Class not nation

With the independence referendum a year away, now is a good time to reflect on the debate so far and consider our vision for the Scotland we want to live in. From a Red Paper Collective perspective, setting out a vision of utopia or dystopia would be counter to our approach to constitutional change. Our contributions to the debate are firmly rooted in political reality – we do vision, but not fantasy politics.

In this article I will outline our vision for a better Scotland as set out in our latest book, Class, Nation and Socialism – Red Paper on Scotland 2014 we conclude that the answer to the problems facing people in Scotland is not to be found in a flag, a border or even a list of powers in Edinburgh and London.  It is what we intend to do with these powers and for what purpose.

The driving force for advocates of Home Rule, then as now, is support for decentralisation, re-distribution of power and extension of democracy as part of the wider struggle to win working class power over the economic, political and industrial decisions affecting the lives of ordinary people

For socialists the constitutional debate provides an opportunity to raise fundamental questions about current political and economic conditions and go on to explore political alternatives which would be beneficial for people across Scotland and the rest of the UK.  Beneficial, not for the wealthy, not for the bankers and hedge fund managers, not for the MPs in Westminster or Assembly Members and MSPs, but for ordinary working people whose lives are so vulnerable to the vagaries of the market whether they live in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England. We therefore want to include workers across the UK in this debate and welcome the lead taken by the Labour Leader in Wales, Carwyn Jones on a federal approach.

This approach by no means precludes support for independence, but it does mean that we have to respond to the SNP’s version of independence rather than the idealised version advocated by those on the left who support independence.  If the SNP is successful in the referendum, it is likely that they will have the political momentum to form the first government within an independent Scottish Parliament and introduce a written Constitution.  A constitution is not a set of neutral rules and regulations, but serves to mould a state in a particular way.  Whatever party drafts the constitution gets to put its stamp on the future development of the country and that can be hard to alter.

The book is divided into five sections with chapters from a wide range of contributors sympathetic to the broad Red Paper approach to constitutional change.

The Political Economy of Social Progress

This section examines how to redevelop Scotland’s economy in the interests of the great majority of its people – those who depend for their livelihoods on their productive skills and abilities and who want a Scotland that is more equal and environmentally sustainable.  It reviews the Scottish economy: what’s wrong with it and what the causes of its ills are, including the shift in ownership away from Scotland. Further chapters look at the political obstacles to state intervention and public ownership and how the case could be won for alternative policies.

From this analysis a number of conclusions are drawn. The first is the importance of economic democracy and the development of public ownership at a Scottish level, particularly in those areas where private capital has failed.  For smaller economies public and co-operative ownership is critical for anchoring production.

The second conclusion is about political agency. The review of experiences elsewhere underlines the importance of explicit mass support for any advance in public ownership. The SNP is not likely to supply this. Its policy links are with those sectors of business that are integrated with finance capital at a British level. Additionally, its commitment to the EU would ensure that such pro-big business policies became constitutionally mandatory.  But neither is the Labour Party likely to supply this – without the support of the trade union movement.

The third conclusion is about where and how such political pressure must be directed and the constitutional forms that best match these objectives. In light of current economic structures, these can be neither purely Scottish nor purely British. The key linkages between big business and political power operate at a British level: on currency, credit, banking regulation and the allocation of public subsidy to the private sector. Ownership of productive resources is also primarily held at a British level, as is, correspondingly, the extraction of wealth from labour. Political independence on SNP terms would change none of this.

What is required is therefore a two-part solution. Political mobilisation has to be conceived and constructed at a British level – not abstractly but from its regional and national components – and directed towards ending the policy grip of big business. At the same time the power to develop accountable and democratic ownership is one that can and must be exercised at a Scottish level. With powers over state aid, public ownership and taxation these objectives would begin to lay the foundations for the political economy of social progress.

Democratic Government

This section considers aspects of the provision of services by local government, the Scottish government and the Westminster government and explores areas of potential conflict and co-operation.  Powers are often jealously guarded and sometimes devolved only grudgingly to other layers of government. The particular areas considered are local government, including its relationship with the Scottish government and Westminster, health and particularly its overlap with local government, welfare provision and its spread across all three areas of government and lastly the role of the civil service in Scotland and its relationship with both Westminster and Holyrood.

At different times in history the significant areas of struggle have occurred at different levels of government. The struggles of the 1970s and 1980s show how local government could be, and often was, an important vehicle in the defence of public services and the promotion and development of progressive social change.

