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Scotland: Federalism -  Powers for a Purpose

28th October 2014

The Citizen – Editorial, autumn 2014

Left unity is in practice an ambition often more praised than realised, but the vanity of small differences should play no role in the setting of our post referendum priorities. The Scottish Left will now be obliged to focus on our common interests, something which in our view can best be advanced through the vehicle of the People’s Assembly. The referendum campaign pulled many people into active politics for the first time. The fact that in the teeth of official disdain a campaign was sustained which sought, however misguidedly, to challenge the established order of things should be welcomed and its energies harnessed. It gives the lie to the convenient mythology of public indifference to politics. Instead what ordinary people are justifiably cynical about is the hollow platitudes and austerity consensus of the mainstream parties.

It is critical that a means to channel their energies is quickly established. In this regard loose talk of leaving unions or the formation of another doomed experiment in Party building outside of Labour are unhelpful indulgences which can only disorientate people looking for answers to questions they have only just started to ask. Calls therefore to vote for the neo liberal SNP cast an unflattering retrospective light on Left Yes campaigners and their commitment to class politics. As John McDonnell MP has argued recently, ‘as socialists we could be faced with the worst of all worlds, namely, for the former ‘Yes’ campaigners no independence and for the ‘No’ campaigners no UK Labour government. And for all of us, the return of either the coalition or, worst still a Tory majority government.’

Through the offices of the Red Paper Collective and latterly Socialism First many, though not all, members of the Campaign for Socialism attempted to establish a niche within what was a polarised field. They adopted what was a minority position on the Scottish Left, one which expressed scepticism in regards to the proposition that an ‘independent’ Scotland would, free from the deadening shackles of the ‘Westminster consensus’, be magically liberated to pursue its social democratic destiny. They called for a political rather than a constitutional and geographical challenge to capitalism. They sought to clarify the sovereignty which was actually on offer, a settlement which would in fact have served to disarm and divide the labour movement as opposed to empowering it, relinquishing both our organic links with colleagues down south and critically, surrendering levers to regulate capital residing in London. They struck a cautionary stance, reflecting the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s concern that the ideal state for global capital – see the looming realities of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - was the ever smaller, more vulnerable state. They exposed the SNP as a Party to whom the negotiations of Scotland’s sovereignty could not be entrusted.

These members sought out platforms, published ‘Class, Nation and Socialism’ as a collection of essays carefully surveying the economic and political realities of Scottish society, engaged in debate while at all times carefully preserving a space within the CfS for those who thought differently.  They advanced the principles of ‘Home Rule’ expounded by Keir Hardie at the inception of our movement, for a federal UK with a central government equipped with the levers essential if we are to regulate capital and collectivise the fruits of our labour.

And we can point to an impact disproportionate to our numbers. As the Better Together Campaign was exposed for its dearth of ideas and fatally compromised by its relationship with the Tories, the Red Paper Collective was able to exert an influence which could challenge the fake social democratic claims of the SNP’s Yes campaign. Despite modest numbers, this was an example of what can be achieved by standing on principled but unfashionable ground.

Of course not all members of CfS adopted the same position and some members supported Yes as a means of better advancing socialism in Scotland and breaking the British imperialist state. But irrespective of referendum positions things must move on.

Indeed, CfS supporters will now be returning to their CLPs and union branches with the credentials of activists who provided the intellectual ballast for a No campaign otherwise bereft of conviction or analysis. Scottish Labour has, by directing their campaign through Better Together, contributed to a measure of rehabilitation for the Tories. For the first time in a long time the Right find themselves on the winning side in an election north of the border. A large section of the Scottish working class now hold Labour in contempt, posing real concerns for the electoral consequences of our timidity. The insipid nature of Labour’s UK Party Conference – with Ed Balls delivering more austerity-lite guarantees to the Establishment as if the times called for further triangulation rather than boldness – suggest little has been learned.

CfS and our sister organisation the Labour Representation Committee find ourselves having to defend in very difficult circumstances an orientation to the political wing of our movement. As the Tories make clear their vision of unrelenting class warfare, if the Party is to survive as a potential vehicle for transformative politics it must learn the lessons of the Scottish campaign. The CFS and its allies on the Labour left are currently the only elements working to generate the ideas, verve and imagination critical to the Party’s future survival. With the 2015 General Election looming, the stakes are higher than ever. Home Rule for a purpose must be fought for by the combined weight of the UK labour movement. We need not await Westminster consensus.

Should the political classes’ precipitous decline in legitimacy continue, a significant lurch to the Right may result, a shift from which Scotland would not by default be insulated. Politics abhors a vacuum, and as Katy Clark MP has argued, we must ‘push issues of class and social justice up the political agenda’ and confront the ‘frustration and despair caused by austerity economics.’ The febrile state of Scottish and UK politics – as evidenced by recent English by-election results – offers Labour a once in a generation opportunity to re-shape politics in the interests of working people in the post-referendum period. With the Scottish Party’s front bench showing tentative but welcome signs of a shift to the left, CfS is well-positioned to help shape policy away from the deadening narrative of austerity.

The Citizen is the journal of the Campaign for Socialism (CfS), the sister organisation of the LRC in Scotland.

For more details contact Paul McFarlane, Flat 12/15 Gardens, Edinburgh, EH7 5NS.


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