Confidence and empowerment against pessimism and cynicism in Scottish referendum

Ahead of tomorrow’s historic Scottish independence referendum, Nicholas Cimini tackles some of the arguments coming from the left in support of No



In support of a No vote in tomorrow’s independence referendum, there are some Labour supporters, and others on the left, who warn against the dangers of identity politics and Scottish nationalism, stressing the need for unity and solidarity with people in England and Wales. This is an emotionally powerful argument but not one that stands up to much scrutiny.

This argument turns a blind eye to the ongoing dangers of British nationalism and assumes that a government based in London is some kind of guarantee of international working class solidarity. The argument also assumes that the working classes in Scotland will inevitably struggle to express their solidarity with people in England and Wales, and presumably also people from elsewhere, from Greenwich to Gaza and Birmingham to Brasilia, unless they have government which is based in London.

These arguments coming from some on the Left fits well with the generally pessimistic and cynical tone of much of the rest of the unionist campaign. As Irvine Welsh has suggested, there is more to Scottish people expressing their international solidarity than trudging along to a polling booth once in every five years in order to send a careerist politician down to London,  only for them to the cut public services and entrench the kind of anti-trade union laws which have so damaged the ability of the working class to express genuine solidarity.

A related left-wing No argument says that people in Scotland should oppose independence so that people England and Wales aren’t lumbered with the Tories.  In the absence of Scottish MPs, and in the highly unlikely event that all other things remain the same, it is true that Labour will find it more difficult to get elected in the rUK.

Even so, this argument contains several misleading assumptions. First, it assumes there is a practical or theoretical gulf between Labour and the Tories which makes it worthwhile for people in Scotland to forego independence to ensure future Labour victories. Instead of voting for independence Scottish voters should sit back and wait (for however long) for a left-wing Labour Party to rescue the union. Second, it assumes that voters in Scotland will play a vital role in determining the outcome of UK general elections. In fact, precisely the opposite has historically been true and most of the time voters in Scotland play no role at all. Getting to grips with this democratic deficit is yet another reason to vote Yes. Third, and perhaps worst of all, the argument also assumes that voters in England and Wales can’t be trusted to vote as they should. “England needs saving from itself”, seems to be the message. Left to their own devices, the argument suggests that people of England and Wales will fritter-away their futures by voting Tory forevermore. The argument says as much about the pessimism and cynicism of those who make it, and the contempt they have for voters in England and Wales, as it does about electoral system in the UK.

Left-wing No voters, they are correct insofar as they recognise that independence will not inevitably pave the way towards a socialist utopia. They are also correct insofar as socialists should not place their hope in the SNP. The international working class movement must never forget its true enemy.

However, this mass movement for change has gone beyond what the SNP are able to offer. It’s not about passports or ancestral roots – it never really was. It’s about political empowerment and ripping-up the status quo. No matter how genuinely exciting and encouraging it will be to smash the British state and vote for an alternative to the austerity union, it seems unlikely that independence on the SNP’s terms will quench this widespread thirst for change. It’s not the SNP’s White Paper which has inspired the masses. Nor is it Salmond’s commitments to currency union or his business friendly tax policies. Voters in Scotland have been enfranchised. They’ve been given a taste of what it feels like to shape their own political futures, and they’re hungry for more. The movement for independence has unlocked a widespread sense of political confidence that even ‘Big Eck’ will struggle to control.

Far from sowing the seeds of division and damaging the international working class movement, an independent Scotland has the potential to be a beacon of hope and an inspiration for millions across the globe. This won’t be easy, and no sensible Yes voter believes that we’ll have socialism, or even a meaningful social democracy, by Friday this week (or any time soon after). What we will have, however, is a widespread sense of political empowerment and a belief that ordinary people can enact change. Anyone who has ever bemoaned a perceived lack of voter engagement would surely welcome this turn of events – and should be extremely anxious about the alternative.


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