The social and national are one: Labour and Scottish independence

Chris Sutherland makes an impassioned plea to develop a radical agenda for independence.

On the eve of the 1916 Easter Rising, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, the wife of the pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, asked James Connolly: ‘Tell me, Jim, have you ever any hope of anything on the other side?’ Both her husband and Connolly were to lose their lives during the Rising. At least the prospect of an after-life offered some comfort for a doomed uprising. Quick as a flash, Connolly replied: ‘The British Labour Party? Oh no, they won’t lift a finger to help us’ (from Samuel Levenson’s 1973 ‘James Connolly’ biography, p291).

Connolly had no illusions as he set off for the General Post Office that Easter Monday. By committing his tiny ‘Irish Citizen Army’, he was staking Labour’s place in the struggle for Irish Independence in the full knowledge that the British labour movement would remain largely silent. To Connolly the ‘national’ and the ‘social’ (which he used for socialist) were one and the same struggle. What would be the point of an independent Ireland if the same forces of exploitation and appropriation continued under a new native ruling class, swapping one set of bosses for another?

Think back now to 2014 during the referendum when, languishing in the polls, Alex Salmond suddenly made his ‘left turn’ with its vision of a more egalitarian, less class ridden society. Suddenly, the campaign was electrified with a groundswell of ‘Yessers’ warming to the notion of a socialistic Scotland. This then produced the panicked response of the three unionist parties in defence of ‘Scotland plc’, wrapped in the Union Jack.

Not only did Labour ‘not lift a finger’ in the struggle for an independent Scotland, it attempted to squash the independence movement with its collective thumb. But it backfired spectacularly when all three parties were decimated in the 2015 General Election, leaving the SNP the dominant force in Holyrood and at Westminster, a situation which persists seven years on.

I used to be a life-long Labour voter. I celebrated when 18 years of Tory government ended in 1997 with the election of a Blair government but, like millions of others, I quickly became disillusioned as Labour became the party of privatisation and war – a final humiliation was Thatcher describing Tony Blair as her ‘finest achievement’. Labour’s share of the vote collapsed from 13.5m in 1997 to 8.6m in 2010 (albeit with 12.9m in 2017). In 2007, I switched to the Greens out of desperation and on my return to Scotland in 2010 I switched to the SNP whom I’ve voted for ever since.

The 2014 ‘left turn’ was as exhilarating for me as it was for thousands of others. As the campaign rolled on, it was ‘debate night’ every night on TV. I remember the faces of the 16-year olds who suddenly got the vote for the first time. I travelled down to Edinburgh for mass rallies and watched the impromptu meetings in Dundee’s City Square. There were even rallies in the car park outside my flat in Cupar. I remember being stopped by a Dutch TV crew intrigued that an Anglo-Scot would be voting for independence.

Despite all the weaknesses of the ‘Yes’ campaign, I was hit by the sudden realisation that the need for democracy trumped all other considerations. I hadn’t expected that. These included the trumping of economic factors, warnings of financial melt-down, firms relocating to England, lack of a central bank, lack of a currency, collapse of pensions and the value of savings, the break-up of the BBC, plans for a 15,000 Scottish defence force with a couple of ships and a few planes, even the daft idea of sharing the Queen.

None of this mattered against having the freedom to decide our own affairs. For decades, Scotland had been on the receiving end of governments it had never voted for. We all remember how Thatcher piloted the Poll Tax, shut down many industries, stole our council housing, squandered North Sea oil receipts to wage war against the working class, sold off the ‘family silver’, transferring wealth to the rich from the poor and decimating public services.

But ‘what if independence made things worse?’, I heard people cry. I was working as a hospital cleaner in 2014 and a work-mate summed things up when she said: ‘Well, at least it’ll be our fuck-up!’ How could it get any worse was a common response. If you’re poor and at the bottom of society, what’s there to lose? ‘What if it all falls apart?’ I asked a porter. ‘We’ll do what we always do,’ he replied in a thick Fife drawl: ‘we’ll invade!’ Some wag wrote to the local paper saying ‘If you give us independence, we’ll give you back Berwick Rangers!’

What a tragedy, therefore, for Labour to desert its pro-independence supporters. By doing so it completely misread the national mood. Many ‘No’ voters still supported greater devolution. It wasn’t a blank cheque for unionism and when promises of devolution did not happen – at least in popular perception, the SNP began to hoover up votes. A whole generation of Scottish careerist Labour MPs was wiped out in an instant.

