Scotland: Unions and the socialist case for independence

Aruging a independent, working class position

John McInally, national vice-president of the Public and Commercial Services union argues (in a personal capacity) that socialists, particularly those active in the trade union movement, should campaign for a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum but on the basis of a distinct, independent, working class position.

The referendum on whether Scotland moves from devolved government to become an independent country takes place in September 2014. It is an issue of critical importance for working people in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Socialists must fully participate in the debate to ensure the interests of our class are protected and advanced, whatever the outcome of the vote. The trade union movement has a major role to play in defending and advancing the interests of its members and the working class generally. Whether the vote is Yes or No there will be major consequences for the development of the struggle against austerity and capitalism in Scotland itself and in the rest of the British Isles. In order to effectively represent working class interests, socialists must argue for and develop an independent working class position on the referendum.

My own union, PCS (Public and Commercial Services union), represents civil servants in the UK government and the devolved areas of Scotland and Wales, and workers in the private sector mainly, if not exclusively, on government contracts. We decided from the start that democratic debate and maximum consultation with activists and members was the correct way to proceed. The union has enabled the widest possible debate amongst members in Scotland, including policy forums, debates within branches and a Scottish conference in February 2014. We also circulated information and conducted a survey of members’ priorities which showed that while members are concerned with issues of job security and pensions etc, their top priority was good public services.

February conference

The February conference debated three options. Option 1 meant the union would not take a Yes or No position but would continue to provide material to members from both campaigns so members would themselves decide. The union would continue to campaign on industrial issues regarding the Scottish government and continue to press our demands regarding both campaigns, especially around our ’Alternative to austerity, cuts and privatisation’. Option 2 supported Yes and Option 3 No. Delegates voted on the basis of branch mandates following debates in the branches themselves. There are around 30,000 PCS members in Scotland and the votes were Option 1 – 18,025; Option 2 – 5,775; and Option 3 – 0 (zero).

The conference was a key stage in an ongoing debate that will now go to the union’s Annual Delegate Conference (ADC) in June. No other union and most probably no other organisation has conducted such a wide-ranging debate amongst its membership.

The conference vote almost certainly settles the official union stance on the referendum itself. It was a significant reflection of the mixed consciousness of members at this stage of the debate, reflecting a lack of confidence in the politicians of both camps but especially the No campaign. It is inconceivable that the ADC will overturn this decision not only because it would be regarded as an unacceptable interference in the right of Scottish members to decide on their attitude to self-determination but also because the stance adopted is entirely consistent with the union’s democratic tradition of engaging members in well-informed debate.

The conference took place in the context of a specific approach to the issue set out by the union’s left leadership. PCS does not believe the trade union movement should be mere bystanders or observers in the debate but must develop its own unique anti-cuts and pro-working class platform for the referendum. It must place demands on both the Yes and No camps expressing the grievances and aspirations of our members and class and do all it can to shape the debate. We have consistently argued for the PCS ’Alternative to austerity, including fair pay and pensions’, an end to privatisation, tax justice, a fair and equitable social security system, defence of the welfare state, investment in the public services and an extension of public ownership. We have also raised the issue of the repressive anti-union legislation and trade union rights. PCS spoke to both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns, ministers and shadow ministers and attended party conferences in order to press our demands. We specifically pressed our demands for members directly employed by the Scottish government and won concessions including, in the event of a Yes vote, a pledge of no compulsory redundancies for those workers currently employed by UK departments.

So what position should socialists in the trade union movement take on the question of Scottish independence and what position is in the best interests of union members and the working class? For socialists the question of national self-determination must always be posed by asking what is best for our class rather than what is best for our ’country’ – will independence be more likely to improve the conditions of Scottish working class and middle class people or will they be best served by staying within the union? A rigorously critical approach, shorn of any hint of national sentiment, must be applied to this question. The only valid test can be whether self-determination is in the best interests of our members and our class. What will it mean in terms of the development of the struggle against austerity and capitalism itself? Will working class people benefit in terms of real improvements to their conditions or will independence be a dead end or even a retrogressive step?

