Beyond the Scottish referendum

neverbedeceivedBy Mike Sabot, in a personal capacity.

It’s less than one month to the Scottish independence referendum on 18th September.

I’m not going to tell you to vote or not vote. Some anarchists will abstain and focus on organising where they are, others will vote Yes in the hope of at least a few reforms.

But if you do vote Yes, make it a wholly pragmatic choice – don’t buy into the ideology of the Yes campaign or its variant, left nationalism.

Whatever the rhetoric of some on the Left,* this is a Scottish nationalist campaign, just as the No camp represents a British nationalism.  Anyone who cares about class struggle politics needs to strongly oppose both.

Nationalism, whatever form it takes, does two things: it tries to create a community of interest between the bosses and the working class; and it binds this community to the capitalist nation-state, reinforcing the latter’s power and role in exploitation.

There is no genuinely ‘progressive’ form that this can take.

We have, as Paul Mattick observed, a century of experience of national liberation struggles where apparently progressive anti-imperialist movements culminated in an oppressive new ruling class. 

And we could now potentially see a new wave of independence movements in Europe in response to neoliberal restructuring and the more immediate crisis of capitalism.  Do we expect different results?

New divisions and rivalries among European workers are not something to be applauded.  Neither is the spectacle of a decidely bourgeois-led independence movement like that in Catalunya, where a more wealthy region seeks to stop ‘subsidising’ the rest of Spain.


But smaller states are better and more democratic? 

Well, if we were to take a critical look at actually existing small European states we find:

  • that they’re certainly no more favourable to workers’ organising;
  • they are also coercive (which is the role of any state apparatus) and can be just as authoritarian (an exceptional example being the role played by the Catholic church backed by the Irish state);
  • they have been remarkably open to neoliberalism and austerity (which has had a devastating effect on small states from Finland to the Netherlands, nevermind southern Europe);
  • there is a growing anti-immigrant trend related to systemic white supremacy across northern Europe;
  • that some have also sent willing to send troops abroad (Denmark in Afghanistan) or have aided others who have (Ireland again, offering Shannon airport for use by the US Air Force);
  • and they are always subject to the dictates of larger supranational structures and of capital itself.

‘When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called “the People’s Stick”.’ – Mikhail Bakunin

The claim made both in the Yes campaign and on the Left that Scotland too can be a ‘normal democracy’, is an astounding attempt to ignore the obvious bankruptcy of representative democracy and its living critique in recent global social movements. 

Even if the Scottish government is for now less likely to introduce draconian measures like the Bedroom Tax or adopt an anti-immigration stance, this is not in any sense a static situation.  Massive political-economic forces will be brought to bear on post-independent government policy – it will make cuts and it will use its borders in its own economic interests.

Small states are more than capable of manufacturing consent or of over-ruling public opinion when they need to (take the famous ‘crowdsourced constitution’ in Iceland, which was in fact quietly buried by the government). The real ‘democractic deficit’ will continue post-independence.

What about the Scottish Left? 

It is in content a mix of left nationalism and nostalgic social democracy.  It argues against neoliberalism rather than capitalism itself – a winning strategy for regaining seats in parliament, but absolutely nothing to do with fundamental social change. 

Both Common Weal and the vision of the Radical Independence campaign are concerned with trying to manage capitalism better.

Surely hegemonic on the Left, Common Weal is an explicitly class collaborationist think-tank – nicely summed up in its slogan ‘All of us first’.  Its proposals in creating a high-growth economy, are in reality about increasing the rate of exploitation and outcompeting workers internationally. 

Its advocacy of ‘work councils’ to smooth relations in the workplace is a necessary part of increasing productivity – i.e. profit.  Where they have been used in Europe they have consistently undermined unions and workers’ militancy.

Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence, the most comprehensive statement made by members of the Radical Independence campaign, is a call for united frontism to the extent that socialism – even a bureacratic state ‘socialism’ – isn’t even on the agenda, but is treated as a utopian project for some distant future. 

It seeks to create a Scottish broad left – not an ‘anti-capitalist’ – party along the lines of Syriza or Die Linke, and it reproduces the same ‘Keynesian wish list’ based on the same weak analysis of the state and capital, critiqued so well by Michael Heinrich.   