The erosion of local democracy is alive and well today as shown by the constraints on local government by the Scottish Government, including the centrally directed council tax freeze. The 2007 Concordat struck between the SNP and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) bought a degree of harmony between central and local government.

However, with the return of a majority SNP Government pressures on local government have intensified with councils shouldering significant cuts and the consequential job cuts and outsourcing.

It is striking that while we are discussing constitutional change, the role of local government is rarely discussed. The Red Paper Collective believes in the principles of subsidiarity and local democratic decision making. Chapters in this section show that local services are much in need of reform, but it must be a reform that reinvigorates local democracy and helps develop progressive social change.

Greater democracy within government  at every level brings benefits.  Public health is not simply a function of the NHS; at its core are good local public services. Scottish civil servants in job centres, working with the Border Agency, the Health & Safety Executive, employment tribunals and elsewhere are often in the front line of managing the fall-out from UK and Scottish Government policies and have been subjected to the same marketisation of their roles. The provision of welfare has never been as controversial.  Rather than allowing the Tories to dictate the terms of the debate, progressive politicians at local, Scottish and UK levels should challenge the perspective that says we must cut and that the only decisions are what to cut.  They must, instead, re-state the arguments for the welfare state that were won in the last century.

Public services are an essential civilising force in our society. Within that, local authorities are a crucial mechanism for delivering democratic service at a local level and their future and that of public services will help determine our social and economic well-being. Local government could once again be a driver of social progress.

Democratic Ownership

A key part of neoliberal ideological penetration has been the privatisation, corporatisation and commercialisation of industry and public services. Privatisation accompanied by regulation and corporatisation accompanied by de-politicisation have eroded the democratic control and ownership of industry, utilities, transport and other public goods and services. Moreover, we have seen a massive transfer of wealth from public to private coffers with the active collaboration of the state and the main political parties.

The chapters in this section call for an alternative political economy framed around social and environmental justice. In various sectors the current model is critiqued with evidence of their respective failings. However, importantly each author has developed ideas and suggested policy proposals which offer a pathway towards an alternative political economy.  Some of the chapters provide ideas that will assist in the application of practice. Far too often left thinking omits to formulate this transposition; especially those concrete ideas that move us away from the current failed hegemony.

The chapters in this section cover many fundamental elements of Scottish society, although they are representative rather than comprehensive: housing, railways, energy and renewables, water and wastewater services, manufacturing and football (yes, football) are all included and all provide a road map towards more collective models of ownership. These can be community led, fully nationalised, community owned or fan owned models. The hybrid nature of the suggested models highlights the scope for heterogeneous, not homogenous, forms of social ownership.

Arguably, these examples, either individually or cumulatively, will not constitute a socialist revolution. But, we cannot sit back and wait for a full socialist transformation; incremental steps in the here and now can be thought of and fought for as progressive steps. The fight for socialist policies, in industry and public services, is a constant struggle and a key battleground in the battle of ideas.


In introducing the first Red Paper on Scotland, the Editor, Gordon Brown, described its aims as being to “transcend that false and sterile antithesis which has been manufactured between the nationalism of the SNP and the anti-nationalism of the unionist parties”. It sought to broaden the constitutional discussion, considering it from avowedly left perspectives and presenting ideas for shaping the future of Scottish society and Scotland’s economy on the basis of “co-operative, democratic and revolutionary” proposals to address “inequality of wealth and poverty”.

This edition of the Red Paper on Scotland reflects that approach through the conviction that the pros and cons of the constitutional question should be judged primarily on the basis of what is in the best interests of the working class. Chapters explore the nature and history of class struggle in Scotland, to what degree these struggles can be defined as specifically ‘Scottish’ in character, how they have or have not shaped a distinct ‘Scottish identity’ and, above all, how working class unity would be potentially affected by support for independence.

The opening chapter draws on both Scottish and Irish history to outline how the nature of Scotland has historically been shaped by differing class interests. Contrasting the values and institutions of landowners and industrialists with those projected by workers in struggle, notably those involved in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in. It then presents a case for working class unity based on the need to challenge state power at a British level whilst harnessing the radicalism of the Scottish working class.

The next chapter considers the negative effects on working class communities in Scotland of so-called ‘economic regeneration’ programmes, driven by the interests of developers, financiers and governments adhering to pro-privatisation and neoliberal economic policies. It points to the methods employed to draw communities into ‘partnerships’ with such interests and away from alliances between community and trade union activists which have proved to be effective means of building working class unity and successful action.

