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The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 3 – Politics)

August 26, 2014

How do your political views, or the political party you support, affect your position on independence? What political issues are at play in the debate? What are the differences between the electorates of Scotland and the UK as a whole, and what would the politics of an independent Scotland look like?

The decision we will make on the 18th of September is of course not one which directly concerns party politics at all. Many people don’t seem to have grasped this fact yet though. It’s not about who will govern us, but how we will be governed, not for a term, but for the ages. Will we choose to govern ourselves, or to be governed by another nation?

 Political Ideology and Party Loyalty

It is important to distinguish between those minority (disclaimer – I am a member of this minority) who are ‘political animals,’ and who have a fully thought out political perspective of their own, and would probably have a ready opinion on most topics, and the other, larger group who are loyal to a particular party because they’ve always voted that way, because their family’s always voted that way, or because they just feel intuitively that party represents the closest to their own value system. Let’s deal with this larger group first, party by party.

The Ghost of the Labour Party

That’s what many Labour voters in Scotland are actually voting for, a pale shade of a once-proud party, which has over the years abandoned virtually every principle on which it was founded. It started out, back in the days of Keir Hardie, as an unashamedly socialist party. It morphed, on achieving government in the 20th Century, into a social democratic party.  In recent years, and it would be hard not to conclude that it was during the Blair/Brown years, the transformation has moved them all the way to the centre right. That is not the party Scottish Labour voters are voting for. They are voting in the main either for the Keir Hardie one, or the post-war Attlee one, which gave us the welfare state, the NHS and all that other progressive, social democratic stuff.

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That’s not the only way in which it’s a ghost. There is also the phantom of the Scottish Labour Party. It is basically a concoction, and although it might hold the odd talkfest, it has no constitutional power in the British Labour Party. That power resides with the National Conference, the NEC and the Westminster parliamentary party, and some of he larger affiliated unions, through the conference. Always has, though in varying proportions.

Recently a Labour representative on the Better Together team, Gary Wilson, defected to the ‘Yes’ camp in the form of the ‘Labour for Independence’ organisation. He estimated that, despite the monolithic unionist view that has been projected to the public, and hence to Labour voters, around 20% of Labour members in the constituency parties are pro-independence. In my day (I was a member for a couple of years in my teens) I think it would have been more, perhaps in the 30-40% range. But that’s just an estimate. The thing is, there has always been a significant pro-independence faction within the Labour Party, ever since Keir Hardie, who was firmly in favour of what was then known as ‘home rule.’

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It is a reasonably safe assumption that the same division is reflected amongst Labour voters, and indeed this is borne out by the polls which say that something like a third have always intended to vote ‘Yes.’ And this is entirely within mainstream Labour thought in Scotland. Indeed it could be argued, given the above quote, that historically it is more in tune with mainstream Labour thought than the currently fashionable notion that internationalism is somehow synonymous with unionism. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, that’s one for the minority. We’ll come back to it.

Now we come to those who’d rather not think. Not only do they automatically vote Labour, because they always have, or their family always has, but also prefer for the party to tell them what to think about other political subjects such as the forthcoming referendum. This is problematic, because as we’ve discussed, on this subject the party speaks with a monolithic voice which does not reflect the breadth of actual opinion within its ranks. Which is of course why the organisation ‘Labour for Indy’ has emerged to fill the gap.

The Popular Front

The Scottish National (NB: not ‘Nationalist’) Party is of course a party founded and built on a single issue, albeit an incredibly important issue, that of independence for Scotland. Therefore it conforms to the classical definition of a popular front. This has become complicated in the years since the establishment of the Holyrood parliament, simply because by then they had become one of the two main parties in Scotland, and as such required a suite of policies in preparation for governing. Ultimately they have become the party of government not because of the level of support for independence, their raison d’être, but because they have become a better social democratic party than Labour, with policies (thanks to Labour’s UK leadership) noticeably to the left of Labour’s.

This does not, however, alter the fact that the SNP as a party is an extremely broad political church, united by that one central aim. So what happens if, on September the 18th, that aim is achieved? Well, as my dad explained it to me when I was a kid, the need for such a party would simply cease to exist. The people who made it up would drift off back to their own neck of the political spectrum, whether that was to another existing party, a new one (there are likely to be a few), or by becoming independents. But in reality it isn’t likely to be that simple. There is now a core of the party, those who have positioned the SNP as a centre left party of government, who will probably wish to maintain what has proven to be a highly successful ‘brand.’ Even so, I think we can expect a gradual drift away from the SNP in the aftermath of a ‘Yes’ vote.

