|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 172 October 2013
The independence referendum: one year to go
The Scottish independence referendum is taking place on 18 September 2014. An average of this year’s opinion polls indicates that currently one third of people would vote Yes for independence and around one half would vote No. While there are differences depending on which organisation conducts the poll, the trend over the last nine months has been relatively static. PHILLIP STOTT reports on the campaign so far.
The lack of movement in the polls reflects the sterile debate that is taking place, dominated by Yes Scotland, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Better Together, the Labour and Con-Dem lash-up. Both are largely ignoring the burning issues facing working-class communities across Scotland: poverty, cuts and lowering living standards.
‘Project Fear’ is the apt working title given to Better Together and sums up the primary approach of their campaign. ‘Can you afford to go it alone?’ is a typical campaign leaflet headline. Pensions, benefits and savings would all be under threat under independence; taxes would rise and jobs would be lost. Ironically, they say that "the integration of the Scottish economy into a larger and more diverse UK economy… limits the impact of the global crisis". In other words, things are bad now but they would be a lot worse if Scotland was a separate nation.
The Better Together campaign reflects the outlook of a majority of the pro-capitalist establishment in Scotland and Britain. They do indeed fear the economic and political consequences of a majority vote for independence in 2014 which would further destabilise the UK capitalist state, having particularly severe effects in deepening sectarian division in Northern Ireland and also driving forward demands for further devolution and even independence for Wales. It would also undermine the ‘standing’ of British imperialism internationally – which has already taken a blow after David Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons vote on military intervention in Syria.
Equally, the European Union (EU) and other ruling elites in Europe are also mindful of the threat that an independent Scotland would pose in inflaming nationalist movements, including in Catalonia, the Basque country, and Belgium. This is reflected in the debate over whether, and on what basis, Scotland would be allowed entry into the EU if there were a majority vote for independence.
There will no let up by ‘Project Fear’ over the next year, which will go into overdrive if support for independence were to increase approaching the referendum. Enormous pressure will be exerted to ensure a defeat for independence. This club, rather than a stick, is likely to go alongside the carrot of promising more powers for the Scottish parliament in the event of a No vote in 2014.
In contrast to the pro-business ideas that have dominated the debate, Socialist Party Scotland is pointing out that a continuation of capitalism, and the austerity that inevitably goes with it, is the main threat to the pensions, wages, jobs and incomes of the majority. In the absence of a campaign that puts forward a clear alternative in support of public ownership, an end to all cuts and increased taxes on the rich and big business, the debate thus far has taken on all the relevance of two people fighting over the stewardship of the Titanic.
The pro-independence campaign in particular cannot hope to win a majority unless it is able to mobilise a majority of support among the working class. The levels of support for and against independence diverge significantly depending on class background and age. An August 2013 poll conducted by TNS-BMRB showed that those in social class C2DE (skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, unemployed, sick and disabled) were polling 8-10% higher for independence than the ABC1 group (managerial, professional grades, etc).
Support for independence among the poorest sections of society is even more marked. A poll from late January found that 43% of those living in the ‘most deprived’ areas of Scotland intended to vote Yes. Fifty-three per cent of those living in council and housing association accommodation said they would back independence, and 49% who were unemployed and on sickness benefits said they would vote Yes.
This sharp class polarisation underlines the experience of Socialist Party Scotland members in the bedroom tax campaign and among working-class communities where strong backing for independence is evident. For a big section of the working class, support for independence is bound up with a desire to escape savage cuts and falling living standards. Socialist Party Scotland is calling for a Yes vote in the referendum. But we also seek to explain that only socialism – an independent socialist Scotland as part of a socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland – would offer an end to capitalist-driven austerity and crisis.
Nevertheless, there are also many workers and trade unionists who have doubts or are opposed to independence at this stage. To a large extent this reflects the inability of the official Yes campaign and the SNP to offer a clear and decisive alternative to continuing austerity. If anything, the SNP has gone out of its way to emphasise how much things would stay the same.
SNP leader Alex Salmond has pledged to sign up an independent Scotland to a sterling currency zone, with the Bank of England setting interest rates. The queen and her successors would remain as the head of state. The SNP has also ditched its long-term opposition to joining the Nato nuclear alliance. Even more significantly, the SNP leadership is promising to stay ‘within the rules’ of capitalism and apply austerity, albeit with a lighter touch.
Under an independent Scotland, "financial stability will be driven by EU regulations and directives". An "overreaching fiscal sustainability agreement" will be made with the rest of the UK government on debt and borrowing within the sterling zone. These conclusions from the Scottish government’s Fiscal Commission are unambiguous. The rules of the game, dictated by the priorities of capitalism, will continue – hardly surprising when the commission includes the former chief economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, and the former boss at Sun Microsystems and Scottish Enterprise, Crawford Beveridge.