The demand for Scottish independence and the crisis of political representation

The demand for Scottish autonomy, including independence, is not a new phenomenon. It has arisen at various stages since the Act of Union itself in 1707, particularly at times of economic difficulty or revolutionary and class struggle. Founders of the labour and trade union movement like Keir Hardie supported Scottish home rule as a natural democratic demand entirely consistent with the aim of building a united movement across the whole of the British Isles.

The re-appearance of the demand for a Scottish parliament and also independence at this stage is mainly due to the economic decline of British imperialism and the impact of the unremitting neoliberal class war.

The "social contract", including the welfare state and the National Health Service won as a result of post-war struggle and on the basis of the subsequent unprecedented economic upswing greatly expanded the "social wage" which in itself served to solidify a sense of "Britishness". But capitalism is now riven by its own internal contradictions and is in deep, ongoing crisis.

It is no surprise that given the lack of effective leadership in the labour and trade union movement in Britain, workers in Scotland, even those with an advanced consciousness, will seek to oppose or ameliorate the "race to the bottom" by investing their political energy in an attempt to achieve self determination – a strategy they believe may well bring results by building a more fair and equal Scotland.

Labour’s move to the right

The United Kingdom has the world’s oldest labour and trade union movement and working people had their own identifiable party – the Labour Party, since the early part of the twentieth century. But one of the consequences of the fall of Stalinism and the planned economy in the Soviet Union has been the rightward drift of social democratic parties worldwide and the development in the UK of a blatant political consensus amongst all the major parties that there is no alternative to the market and to the neoliberal model.

Labour is wholly in the grip of corporate interests and that grip can only tighten. The failure of many on the left to appreciate this is having very serious consequences and acting as a fetter in holding back the historic task of building a mass movement against austerity and establishing a new political party, based on the trade unions, capable of providing effective political representation for the working class.

Some lefts, however laudably, campaign to reclaim Labour but oppose Scottish independence on the basis it would weaken or destroy the unity of the British labour and trade union movement. It is a cruel irony that the model they propose of political representation for the working class, the Labour Party, is offering only more cuts, privatisation and austerity which in itself is a major factor in strengthening support for independence.

It is indisputable that a major factor in the re-emergence of the demand for Scottish self-determination is the crisis of political representation that has arisen over the past two decades by the Labour Party’s abandonment of the working class.

The demand for independence is strongest amongst the youth, radicals, socialists and the most oppressed sections of the working class. In a distorted form this is a reflection of the desire and need for the type of effective political representation capable of challenging austerity and providing a socialist alternative. It is no coincidence that those with a stake in building a fairer and more equal society are prepared to support independence as a potential route. The most conscious elements on the left do not separate the demand for independence from that of building a mass movement to challenge austerity and a political party capable of representing and fighting for workers’ interests.

TUC lack of fight

Inextricably linked to the crisis of political representation is the shameful role played by many leaders of the trade union movement who accept or are unwilling to challenge the political consensus that cuts and privatisation are inevitable. Consequently they have failed to build any generalised fightback against the coalition government’s austerity programme. PCS has consistently argued the most effective way to defeat austerity is to build joint coordinated industrial action across the public sector and in the private sector where possible, a strategy recognised by most workers as the only real alternative to the isolation of individual struggles.

The coalition government trod carefully when it first came to power but the public sector pensions dispute which saw one of the biggest strikes in British history, ended in defeat. TUC and other key public sector union leaders consciously choreographed a climb-down leaving PCS and a few other unions to fight in isolation. This surrender gave the Tories the green light for a cuts and privatisation rampage with disastrous consequence which, in the sixth richest country in the world, has seen the reappearance of poverty on third world levels.

It is in this context that the demand for Scottish independence has grown and it should surprise no-one: in fact, on the basis of the lack of a generalised fightback against austerity, it was inevitable. Labour’s abandonment of reformist let alone socialist policies tied to the craven collaborationist approach of key trade union leaders created a vacuum that has been partially filled in Scotland by a demand for self determination. Those ’leaders’ of the trade union movement and the Labour Party who lament the ’division’ they claim will result from Scotland leaving the union need to recognise that. Their acceptance of the ’inevitability’ of cuts and privatisation has been a major factor in the growing support for independence.


