Scotland’s lessons from Quebec

By Ian Drummond

The future of Scotland and the rest of our island now hangs on a knife-edge. The SNP have, not for the first time, brought us to a pass where the smallest swings of chance in a very specific and abnormal time may lead to epochal changes for the worse for working people, on both sides of the border they so ardently wish to revive. Given their form in this matter, it is no wonder that Time and Chance was the title James Callaghan, perhaps our last real Labour Prime Minister, chose for his memoirs, for the SNP would make him and the majority of Britons who never voted for Thatcher’s Tories rue the terrible timing and feckless, drunken, almost chance nature of their treachery.

In 1979, with the winter of discontent over, the British economy improving on all fronts, and the Conservatives hampered by an alienating, extremist leader, all serious commentators expected Labour to win a historic third election in a row if it could just make it to the end of the year. And with the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot still in government, and the IMF loan having served its purpose even in the eyes of the Labour right, there was absolutely nothing inevitable about the radical shift of wealth and power in favour of the rich which eventually occurred, and much potential and pressure for a very different course. But on the 28th of March, in a fit of pique over the controversial failure of the first devolution referendum, the SNP MPs, “Scotland’s first 11”, first tabled their own motion of no confidence in the Labour government, then trooped into the lobby for Thatcher’s own, turkeys voting for Christmas as Callaghan said, triggering an election at the last point Thatcher could win it. The last real Labour government, ushered in by a victorious, all Britain miners’ strike, was thus ushered out by petty Scottish nationalism, and no-one tempted by such nationalism now, or who suffered the dreadful consequences for Scotland and the rest of deindustrialised Britain of the SNP’s shameful act, should forget it.

Now again we face the possibility of a radical change for the worse at the last time at which it might have an electoral chance. Partly this is because of the perfect storm, from the SNP’s perspective, of an exceptionally southern English based Tory led government, a Labour opposition still unreconstructed from the wreckage of Blairism, and the genuine left both inside and outside Labour still historically weak; change any one of these factors, as at least one, ie the Con-Dem government, is almost certain to soon be changed, and the case for independence wouldn’t get past the starting line. Even in this perfect storm it is only at the very end of an exceptionally long referendum campaign, and after a whole host of game changers that weren’t, that the massive poll lead for No has been slashed, squandered by an often complacent official No campaign and in particular a disastrous second debate. The only game changer Yes has come up with is a desperate and mendacious scare story on the NHS, even the sophisticated version of which is actually based on Thatcherite assumptions of private sector efficiency, which the highly inefficient and expensive US healthcare system is enough to disprove. And even this last minute momentum has now seemed to stall, as evidenced by Rupert Murdoch not putting the full force of the Sun behind the Yes side as he strongly suggested he wanted to do if he could claim it was the Sun that won it.

But more fundamentally than any of these campaign specifics, this is the last chance for separatism because of the evolution of the population itself, the mood of the youth, in Scotland and around the world. The example of Quebec makes an excellent illustration of this. This, the only territory to reject separatism in a referendum, not once but twice, is the most similar case to Scotland of any nations and regions with such movements around the world. There are differences of course, the main one being the language issue which is the key driver of Quebec nationalism but a literally fringe issue in Scotland; indeed in Salmond’s disastrous first debate with Darling the most cringeworthy example of nationalism came from a question from the audience on how we should all stop caring and spending so much on pensions and concentrate instead on Gaelic language promotion.

But the similarities, within the wider range of potential state breakups, are far more significant. Like the UK, Canada is a stable liberal democracy, rather than, in the case of most recent breakups of multinational states, a former communist state collapsing into austerity max amid the revival of nationalism as the legitimising mass base of restored raw capitalism. Furthermore in those situations, despite the rise of nationalism, state breakup came by fundamentally undemocratic means; in Czechoslovakia the velvet divorce was negotiated by politicians with never more than around 30% public support for a split, in Yugoslavia an assortion of nationalist demagogues and opportunist former party bureaucrats led their countries into war with each other without consulting them, and in the USSR Gorbachev actually won 76% of the vote for keeping the union together only for Yeltsin to dissolve it anyway a few months later.

In Quebec the referendum process, following election wins by the nationalist Parti Quebecois, followed similar lines to the Scottish case, although the question in both the 1980 and 1995 referenda were far more specific than the simplistic, almost leading question “Should Scotland be an independent country”, and the Canadian federal government never explicitly accepted it would be bound by the result. There was a wide margin for No in 1980, but in the 1995 re-run Yes overcame a strong initial No lead to be consistently ahead by around 6 points in the later pre-election polls – a feat incidentally that the Scottish Yes campaign has only managed twice, both with online polls, one where more people actually said they’d vote No but weighted to a 2 point lead for Yes, the other a rogue poll with a tiny sample. Eventually there was the narrowest of wins for No, amid concessions on greater autonomy and language rights that have been kept and helped to settle the issue, and amid legitimate concern of the impending dire consequences of a Yes.