Salmond, while opposing the bedroom tax and other welfare ‘reforms’, has recently argued in favour of a cap on benefits in an independent Scotland: "If you have the right cap deployed in the right way, then that is a reasonable thing to have". The SNP’s finance secretary, John Swinney, commented: "Whoever you are – Greece, Germany or an independent Scotland – you must have fiscal discipline". In other words, implementing cuts to suit the dictates of the international markets and what capitalism can, or cannot, afford.
In power, the SNP majority Scottish government has implemented deep cuts in public spending, passing on the austerity from Westminster to working-class communities in Scotland. Public-sector workers have had real-terms pay cuts for the six years that the SNP have been in power. A 1% pay cap has just been announced for local government workers in Scotland this year and next.
The SNP government has refused to change the Housing Act to legislate against evictions for bedroom tax arrears. The housing minister openly admitted that the SNP opposed this step as it would encourage tenants to go into rent arrears. Bedroom tax non-payment is running at over 50% in Scotland. The SNP is under huge pressure, led by the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation and the scores of local campaigns, to provide money to councils and housing associations to cover the cuts to housing benefit of the more than 85,000 households affected.
Swinney was forced to concede a £20 million one-off payment to mitigate the impact of the tax in the recent SNP budget. He won’t go any further because, he said, "I don’t want to let the Tories off the hook". However, this is some way short of the £50 million a year needed to lift the burden completely. By refusing to act decisively the SNP is standing idly by while Tory austerity wreaks havoc among the poorest working-class communities in Scotland.
Desperate to prove that it is a ‘competent’ government that will ‘balance the books’, the SNP is not perceived by the majority of the working class as a party that is prepared to fight the cuts in any active way. Nor is it prepared to offer even a radical vision of how Scotland would be different post-independence. The SNP leadership is, for example, hostile to the idea of tax increases on the wealthy and big business, and opposes public ownership of North Sea oil and gas and the renewable energy sector.
Instead, the SNP believes that under independence it can boost the capitalist economy and make it grow more rapidly. Its assertion is that cutting corporation tax to 3% below that of the rest of the UK would attract a wave of inward investment, economic growth and job creation. This is an illusion, as the Con-Dem’s own Office of Budget Responsibility recently pointed out: "Britain should be in an unprecedented investment boom; instead this is a place where business owners are on a semi-permanent investment strike". This is the result not of high levels of corporation tax – already at a historic low – but because of a lack of ‘profitable’ outlets for capital investment.
Internationally, capitalism is mired in economic stagnation. The driving down of living standards both before and after the crash, with a greater share of wealth going to the top 1%, has also cut the market for commodities and profits. The idea of sustained economic investment in an independent Scotland, combined with rising living standards and dynamic economic growth, is ruled out under capitalism. Yet this is precisely what is being put forward by Yes Scotland and the SNP leadership.
The Nordic model
A section of the left in Scotland, including the Common Weal Project set-up by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, is putting forward a case that an independent Scotland basing itself on the Nordic model would deliver "higher wages, lower levels of inequality and poverty, good public services and high levels of social cohesion". (A critique of these ideas can be found on the Socialist Party Scotland website.)
A left, social-democratic model is also put forward by the Radical Independence Campaign and by the remnants of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). SSP convenor, Colin Fox, was quoted in The Herald (11 September): "The referendum offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure self-determination for Scotland, to establish a left-of-centre, social democratic state and free five million Scots from the yoke of British imperialism".
These ideas are a regression from socialism and an attempt to find common cause with bourgeois nationalism, or its more radical wing. In essence they put forward the illusion that a better, more equitable form of capitalism is possible, an idea that is a throwback to the social gains won by the working class during the 1950 to 1974-75 economic upswing.
During that time, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, the working class won important concessions on welfare, public services, full employment and, relatively speaking, improvements in wages and incomes. The Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and to an extent Finland, were the pinnacle of this Keynesian model. But the economic crisis in the mid-1970s brought this period to a crashing end. The Keynesian model was abandoned and the neo-liberal period ushered in a counter-revolution against the reforms won by the working class.
Today, savage austerity is the dominant policy of governments across the world. The social gains made in the Nordic states have been eroded – and, in the case of Sweden, obliterated. There is no possibility of a return to the ‘golden era’ of a growing capitalist system that could tolerate, for a sustained period, improved conditions and rights for working-class and middle-class people.