Like Common Weal, it sprinkles radical rhetoric – participatory democracy, decentralisation – on its reformism.  It doesn’t differ substantially from the latter, but offers mild criticism of certain aspects, including its support for the Nordic model.

The Nordic example

Small states par excellence, Common Weal want us to emulate the Nordic states where thanks to a number of reasons – a strong labour movement,  available natural resources etc. – it has been able to maintain more of its welfare provision than Britain.  From an international perspective, these countries have been labour aristocracies living off the toil of workers abroad.

But all of the Nordic states have experienced their own neoliberal offensive and inequality is growing there too.  Asbjørn Wahl has shown how even in oil-rich Norway the welfare state is being eroded from within and the ideology of workfare is growing in strength. 

He insists that constant reference to Nordic countries’ position in international league tables is unhelpful:

The problem is that all the teams in the league table are being weakened. Or to use another image, we still have a cabin on the upper deck, but it is the upper deck of Titanic, and the ship as a whole is sinking. (2011: 11)

The Nordic example is incredibly useful, however. We can learn a great deal from the internal class contradiction and struggle in these countries, which belies the case made by social democrats here. 

In the Nordic Left we find a debate going on about how to combat the challenge to welfare provision.  Along with Wahl, the work of Swedish welfare academic, Daniel Ankarloo, is particularly interesting.

He argues that the labour movement there has been ‘weakened by […] class co-operation’ (2009) and belief in a ‘social policy road to socialism’ (2008: 78-84) – i.e. that somehow the welfare model was an example of socialism in practice that just needed to be expanded.  Instead, to defend existing gains as well as to fight for a different society, we need to rediscover class militancy and that this, ‘radicalisation must […] come from below in the form of the self-organisation of the labour movement’ (2009).

Welfare struggles, rather than commitment to welfare statism itself, are a crucial part of this – strengthening the working class and its capacity to struggle (ibid.).

Ankarloo rightly argues that this movement needs to organise across society and in the rank-and-file of unions. We should also draw inspiration from the revolutionary syndicalist SAC in Sweden and the broader Nordic extra-parliamentary Left, which is far more organised than any similar movements in Scotland or the UK.

Renewing the struggle

None of the promised reforms of the Yes campaign are guaranteed.

We should not trust an independent Scottish state to share much wealth, to protect NHS provision, not to attack the unemployed or the disabled, not to make cuts, to deport people or remove trade union restrictions.

Some are hopeful that the grassroots pro-independence movement will produce an oppositional social movement after secession.  But this is wishful thinking.  It would require it to reject its own ideological basis, its very nature as a cross-class alliance organised by forces who seek to gain political power.

Aspirations for social change, for ‘democratic control’ and redistribution of wealth in this movement should be encouraged but pointed in a revolutionary direction.

If the nationalist project isn’t soon wrecked on the rocks of its own contradictions, we will need to work to fragment it.

Whatever the result of this referendum, the lasting gains we need depend most of all on our own capacity as a class for itself to organise and struggle.

A genuine and practical internationalism is key to this. 

Hope lies not in trying to create new labour aristocracies or the international solidarity of left nationalists, but in uniting workers struggling from below against state, capital, patriarchy and white supremacy around the world.


*There has been a great deal of confusion, or obfuscation, over the meaning of ‘nationalism’.  Green party co-convenor, Patrick Harvie, for example insisted that he is not a nationalist, some have tried to distinguish between a ‘good’ (small or new state or civil) nationalism versus a ‘bad’ (large state or imperialist or ethnic) nationalism, others have made facile declarations of ‘internationalism’ – another term warped out of recognition.  We should judge people by their actions not their rhetoric: do they foster a cross-class imagined community and social change through the state or not?