Most tellingly for Scotland is the epilogue to all of this. Earlier this year, the PQ minority government went into an election, and were far more honest than the SNP in 2011, who concentrated on their record as a minority government and downplayed independence to the point of a non-issue till after they won their majority. The PQ were clear that they wanted to bring the separatist issue back for a third referendum, and were promptly ousted from government altogether by a population that had grown decisively tired of their plans for a neverendum. Not even the dirty dog-whistle politics of French style Islamophobic hyper-secularism did anything to save them.

In the post-election polling it became clear that the mood for separation, generationally, had passed. While to the previous generation, those who were young in 1980 or 1995, it seemed like an idea whose time had come and was coming yet for all that, to the majority of their children it now seems like an anachronism. This is incredibly relevant to Scotland, where the SNP thought it was a great wheeze to give the vote, for one time only, to 16 and 17 year olds for this election.

I myself have always supported the idea, that all legal adults, potential workers and spouses, should have the vote, and welcome countries like Argentina where it has been brought in for elections, but to do it on a one off basis, with some voters this week being agisn too young to vote in the next Westminster and even Holyrood elections, seems deeply cynical. But as Chairman Mao used to say, sometimes the enemy struggles mightily to lift a great rock, only to drop it on his own foot. The nationalists evidently thought the youth were daft, would be the most easily caught up in the feeling of the campaign and least concerned with the consequences, but actually 16 and 17 year olds are one of the strongest of all demographics for No, as evidenced by all polls one of which even showed a staggering 70/30 split, and the results of mock referenda in schools up and down the country. In this context the overwhelming Yes bias on the BBC’s youth question time, culminating in the booing of George Galloway’s tribute to the heroes of our victory over Hitler fascism, is particularly unrepresentative and unfortunate.

To this new generation, borders are increasingly irrelevant anyway. On social media connections can be made instantly across borders – I myself even once received virus-hacked facebook messages that I thankfully didn’t open)( from a top student LGBT campaigner in Britain and a conservative religious student in Iran! On this new digital frontier people increasingly care about each other’s views, about the content of their characters, not where they happen to have come from, and the creation of a new border in the second decade of the 21st century, with so many divisions in the world still crying out to be healed, seems a retrograde step and the height of silliness.  To those older people who are thinking of voting Yes as a gift to the next generation, the slogan of “No Thanks” seems particularly apt.

It is now clear that the people of Quebec are most grateful and relieved by the result of the 1995 referendum, narrow though it was at the time. They gave themselves time to see what future they could have in continued unity, and what separation might have brought, and are now far more confident in the choice they made, the youth most of all. In Scotland we should learn from that and vote No, in the knowledge that we have already rattled the Westminster establishment to its core and significant concessions are on the way; the one thing that would give Westminster and the Tories it a new lease of life now actually would be to be shot of us. On the other hand if we end up narrowly voting ourselves into a messy divorce and a race to the bottom with a Tory England, we could end up ruing the time and chance of this referendum as much as we rue the day the SNP brought Thatcher to power. And with even less chance of doing anything to change it, because a Yes vote isn’t for the next 5 years, but for all time.

 

Scottish independence – walking backwards while facing the future

All across the United States you will find Scottish cultural and fraternal societies, where people with a connection to Scotland or an affinity with Scottish culture and history gather to celebrate their shared love of the old country. Also in the US you will find the largest Highland Games events anywhere in the world, including Scotland itself.

I experienced this phenomenon for myself in the mid nineties when I moved to San Francisco for a spell and came across the St Andrews Society of San Francisco while out for an evening stroll with my partner at the time. Her apartment was close by in the affluent Russian Hill district and having just recently arrived from Scotland, where better to make friends and contacts than a society set up to celebrate the very country I’d only just left behind?

So along I went, not knowing what to expect but eager to show off my genuine Scottish accent and be lavished with the attention befitting a bona fide Scotsman. I was the genuine article, fresh off the boat, and I duly breezed through the door of that St Andrews Society puffed up with pride.

