They Have No Mandate: Reclaiming Scotland Part 1
In an important post-election piece, Donald Adamson looks at the options for the independence movement. Despite recent polls there’s no doubt that there’s a need for reflection and re-organisation and this time, in the aftermath of Edwin Morgan and Jimmy Reid’s death is a good time to come together to do this .
We invite contributions to Bella be part of this over the next few weeks. A key part of this is should we focus on the Tory mandate in Scotland. Adamson is clear enough:
…the long-standing no mandate argument, in spite of what its critics argue, is relevant in Scotland. But there are grounds for taking this further, to the extent that the SNP and, more broadly, the independence-supporting left in Scotland need to promote the significance of the no mandate argument, it must not be left to speak for itself.
Adamson asks: should the SNP could boycott Westminster elections as a means of further undermining the authority of Westminster in Scotland and focusing the struggle for independence exclusively onto the Scottish Parliament? Ultimately he demands for the politics of resistance and opposition, to be replaced by the politics (and economics) of transformation.
Donald Adamson writes: The recent opinion polls on voting intentions for next year’s Holyrood elections showing a recovery in Scottish Labour’s position from 2007 suggest that normal business is being resumed in Scottish politics. But however disappointing such polls may be at the moment for nationalists, they are neither surprising nor necessarily a setback for the cause of independence.
With the exception, ironically, of the 1980s, Scottish Labour has in recent decades been the main beneficiary of the anti-Tory reflex in Scotland. With the official Tories now re-instated in government at Westminster, we should not be surprised that Scottish Labour voters, in the immediate aftermath of Scottish Labour’s ‘defeat’ in the 2010 general election, should respond to their latest disenfranchisement at a British general election by carrying over their opposition to the Tories into voting intentions for Holyrood. In other words, the long-standing no mandate argument, in spite of what its critics argue, is relevant in Scotland. But there are grounds for taking this further, to the extent that the SNP and, more broadly, the independence-supporting left in Scotland need to promote the significance of the no mandate argument, it must not be left to speak for itself.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Scottish Labour demonstrated its implicit belief that 18 years of Thatcherism was a price worth paying to keep Scotland in the union. Should David Cameron’s ‘new’ Tories remain in government for the next two decades then, for Scottish Labour, that too will be a price worth paying to keep Scotland in the union. That much seems clear and it is surely the threat of this – as well as the painful reality of another Tory government – that the independence-supporting left in Scotland needs to mobilise around.
Not surprisingly, Scottish Labour has no official response to the no mandate argument. In so far as there has been a response, it seems to have consisted of a figurative shrug of the shoulders and a tacit admission that in British ‘democracy’ that’s the way the cookie crumbles. The absence of an official response from Scottish Labour to the no mandate argument means that some proxy needs to be found and, fortunately, there is a helpful one available. In the concluding comments of her maiden speech at Westminster on June 7th 2010, the new Labour MP for Glasgow East, Margaret Curran, came as close as anyone in Scottish Labour has to acknowledging the no mandate argument:
“I hope that the coalition government pay close attention to the voting patterns in my constituency, my city and my country, because those people made it very clear that they do not want to return to an agenda of cuts and unemployment. I hope that, in the spirit of the new politics, the government will pay due attention to that”.
A less charitable view of Curran’s comments would be that, as in the 1980s and 1990s, this is what Scottish Labour is reduced to. A humiliating appeal to the benevolence of a Tory government at Westminster, and this from the party that has just won a 42 per cent share of the vote and 70 per cent of seats in Scotland. If this is the hope of Scottish Labour, that this time round the Tories will show more mercy to Scotland then, as in the 1980s and 1990s, Curran’s party, not to mention her constituents, city and country are destined to be disappointed. Indeed, the SNP could do a lot worse than include this excerpt from Curran’s speech in its campaign literature for the elections to the Scottish Parliament next year. For whatever the outcome of the 2011 Holyrood election, Scottish Labour will be in an invidious position and the no mandate argument can only assume greater significance.
