The Scottish Referendum: Raising Questions of Self-determination, Democracy and Social Justice

In the run up to the Scottish referendum, those who supported Scotland leaving the UK (the Yes campaign) were virtually unrepresented in the British media and establishment figures in England poured a torrent of scornful abuse on Scots in general, describing them, for example, as violent and thuggish and as addicted to welfare. Underlying this, however, the ruling class were terrified of a breakup. Quite apart from the collapse of a ‘United Kingdom’ which symbolised Britain’s imperial past (the union with Scotland in 1707 was made possible by the promise of a share in the spoils of empire) and the loss of the British Queen’s favourite estates, they were afraid of losing access to Scotland’s resources - its oil in particular – of the future of Trident, the nuclear submarine based in Scotland, and that an independent Scotland would not toe the US’s warmongering line in foreign policy. But more than anything they were afraid of the strong and broad-based Radical Independence Campaign which had emerged in the context of the referendum, and afraid too that it would only grow stronger if Scotland broke free, and its politics would be replicated in other parts of the UK. To prevent or at least stall this, there was a remarkable campaign of threats and blackmail by corporate and finance capital with the Royal Bank of Scotland vowing to shift its headquarters to England with the loss of many jobs in Scotland if the people voted Yes, and big retailers promising to raise food prices in an independent Scotland. When, despite this the Yes and No supporters remained neck and neck, days before the referendum the leaders of all three major political parties visited Scotland under the banner of ‘Better Together’ and guaranteed more devolved power and protection for the National Health Service in Scotland.

As it happened, the Yes Campaign, an alliance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) - whose policies are only a shade more progressive that UK’s Conservative party- and the Radical Independence Campaign, was narrowly defeated. As a breakdown of the results came through it became clear that the SNP (whose policies include lowering corporate tax, and who told people ‘we’ll still have the Queen, NATO and the pound’ in an independent Scotland) had failed to mobilise beyond its core supporters. The main support for Yes had come from traditional Labour Party heartlands in the former industrial centres like Glasgow and Dundee (which voted decisively for independence) and from youth mobilisation in urban areas where Radical Independence had united the left of the SNP, the Greens, left-wing Labour Party members, the radical left and, many who had not voted in years from communities and working class housing estates on the edge of the great cities where organisations built by working people in the course of the 20th century have been destroyed in the past four decades. In that sense it is an important step towards re-building working class organisation.

Unlike much of the traditional left in the UK which dismisses the struggle for democracy as belonging to the 19th century, the Radical Independence Campaign, like Occupy and other movements against neoliberalism elsewhere in the world had placed democracy, and its erosion by neoliberalism, centre stage. It had campaigned on a left-wing and internationalist platform with the participation of representatives of Greece’s Syriza, Quebec Solidaire, (the left-wing party advocating the independence of Quebec from Canada based on social justice), and others, as well as figures like veteran Irish republican activist Bernadette McAliskey and Tariq Ali. It had shifted the debate from the SNP’s line that nothing fundamental would change to one about what sort of Scotland working class people want.

With the referendum over, it will continue to campaign on key issues associated with neoliberal welfare reforms like the hated ‘bedroom tax’, ATOS a privatised testing system which has led to the deaths of many people with disabilities who have been denied state benefits, and the ongoing destruction of the National Health Service. But there is a also a strong possibility of forming a Scottish left alliance along the lines of Syriza or Spain’s Podemos drawing in disillusioned left-wing Labour Party members.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, there is a demand for a recount amidst allegations of electoral fraud and in London, David Cameron has already reneged on his pre-referendum promise to hold a vote in the House of Commons on further devolution for Scotland, dismissing such a move as ‘meaningless’. The Labour Party has remained silent. It is now likely to be weaker than ever, particularly if as part of post-referendum arrangements its Scottish MPs lose their right to vote on English issues. These rights and questions of tax autonomy for Scotland are yet to be decided.

There are calls now for a UK-wide People’s Constitutional Convention to debate the issues raised by the referendum and to recognise, as the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas puts it, that ‘people are not disengaged from politics, simply from a political system... designed to protect the interests of a small, self-interested and wealthy elite.’

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