Independence and the Left

A recent Guardian editorial (23/10/11) claimed that the United Kingdom was ‘sleepwalking’ towards a break up of the union. However, anyone who witnessed Alex Salmond’s keynote speech to the SNP party faithful in Inverness on October 22 would be forgiven for characterising this process in an entirely different manner. The mood was positively awake and for good reason – the SNP’s massive victory at this year’s May election allowed Salmond to state plausibly that independence has never been closer. The SNP and the repeated mantra of “the common weal” – representing what one SNP MSP called the “entrenched egalitarian spirit in Scotland”. The SNP has largely (but not completely) positioned itself inside the Scottish left. But what of the other parts of the Scottish left? Is independence a divisive or a uniting issue? Most people believe it is divisive, but what is the evidence for this?

I was approached by the Scottish Left Review as someone who could be seen to be reasonably neutral. I am a young socialist and do not have a strong personal position on independence (and in fact am possibly instinctively a little more opposed than in favour). I had a list of individuals and organisations on the Scottish left on both sides of the independence debate – and a number where the position is unclear. My task was to contact as many as possible (off the record) to try and gauge where the ‘constitutional splits’ on the left lie. Included were the political parties, the campaigning organisations and the trade unions. I will look at each in turn and try to draw some conclusions.

First the political parties. The remarkable success of the SSP and the opportunity it spawned in light of Labour’s grand metamorphosis was a point of celebration for many on the Scottish left. Thus, the SSP’s subsequent break-up and division into two separate political parties – the SSP and Solidarity – contributed to the ever-familiar problem of a fragmented left. Whilst there have been and shall continue to be divisions within these two parties – the issue of Scottish independence and the forthcoming referendum has managed to unite two previously clashing factions on common ground as part of the Independence First collective. However, whilst independence is one of their core policies there exist subsections within them that are less committed to this aim. The SWP and CWI, which form platforms within Solidarity, have supported independence in the past but have yet to discuss their position at a national level for the forthcoming referendum. Whilst the issue of independence may not normally top their agenda, the general feeling from within the group is that in a referendum context they would be inclined to vote in favour. It would appear that the impact of successive British governments – from social policy to imperial ventures abroad – has caused a scepticism towards the Union to emerge throughout portions of the left which is strong enough to sway them on an issue to which they would have otherwise been indifferent.

The Scottish Greens have officially supported independence since 2005 – a position they state is “grounded in local decision-making and decentralism, not nationalistic fervour or identity politics”. Thus, despite a difference in the ideological underpinnings – supporters of the Scottish Greens or perhaps more generally those who adhere to the central tenets of much green theory and follow E. F Schumacher’s maxim that ‘small is beautiful’ can be expected to be fully behind Scottish independence in a referendum.

Some of the Greens’ guiding principles on the environment, peace and non-violence are an important factor throughout the left. Although, since many of the related campaigns have members or affiliated organisations who have varying positions it is difficult to foresee them taking straightforward and clear-cut positions on the constitutional issue. However, if we consider the current political reality – some speculation can be made. All of the parties who support the union also support the UK Trident Programme, which apart from a brief break from tradition from the Lib Dems (who opposed Trident’s renewal, itself a very conditional position) has been a constant for a considerable time. Meanwhile, all of the parties who support independence (SNP, SSP, Greens & Solidarity) are opposed to nuclear weapons. The centrality of the nuclear issue in the peace movement’s aims led a senior figure in the SCND to state that “the prospect of independence looks like the only serious opportunity in the coming years of ending the UK’s nuclear role”. Since any independent Scottish government could immediately disarm Trident by rejecting the presence of nuclear warheads in Scottish territory and as a result, Trident would be unable to operate anywhere else in the UK for decades as significant logistical and financial requirements for its relocation would arise.

For this reason, Scotland’s For Peace and CND have already been discussing how they can use a referendum campaign to promote anti-nuclear and disarmament issues. The only foreseeable counter that those opposed to independence could offer is the possibility of affecting greater change through achieving nuclear disarmament at the UK level. However, given the record of the past thirty years it is difficult to imagine the being given credence by many of those in the movement.

For example, the recent revelation that 45 per cent of Scottish Unison members cast an SNP vote in that election raises serious questions about the direction and formulation of policy within such organisations, at least sufficiently enough extent for the union leadership to reconsider positions which may be entirely out of step with their membership

Moreover, the perceived warfare role of the British state may influence many activists; but, again, it is difficult to envisage this becoming an established position. Since such organisations have at their heart a practice of forming a ‘united front’ and for them, attempting to formulate any particular stance on the constitutional issue may be akin to ‘seeking out dissent’ as one senior member of the Scottish Stop the War Coalition put it. Of course, the SNP’s stance on the UK’s invasion of Afghanistan and the more recent intervention in Libya has drawn the ire of much of the anti-war movement and there is nothing to dictate that an independent Scotland would see all of their positions adopted, independence for many however, may offer a better opportunity to pursue them, separated from a polity which they consider to be inextricably linked with war.

