Leaving Leaving, Left
Robin McAlpine, editor of Scottish Left Review, who have just published their ‘Independence issue’ on stepping into the debate and enhancing the discussion:
After largely ducking the issue for almost a dozen years, we at the Scottish Left Review finally tried to get to grips with the issue of independence. And I think we learned some things.
But why more than a decade of ducking the issue? Well, the easier answer would be that the SLR has always tried to focus on current, relevant, active issues and until now the independence debate was ‘one for the future’. That, however, wouldn’t really be true. In fact, it was one of two subjects we avoided because we try very hard to maintain a cross-party space which does not exclude or alienate people on the left by pushing at agendas they find hostile. (The other issue we avoided was the Sheridan trial and all the detritus around that.) Bluntly, it is a constantly tricky balance not to be seen as ‘secretly’ on one side or the other.
Of course, this will no longer do. Independence is the talk of the steamie and it was high time we engaged. But as always we tried to find ways to add to what is rumbling about in the mainstream media and not just extend the space dedicated to name-calling. We tried to do two main things. Firstly, we wanted to hear positive cases – reasons to do something, embedded in a realistic view of what independence could mean or what the union can deliver. None of us are well served either by the argument that independence will deliver our own utopia ‘just because’ or by the claim that independence would result in Armageddon ‘just because’.
How does independence make things better? The ability to lower corporation tax and build windfarms surely can’t be the end of the story. Do people really believe that a referendum will be won on the basis of the sort of agenda which appeals to Edinburgh-based bankers? When are we going to hear about what independence can do if we don’t happen to be shareholders in a big utilities multinational? The EU-elite won’t let Greece hold a referendum because they realise that they won’t win on a ‘this one is for the rich’ agenda. So how is a referendum in Scotland going to be won on the same basis?
And how dos staying in the union help? Is it really enough to say ‘but we’d lose our place at the top table’ if what we do with that place at the top table is reduce worker’s rights and veto a Tobin Tax? Divorce may well be a costly business, but then so was PFI and who exactly is paying for Quantitative Easing? In fact, Quantitative Easing is exactly the kind of abstraction on which the unionists have relied. Resolve these:
Printing Money = Quantitative Easing = QE = nothing to worry about (too abstract to care)
Independence = Mugabee = you-will-die-in-your-beds = Support Trident (beyond abstract, over the top of surreal and down somewhere vaguely dadaist)
OK, it’s shadow boxing right now, but I want to see both sides up their games and give us a debate worth the name. What we have so far is patronising.
The other thing we tried to do with this issue is at least poke around the question ‘is the left really split?’. This is the most interesting bit. We polled our readers and of 250 unique responses we got a 74-for, 26-against result. We also got someone without baggage to do some investigating (involving a load of off-the-record conversations) to judge the mood out there. The outcome was possibly even more telling. This is a gross simplification (for which I apologise) but roughly no-one seems to have been persuaded out of a pre-existing pro-independence position but more and more people are moving in the other direction as a result of the actions of the British state.
This is especially noticeable in two sectors. One is the ‘campaigning’ sector. Anyone who has spent time trying to promote peace, protect civil liberties, fight on behalf of asylum seekers or speak out for the poor has found precious little reason to ‘trust London’ over the last decade. This is not to say that there is therefore unanimous support for independence, but people are saying openly ‘I used to be suspicious of independence but given what has happened of late I’m not so sure…’. The other is the trade union movement. Here it is important to be clear that there remains a lot of sympathy for maintaining the UK. But it is being severely tested – rank-and-file members appear to be increasingly disillusioned with the London Agenda, unions find it harder to justify seeing Westminster as a friend, people don’t want to line up with Cameron in talking down Scotland and so on.
None of this ‘proves’ anything, but that does not make it insignificant. It is in bringing the two questions together that I think we can see the fault lines. To make a left-case for independence does not involve persuading people that London can be reformed; a case for the union requires that leap. In the press release we put out on this issue I suggested that Cameron is doing for independence what Thatcher did for devolution. But that isn’t really true when it comes to the left. Bluntly, the left expects this from Cameron. What seems to me to be eroding support for the union most rapidly is not Cameron but Blair. The left had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the UK, to make it a better place. And what we got was Blair. It used to be that the left could build a case for the UK on the basis that ‘if Labour can become electable’. Is anyone now convinced by that?
Which is not to say that there is no left case for the union; its simply to say that the ‘No’ campaign can’t deliver it – unless it is ready to fragment into multiple no campaigns promising us all different Britain’s. The Yes campaign has at least a chance of giving us a people-focused message. That it hasn’t done it so far is its own fault.
This is just my interpretation. The left is becoming less ‘split’ on independence and the drift is in one direction. This is hardly surprising, all things considered. But it is therefore paramount that both sides (unionist left, nationalist left) up their game. It is in the tensions within a real debate about Scotland’s future that optimism lies. Otherwise it is going to ‘corporation tax cuts’ versus ‘vetoing Palestinian statehood’ from here-on in.