An independent Scotland looms as a far more realistic political objective than a Left Labour Government legislating for socialism from the green benches in Westminster
In 1987, the SNP annual conference was held in Dundee in the wake of what was for them a poor result in the general election of that year.
The author William McIlvanney was invited to speak at the conference.
He spoke neither as a party member nor a supporter; but, in his own words, “as a kind of socialist”.
Towards the end of his speech, he reflected on the degeneration of the labour movement in England and on the frustrations of seeking socialist advance through Britain.
For socialism to survive, he suggested, “new tactics” were required. He then reminded Scottish socialists that the most significant contribution they could make towards establishing socialism in Britain was to establish socialism in Scotland.
At the time these comments were largely ignored. The possibility of a Scottish road to socialism seemed then to be remote and unrealistic. In that year’s general election, Labour had just won 50 Scottish parliamentary seats against a miserable 3 for the SNP. In the previous year’s regional council elections Labour had been the only political party to make significant gains across Scotland.
Surely, if socialism was to advance, it would have to be through a Labour Government in Westminster.
Twenty five years on that kind of thinking has been turned on its head. The SNP are now the dominant political force in Scotland. One journalist reporting on Salmond’s speech to the overflowing SNP spring conference in Glasgow described “a politician and a political movement running on full momentum”.
They now hold the majority of seats in Scotland’s Parliament. They go into this year’s council elections as favourites to capture former Labour strongholds in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. They have control of an independence referendum scheduled for the autumn of 2014.
Meanwhile the Labour Party of 1987 has mutated into a post-socialist party anchored to a model of responsible capitalism. Shorn of any socialist objectives, it now makes its political pitch from the same centre ground as the Liberal Democrats. There is even a new ginger group/policy network calling for Labour to rediscover its Liberal roots.
As a result, an independent Scotland looms as a far more realistic political objective than a Left Labour Government legislating for socialism from the green benches in Westminster.
Yet, despite this political turnaround, the unionist Left in Scotland argue that McIlvanney’s appeal for a Scottish road to socialism remains as remote today as it was when he called for it in Dundee 25 years ago.
In her speech to Labour’s conference in Dundee, Johann Lamont not only name checked Salmond 22 times, she tried to portray him and his party as the re-incarnation of the Tartan Tory SNP that crashed and burned after opening the door to Thatchersim in 1979.
The First Minster was a “Conman” in every sense of the word. He danced to Rupert Murdoch’s and to other oligarchs’ tunes. His Government not only passed on but amplified Tory cuts in Scotland.
He would subject the Scottish economy to control by the Bank of England. His policy of cutting corporation tax would lock Scotland in to a race to the bottom with the other nations of these islands. Independence would inevitably put progressive politics into reverse.
A fairer Scotland could only be delivered through Scottish Labour’s devolution settlement etc.
The pro-independence Left would be mistaken to rush to the defence of Salmond’s SNP. They deserve to be criticised, especially from a Left perspective. They are too close to big business. Their Celtic Tiger economics do smack of tax-cutting and of slashing public spending agendas.
They are likely to cut deals with the rump of the UK over the future of Trident. Their version of independence does include a hereditary monarchy and the surrender of interest rate setting to a foreign bank.
There is no guarantee that they will scrap anti-trade union laws and so make Scotland less attractive than the rest of the UK to capitalist investors.
In short, a yes vote in the 2014 referendum will not deliver a socialist republic. We should acknowledge that while making the case that the break- up of Britain remains a necessary but not sufficient condition for socialist progress.
Like James Connolly we should argue for political independence as the basis for challenging the ascendancy of profit and privilege over the lives of working people.
Progressive politics across these islands has for far too long been frozen out by the icy grip of British conservative political culture.
The hegemony of crown, country and capitalism has spread like a hoar frost across Britain’s body politic. The time to break that ice is now and, as it begins to crack, the shoots of new political possibilities will start to emerge.
Independence will at a stroke rescue Scotland from the dead hand of the 800 plus place people who currently sit in the House of Lords. The remit of the reactionary and Oxbridge dominated British Civil service will no longer run north of the border.
The future of Trident will at least be negotiable. A new deal on social welfare will have to be negotiated between a Scottish Government and Civic Scotland.
The First-Past-the Post electoral system will be consigned along with Tory Governments to the dustbin of history. The future destiny of our public services will be in our own hands.
Critically, the fractured Scottish Left will face the challenge of seizing this moment of history. As the national question recedes and class politics return to the centre of Scottish politics, they will have to choose between the comfortable certainties and traditional party structures from another age, or begin to think anew about different political formations that could challenge the power of capital over people.
A generation after McIlvanney called for it in Dundee, they will finally have to get down to the business of building socialism in Scotland.