The much-vaunted ‘perfect storm’ anticipated by many nationalists after 1999 – of an SNP government at Holyrood and a Tory government at Westminster – has, for the moment, been eclipsed by the need to prepare for the exigencies of the latest capitalist crisis. But another perfect storm awaits the victors in 2011. This time, it will be more serious and more protracted as the realities of crisis-management kick in. Should Scottish Labour win next year, the meaningless mandate that they were given by the Scottish electorate in the 2010 British general election can only brew this perfect storm further. In these circumstances, Scottish Labour will not only be undermined by its meaningless Westminster mandate but this, in turn, will be compounded by the prospect of a Scottish Labour government at Holyrood charged with the responsibility of implementing the public spending cuts of a Tory government at Westminster. In effect, Scottish Labour would then have two meaningless mandates. Again, in the event of this, the SNP and the independence-supporting left must not leave these meaningless mandates to speak for themselves.
This suggests a number of possibilities. One of these is the adoption of a strategy by the SNP and the independence-supporting left that is oriented, among other things, to forcing the issue of the no mandate argument. Unlike the 2010 British general election, the SNP does not have to raise the spectre of ‘vote Labour get Tory’ in 2011, that much will be self-evident to Scottish Labour voters next year.
Although the SNP can legitimately claim to be a ‘left of centre’ party, its philanthropic business-model nationalism (a benign mirror image of New Labour’s) has failed to connect with Scottish Labour voters. There are, of course, many reasons for this. For example, the model itself (Matheronomics) is past its sell-by date; the depth of loyalty that Scottish Labour commands, particularly in the central belt (a complex phenomenon in itself) is a long-standing obstacle; the intrinsic appeal of devolution to many Scottish Labour voters; the apparent robustness of British hegemony; Scottish Labour’s historical appeal to the working class, a language that the SNP, like New Labour in England, dare not speak and so on.
Against this, the SNP can argue (with some justification) that the momentum of reform is in its favour, so why not let incremental change run its course? The problem with this is that it more or less sums up where the SNP is right now. That is, stuck in the reformist cul-de-sac of devolution and, short of an (unlikely) independence referendum, with no obvious exit.
The Tories’ proposals to re-organise Westminster constituencies and reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster to 50 suggests another possibility which, though it has little prospect of being endorsed by the SNP leadership, would force the no mandate argument as an issue. The SNP could boycott Westminster elections as a means of further undermining the authority of Westminster in Scotland and focusing the struggle for independence exclusively onto the Scottish Parliament.
One of the services that the Thatcher legacy provided to the cause of independence is that it fatally undermined the legitimacy of Westminster to govern Scotland. At the same time, devolution saved the legitimacy of Scottish Labour. Having won four consecutive general elections between 1979 and 1992, Scottish Labour nevertheless found itself in this period as an impotent opposition throughout the 18 years of Thatcher and Major governments. Part of the internal logic of devolution, from Scottish Labour’s perspective, is that devolution could be implicitly sold as a means of offering some protection to Scotland from the policies of a Tory government at Westminster, currently the “agenda of cuts and unemployment”, as Margaret Curran called them, of the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, Scottish Labour cannot afford to overplay this implicit feature of devolution for it would then find itself aligned with the SNP.
A policy of boycotting Westminster elections has numerous implications but, given the unlikelihood that the SNP leadership would endorse it, there is little point in pursuing them here. A more fruitful prospect perhaps is to acknowledge that the independence-supporting left in Scotland has a unique opportunity to play a potentially decisive role as an agent of change. At the moment, the SNP is clearly the party best placed to advance the cause of Scottish independence but it may not be the party best placed to deliver independence or, rather, it is unable to deliver independence on its own.
