Killing independence ‘stone dead’?

Readers will keenly recall the result of the independence referendum on 18 September 2014 – 55% against and 45% for. After the dust had settled a bit and after much grinding of teeth, it was concluded by mainstream nationalist and unionist thinkers that the critical reason why more voters were not turned on to the case for independence was down to poor economics – specifically, that the issue of a currency and future economic growth were poorly thought out in the White Paper called ‘Scotland’s Future’ penned by the Alex Salmond leadership. As the new SNP leader following Salmond’s departure, Nicola Sturgeon set out to right those seeming wrongs on the path to independence. Hence, the commissioning of the ‘Sustainable Growth’ report led by Andrew Wilson in 2016.

If Sturgeon and the current SNP tight leadership cabal of John Swinney, Derek McKay et al. thought the Wilson report would square their circle, they have quickly been disavowed of this. The report has created an almighty right-left chasm within the independence movement. Sure enough, there was already such a chasm but it was a relatively minor one while both right and left could have continued illusions in what independence could be. But now the Wilson report, released on 25 May, has shown in a disarmingly explicit way what independence would look like under the SNP. It is not an attractive prospectus for anyone of a progressive disposition.

Before looking at why this is the case, it is worth revealing the nature of the calculation made by the SNP leadership with the Wilson report. So whilst it still has to be debated in the SNP’s National Assemblies over the summer and into the autumn prior to any formal adoption through the party’s policy decision making procedure, the report was tasked with reassuring those that needed reassurance in order to turn 45:55 into 55:45. Essentially, this was an appeal to the right – of voters, business, commentators and the media. For them, it was a message of independence won’t scare the horses and things won’t be that different under independence.

In making such an appeal, the miscalculations have been several-fold. First and probably most importantly, in appealing to the right, the support of the left will be lost. The early signs of this were quickly apparent with the likes of the Iain Macwhirter, Dennis Canavan, Darren McGarvey, the Radical Independence Campaign, the Common Weal, the Scottish Socialist Party etc being vocal in their criticism. That is not to say that the pro-independence left will vote against independence but it is to say that it will not be so energised to campaign and vote for independence (and may not vote SNP again because of the report). That is said knowing that some of the left will campaign for their own vision of independence whilst also recognising the SNP – still controlled by Sturgeon et al. – will continue to dominate any future independence campaign (especially where there is still no organised left in the SNP to speak of). Second, there are the issues of quantity and quality, namely, will the number of votes from the right outweigh those lost from the left, and what will be the consequence of winning by appealing to the right? The weekend after the Wilson report was launched, the Sunday Herald reported that experts on the centre right and centre left proclaimed the Wilson report would have been the game changer had it been it and not ‘Scotland’s Future’ that guided the SNP’s independence campaign. But then came the damnation from the Institute of Fiscal Studies on the issue of years of coming austerity through the ‘solidarity’ debt repayment. Even if the votes from the right outweighed those lost from the left and were enough to gain a majority, the rightward political direction of the Wilson report would be very much underscored. One early poll suggested 13% said they were more likely to vote for independence because of the report while 6% said they were less likely to do so because of the report.

Third, in the era of their new left leaderships with Corbyn and Leonard, the move to the right by the SNP only further strengthens the appeal of Labour north and south of the border for those looking for social justice by any means – whether through the union or independence. Indeed, there has been a recalibration of the road to social justice, social democracy and socialism since Corbyn was elected Labour leader in late 2015 and Labour did far better than expected in the June 2017 general election. Fourth, and relatedly, of the ‘no’ voters, many were on the left and their position will only be hardened and reinforced by the Wilson report.

But to use the term miscalculation would suggest the SNP is merely guided by political opportunism. This would be to make a grave error for the Wilson report is framed by its own ideology of neo-liberalism and Sturgeon would not have commissioned it without having a pretty good idea of what it would come up with. Thus, it is pertinent to now ask the question: so what is at the core of the report? The answer: something of an inter-generational blueprint for an independent capitalist Scotland of a neo-liberal variant. The report has rightly been condemned for it unwillingness to break from sterling and the lack of fiscal control that entails as well as the continuation and ramping up of austerity measures for a generation to come. Readers will by now be fairly well versed in these arguments. However what has been far less picked upon is the economic philosophy that underpins the reports thinking (see Part A of the report). So, the report gave trickledown economics a twenty-first century reboot, for it concentrated on methods of how to raise the performance (competitiveness and productivity) of the economy in Scotland. Even immigration was seen in this light. The re-tread big idea is that if the economy can become more productive, raising the total national wealth, then we’ll all be better off. Hence, the headline of The National (24 May 2018), an increasingly shrill propaganda sheet for the SNP, proclaiming that independence ‘would be worth £4,100 extra for every Scot’. The big problem here is the issue of distribution is the elephant in the room. Assuming that the chosen methods did raise competitiveness and productivity (and that is not necessarily a safe assumption), the report has nothing to offer as to how these munificence will be distributed to each citizen, with more going to those that need it more. In fact, what the report did assume was that those who owned and controlled the wealth would spend it and the benefits of this would trickle down to the rest of us. Problematic to say the least – on account of not all the extra wealth would stay in Scotland; the rich spent money on luxury goods made outside of Scotland; when they do spend it in Scotland, the jobs created are often in hospitality where they are low paid and insecure, etcetera, etcetera. In other words, the Wilson report envisages no change to the economic power relations in Scotland. Indeed, it seeks to strengthen the power of the already powerful.