It only took fifteen minutes for me to realise that the people there – wealthy, white and right wing – had nothing in common with me nor I with them. The Scotland they held so dear was unrecognisable to me. It bore no relation to the country where I was born and grew up surrounded by the social maladies which flow from poverty – alienation, alcohol abuse, anger, violence, etc. In the end I couldn’t wait to leave, especially when a particular item on the meeting’s agenda came up concerning a campaign to make it easier for landlords in San Francisco to evict tenants with a view to taking advantage of the huge demand for rental accommodation that was prevalent in the city at the time. The good folks of the St Andrews Society of San Francisco, some of them landlords themselves, were fully behind the idea.

By this point my political consciousness was developing, and the very idea of evicting people in order to be able to charge more rent filled me with revulsion.

Just over a week later I attended another meeting. This one was held in the Mission District of the city, the preserve of San Francisco’s immigrants and working class. It was a meeting that had been called in solidarity with those very tenants who were under threat of eviction. At this meeting I found myself among Mexicans, Hispanics, African-Americans, Koreans, and people of many other ethnicities and nationalities. I felt completely at home.

Every single world of what I have just shared is true. It was an experience that taught me more than any number of books on social theory ever could that we are divided not by nationality or ethnicity but by class, by what we believe rather than what we are, a consciousness shaped by our engagement with the world rather than something as spurious as an accident of birth.

It is this simple yet enduring truth which underpins my rejection of Scottish independence as a progressive advance for working people, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK.

The great Scottish figures of the past were men and women who viewed the world through the prism of universality rather than insularity. Consider Robert Burns, one of the world’s finest poets. Here was a man in the late 18th century who was inspired by the emancipatory ideals of the American and French revolutions. In his most famous poem, ‘A Man’s A Man For All That’, Burns identifies a universal truth when it comes to the divide between rich and poor.

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

Burns was no narrow nationalist. He was an internationalist whose worldview was expansive not parochial. That his legacy is being claimed by Scottish nationalists is a travesty of what he stood for.

Likewise the Scottish radical Thomas Muir of the United Scotsman, a secret society which as with the United Irishmen under Wolfe Tone was founded in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 to spread the cause of liberty, equality and brotherhood – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Muir believed that the locus of progress for the masses of the people lay in international brotherhood. Tried for sedition in a Scottish court and transported to Australia for his sins, at his trial he famously said: “I have devoted myself to the cause of the people, it is a good cause, it shall ultimately prevail, it shall finally triumph.”

Note that Muir did not say ‘Scottish people’ but ‘people’, as in the poor and exploited masses wherever they may be, per the universal ideas of the French Revolution for which he sacrificed his liberty.

The question facing people in Scotland in 2014 is whether or not erecting a border on a tiny island in northern Europe equates to progress? The answer is No.

The Britain of the monarchy, House of Lords, British Empire, and Tory Party is indisputably nothing to be proud of for any right thinking person. But the Britain of the welfare state, NHS, trade union movement, and multiculturalism is something to be proud of. Created by the British working class, the NHS for example belongs to the British working class, making the notion of ‘saving’ the NHS by voting for independence an insult to the men and women across this island without whose struggle there would be nothing to save in the first place. Regardless, we now know beyond doubt that the ‘save the NHS in Scotland’ argument propounded by the Yes campaign is steeped in dishonesty. The NHS in Scotland is and has never been under threat from a No vote.

Given the laws of motion of capitalism – specifically its extreme variant, neoliberalism, which currently holds sway across the globe – independence will turn people north and south of the border into rivals vying for the same jobs as both economies are forced to compete for investment, thus triggering a race to the bottom. It will not, as supporters on the Yes side of the argument try to assert, make Scotland a beacon for people south of the border to follow. Such claims are the product of delusion rather than serious analysis. In the words of Karl Liebnecht: “The basic law of capitalism is you or I, not you and I.”

Despite its historic importance, never has such a divisive political campaign been fought on such narrow political terrain as this one. Consider the evidence. If the result is No in September it will mean that the existing head of state – the monarchy – will remain the head of state, while if the result is Yes the existing head of state – the same monarchy – will become the new head of state. Similarly, if No prevails sterling will remain the national currency, while if it is Yes sterling will become the new national currency.

By now of course it is clear that a currency union is not going to happen. Even it if did, it would mean handing key fiscal levers of the economy over to the central bank of a foreign country, thus qualifying as the only case in history of a nation voting to become a colony of another nation at the ballot box.

