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The Problem With Scottish Independence


Independence for a country that is a dependent capitalist entity is illusory. Scotland, although a core capitalist nation whether or not it remains a part of the United Kingdom, will not prove to be an exception.

The governing Scottish National Party (SNP) promises the people of Scotland that they would hold their fates solely in their own hands should they vote for independence, yet Scotland just showed itself to be at the mercy of the world’s 12th largest petrochemical company. If so, how is Scotland to stride boldly into its future free of London financiers and global capitalist markets when a single multinational corporation successfully issues diktats?

Some of the contradictions inherent in Scotland’s independence bid are reflected in the SNP’s white paper, Scotland’s Future, in which it promises a host of progressive policies to reverse London-dictated austerity while flatly stating that an independent Scotland would continue to use the British pound as its currency and recognize Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. In part these promises are borne from the SNP’s desire to retain the advantages of being a part of Britain while formally separating. Intended or not, retaining the pound ensures fiscal policy will be decided in London and not Edinburgh.

SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond doesn’t appear to see the significance of this, telling The Guardian that “The Bank of England and sterling are as much Scotland’s assets as London’s assets. They are certainly not [Chancellor] George Osborne’s assets. We put forward in this paper our willingness to accept liabilities. We are also entitled to the share of assets.”

Although an opponent of independence, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is closer to the mark, declaring a currency union “self-imposed colonialism.”

It should be noted that the question of Scottish independence is strictly a matter for the Scottish people. If formal independence is their desire, that is that. But there is formal independence, and there is actual independence in a globalized world dominated by markets that tilt heavily in favor of industrialists and financiers.

Swiss company, not London, decides fate of industrial complex

In its white paper, the SNP declares “Independence means that Scotland’s future will be in our own hands. Decisions currently taken for Scotland at Westminster will instead be taken by the people of Scotland.”

Yet a recent decision, with significant consequences for the health of Scotland’s economy, was taken not in the British parliament but by a single corporate leader in Switzerland. That leader, Jim Ratcliffe, is the chairman of Ineos, the petrochemical company alluded to above. Ineos had been locked in a bitter negotiation with the union representing workers at its oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the city of Grangemouth; this is the only refinery in Scotland and processes 70 percent of Scotland’s fuel.

The Unite union had balked at Ineos’ demands for significant cuts. In response, Chairman Ratcliffe shut down the complex. Unite quickly reversed itself, agreeing to the demands. The complex was re-opened and Ineos announced it would invest £300 million and commit to keeping the complex open. In return, the union accepted a three-year pay freeze, cuts to pensions and a three-year moratorium on any strikes.

Scotland may claim 90 percent of Britain’s North Sea oil reserves, but without knuckling under to the demands of Ineos, would have been reduced to importing refined oil. First Minister Salmond called the deal “a great team effort from all concerned,” as if workers and employers were somehow equal, while a Scottish trade union official, Graham Smith, more realistically told the BBC that Ineos had “tried to impose its will on the workforce with a take it or leave it ultimatum.” For his part, Chairman Ratcliffe said he sought “to bring the site into the modern world.”

Lower wages and living standards is “modernization,” the corporate media tells us; the Ineos chairman said more than perhaps he meant. Scotland’s independence would have had no effect whatsoever on this outcome.

Independence from Britain while staying in British grasp

The policies the SNP intends to implement, should independence be granted and it remain the governing party, certainly represent a sharp break with austerity and neoliberalism, and if realized would represent real gains for Scottish working people. The SNP white paper calls for universal child care, universal “high-quality early learning” programs, reductions in income inequality, reversing the cuts in social services imposed by the British government, more support for small farmers, and writing a constitution that would enshrine equal opportunity and “certain social and economic rights” such as a right to education.

On the other hand, the white paper also said it would remain in the Nato military alliance, retain the British currency and queen, and work closely with British security and intelligence agencies. The SNP also intends to focus the Scottish economy on exports while “emphasising innovation, technology and manufacturing.”

Capitalist market competition, which drives production to low-wage locales, will have much more to say concerning Scotland’s ability to become a successful exporter than the SNP. Moreover, Scotland would not be independent of London under the SNP’s formulation. The Bank of England is not likely to consider the needs of an independent Scotland when setting monetary policy. The U.S. Federal Reserve quite likely does not weigh the impact on Panama, which uses the U.S. dollar, when setting its monetary policy. Central banks, in general, are sensitive to the needs of financiers, from whose ranks their personnel come from, not to the needs of working people.

