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Scottish referendum: shock upset as polls show independence is possible

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The Scots have an inalienable democratic right to separate from the UK if they wish. If they decide to do so on 18 September every democrat, let alone socialist, should defend their decision against any attempt to delay the process or hog the joint resources of the British state. Likewise, they should oppose attempts to exclude Scotland from the European Union or a common currency.

At the same time, right up to the vote itself, socialists who are revolutionaries and internationalists should oppose separation, not because of any support for the existing state, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, an arch-imperialist member of Nato, but because there is no progressive reason for separation.

For 300 years and more, Scotland has been an integral part of a capitalist, and then imperialist, Britain that has colonised and exploited the world, allying itself with the oppressors and exploiters worldwide.

Even most far left converts to national independence hardly dare argue that Scotland is an oppressed nation like Ireland. If it were, then independence would remove this oppression and thus remove an obstacle to class solidarity and unity between the working class of the oppressor and oppressed nations, a principle that Marxists, from Marx himself, adopted with regard to Ireland.

In itself, separation into smaller states is not a good thing. Marxists believe every nation has a right to national independence, providing this is not indissolubly linked to depriving another people of theirs (as Israel does Palestine). This does not mean, however, that every single nation must have its own state or that multinational states should, on principle, be split up.

Indeed, Lenin, the intransigent defender of the right of nations to self-determination, insisted that, all other things being equal, Marxists always prefer the largest possible political arena within which to wage the class struggle and, after victory, to socialise and plan the means of production.

If the Scots do decide to separate, then internationalists will seek to wage a joint struggle, north and south of the Border, against any obstruction by the Westminster government. This will help to maintain the unity of the working classes. Socialists should fight against any division of the trade union movement and for working class unity in action across the Border, and for a socialist federation of the different countries, not just in the current UK but right across Europe.

The swing to independence
There has been a steady increase in support for independence in recent years but, until recently, its supporters remained a clear minority; in 2012, only 23 per cent supported independence, that rose to 29 per cent last year and by July this year stood at 33 per cent (compared to 50 percent against independence) according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey.i However, a YouGov poll, published on September 7, showed a 51 per cent “Yes” to 49 per cent “No”,ii shattering a year of complacency in the British (and most of the Scottish) political establishment.

The pro-secession Scottish National Party (SNP) scents victory while there are signs of panic and disarray in the “No” campaign, “Better Together”, which is fronted by Labour but backed by the Coalition parties and the bulk of big business. It is so pro-business that most trade unions, including the STUC, have refused to affiliate to it. All the pro-Union parties are promising greater devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament, if only Scots reject independence. Without any firm commitments as to what this means, voters are likely to view this with scepticism.

How has Better Together managed to erode the 22 point lead for rejection of independence when the campaign began? No doubt many of those who have switched from No to Yes are making a protest against its scaremongering and threats. The quality of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s contribution can be judged from his suggestion there could be Border guards in the event of a Yes vote!iii

More fundamentally, it is plain that most workers, young or old, employed or unemployed, do not believe that they are “better together” with a government that imposes cuts in health care, education and welfare and which privatises transport, power and public services. Certainly, a majority of Scots never voted for these policies but then, neither did a majority of the English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

A key fact in convincing many that national independence is the only way to get rid of austerity, is the lack of a common struggle against it from the trade unions and the Labour Party, right across Britain. English or Welsh workers are no more to blame for this than Scottish workers, all have seen Labour’s refusal to promise to reverse Tory Cuts if they win in 2015.

To this must be added union leaders' repeated failure to fight, north or south of the Border. A particularly shameful example was the capitulation of Unite, Britain’s largest union, to Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire boss of Ineos, at the Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013. Such betrayals have doubtless lowered Scottish workers' belief in the possibility of a united fight back across the UK. Of course, there is no reason to believe that Scots union officials would behave any differently.

Socialists for independence?
What will come as a surprise to some is the fact that almost the entire Scottish and British left, despite its formal rejection of nationalism, has backed a Yes vote in the referendum, from the start.

Their weakest argument for succumbing to the nationalist virus is that imperialism would be weakened by Scotland’s departure from Britain. The Socialist Workers Party call for a Yes vote to “break Britain” and “fundamentally weaken” one of the most powerful imperialist countries in the world. Their reasoning for this is more wishful thinking.