The latter option, sterlingisation, which is the SNP’s plan B by default, is even worse. It carries with it the worst elements of a currency union – i.e. the handing over of the ability to set interests rates and currency valuation to the Bank of England – while also ensuring the absence of a central bank as lender of last resort to underwrite the nation’s borrowing and debt. This would have a severe impact when it comes to both the ability to attract investment, and the cost of that investment, especially when dealing with an untried and untested economy that will be starting life with an estimated national debt of £143 billion according to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

Yet despite the aforementioned economic and political realities, socialists and progressives on the Yes side of the debate have chosen to ignore them, instead embracing idealist arguments based on hope and faith that independence will be a catalyst for a socialist or social democratic paradise. The point has to be made that while hope is all right when it comes to purchasing a lottery ticket it is not good enough when it comes to setting up a national economy upon which millions of people’s pensions, mortgages, jobs, and public services will depend.

Constitutional struggle as a substitute for class struggle is at bottom the product of despair and lack of belief in socioeconomic change. It signals a victory for neoliberal orthodoxy, offering up the possibility of yet another state and national economy competing for the same investment. It is no accident that every small state that has separated from a larger state in Europe over the past three decades has shifted to the right. There is no evidence that an independent Scotland would offer a departure from this pattern.

As Bertolt Brecht reminds us: ‘The defeats and victories of the fellows at the top aren’t always defeats and victories for the fellows at the bottom.’

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

 

 

 

George Galloway on Daily Politics with Andrew Neil

Reflecting on the referendum campaign

By Tommy Kane

Reflecting on the referendum campaign it’s clear that it’s degenerated into the most polarising, divisive and diversionary political event of our times. Countering this view, some socialists in the Yes camp suggest that the campaign has engendered hope, inspired a revitalisation of left politics and saw record levels of political engagement. These supporters pronounce independence will bring freedom from subjugation and a renewal of democracy, others proclaim it will allows us escape from the supposedly different Scottish and English political cultures, while others assert firmly that a Yes vote can go some way to ‘smashing the British state’ (incidentally not at the top of people’s concerns on the doorsteps). Amongst some there also resides a belief that, at the very least, independence will bring social democracy and a fairer and more just Scotland, because, whisper it, ‘we are more progressive up here’. In order to sustain a clean and seamless Yes campaign these left proponents of this missive appear to have suspended their critical faculties, especially in relation to the SNP’s White Paper, and whether they like it or not, have encouraged a discourse that has appears to have focused predominately on the liberation of ‘Scottish nationhood’.

Coming from a diverse range of views they all have one thing in common; a coalescing of grievance and anger at every recent failed policy or foreign adventure, a belief that solutions can only be found through the construction of a border and a seemingly faith based conviction that everything bad will, in time, become good but only if we vote for independence. If we don’t then, so the story goes, we are all doomed.

These assertions really need some interrogation. This message of hope is actually wrapped in real despair and pessimism that says nothing good can ever come from Britain. This is despite the fact that all material gains won over the past 70 or so years have come from a united Labour and Trade Union movement forcing them through. This fight back and material advancement for working people through the Labour and Trade Union movement is a force that has, incredibly, been written off by far too many sections of the left during this debate as they focus on the bad and ignore the good. All too easily they forget where the NHS, welfare, public services, social housing, and even the Scottish Parliament, emerged from

What about the Wallace style cry of freedom?  Scotland has not been a victim of British subjugation. Rather it has been an integral part of the oppression of others during the days of colonialism and empire. I have recently returned from British Colombia where contemporary Canada reflects relentlessly over the collective oppression of the first nation’s communities there. These national musings confirm how there are Scots fingerprints all over that process since way back at the beginnings of the Hudson Bay Company. Capitalist exploitation of the working class has of course occurred but that’s a class issue, the central resistance to which came from organised labour from across these isles.

Democratic advance and getting the Government we vote for is another refrain. But, didn’t the 890,000 people (that’s right nearly a million), just under 36% of the vote, who voted either Tory or Liberal in the last election get the government they voted for and the rest didn’t? What about the last Scottish election when those who voted SNP got the Government they voted for but the rest of us didn’t? Is that not democracy in action, that the party with most votes forms a Government and the party with the least doesn’t? Aside from this arithmetical exercise its also worth pondering how the current SNP Government has, ironically, been the most centralising Scottish Government on record and has diminished local government with no apparent desire to expand democracy to local government in the event of a Yes vote.

Nationalism is at the core of this debate. Yet many of the left have campaigned zealously for independence despite knowing full well they have provided cover for this exclusionary ideology. Nationalism both creates and implies difference. We see it here with explicit and implicit suggestions that we Scots are inclined to be more progressive and social democratic (the nationalist vote and the last General Election results show how this is an extremely problematic assertion). This Scottish strain of nationalism, like most others, also abandons notions of workers solidarity (at first hand through political trade union unity and common struggles) and seeks an outcome that necessitates the dividing of workers.