Daniel Ankarloo (2008), The dualities of the Swedish welfare model

                          (2009), A new phase of neoliberalism: collapse and consequences for Sweden

Asbjørn Wahl (2011), The rise and fall of the welfare state


Independent and Free? A Glasgow anarchist’s take on Scottish Independence

Written by Mike Sabot, member of Glasgow AFed in a personal capacity, this article aims to respond to the rise of the Scottish independence movement and to encourage a libertarian socialist critique.indfree

One way or another, the political landscape in Scotland and Britain as a whole is going to change after 2014 and it’s difficult to say what course this will take. Although polls consistently show the SNP-led Scottish Government has a long way to gain majority support for independence, it’s quite possible that they could bring about a swing in opinion. But even were they to fail in achieving full independence it seems inevitable that Scottish institutions will take on more powers and that the process itself will have a lasting impact on Scottish society. As committed internationalists, anarchists oppose nationalism in any form. Rather than simply repeat long-standing principles, however, we need to articulate some kind of an analysis and ask ourselves how potential state reorganization will affect us and the wider class struggle and what exactly we should be doing and arguing as the independence debate increases in intensity. This requires collaboration and discussion among anarchists in Scotland but also with comrades elsewhere and so here I only offer a few of my own opinions on the question.

We don’t deny that Scotland is a nation but that nations are not something communists can support. They are always in some way defined by and tied to the state and are a means to bring about cohesion and identity across classes. Although often termed the ‘stateless nation’, the different cultures, regions and classes of Scotland were given an imposed unity by the pre-1707 state which was thereafter maintained from above through the continuance of a number of institutions and a semi-autonomous bourgeoisie and, contradictorily, from below by resistance to British centralized power and cultural uniformity. When the benefits of empire had declined after the Second World War and oil wealth was discovered off the north east coast, there was a stronger capitalist case for increased autonomy but also growing popular disillusionment with centralized British state provision – underlined by Thatcherism’s attacks on the social wage and traditional heavy industries. Together they coalesced into a resurgence of national feeling which culminated in devolution at the end of the 20th-century. This has only increased the momentum of Scottish national feeling and nationalism: more state power, in this case, encouraged and required the emphasis of the national entity and vice versa.

The SNP has been following a balancing act. Firstly, it appeals to the working class through social democratic policies well to the left of any Westminster party. In an independent Scotland, they claim that the British nuclear arsenal would be removed from the country, Scottish troops would no longer be sent to fight in places like Afghanistan, the government would prioritize renewable energy and the welfare state would be defended. At the same time, they pander to any businessperson willing to back them, aim to cut corporation tax and make Scotland more competitive (i.e. intensify the exploitation of labour) and, despite their environmental image, fully support the expansion of the oil industry through potentially disastrous deepwater drilling. This contradiction is summed up by Alex Salmond posing as he listens sympathetically to community campaigners and then hobnobbing with the likes of Brian Souter, Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump (before that blew up in his face).

What should anarchists be doing? I’ve been involved in a few ‘don’t vote, organize’ campaigns in past elections but there isn’t much of a case for actively campaigning against independence – especially since it’s unlikely that an open Scottish border would impede cross-border solidarity. To do so would be to de facto support the Unionists and it needs to be emphasized that each side of the debate represents a different nationalism. In truth, I don’t feel strongly about people voting in the referendum. If they think it’s worth the chance of, for example, finally getting rid of the nukes, rather than buying into nationalism, then I can understand that. As anarchists, we obviously shouldn’t argue for voting but nor should we fetishize the act of not voting. Of far more importance is that we are outside of the narrative and critique all political managers.

The Unionists (Labour, the Tories and LibDems) already come across as a crowd of imperial stormtroopers offering nothing but more of the same. However, especially since the left are unequivocally backing Scottish nationalism, there’s been little in the way of a challenge to the pro-independence camp’s claims or rhetoric of offering a social democratic alternative. Are we to believe the SNP will be different from other politicians and live up to all they promise? An independent government will have a substantial debt and still face the wider economic crisis; it will therefore have to rationalize its budget, drop promises and make cuts. We need only look at their current record to see this in action: although Scotland under the SNP has frequently been described as a safe haven for the welfare state in comparison to England there have been considerable cuts in NHS Scotland and an appreciable rundown in the service hospitals provide. Similarly, the SNP have been involved in cuts to services in councils across the country. This is, of course, what political managers have to do.