After independence, Scotland would itself be a small imperialist power, a component of the US-led NATO alliance and doubtless in UN “coalitions of the willing”, pursuing their interventions in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Whilst it is true that British imperialism might be marginally weakened if Scotland leaves, possibly losing the Faslane port for Trident nuclear subs, no one believes this will lead to Britain ceasing to be a nuclear power. Any decline in British power would simply be compensated by a strengthening of, for example, French or German imperialism. As internationalists, socialists cannot portray that as any kind of progress.

Another argument trotted out by the pro-independence left is that the Scottish workers will achieve social reform, if not socialism, more quickly and easily without the impediment of workers in England and Wales. This is sheer nationalist vanity. At various times, Scottish workers have certainly been in the forefront of the British class struggle, but so have the workers of South Wales, Merseyside, Yorkshire, the West Midlands, London etc. Different sectors have been to the fore at different moments of the class struggle but each of them has been part of united labour movement and, for most of this period, the revolutionary left has also organised across all parts of the UK. In Scotland, the labour movement has historically been vehemently opposed to independence and nationalism.

The belief in Scotland’s greater readiness for social democracy, if not socialism, is not based on Red Clydeside or the Fyfe miners or Kier Hardie, Willie Gallagher or John Maclean, but on pure and simple reformist electoral calculations; there are very few Tories in Scotland and therefore, supposedly, there will be a Labour government or, at least, a social democratic SNP, all the time.

What nonsense! Watch what happens when Alec Salmond sheds his opportunistic social democratic disguise; when he has to rule for a Scottish and international capitalist class.

Watch what happens when the Labour party in Scotland fragments or collapses. Some on the left think this will be their big chance and that we are bound to see a Scottish Syriza or a Podemos spring into existence. They point to the fact that there is a movement around independence, the Radical Independence Movement, which they believe can be maintained and turned into a movement, or even a new party, against austerity.

The experience of the last 20 years speaks against this; left reformist parties, even with a powerful dash of class struggle rhetoric, tend not to survive the first temptations of office, as the experience of Communist Refoundation in Italy shows; or even the momentary “success” of having a celebrity MP, a Tommy Sheridan or George Galloway, as the sorry sagas of the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect have shown.

Vote No and fight Austerity
Independence or devolution, workers in Scotland should organise to resist austerity, fighting for a no-cuts budget in Edinburgh and Westminster. Together we should be fighting for anti-capitalist policies such as a programme of public works paid for by taxing the rich, and sweeping nationalisation of the banks and business, including oil. If the Scottish parliament really has a majority for this, then it should indeed defy Westminster and throw the entire system into crisis, that would almost certainly call forth a welcoming wave of support from other workers across Britain.

The only way forward, whether in or out of the UK, is for the Scottish working class to cut through the competing capitalist policies being so eagerly offered; Tory austerity or Labour and the SNP’s corporate-friendly, “austerity-lite”.

That means rejecting the idea that Scottish bosses and politicians are the allies of Scottish workers, rather than the working class of England and Wales, and uniting across the Border to reorient the labour movement and mount a mass struggle against austerity: for a no-cuts budget, a living wage as the minimum wage, to tax the rich to pay for the services we need, nationalising all the banks and major companies under workers' and consumers' control and without a penny in compensation.

It means fighting for a new working class party and a workers' government, whether the Holyrood parliament is devolved or sovereign. In either scenario, it would have to defy Westminster and Scotland’s bosses and take revolutionary measures to extend its power and defend itself.

Indeed, if Scottish workers were to mount a struggle for a genuinely anti-austerity government, they could give a lead to the working class movement across Britain. Such a movement could use Holyrood, even in its present devolved form, to pass a no-cuts budget, expel Trident, and defy Westminster. Focussing that struggle on elections and parliament, be it Holyrood or Westminster, however, will prove fruitless; power does not lie in the talking shop of parliament, it lies in the boardrooms and with the police and other state forces.

Only a movement that relies on workers’ own strength, mobilised through a general strike and workers' control of food, power, and other necessities, organised through workers' councils and defended by workers' guards, can ultimately shatter austerity, bring the governments upholding cuts North and South of the Border crashing down, and usher in a workers’ government worthy of the name, one committed to the revolutionary construction of socialism.

Most of the so-called far left has failed on the test of the referendum as on so much else. It remains a burning task to build a new working class party in whatever state exists. The Marxist approach is to build an organisation to fight the state of one's own ruling class but as part of a workers' International, not to create Scottish or English national socialism.

Such a party needs to have a full debate on all aspects of socialist strategy and tactics including the national question. It can overcome the serious mistakes that have fractured the revolutionary left in Britain and develop a consistent, revolutionary strategy for international working class liberation.