Scotland the Brave?

Gregor Gall’s new book, ‘Scotland The Brave?’, pulls together several strands of the left wing and socialist arguments for yes. Gall, an ex-SSP member, curiously has deviated from one of his former party’s cornerstones of the independence argument. ‘Scotland the Brave?’ is not written from the viewpoint that Scotland has a right to self-determination – an argument that has been much of the premise for SSP statements on Scotland’s independence for many years. Rather, the book opens by asking the question which must be the concern of socialists across Scotland and beyond throughout this debate: what outcome in 2014 will open up the greatest possibility for material social change in Scotland.

The chapters which proceed make clear that the only outcome that could create the circumstances for positive radical reforms to improve working class people’s lives is a Yes vote. Gall’s book, overall, is most concerned, not with the national identity of the Scottish people, nor a historic right to self-determination, but rather with the ability of an
independent Scotland to make reforms to better its citizens’ material circumstances. ‘Scotland the Brave?’ is also one of the only books on independence which pulls in the role of the trade unions on Scotland’s future, and the role they play in the current context of British politics.

Gall begins by taking the arguments from the centre-left no voters head on. He argues clearly and categorically that there can be no radical social change under the current constitutional arrangement. Westminster is so dominated by the forces of conservatism and neo-liberalism that change in the foreseeable future is at the very least unlikely, if not impossible. The rightward-pull of Westminster politics has meant that Labour shows no signs of making a significant and substantial break with neo-liberalism, and with statements that they will be “tougher than the Tories on welfare”, they are clearly ideologically committed to continued austerity.

Although Gall’s book was written before the Collins review into the relationship between the trade unions and the labour party, the point he makes about trade-unions is informative. The unions, despite their left-wing leaderships, have no substantive or serious strategy for pushing labour leftwards. The weakness of the unions overall mean that the barriers to social change at Westminster – its right-wing drift – cannot be pushed back. For the trade unions, independence is a chance too.

The narrative underlying the opening of the book is a familiar one: the SNP won not on the basis of their commitment to a referendum on independence, but rather because the SNP began to outflank Scottish Labour to the left on issue after issue, and policy after policy. Gall rightly notes that Johann Lamont, despite being the left wing candidate in the leadership election, has still succumbed to the neo-liberal policies of New Labour. Under Lamont’s leadership, Scottish Labour remain on the right of the SNP and have maintained their tribal stance against anything remotely progressive that the SNP proposes: universal benefits, free school meals and so on.

Where Gall picks up this thread, is to emphasise throughout that the SNP alone cannot win this referendum. And herein lies the key argument of the book: there are three ways in which the left must operate to win not just the referendum – but to win significant social reforms for working class people in Scotland. Firstly, the left must make the argument that independence simply provides an opportunity for social change – it opens up a gap in the political systems which have adhered to neo-liberal dogma for the last three decades.

Secondly, the left must seriously look towards a new form of political representation that can be formulated in the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament. Finally, there is a necessity for extra-parliamentary forces to exist outside of the new Scottish political establishment in order to exert influence upon it. In undertaking these three activities, the
pro-independence left must focus at all times on thematerial circumstances of the mass of citizens in Scotland, making concrete arguments that a Yes vote will open up the possibility to change the trajectory upon which their living standards, access to employment, transport networks, community cohesion and so on, have been declining.

For Gall, ultimately, people must be convinced that independence will make them better off materially – as opposed to the traditional Scottish nationalist territory of self-determination. The left’s great challenge in ‘Scotland the Brave?’ is to ensure it can project enough vision and paint a picture of what a radical independent Scotland could look like for ordinary citizens.

Gall rightly points out that the key to winning a Yes vote is to go beyond the SNP’s vote-yes-for-no-change policies, and focus on the “ends” which independence can bring, rather than the means. For the SNP, in Gall’s eyes, independence itself is enough to radically transform Scotland, to simply have ‘Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands’. However, this is not enough for the Left – and instead socialists supporting a Yes vote must win people to the notion that independence is a means by which we can better our lot.

This is the focus of ‘Scotland the Brave?’ overall – which has happily been matched by the way that the independence campaign has worked on the ground. The Radical Independence Campaign, for example, has strengthened the left-wing case for Yes. By explaining what independence is for (a more equal society) it has answered both implicitly and explicitly what we want independence from (a society that benefits only the already rich and the already powerful). The pro-independence left has also delivered on the material demands that Gall makes in this book. The Left wing Yes groups all speak in real and tangible ideas, about how an independent Scotland can benefit ordinary citizens, socially, economically and politically.

These ideas are being discussed at meetings all across Scotland, night after night in the lead up to the referendum. ‘Scotland the Brave?’ is a particularly useful book for pro-independence activists in the trade union movement- with a whole chapter – aptly named, Red Herrings – dedicated to busting the left wing unionist myths, and Gall also tackles head on the problems with the strategy of “reclaiming Labour” for 2015.

From the Highlands to the Borders and from east coast to west, many more people are discovering that a vote for independence is not just about voting for Scotland, but a vote that can open up the door to real radical social change. This book’s central argument seems to be that independence equals an opportunity for this change to happen – and looking at the polls now, it is up to the left to be brave enough to grab it.