The very limited Keynesian programme contained thus far in ideas like the Common Weal Project, which does not argue for widespread public ownership, significant economic stimulus, or major taxes on wealth, in reality falls way short of the gains won by the labour movement in the post-war boom. This timidity reflects the dead-end that capitalism finds itself in, with no prospect of sustained economic growth. By seeking to stay within the limits of what capitalism can afford, the left is inevitably forced to lower its sights.
Labour movement campaign
From the beginning, Socialist Party Scotland has been calling for a specific trade union-led, anti-cuts and pro-working class campaign for the referendum. One that, while supporting a Yes vote, would also fight for the powers of independence to end and reverse the cuts, nationalise the main sectors of the economy and privatised utilities, alongside increasing the minimum wage, benefits and pensions, an end to privatisation, and a reversal of all anti-trade union laws. The left-led Scotland No.2 branch of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) has played an important role in helping to establish the Trade Unionists for Independence campaign.
The majority of trade union leaderships in Scotland, however, are currently taking a back seat and failing to actively put forward a pro-working class campaign. Many, including Unison, Unite and other Labour Party-affiliated unions, may attempt to hold an agnostic position right up to polling day. In contrast, the PCS civil servants union, within which the Socialist Party plays an important role, will be holding a special conference of its Scottish branches and membership to draw up a platform for the referendum. Socialist Party Scotland members in other trade unions will be calling for a debate and a democratic discussion to allow members to draw up a policy that puts the interests of the working class centre stage in the referendum debate.
It would be a big mistake to allow the pro-capitalist forces gathered around the Yes Scotland and the Labour/Con-Dem Better Together campaigns to dominate the discourse over the referendum. The voice of the organised working class needs to be heard with a clear anti-austerity and pro-public ownership message.
The Red Paper Collective
In the past, the Labour Party would have expected the affiliated trade unions to open their cheque books and help bankroll the Better Together campaign but, so far, only right-wing led unions like USDAW and Community have openly done so. Even before the debacle in Falkirk (when Labour leader Ed Miliband called in the police against the Unite union’s role in election candidate selection), the toxicity of Labour’s involvement with the Con-Dem parties – the kings and queens of austerity – made this a forlorn hope. Instead, a potentially important split has opened up involving a layer of Labour-supporting trade unionists and left MPs and MSPs over the referendum.
The Red Paper Collective has been formed – named after the 1975 Red Paper on Scotland, edited at the time by Gordon Brown of all people – made up of left Labour Party members, leading trade union figures, and members of the Communist Party of Britain. They are mistakenly opposing a Yes vote – the Red Paper Collective opposes independence – but are seeking to put forward a "labour movement alternative to the sterile nationalist v unionist debate around the referendum". It is a grouping that is heavily influenced by the Communist Party’s position, which is for a federal UK but with significant new powers for Scotland, including over nationalisation, tax and borrowing.
The Red Paper Collective has produced a new ‘Red Paper on Scotland – Class, Nation and Socialism’, which includes contributions from leading figures in the PCS, Unison, Unite and GMB trade unions. It is rightly critical of Labour’s involvement in the Better Together campaign that has "alienated much of the labour movement". It says: "Labour is in danger of losing the support of key opinion leaders among trade union and community activists".
The Red Paper Collective supports public ownership, in contradistinction to the Common Weal Project. But even then that is qualified: to only "where appropriate". Nor does it clearly and consistently raise the need for socialism. Instead, it promotes the ideas of a mixed economy involving workers’ co-operatives alongside some limited forms of public ownership. As such it is more of a left reformist manifesto, containing many demands on workers’ rights, improved wages, and tackling inequality that socialists would support.
But it does not clearly outline the need for socialism as a prerequisite for ending the chaos inherent in the capitalist system or explain how the working class can politically organise to fight for such a programme. It certainly does not call for the affiliated unions to break from Labour and help build a new mass working-class party. To build an independent working-class political voice is a vital task, however, the importance of which has been underlined by the sterility of the independence debate.
Socialist Party Scotland calls for the powers of independence to be used to dramatically increase taxes on the rich and big business. We also argue for an immediate levy – of at least 50% – of the un-invested funds of the big corporations, to be used to develop a massive programme of socially useful production, job creation and public services. A socialist government would take urgent steps to solve the economic crisis by taking into democratic public ownership the major corporations that control the economy, including finance, oil, transport and manufacturing.
To be successful in the long term an independent socialist Scotland would seek to build a united movement with the working class in the other nations in the UK, Europe and internationally. This would lay the basis for a voluntary socialist confederation of states and an international plan of production.