As for SNP voters, it is clear that not all of them intend to vote ‘Yes.’ Not all of those who voted for them in the last Holyrood elections anyway. If they were, ‘Yes’ would already be in a dominant position. And of course that winning percentage that they achieved in 2011 has never been equalled in a Westminster election. This suggests there exists a sizeable cohort of tactical voters, people voting Labour in Westminster elections and SNP in Holyrood elections. This can only be explained by them voting for SNP policies for the Scottish Government, rather than for independence per se, and voting Labour in an effort to influence the outcome of Westminster elections. This group of voters may amount to as much as 20% of the electorate, and logic says they are up for grabs in the referendum. They are prepared to weigh up their options and to direct their votes where they think it can contribute to their desired policy outcomes. Fertile ground then, for campaigners on either side of the referendum debate.

The Ghost of Elections Past

In this category I put the Tories and the LibDems. A long time ago both the Tories and the LDP’s predecessors the Liberals were both forces in Scottish politics. The Tories have been an irrelevance in Scotland since the 1950s, and were reduced to the ignominy of zero Scottish seats prior to the last Westminster election (still only one today). The Liberals lost a large chunk of their influence with the rise of the Labour Party in the first half of the 20th Century, and as today’s LDP have consigned themselves to complete political oblivion in the last four years by entering a coalition with the Tories that their own voters did not support. I get the sense that all of this may be true in England too, but the Tories are likely to remain a force there for the foreseeable future. However I don’t intend to dwell on them long, except to note that amongst the voters they have left, polls show opinion on independence is not monolithic. They represent, for Scotland, things that are in the past. Like the discredited economic ideas of neoliberalism. You can’t cut your way out of a recession. We discovered this in the 1930s and had to invent a while new kind of economics to deal with it.

The Ghost of Elections Future

If we vote ‘Yes,’ and to a lesser extent if we vote ‘No,’ there will be a major realignment in Scottish politics. With the two parties above, and very possibly the Labour Party, in severe upheaval, newer minor parties like the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, and what I would call proto-parties like the Radical Independence Campaign, will be eager to occupy the space. All of these support independence, and their members and supporters probably do too. All will benefit from it, and indeed probably already have, just from the campaign. Because they are newer, these parties do not enjoy the kind of tribal loyalties some of the older ones do. Supporters would go elsewhere if they disagreed on a policy as fundamental as independence, which is why I say their present supporters are likely to also be very solid ‘Yes’ supporters. Some, including myself, hope that there can be a far greater role for independent politicians in the new Scotland too.

 The Political Animals

As I mentioned back at the start, I include myself in this category. What I mean by it is those whose interest in politics goes far beyond what party to vote for in the next election. These are the people who were always interested in politics, and have a thought out political ideology of their own. There aren’t so many of us around these days. It’s not encouraged, especially not by the mainstream media. Amongst older generations it was far more common, particularly in places like my own home town, Clydebank, the heart of ‘Red Clydeside.’ It includes, but is certainly not limited to, all those who are members of a political party. In fact, returning to Clydebank as I recently have, it is striking how many of these politicized people have given up on their former parties and are now independents. In these parts they are mostly on the left. People who aren’t afraid to call themselves socialists.

The Internationalists

Now some people who fall into this category will say, “I don’t support nationalism. I’m an internationalist.” Well, I am an internationalist too. There was a time, maybe six months or a year when I was in my teens and just refining my own political ideas, when I was somewhat sympathetic to that argument. This was before I had read Trotsky’s Theory of the Permanent Revolution, and understood his argument that national liberation struggles must be supported as a step on the road to transforming society. Clydebank’s own legend of the class struggle, Jimmy Reid, once answered the question of internationalism, when he was challenged on his own support for an independent Scotland, by saying that in order to be an internationalist first you need a nation. We in Scotland are a nation in many ways, not least in our own minds, our own sense of national identity. However we lack the instruments of policy, of decision making, enjoyed by every other nation worthy of the name on this Earth. We do not control our own finances, either the revenue side or, in reality, the spending side. Yes, we get to allocate funds through the Scottish government, but the actual size of the budget is fully controlled by Westminster. So what if we were given complete fiscal control, the option known as ‘Devo-Max?’

