Wednesday 10 September 2014

British Trotskyism and Scottish Independence

Were I still a Trotskyist, my position on the Scottish independence referendum would be determined by this set of questions:

1. As America's lapdog, key prop of international neoliberalism, meddler in foreign affairs, and cheerleader for market fundamentalism within the EU; would an independent Scotland severely diminish the UK's influence?

2. What are the social character of the movements backing Yes and No? Do they have the potential to mobilise wider layers of people, deepen radicalisation, and/or lead to a more opportune environment for socialist politics?

3. Will the labour movement be strengthened by a victory for Yes or No?

4. Will capital be strengthened by a victory for Yes or No?

If you're in the business of building a movement of the immense majority for socialism, I think it is reasonable to assume strategic questions like these have informed the positions taken by the principal trends of British Trotskyism. Today, I take these organisations to be the Socialist Workers Party (despite the splits of last year), the Socialist Party and, because of their visibility rather than size, Counterfire. The SP is the most 'traditional' of the organisations, if you understand that as the resemblance between their political positions and those held by Trotsky himself. On the centrality of the revolutionary party, permanent revolution, stance on Stalinism, and transitional programme have, the lineage is pretty clear. The SWP is less orthodox. It holds to the Leninist party model, but has dumped the other pillars of orthodox Trotskyism (deflected permanent revolution, state capitalism, no programme). And lastly Counterfire, itself a SWP offshoot, is the most heterodox of them all. It appreciates the importance of leadership but does not pretend to be the vanguard party of the working class like the other two do.

Despite their legion of differences they are all urging a Yes vote on 18th September. Considering in the past they had been contemptuously dismissed as 'Brits' and 'Unionists' by pro-independence socialists in the pre-split Scottish Socialist Party, what has happened? What's the rationale?

This piece from Counterfire's James Meadway offers three reasons why socialists and, presumably, labour movement people across Britain - not just in Scotland - should support a Yes vote. Firstly, there are the conjunctural circumstances. Better Together has proven a bit of a shambles, North Sea oil stocks are okay and the SNP are to the left of Labour. Second, the yes vote is a "class vote" - if you're working class, you're more likely to be a yes'er. It goes the opposite way the more privileged you are (according to the Radical Independence Campaign's canvass returns). And lastly, independence can represent a clean break with neoliberal policies driven by a centralised state that implemented and then tore up the post-war settlement, and has an appetite for war in foreign lands. Neoliberalism is now "hard-wired" in, so here lies an opportunity to crack open this "machine".

What about their erstwhile comrades over in the much-diminished SWP? A quick glance at their front page finds a number of articles making the case for Yes. The first, headlined 'Let's Get David Cameron Out repeats the 'class vote' argument and offers succour to those who think England without Scotland is doomed to permanent Tory rule. As they put it, "if trade union leaders had led a real fight and put their members’ interests before the Labour Party the Tories could have been long gone by now." The second, Why We Are Voting Yes in the Scottish Referendum comes down to five, easily-digestible points:

1. Independence means scrapping Trident.
2. A yes vote weakens Downing Streets ability to tramp around the world on imperialist adventures, as well as diminishing NATO.
3. Yes will save the NHS
4. "We" (as in Scotland) will never have a Tory government again, and forcing Dave to resign will "give a boost to working class people all over Britain".
5. Yes is a radical movement and has been "at its best" whenever that radicalism has come to the fore. This bodes well for an independent Scotland.

Those are the SWP's arguments. What of its SP rival? Navigating to its page and, erm, is there a Scottish referendum happening? Apparently not. Of the main political issue of the day there is nothing. There's nowt tucked away in deputy general secretary Hannah Sell's article on the election prospects for 2015 either. To find something you have to navigate over to the SP's international website to find something substantial. "Vote Yes and Fight for Socialism!" is the SP-in-Scotland's slogan, but despite the slogan Philip Stott's piece - befitting the SP's history - strikes a less excitable tone. He argues that the working-class-for-yes vote is rooted it anti-elite populism and anti-austerity protest. In the absence of mass action the referendum has become a surrogate, a sublimated outlet for class anger. Philip also notes a gap on the left that has not been filled by either Labour or the SNP, and that his organisation and Tommy Sheridan have made sterling efforts in encouraging workers to come together politically to fill that void (coincidentally, Scottish TUSC launches on 1st November). But ultimately, SPS are supporting a yes vote because it brings down Cameron, might force unions into setting up a new workers' party as Labour will not adopt a "fighting socialist programme" that would otherwise see it romp home in rump UK elections, and that sentiments stirred up by Yes offer a solid basis for a workers' movement against austerity.

