On September 18 Scots will choose between two futures. One of those choices preserves the United Kingdom as it is. The other will break three centuries of union and open up space for new political opportunities. Of course, with opportunity comes danger. And this has driven some comrades in the socialist and trade union movement to advocate a No vote.
Whatever disagreements they may have, trade unionist and Labour left opponents of independence are united in defeatism. At a recent Morning Star event, the GMB’s Richard Leonard thus asserted that only the SNP’s vision – i.e. the white paper – is on the table in this referendum. In Leonard’s world, we face two terrifying choices. One is an SNP-dominated Scotland with low corporation tax. Presumably, Labour and the trade unionist movement will have no opportunities to shape the agenda or oppose Salmond’s schemes after independence. Instead, they will resign into perpetual opposition. The other option is continuing with a modified version of Westminster, with a Scottish Labour Party voting against free school meals, allied to British Labour endorsing Tory benefit caps.
Once we reject our own agency, of course pessimism will prevail. And thus, for Leonard, it’s “better the devil you know.” But I reject both of these nightmarish futures. For me, the best trade union movements are built on vision, united by slogans like “another world is possible,” “a world still to win” and “people before profit.” These slogans emphasise our role in changing history. Pessimism of the intellect without optimism of the will leads us nowhere. If we still believe our struggles can transform society, the real question is: which result will empower working-class people to renew the struggle for social change?
The independence debate has seen one of the most exciting re-emergences of class politics and discourse in Britain for many decades. It is nothing but depressing to hear trade unionists slumped in resignation. Although there are honourable exceptions, these points are particularly true of the Labour left. They believe they can change the party from the inside, yet they deny the party’s power to shape the constitution, to influence the negotiations following a Yes vote or dominate an independent Scotland’s new institutions. Meanwhile, their only positive proposal is a vote for Ed Miliband. That means asking left-wing Scots to reject the possibilities of independence for the inevitability of austerity, Trident and a perpetuation of anti-trade union legislation. Labour politics, as we know, has drifted drastically to the right. The decline in British social democracy has arguably been far worse than in other European countries.
Some say the public has moved right, and Labour has followed. But that’s a one-sided analysis. Recent Yougov polls show that UK citizens are 12 to one against the privatisation of the NHS, and over three-fifths of the population favour nationalised postal, rail and energy companies. So, why do no parties at Westminster represent these views? A number of constitutional factors are at work. Our electoral system rules out any space for organised socialism, and instead pits Labour against Tories and Lib Dems in a perpetual battle for middle-class swing votes. Raising working-class participation as a whole becomes pointless. Instead, all real battles centre on the constituencies that matter.
In Scotland, as in large parts of northern England and Wales, our votes are simply irrelevant, and our politicians, with a few exceptions, achieve nothing. These factors make progressive forces apathetic and pull politics to the right.
That’s before we add in the persistence of monarchism, the unelected upper chamber and ancestral rule. And let’s not forget the institutional links between Westminster, the arms industry, the financial sector and US imperialism. These factors combine to make a return to “real Labour” almost impossible in Britain. Independence opens up a chance for change, to rid ourselves of this shadow governance. But I’m under no illusions about the SNP, and change will not be progressive unless we make it so. But that logic should also apply to the opposition. If you are a trade unionist advocating a No vote my question is this: who are you asking working-class people to vote for in the 2015 general election?
Every Westminster party is committed to the same set of policies. What is the plan for ending ancestral rule, for abolishing private schools and for green and sustainable reindustrialisation?
A Yes vote can be a revolt against the inevitability of more injustice and inequality. If you are a trade unionist willing to change your mind, or voting Yes, then remember this – that the referendum lasts for only one day. It is on September 19 that the battle begins. We will have won a ballot, but it will then be our duty to win Scotland for its people.
From the Morning Star