Class over nation? A left argument for independence.

In a typically thoughtful piece (Short Cuts), Rory Scothorne argues that the Scottish Labour left have seized the moment, and that the 2014 enthusiasm for independence can be diverted from a managerial SNP to a Labour movement which has moved left.

The SNP do indeed remain centrist and managerial on many fronts, and centralising in ethos, but the most recent programme for government (‘A Nation with Ambition’)  showed some indications of movement in a more social democratic direction. Notably this included the prospect of progressive tax increases. The SNP’s initial proposals were cautious, but now may end up more radical than Labour’s own plans. Labour sought increases for everyone, including in the lowest tax brackets, whereas the Greens, for example, proposed cuts for lower earners and sharper increases for high earners, up to a 60% rate on earnings over £150,000 (see chart 6 on p29 here). The SNP will soon set out where they want to go on this, and perhaps Labour will be proved right. We shall see.

Another notable proposal, one of those relatively unusual examples where SNP arguments about the limits of devolution do hold, was to do research into a basic income for Scotland. Although implementation would require Westminster’s consent, this would clearly outflank Labour from the left and require the largest redistribution from rich to poor ever delivered in Scotland.

Labour – and Scothorne personally – continue to be sceptical about basic income, with the notable exception of the Shadow Chancellor. The party’s historic association with the unions, although typically more performative than real in government, often means a kind of “workerism” where concern about low pay is accepted as valid but concern about those without work fades away. This trend applies across the party, from Rachel Reeves’ March 2015 assertion that “We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work”, through to Scothorne himself, who wrote about it a month earlier without even mentioning unemployment. His piece calls for a “workers’ government”, again putting the unemployed, students, carers, and all those who cannot work just out of earshot. Basic income not only gives workers leverage, but it strengthens the hand of those out of work. Either you means-test and operate some kind of sanctions, or you do not. If you oppose basic income you must be prepared to back the kind degrading treatment of the unemployed which both Labour and the Tories have fostered, albeit perhaps a moderated version.

To be a little more generous, there is a valid critique of centrist nationalism in this piece, and indeed of centrist non-nationalist support for independence. If offered a choice between independence alone and defeating the class warfare of rich against poor, I am confident that left supporters of independence, whether nationalist or not, would take an end to the kind of capitalism both Labour and the Conservatives have supported since the collapse of the Butskellite consensus. Independence alone – with no actual change that redistributes power and wealth – is of interest only to shortbread tin nationalists and those who already do well out of the current economic settlement. So why not choose class, choose an imagined Britain that works for all, where worker solidarity runs from Cornwall to Caithness via Carmarthen?

(Incidentally, it is notable that the new left unionists believe such solidarity is peculiarly incapable of crossing nation state boundaries, despite the fact that so many of the businesses they need to organise within and against cross those same boundaries with ease. Surely we need stronger unions, international unions, not ones which have their horizons limited by state borders.)

“Scothorne describes the idea of a better Scotland after independence as an invitation to “cross a purely speculative bridge”, and that’s true. We’ve never done it, and it might not work. However, we have elected several Labour governments over the last century, and we still have vulture capitalism, a dying planet, and a moribund democracy. We can either keep trying the same thing over and over again, and each and every time experiencing crushing disappointment, or we can try something new.”

The answer of course is that Westminster itself, irrespective of party, operates as an intrinsic bulwark of class privilege, a centralised structure which manufactures and sustains inequality of power and money. Whether or not you can achieve socialism in one country, you certainly cannot achieve it when a 35.2% share of the vote may be sufficient to make a majority for Tony Blair or 36.8% give a majority to David Cameron. You cannot achieve it when an unelected peerage still sit, or where corporate interests are legitimised by their interweaving with medieval flim-flam.

The limit of your ambition there would be the kind of social democracy an Attlee government might deliver, important reforms for sure, but vulnerable to rollback at any time by a government elected with a minority of the vote or bogged down by peers. If Corbyn can get elected, achievements on that scale would be impressive and worthwhile, but potentially transient, even assuming the civil service, the markets and the media establishment don’t block it altogether – 2017 is not much like 1945.

This kind of starry-eyed analysis really only plays well with people who don’t remember the grinding mediocrity of Labour governments at Westminster – an improvement on the active degradation of our economy and public realm by Conservative governments – but that’s hardly a challenging bar to get over. Even Blair managed that. But still, this is the party of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and much more anti-migrant legislation, of NHS Foundation Hospitals, of tuition fees and PFI. Not one of the Thatcherite privatisations was overturned between 1997 and 2010.

Scothorne describes the idea of a better Scotland after independence as an invitation to “cross a purely speculative bridge”, and that’s true. We’ve never done it, and it might not work. However, we have elected several Labour governments over the last century, and we still have vulture capitalism, a dying planet, and a moribund democracy. We can either keep trying the same thing over and over again, and each and every time experiencing crushing disappointment, or we can try something new.

If the left in England want to achieve socialism, sustainability, an end to discrimination and all the rest I suggest they also need to find a way to change Westminster itself out of all recognition first, a goal Scottish independence would undoubtedly have helped deliver. Nationalism itself is of no interest to me, but Westminster embodies the class war of rich against poor, the protection of class privilege and the supremacy of the markets. To hope it is instead a plausible tool for ending those things it exists to maintain is a gamble it would be foolish to take while there is such an obvious alternative.

Our success isn’t guaranteed, and plenty of the resistance a true left government would face in Westminster would also manifest itself here: but if you do value class over nation, the possibility of seeing it happen in an independent Scotland should be more appealing than yet another mirage at Westminster.