Capitalism is safe in the SNP's hands

By Frieda Park

In a few months Scotland may have voted to become an independent country or it may have voted to stay part of the UK. In modern times there has never been a majority for independence, so why are we even being asked this question?

Recently the Scottish National Party has posed itself as a social-democratic alternative and has become the repository for the protest vote in Scotland, where people are disenchanted with Labour. This was not always the case, the SNP used to be nicknamed the Tartan Tories. The protest vote concentrates itself in Scottish Parliamentary elections, whereas in Westminster elections people still tend to vote Labour. Last year Labour won two seats from the SNP in by-elections - a Council seat in Glasgow and a Scottish Parliamentary seat in Dunfermline.  Since then in Labour held seats, by-elections have resulted in a swing from the SNP to Labour.

The combined tactical smartness of the SNP and terrible performance of Scottish Labour, nevertheless, delivered us an absolute SNP majority in the last Scottish Parliamentary elections. This was a stunning victory in a system designed to prevent any one party having overall power, yet in some ways it almost felt like an accident, albeit an accident waiting to happen. Independence was not an issue during the election campaign. Many of those who voted SNP did not expect this outcome and the SNP itself probably did not expect it either.

The SNP has been long dominated by pragmatic gradualists. They probably expected to continue to argue for more devolved powers coming to the Scottish Parliament over years, rather than suddenly being in the position of having to argue for independence. Pro-independence demonstrations have not been very impressive and, in fact, the YES campaign have now called off what was to be its final demonstration before the referendum. Mindful that they are not in a strong position, the SNP leadership opted to try to convince the Scottish people that independence would mean keeping everything they like about Britain and not be too disruptive or radical. So according to the White Paper, Scotland’s Future[1], we get to keep great British institutions, like the BBC, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and err... the National Lottery.  They unilaterally declared that, not to worry, Scotland will still have the pound, the monarchy, be in the European Union and NATO prior to any negotiation round these issues. The pretence that nothing will change in an independent Scotland except that we will have fewer Tories and more child care provision has begun to come seriously unstuck with the UK treasury ruling out a currency union and the EU being clear that Scotland will need to re-apply for membership which could be a difficult process.

The SNP pretends that an independent Scotland will inherit all the entitlements (if you could call them that) that it currently has as part of the UK. This is nonsensical. If Scotland votes for independence then it will be leaving those structures behind. Like many a divorce, there will be lengthy and protracted negotiations round how to divide up debts and assets, but there will be no right for Scotland to use rUK institutions. It can negotiate its share of physical resources, but it may have to start again and establish a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, Lifeboat Service, National Lottery etc. You would not expect your partner to announce that they were leaving and then to come round every night to watch TV and prepare meals on the cooker on the basis that these were “shared assets”. You would reach agreement about who was having the cat, the CD collection and the coffee machine, set up separate bank accounts and go your different ways.  Yet the SNP seem to want to move out, but not move out, to have independence, but not be independent.

When national parties speaking on behalf of the rest of the UK (rUK), as well as Scotland, demurred and said that currency union with Scotland was not going to happen they were, of course, accused of bullying. Each wheel that falls off Salmond’s independence wagon will be blamed on English Tories. In reality the problems arise from the SNP’s unwillingness to tell the people of Scotland what independence would really mean, that it could be a difficult and complex process with few guarantees and which might have some very negative consequences.

Despite this, however, the idea of independence does have strong appeal to many.

Nationalist movements are best judged by their class content. The forces for independence range from some pretty big capitalists, such as Brian Soutar, the fundamentalist Christian, homophobic owner of Stagecoach, through elements of the liberal middle class, the Greens, every brand of Trotskyite and a significant number of activists in the Labour Movement. In addition some foreign capitalists such as Rupert Murdoch have snuggled up to the SNP government. Those opposed to independence are a similar motley crew – though no Greens or Trotskyites. On this basis, the demand for independence does not appear to represent any coherent class interest. All of the strands supporting a Yes vote believe that their independent Scotland will be a better Scotland for them, which clearly cannot be the case. Though independence may not be in any one classes’ interest, nevertheless it is lead by the SNP, which despite its social-democratic garb is a capitalist party. In an independent Scotland it would lower corporation tax in a race to the bottom aimed at attracting parasitic capital. How would their promises on welfare be funded in such a situation? Despite the evidence of the banking crisis when Scottish banks were the centre of the collapse, they still play up Scotland’s financial industry. Scotland’s banking sector is currently 12 times the size of its GDP, for the rUK it is less than 5 times. As a comparison before the financial crash in 2007 both Iceland and Ireland had banking sectors which were around 7 times their GDP. [2] To be scared of this economic scenario is not scaremongering, but a rational response.