My interpretation of socialism is not based on excluding or abandoning my comrades; rather it’s built around core principles like solidarity, support and struggle (understanding that there are no shortcuts). I’m not about to change that view now and take a lifeboat, particularly with the fight we have on our hands to defeat the Tories. As Lenin states my foremost starting point “assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle”. This ‘national liberation movement’ has paid little attention to the consequences for working class struggle elsewhere in Britain, apart from reckless, complacent and blasé assertions about Scotland being a good example to our brothers and sisters in England.

Let us also be clear. This Scottish brand of nationalism has no intention of dealing with the rising structural inequality that has happened across the whole of the neo-liberal globalised world; including Britain. Indeed, they never mention wider global, economic forces, come to it neither do many of their left fellow travellers. Political self-determination is all that matters in their view with no strategy at all to deal with promoting, let alone achieving, any semblance of economic self-determination.

The only strategy to deal with those forces is made clear in the only programme for independence published and available. The SNP White Paper is unequivocal. They intend to capitulate to those global pressures that have resulted in the huge and growing inequality in the wider world, Europe and UK today. The White Paper outlines a vision of a Scotland that will be slavishly obedient to the free market and do whatever is necessary to reassure market nerves. That’s what the proposed corporation tax cut is all about (how can that result in anything other than a catastrophic race to the bottom and more damage to working people in Scotland and the rest of Britain). That’s why they didn’t support the Labour amendment to introduce a living wage in the Procurement Bill earlier this year and that’s why they don’t support a 50p tax rate and a mansion tax.  Of course whenever anyone dare raise such points the response is that it’s nothing to do with the SNP; If only that were so. They are the Scottish Government; they will control negotiations and the writing of the constitution and it is they that will be at the heart of everything in the event of a Yes. Conversely, I accept that the likes of the Common Weal have published some interesting papers, but their promotion of corporatism which ignores class conflict represents another lurch into the rhetoric of nationalism; while they and their colleagues in the Radical Independence movement and others such as the SSP and Solidarity have very little prospect of electoral success any time soon. Indeed in the last General Election the Greens and SSP could not even muster 1% between them.

Left supporters for Yes have instead offered tacit support to many of the White Paper promises. Indeed many have shared platforms with representatives of Business for Scotland to promote an independent Scotland. A key signal of how for many class has been trumped by the politics of nation. If it’s a Yes we better get used to this. When faced with turbo charged austerity, required to find favour with and gain the confidence of the markets, the Scottish people will be urged to take the hit and suffer the pain for your country, how we are at a new dawn and early the beginnings of a new state and we need to do it for our children and grandchildren etc. It will be a political landscape dominated, just like Ireland for decades after the formation of the Free State, by a consciousness of nationhood and not class.

It’s unsurprising that the biggest issue worrying ordinary Scot’s is the potential for economic carnage. Many people get that there is a huge uncertainty attached to pensions, welfare, public spending, wages etc. Perhaps the biggest and most obvious issue is the currency. Yet despite that uncertainty and the real potential for hugely negative consequences from the SNP plans, or lack of them, many people on the left have suspended their critical faculties on this potential for even further negative material outcomes for working people. Only nihilists, fundamentalists and true believers and others who think they have nothing to lose may suggest that this is a mere technical point. It’s not. If we enter a currency union then we will have to agree to the ceding on monetary policy (already acknowledged in the white paper) and more than likely fiscal policy too. After all why would a (what would then be) foreign bank, underwrite our economy and become lender of last resort to a foreign country whose banking system is 12 times its GDP (IE its highly risky) without ensuring a huge say over taxation and spending.

This does beg the following questions. Where is the independence in that and how can you build the better and just society under such conditions? If it is a yes people on the left must argue for Scotland to have its own currency, only then could we have sufficient control of the economic levers to have a chance to do things differently and progressively, but this would take a long time to achieve stability and sustainability and would create huge pain for ordinary working people in the meantime. Unlike those advocating independence from a comfortable vantage point and who will be able to ride that wave of pain ordinary people will be faced with even more challenging economic times. That might be ok for the nihilists in our midst. For the likes of myself on the other hand, who actually live and socialise amongst the great working class (who many on the left cite but don’t normally go near) this is just not good enough. Particularly when working people are spun the line that everything bad will become good with no mention of the likely impending and increased pain.

Polarising as it has been it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the Yes/No debate has got people engaged and thinking about the type of country they want to live in. Whatever happens on the 18th it is now apparent that the political landscape has changed forever and that political change has to occur. For those on the left taking a No position we have argued from the outset that we are not Better Together under the present conditions. There has to be a change from the hugely damaging austerity and neo-liberalism. But, the view taken has been that independence and mere constitutional change has never been the answer to dealing with these huge enemies to working people.

