Labour needs to ask:Is Scotland a nation?
Scottish Review, by Alex Wood
The independence campaign has officially started. Over the next two years the positions of politicians will meld and change. Already several former Labour Party activists, including a few heavy-weights such as Denis Canavan and John McAllion, have declared for independence. Salmond has identified the Labour vote as winnable, not only winnable but essential if a ‘Yes’ vote is to be achieved.
It was also noteworthy then that one of Scottish Labour’s most honest MSPs, Malcolm Chisholm, should blog on Facebook that, ‘Papers confirm what was obvious on Friday that SNP focus is Labour voters. Left case for enhanced devo (ideas + powers) key to indy defeat’. Interesting, that: the aim is an ‘indy defeat’, not a ‘unionist victory’.
The appeal for a new ‘Left’ strategy, ‘enhanced devo’, is a real conundrum. Leave aside the fact that neither the Scottish Executive nor the Blair/Brown Labour goverments ever considered ‘enhanced devo’. As a strategy to defeat independence today, ‘enhanced devo’ is too little, too late. It’s the deus ex machine manufactured to produce an ‘indy defeat’. None of the pro-union parties support it. At best it’s disingenuous to proffer something to the implementation of which no-one is committed. It’s certainly no alternative to the big options which are genuinely up for grabs.
That’s not to say that ‘devo-max’ should not appear as an option in any referendum. The argument for posing such a question is simple. There appears to be (at this stage an unproven but reasonable assumption) a significant proportion of the electorate which actually wants that option. It would be undemocratic to deny that cohort the right to cast a vote for its first choice.
The likelihood, however, is that it will not appear on the ballot. If it did, it would split the Labour Party asunder. It would also be opposed, at least initially, by the other unionist parties, although that would change if support for independence were seen to grow. Then there would be more than a few damascene conversions. (It might still be the option that materialises but that’s a different issue.)
There is a larger matter which McAllion and Canavan have recognised and that Malcolm Chisholm (and, I suspect, many others within the Labour Party) have yet to acknowledge. When great historical issues come to the fore and require moral commitment, bets may not be hedged.
A good example for the Labour Party was the second world war. Many previous Labour leaders, including Keir Hardie and Ramsay Macdonald, had been opposed to British participation in the first world war. There was a strong anti-war current in the 1930s Labour Party. There was sustained hostility to the Tory government. Nor was the emergence of Churchill, loathed by Labour for his role in the general strike, reconciling. Yet Labour Party members realised that the defeat of fascism was the great item on the historical agenda. Which was the historically progressive side was clear – even though it included countless reactionary characters. For Churchill the war was in defence of the British empire (in fact it pre-empted its dissolution) but Labour knew that war was essential. When the sides were called in 1939-40, Labour knew where to place itself.
The independence issue is also complex. Nationalism can be a divisive, conservative, socially corrosive and reactionary force. Radicals in Scotland can hardly be attracted to a low-tax, pro-business culture as envisaged in the Celtic tiger concept. In an increasingly interdependent world in which business straddles continents, traditional concepts of national independence are questionable. Indeed there is an argument that a strong, united Europe requires precisely the abandonment of the nation state, that what the present Euro-crisis proves is the incompatibility of monetary and economic union without total political union. But these are not Malcolm Chisholm’s starting points.
Labour activists require to ask themselves serious questions. Is a more equal and less divided society more likely in the British state than in an independent Scottish state? In which is a more consumerist, market-oriented social order more likely? In which is the maintenance of high-quality public services, rather than low levels of taxation, more likely? Is direct involvement in further military incursions in the Middle East and elsewhere more likely by the British state than by an independent Scottish state? These questions would indicate a more serious approach than the present haggling over whether independence or the union would put an extra £5 a week in people’s pockets.
There is perhaps an even more fundamental question which Labour activists need to answer: is Scotland a nation? Scotland may be no more a country or a nation than Florida or Nova Scotia. It may be merely a region of the greater British nation. If so, independence is a nonsense. Few, however, deny Scotland’s nationhood – but if Scotland is a nation, then there requires to be a powerful reason why it should not seek statehood like almost every other significant nation on earth.
There may be situations where national independence is not practical, or where there is an overwhelming case, accepted voluntarily by both, for the continued unification, within one state, of two nations. If Labour’s position is that membership of the United Kingdom so overwhelmingly benefits Scotland, let them spell it out. What are the benefits which make the denial of statehood worthwhile? In particular, what are the concrete benefits of remaining within the British state, with its long imperialist history, the residual shreds of which still taint its world outlook? Why stay within a British state, the economic foundations of which have been steadily eroded over the last 60 years and the archaic institutions of which remain hopelessly outdated, feudal in parts?
If the decent wing of the Labour Party asks these questions seriously, it must take sides. In 1939, their predecessors chose to ally themselves with a Conservative leader they despised, supported a war when their roots lay in pacifism, and stood up to fascism. When harsh alternatives were posed they took a stand and theirs was the right moral decision. Today’s harsh alternatives cannot be dodged by raising a third option. Enhanced devolution is a smoke-screen. The logic of Malcolm Chisholm’s politics is to support, not ‘devo-max’, but the emergence of a new organisation: Labour Supporters for Independence.