For the SWP and Counterfire, they have a clear answer to Question one of the tests and with my hat on as renegade/sell-out I think they're basically right. On Trident and adventures overseas it cannot be business as usual. On Question two, which is emphasised by the SP, the SWP and CF are much weaker, referencing platitudes and investing hope into the apparent radicalism of the left-wing of the campaign and Salmond's superficial anti-Tory rhetoric. As per the other day, while there are radical forces autonomous of the SNP involved, nevertheless it is they, not anyone else, who constitute the undisputed leadership of the movement and it is very likely the coalitional nature of Yes around just one issue shall see it dissipate afterwards. There are no additional ties that bind. Also, while the SP's view that the Yes vote is sublimated class struggle is certainly more sophisticated than the SWP and CF's uncritical celebration, there is little evidence to support the case this thesis has legs. Social attitudes time and again demonstrate that it is no more leftwing than the rest of the UK. A more convincing explanation is that for the majority of "ordinary" yes voters, theirs is an anti-politics backlash. The content may be very different. but qualitatively its the Scottish variant of the anti-Westminster populism so successfully exploited by UKIP down here. Same causes, same outcomes. It's not anti-austerity, it's about populism.

On the other two questions of my test, on one level they have answered in the affirmative for strengthening the labour movement, albeit not particularly convincingly. There is just this idea that independence will do over the Tories and will have beneficial political consequences south of the border. I'm not so sure. Come what may a new constitutional settlement is in the air, which is a good thing, and it's the job of labour movement people everywhere to participate in and contest the battle of ideas for what governance in these islands should look like. But specifically a Yes vote does make a Labour majority much more difficult next May. As the party's manifesto isn't a "fighting socialist programme" my erstwhile comrades might not care, but it does affect the balance of power between labour and capital. The Tories have already set out their stall for 2015. Even more demented attacks on our most vulnerable people, more NHS privatisation, and further curtailment of trade union activity. On top of that, with a majority they want to push through a gerrymander that could keep them in power for another two or three terms. The Tories are doomed long-term, so why let them weaken the labour movement even more in the mean time?

As for the final question, whether an independent Scotland would strengthen or weaken capital, I'm surprised - well, I'm not - that the principal organisations of British Trotskyism have comparatively little to say. For a tradition famous for blood curdling descriptions of capitalism's inevitable demise, ignoring this matter is out of character. There are a few nods toward City panic, but they'd get over it. However, like the SNP themselves, they duck the issue of economic sovereignty - that "sharing the pound" means an undue and anti-democratic influence by the Bank of England and the Treasury over independent Scotland's economy. The SNP's stated policy of cutting corporation tax by up to three pence is an attempt to entice English business in a race to the bottom. The existence of the border and allows capital to push down living standard by threatening easy relocation. And worst of all, an independent Scotland is in a weaker position vs North Sea oil interests, the bond markets, finance capital generally, and our friends in StageCoach, Ineos, and News International. Similarly Scotland's departure makes the rest of the NewK weaker vis a vis capital too. Were Yes led by a radicalised labour movement supported by mass activism, the story would be different. But it's not. True, the British government's record of standing up to capital these last 30 years has merely exposed its belly for a tickle, but the existence of two separate states on a single island is a recipe for divide and rule. Such is the nature of the beast.

Ultimately, the positions taken by the SP, SWP and CF are a result of a bind they find themselves in. As advocates of radical change, they cannot well pass up the opportunity of being seen as best builders and organisers of that change. It gives them a wider audience, the possibility to spread influence, sell papers (in the SP and SWP's case) and win over new recruits. Their view, their perspectives on the Yes movement and independence is not so much refracted through a socialist strategy appropriate to Britain at this moment but what needs to be done to guarantee their own growth and survival. And in this they show a readiness to put narrow group interests before those of the class they seek to lead. Again.


James Meadway said...

"Ultimately, the positions taken by the SP, SWP and CF are a result of a bind they find themselves in."

No, not in the case of CF, except in the sense that we're bound by what is now a pretty shopworn tradition of British socialism. It's dealing with the disintegration of that tradition, and what it represented, that means support for Yes now has to be very much more than the kind of campaign-hopping attitude you suggest we're taking. (It means, for instance, taking seriously and supporting what look like growing moves towards devolution within England.)

I wrote on this at significantly more length here: - the shorter article you're citing above is more-or-less a condensation of the argument there.

Btw, the class bias of the pro-Yes side isn't just visible in the RIC canvassing returns: it's been a consistent feature in opinion polls since the get-go. The Economist has a write-up here:

Robert said...

The Scottish referendum provides slam-dunk evidence, if any were needed, that something has gone seriously wrong with the cognitive abilities of our so-called leaders. There appears to be no-one any longer capable of thinking through the consequences of actions or decisions. This referendum was called on the clear assumption that there would be a sizeable ‘no’ majority – it doesn’t seem to have crossed anyone’s mind that the ‘yes’ campaign could win so there’s no properly thought through Plan B. What would Scottish independence mean for the rest of what I’ll still call the UK? Then there’s the fundamental issue that a ‘yes’ vote creates not one but two new entities – Scotland and the rest – and those of us in the second category (numerically much larger than those in the first) have no say whatsoever in its creation.
Alex Salmond also seems to be as incapable of thinking through decisions as the English elites he’s anxious to escape from – I simply cannot understand how he believes Scotland can retain sterling – who’s the lender of last resort? I get the feeling he thinks that while Scotland becomes ‘technically’ independent, everything will just carry on as it is – which is nonsense, of course. Similarly, the assumption that Scotland can retain EU membership but will somehow be free to follow its own course when the EU mandates what it doesn’t like.

