Scotland: 'The English left need to shut up and listen' on independence

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By Pam Currie

February 20, 2014 -- Morning Star -- Is Scotland, as is often claimed, really more progressive than the rest of Britain? This is an argument traditionally dismissed by the left: the working class of Glasgow have more in common with the working class of Birmingham and Liverpool than they do with the opulent suburbs of their own city, or the tiny aristocratic elite who still own the vast bulk of Scotland's land mass.

This is true -- but it ignores several important arguments, and trotted out by the London-based left it can seem as out of touch and dismissive as Westminster's politicians.

Let's take the seemingly unstoppable rise of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), for a start.

There's a real prospect that the right-wing party will significantly increase its representation in the European elections later this year, and with the Liberal Democrats' vote both north and south of the border in freefall it's conceivable even that they could be coalition partners in Westminster after 2015.

Yet in Scotland, the party has failed to save a single deposit, and their most favourable poll has placed them on an optimistic 7 per cent.

The impact of devolution should not be underestimated. Since its inception in 1999, the Scottish Parliament has been led by left-of-centre governments.

The Scottish National Party's social-democratic stance puts it well to the left of Labour in Scotland. It's worked for 30 years to throw off the "tartan Tories" tag of the 1970s and in 2011 it made inroads into seats held by Labour since the 1920s.

Free school meals and the abolition of prescription charges, originally proposed by Scottish Socialist Party MSPs -- have reinforced a distinct social policy north of the border, while devolution has defended Scots from the worst excesses of the current British government's regime.

Higher education remains free, and the National Health Service in one piece.

This didn't go unnoticed by the Scottish media during the 2011 riots in England. Other than a few daft Facebook comments, the unrest didn't reach the major Scottish cities.

Immigration, a key electoral issue in England, features less here. In part, this does reflect historical differences -- while Scotland has long-established Asian communities in the main cities, the then Labour government's decision to forcibly relocate asylum seekers in the early 2000s met some opposition in the impoverished Glasgow communities affected.

Fast forward a decade or more though and it's clear that "new Scots" are choosing to stay put. Across Scotland, the black and minority ethnic community has doubled from 2 per cent in 2001 to 4 per cent in 2011. In Glasgow, the increase was from 5 per cent to nearly 12 per cent.

Add to the mix migration from Poland, much of it to rural communities which have only ever known mass emigration, and you might expect Scottish nationalism to reflect a tartan version of the far-right British National Party.

Well, tell that to the sizable Scots-Asian community in the south side of Glasgow, pivotal in the rise of the SNP in the city.

Far from the "separatist" argument presented by Westminster, the independence debate in Scotland is rooted in internationalism, reflected in a recent study that found more positive attitudes to immigration in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain, but also that while 58 per cent of No voters wanted to see immigration reduced, this dropped to 27 per cent for Yes voters. In England, 75 per cent wanted immigration reduced.

But of course, Scotland must stay in the union -- not because it benefits the people of Scotland, but because without us, England would be banished to an eternal night of Conservative Party governments.

The idea that Scotland must stay in order to save the English from themselves is utterly bizarre. Like every democracy, England gets the government that it elects, including the current one.

If the English left want to rebuild, they need to start by appealing to English voters, not to those of neighbouring countries.

It's also just a statistically wrong argument. Analysis from the blog Wings over Scotland has shown that Scottish MPs have held the balance of power on just a handful of occasions.

In contrast, since 1970, Scotland has suffered six Conservative Party British governments -- including the current coalition -- with no democratic mandate whatsoever.

The history of the British left, in which I include the far left and the Labour Party, has been one of shameful neglect of the national question. Tony Blair created a Scottish Parliament in 1999 not out of political principle, but for two reasons -- because the political pressure from Scotland made it untenable for him to refuse home rule any longer, and because in the words of George Robertson, then shadow secretary of state for Scotland, "devolution (would) kill nationalism stone dead", a statement which has backfired spectacularly on the Labour Party ever since.

Scottish independence would be a brutal blow to the concept of an imperial British state. Witness the sudden unity of Westminster foes on the question of a currency union.

But the English left want the Scots to stay, because Scotland leaving means an uncomfortable discussion about what it means to be English in the 21st century.

What would Scottish independence mean for the left in Scotland and beyond?

Scotland would become an average-sized European country, taking its place on a global stage with others of similar size, with the advantages of a highly educated, English-speaking population and rich natural resources.

The idea that Scotland is too small, too weak, too dependent to make it on our own is laughable -- the question is not one of survival, but of what sort of Scotland we want.

A progressive, green Scotland could be an inspiration to others on the left around the world -- but most of all in our closest neighbour England.

As an activist in the Yes campaign, it's clear to me that this is not 1979 -- the first, failed, devolution referendum, held in the dying days of the James Callaghan Labour government -- when much of the labour and trade union movement was firmly in the No camp.

The Yes group in my small Ayrshire seaside town is vibrant and draws support from across the political spectrum -- from Communist Party stalwarts to retired business people who (a rare thing indeed in Scotland) openly admit to having voted Conservative.

SNP activists are there, of course, but they're increasingly outnumbered by those of no party affiliation.

At a recent Yes launch in the former mining village of Tarbolton the platform of five speakers included two socialists and a Labour-voting trade unionist -- and only one SNP member.

While the Scottish Trade Union Congress and most of its affiliates maintain neutrality, scores of individual trade unionists and Labour Party supporters are switching to Yes, driven by a desire to see a fairer and more equal Scotland and by disgust at the increasingly hysterical output of Labour politicians.

It's these people, and those they represent -- working-class voters in the Labour heartlands of west and central Scotland -- who are likely to be the kingmakers on September 18, 2014.

On polling day, the Scottish people will be asked a straightforward question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

There's no option for federalism, or for increased powers for the Scottish Parliament. That ship has sailed.

So where do we go in the next six months?

Above all the English progressive left, from the hard left to the trade union movement and the liberal press, need to shut up and listen.

We're only a few hours away by train. Why not come and talk to us?

Talk to the lifelong Labour Party activists and trade unionists who are putting their weight behind the Yes campaign because they believe it's the most progressive and forward thinking option on the table.

Talk to the young people, the lone parents, the low-paid workers, the "new Scots" immigrants.

You'll find that many of your preconceptions are challenged. And you might just change your mind.

[Pam Currie is a former national secretary of the Scottish Socialist Party and a Yes Scotland and Women For Independence activist.]