Monday, 7 September 2009

Referendum relevance

This article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 23/9/09.
At the same time as Alex Salmond was presenting his Governments legislative programme for the coming year to the Scottish Parliament, including as it does the Bill for a referendum on Independence, undertakers were presenting two corpses to the army for burial. Twenty four year old Kevin Elliott from Dundee and his comrade Stuart Millar from Inverness were killed in a war 60% of Scots don’t support.
Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat MSP’s far removed from the hell that is Helmand province, lined up to denounce Salmond’s referendum as ‘an irrelevance’. Labour leader Iain Gray said it was ‘constitutional vandalism, an unwelcome distraction from the job of fighting the recession’. Annabel Goldie for the Tories accused Salmond of ‘posturing’ and Tavish Scott dismissed it as ‘being more about the SNP’s internal politics’ than anything else.
As ever in politics it pays to look at the context of any debate. Scotland is a nation which has repeatedly made it clear that, left to its own devices, it would not have troops fighting, and dying, in Afghanistan. Yet we are not afforded a referendum on that choice. Scotland also asserted its opposition to the war in Iraq but got no referendum then either. Our opposition to nuclear weapons based on the Clyde and our opposition to the monarchy is similarly ignored.
Scotland’s political ‘centre of gravity’ has been to the left of New Labour for some time. The SNP have exploited this fact in recent years. People rejected PFI but New Labour pressed ahead and privatised schools, hospitals, prisons and council housing. Scots favour redistribution of wealth and public ownership but the party of neo liberalism rejected these values.
Salmond argues that the referendum is no dry constitutional argument and he’s right.
This is about democracy itself and Labour in particular is in a complete ‘fankle’ on the issue. Iain Gray’s predecessor Wendy Alexander claimed, during her brief and ineffectual spell at the helm, that Labour would welcome a referendum. ‘Bring it on’ she goaded Salmond famously, believing voters would reject Independence outright. She calculated this tactic would ‘shoot Salmond’s fox’. In the end the only thing ‘shot’ was poor old Wendy herself, forced to resign after a Parliamentary Committee found her guilty of tawdry financial misdemeanours.
Yet the argument for the referendum remains potent, ‘Let the people decide’. Those who deny Scots their say risk being branded ‘democracy deniers’ by voters.
Of course there is a legitimate concern within the left that the ‘break up’ of the UK could weaken the working class movement as a whole in these islands. But it need not be so. Our movement has never moved at the same pace throughout Britain throughout history. The important advances made by working class activism in East London, Merseyside, South Wales, Clydeside, Yorkshire or the North East for example in the 20th century didn’t hold us back from developing general unions, the shop stewards movement, advancing women’s suffrage or defeating the poll tax.
The Referendum may not happen at all if MSP’s vote the Bill down but the wider Independence debate will continue nonetheless and in an altogether different atmosphere if, as seems inevitable David Cameron wins the Westminster General Election. This outcome will inevitably lead to yet another ‘democratic deficit’ for Scotland. It was just such a painful and enduring experience under Thatcher which ultimately forced the arch-centralist Tony Blair to concede a Scottish Parliament in 1997, an assembly he famously and accurately described as having all the powers of a ‘parish council’.
The Scottish Socialist Party supports a referendum on Independence because we believe the voice of the people should be heard after an informed debate with the option of Independence thoroughly evaluated. We will campaign for a ‘yes’ vote because we believe the break up of the British state to be a thoroughly progressive step. Let’s not forget this is the state which as well as leading us into senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is also the 4th largest arms exporter in the world, with its own nuclear ‘weapons of mass destruction’ based on the Clyde, which has been at the forefront of neo liberal exploitation worldwide and maintains the worst anti trades union legislation in Western Europe. The ruling classes in Britain vehemently oppose any diminution of that power. We should not.
The Scottish Socialist Party is convinced working people and the poor in Scotland, the strongest advocates for Independence today, will be economically, socially, culturally and politically better off if we are able to determine our own future. We believe that the question should now be put.

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