When we consider the trade unions and the constitutional issue a very complex picture emerges. With a UK government in power responsible for what TUC chief Brendan Barber branded a “savage and opportunistic attack on public services” which “goes far further than even the dark days of Thatcher” – the outlook for trade unions at a UK level is bleak. The sheer scale of the austerity measures implemented by the Coalition Government has been met with widespread condemnation throughout the trade union movement in Britain, expounding the already massively unpopular programmes of privatisation and cutbacks in public services in recent years. Furthermore, the forecast anti-trade union legislation as part of a UK-wide process of financialisation and the gradual displacement of public sector workers by voluntary workers (to which Labour opposition has been timid at best) will deal a serious blow to public sector trade unions in Scotland.

Clearly, there are a multitude of factors which influence the ability or indeed desire of trade unions to take a position on Scotland’s constitutional future. Trade union membership and affiliations have become increasingly diversified (throughout the UK and abroad) which makes dealing with strictly Scottish affairs problematic. Moreover, historically, there has been a symbiotic relationship in the ‘labour and trade union movement’ between the economic component (the trade unions) and the political component (the Labour Party). This remains evident today, as a majority of the unions still support or are affiliated with the Labour Party and provide it the bulk of its funding. Within Scotland, the CWU, GMB, Unison and Unite all support the unionist line. Given that the SNP took almost half a share of the vote in the last Scottish Election, can such a position remain tenable? We can rightfully assume that union membership will represent a considerable percentage of the electorate and that trade union members’ will be reflected in the results. Regardless of official union position, in the case of a referendum it is foreseeable that many Scottish union members (and public sector workers in particular) increasingly angry at Westminister policy would break with union policy.

For example, the recent revelation that 45 per cent of Scottish Unison members cast an SNP vote in that election raises serious questions about the direction and formulation of policy within such organisations, at least sufficiently enough extent for the union leadership to reconsider positions which may be entirely out of step with their membership. The Scottish FBU tackled this directly; first by polling its members on the referendum bill and now with support for independence in their membership as high as 70 per cent have declared themselves to be in favour of independence.

It would appear that despite the successes of the SNP and the increasing support for independence, the constitutional issue at hand is largely yet to be addressed by the trade union movement. This is unsurprising – the opposition to it has yet to fully materialise. The current state of the Scottish Labour Party and the levels of support in Scotland for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at Holyrood and Westminister make it difficult to see how the unions will support a No campaign without alienating their membership. Also, trade union leadership may find themselves in a particularly difficult situation: their deep-rooted links and vested-interests with the Labour Party may make the prospect of switching to the Yes campaign seem too steep a hill to climb. At the same time, if they follow the status quo on the constitutional issue and back the No campaign they risk alienating themselves from the Scottish government, a significant section of their current membership and importantly, their future membership. After all, the evidence from the Scottish Opinion Survey shows that support for independence rises sharply the further down the age spectrum you go. The same is true for occupational group.

So what conclusions can be drawn from all of this? It is perhaps easiest to make a clear judgement with the political parties. Of all the parties in Scotland which would describe themselves as ‘left’ only the Labour Party has a policy line which opposes independence. It may well be that there is varying enthusiasm for the policy but certainly none of these parties (or as far as can be guessed, not many of their members) would be involved in a No campaign.

Of course, the ‘campaigning sector’ is much more diverse and harder to judge. There is a fairly strong level of support in the peace movement, driven in no small part by illegal wars and Trident renewal. There is evidence that the green and environmental movement are sympathetic to government which is distributed closer to individuals and where there is not much support for what Westminster has done (and not done). The social justice organisations are currently very suspicious of Westminster, although perhaps not a lot more can be said than that.

The difficulty comes when we look at the unions. They are wrapped up in political legacies and relationships which often make it hard to support independence (affiliation to the Labour Party, being part of a UK-wide organisation). Now, this is not meant to mean that all the trade unions really want to support independence but are blocked – there are plenty people within the trade union movement who do not support independence. But the view which seems to be supported (or at least recognised) by those on both sides of the debate is that the view of trade union members shows signs of moving in favour of independence, partly because of the nature and profile of trade union membership. While it is certainly difficult to know what will happen, there seems to be a growing view that an aggressive anti-independence stance from the unions might not sit well with large numbers of their own members. The best guess of many is that unions will tend towards a ‘devolution-max’ stance, but it is far from clear how many would come out to support a No campaign.

In Scotland the constitutional debate has at times seemed to take place at a level high above most Scots – between Salmond and Cameron, the Scottish Government and the Scotland Office, the SNP and the Labour Party. To know more about the politics of independence we need to look closer to the ground. That is what this article has tried to do. It’s conclusions may not be in any way absolute but there is one general trend that can be seen – it is harder to find someone on the left who will speak out against independence than to find someone to speak in favour.