Case in point. Wee Eck (Alex Salmond) has been trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Scots for some time now. His premise is that come independence, England will have to pay as always, and the EU on top of that.
Any arguments against were brushed aside as anti-Scottish.
One little snippet: University education is free to all Scots, and has to be free to all EU students. English students alone have to pay the full whack.
Come independence, he’s got to follow EU rules if he wants to be a member – and that means that English students, now being foreigners from another EU country, won’t have to pay either … or everybody will have to pay, Scottish students included.
Law of unintended consequences …

I have doubts myself that the SNP has the public interest in mind in its drive for independence. My feeling is that the SNP confidently assumes that Scotland will be part of a currency union with the rump UK and that full EU membership is assured; also that the nation can rely on North Sea oil resources forever and a day. The reality is more likely to be that an independent Scotland led by the SNP will end up in currency and economic limbo and will be squeezed hard by Westminister and the EU, the latter forcing the country to adopt the same austerity package as other small EU member nations in order to qualify for membership which won’t necessarily be guaranteed. Scotland will also have to compete with the UK for capital to develop its oil resources and this is likely to drive down wages and destroy any dreams the SNP and the Scottish public have of creating a generous social welfare state similar to what the Scandinavian countries have.

Anonymous said...

The major organisations of the Far Left have completely abrogated their responsibility to be honest with the working class of Scotland i.e. that independence is a blind alley. Providing a left cover for nationalism is another key indication of their political degeneration. The fact that the polls indicate that the majority of workers in Scotland support the Yes campaign is irrelevant - otherwise the Left should support immigration controls, benefit reductions and hanging.
This is all about short termism - selling papers and recruiting - not the long term interests of all workers. Ironically, this comes with sub-Stalinism stageist blather about moving towards socialism (in one country!). Of course, the people who'll pay when the independent Scottish Government turns the austerity screw in the race to the bottom will be the workers as usual. Then I hope they treat these opportunistic phoney Marxists with the contempt they deserve.

Ken said...

What's missing from your analysis (and was, until last week's poll upset, missing from mine) is that this time for a change the Trotskyists may have actually made a difference. In fact they may have made the difference. The late surge in the Yes vote has come from the very sections that the far-left-led RIC and Women for Independence have focused their efforts on: previous Labour voters, previous non-voters, and women.

If wasn't that, the only explanations that come to mind are Alastair Darling's fumbling his second debate, the #PatronisingBTLady ad, and the enormous circulation of the infamous Wee Blue Book ...

Speedy said...

Yes have won the campaign, they have won the argument and they will probably win the election.

However the Scottish people will be the losers.

Example - 16 yr old on C4 just now who said she changed ftom no to yes when salmond said on tv they could keep the pound.

Makes you want to weep. The big lie you see. Such a tragedy

Phil said...

Cheers for that, James.

Perhaps I was a wee bit unfair to Counterfire in this. Of all the Trot groups yours has had the deepest rethink while managing to avoid liquidationism. Doesn't mean I agree with you, mind :) I will take a look at the English devolution stuff. Whatever happens the labour movement needs to fight to be at the front of a new constitutional settlement.

Phil said...

Good points, Rob.

You've got a fair point there, Ken. Possibly. Being a student of Trottery I know that occasionally the SWP's analogy of small cogs turning big wheels very, very occasionally bears out. Being many miles away from the action I can't put a finger on the changing fortunes, except to say Darling's performance on the second debate was a train wreck.

Speedy, I feel your pain and disappointment. But I'm trying to avoid being downbeat. The new situation, whichever way it goes, will contain opportunities and possibilities. I'm saving my energy for then.

Speedy said...

Like a stopped clock seumas milne actually nails it in the guardian today.

Anonymous said...

"Example - 16 yr old on C4 just now who said she changed ftom no to yes when salmond said on tv they could keep the pound"

You take this comment seriously? Jesus! Anyway, I heard it was because One Direction have now come out in favour of Scottish independence.

Doug said...

Why wasn't my comment included?

Phil said...

Sorry Doug, it got caught in the spam filter. It happens from time-to-time.

Speedy said...

Anon. yes. Its one vote isnt it? How many others?

jimboo said...

1. Trident will not be scrapped but relocated
2. SNP Conference supports Scotland in NATO.
3. The Biggest lie, NHS is 100% devolved
4. More people voted for the ConDems than the SNP in Scotland
5. Yes is not a radical movement and is relying on massive support from politically naive young male NEETS who see YES as a way to end immigration. Plus the Edinburgh Agreement is about entering into negotiation about seperation, not seperation. If YES dont get a very large majority there will be another referendum.
Shetland Times have good article
"Surprisingly, some advocates of independence for Scotland think that they can campaign and vote for it without being nationalists. They can’t. However laudable or other­wise their political aims, if they seek to achieve them by making state boundaries coincide with national boundaries, they are nationalists."