Scottish nationalists of all stripes claim that independence will represent a dramatic extension of democracy. Needless to say, ‘we’ will not have control over our own destiny if Scotland were to gain independence. Talk of Scots ruling themselves and of self-determination is an appealing rhetoric which masks the continuity of the class system: the working class will not suddenly become empowered but wealth and power will remain concentrated in the hands of a few. It is possible that independence will allow for social movements in Scotland to have a greater degree of influence but there will also be new opportunities for these movements to be co-opted. The decision-making power of the Scottish state itself will always be subject to the vagaries of global capital, the movement of transnationals, the bullying of London and controlling eye of the EU and IMF. More importantly, having a smaller nation state won’t lead to ever smaller democratic units and it won’t replace representative democracy with participative, direct democracy. To suggest otherwise is simply naïve, and misunderstands that working class people can only gain power for themselves through struggle.

The democratic myth is a large part of leftists’ justification for supporting an independent state. The Scottish Socialist Party sees it as a means for rejuvenating their brand of parliamentary socialism which, relying as it does on electioneering and the state, is basically a vision of Old Labour in a Scottish context: nationalization, progressive taxation etc. Capitalism, as always, isn’t actually threatened, it’s accepted with the hope of greater state intervention and welfare. One of their platforms, the Republican Communist Network, bends over backwards to argue that Scottish independence is part of a strategy for ‘internationalism from below’. In this view, secession would be a significant attack on British imperialism. But British imperialism is a pale shadow of its former self, probably doesn’t require Scotland and isn’t of intrinsic importance to capitalism anyway.

Simply put, there is no reason to believe that in an independent Scotland libertarian socialist organizing would be in real terms any easier or that because of its existence we would see an upsurge in class struggle. Having the political class closer to home doesn’t necessarily make replacing them any less difficult. If anything, the intensification of the nationalist project championed by all apparently ‘progressive’ opinion could have a significant effect in mystifying power and class relations and undermining the self-organisation of the working class in favour of its passivity and support for new forms of failed ideas. The best way we can put our case across is not through debate of abstract beliefs but through our ideas being embodied in actually existing organization and having the ability to achieve small changes through direct action and build on them. The success of workers’ solidarity in Scotland will be vilified equally by nationalists of both sides of the debate but supported by militant workers in England and the rest of the world.

Lastly, I mentioned that Scottish national identity was in part maintained from below. What I mean by this is that the working class did experience cultural and political oppression as well as economic exploitation and that in Scotland they often reacted to this by relating it to concepts of national difference. Throughout modern Scottish history, workers’ movements have used the idea of a Scottish nation, some form of home rule, or even a socialist republic as a means to advocate their own power, cultures and meanings in opposition to centralized control. For anarchists, this was an alienated resistance which could never have challenged the real basis of their oppression in class society. Instead of writing off these movements, however, we can recognise that wrapped up in the rhetoric is a genuine aspiration for self-determination. We need to argue against Scottish nationalists or anyone who pushes state solutions from co-opting the term ‘self-determination’ because it could only ever truly mean workers’ directly democratic control of society.

Originally posted on Glasgow Anarchists blog.

Tactical Critique of the Radical Independence Conference, 2012

By a member of Glasgow AFed.


Recently I was accused of being a unionist. The reason for this was due my refusal to set aside criticisms of the radical independence conference (RIC) and get behind the local campaigns of the Leninist, Trotskyist and state socialist left to push for independence as the primary goal for socialists (including myself as an anarchist). I’ll be fair and admit that the other person was mildly inebriated at the time, however as it was another anarchist repeating this hollow “trot dichotomy” between either full support for a yes vote (with no room for nuance or dissent until independence is won) or being a unionist it did enough to irk my anti-state self into writing this post to examine my personal thoughts on the tactics being employed in the name of “radical independence”.

I have had it conceded to me during friendly discussion with some of the listed ric supporters that independence will be hard to gain and that any vote is going to be close as there is only a independence/union option on the ballot. If improvement for the people of Scotland through representative democracy was the goal then the SNP would have fought tooth and nail to have two questions on the referendum – the first a yes/no on independence, the second a yes/no for a set of further devolved powers. That way even if the independence vote didn’t go in their favour then Holyrood  would almost certainly walk away with powers that could be used for positive social change. So why didn’t they do this?

The main reason is that, in spite of what many people have bought into, independence isn’t a struggle between the working and ruling class but is instead a struggle between competing sections of the ruling class over the long-term control of energy resources (oil, wind & tide) and other profitable industries (education, whiskey & fish). Rather than doing this old school, the bosses are using their sway over the working class as the means to settle their dispute. If the nat’s walked away with more powers but not rule they would have to give concessions to the people until next opportunity to take charge rolled around. Rule further down the line would not be on such favourable terms, not to mention years of profiteering being missed for those in charge here and now.