The final chapter presents a case for the need to develop working class consciousness. An understanding of the common purpose across the UK of defending and advancing trade union organisation and the welfare state and a strengthened democracy featuring more powers for the Scottish Parliament. They point out that the British Social Attitudes Survey shows how close the views of Scottish workers are to those in areas of England, notably those in the North of England.

The Red Paper on Scotland stands in the tradition of a Home Rule current in the Scottish Labour movement stretching back, at least, to Keir Hardie’s 1888 Labour & Home Rule candidacy in the Mid Lanark by-election. The driving force for advocates of Home Rule, then as now, is support for decentralisation, re-distribution of power and extension of democracy as part of the wider struggle to win working class power over the economic, political and industrial decisions affecting the lives of ordinary people.

The Political Challenge

The fact that there will be a referendum on Scottish independence next year, just 15 years after the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, has probably been as big a surprise for the SNP as for anyone else. With no third option on the ballot paper we are drip by drip being presented with the image of Scotland after independence: Scotland totally committed to membership of the EU with no question of making it more democratic or less a vehicle for neo-liberal economic policies; membership of NATO with its system of ‘consensus’ decision making that requires no votes; an hereditary monarchy; being part of a sterling zone that will leave important economic levers in another country.  This is not an exciting image of a future Scotland that can create a different type of society, but rather a steady as we go approach that you will hardly notice it has happened.

The SNP are not fighting the referendum on a platform of radical change and the Labour Party is not defending the Union by offering the possibility of radical change – they are both in their own ways defending the status quo.  There have been attempts to inject radicalism into the Yes campaign, including Nicola Sturgeon making the case that an independent Scotland will be wealthier – but also fairer.  The Labour Party has recognised that the Better Together Campaign has alienated much of the labour movement.  It eventually realised that just saying ‘no’ in alliance with the coalition partners would prevent trade unions and many Labour Party members from becoming involved in the campaign.

In this section, chapters identify key areas that present a particular political challenge to the labour movement.

The challenge for the environment where unplanned market capitalism drives our environmental problems. How do we integrate the labour movement’s traditional concerns for social justice, worthwhile employment, equality and human rights with the need to stop climate change? We know what needs to be done, but the demands of global capitalism prevent it happening and government action is too timid.

The labour movement also has to address the challenge of the EU. This is particularly important now that the campaign for a referendum on membership of the EU has come to overlap with the referendum on Scottish independence as it is even harder to untangle the issues.  While the EU has delivered the benefits of ‘Social Europe’, this chapter identifies the issues that are concerning and asks whether at the very time workers across Europe are rejecting austerity that the independence referendum does not result in us walking blindly into an EU nightmare.

The challenge of defence policy after the SNP has taken contradictory positions of agreeing that an independent Scotland would seek membership of NATO while at the same time demanding the removal of Trident submarines.  This chapter explores the likely pressures from the EU and NATO as well as business interests that will be brought to bear on a future Government.  It is argued that the removal of Trident should not depend on a yes vote at the referendum, but be fought for across the UK.

The challenge for the Scottish Labour Party includes the loss of support with the bonds that existed between it and working class voters already weakened and its breach with the trade unions making this worse.  While Scottish Labour did not adopt the market-oriented policies of New Labour, it was reluctant to explain why. This loss of support is emphasised in Scotland where the Party is challenged, not from the right, but by a Party which claims the mantle of social democracy.

The challenge for trade unions in Scotland has been to enable union members to have a clear understanding of the arguments of the Yes and the No camps and to consult their members.  The STUC and many of its affiliated unions have focused the referendum debate on how to achieve social justice in Scotland.

Challenging neoliberal economic orthodoxies recognises that the SNP’s approach to independence would operate within the constraints of fiscally conservative policies, particularly with its plan to reduce Corporation Tax. On the other hand, ‘Devo-Plus’ strategies that rest on the ‘moral hazard’ that occurs when a parliament spends but does not raise revenue, also adopt neoliberal ideas and limit powers for redistribution.  Fiscal policy, it is argued, should support the creation of a more equal society.


This edition of the Red Paper challenges those who look to constitutional change rather than political change.  Posing nation against class is a blind alley which will only reinforce the country’s exposure to the power of multinational capitalism.  If there is to be a lasting settlement for devolution, the status quo cannot be the only alternative. Along with the labour movements in other parts of the UK we should explore the best constitutional solution to enable fairer redistribution of wealth and greater democratic control of our economies.