When the prospect of the referendum came to light, the question on the minds of radicals was an old one: “reform or revolution”? The coalition government had recently been elected, and wide-ranging cuts to welfare and benefits announced. We were undoubtedly embarking on a political age of the Right in Britain, and though on the one hand there was the distressing rightward turn of the public, on the other hand there were the beginnings of unrest – the riots in England, student protests in London which gained popular support, police brutality coming to public consciousness, and trade unions beginning to organise a mass movement against the government.
Then through this reddening mist came a light, a sickly fluorescent one, but a light nonetheless. It was the light of reform, the prospect of Scottish independence.
Its pursuit became all-consuming. It is not possible to be fully engaged in fighting for the referendum whilst also pursuing a revolution of working people, or being involved in the foremost trade union struggles of the day. To believe in the primacy of the referendum is, for a few years, to be engaged wholeheartedly in a struggle of reform, while suppressing the self-reproach that you are not engaged in a more difficult and more fulfilling struggle, standing in solidarity with those on strike, getting up at 5.30am to bring some bacon rolls to workers on a picket line.
But of one thing we were convinced, three years ago: that every day we would remind ourselves that our engagement in the independence movement was for a greater purpose: a change in the balance of power – power to the workers and to women – and that we would never accept the ideology of reform. So it is worth reflecting on our position today. Have we kept to the promises we made back then? Are we pursuing revolution? And if so, what is our programme?
First of all we must remember our place. In this campaign the SNP is the major player, having won a majority in a parliament that was designed never to have a majority. It believes itself to be the voice of the Scottish masses, to be supremely trusted in government. Most importantly it is the organism which the public believes has delivered this referendum, and will win or lose it. The left are the rebels in this movement – if we win, our contribution will be glossed over. Perhaps it will be asked in a Higher History paper many years later “What role did groups to the left of the SNP play in winning the 2014 referendum”. The answer to this question will be academic, and a favourite area of left-historians. I doubt it will go down in popular history.
Gramsci was interested in the extent of the role of radical groups within reformist movements, and was ultimately pessimistic.(1) He believed that the traditional, long-standing parties won the reformist battles, and also the revolutionary war in the aftermath. Thus Napoleon eventually reigned as the bourgeois ruler despite the attempts of petty-bourgeois Jacobins to subvert the bourgeois reformist movement. This sad story is one of the most successful examples of radical hangers-on managing, for a time, to gain power, before it all ends in tears.
Our situation seems to mirror this. Undoubtedly we shall end up with a Napoleon, though our bourgeois ruler unfortunately comes in the less exciting form of a Salmond. Bourgeois reform cannot simply be subverted into popular revolution.
But let us return to the left’s current strategy. It has largely been a war of vision (for we can have no real war of politics, given the silence of the largest Left party). Given the precariousness of our own position, the strategy of vision on the left must be used not to increase our own credibility, but to reduce that of the SNP machine.
The SNP is weak because it is populist. It tries to appeal to everyone, by offering to reduce corporation tax, pursue a free-market agenda, and also to create a fairer society. The SNP’s “fair-society” agenda is one of its most vague, and mostly hinges on promises to halt Westminster reforms, and tiny changes to wages and conditions. The most feminist policy it has, childcare, is couched in terms which make clear that this policy is one that suits everyone, through raising tax-revenue and workforce flexibility as well as being universalist.
The weak point of populism and universalism is reality. How will the SNP play the masses when they are in the real game of politics – when the unemployed look on as businesses joyfully accept a tax cut. Will the SNP’s version of “we’re all in this together” stand up? The SNP’s true ideology has been well-hidden during the referendum campaign, as it does not have universal appeal, but when we are back in the real world we can expect a slow movement of the SNP away from its bland referendum ideology. It will move from a society-focussed “fairness” agenda towards something that is slightly more individualist, endorsing, for instance, types of benefit cap, and attitudes to healthcare that are already evident in its administration, of reducing the role of society in individual lives.
At some point the animals will look to the Board of Commandments of an independent Scotland, seeking reassurance that the ideals they fought for are in some way realised, and find that the words have changed slightly, incomprehensibly, but in such a way that the politics of our nation isn’t recognisable any more. We’ll end up with a Napoleon in more ways than one.
The SNP are a truly bourgeois party in that they never talk about where power lies, only how to use power whose location is already assumed. The role of the left in this referendum process is to talk directly about power, to corner the SNP into pledges that expose their ideology, or promises they cannot keep that will lead to their downfall after independence. We can start by exposing their low corporation tax agenda for what it is – a policy of the right – and protest that we don’t want their consensual models of trade union participation in company decisions. We must draw out ironically every promise they make to the poor, if only so that when their promises go unfulfilled, people remember that an independent Scotland was brought about on the basis of a social vision, whereas the SNP are loyal only to the bourgeoisie.
And we must always remember that we are playing the long game, the game of revolution. If in the course of this referendum we have not been engaged in forming a revolutionary popular consciousness, then we have failed in our task.
(1) The relevant text is “The Concept of Passive Revolution” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks
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