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Scottish Independence and the Wilting of Social Democracy: A Reply to Gregor Gall by Allan Armstrong

Scottish Independence and the Wilting of Social Democracy: A Reply to Gregor Gall by Allan Armstrong

29th November 2012

Gregor Gall’s report of the Radical Independence Conference begins by pointing to the large numbers and the diversity of opinions present on November 24th, all wanting a radical independent Scotland. He then goes on to state, “Where the conference came up short was on the critical ‘how’ question.”

Gregor sees two problems - one organisational and the other political. First, he wants to find a middle way between two possible organisational options. He quite rightly rejects the setting up of “a steering committee elected or selected from Saturday, which was…not representative of those in attendance.”

However, he then goes on to add “or {not representative} of the broader pro-independence milieu”. Does that include Angus Robertson and Mike Russell, or Alex Salmond and Kenny McAskill? Between them, these figures have been steering the SNP firmly to the Right - with support for neo-liberalism, the Crown Powers (the real significance of their acceptance of the monarchy), the City of London and NATO.

They have no vision beyond ‘Independence-Lite’, and even that is becoming ‘lighter’ by the day. They represent the interests of a wannabe Scottish ruling class. These people want a junior managerial buyout of the Scottish branch of UK plc. They want to rebrand Scotland with saltires and then continue with business as usual.

The political limits of the official ‘Yes’ campaign are firmly set by the SNP apparatchiks who run it. Those non-SNP members invited on to its national committee provide a thin political cover. They have no influence upon deciding the type of independence being fought for. Angus Robertson is in charge!

Should the SNP government succeed in getting a ‘Yes’ vote, it has no intentions of convening a Constituent Assembly. Instead it will enter negotiations with the UK government over just how much further power can be devolved from Westminster. ‘Independence-Lite’ represents their opening negotiating gambit. Given their obvious willingness to bow to pressures emanating from corporate executives, the UK state and US imperialism, we shouldn’t expect to have much say in their ‘Scottish Free State’.

The second organisational option Gregor rejects is “encouraging people to do their own thing”. This could certainly leave an opening for the Unionists ‘dirty tricks’ department to undermine any campaign.

Yet, Gregor, looking for “a middle way”, fails to suggest any alternative. He just leaves this to “time will tell”. Yet the organisational solution to Gregor’s dilemma is really quite simple, and it isn’t a “middle way”. We need a democratic way that encourages participation and initiative.

Yes, there is a problem in trying to achieve this. Many on the Left still prefer their own front organisations, with invited ‘celebrities’ to provide cover - be they senior trade union officials or cultural icons. Thus, we have four Left organisations mounting their own anti-austerity campaigns, each more concerned to steal a march on the other than to help organise a serious coordinated fightback.

Therefore, the RIC needs to base itself upon active and democratically run branches, with delegates making up the overwhelming majority of any national coordinating body. This is how the Anti-Poll Tax Federation worked and it achieved its goal. Certainly not all on the Left were happy with this, and some tried to manoeuvre behind the scenes to get their way. But, in the end, the grassroots organisation was just too extensive to let them get away with that.

Instead of leaving it up to individuals (or self-promoting organisations) “to do their own thing” in the name of the RIC, specific proposals for backing any particular campaign should be brought before branches for democratic deliberation. Socialists should welcome the opportunity to draw others into such discussion, as well as being prepared to listen and learn.

However, when Gregor goes on to address his second problem - the political one - he takes us in exactly the opposite direction to that in which we need to be going. He rejects “the issues of republicanism, nuclear weapons and NATO”. To these he counterposes the need for “social and economic questions to gain traction”.

Now, elsewhere Gregor has openly stated that he sees no possibility, at present, of going beyond raising social democratic demands. Only once we have won these does Gregor think it will be possible to raise the issue of socialism.

There are big problems with this approach. It was the standard view of both the Old Labour Left and the CPGB in the 1970’s. The problem then was, as both individual wages and the social wage rose in the post-war boom, the capitalists’ profit margins eventually fell. The bosses were not prepared to accept this, and the road to socialism via social democracy was blocked. Profits are the engine driving capitalism. So, instead capitalists looked to ‘solutions’ that would restore profitability.

The bloody coup in Chile, in 1973, provided a test run for what later became internationalised as neo-liberalism. Thatcher and Reagan extended this to the capitalist heartlands in a brutal class war, where the other side hardly knew what hit it. After suffering serious defeats, particularly after the Miners’ Strike, social democratic parties fully internalised the neo-liberal agenda. New Realism became New Labour; Butskellism gave way to Blatcherism.

Today’s economic crisis is deeper than that of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. The bosses, particularly the banksters, are even more vicious. Social democracy is even further in retreat. Already it is in open coalition, in both Greece and Ireland, with their local ‘Tories’, helping to enforce the demands of the Troika - the IMF, ECB and EU.

