Colin Fox: Let’s revisit Maclean’s vision of a free nation

The George Square riots in 1919, where John Maclean made his famous speech
The George Square riots in 1919, where John Maclean made his famous speech
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Red Clydesider’s hope of a socialist republic unites key strands in the independence debate, argues Colin Fox

Sitting at the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow last Saturday with The Scotsman columnists George Kerevan and Professor Gregor Gall in close attendance, my thoughts turned to the city’s greatest supporter of “radical” independence the legendary Red Clydeside socialist John Maclean.

Maclean, who died on St Andrew’s Day,1923, was a powerful advocate of self-determination and socialism. At his height it was said he could attract a thousand people to his classes explaining elementary Marxism to eager Glaswegians. Repeatedly jailed for his opposition to the imperialist slaughter of the Great War his vision of independence was, like the Scottish Socialist Party’s today, for a socialist republic.

Much water has passed under the Clyde’s bridges since Maclean’s day of course but it shows nonetheless that the socialist tradition in Scotland has supported independence for a very long time. We support independence because of the possibilities it brings. And much as Maclean did before us, we self-confessed radicals posed perhaps the key question of the debate last weekend: “What is independence for?”

Is it simply to fly the Saltire over government buildings rather than the Union Flag? Is it to have the same financiers and global corporations, wielding the same rapacious neo-liberal measures so despised by ordinary citizens, in control of our economy and much of our lives? Is it to continue saying nothing can be done about the oppressive and sickening inequalities that so damage Scotland’s social fabric?

Is it to hold on to nuclear weapons of indiscriminate mass slaughter on the Clyde? Will it mean more of our young men, and women, conscripted by base economics, again sent to die in dishonourable conflicts abroad only this time wearing the uniform of a Scottish army instead of the British one? And are we to retain an unelected, unaccountable, and out of touch monarch who “reigns over” us in her role as head of state?

I certainly hope not and, if last weekend’s gathering in Glasgow is anything to go by, I’m not the only one. No, independence must offer the people something far better; a vision of an altogether different Scotland, where our long established political, social and democratic priorities are finally achieved.

And what might they be? Redistributing Scotland’s enormous wealth and resources towards those most in need for a start. Ensuring Starbucks, Amazon and the other multinationals trading here do not escape their fiscal responsibilities is another.

Eradicating the fuel poverty that sees one in three households in Scotland shiver in the cold. It means we no longer abandon one in five children to poverty, degradation and misery. It means dignity in retirement for all pensioners. It means, as John Maclean insisted, that access to education must be a right not a privilege. It means all this and so much more.

In the burgeoning independence movement I see many similarities with the anti-poll tax campaign of 25 years ago. It is a coalition that exudes the same desire for justice and fairness, the same self-confidence, the same moral authority and the same steely determination to succeed. And like the anti-poll tax movement of the late 1980s the independence case is essentially about righting a wrong.

With Scotland unable to make our own decisions and lashed to a Tory philosophy alien to us independence represents the case both for a profound and permanent improvement in the living standards of Scotland’s working-class majority and in our nation’s democratic decision-making. Independence means we can at last manage our own affairs and determine our own future. And I firmly believe that will mean we choose to build an economy no longer blackmailed by neo-liberal corporations un-elected and unaccountable to the people. It means returning to public ownership those utilities that provide vital services we all rely on and could be run far more efficiently, democratically and fairly.

And for the SSP it means the monarchy and hereditary privileges are replaced by a republic with an elected head of state. The current arrangement is an anachronism, a feudal relic, where its defenders claim the Queen has no real powers and yet somehow ensures the “political stability” of Britain. Clearly both claims cannot be true and I would attest that neither is. The independence coalition sees our opponents trying to lay a trap that suggests the referendum is in effect a “beauty” contest, with people voting for or against Alex Salmond. And to be fair no-one knows the dangers inherent in this attack better than the SNP leadership.

Scottish politics is far too tribal for one party to defeat all others in a straight vote. But the attack won’t succeed because all the parties involved in the independence movement realise it is much bigger than the sum of its parts. We are all fully committed to widening its base of support and to ensure it enjoys the backing of a majority of Scots in 2014.

The independence movement will, over the next two years, seek to persuade all those who live here that a better Scotland is possible, one where the vast majority are economically, socially, culturally and politically better off.

Winning the independence referendum will be achieved by stressing how much will change not how little. And this prospect of real and lasting improvement can again mobilise majority public opinion in this country just as the poll tax did before it. Independence is the first step to a better Scotland not the last. That’s what it’s for.

• Colin Fox is the Scottish Socialist Party’s national spokesman. A former Lothians MSP, he sits on the Yes Scotland Advisory Board.