They also talk about the potential of North Sea oil and compare Scotland with Norway.  In Norway large sections of the industry are controlled by the state, there are no similar proposals to change the ownership and management of this finite resource emanating from the SNP.

Fundamentally the Scottish people are being asked to follow a strand of the capitalist class. Whilst the pro-independence left do have their own agenda, they are not the leading force in this campaign. The hope is of a better, Tory–free Scotland, but in reality nationalism is asking the working-class to band together with capitalists to create a capitalist Scotland.

There are five interconnected arguments for independence on the left, though not everyone who supports independence would subscribe to all of these:

  • Scotland did not vote for the Tories and austerity and, therefore, must be better off with a leftish government at Holyrood, which would better reflect the wishes of the Scottish people.
  • Our history, culture and traditions are different from England and implicitly or explicitly it is stated that these are more progressive. This will be given expression in an Independent Scotland.
  • It would break up the British State.
  • Scotland is oppressed by England and the independence movement is a national liberation struggle.
  • That the more localism there is the better, so Scots running their own affairs is more democratic.

The main argument against all of these is that they ignore the real alignment of class forces for independence, dismiss class-struggle and progressive movements in other parts of the UK, especially in England. In reality no one ever comments on Wales and the North of Ireland.

Some dream of a realignment of Scottish politics post-independence. But if this is on the cards why is that lurch not already happening as we battle the Tory dictatorship? We may elect many fewer Tories than in England, but is the class-struggle actually any more advanced that would deliver us the dreams of social justice and a nuclear-weapons free Scotland? The recent dispute at Ineos in Grangemouth brought this into sharp relief. Workers in Scotland made a brave stand, but were no more able to take on the might of foreign-based capital than their English sisters and brothers would have been. They were not demonstrably more militant, nor did Scottish society rally round them to offer effective support. The Scottish Government acquiesced, just as the Westminster Parliament did, to cough up cash, supporting private equity capital rather than workers. Meanwhile the RMT in the London Underground is taking action to defend jobs and services.

An independent Scotland might or might not be more social-democratic in the short term. Any re-alignment of politics is more likely to hatch a new right as Salmond and Sturgeon swim in a capitalist ocean and will require to follow policies of austerity and neo-liberalism to survive. No doubt they will blame this on the poor settlement they were left after independence and the pantomime villain the English.

Nor are we lumbered with a permanent Tory majority, a future Labour Government in Westminster is entirely possible. Labour is consistently ahead of the Tories in opinion polls and support for the coalition is being eroded by UKIP and the collapse of the Lib Dem vote. Without Scottish votes the defeat of the Tories is a lot less achievable, so rather than being a beacon to the English working-class, as some argue, we will instead be abandoning them.  A more entrenched right-wing majority in the rUK parliament is no-ones interests whether Scotland is “independent” or not.

We can expect Labour and progressive movements to split their organisations after independence. Workers north and south of the border will be posed against each other by the global companies that dominate our economy.  It has always been a hard battle to combat sectional interests and forge working class unity. How will separation make that easier?

A further consideration for those who think that independence is the only progressive option, without the votes of Scottish MPs the UK would now be at war in Syria.

At another level the pro-independence left justify their position by arguing that Scotland’s has deep rooted radical traditions which somehow will form the basis of continued left progress once independence has been achieved. Scotland does indeed have wonderful historical and radical traditions which continue to manifest themselves today. The promotion of these is a vital part of the class-struggle, but it is precisely that, a conflict of ideologies, of how we read our history and celebrate our culture. It is not something that can be taken for granted as a given. Whilst we celebrate Robert Burns, the Red Clydeside, and the Scots contribution to the Spanish Civil War there are many others attending the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and taking pride in our Scottish Regiments.

The tendency to blame domination by England for holding back the Scottish working class is misguided. True enough Scotland does not, at present, vote Tory but neither do great swathes of the North of England and London. The progressive traditions of England are never considered, nor its changing ethnic composition which influences its politics. Class matters more than geography. Fundamentally it is capitalism that holds us back not England.