So no matter the actual result it’s now clear that a huge swathe of Scot’s are, on the 18th September, going to express massive dissatisfaction at the status quo; the capitulation to neo-liberalism; and the normalisation of its outcomes of huge poverty on one hand, and eye-watering, record levels of obscene wealth enjoyed by those at the top, on the other. This expression by the Scottish people must be listened to. We must pay attention and understand how we found ourselves fighting this unnecessary fight,  and then push for a new paradigm of politics that addresses the concerns raised by so many of the Scottish people. Not just on bringing new powers to Holyrood but also in the type of policies devised and developed at Holyrood and indeed at Westminster.

This has to mean the Labour Party once and for all rejecting the politics of New Labour and once again returning to a programme and discourse that talks of inequality and poverty as obscenities, that proudly advocates redistribution and progressive taxation, proposes the repeal of Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws (which allows us to far more easily provide workplace solidarity where and when necessary) and which promotes renationalisation and public ownership. In short, it has to demonstrate that a vote for No was not for the status quo but for progressive change for all working people across these isles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scottish independence: how did it come to this?

With under a week to go to the most important election in this country in 300 years, across Scotland the tension is palpable. Families, workplaces, communities, and friends are divided, some irrevocably, and whatever the result on September 18 there seems little likelihood of things ever being the same.

In his On Ideology Louis Althusser reminds us that, ‘The class struggle does not go on in the air, or on something like a football pitch. It is rooted in the mode of production and exploitation in a given class society.’

Thus the complete collapse of a large section of the left in Scotland with its embrace of a nationalist project as a shortcut to what they believe will be a socialist dawn has been tragic to behold. As I wrote in my article in the Guardian recently, ‘Nationalism, unless rooted in national oppression, is a perniciously hollow doctrine. It succeeds to the extent that both left and right embrace it as a vehicle to advance their own economic and political interests, and works by substituting the past for the present. But this is a mythological past that invites us to negate a consciousness forged through our engagement with the world in favour of a cause rooted in nothing more than an accident of birth.’

The economic arguments in favour of independence have been completely blown out of the water by now. On the issue of the currency alone we know beyond doubt that Salmond and the SNP are arguing for Scotland to become a de facto colony of England, stripping away their vision of independence to reveal dependence in truth. Add to this the recent announcements by the Standard Life, RBS, Tesco Bank, John Lewis, Asda, and other major businesses and financial institutions operating in Scotland, warning of the deleterious impact of a Yes vote, and anyone with a mortgage, pension, and/or a job will surely have pause for thought regarding the implications of their vote when they go to the polls next week.

Whether we like it or not we live in a capitalist society and there is little appetite among the overwhelming majority of working people in Scotland to take the leap in the dark they are being invited to by the SNP/Yes campaign.

People like Tommy Sheridan and Jim Sillars, who I debated a couple of months ago on independence, have been touring the country delivering speeches short on analysis and long on hollow emotionalism and vacuity. To watch Sheridan screaming into a microphone with a Saltire pinned to his chest puts you in mind of a bad audition for Braveheart. The Hampden Roar has supplanted the Internationale as the fulcrum of the politics of many in Scotland, with Sheridan and others turning into examples of what Nye Bevan described as ‘people walking backwards with their faces to the future’.

When this is over, and at this stage I remain convinced a silent majority will deliver a No vote, there will have to be an inquest into how we reached this point and how we move forward. The Labour leadership both in Scotland and the UK has proved utterly inept. The ideological hollowing out of the party that occurred throughout the Blair years has brought us here, giving rise to cynicism and anti politics among a large swathe of the population, specifically the poor and low waged. Complacency and hubris led Labour to make the disastrous decision to join with the Tories in the Better Together Campaign, a campaign which history will record as one of the most uninspiring, limp, and ineffectual ever fought in British politics.

A No victory will be won in spite of Better Together not because of it. That the issue remains neck and neck in the polls, given the glaring weaknesses and holes in the Yes campaign’s assertions and arguments, is testimony to the paucity of the official No campaign. It has been left to George Galloway to make the progressive case for No almost singlehandedly, arguing the politics of class rather than nation and shaming Labour in the process.

That we need a Labour government in 2015 is not in doubt. But it will only be certain if redistributive policies are placed front and centre in its manifesto. People are crying out for change not just in Scotland but throughout Britain. It is a desperation measured in support for Scottish independence among a large section of the Scottish working class, most of them Labour voters and/or supporters at one time or another.

