The SNP’s disruptive tactics over the past week has put the fragility of the British establishment back into focus. Jonathan Rimmer argues that now is the time for both Labour and the SNP to reassess their tactical approaches…
It’s been a funny few weeks in Scottish politics. Many on the pro-independence left were understandably critical of the SNP’s Growth Commission report, a depressingly neo-liberal prospectus for Scottish independence designed to reassure Scotland’s business leaders. But then, something shifted: Westminster’s expropriation of reserved powers to hammer through Brexit legislation ultimately sparked a mass walk-out by SNP MPs and sent independence flying back to the top of the mainstream news agenda.
It was the sort of tactic the party should have employed years ago – direct action always serves to remind how ill equipped and unprepared the UK parliament is for anything that flies in the face of convention. Ironically and unsurprisingly, the SNP’s guerilla plans to disrupt procedure to frustrate parliamentary business is already upsetting the self-proclaimed captains of industry they were previously so desperate to woo.
The ‘Wheesht for Indy’ crowd may argue a duplicitous approach is necessary, especially now the likes of former Daily Record editor and ‘architect of The Vow’ Murray Foote are coming out in favour of independence. But even if you ignore the devastating effect further austerity would have on Scotland’s communities, Jonathon Shafi and Cat Boyd are correct when they say that the Growth Commission proposals are “out of sync with mainstream Scotland”. It would be a huge mistake for the SNP to conclude that their small spike in membership has anything to do with wholehearted enthusiasm for a right wing economic vision.
But it’s not only the SNP that should reflect on the lessons of the past week. The response from some Labour MPs has been foolish – Glasgow North East’s Paul Sweeney described the walkout as a “self-indulgent, petulant stunt” – and is unlikely to wash in a country which feels slighted. It also demonstrates a misunderstanding of their own radical traditions. Labour founder Keir Hardie hardly held much reverence for the House of Commons as an institution when he described it as a “putrid mass of corruption, a quagmire of sordid madness, a conglomeration of mercenary spiritless hacks dead alike to honour and self-respect”. In more recent memory, former First Minister Donald Dewar led a walkout of Scottish Labour MPs from the Commons chamber after the 1987 general election.
Focusing on isolated protests may seem insignificant in the great scheme of things – it suits Conservatives to describe them as petulant or immature because they’re intrinsically incapable of understanding any non-compliance with what they regard as the natural order – but they’re symbolically important. A key theme of the recent Radical Independence conference was that the movements that have developed behind Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist vision in England and independence in Scotland are symptomatic of the same process – the decline of the British state.
“Labour founder Keir Hardie hardly held much reverence for the House of Commons as an institution when he described it as a “putrid mass of corruption, a quagmire of sordid madness, a conglomeration of mercenary spiritless hacks dead alike to honour and self-respect”. “
There’s a tendency in both Labour and SNP camps, even on their radical fringes, to see each other solely as electoral rivals that have betrayed their respective bases. Both parties now portray themselves as the only bulwark against a Tory party that no longer feels the need to conceal its elitist and imperialist framework due to rising British nationalism in the context of Brexit. In light of this, it’s worth considering what many on the Labour left dismiss out of hand: Scottish independence does not threaten a Corbynite vision for Britain but assists it in the long run.
Much has been made about Mhairi Black’s unsubstantiated claim that Corbyn is sympathetic to Scottish independence – which may or may not be true given he has publicly appeared quite agnostic on the issue in the past – but Labour’s targeting of predominantly SNP seats north of the border suggests that lending a sympathetic ear to pro-independence voters doesn’t supersede their desire to win “a Labour government for radical change” first and foremost. The electoral calculation has long been that any coalition would be toxic and that they must be seen as standing up for the UK – even though their hardline unionist base has long deserted them anyway.
The simplistic argument that socialists should support Scotland staying in the United Kingdom because we don’t want to be sucked into a debate between competing nationalisms is for the birds. There’s no denying that a social democratic Labour in government would improve standards for working people and save lives in the short term, but implementing a radical programme will ultimately require the party to take a stand against the British establishment itself.
Just as was the case during the independence referendum, the apparatus of the British state would be used to stifle and suppress any meaningful reforms that were offered. Any proposed legislation would be scrutinised by unelected Lords, whose very function is to challenge decisions made not deemed to be in the country’s apparent interests. Even the civil service, which is supposedly impartial, was accused of defending British state interests when push came to shove during the 2014 referendum.
Even then, one must still factor in an outwardly hostile Parliamentary Labour Party, which has undermined the leadership at every turn, and a print press which the London School of Economics concluded has misrepresented and attacked Corbyn since his leadership victory in 2015. There isn’t a grand conspiracy to all this – Theresa May is also criticised by quarters of the press for being weak, indecisive and out-of-touch. Rather, it should be understood, as was the case in 2014, that the forces of British capitalism will always seek to preserve what they know they can control.
It’s why Scottish independence, an inherently radical venture which would have abiding geopolitical ramifications for the declining British state, shouldn’t be viewed with so much trepidation by the Labour leadership. On the other hand, it’s also why Scottish independence can’t afford to be viewed as a continuity project when it offers the chance to dismantle a state which has propped up a failed economic system and perpetuated illegal imperialist wars for generations.
The SNP’s approach to parliamentary politics has been disappointingly defensive since the 2015 general election, when they employed a more explicitly anti-austerity narrative. As Jamie Maxwell noted, Nicola Sturgeon’s reinvention as a protector of liberal democracy is tactically predicated on the harmful notion that offering the “least disruptive” form of independence will win over a majority of Scots. The public’s receptive response to the SNP’s openly rebellious parliamentary approach, bolstered by wide media coverage, demonstrates what happens when they do the exact opposite.
Given the long standing antipathy between Scottish Labour and the SNP, a collaborative approach is unlikely. But there’s some evidence of this happening more on a grassroots level between groups campaigning for radical causes. Corbyn himself backed the Better Than Zero campaign, for example, which though non-partisan is organised by pro-independence trade unionists. Similarly, groups like Living Rent tenants union are organised by Labour and pro-independence socialists alike.
At this level at least, there’s an acknowledgement that there’s a need for solidarity across borders in struggles around housing, welfare, exploitation and so on. But, crucially, independence shouldn’t be viewed as a threat to these struggles but as an opportunity to strike a blow against a corrupt British establishment desperate to hold on to the reins of power. The Tories are more vulnerable than ever, beset by internal struggles and struggling to effectively manage the Brexit process.
If independence really is back on the table, radicals on both sides of the border should consider how it offers an opportunity to target the real enemy.