The Scottish referendum: taking a stand

I am not Scottish. I lived there, once, a long time ago but I have no vote in the referendum next month.

I do have a pretty direct personal stake in the outcome though. My partner is Scottish and a yes vote would, to some extent (and I think a greater extent as the years went on) make her a foreigner in what is now her own country. My two children certainly have as much claim to be Scottish through her as they do to be Irish through me. And, of course, the eldest is actually resident in Glasgow, at least while the University is in term time.

But, actually, my personal stake is much bigger than any of that. I fear a yes vote on September 18 will lead to a nasty, and possibly permanent, disfigurement of politics both north and south of the Tweed. And I am drawn to that conclusion by both the character of the campaign for a yes vote and the inevitable changes in political calculus a yes victory would bring – both short- and long-term to the politics of the remainder of the UK. It worries me enough to break my self-denying ordinance about politics here and to, in a way, make my stand. I can do no other.

It is common for those campaigning for a “Yes” vote to say it’s not about Alex Salmond or his Scottish National Party (SNP). But, of course, it very much is. The SNP are the only party of real significance in Scotland campaigning for a “yes” (I really do wonder how many Green voters are pro-independence as opposed to just anti-politics), they have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, they will negotiate the terms of any independence settlement and they will form the first government of an independent Scotland if that happens according to their timetable. They control all the levers on the Scottish side of this nightmare equation – and it will be their Scotland we will get if the vote is yes.

They say that people like me (if I lived in Scotland) should not worry about that. After all, they say, they – like me – are social democrats. Indeed many of their supporters go further and say that people like me – bought and sold by English gold – have no longer any real claim to be on the left, content as I appear to me, to ask the Scots to continue to suffer under Tory rule.

But then, I do not believe them. I am sure there are people in the SNP who genuinely believe themselves to be social democrats or even socialists – but their actions convince me that they are above all nationalists and, in a way that is fundamentally alien to social democrats, are seeking to divide people.

Scotland is no colony, it is not a victim of imperial divide and rule or exploitation and so its nationalism cannot claim to be anything other than a desire to separate, to negate the claim that Die Arbeiter haben kein Vaterland.

And I want no part of that. More than that, my internationalism, my compunction to solidarity, makes me want to do all that I can to stop it happening and to urge my readers here to join me.

The rationalist wing of the SNP would no doubt respond that: no, Scotland is not a colony but my judgement is blinded by tribalism. The reason the Labour Party detests the SNP is not, they might claim, because they are so different, but because they are so alike. Not so. Not so at all.

On 10 March 1998 I had been the Labour Party’s Chief Press and Broadcasting Officer (for the first time) for about a week. That morning I was phoned by Jim Murphy, an MP for not yet a year but already clearly one of the brightest hopes in an exceptionally strong Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party.

Jim had been up all night but he was fizzing with energy. That night the House of Commons had heard the report stage of the National Minimum Wage Bill and the Tories had kept the House up all night debating and voting on amendments. And instead of taking part in the defence of the Bill, the SNP had gone to bed.

These were the early, and heroic, days of Labour government. Everything, or almost everything, the government did was as loaded with symbolism as content – but in the National Minimum Wage we were surely – alongside the Good Friday Agreement and devolution – talking of an epoch-making policy. This stuff really mattered and would do for decades to come. The livelihoods of millions of people were being debated.

The SNP said their vote didn’t matter because Labour had such a large majority. And, mathematically, they were right, but politically they revealed the huge gulf between them and us.

The hundreds of Labour MPs who went through the lobbies were proud and not angry at having stayed up all night to see off the Tories. A minimum wage was the antithesis of the Thatcherite vision for the economy: in the previous 18 years the Tories had actively removed what little protection for wages had existed when they came into office and revelled in the idea of growing low waged employment – boasting that the future of work for millions would be “no so much low-skill as no-skill”.

(The idea was also an example of the influence of the feminised New Left on New Labour – no previous Labour government had legislated for a minimum wage because it had been actively opposed by the big craft unions.)

