Europe, the Left and Scottish Independence

When discussing the EU in a Scottish independence context, the Yes campaign line is that a vote for independence is not insular or parochial, it is about being an outward-looking EU member and that the biggest threat to Scotland’s place in Europe is not Scottish independence but continuation of a union with an increasingly Eurosceptic Westminster. This argument was significantly strengthened by David Cameron’s 23 January promise of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership if a Conservative government was returned after the next General Election.

But when the merits of the EU are lauded it shouldn’t be forgotten that throughout the economic crisis European leaders have continually reiterated their commitment to prioritising competitiveness, with social and environmental considerations subordinate to achieving this aim. Stability has been sought for the financial sector and not for people across Europe who have been made redundant, lost significant chunks of their pensions or who face restricted access to publicly funded healthcare services.

So if the prevailing narrative is that an independent Scotland as a key player in the EU is a good thing, how do we critique EU policies from a radical Left perspective in the context of the independence debate, as well as in the UK generally, without sounding like a paid-up member of UKIP or reducing the discussion to an uninformed debate about sausage names and banana sizes? Moving discussion about Scotland’s place in the EU on from questioning the legitimacy of Scotland’s future membership status is also a challenge given that journalists competing for ever-shrinking column space know that stories analysing EU Economic Governance won’t be as appealing to newspaper editors as scaremongering sensationalist stories about Scotland’s potential exclusion.

EU policymakers have been complicit in the creation of a deregulated financial sector and a liberalised market, which in part led to the banking crisis, and in turn the sovereign debt crisis as a result of massive publicly funded bank bailouts. Now Troika (European Commission, the International Money Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB)) policy involves attempting to solve the sovereign debt crisis through bailout packages that come with strict conditions requiring governments to privatise welfare systems, cut public spending and lower wages so as to boost competitiveness. While it would presumably be out of the Eurozone, at least initially, an independent Scotland would not remain unaffected by these tendencies as the same values are reflected across a wide range of policy areas: from the weakening of workers’ rights to attempts to privatise essential public goods like water.

For so long we’ve been fixated on Westminster as the main champion of crippling cuts to welfare provisions and attacks on social rights but we must also pay attention to these threats originating from inside the European institutions as well, all the while being careful not to slip into the trap of ‘Brussels bashing’ as, after all, the EU is made up of the Member States, with most decision-making powers remaining with the Council (i.e. national government Ministers) and not the common misconception that ‘Brussels’ is some abstract creation removed from national government control.

Let’s fast-forward to when each Scottish Minister from the first post-independence government is called to his or her first Council Meeting, to finally sit in that much mooted ‘seat at the top table’. While my guess is that any moderate-middle-ground-seeking government would want to distance themselves from 43 years of being linked to the United Kingdom’s ‘awkward partner’ reputation, imagine a genuinely progressive Scottish government whose Ministers asserted their commitment to the social values of the European Union, threw criticism on the European Central Bank’s lack of democratic accountability, took the Commission to task for its over-friendly relationship with big-business, or called for trade to be subordinate to development, rather than the other way round.

While that might sound idealistic, if independence is about the people who live in Scotland, regardless of what flag, if any, they identify with, rejecting an existing political structure that continues to worsen inequality for the chance to determine their own future, it will be disappointing to say the least if the first post-independence government continues in the same Westminster vein. In an ideal world we’d somehow be able to prescribe independence for all marginalised people’s in the United Kingdom but sadly that is not the opportunity we’re presented with. Scotland is lucky enough to have a once-in-a-generation chance to escape successive Westminster governments’ erosion of equality, and we’d be mad not to take it. But a Yes vote to independence won’t be the end of the story, or the struggle, and we do need to think now about what form political parties in a post-2016 Scotland will take, and specifically what form the first post-independence government will take and how it will interact with other countries at the European level.

Likewise, ahead of the referendum, wouldn’t it also be great to see some Scottish MEPs help make the currently predominantly centre-right European Parliament more progressive following the next European elections in May 2014? Currently, Scotland, as a region of the UK, is allocated six seats, out of a total 753 seats which are allocated proportionately to the population of each Member State. Although six out of 753 might not seem significant, that number would likely increase if Scotland was considered a full EU Member State and not a region of a Member State. The political colours of the current six seats are two SNP, two Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat but if in a future European Parliamentary term we were to see any Scottish seats won by politicians from the Scottish Socialist Party or the Scottish Green Party, for example, those voices could help campaign for the EU to be more transparent and more in tune with citizens’ needs and put emphasis on social and environmental concerns, as well as keep in check the actions in Council of Scottish Ministers from that moderate-middle-ground-seeking Scottish government we might end up with.

Building post-independence political movements on the Left is therefore essential, and the campaign born out of the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) that is focused on building a better society through peace not warmongering, protecting social services, acting on environmental concerns and safeguarding workers’ rights, is upholding hopes that there are bright days ahead for the Scottish Left. Commenting on the RIC, Peter Geoghegan in the London Review of Books blog said that a “broad Left-Green pro-independence platform appears to be coalescing” and writing in the New Statesman, James Maxwell said “you could be forgiven for thinking socialism might be set for some kind of comeback in Scottish politics”.

Time will tell how the seeds that have been sown will grow and, of course, any radical movement also requires radical Scots to get behind it, as Rory Scothorne from National Collective points out. This point is reiterated by former New Internationalist editor Richard Swift in a June 2012 essay on the future of the Left where he warned that certain tactics used by the far Left can alienate people who feel insecure about their livelihoods, in other words the qualms of the anti-globalisation movement may mean little to a worried home-owner who doesn’t know if they can pay the next bill or if they will be in employment for much longer. He describes this as “a lack of sensitivity in dealing with a whole range of workers whose incomes are tied to militarism and the carbon economy”. So in a Scottish context, how can burgeoning political movements on the radical Left incorporate constructive analysis of all threats to social rights and welfare, including those born out of the complex world of EU decision-making, into the debate without alienating workers, families, students, and young people before things have even got off the ground?

The fundamental idea of the EU as an international bloc of countries pooling resources and funding and drafting regulation to protect citizens and make their lives better and more dignified can be a positive thing, but an independent progressive Scotland could strive to improve it where it is flawed and where it seeks to favour the rights of corporations over people, lead calls to reject the neo-liberal turn it has taken of late.

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  1. Andy Anderson says:

    The struggle for independence in my view s a two stage process: Stage one is to secure Scotland’s political independence which we can do at the referendum next year: After that we will need to address economic independence, and in this there may well be a different line up of social and political forces. We can’t have economic independence if we are tied to a pound or a euro controlled from outwith Scotland. Also there are matters which need to be negotiated with the EU, which should not be too difficult because Scotland is a net contributor. However the important issue is to work with all who want political independence because without that the rest is academic.

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