With a population of 5.3 million, Scotland would have no more ability to significantly deviate from the dictates of core capitalist heavyweights like the United States and Germany than other small countries. The interests of big capitalists in Scotland align with the interests of big capitalists elsewhere — maintaining the system in which they operate, at any cost to employees, not at sacrificing themselves to build a better Scotland.

There is nothing new here; the current era of corporate globalization has merely intensified what has long been true. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote a century ago:

“Apart from a few of the most powerful nations, the leaders in capitalist development, which possess the spiritual and material resources necessary to maintain their political and economic independence, the ‘self-determination,’ the independent existence of smaller and petit nations, is an illusion, and will become even more so.”

Even within the European Union, smaller countries like Greece and Ireland have little independence although they long ago broke free of colonial masters. The “troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund demand brutal cuts to wages, pensions and social services — and none of these bureaucracies are subject to election. The European Central Bank dictates financial policy across the continent on behalf of the financial industry. There is also less political independence than meets the eye — recall that in late 2011 Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel “summoned” the Greek prime minister to a meeting to curtly inform him there would be no referendum on the latest round of austerity. There was not.

No more living under unrepresentative governments

The foregoing does not deny that the Scottish people could be better off constituting a separate country. They have had to often endure the unpopular rule of the Conservative Party, which wins few votes outside of England, and thus subject to a government not of their choosing. (One of Scotland’s 59 members of parliament is a Conservative.) The Scottish Socialist Party, for example, readily acknowledges the progressive elements among the SNP proposals while arguing that the white paper should have gone much further.

Party officials, in the December issue of Scottish Socialist Voice, write that the SNP white paper did not have any commitment “to repeal the worst antiunion laws in Europe,” mention of a progressive tax system, guarantee of affordable housing, guaranteed right to union membership nor right to strike. Moreover, the white paper’s call for a minimum wage is based on the “good will” of employers rather than legal enforcements.

Scottish Socialist Party national co-spokesperson Colin Fox writes:

“I would also have liked to have seen a commitment to take the renewable energy industry into public ownership — just as the Scottish government did recently with Prestwick Airport — and return our gas and electricity supply industry to public hands. Both measures are concomitant with pledges to achieve greater economic prosperity, social democracy and fairness. … [T]he [party] prefers the very successful Norwegian approach to its oil and gas resources where it took them both into public ownership rather than privatising them as Britain did. As a result of this decision Norway has now accrued £840 billion in a state ‘Oil Fund’ with which to benefit its citizens and future generations.”

Another party writer, Richie Venton, argues that Scottish working people face a choice of going either forward or backward:

“So trade unionists don’t even face a choice between the status quo and independence, but between a further clawing back of gains won by past generations of trade unionists and socialists in struggle — or a chance to improve our lot as workers by voting for the right to get whatever government the Scottish people elect!”

We come back here to the question of reforms or structural changes to a better world. Welcome as reforms are — and the Scottish National Party proposals are significant and meaningful reforms — they are always subject to being taken back when political conditions change. The era of neoliberalism that dawned in the 1970s and continues to intensify is a concentrated attack on the gains won in prior decades, much of which has been lost.

Socialist changes, such as workers’ control of enterprises and public ownership of key industries such as energy and banking, codified in a constitution, would be the product of a struggle intended to go well beyond reforms and instead seek to create a better world. But no single country can be a socialist island in a sea of capitalism. A Socialist independent Scotland would face the ferocious hostility of the capitalist world, not excepting London bankers and bond traders, and Scottish capitalists.

That a small country could defy the power of capitalist markets — the product of the aggregate interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers — is not realistic. Those markets are expressed through a variety of means, financial and political, through multilateral institutions and imperialist governments, through webs of debt and military pressure.

A socialist Scotland could only flourish within a socialist Europe designed to maximize human need and potential rather than private profit. Otherwise, London, Brussels and Wall Street will continue to call the tune on behalf of the wealthiest, regardless of the formal political power residing in Edinburgh.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.


Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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