Gregor Gall: Socialists face up to independence dilemma

Activists protest at Faslane naval base over Trident, which is another question in the independence debate. Picture: PA
Activists protest at Faslane naval base over Trident, which is another question in the independence debate. Picture: PA
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Yes and No sides of the left need to reach agreement before challenging the neo-liberal norm, writes Gregor Gall

With the passing of the 500 days mark to the independence referendum, pressure on both the Yes and No campaigns to become more radical has clearly emerged. This makes the publication of Scotland’s road to socialism: time to choose by the Scottish Left Review Press extremely timely.

Contributors were asked in the context of the referendum: “How do we move forward to a socialist Scotland?” Among the 24 contributors are Labour MSP Neil Findlay; SNP MSP Bill Kidd; former MSP Colin Fox; former MP and MSP John McAllion; PCS union Scottish secretary Lynn Henderson; GMB Scotland political officer Richard Leonard; and Unison officer Dave Watson. They were supplemented by novelist John Aberdein, historian John Foster, and economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert.

Contributors are from across pro- or anti-independence divide. The debate between them is about where and how to start – or continue – the campaign for socialism in the context of the approaching referendum and existing neo-liberalism and austerity.

It is obvious they all believe in a broad form of socialism that transcends existing and future national boundaries. There is no sense of either competitive nationalism and very little that there are entirely national solutions to national problems, that is, a kind of ‘socialism in one country’.

The contributors’ search for social justice and social liberation is of a fraternal trans-national nature. It is for this reason that most contributions quite rightly focus upon the economic and social rather than political and constitutional.

Yet the danger is they underplay the significance of 2016 Scottish Parliament elections because the referendum is entirely – at the formal level – about a constitutional relationship. In no political sense will Scotland be different the day before and after a Yes vote (if that is what happens). However, to gain a Yes vote, or to substantially alter the social terms of the existing Union, political issues about post-2014 will have to be addressed. For example, the SNP’s neo-liberal-influenced vision of independence does not address social questions in a way that can compel a majority to support independence. So for those favouring a radical vision of independence, radicalism needs to have influence not just in regard of the reasons of voting for independence but on the voting to determine the composition of the fifth Scottish parliament.

Equally, for those favouring the continuation of the Union (albeit under different terms) it requires that not only is a No vote successful, but that the 2015 Westminster election provides for a Labour government which is considerably more radical than Ed Miliband will allow, and that promises for Devo-max – and the use of those new powers for progressive ends – are kept.

Again, radical political and other arguments will need to hold sway for this particular outcome to be realised. It becomes clear that both sides of the left here face a Herculean task. This is because not only do the contending arguments of the left need to hold sway but that this means having a level of influence that is a complete step change from the present situation of neo-liberalism domination.

Thus, both sides of the left here must urgently address not just issues about the internal cogency of their arguments but critically how they will also gain credibility amongst the mass of citizens for these arguments. If you like, the battle is win hegemony inside their respective campaigns and then with the public at large outside these camps.

In these processes, the radicals for independence must set out what they want independence from as well as what they want independence for. Ironically, the radical yes vision is most keenly a no vision – no to Nato, no to Trident, no to austerity, no to imperialism and no to neo-liberalism.

But even that does not go far enough because there must also be a wholly positive version of the vision of what an independent, radical Scotland will look like under independence. Here the pounds and pence of the economic and social questions must be set out.

For the radicals for the Union, the key task is to differentiate the type of union desired, otherwise they will be saying yes to Nato, yes to Trident, yes to austerity, yes to imperialism and yes to neo-liberalism.

Independence is not yet seen as the answer to solving poverty and inequality. To be successful, independence must also become part of a transitional approach whereby struggling for one demand opens up and augments the desire for more fundamental change and the capacity to achieve it.

In living memory, Scotland has never been an independent nation or nation-state. To this extent, it is untried and untested. But this may present the opportunity to ask the ‘what if’ questions in an untainted way.

By contrast, the British road to socialism has had a long period of existence. Its high point was the period of the 1945-1951 Labour governments. Is that a strong enough memory to cling on to – as well as to constitute a springboard to another and better chance to go down the British road? Some may say it has had chance enough and new ways and means are now warranted.

If politics is the art of the possible, then it is incumbent upon those in favour of a yes vote to presage a radical reconfiguration of society in Scotland to also work out the probabilities of such a change being able to occur.

But the boot is on the other foot too because it is also incumbent upon those that argue for a radical configuration of the Union to also work out the probabilities and to stop talking about just the possibilities.

Citizens will be better off with hard-nosed and realistic assessments rather than flights of fancy. This is because what is desirable is not necessarily possible or probable because gaps exist between means and ends. The contributors to Scotland’s road to socialism: time to choose help us in the task of taking us further down the road of robust analysis about Scotland’s future.

• Gregor Gall is the editor of Scotland’s road to socialism: time to choose (ISBN 987-0-9550362-5-5). It is priced at £7.99 and can be bought from