Scottish Independence Would Help (Not Hinder) Jeremy Corbyn

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.

Comments (7)

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  1. Rick H Johnston says:

    Corbyn is nae different frae ony ither Brit politician.
    Whether it’s May or Corbyn Scotland is Outnumbered 10 tae one permanently in London.
    Real change starts wi a Scottish breakaway. We can have the Scotland we want wi the full powers we’ll have wi independence.

    1. Joseph Gibson says:

      I will go with that, but we have to dissolve this Union not UDI.

  2. Lochside says:

    I agree in principle with this article, however, there are certain assumptions that I do not agree with.
    I supported and participated in the RIC campaign in the ‘schemes’. As I believed that until the Scottish working (and not working) people all awaken to the pernicious influence Imperialism of the English State being wrought upon their lives day in and out, we would not break this oppression once and for all. The usual suspects for ‘NO’ change: the old; the conservative middle class; the orange bigots; the old Labour diehards; and the anti-Indy RUK settlers are and will remain outnumbered if the ordinary Scottish folk can be galvanised to vote.

    We achieved this in my area. So many people who had never engaged in political discourse became involved. Often I found myself addressing whole families who were eager to know how Scotland was being robbed blind by the Brit State.

    However, for anyone to believe that the Scottish Labour Party have lost their understanding of Socialism or the honest principles of Keir Hardie knows nothing of the reality. The ruling party in Scotland for a generation, they ruled over municipal corruption and national decay. Always colluding with the big boys in the South. Most of the SLAB leadership of the last generation are now in the House of Lords, rewarded for their treachery, not only to the working people, but to their country.

    Their bitter hatred of the SNP is one of entitlement denied. ‘It’s oor ba’ they cried, once the SNP started knocking out their fiefdoms one by one like dominos. So what did they do? Join up with the tories, their political soulmates, and instead of the punch and judy charade, which these two branch ‘organs’ had indulged in for decades, then we got the truth: ‘Better Together’…better an impoverished Scotland run by Britain than a thriving Indy State.

    Corbyn, is a Kensington champagne socialist, an actor without a script. He exists in a country where, at the moment, the majority loathe or misunderstand left politics. Labour cannot win under him. England needs a radical alternative party. This will emerge once Scotland leaves. Our ways of doing things, which will be more radical inevitably, will engender change in England. Change that many of their unengaged population is yearning for, but has not found the voice to express it as yet.

    1. Jonathan Rimmer says:

      I’m no Labourite, but I just don’t buy that for one second. Whatever you think of the limits of Labourism as a concept – and there are many – the notion that there’s no hunger for radical politics in England is just nonsense. Ignoring the ‘champagne’ socialist jibe (which is amusing given his reputation for frugality), he led Labour to their best finish in a general election in decades and a 10% increase in vote share. Based on polls released as recently as yesterday, he has a very, very real chance of becoming the next Prime Minister and Scottish nationalists putting their heads in the sand don’t change that fact.

      Under a FPTP system, a ‘radical alternative’ to Labour isn’t going to emerge down south anytime soon. We have what we have. The point of the article is to look at areas in which the the left on both sides of the border can seek common ground, particularly as the two projects aren’t antithetical to one another. If only the top brass in Labour and the SNP realised that.

      1. Indyman says:

        “If only the top brass in Labour and the SNP realised that.

        The problem lies with Scottish Labour, their top brass seems to be so blinded with hatred for the SNP for having deprived them of their god-given right to rule Scotland forever that they are incapable of any rational response. I mean siding with the tories FFS. Kier Hardie & Nye Bevan must be turning in their graves so fast that they’ll be popping up in Australia any day now.

  3. Iain McIntosh says:

    “– the notion that there’s no hunger for radical politics in England is just nonsense. ”


    brexit was a vote by the English working class to turn the clock back to a notion of England that never existed.

    I’s not radical, it’s reactionary and right wing. It’s driven by racism, ignorance and a feeling of marginalisation, all manipulated by the right wing of the tory party. I say tory party, but many of the labour politicians that support brexit, you could not slide a fag paper in-between them and the tories.

    Cameron paved the way for the uk to slide out of the EU, but Corbyn open the gates for it to happen out of his complete indifference to the EU. labour and tories, different sides of the same coin.

    Scotland’s enemies in labour and tory parties are fighting more with themselves internally than with each other. Expect labour to move to the position of the tory government on the return of powers bill soon. This and other actions on brexit will give labour two options, side with tories or side with Scotland.

    Federalism will be trotted out as a silver bullet, but deep down we all know there needs to be another vote. This time round the uk offers little stability and it is not an attractive proposition to be ruled by right wing tories, supported by labour stooges!

    1. Jonathan Rimmer says:

      I’m not referring to Brexit – I’m referring to the massive groundswell of support around England for a socialist vision in Labour since 2015. I’m referring to community campaigns organised since Grenfell. English working people are not Scotland’s enemy and tarring them all with the same brush does nobody any favours – independence supporters should recognise that.

      As for the EU, Corbyn isn’t ‘indifferent’. He quite rightly is suspicious of a neo-liberal institution that imposed austerity sanctions on Greece, ignored state-led crime in Catalonia and which has formulated a Fortress Europe policy that has led to the deaths of refugees. It’s not ‘different sides of the same coin’ – if anything the Conservative government and the EU’s economic policies would fit that analogy far better. It’s also why I made the point that the SNP’s Growth Commission document is pretty worrying – Tories like George Osborne would be MORE than comfortable with that kind of economic prospectus.

      You’re talking about ‘enemies of Scotland’, but it’s that sort of toxic language that’s been employed by Brexiteers down south. Who are the enemies of working people should be the real question? And how can we show solidarity with those down south whilst demonstrating there can be a better path to defeating British state imperialism?

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