Unless the right lessons are learned from this near disaster Tory ideas will continue to prosper and sow despair. It is this despair that has driven support for the Yes campaign. It is this despair that Labour must address as a matter of priority going into the next general election.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labour must address casualisation

Mark Carney’s speech to the TUC Congress yesterday was interesting, and it was right for the unions to invite him. As major civil society institutions with mass membership, the trade unions can and should seek to influence the parameters of democratic debate unmediated by political parties, alongside of course the different strategies for engagement through political parties that some unions engage in.

Carney spelt out that both the American economy, and the Euro zone have their own problems:

German driven austerity in Euroland has been catastrophic:

The results have been dire. Euro-area unemployment has risen sharply over two successive recessions to its current rate of over 11%. It stands at over 14% in Portugal, 20% in Spain, and 25% in Greece. Over 6% of the euro-area labour force is now long-term unemployed and in danger of becoming detached from the labour market.6 And despite high unemployment, there is evidence of labour shortages.

However, The US economy suffers from lack of investment, leading to a drop in the umber of people economically active.

The number of Americans in work has only just returned to where it was before Lehman failed, even though there are now 14 million more people of working age. Much of the fall in the unemployment rate is the result of workers in their prime leaving the labour force. Far more vacancies remain unfilled than usual, indicating big mismatches in the labour market. And fewer people than normal are switching jobs, suggesting an ongoing reluctance to take risks.

Interestingly, Carney observes that lack of capital investment is also a feature of the UK economy

There are now one million more people in work in the UK than at the start of the crisis. But … that exceptional employment performance has come at a cost. Wage growth has been very weak; in fact adjusted for inflation wages have fallen by a tenth since the onset of the crisis. And in order to find such a fall in the past, you would have to go back to the early 1920s.

Carney acknowledges that this expansion of employment, has not led to wage growth:

wage pressures based on past relationships are as low today as if the unemployment rate were 10%, not the 6.4% rate it currently is.

In fact, the Other Resolution Foundation has found that while real weekly wages have fallen by 6% since 2007, the drop in real income for the self employed has been 20%, leaving a self employed person paying 40% less than someone in employment.

Although Carney dicusses the structural change in the UK workforce polarizing towards high skill and low skill sectors; he fails to factor in the shift towards casualisation, which has been a major paradigm shift in employment practices over the last 5 years.

According to a new pamphlet published by LRD, public sector outsourcing alone has seen a 168% year on year increase in the first quarter of 2014, for example, seven out of ten home care providers now only offer zero hours contracts. The office of National Statistics (ONS) published figures in April this year which shows that 1.4 million workers have contracts that fail to guarantee a minimum of working hours, and 1.3 million workers were provided with no work in their 2 week reference period.

The workforce in stable, standard employment is stagnant outside London; so the biggest growth areas have been those on zero hours contracts, or fixed contracts for only a set number of short hours.
The apparent shift towards self employment is also illusory, although it makes up for a full 40% of the rise in the number of people working since 2010; as this includes a variety of odd-jobbers, those getting sparse work at very low income; and those in industries like construction and airlines forced into false self-employment; or personal services contracts; such practices facilitated by payroll companies and sharp practices by employment agencies.

Carney is deluded in stating that any economic recovery based upon the growth of such casualised and precarious employment can lead to stability:

… although this adjustment has been painful, trading off lower productivity and lower wages for much higher – and it is much, much higher – employment, on balance that trade – that trade-off provides a solid foundation for a durable expansion. By staying in work individuals retain and learn new skills, and they are better placed to participate in the expansion as it gathers force.

This is over-optimistic. Firstly, much of the casualised workforce systematically underpays tax and national insurance, and also represents a ticking timebomb of underfunded pensions, which hardly helps with the government’s deficit; but secondly, all the evidence suggests that workers in precarious employment are less likely to have access to training, and are likely to be working in less safe condition, and the terms of their contracts either seek to exclude them from employment rights, or make them too scared to enforce their rights.

The British economy has founded its recent apparent recovery on a return to the precarious employment practices of the Victorian era. I have had GMB union members explain the practices of unethical employment agencies and payroll companies who offer workers contracts of 7 or 9 hours, and then call them in by text message only hours before their shift is due to start; and who give workers “rest days” when they are ill, to avoid paying sick pay.

One payroll company I have locked horns with employs a supervisor who has put 5 or 6 agency workers into an aisle in a warehouse, and then the one who gets the lowest pick rate has their hours reduced. When I approached the company, they claimed that this practice could not be happening because no one had complained to them using their grievance process! Of course they hadn’t complained, because workers who raise grievances get their hours reduced. The client is a household name retail chain.