Devo-Max – the ‘Third Option’

Well, for one thing, it would never happen. Let’s be absolutely clear about this – Westminster does not wish to hold onto Scotland out of pure altruism, because they love us so much and they fear for our well-being, because they just dearly want to go on subsidising us. No, they want to hang onto Scotland because of what they can get out of us, our value to them. Our effective subsidy to them! Yes, I said it, Scotland subsidises the rest of the UK, has done ever since accurate figures have been kept. That is why David Cameron was so quick to emphatically rule out having such an option on the ballot paper from the outset. And that is why the major parties’ promises of further powers for the Scottish Parliament in the event of a ‘No’ vote fundamentally lack credibility.

But even if we were to put that uncomfortable fact aside for the moment and imagine that such a thing could somehow be, the idea of Devo-max was for Scotland to get full fiscal autonomy, but to leave the Foreign Affairs and Defence powers reserved to Westminster. Why? Why on Earth would we want to do that? For the sake of ‘influence’ on the world stage? Well I have three simple questions for you, which you should ask of anyone who raises this issue of ‘influence.’ They will typically say, “But we have more influence as a part of the UK. An independent Scotland would have no ‘influence’ in the world.” Putting aside for the moment the unarguable fact that whatever influence the UK might have, we Scots, as 8.4% of the UK’s population have little or no influence on that influence, ask them:

1. What kind of ‘influence’ do you want to have?

2. What do you intend to do with it?

3. How will this benefit the people of Scotland?

Is it in fact so that London would retain the power to drag us into more illegal wars? So that they could keep their vanity seat, with its accompanying power of veto, on the UN Security Council? So that they can force us to retain Trident against our wishes, and to pay perhaps £10 billion of our money towards its replacement? To allow them to declare, in our name, unconditional support for the Israeli government even as it commits war crimes and crimes against humanity by indiscriminately targeting civilian areas and killing children? What kind of internationalism is that exactly? How is that in any way a progressive thing? How is it in any way a desirable thing?

This brings us to the crux of the matter. We in Scotland are not one people with those in England. How can we tell? Because we are clearly and demonstrably not one electorate, not one body politic. This has become self-evident since we have been able to express our political views through the medium of a Scottish parliament. We don’t vote for the same parties. Only the Labour Party is a significant player in both electorates, and as I said above, people in Scotland are not even voting for the same Labour Party anyway. Given the political realities of a UK-wide electorate, where Wales and the North of England, amongst other areas, are in reality more similar to Scotland than they are to the prosperous South East, but where due to demographics (numbers of voters) and the fact that the South East is where all the ‘floating voters’ are, that is where the Labour Party have to direct their policies in order to have a chance of winning government. And the policies that appeal to those South Eastern floating voters are not the policies that voters in Scotland would wish to support. They’re just not. In Scotland’s version of the two party system the Labour Party has become by default the right wing alternative to the modest social democracy of the SNP. It is highly likely that independence would see a wholesale realignment of politics in this country, we would in effect hit the reset button on where the political centre lies and a new politics would emerge.

Some of this has, of course, already begun due to the referendum campaign. Political animals like myself have already been challenged to question old loyalties, and a huge swathe of people who never took much interest in politics before have become engaged in the debate. This can only be a good thing for Scotland and her people. These newly engaged people are still to develop fully-fledged views on matters other than independence, and are therefore ‘up for grabs’ ideologically speaking. Those of us who do have such detailed views are beginning to find a large new potential audience, eager to learn and hungry for information as they form their own political perspectives. This is simply unprecedented in my lifetime. And whatever the result of the referendum, they are not about to slink away back into cynicism and, “What does it matter, politicians are all the same,” fatalism. Some of them will certainly be taking up a suggestion I have often made to people online when I encounter that attitude – if you’re not happy with the political choices on offer, do something about it. Get involved. Maybe even consider standing for your local council, or for parliament, yourself! But the best way for us to take full advantage of this encouraging trend towards political engagement is to vote ‘Yes,’ foster a political environment that builds on the debate up to this point and allows this new engagement to flourish. And importantly, to take our place once more amongst the international family of nations. To follow our own distinctive path on the world stage. To speak once more with our own voice to the world! Let’s get out there and make it happen! Let’s be the change we seek! Let the Scottish lion roar once more!

Saor Alba!!!

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The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 1)

The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 2- History)

The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 4 – Economics)

Why Scotland? – The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 5)

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