There is an electoral space and an ideological space in Scottish politics for a new party, or perhaps a little more realistically, a new independence political movement that is to the left of the SNP and Scottish Labour but which, at the same time, could appeal to a broader constituency than the SSP, Solidarity and the Scottish Greens. A movement that could target Scottish Labour’s heartlands and act as a mobilising agent for a Scottish ‘progressive alliance’, as a means of delivering independence. No one familiar with the history of Scottish politics, particularly over the last 30 years, would suggest such a party/movement with any optimism. We need only recall the fate of the real Scottish Labour Party in the early 1980s and the more recent history of the SSP to discourage this particular flight of fancy.
But if the independence–supporting left in Scotland is to transcend the politics of resistance and opposition, and practice the politics, and more importantly the economics, of transformation, doesn’t the present conjuncture, the crisis of both capitalism and the British state demand such a response from the Scottish left?
The contradictions of the Tories’ ‘new’ politics have a perverse relevance here. From the perspective of the Scottish left, it can be said that the Tories have some of the right slogans but they espouse them for all the wrong reasons. Britain is broken, but not because its streets are terrorised by ‘feral’ teenagers, ‘rabid’ drug addicts, ‘criminally-inclined’ economic migrants, or because of the economic burden of ‘work-shy’ benefits claimants, ‘grasping’ single parents or any of the other usual culprits that so animate the Tory right. Britain is broken because Scotland and England are two very different countries with different national interests and aspirations, two countries which, increasingly, are growing further apart.
Many on the Scottish left would also endorse George Osborn’s invocation that, “We’re all in this together” but for reasons that would horrify the Tories. As Marx recognised, capitalism is the first mode of production in human history to create the conditions for truly socialised mass production and consumption. But as long as capital, investment, credit provision etc remain in private hands then so long will we remain relatively powerless in the face of capitalist crises and their devastating consequences.
It would be naive to suggest that the consistent support of the majority of Scottish voters for left of centre parties is a demand for socialism. But it is surely an expression of an aspiration for a new Scotland, a different Scotland that no British government, Labour or Tory, and certainly not the British state can ever satisfy. In fact, as all the evidence consistently suggests, the British state can only continue to frustrate these aspirations.
This is surely also the time for a ‘new politics’ in Scotland but again, in ways that would horrify the Tories. Not a politics of constitutional fine-tuning, regulatory tweaking, institutional reorganisation or the promotion of the ‘third sector’ and social ‘entrepreneurs’. But a genuinely new politics which a Scottish ‘progressive alliance’ ought to be articulating and promoting, not simply as a means of connecting with the Scottish people but to encourage them to claim ownership of it, on the understanding that an independent Scotland offers the only means of realising their aspirations.
Inevitably, the initial focus of any such alliance would be on mobilising support to reclaim the reserved powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. But more importantly, it is Scotland itself, including the Scottish economy that needs to be reclaimed by the Scottish people.
A new political party or movement, acting to orchestrate an alternative agenda of a progressive Scottish alliance, could make a significant contribution to shaping the preferences of Scottish Labour voters towards independence as a means of democratising Scotland, a democratisation that must be based not only on political democracy but on economic democracy. More than this, it could develop and promote a vision for an independent Scotland based on a range of policies. Among other things, bank nationalisation, community credit unions underwritten by the state to provide sustainable investment and greater economic security, the development of local social markets to promote alternatives to neo-liberal marketisation and market governance as well as to the relentless growth agenda of neo-liberalism, education for life for all Scottish adults enabling any adult to enter full-time higher education, a basic income guaranteeing all Scottish citizens a liveable means of subsistence, a new industrial relations settlement and the repeal of the Thatcherite trade union legislation, workers cooperatives and a shorter working week. These and numerous other policies could form the basis of an alternative agenda for an independent Scotland in the twenty-first century.
What the Scottish left must not do is to repeat the same mistakes of the 1980s and 1990s. This time round, self-satisfied but impotent opposition to the Tories and the British state is surely not an option. Independence is an idea whose time has come but it is an idea that must move beyond the politics of resistance and opposition, and embrace the politics and economics of transformation. ‘New’ politics same old economy is one slogan that’s best left to the Tories.