Like many other similar nationalist political parties the Scottish National Party is an amalgam of different and antagonistic class forces temporarily accommodating reactionary pro-market business elements, social democrats and even socialists with the unifying factor the aim to achieve independence. Despite some electoral success in the late sixties and early seventies the SNP was never in any real sense a threat to the British establishment. Since the end of the 1950s Labour dominated Scottish politics and not inappropriately branded SNP the "Tartan Tories". Those days have long gone. The SNP took a significant left turn in the 1980s and at one stage advanced support for limited public ownership and other reforms although they moved to the right during the 1990s. Against the background of naked class collaboration by Labour under the Blair/Brown government, the SNP strategically took one or two steps to the left of Labour and actually won a majority in the Scottish parliament under an electoral system specifically designed to preclude such an outcome.

The SNP strategy has been simple and effective. In power in the devolved Scottish parliament it is making cuts but protest it is under duress from the UK government. It claims that if Scotland had independence it would be possible to build a fairer, more equal Scotland.

The Yes strategists have attempted to frame the debate as a battle for democracy but gloss over the vitally important issue of the increasingly repressive and dictatorial hold corporate interests have over all our lives, wherever we live in the UK. Nevertheless, focussing the argument on democracy strikes a chord with Scottish workers. The SNP rightly point out that there has not been a Tory majority in Scotland since the 1950s but its policies are imposed nonetheless. There is still deep bitterness in Scotland that Thatcher tried to use the country as a testing ground for the hated Poll Tax. So hated are the Tories, that the joke goes that there are more pandas in Edinburgh zoo than Tory MPs in Scotland, which is actually true. The Tories are a toxic brand in Scotland but the Blair/Brown government made Labour an undesirable brand amongst very many Scottish workers too.

The SNP’s shift to the left is no accident. It would be impossible for it to garner any real support for independence without offering a vision of a more fair and equal society because the working class in Scotland exercises a greater specific weight than anywhere else in the UK. This is manifested in a view that there is a greater sense of fairness, equality, collectivism and solidarity, what could be described as "Old Labour" values, amongst the Scots. This springs from the historical strength and concentration of the working class particularly in the huge industrial conurbation and melting pot of the West of Scotland around Glasgow. It is worth reminding the romantic nationalists who smugly seem to think there is some genetic disposition in the Scots that explains their greater sense of egalitarianism that it springs from class not race. The centre of Scottish radicalism was the Red, not Tartan Clydeside.

Ignoring this working class ’constituency’, as some in the Yes camp have done, would have been fatal to the independence case and would have left the campaign stillborn. But by appealing to it in terms of very partial social democratic policies, the Yes camp in contradistinction to the austerity consensus of the UK parties is consciously holding out the possibility of an alternative with improved conditions and a better life for Scottish workers.

Yes case

It is necessary for socialists in the trade union movement to present an honest and rigorously critical assessment of what is being offered by both the Yes and No campaigns.

In summary, the Yes case is this – vote for independence and we will be free of the Tories and we can build a social democratic Scotland. We can have fairness, equality, proper healthcare and the welfare state. All this can be done on the basis of low taxation, including corporation tax, as is done in the Nordic countries, where this model clearly works.

The Scottish government White Paper promises a "transformational" extension of childcare, abolition of the bedroom tax, a welfare system that meets "our needs", a halt to the roll-out of Universal Credit and Personal Independent Payments, pensions protection, a fairer tax system with everyone paying their fair share (although no commitment to increase taxes on the rich and big business, the opposite in fact) and tax credits rising at least in line with inflation, reduction of tax avoidance, return of Royal Mail to public ownership, a Fair Work Commission, a commitment that the minimum wage will rise in line with inflation, a roll-out of green technology and removal of Trident. While the devil is always in the detail these commitments are far more progressive than anything on offer from the UK parties, including Labour. However limited these policies may be they offer some kind of hope of an alternative to relentless austerity.