To be clear: This vote isn’t about working class power, it is a means for the capitalists to settle an argument amongst themselves.

While people are putting their resources toward a shot at independence in a couple of years time austerity is attacking now. People are homeless, starving, dying now. Disability reassessments and workfare schemes are increasing in severity now. Banking on your ability to hold politicians to promises after the count is in is little more than desperately begging for scraps from the table (though I’m sure that any scrap will be held aloft as a marvellous victory for the working class).

Not only do we need to tackle problems happening now, but we should also use methods that will foster the kind of change that mean that these problems will be unlikely to repeat themselves. Solutions to our current problems have to help cultivate a truly socialist society further down the line. Independence is just a means of getting two states for the price of one, and once the euphoria of having backed the winning ticket dies down we’ll see the ric message that things can only get better will be exposed as the lie that we have heard many times before and the changes between one set of suits and another will be no change at all.

If those on the left want to call themselves radical with any credibility them they would be agitating for changes to be made before the referendum, not after, taking those changes from whoever was willing to implement them. Anarchists often are accused of being unrealistic, however the old adage that a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush seems apt in this situation. If you are going to vote for the politicians then do it after they have given you what you want, not before. Both nat’s and unionists could be giving concessions at the moment, but without any pressure to do something tangible the nat’s have already gone back on their promises before the vote takes place while still securing essential support with nothing more than token lip service.

It may seem counter intuitive, but if those participating in ric could have put the matter of independence to one side it could have been used to mobilise the socialist left into a massive anti-austerity pressure group focussed on that nats, withholding a sizeable campaigning/voting block from them and kicking up a stink if they didn’t start a sizeable fight for the people of Scotland NOW. But, as I said above, this isn’t about securing the best for the people or a socialist Scotland; this is a “refined” fight for the control of resources.

My prediction is that one of two outcomes will occur and leave energetic campaigners feeling disillusioned and burnt out:

The first option is that independence will fail to materialize. The lack of a reflexive plan of action coupled with burn-out and disillusionment from many involved in the independence campaign will cause a dip in the campaigning output of socialist groups at precisely the time it needs to be in full swing for fighting austerity measures that are destroying peoples lives. Lots of time will be spent picking up the pieces while our class enemies consolidate their position after two years of our attention being split. I like to call this outcome “Stop the War II – History Repeats Itself” (Do you remember Stop the War? I know some folks at RIC do because they are still clutching at the straws of that one to hoover people up).

The second (and less likely) outcome is that the two year of campaigning pay off leaving Scotland is it’s own nation, and while we get a few initial concessions a lot of what is happens is smoke and mirrors and things carry on much as before only this time it is worse because we’ll find that as a smaller nation that we’ll be racing to the bottom in terms of worker’s rights and the regulation of capital interests. The refusal of the RIC campaign to acknowledge that things could have got worse will either lead to campaigners fitting into the new system and justifying to themselves that they haven’t sold out or becoming disillusioned and dropping out of socialist campaigning for good.

So what can we, as socialists and anarchists, do now? I say we back community building, anti-Atos and anti-Workfare campaigns that are organised in a collective, directly democratic manner. The Solidarity FederationIWW branches and groups within the Anarchist Federation have been doing just that, but they are not alone. Claimants unions and solidarity networks up and down the country encourage people to defend themselves and one another from the cuts. Here in Glasgow Unity fights to ensure asylum seekers are treated fairly and works to stop the UKBA practice of dawn raids against families. Social centre projects look to preserve the sense of community that is being destroyed by capitalism and the state. All told we should just be doing all the things we would have done before the spectacle of independence kicked off, and all the things we’d otherwise have to pick up from once the furore dies down a few years from now.

Well, that is all I’ve got to say on the subject (at least for now). If you were hoping to find out whether I advocate voting for/against/at all then you are out of luck. That said the topic has been examined by others on this blog, so go check out this post discussing independence struggles & worker freedom and take a listen to the discussion hosted by Glasgow Anarchist Federation on independence and nationalism.

From the Glasgow Anarchists blog.