With Labour trapped in the past, it still clings stubbornly to the unionist cause, now into its fourth leader in seven years. Anas Sarwar, held on in May 2021 but he’s still part of the ‘old guard’, caught in the quicksand of the ‘ghost of Gordon’ and his infamous ‘pledges’ now threatening a comeback. Scottish Labour’s renaissance never materialised, despite its organic links to the union movement, and all this with the sure knowledge that Labour as a national force can never expect to be elected to office without its ranks of Scottish MPs, and me, like thousands of former voters stuck to a right-moving SNP. We too are trapped, like political exiles without a home, afraid that if we break ranks with the SNP, it’ll be the end of our one chance of independence, even if it might mean an independent Scotland trapped in neo-liberal austerity with the SNP like a one-party state (as it was in Ireland during the post independent period, inward looking with its Magdalene laundries).

I looked at the Scottish Growth Commission’s 2018 Report with dismay as I glimpsed an independent Scotland trapped in permanent austerity with fiscal and current account deficits, its tax income and investment resources way short of any post-Covid, post-carbon capacity to green the Scottish economy, dependent upon foreign lending markets with pressure to cut and privatise and still no sign of a Central Bank, no answers on currency and how Scotland would cope with a flight of capital.

What I also discovered from the hospital shopfloor in 2014 was how few of my workmates were union members, and how many opposed independence because they were afraid of what would happen to their terms and conditions, wages, pensions, mortgages and savings. ‘Project Fear’ especially amongst the elderly worked because it resonated, just as ‘Hope not Fear’ surged amongst newly enfranchised teenagers. The divisiveness of 2014 is still very much with us in 2021 despite a belated pro-independence shift in the polls. For me, a narrow majority will not be capable of delivering long-term independence. A 55%-45% split in favour over a long period would probably be a more reliable tipping point. Otherwise, we could be in for years of warfare at the hustings. Yet all the SNP/Green coalition offers following the 2021 Holyrood election is two years post-Covid consolidation … in other words ‘business as usual’ and political heel-kicking. Who knows where the pendulum will have swung in that time, with Alba waiting to feed on any pickings?

There is also another contradiction to be addressed, namely, the SNP’s attachment to the EU. If the driving force for independence is democracy, being free from Westminster and having the power to run its own affairs, how democratic is it to attach Scotland to the EU which is moving inexorably to political union? How does that place a small country like Scotland, subsumed as a tiny region in a huge political and economic bloc in which Scotland would only have a tiny number of seats?

To my mind, there needs to be a more decisive shift in the independence movement, one that is spearheaded by the ‘Under One Banner/Now Scotland’-style mass presence on the streets with its more radical ambition for an independent Scotland, driving the debate and setting the agenda. Labour needs to be part of this. It needs to abandon its attachment to unionism and attach its colours to the radical independence movement. The Greens on their own might have influence as coalition partners, but theirs is still a junior role. A united front of SNP/Left Labour/Green might give us the balance of class forces needed for a breakthrough to 55%.

And the battleground is one of ideas – the greening of the Scottish economy, generating jobs and investment, a universal basic income, free public transport, the drive for mass council housing, rolling back forty years of privatisation, re-nationalising utilities, rail and telecommunication; land reform and a revolution in community ownership; a state care system embedded into a well-funded NHS, an end to the marketisation of health; a universal state and higher educational system; an end to Trident and nuclear mass destruction and the proud affirmation of a Scottish republic. There needs to be a frank and honest discussion about the role of the state and the individual in a newly independent nation and also what sort of political system emerges at Holyrood. Do we keep or ditch d’Honte for full-blown PR or go backwards to FPTP? What sort of institutions replace the old? These are arguments for the here and now and not for two years down the road.

We go back to James Connolly on the eve of the Easter Rising – ‘the social and the national are one’. Socialists need to stake their claim to a new nation. Without it, progressive nationalism can go in directions we might not like. The interests of the Scottish working class should be at the forefront of an independent Scotland and for that we need a pro-independence Labour Party marching alongside AUOB and Now Scotland, in alliance with other progressive forces – the Greens, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Palestine Solidarity, the Women’s movement and LGBT+ and the thousands of marching, chanting teenagers.

Chris Sutherland is a lifelong socialist, living in St. Andrews, a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign but not of any political party.