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The far left: driven by self-interest not class interests on Scottish independence

TrotskyWere 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?

But is that what has led the principal organisations of British Trotskyism to their positions?

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 (SWP – despite the splits of last year), the Socialist Party (SP) 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, 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 18 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.

Philip 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. He 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, SP Scotland 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.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid


  1. PoundInYourPocket says:

    Who wouldn’t be tempted to get rid of Westminter rule if they had the opportunity ? But there’s scant regard for what it would be replaced by or even what they’d use for money. The Labour movement tried before to push a socialist agenda and sufferred a beasting at the hands of the press and international capitalists. And that was in the early days of liberalised capital, now neo-liberalism is deeply embedded and won’t tolerate a socialist enclave. To be independent they need a sovereign currency and that will be hammered by the markets that react hysterically to even Ed’s so called “radical” policies. Perhaps someone needs to make the fight just to make a stand but it could be like the miner’s strike at a national level. The risk of economic and political catastrophe are disturbingly high. Scotland the brave – they’ll need to be.

    1. Gerald Allen says:

      PoundInYourPocket; How right you are to remind those on the left that a yes vote is not the solution to the problems of Scotland. As has been said elsewhere, a yes vote in Scotland will strengthen capital and weaken the labour movement both sides of the border of a newly independent Scotland
      A timely reminder of the forces they will face in the push for socialism is the 1983 general election campaign. Thatcher rampant after the Falklands war and the whole of the media screaming with delight at Gerald Kaufman’s gift to the Tories, providing them with their campaign slogan”Labour’s manifesto is the longest suicide note in electoral history”. James Callaghan’s (the most rightwing reactionary Labour leader since Ramsay MacDonald and up to Blair)intervention on the scrapping of Britain’s nuclear weapons.
      These are just two examples of what a socialist Labour organisation in Scotland will face, in that same campaign apart from betrayal by the right in the Labour Party(the contemporary equivalent being Blairs Progress organisation)never mind a press as virulent as todays media; plus the SDP which kept Thatcher and the Tories in power for 18 years by splitting the Labour and progressive vote
      Never thought I’d see myself write/post this, but don’t be kidded by Tommy Sheridan, who, while he will never admit it,sees this campaign as a step towards his political re-habilitation
      (which imho will be confirmed after the trial of Andy Coulson)

  2. William Jones says:

    My hands are entirely clean in “these matters” as Michael Foot may have put it.I am no friend of the “British State” or “Rule Brittania” per se!Whilst I can imagine those who are solely tempted at the prospect of “no more Tory rule”,one must not lose sight of the fact that in being a socialist it follows that one must be an internationalist.

    Now in talking of independence for Scotland one surely can not put Scotland in the same vein historically as the genuine National Liberation movements of say,Malaya,Vietnam or those of African nations seeking to rid themselves of Colonialism.

    If we truly have any bone to pick,it is surely with the British Establishment.Despite the apparent statements of panic lately they know full well that any opposition to their power and priveledge would be greatly weakened should the Scots “break away”.

  3. Chris says:

    Just another reason not to respect Trotskyists (I can tolerate the ICFI tendency but that’s about it). My country right or left.

    (Incidentally, I have it on good authority that the SWP is not in fact “much depleted”. A few high profile people who clearly weren’t Trotskyists anyway have left, but as far as I can see the rank and file socialists are still there.)

    1. Robert says:

      I think we all know why labour needs Scotland and we all know when Miliband open his mouth more people will decide to vote yes.

      Brown yesterday shooting off his mouth about the NHS will be safe with labour the plonker was willing to flog it all off under New labour now it safe under labour.

      If I was in Scotland I think I’d be saying come on lets try it, why not what do we have to lose Labour Progress One nation Miliband.

      Labour have lost elections in Scotland because they became the hated Tories now the both have teamed up to save it laughable it’s a scream

      1. Chris says:

        Frankly, I think that’s all utterly irrelevant.

        What it comes down to is this: are you loyal to the land our fathers, grandfathers etc fought and died for or are you loyal to Alex Salmond?

        Loyal citizens vote No.

        1. Robert says:

          That is so funny hilarious I’ve got tears in my eyes. You cannot really believe that clap trap , then again I suppose you do.

          They have been fighting for ages look at your history book and read up on the Scottish and the English battles as for the other wars not my issue I was not born, I’ve seen labour and Iraq and Afghanistan, again that’s labour one.

          I would be voting for the devil himself it it keeps Cameron and Progress out of power.

  4. Lamia says:

    “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?”