The SNP just did not see any of that. Because, in the end, they just didn’t care about social progress in the same way as we did. Like Trotskyists considering the politics of social democracy they saw, and see, their principal task as being to destroy the credibility of the reformer, not to secure the reform.

That morning Jim and I agreed a text that later got us both into a bit of trouble:

“Thousands of low paid Scots were on the night shift working to support their families.

“Labour MP’s were at work too – beating off the Tories’ attempts to preserve low pay.

“Where were the Nats?

“Their absence was an insult to those Scots who have campaigned long and hard against low pay.

“I never want to hear another Nat say they stand up for Scottish values. Last night they were not standing up at all – they were down in the gutter with the sweat shop sewer rats.”

The SNP used this for the next year to say Jim had said they were sewer rats. Of course, he hadn’t – but, carried away, we had let emotion over-ride judgement.

The words were a mistake yet, looking back, I can still see why we did what we did. And I have seen nothing to make me think the SNP have changed their approach to social progress – indeed they have spent the last two years telling us, in effect, that social progress is impossible in the UK context, they have rubbished every piece of progress that has been made or issued promises of jam tomorrow under independence using phrasing that indicated they had neither thought about, nor cared about, the issue but were focused entirely on what they saw as its vote winning potential.

(A recent statement on the minimum wage was one example – they said they would consider a “Scottish minimum wage” that would always rise by at least inflation after independence. But today’s minimum wage is meant to be set on the basis that it should grow without increasing unemployment: are the SNP really pledging they would enshrine in law that a minimum wage would grow even if it increased unemployment? Or are they just trying to find a sound bite that makes them look “progressive” while actually pledging to do nothing at all?)

To cap it all, they effectively offer up daily prayers for a Tory victory at the next election: the worse, the better is their approach.

What evidence is there that an SNP-run independent Scotland would be any more progressive? Little or none from the SNP government in Edinburgh. Their flagship policies include a freeze on council tax (which is starving Social Work departments of money and leaving teachers on the dole queues) and paying for free university tuition for the middle class by cutting bursaries for working class entrants. Their flagship economic policy is to cut corporation tax in the hope that Scotland might emulate Ireland as a home for profit recycling (though these days they no longer mention Ireland even if they have kept the policy).

In response I will be told that the SNP need not govern an independent Scotland. As I have already set out that is a false claim (assuming that the SNP manage to keep to their timetable) and in any case Alex Salmond has already stated that independence will mean “Labour no more” – and I fear he is right.

An independent Scotland will surely be dominated by populist nationalism while those who campaigned and voted to stay in the UK will be slammed as traitors and quislings and worse.

The online pro-independence campaign is deeply nasty and intolerant – and infected with the usual internet paranoia of the online far-right/far-left alliance (no campaigners are part of a “new world order” conspiracy, are in the pay of a secret higher power, the broadcasters and the pollsters are all knowingly telling lies and so on).


Of course these days the Nationalists know that a direct attack on “the English” generates revulsion amongst most people in Scotland, so they have found a new way of blowing that dog whistle by talking of “Westminster” and “Westminster elites”: the whole thing reminds me of the way anti-Semites think that saying they are only against “Zionists” gets them off the hook (I am making a comparison of tactics here – not saying the Yes campaign is a haven of anti-Semites.)

Even the SNP’s argument about nuclear weapons is empty – voting Yes won’t lead to any nuclear disarmament – it will merely see the nuclear weapons move (eventually) from one base to another. Indeed voting yes is to consciously opt-out of any effort to secure nuclear disarmament by simply handing your nuclear weapons off to someone else. I cannot see how anyone serious about nuclear disarmament could see this as any sort of progress.

People will be voting yes for many reasons, and the vast majority of them will do so for what they see as progressive reasons. But I think they are wrong, I intend to keep saying so and I hope that more and more people on the left throughout the UK, Europe and wider yet will join me in making that argument.

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