But there is an unresolvable contradiction in the Yes economic strategy. All of the above is supposedly to be delivered on the basis of a low-tax policy, including a cut in corporation tax to "counter the gravitational business pull of London". But it is simply not possible to build a "social-democratic" Scotland while tied to a monetarist, low tax model. The Yes camp is trying to face in two directions at once. On the one hand it is making a significant appeal to the working and middle classes, saying things can be better and that there is no need for the inhuman brutality foisted on Scots by the UK parties. But the markets are very nervous at the prospect of independence so the SNP is also doing all it can to reassure the markets they will be "fiscally sound" and will continue to deliver for the big corporations.

The limitations of the SNP’s ambition are underlined by the spending model set out in the White Paper which would result in a continued fall in living standards for working people with spending in year one retaining 91-92% of the UK government cuts. Scotland’s Finance Minister John Swinney has said the "books will balance" after independence, a barely coded phrase intended to put the markets at ease. In reality what is on offer is not genuine independence but a form of federalism. Any future Scottish state would be tied to the Bank of England and by extension to the economic policy of the rest of Britain – more precisely, the City of London. Accepting the link with the Bank of England is sending a conscious message to the international money markets – "don’t worry, we will be a safe pair of hands".

Scotland would be intrinsically bound to the UK government on monetary policies. This has major implications for what can actually be delivered in terms of the Yes camp’s strategy. Conditions could be somewhat improved for working people in an independent Scotland but given the constraints of the market both internationally and in the UK itself it would still be on the basis of an underlying neoliberal economic model or ’austerity-lite’.

The Nordic countries are quoted by the Yes camp. They say, look, we can have fairness and economic efficiency, they are not contradictions. A narrative has been established in people’s minds in the British Isles about the Nordic countries that accords with the image portrayed by the Yes camp. But it is no longer an accurate one. While the situation varies within the Nordic countries themselves the neoliberal reaction has turned that narrative on its head. For twenty or so years in Sweden a cuts and privatisation programme has, with considerable success, aimed at dismantling this model. This process has driven the Economist into paroxysms of excitement, it brays: "The leftward lurch has been reversed: rather than extending the state into the market, the Nordics are extending the market into the state." It describes a "Silent Revolution" but these attacks on the conditions of the working class have resulted in social conflict and instability, a process that will deepen and intensify.

There is another major contradiction the SNP has to explain. It is simply not possible to build the type of democratic, fairer society envisaged by the SNP on the basis of the most repressive trade union laws in Western Europe. Repeal of these laws, something Labour when in power pointedly refused to consider, is a prerequisite for such a development. Trade unionists are correct to be wary of what is on offer. The commitment to a Fair Work Commission, while at face value an advance on union rights at UK level, it may, in reality, be little more than an offer of the type of "partnership" arrangement that has seen unions in the Irish Republic locked in a stranglehold by government and big business.

The central contradiction in the Yes strategy is that capitalism on an international basis is now in such a debilitated state that the delivery of the type of fairer society they advocate is not possible except on the basis of applying socialist policies. This would mean challenging corporate power by implementing such policies, including a massive extension of public ownership, most particularly of the utilities and the banks.

Any future Scottish government would come under enormous pressure from the ruling elite, the bankers and so forth. Only last year we saw what happened when the corporate gangsters of Ineos in collaboration with Cameron and the bankers held the entire country to ransom. Rather than nationalising Grangemouth, a move incidentally that would have enhanced support for a Yes vote in the referendum, Alex Salmond effectively took the side of the gangsters. That is the starkest possible warning of the pressures that will prevail on an independent Scotland.

Socialists in the trade union movement should not allow the Yes Scotland campaign an easy ride because they offer a far more progressive ’vision’ than Better Together; it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to workers, particularly those in trade unions, to ignore or gloss over the contradictions in their strategy.