What makes this even more unpalatable are three aspects. First, there is no place for public ownership, with its potential for enhancing democratic, fairness and efficiency. This is hardly surprising given the SNP’s resistance to public ownership of Northern Ferries, Scotrail and bus transport. Second, unions are asked (even though they were never consulted) to sign up to a social partnership to enable these productivity gains to be made. There is no suggestion that anti-union laws would be repealed or the strength of union recognition laws enhanced as a reward for cooperation. Third, ‘flexicurity’ is proffered as the way to make labour markets more efficient. Efficiency is defined in neo-liberal terms and not in the social liberal terms of flexibility in the labour market combined with social security and an active labour market policy with rights and obligations for the unemployed.

Yet it would be daft and dishonest to not acknowledge that there are no laudable aims in the Wilson report (see Carolyn Leckie, this issue). You’d be hard pressed to find anyone these days in mainstream politics that would make an explicit and positive case for inequality, poverty and exploitation. But that’s not the most important point for in the Wilson report there is no consideration of how the state can and must be used to deliver upon these laudable aims. Neo-liberalism – or even its social liberalism variant – can never achieve these aims because it is not prepared to substantially use the state intervene to alter the processes and outcomes of the market. You can get a good sense of this from the SNP Scottish Government’s existing Fair Work Framework (launched 2016) and Scottish Business Pledge (launched 2015) – laudable aims but without any enforcement teeth because they are voluntary standards. The further sting in the tail here is that solving issues of gender inequality and social exclusion are seen pretty much only in terms of how they can increase competitiveness and productivity.

To return to a debate in these pages at the back end of 2017 (see issues 101 and 102) over the nature of SNP, the case for saying that the SNP is not a social democratic party (much less a socialist one) has been further strengthened by the Wilson report. This is despite something of an activists’ revolt at the 2018 SNP conference in the form of a rebuke to the party leadership by passing a motion calling for the establishment of a publicly funded infrastructure agency to essentially overshadow the Scottish Futures’ Trust scheme.

Older readers may remember the bold prediction by the then Shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson in 1995. He stated: “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead. He was clearly proved wrong, judged not least by the SNP’s domination at Holyrood since 2007 and the party’s continued strength in polling for Holyrood since the 2016 election. But this editorial wonders whether the Wilson report might do the same for the cause of independence. So, in this issue, we are asked a range of figures from across the independence movement: ‘Is the SNP Sustainable Growth Commission report a major blow to a radical or progressive vision of an independent Scotland, and does it unmask the SNP as a party which is not social democratic despite its pretensions to be so?’ In a subsequent issue, we shall ask figures on the left from the anti-independence to ruminate over the Wilson report as well as ask some from the commission for the Wilson report to respond to the reaction to the report.

Such matters as to the impact on the quality and quantity of support for independence will be definitively tested come the next referendum. Yet the problem for the independence movement is it does not have a date of a referendum to work towards. This means it finds it hard to galvanise itself like it did from May 2012 onwards to 18 September 2014. In that situation, and with still the need for Westminster agreement to hold another and when to hold it, issues like the Wilson report take on an added significance in both positive and negative ways.

Lesley Riddoch and Dennis Canavan were unable to contribute articles on the Growth Commission due to time pressures while Clare Haughey MSP was originally set to write on this matter as well but due to her appointment on the 27 June as Minister for Mental Health she was no longer able to do so because of ministerial responsibilities.

As the Scottish Socialist Voice (issue 507) said: ‘For socialist anniversary hunters, 2018 provides a bumper harvest—Marx’s 200th, Paris May 1968’s 50th, The Communist Manifesto’s 170th, James Connolly’s 150th—just to name a few. But for Scottish Socialists, surely one of the most significant is John Maclean’s famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ of Edinburgh High Court on 9 May 1918’.Whilst this is true, Scottish Left Review would also like to commemorate the death of one of the great ‘Red Clydesiders’, Harry McShane, who was a colleague of Maclean and died in April 1988. Ten years earlier, his biography was written by Joan Smith and called ‘No Mean Fighter’. It gives a good measure of a remarkable individual.

Three last things. First, an erratum. Our film reviewer in the last issue mixed up Judith Hart with Sheila Cassidy in her review of Nae Pasaran! Our apologies for that. Second, the editorial comment is the responsibility of the editor, in conjunction with the chair and vice chair of the editorial board. Third, we have previously called for potential contributors to get in touch with us with ideas and suggestions for articles and themes (including feedback and responses to articles). We re-iterate that call. Please contact the editor, Gregor Gall by email: