Scottish Independence and the Left: An Exchange

by Phil Burton-Cartledge, Adam Ramsay

Would an independent Scotland strengthen or weaken the left?

First published: 18 September, 2014 | Category: Scotland

Would an independent Scotland weaken the left in the UK?  In the second of two New Left Project exchanges, Adam Ramsay and Phil Burton-Cartledge debate how Scottish independence would impact on political culture and the power of capital and labour in Scotland and the rest of the UK

Phil opens, followed by Adam, then a response from Phil and a concluding response from Adam.




Dear Adam,

I think it’s best we begin the conversation with points on which we can agree.  The mobilisation of masses of people in Scotland is a good thing. Whichever way the referendum vote goes I hope that movement can feed into progressive politics and positive social change.  It's also kicked the complacency of establishment politics into touch in the rest of Britain.  Seeing the powers that be squirm and panic as a huge movement blows up before them is something we do not see too often.  After today, we on the left have a hard job ensuring that not only is a new constitutional settlement for the rest of Britain argued for, but that it reflects the interests and aspirations of our class.  These sorts of moments seldom come, and to cede it to the wonks, the constitutional specialists, and little England isolationists, would be a terrible waste of an opportunity.  If socialists have little to say about how we should do politics, we should pack up and go home.

For all that, I remain extremely wary of a ‘Yes’ vote taking place in Scotland.  In spite of the engagement, the grassroots organisation, and the rare outbreak of political optimism, I think socialists and leftists are making a big mistake participating and agitating for the move to independence.  This isn’t because the soft social democracy assiduously cultivated by the SNP throughout the campaign fails a revolutionary purity test, or for whatever scaremongering reason financial institutions can cook up.  For me and other no’ers on the left, it comes down to two basic questions:

1. Will Scottish independence strengthen or weaken the labour movement?

2. Will Scottish independence strengthen or weaken British capital?

Firstly, it's no use pretending the labour movement is in anything but a weak state for all kinds of reasons, and I believe the key political struggle facing the left – regardless of individual politics and party affiliations – is rebuilding it.  This means reconstructing workplace organisation while battling against the dog-eat-dog common sense of our age.  This is not a linear process by any means, nor does it unfold according to some schematic timetable.  But it does mean using what opportunities come to hand.  One such opportunity is the general election next year, where there is a very real opportunity to return a Labour government.  Now, the policy agenda Labour is pursuing hardly heralds a coming red dawn.  But it will provide relief for some of our poorest and most vulnerable people by scrapping the bedroom tax, curtailing and partially reversing the marketisation of the NHS, undoing the iniquitous cash-for-tribunals system and significantly devolve power to local authorities.  These and other measures create a more favourable structure of opportunities for the left than a newly independent, but necessarily inward-looking Scotland, and more likely Tory rule for the remaining 58 million people.

Surely this downside is outweighed by the intrusion of many millions into the political arena?  Unfortunately, for all the networked organisations, the radical outfits, and non-affiliated people, this is a movement under the undisputed leadership of the SNP.  Its reach is powered by a soft left-populist rejection of Westminster and, despite what I hope for it, is likely to simply demobilise in the event of a ‘Yes’ victory.  I say this not because it’s convenient, but because this is what has happened to similar movements elsewhere.  Remember the mass movement against Le Pen in 2002?  Where did it go?  What happened to the defeated movement for Quebec independence?  Or what about the mobilisation of the grassroots for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign?  With radical groups present but by no means hegemonic, I can see ‘Yes’ heading the same way.

Second, on capital.  Putting aside blood-curdling business screams, there are two matters that need addressing here.  While the SNP are by no means guaranteed to be the government of an independent Scotland post-2016, their stated desire to undercut corporation tax in the rump UK by three pence is illustrative of a wider problem: the new border encourages a race to the bottom in who can offer the most ‘attractive’ environments for international capital.  Similarly an independent capitalist Scotland is weaker vs North Sea oil interests, the bond markets, finance capital, and large concerns like StageCoach, Ineos, and News International.  The same will be the case for the rump UK too.  Smaller states are easier to bully, especially when the elites who run them – as in Scotland and rUK – are utterly beholden to neoliberal common sense.

I'm afraid I cannot see how independence at this conjuncture would strengthen our class across Britain, and weaken capital.  I wish this were not the case, but it seems to me that a large number of good comrades are going along with a project of divide and rule.  I therefore look forward to your reply.






Dear Phil,

Thanks for your thoughts.  I'll start by addressing your two specific questions, then move on to a few other points. Would Scottish independence strengthen or weaken the labour movement?  And does it strengthen or weaken capital?

On the question of the labour movements, the STUC is already independent of the TUC, and that doesn't prevent them co-ordinating together where it makes sense to do so, and, with regards to Labour, I think, as I have written on New Left Project before, that it's important to look beyond the political arithmetic and to consider how a ‘Yes’ vote would impact on politics; how it would puncture the ubiquitous British nationalism and provide an opportunity for serious constitutional reform.

More importantly, I think, you've missed the third player in this game. The labour movement across the UK has two main enemies: capital, and the British state.  The former is particularly powerful here in part because of the strength of the latter in supporting it.  The structures of the British state were built for an elite to run an empire, not for the people to run the country, and they are mighty hard to hold to account.

Independence won't, on its own, be a particular blow to capital, and those of us voting yes mustn't delude ourselves that it will. However, those of you who are hoping for a no vote are deluding yourselves when you say things like ‘smaller states are easier to bully’. This implies that the British state is standing up to capital, rather than standing with it and doing the bullying.

Independence would be a blow to the British state.  And that will be a good thing for labour.  As James Meadway has put it, the strategy is to ‘divide the rulers, unite the class’.

Both ‘Britishness’, and the British state, are particularly regressive forces in the world.  The former, an identity flowing from an imperial construction, teaches us that we are magnificent and yet self-effacing, that we rule the waves, yet do it kindly.  This hegemonic nationalism props up our state, and has helped steer Britain to its place at the forefront of European and global neoliberalism.  In doing so it has not followed the march, but, along with the USA, led the charge – ‘punching above our weight’ to use the metaphor in vogue. Puncturing that national myth and loosening the grip of the British state would certainly be a good thing for the global working class as well as the working class in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

I think it's important to understand what's happened in the last fifteen years in Scotland, and what's been happened in the last two years. Let me start with the former.  What people here have discovered since the opening of the Scottish parliament is what it's like to have a relatively normal, modern, Northern European parliamentary democracy, as opposed to the anachronistic quasi-democracy of Westminster.

As you say, a democratic state in a capitalist world will always be preyed upon by capital.  But the difference is that in a functional democracy, it is possible for the people to, at least to some extent, hold the state to account. Holyrood is far from perfect, but it is a functional democracy.  Westminster is not. Scale matters too. It is in part because Scotland is a smaller country that it is easier to hold politicians to account. They simply can't get away with disappearing into the big city and being swallowed up. The result is that because it's possible to secure concessions from the state, people are more likely to be engaged in doing so, and less likely to be alienated from political institutions.  And the first question in any constitutional debate, surely, is whether it will in practice empower people against their rulers.

The second piece of context that I think many of our comrades to the South have, entirely understandably, missed, is the conversations on the Scottish left over the last couple of years.  I spent a month in Edinburgh in April, and went to numerous, packed out meetings of the radical left.  The topic was always the same: what to do after the referendum.  Though everyone was spending much of their time out on the doorstep campaigning for a yes vote, the meetings were not planning for that. They were discussions about the detail of how to stop capital from shaping our new state – how to ensure the SNP is more afraid of the people than the global markets, and so on.

I watched the PCS ‘Yes’ campaign summon a cabinet minister and tell him what they'd do if he allowed any of the big five accountancy firms anywhere near the new Scotland.  I listened to detailed discussions of the timeline of post-independence negotiations and how we could practically hold them to account, and so on. My point is that you are right to warn, but the guardian against global capital is not a powerful state but an empowered citizenry.  And independence will help with that.

I look forward to your reply.

Best wishes,





Dear Adam,

Thanks for your reply.  I wish I had the time to address all of your points, particularly on the character of Britishness.  Another time perhaps!

It was heartening to hear about the cooperation and comradeship in leftist circles north of the border, especially after the bitterness of the Sheridan affair.  Unfortunately, it appears to me that comrades have got caught up in the sense of optimism and hype surrounding your own successes and the wider impression made by the ‘Yes’ movement.  As I stated previously, mass movements clustering around a single issue and under the undisputed leadership  of organisations that are not on ‘our side’ have a tendency to evaporate.  Even the anti-poll tax movement, which was led by leftists, reached deep into working class communities and mobilised some 18 million in a campaign of non-payment rapidly exited the scene, leaving only a few traces here and there in a handful of communities.

I could, of course, be mistaken. If ‘Yes’ wins I will be very happy to be proven wrong.  But this raises an additional problem.  In the event of a victory, you and the rest of the left in Scotland will rightly be trying to stamp the emergent state with progressive politics.  Yet in doing so, you miss out on the bigger prize.

You were right to point out that not mentioning the British state was an oversight, and I have few quibbles with how you describe it.  The union as it stands is finished and a job of remaking has to be done.  The problem is the balance of forces are less favourable in England and Wales for a positive outcome to the coming battle of democracy.  Suggesting the left ‘up its game’ here, as Mark Thomas has done, isn't going to change that in the window of opportunity that exists.  Without the progressive Scottish voice participating in recasting of the British constitution, leftists in England and Wales will find it much harder to put a federalist, radical democratic vision forward with UKIP and the Tories doing the running.

You say Scottish independence will weaken the British state.  It is already weakened.  A united fight for democracy against the Tories and our other enemies will allow the radical spirit and the central questions of social justice raised by the ‘Yes’ campaign to flow south rather than disappearing.  Independence and the necessary turn inward to build a new nation will dam that up in Scotland.  Thus weakening the British state is bought at the price of weakening the labour movement in the rest of this island.  That is too high a price.

The referendum has precipitated an existential crisis in official politics.  Business as usual is impossible. The choice then is between  taking a chance on forging a new Scotland, or struggling for a new, possibly federal, Britain.  If you stay, we might just win.





Dear Phil,

Thanks for your reply.

You are certainly right to warn about structureless movements – as you say, they tend to dissipate, and the first job for the re-emerging Scottish left after the referendum will be to think seriously about longer term structures – conversations which have been happening in earnest over the last year or two.  But that argument applies equally to your proposition.  If it's a ‘No’ vote, there is a huge risk that the state kicks the ball to touch, papers over the cracks, the movement falls away and things return to business as usual with a little extra devolution for Scotland – likely in a form setting up the Scottish parliament to fail.  

Of course we must work together to ensure this doesn't happen, and that a federal Britain is delivered, but if I'm honest, a federal Britain would be second best for me.  What I'd prefer is a confederation of the Britain Isles – working together when it makes sense to do so, but bringing sovereignty and foreign policy to the parliaments closer to the people, where we have more chance of holding them to account.

And I think there’s a more fundamental point here too.  The hyped-up neoliberalism of Westminster has made the UK the most unequal country in Europe.  Independence won't on its own lead to socialism, but it does offer 5 million people on this island the chance to escape that particular system, and so it's reasonable to hope it would lead to a reduction in inequality in Scotland and an increase in the living standards of some of the poorest people on these islands.  Doing so won't prevent us from bolstering picket lines in England or working with social movements across the UK.  But it will stop us sending you MPs who are on the right of the Labour Party and are unaccountable to their constituents on most domestic policy. 

Finally, if the left in Scotland succeeds, even moderately, it will show people not just across the UK, but around the world, that ordinary people can win, that we hold the power and that those who wield it do so only with our permission.  Such opportunities are rare; and rarer in the UK.

With solidarity,


All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?