Johnnie Hunter on Scottish independence

Johnnie Hunter summarizes the Communist Party’s position on Scottish independence and the choices and tasks facing the Left in 2021.

EVEN in the depths of this Covid-19 pandemic, the question of Scottish independence has remained at the top of the mainstream political agenda in Scotland. The referendum result in 2014 has continued to divide working people and the labour movement. It’s gathered a new pace following, or perhaps because of, the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2019.

So, what stance should working people take on the question of Scottish independence?

The starting point for socialists

For Scotland’s communists, our fundamental starting point is our clear and unequivocal commitment to the right to self-determination for the Scottish people. 

We have never adopted the negative and pessimistic attitude that Scotland is “too small” or “too poor” to thrive as an independent country.

We haven’t adopted a tribal or divisive attitude to this question either.

We consider that the 2014 referendum produced a democratic result which should be respected but the question of any future referendum and independence generally is one for the Scottish people alone.

At the same time, the Communist Party maintains its other principle of judging the exercise of that right in terms of the class interests of the Scottish people and working people in Britain and internationally. 

The Scottish nation isn’t one unified, progressive, happy family. There is a working class — and elements of the British ruling class. 

As Lenin identified, every nation has the basic elements of a democratic and socialist culture, but every nation also possesses a ruling class culture which under capitalism is the dominant culture. 

It is for communists, socialists and trade unionists to identify, develop and build in Scotland’s national culture only its democratic and socialist elements. 

It is a dangerous myth that Scottish workers share any values or common interests with Scottish elements of Britain’s ruling class just because we were born in the same country.

The 2014 referendum

It was based on these principles that Scotland’s communists were forced to conclude that so-called independence on the terms proposed by the Scottish National Party in 2014, was not in the interests of working people in Scotland. 

All the key proposals of the SNP’s white paper on independence involved maintaining or even strengthening the control of external forces over the democratic will of the Scottish people:

  • On currency, continued membership of the sterling area would have subordinated Scotland to Tory policies without any power to change them.
  • Membership of the EU would have forced Scotland to implement even harsher austerity than Greece in the years following independence if it was to be part of the EU which the SNP only admitted after the referendum.
  • Scotland was to remain a member of the Nato aggressive nuclear first-strike alliance, meaning US bases in Scotland and Scottish soldiers and funding still going towards imperialist wars abroad. 

The communist criteria for the constitutional question

Britain’s communists argue that what is key for working people in Scotland in any constitutional settlement are powers to intervene in the economy, to develop public ownership, increase labour’s power over capital and to chart an independent foreign policy based on peace. 

These were the same priorities fought for by communists, socialists and the Scottish Trades Union Congress in the 1970s and ’80s which ultimately led to the foundation of the Scottish Parliament — a parliament which, after 20 years, still hasn’t lived up to its full potential.

Britain’s communists also continue to call for a radical federalism as the best way of developing class cohesion across the nations of Britain: national parliaments with powers of economic intervention and a federal parliament with overall powers over economic policy and a constitutional obligation to redistribute wealth in terms of social need.

We believe that this provides the best framework for uniting working people on class terms against the state power of big business concentrated at a British level and representing, above all, the interests of the City of London. 

Many people might say that radical federalism is a pipe dream while we’ve got Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street — that the defeat of Corbyn was the final nail in the coffin for federalism.

Time will tell whether that will be the case. Scotland’s communists argue that it would be short-term and pessimistic to inevitably come to that conclusion.

Working people and the labour movement continue to fight austerity across Scotland, Wales and England.

These collective struggles, if brought together, would be more than enough not just to defeat a Tory government but to create a new federal arrangement.

Even if you take the opposing view, there are serious questions to be answered.

The SNP, which would almost inevitably dominate post-independence and write any future Scottish constitution, continues to advocate a fake independence which would leave the Scottish people even more at the mercy of international corporations and banks.

In the immediate context Scotland’s communists argue that the left has to put these differences aside to prioritise the fight against Tory and SNP austerity and their incompetence in battling Covid-19. 

Current dangers

First, we have to oppose crude nationalism on both sides. The problems facing Scottish people can’t be blamed on “the English,” they are caused by the capitalist system and private greed.

By the same token we’ve got to oppose right-wing unionism and attempts to undermine the democratic rights of the Scottish people. 

Just as importantly we can’t have a situation where the SNP government is given an effective carte blanche for simply being slightly “less bad” than the Tories.

The lesser of two evils is a dangerous trap for working people in Scotland, as we’ve seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

England has the worst mortality rate in Europe, very closely followed by Scotland, but Nicola Sturgeon has largely escaped criticism.

We deserve better than incompetence, regardless of whether it’s touting Tory blue or SNP yellow.

Unfortunately some people in Scotland have fallen into the trap of thinking the struggle is on hold.

The SNP government would like you to believe there is no need to fight for a better life — that it’s already doing a great job running the country despite the fact that more than one in four children in Scotland grow up in poverty while it has been underspending budgets by over £400 million in recent years.

There is a dangerous complacency among some parts of the left about how easily an independent Scotland might achieve key aims such as nuclear disarmament.

While independence may well bring new opportunities to advance the struggle of working people in Scotland, it would also bring new challenges and would at least face the same obstacles as we do now — domination by a united British ruling class and, according to SNP plans, under the jackboot of the EU and Nato.

The fight is now

Even if independence is your ultimate goal, Scotland’s communists say that the fight is already here and it is now. It’s not a fight that can wait till Sturgeon and Johnson have had their own dust-up. It’s not a fight that should be waged on their terms.

It’s the fight for effective measures to defeat Covid-19, it’s the fight against blue and yellow austerity. It’s a fight to return powers from Brussels to the Scottish Parliament and to ensure they’re actually used for the benefit of working people.

Scotland’s communists say that it’s possible to fight and win now — but that it is a fight that needs all of Scotland’s working people.