but much to dislike also. Especially the huge waste, bureaucracy and corruption associated with the EU social fund. I have experience of this insofar as in my later (working) life I was the manager of a (Leeds Council) redundancy support programme (Jobroute) with brilliant partners in Amstelveen (Amsterdam) and Osnabruck (Germany) who were a joy to work with and who taught me much.

    Having said that, I often pondered whether it wouldn’t be more efficient and productive to just give the huge amounts of money to redundant workers to spend themselves on state (college based) vocational training and educational courses, on business start-ups and just to spend and invest locally. But there again, Harry, I am without doubt an economy illiterate so who am I to sound off on such matters?

    But most problematic of all is the EU’s democratic deficit and the way (under the treaty of Rome and successive treaties) it is effectively a rich man’s club where the interests of capital and plutocrats are supreme and trump democracy. Also the sycophancy associated with EU leaders, who many consider to be Obama poodles, and who have historically danced to the tune of big money and American neoconservatism with horrendous results. Aka Tony Blair.

    But on Scotland’s independent vote it does seem that in the run-up to 18th September there is YES vote momentum, which ought to worry all those, north and south of the border who want to remain in the union.

    Having said that, Harry, it does bother me a lot that if for the very first time in my life I am on the winning side politically, that I might also be wrong. And that you, Will Brown, Vince Mills and many other ILPers and socialists who are much more astute, cerebral and insightful than I, have called it right.

  26. Harry Barnes
    6 September 2014

    Ernie : If the case for Scottish Independence rests upon the fact the the United Kingdom is currently dominated by capitalists interests and also has an inadequate democratic structure; then does this also mean that Scotland will also need to withdraw from the European Union and from numbers of international institutions, such as the World Bank and the United Nations?

  27. Ernest Jacques
    5 September 2014

    Will Brown makes interesting and valid points regarding Scotland’s independence vote and the prospects for a social democratic government and social justice should the Yes camp succeed, against all the odds, on referendum day.

    Now that my son, daughter-in-law and grandsons live in Scotland (in Gordon Brown’s constituency) I have visited the former mining village of East Weymss many times over the past 12 months and I’m struck by the discernible class divide on the referendum issue, with the people in the largely working class (Fife) towns of Kirkcaldy, Leven, Buckhaven, Methil, Glenrothes, etc, overwhelmingly voting Yes, not because they support the SNP or Alex Salmond (although some do), but primarily on bread and butter issues such as the bedroom tax, opposition to austerity, removal of Trident, and on a whole range of equality issues usually associated with old Labour (pejorative spin used by Tories and New Labour alike to rubbish anyone who dares to challenge free market principles).

    On the other hand, those (I have met) living in the leafy suburbs and in yuppie towns like Anstruther and St Andrews are overwhelmingly on the No side. And while it is only anecdotal and unscientific, it seems that huge numbers of Labour Party members and voters are going over to the Yes camp. And if for once, working people do bother to vote, in large numbers, in what they think is their own best interests, then I say, great and about time too.

    Of course, Will Brown is right to emphasise that we live in a global (neo-liberal) world where at the first sniff of pre-distribution and state interference into the workings of the market (sic) which threaten the investments and interests of bond and currency traders, venture capitalists, plutocrats, oligarchs, establishment and political elites and celebrities, at el, they will shift their ill-gotten-gains oversees, in a nanosecond. In this regard, gesture politics and redistributive rhetoric without a credible economic strategy are not worth a-row-of-beans and will do more harm than good. But it’s how we deal with that conundrum and build a consensus across borders for a rational and fair distribution of wealth and resources that is the 64-dollar question?

    But that is a challenge, with or without borders, facing all democratic socialists and other politicians and campaigners who want a fairer, compassionate and inclusive society. And whilst this might be deemed insurmountable with neoliberalism triumphant and seemingly unchallengeable (even within the Parliamentary Labour Party) what we do know, historically, is that change can happen fast and that this economic system is unbelievably dishonest, wasteful, unsustainable and is increasingly being exposed as the biggest con-trick in history.

    But rule from Westminster under our questionable electoral system and undemocratic two-house Parliament with its antiquated protocols, rituals, language, sycophancy, big money corruption and lobbying, gongs, titles and privilege, is not going to resonate much with Scottish working people insofar as it represents a status-quo vote, business as usual, more austerity and London rule.

    While the UK and French examples cited by Will are indeed examples of social democratic failures and governments changing tack in the face of a flight of capital, it is nevertheless the case that these nominally socialist governments tried to have their cake and eat it insofar as there was no fundamental change of direction vis-à-vis military spending cuts and the prioritising of skills training, job creation and community regeneration within existing budgets, or a real root-and-branch political education and support for the trade union movement, which in large measure is the countervailing force against capitalist hegemony and those who would treat working people little better than the commodities they sell.

    In this regard it is worth reminding ourselves that it is highly unlikely that Margaret Thatcher would have defeated the miners in 1984 had it not been for the equivocal, some would say, Janus-faced support from Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party. Once the miners had been defeated she was able to widen her attacks on the trade union movement and de-industrialise and in the process put hundreds of thousands of working people on the dole in the most callous (enemy-within spin) and socially divisive way possible. But it is possible to have change and to modernise in a productive, compassionate and inclusive way. It’s a vision thing that would not come cheap, but which could pay rich dividends and change the world.

    And while the Better Together campaign like to predict doom and gloom and the end of the world as we know it, should the Scottish people be stupid enough to vote Yes, I prefer to believe that small is beautiful and Dominic Frisby’s statement that: “The evidence of history is that the freest countries with the widest dispersal of power have always been the most prosperous and innovative.”

    Of course, it is possible that all this is wishful thinking and that things could go horribly wrong should the Yes camp prevail. But on balance I prefer to trust the people of Scotland to decide the future of their own country for themselves. It’s called self-determination and that’s powerfully persuasive.
    Vote Yes, I say.

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