    A textbook example of what can happen when you go for sonorous rhetoric over straightforward sentences. You’ve said something quite different here from what you imagine you have said.

  5. James Martin says:

    I would actually question whether any of those groups were Trotskyist in terms of expousing the ideas and method of Trotsky, but then the problem with most of the British far left pre-dates Trotsky anyway. Most of the sects (and that is what we are dealing with here) have long adopted (often without realising it) the methodology of Henry Hyndman and his Social Democratic Federation, a body that largely invented the sectarian method in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course the SDF claimed to be Marxist (which if memory serves led Marx himself at one point to express the opinion that in that case he wasn’t one himself).

    The common thread running from the SDF to today’s sects is the putting of their own narrow self-interests before that of the wider movement and of propaganism combined with relentless short-term tactical opportunism, hence their nationalists lines in the referendum.

    It matters not a jot to these sects that the fires of nationalism are hard to put out once lit, that a rise in anti-english feeling north of the border will be inevitably matched by its opposite in the south (which ever way the vote goes), and that a divided British working class will risk creating reactionary social and political dangers as bad as that suffered in Ireland after the ‘carnival of reaction’ that was (and is) Partition.

    No, as long as the churn of recruits continues, as long as some papers can be sold, the comrades march on into the night and away from any semblance of internationalism and working class unity against capital and its political forces.

  6. David Ellis says:

    What a load of rubbish.

    Vote YES and give austerity, westminster, the Coalition, New Labour and this conservative ex radical a bloody nose.


    In two years time after a yes vote, you will look through the window of the Scottish Parliament, and find that you could look from Holyrood to Westminster, and Westminster to Holyrood and not be able to tell which is which.

    There will be no socialism. Alex Salmond loves the fascist TTIP treaty, he welcomes it. He loves low taxes for the rich, for global corporations and banks. These are all anti poor people and pro corporate and rich people. Salmond is a right wing Tory, an ex banker. This “independence” is a con, a way of “dealing” with the Scots.

    1. Robert says:

      Yes so what do we do carry on as normal voting for the Tories or the Progress party time for something to change.

  8. David Ellis says:

    If the vote is Yes, and let us keep everything crossed that it is, the struggle for what an independent Scotland will be will only just be beginning. The working people of Scotland will need to assert their interests in the form of a programme that transitions power from the elites to them and which builds towards socialism in Scotland, Europe and the world.

    The first thing you can say this vote is is a rejection of Westminster austerity and the Locust Coalition. An independent Scotland must defend all necessary and desirable public services and this must be paid for by a system of fair taxation.

    Second, the demand must be put for a regime of full-employment by sharing the productive work. Every school and university leaver and unemployed worker who cannot find their own job must be bought into the local workforce and be paid the minimum of a trade union living wage.

    Third: We want workplace democracy whereby fat cat executives that treat Scottish industry as a personal pig’s trough imposed by political patronage and absentee corporate shareholders must be replaced by managers and leaders elected by committees of all grades of workers in all workplaces.

    Fourth: All privatisations to be reversed and socialisation of the means of production extended into other areas including retail. Education and health to be free at the point of delivery.

    Five: let the bankrupt financial industry go bankrupt. Take its staff, deposits and estates into administration to form a new People’s Bank of Scotland that has a monopoly of credit so that private financiers can never rip Scotland off again. This bank to lend at base rate to small business and facilitate social investment in accordance with a democratic and sustainable plan.

    Six: Scotland to champion the renegotiation of the founding treaties of the EU in accordance with socialist principles to replace the neo-liberal ones that are currently tearing it apart. Principles such as EU-wide full-employment and EU-wide Living Wage.

    Go for it Scotland.

    1. Robert says:

      That sounds like socialism the problem is that died a few years ago, the real issue is that Unions these day are pretty gormless they have enough people to pay them money so they can pay it to labour, they do deals behind closed doors to ensure labour is in power once in power they tell the Unions we may have to kick you out as in Falkirk because the Unions tried to stop Progress from having another MP.

      Companies will not take on people and pay them just because the political party tells them they have to have something for it like tax breaks.

      I agree with most of what you say and it would be great but to do that you have to have politician who are not careerist who in the main are looking at themselves.

      Today Alan Johnson was asked would be return to the front bench, he said I’m writing a book so have no time to do this, I need the time to finish my book, he said that with a straight face he is not forgetting an MP, he did say that MP’s should have a pay rise for all the hard work they do, not that hard it seems when you have time to write books.

      Progress or the Tories or the SNP I think I’d go SNP we have to try and change things to try and make it better for the working class or as Miliband would say the Hard working.

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