Left DebateOpinion

After the Referendum

The Scottish Left must show its own way to independence and not repeat the mistakes of Ireland, writes David Jamieson

The outcome of the Scottish independence referendum tells the story of a British state rapidly haemorrhaging legitimacy and of a Scottish political landscape in rapid flux. Support for independence, assumed to reside permanently at below a third of the population, rocketed to 45% amid a massive public re-engagement with politics.

The profile of the vote wholly confirms the pro-independence Left’s analysis of the referendum’s causes and the Yes vote’s working class base of support. The historic cities of the labour movement, Glasgow and Dundee voted Yes, the heartlands of Scots Nationalism voted No. Any attempts to continue the pretence that the vote was simply a nationalist distraction now venture into fantasy.

The movement for a Yes vote has left in its wake a good deal of disappointment but also continued engagement and a palpable yearning for progressive social and economic change. The Left’s task is to harness this mood. But the Left faces real dangers.

These issues will be familiar to this magazine’s mainly Irish readership. Questions of national sovereignty are by no means as severe in Scotland as they were in Ireland at the time of the War of Independence and the Civil War, yet, by a quirk of history, they are similar, even portentous.

When Ireland finally liberated itself from British rule, the conditions of its separation were sour indeed. The division of the island left the Republic prey to nationalist forces that were to subdue the radical force of the Irish revolution. The split republican movement sparred over the best way to represent the Irish national cause. This division allowed the national question to be permanently fore-grounded at the expense of all other issues; chiefly social issues of working class representation, women’s rights and so on.

In more muted terms, the failure of the movement for Scottish independence leaves it prey to twin nationalisms, Scottish and British. The main folly of support for a no vote resides in this reality – it threatens to paralyse Scottish political and social development between competing national allegiances.

The settled hate between the insurgent Scottish National Party and the retreating Scottish Labour Party threatens to turn into a battle that drowns out the Left’s demands for a more just society. Neither the SNP’s Scots Nationalism, nor the Labour Party’s British Nationalism represents the radical mood of the Scottish people stirred alive by the referendum process.

The SNP is seeking to draw the energy of the broad Yes movement into its already formidable party machine. Its chief mechanism to achieve this end is to consistently dangle the fresh opportunity of independence before the movement. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, maintains that a future referendum on independence can be attained within years. The outgoing First Minister Alex Salmond claimed just days after the No vote that a referendum was not necessary, and that Scotland could declare independence without Westminster consent. He has been followed in this fatuous assertion by a number of prominent SNP councillors. The result has been an explosion in membership of the SNP from 30,000 to 100,000.

The result of the Labour Party’s referendum victory could not be more different. Its already small membership has continued to dwindle, ill feeling between the party and trade unionists has increased, and the party is increasingly factionalised. We can still expect Labour to win the 2015 Westminster elections in Scotland owing to the anti-Tory mood; the Labour heartlands are expected to take another hit. Labour now seem incapable of challenging the SNP for the Scottish Government, and the Scottish Nationalists are taking on the air of dynastic rule.

The Left must assert its independence against these two political forces. To do this it must pursue its own programme against austerity and war and for serious democratic reform now, without waiting for some independence hereafter. It must also establish both a mass movement and a parliamentary force to pursue this programme.

Approximately 3,000 attended the Radical Independence Campaign conference in November to discuss the future plans for the movement. The Left must also begin to establish a parliamentary initiative – the Scottish Left Project; with signatories from various pro-independence Left organisations is the first tentative step toward such an initiative.

Overall, the radical Left must avoid the temptation to be drawn to the banner of either the SNP or Labour. If we are serious about preventing the national issue from becoming tribal, mundane and arbitrary – an obstacle for progressive change, then we must chart our own path.

David Jamieson is a member of the Radical Independence Campaign

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