No case

The Yes campaign seeks to offer a vision of a fairer Scotland that promises some respite from austerity. But the No campaign, Better Together, which is an alliance of the main UK parties with Labour taking a lead role, offers nothing but an unbending commitment to cuts and privatisation, corporate hegemony and endless austerity. The No campaign, backed by the UK establishment and led by big business cheerleader and ex-chancellor Alistair Darling has launched a shameful campaign of fear and distortion. They aim to frighten Scottish workers into rejecting independence, a strategy appropriately named Project Fear. Their core message is Scotland can’t go it alone and that people must face the reality that – in the now notorious formulation of Johann Lamont the Scottish Labour leader – there must be an end to the "something for nothing culture". They are effectively saying there is no alternative to austerity and that the White Paper policies are simply unaffordable and unattainable.

So negative is the Better Together campaign that even some No supporters have raised criticisms. For example, the Red Paper collective, a coalition including Labour lefts, trade unionists and some Communist Party members advocates what are essentially "old Labour" policies. They call for some extension of public ownership and the mixed economy. No-one doubts the sincerity of those lefts but the brutal reality is Labour is offering nothing but unremitting austerity and that is not going to change.

Miliband and Balls have committed any future Labour government to the Tories’ spending plans and are committed to austerity, albeit shorn of some of the nastier aspects of Cameron’s gangster government. In failing to offer any alternative to austerity Labour has demonstrated more sharply than at any other time the sheer scale of its capitulation to the market. Labour will not advocate reformist let alone socialist policies and will not abandon its commitment to cuts, privatisation and austerity. Rather than stand up for the class the Labour Party was formed to represent, Miliband and Balls would rather risk ’losing’ Scotland. If Scotland votes for independence and anyone thinks it appropriate to allocate blame, then it should be laid at the door of the Labour Party.

The Labour Party has responded to the White Paper by applying the method that now dominates establishment party ’politics’, ie, concentrating debate on minor details of policy and usually around the issue of ’affordability’. It is reflective of the class interests at play in UK establishment politics that none of the major parties even bothers to pretend conditions for the vast majority in society can be improved, all that is on offer is an endless race to the bottom.

How should socialist trade unionists campaign in the debate?

PCS has put campaigning for the interests of our members and our class at the very centre of our engagement in the independence debate. We have pressed for our Alternative with the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns and have argued that trade unions must shape the independence debate in the interests of our members and class. The debate is already intense and while there is undoubtedly potential for division in the movement it can be avoided if handled in an open and democratic fashion. Any attempts by unions, whether Labour affiliated or not, to impose a position without full democratic debate amongst union memberships will alienate or even anger members. To its credit the Scottish Trade Union Congress has in fact engaged in a positive fashion.

But socialists in the trade unions can’t restrict their participation in the debate to offering an analysis of the Yes and No positions, enabling democratic debate and then standing back to see which way the vote goes. Socialists would not have started from the position of self-determination, but the question has now been posed. The issue now is whether a Yes or No vote will be in the best interests of workers. Remaining detached or worse, silent, is not an option.

There is a danger the labour and trade union movement puts itself not just on the wrong side of this debate but on the wrong side of history. If a No vote succeeds on the basis of support from socialists and trade unionists it could have a substantially negative impact on the reputation and authority of our movement amongst working class people, unless undercut by a huge renewal of struggle across the UK itself. This is because for many workers and youth the battle for independence is inextricably linked to and in fact springs from their opposition to austerity and capitalism.

There is a qualitative difference in both tone and substance between the Yes and No campaigns which in its simplest sense is this – despite its contradictions the "vision" advocated by the Yes camp at least offers a commitment and hope of an alternative to austerity. The No camp offers nothing but a heartless, soulless void of despair, relentless cuts, privatisation and austerity.

Some workers will vote No because they have no faith in the SNP model for an independent Scotland. But a No vote would be seen as a vote for austerity by the Tories and Liberals and, regrettably, also by Miliband and Balls. On this alone it would not be a credible position for socialists to adopt a neutral stance.

For workers and youth and for large sections of the middle classes as well, a Yes vote would be an absolutely conscious vote for an alternative to austerity, even though the SNP will not deliver an end to cuts under independence.