The Labour/Lib-Dem/Conservatives’ ‘Better Together’ campaign may well prove to be more than a temporary alliance. Labour is already in coalition with the Tories in six Scottish local councils. Johann Lamont has flagged up the ending of universal benefits in her aptly named ‘Midwinter Commission’, cheered on by Ruth Davidson.

Now, if Gregor were merely emphasising the lack of current workers’ fightback, particularly on the economic front, he would be making an important point. We do need real resistance here. However, the current trade unions leaders are locked in ‘social partnerships’ with the employers and government. This has largely reduced their role to acting as a cheap personnel service for the bosses.

A factory threatened with closure… organise a fightback? No - ensure that suitable ‘training’ is put in place for those made redundant, so they can write job-seeking letters, undertake interviews, ready for one of those minimum hours, appalling conditions, non-unionised jobs. This at least removes them from the unemployment figures!

And, if very reluctantly forced to organise a major strike, such as that over pensions last November 30th, what then? Half an hour after the last rally has finished, breathe a sigh of relief, abandon the day’s unity, and rush to the government and local state officials to seek the most minimal concession for your own members’ only!

Until union members are able to take control of their unions, or even to start new ones, we can expect nothing better with such social democratic/Labour leaders. They are just one step behind Miliband and Co, in their accommodation with the existing order. Some can talk Left, but the ‘walk’ is in entirely the opposite direction.

One precondition for effective membership control would be all union officials getting the average pay of the members they represent. Under the anti-trade union laws, members’ pay and conditions have been in headlong retreat, whilst senior union officials’ pay has soared. And they are found much more frequently in the company of the employers and state officials than that of the members they claim to represent.

Perhaps, though, we have seen the first seeds of the necessary wider union fightback in the recent sparks’ dispute and the formation of the Grass Roots Left in UNITE. But, we need to go much further - beyond even industrial unionism and introduce social unionism, which extends into the communities too. This is being currently being tried out by the Independent Workers Union in Ireland. At present, such developments are at an early stage, and could still falter, but others are likely to take up their cause.

Now one area, where official trade union leaders hold little sway, has been over those young people in higher and further education. The NUS is too obviously a New Labour careerist ‘finishing school’ to do this. In 2010, students mounted a vibrant struggle against the Tory/Lib-Dem government. Although increased fees was were not an issue in Scotland, students at Glasgow University undertook an occupation of the Hetherington Building, which forced concessions. Gregor misses the significance of this. These radicalised students played a key part in organising the Radical Independence Conference.

Furthermore, they appreciate, unlike any wistful social democrat, the deep-seated nature of the crisis we face today. They are not only strongly anti-Trident, but anti-war, anti-NATO and anti-imperialist. When Salmond retreated from his earlier pro-Palestine stance to meet the Israeli ambassador, these students appreciated that he was making a statement about the sort of future Scotland he wanted - one that accepted the priorities of the US state, and its most favoured ally - apartheid Israel. They mounted a strong protest.

Back in the 1930’s USA, the huge and unexpected surge in new unionism was preceded by the activities of those Communists and Socialists who fought against Negro persecution in the South - particularly in the Scottsboro Boys judicial frame-up of 1931. Such radicalism is transferable. Palestine is one issue in Scotland today that provides such an opportunity for Socialists.

Lastly, Gregor’s dismissal of republicanism is just another manifestation of social democratic politics. Social democrats have never understood the real nature of the UK state that we are up against, with its draconian Crown Powers. This has been well highlighted in the recent Channel 4 drama, Secret State. The hapless Labour Prime Minister, played by Gabriel Byrne, thinks that holding government office is the same as wielding state power. He is confronted and thwarted at every turn by those really holding power - the British ruling class.

Back in 1969, a militant Civil Rights Movement, in Northern Ireland, thought that by concentrating on “social and economic issues” they could get round the problems presented by the horribly sectarian local Unionist state. Surely the British state would not allow this political slum, now exposed to the eyes of the world, to continue. It took the gunning down of 13 peaceful protestors in Derry in January 1972 to shatter such illusions.

The British ruling class preferred to back their local Unionist clients, rather than extend the same civil rights found in Britain to Northern Ireland. Today, the British ruling class is even more strongly opposed to the SNP’s ‘Independence within the Union’. And the UK state enjoys much firmer backing from the US state too. But, you could always court Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch to counter this!

Therefore, any serious campaign to bring about “economic and social justice, democracy, environmentalism and peace” needs so be aware of what we are up against. It needs to be republican from the start to counter those Crown Powers. With mounting austerity, an even greater likelihood of vicious wars, and continued environmental degradation, we need to go beyond a social democracy that is well past its sell-by date. Once this is clearly understood, and a fully democratic RIC established, then the answers to Gregor’s “critical ‘how’ question ” will fall into place.

(c) Allan Armstrong attended the Radical Independence Conference. He was asked to address the well-attended workshop on Republicanism and Democracy. Allan is a member of the Republican Communist Network. He was chair of the Lothian Anti-Poll Tax Federation, and is the author of the forthcoming The Ghost of James Connolly, and a contributor to Unstated: Scottish Writers on Independence, both being published by Word Power Books

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