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Behind the lure of Scottish independence lies the threat of “divide and rule”

union flag melts away from scotlandThe Scottish Trades Union Congress met this week in Dundee, where the Chartists took strike action in August 1842 and marched from Magdalen Green to Forfar for the right of working people to vote. Meeting at such a highly charged time, with the referendum on the creation of a separate Scottish state just weeks away, we should never forget the capacity and power of ordinary people to shape events, and to make our own history.

As trade unionists all our experience tells us that we are stronger when we combine and stick together. Combination and solidarity should be first principles for any trade unionist and every trade union.

We know for example that the unrelenting push of employers for plant level rather than national bargaining and personal contracts over collective agreements is because they understand only too well the principle of divide and rule.

They also recognise the power that working people possess when labour is organised and represented at the level which capital is owned. That is precisely why in political and economic terms we need unity around the delivery of a transformative social and economic agenda based on planning and democratising the economy: so that the economy works for the people, rather than the people simply working for the economy. It is this struggle for power in the economic and social as well as the political sphere that it is necessary for the labour movement to wage if we are to challenge the over concentration of power in the hands of the few.

Socialism and democracy should be indivisible, and so for socialist advance we need to be democratically and politically engaged at the level where we can radically transform the relations of power. There is no short cut. The call for workers in Scotland to vote “Yes” in the referendum and so withdraw democratically and politically from Britain: the level where corporate power is organised and macroeconomic power exercised is therefore profoundly misguided.

There has been a lot of lazy and misleading talk in the referendum debate. Alex Salmond spoke in his leader’s speech at the weekend of the “Westminster establishment’s grip on Scotland”. It is as though Scotland was an oppressed colonial outpost. But this is to confuse geography with ideology. The Coalition Government isn’t privatising the NHS in England and dismantling the welfare state across the country because David Cameron is part of the Westminster establishment. It is because he is part of the Tory establishment.

The Government’s attacks on health and safety and employment law are not anti-Scottish they are anti-working class. The alternative to these measures does not lie in Scottish nationalism but in democratic socialism. The real test of democracy is not nationhood but whether we can shift power from those who own the wealth in the economy to those who create it.

It was also even suggested last weekend that a Yes vote in September is not a vote for Alex Salmond and the SNP’s White Paper after all.

But to pretend that the Queen as head of state, membership of the nuclear NATO alliance, the adoption of the pound as currency and European Union membership all commitments in the White Paper designed to reassure and so win the support of undecided voters would be ditched the day after the referendum is both delusional and an affront to the democratic process itself.

So also to pretend that a Yes vote would do anything other than cement the domination of Alex Salmond over the SNP and in turn cement the domination of the SNP in Scottish political life is a vain illusion which wilfully ignores every lesson of history.

For the working people the trades union movement in Scotland seeks to represent freedom or liberty is not about whether powers rest in a Parliament in London or Edinburgh it is about ending the enslavement of poverty and unemployment, breaking the shackles of exploitation and alienation at work and winning women’s liberation especially as we build a diverse, tolerant, equal and multicultural society.

Of course we need to challenge the status quo, but it is the social, economic and ecological status quo that we need to challenge much more than the constitutional one. We want to democratise the state and the economy not simply break it up.

Which brings me back to the Chartists. George Julian Harney in a famous call for international working class unity in 1846 warned against moves to “rekindle national feelings” declaring instead that the common cause of labour is to end the tyranny of the few. Reject “Divide and conquer” he insisted “Unite and triumph!” It is a timeless and spirited democratic socialist message which the whole trade union movement and every trade union member in Scotland must pay heed to in the debate that lies ahead on  the floor of every workplace across Scotland in the weeks to come.

4 Comments

  1. Jon Lansman says:

    So also to pretend that a Yes vote would do anything other than cement the domination of Alex Salmond over the SNP and in turn cement the domination of the SNP in Scottish political life is a vain illusion which wilfully ignores every lesson of history.”

    I agree with the vast majority of this article, Richard, but accepting the domination of the SNP as an inevitable consequence of independence goes too far and is somewhat defeatist. I have no doubt that it is Salmond’s intention (“Labour no more“). But it is not inevitable.

    The left would need to reorganise and consolidate: whatever position individuals had taken on independence should be no barrier after independence. Scottish Labour would face an entirely new situation and would have to respond accordingly.

    Even without independence, different positions on independence should not prevent joint working on issues like austerity, low pay, corporate tax evasion or the failure to devolve power from Holyrood to local government.Working with the pro-independence left in opposition to selected SNP policies would surely weaken the appeal of Salmond and the SNP to many Labour voters.

    Nor, if there was a yes vote, should labour stop being “organised and represented at the level which capital is owned“. Whilst borders can be used by employers against labour, labour must always respond by organising across borders – as we should increasingly do across Europe and beyond.

  2. James Martin says:

    Harney (who I admire a lot) was actually speaking in reference to unity among European workers who were represented in working class London political life greatly at that time and in the build up to the ‘revolutionary year’ against European despotism, and also of course the last great gasp of Chartism, in 1848. The background also included a massive Irish presence in organised Chartism (in 1848 the Chartist and Irish nationlist green banners intermingled happily at the great London demonstration), as well as early black political leaders involved in Chartism like Cuffey.

    But I say all this to ask that quotes are not taken out of context. For example, was it not ultimately progressive to support and allow Irish independence from London rule? Did this not ultimately make the alliance of Irish and British workers more rather than less likely once the colonial question was removed (notwithstanding the Six Counties problem of course)?

    So I do not actually believe that in the longer term Scottish independence would stand in the way of working class unity across the British isles, and rather like a lot of unions do now with Ireland I am sure that they would continue to represent workers on both sides of the border in the same union while double affiliating to the different national trade union congresses.

    As I’ve said before, as a socialist based in England I am not going to tell Scottish comrades how to think or vote, but that said increasingly the issue of NATO grows ever larger – and it may be that a Scottish yes vote will create conditions where again we can begin to argue against ANY membership of that awful imperialist organisation rather than the stupid SNP line of being a nuclear free member of the imperialist warmongers club.

  3. Robert says:

    We are deeply worried about democracy the acceptance that people should have a vote on something like independence or the EU, politician know what’s best for us.

  4. Stephen says:

    Jon
    I agree with the vast majority of this article, Richard, but accepting the domination of the SNP as an inevitable consequence of independence goes too far and is somewhat defeatist. I have no doubt that it is Salmond’s intention (“Labour no more“). But it is not inevitable.

    Jon you’ll have a big list of countries where the party/ movement that acheived the state making project then lost power immediately after then?

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