A Yes vote would represent a serious blow to the corrupt and arrogant UK elite and could potentially set the conditions for building a mass movement against austerity with its impact felt across the British Isles. That is provided that the labour and trade union movement in Scotland adopts a fighting programme, including building a party capable of delivering effective political representation for the working class, something that the inevitable political realignments after independence could well assist.

The vote at the PCS Scottish conference referred to above has been deliberately misinterpreted by the No camp and some in the media as a blow for the Yes case. But nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary the result was a major setback for the No camp. Obviously there will be members who support No but the fact not one single branch out of the 80 PCS branches in Scotland supported that position is reflective of the overwhelming support for Yes amongst activists and sections of the membership.

In reality the absence of any attempt by the Better Together campaign to put forward any alternative to austerity and the status quo has greatly damaged their case. It is clear the desire for an alternative amongst trade unionists and workers generally can only benefit the Yes campaign as the debate develops.

Why socialists should argue and campaign for a Yes

How socialists engage in debates about the self-determination of nations is of vital importance. Those sectarians whose only ’position’ on the national question is that it is international socialism or nothing, contribute nothing of value to the debate. Their claim that the demand for independence is irrelevant in relation to the struggle for a socialist society and should either be ignored or opposed shows they are divorced from the class they seek to lead. They fail to understand that workers will follow the route of self-determination, expending tremendous energy and making great sacrifices in the process because they believe it will potentially secure a better life for them and their class.

More dangerous are those on the left who in practice believe national self-determination is a goal in itself and who dilute their programme or hide it beneath a Saltire flag. In effect they are arguing that the battle for socialism can commence after the big issue, i.e. independence, is resolved. Cheerleading for independence and failing to critically analyse what is actually on offer is unacceptable for socialists and its consequences can be severe as the history of the struggle for Irish independence shows.

The referendum comes at a time of capitalism’s biggest crisis, which will unfold over an extended period. Any party or government seeking to introduce even the most modest reforms can do so only on the basis of implementing socialist policies including a massive extension of public ownership. The Yes advocates say reforms are possible, but while it is correct to point out the contradictions in their economic and political strategy it would be wrong to pour cold water on the idea of winning reforms itself. On the contrary, socialists must be the best and most consistent advocates for reform while pointing out the necessity to fight for a socialist society in order to secure those reforms. Socialists must be the most honest advocates of reform while stressing that all reforms are temporary on the basis of capitalism; the fight to secure them is an inextricable part of the struggle to change society.

Socialists must be the best and boldest advocates of reform because in being so they motivate their class, usually within workers’ own organisations, the trade unions, to fight for better conditions. But in a more profound sense it raises the consciousness of even the most passive workers by posing the simple question: If the bosses say these reasonable demands are not attainable then tell us why they are not and what do we actually need to do to achieve them? In the course of raising ’reformist’ demands, concessions can be won. Often workers will fight fiercely to obtain even the most basic improvements in conditions, with confidence, strength and class solidarity being forged in the process. All the major reforms won by the working class were as a by-product of revolutionary struggle, no matter how reformists themselves and the ruling elite try to re-write history.

Our task in this referendum is to raise the legitimate grievances and aspirations of working class people who are desperate for an alternative to austerity. We do that not by promising an independent Scotland as an answer to their problems but by showing that the demand for national self-determination can only deliver a fairer society through the implementation of socialist policies. Our attitude to those workers who see voting Yes as a way of establishing a more fair and equal society should be – we will give you our full support in trying to build a better society in Scotland but here are the policies that are needed to achieve it.

The struggle for Scottish self-determination should not divert socialists and those in the trade union movement from their two great historic tasks, which must be at the very centre of our attitude to the referendum. Support a Yes vote. But support on the basis of stepping up our battle to build an alternative to austerity and a mass movement capable of delivering that alternative. This must include building fighting, socialist leaderships in the trade union movement and fighting to establish effective political representation delivering what working people need and deserve, wherever they live on these islands.

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March 2014