Scottish Referendum

Scotland: the left says Yes

Five questions for Neil Davidson, campaigner for Radical Independence
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Scots will decide whether to declare independence or remain part of the United Kingdom on Sept. 18, concluding a year and a half of campaigning prompted by Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party government. In a dramatic turn of events, ten days before the referendum, the Yes Scotland campaign, a coalition of pro-independence groups, has overtaken the unionist option in opinion polls for the first time. This shift doesn't surprise the Radical Independence Campaign, the left wing of the independence movement. To introduce our series on Scotland's future, Ricochet poses five questions to Neil Davidson, a sociology professor at the University of Glasgow and campaigner for Radical Independence.

Alex Salmond handily won the BBC's televised debate against Alistair Darling of the unionist Better Together campaign. The latest YouGov poll shows the Yes vote surging to 51 per cent, the first showing a majority for independence. With ten days of campaigning left, what will get Yes Scotland across the finish line?

Some contingent factors will obviously help, like the Tory MP Doug Carswell announcing his defection to the far-right UKIP (UK Independence Party) a few days ago. That has helpfully reminded everyone in Scotland about the menacing possibility of a Tory–UKIP government at Westminster after the 2015 general election, if there's a No vote. In addition, the Better Together campaign is increasingly shooting itself in the foot with patronizing and sexist adverts. The decisive shift will, however, only be guaranteed by the same approach that has brought us to this point: serious, consistent campaigning in the working-class heartlands based on the possibilities a Yes vote will offer for social justice. There are no shortcuts.

You work with the Radical Independence Campaign. In contrast with the SNP, Radical Independence advocates a sharp break with the neoliberal state. After months of canvassing, what have you observed on the ground?

What the Radical Independence Campaign has done is to focus on the poorest and most deprived areas — the housing schemes where political campaigners rarely bother to go. Its reasonably well established that the most oppressed sections of the working class are the most likely to support independence. Unfortunately they are also the least likely to be registered to vote, or to vote if they are. One aspect of RIC's activity has therefore been to conduct voter registration drives, a tactic derived from the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, on the basis that people who do register after being encouraged to do so by the Yes supporters are more likely to actually vote Yes, which is borne out by RIC's canvassing results. RIC has also targeted the state offices where the working poor, unemployed and people with disabilities have to report in order to receive their miserable benefit payments, speaking to people as they go in and again receiving mainly positive responses.

The most important thing is that many hitherto apathetic Scots have been wakened to political life by the campaign.

The most important thing is that — although this may sound pretentious or unbelievable to people who haven't experienced it — is that many hitherto apathetic Scots have been wakened to political life by the campaign. One of the most important things for RIC and the left more generally will be to maintain this level of popular involvement once the referendum is over, whatever the outcome.

The debate over independence in Scotland is shaped by social issues. However, many fear Scotland leaving the Union might spell the end of the UK Labour Party, whose electoral base is strongest in the north of the country. What will the effect of independence be on the left and the trade union movement in the rest of the United Kingdom?

If Labour fails to win a post-independence general election this will be because of its capitulation to neoliberalism.

Claims that the Labour Party will be finished as an electoral force if Scotland secedes from the UK are greatly exaggerated. It is true that Labour was the dominant party in Scotland until relatively recently — it now shares that dominance with the SNP — and the culture of Labourism runs deep in the organized trade union movement, but Labour is also strong in the north of England, in inner-city London and in Wales. Scotland has only a tenth of the UK's population and has rarely been decisive in determining UK election results. In fact, there have been only two general elections since 1922 — in 1964 and 1974 — won by the Labour Party because of Scotland. If Labour fails to win a post-independence general election this will be because of its capitulation to neoliberalism and relentless pursuit of marginal new middle-class voters at the expense of the working class — not the fault of the Scots.

Indeed, independence would probably have a positive effect on Labour in Scotland, as it would have to reconstruct itself free of the tutelage of the London-based leadership. It might also galvanize the left more generally. Trade unions would continue to have members on both sides of the border post-independence, in the same way as trade unions organize in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, or indeed in the USA and Canada. The real issue is the willingness of workers to show solidarity with each other, and if necessary overturn the trade union bureaucracy, not the existence of a border.

Parti Québécois personalities lent their support to the campaign after an official visit from former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, to little fanfare. Yes Scotland has taken a markedly different approach to the case for independence, snubbing nationalist arguments. Is Yes Scotland wary of associating with a losing cause? Have you drawn conclusions from Jacques Parizeau's infamous blaming of "money and ethnic votes" for the separatist defeat in the 1995 Quebec referendum?

It may be partly because of the failure of the PQ to achieve independence, but I suspect that the real reason is a tactically very sensible acknowledgment by the SNP that the majority of people who are going to vote Yes are not actually nationalists, but socialists, environmentalists and feminists who want independence for these reasons. It's not been an argument about identity at all. In fact the Better Together people have spent more time talking about what proud Scots they are than Yes Scotland. And obviously RIC is totally opposed to ethnic politics.

If Scotland votes Yes on Sept. 18, where do you see the new country heading? Will we see a break from the austerity politics of continental Europe or more of the same? In the event of a No vote, should we expect further devolution or punishment from Westminster?

If it's Yes then the serious battle about what kind of Scotland we want will really begin, first over the constitution, but also over who engages in the negotiations with Westminster, how quickly we get out of Trident (the UK nuclear weapon program), abolition of the anti-trade union laws, etc. The SNP is a contradictory and ultimately unstable formation that is committed to social neoliberalism — in other words a market-based, corporate-friendly economic policy and support for the post-war social democratic contract. Without the latter it would never have pulled in working-class support.

The campaign has stimulated too much political interest, and on a left-wing basis, for things to return to normal.

The left will have to reconfigure around a new radical party, involving the unaffiliated forces that have been central to RIC, in order to organize the left in a highly volatile situation. If it's a No vote then there will probably be further devolution, although this depends on how intelligent the Tories are, as they may refuse in order to appease their deranged right wing. But this is not an attractive alternative because devolution is now, as far as I can see, a neoliberal strategy for forcing decisions about austerity down to the lowest levels of democratic governance. However, even if there is a No vote, it ain't over. The campaign has stimulated too much political interest, and on a left-wing basis, for things to return to normal.

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