The next Labour government has already committed to several welcome reforms of employment law, but there are grounds for concern that the original suggestion, made at last year’s TUC, that people on zero hours contracts would have a right to regular hours after 12 weeks, has been watered down to 12 months.

Precarious employment is one of the greatest problems facing millions of working people, and the Labour Party needs to be seen as their champion. As Ed Miliband correctly said during his speech at last year’s party conference, Britain cannot succeed in a race to the bottom, we can be better than that.

Scotland and the risks of independence to EU membership

The referendum process for possible Scottish independence reveals some of the best and worst aspects of Britain’s political culture.

The potential withdrawal of Scotland from the UK would bring to an end a constitutional settlement that has endured for more than 300 years, and yet the commitment towards constitutionality has meant not only that the issue is being decided via democratic debate and voting, but the UK government avoided any legal complications by passing the necessary legislation to give effect to the wishes of the Scottish parliament to hold a binding referendum.

This means that the people of Scotland are being given the opportunity to decide whether or not a new independent state is established in a process governed by law. We only need to look to the forthcoming referendum in Catalonia, and the hostile response to that from the Madrid government to see that such an approach was far from inevitable.

However, the passions invoked in the debate have also revealed the worst, as YES campaigners have seemingly sought to hoodwink the electorate about the potential risks; and thus inhibit people from making an informed decision.

The half-truths about currency and expected North Sea Oil revenue reveal a tendency to adopt the most optimistic outcome as not only likely, but almost inevitable.

The issue of EU membership is another area where the Scottish government, the SNP, and the official YES campaign are seeking to pour sand in the eyes of the electorate.

Scotland has been a member of the EU, and its predecessor organizations, for 40 years; but it has been so as a member of the United Kingdom, and should Scotland become independent, then it will be rUk that is the successor state that inherits the existing membership, and terms of membership, including the opt-outs negotiated by previous UK governments, over, for example, rebates, and Schengen.

There is no provision in the existing law and treaties for deciding whether Scotland will be permitted to continue with EU membership without interruption, and on the same terms as the UK.

The YES campaign takes a very bullish approach to this:

As explained in its “independence roadmap” and in its white paper “Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland”, the Scottish Government proposes to agree the terms of Scotland’s continued membership of the EU between the date of the referendum, and the proposed date of independence on 24th March 2016.

In that way questions relating to our ongoing EU membership can be settled before we become independent. Scotland already is part of the EU – so there is no doubt that we meet all the requirements for membership, and with our energy and fishing resources it is clearly common sense, and in the interests of the EU, that Scotland’s place in the EU continues seamlessly.

Even the UK government’s expert European legal adviser has accepted that this timetable is “realistic”. So Scotland’s EU membership will be secure by the time we are independent.

They might be right, and I am sure that in the event of Scotland becoming independent, then the UK government will seek to acheive such an outcome, in the interests of business stability.

However, they may not be right. In a letter from Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission sent to Christina McKelvie, Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee this March, her official view spelt out that:

The Treaties apply to the Member States. When part of the territory of a Member State ceases to be a part of that State, e.g. because that territory becomes an independent state, the treaties will no longer apply to that territory. In other words, a new independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the Union and the Treaties would, from the day of its independence, not apply anymore on its territory.

Under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, any European state which respects the principles set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union may apply to become a member of the EU. If the application is accepted by the Council acting unanimously after consulting the Commission and after receiving the consent of the European Parliament, an agreement is then negotiated between the applicant state and the Member States on the conditions of admission and the adjustments to the Treaties which such admission entails.

This agreement is subject to ratification by all Member States and the applicant state.

The Scottish government would therefore need to negotiate, and seek agreement from all 28 existing members. Many of these member countries may favour the approach advocated by the Scottish Government, but it is reasonable to suppose, as Ruairi Quinn, former president of EU’s finance council has predicted, that, for example, Spain and Belgium might ‘veto an independent Scotland’s EU membership’

Certainly, the continuity of Scotland’s EU membership cannot be guaranteed, and the terms of its future accession would need to be negotiated. Any negotiations may well also reveal that Scotland, divorced from the UK, does not have a strong bargaining position; and some areas might be highly problematic, and – for example – commitments to keep an open border with England may conflict with requirements that other EU states might seek relating to Scotland joining the Schengen area.

Of course for those committed to independence, any risk, and almost any cost, will be justifiable. But it is immoral to seek to hide the risks from the electorate.