There have been many statements from individuals on the left implying, or sometimes quite directly saying, that Scotland is naturally socialist/social-democratic/left-wing. A speaker from The Common Weal at the launch of the Peoples’ Assembly in Scotland said not once but twice that “fairness is in our DNA”.  In a recent article[3] in the Morning Star the writer states:

“The idea that Scotland must stay in order to save the English from themselves is utterly bizarre. Like very democracy, England gets the government that it elects, including the current one. If the English left want to rebuild they need to start appealing to English voters, not those of neighbouring countries.”

Who are the “English” that the writer refers to – a national blob that we can all hate undifferentiated by class or ethnicity? This is the divisive chauvinist thinking which is promoted by capitalism. In working class communities and cities people in England vote Labour. It is an act of solidarity to stand with them against austerity and to oust the Tories at the next general election. Internationalism might not always be easy, but it is always right.

The other main left argument for independence on the left is that it will break up the British state. Again this seems a seductive proposition and one that on the surface it would be difficult to disagree with. But how far will it be a reality? The SNP version of independence, not a utopian vision of what we would like it to be, actually maintains many of the institutions of the state intact and calls for collaboration in matters such as defence and intelligence. The representatives of what would be the rUK are becoming increasingly opposed to this vision, but even if Scotland does break away, it is difficult to see that it will change much. The rUK state will carry on unburdened by its Labour voting northern neighbour.

There is also a position that holds that Scotland is oppressed by England and Scottish nationalism is like a national liberation movement.

Capitalist nation states emerged across Europe, defining themselves throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. England was well ahead of others in settling its dynastic feudal differences, forging a centralised state and turning its vision outward to world domination. Other countries had similar ambitions, including Scotland. In 1695 the Scottish Parliament established the Bank of Scotland and the Company of Scotland to raise capital for trade with Africa and the Indies. Within a few weeks around one fifth of the wealth of the country had been gathered into this fund which was then sunk into the disastrous Darien scheme to found a Scottish colony in Panama, with the aim of controlling the isthmus. Sir William Patterson the main advocate of the scheme fell from grace but later had a successful career, among other things going on to be one of the founders of the Bank of England.

Scotland was bankrupted by Darien and the only way it could sustain its imperial ambitions was through union with England.

Some of the Scottish nobility petitioned England to wipe out the Scottish national debt and stabilise the currency. Eventually, this was agreed and the Scottish Pound was given the fixed value of a shilling. Arguably then, the pound is English and not the shared asset that Alex Salmond claims. Three hundred years later and with the Scottish financial system, including the Bank of Scotland, being bailed out again, one wonders if some in England might be questioning the usefulness of their Scottish partner in crime. Partners in crime, of course, we definitely were with Scots playing significant roles within the British Empire at all levels and “Scottish” capitalism benefiting. In the same way that the spoils of Empire were used to purchase the loyalty of the English working-class, so they were also in Scotland.

The argument that decisions are best taken more locally by those whom they affect is also flawed. Firstly it sets class interest to one side imagining that greater devolution of power will bring it closer to the people. All our experience under capitalism shows us that this not the case. National governments, regional or community councils do not produce more radical or accountable politics. Class struggle does that.

In conclusion, on the positive side of the balance sheet, with independence is it possible that Scotland will be able to pursue more social democratic policies to the benefit of the Scottish people? Even that is unlikely, however, as Scotland needs to deal with the pressures of operating in a neo-liberal global economy and the SNP implement their pro-capital economic policies.  Why should we believe the SNP promises anyway on welfare or Trident. We do not usually take capitalist politicians at face value.

Independence will not mean business as usual but will be a complicated and uncertain process which will produce a lot of unintended and negative consequences socially and economically.

Based on what is happening now, there is no evidence that the left or Socialist ideas will flourish more in an independent Scotland.

The rUK will have a more entrenched right-wing majority in its parliament, which will wield power and influence over an independent Scotland, the other peoples of these islands and internationally, with less chance that we can alter this.

The progressive and labour movements will be institutionally divided and prey to capitalism promoting sectional interests so that we end up fighting each other rather than the real enemy. Those divisions are already beginning to appear and it is sad that so much time and effort is being devoted to the pros and cons of independence instead of building opposition to capitalist austerity.


[1] Scotland’s Future, The Scottish Government November 2013

[2] Alex’s Salmond’s big problem, the Economist 22/2/14

[3] The most Progressive option on the table, Pam Currie, The Morning Star Online accessed 23/2/14

"Without Scottish votes the defeat of the Tories is a lot less achievable, so rather than being a beacon to the English working-class, as some argue, we will instead be abandoning them."