The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Trade Unions and Independence

Trade Unionist and activist Derek Durkin argues that the trade union movement needs to stop prevaricating over the independence question and that the STUC has a duty to lead a workers movement for independence.

As the battle commences for the heart and souls of the Scottish electorate in the run up to the most vital political question ever to be asked of any living person in our country, where does the trade union movement stand or, more importantly, where should it stand?

There have been various individual statements from leading trade unionists - in the main prevaricating over the independence question and in some instances condemning the notion as one which would split the working class of the UK who have for 200 years fought the good fight for socialism/social justice. As a lifelong trade unionist and socialist I don’t know whether it’s the prevarication or the outright opposition to independence that upsets me more.


On the one hand, I have long thought that the major problem with the modern day TU movement has been indecision. Since the defeat of the Miners in 84/85 and the subsequent rounds of further anti trade union legislation there has been a nervousness among the leadership that has led to years of inaction and, as a direct result, has engendered a feeling among many workers that there is little point in joining or continuing in membership. During this time we have seen a shift in emphasis in a lot of unions from being a protector of workers’ rights to a provider of workers benefits. Unfortunately, not always in terms of pay and conditions but rather via deals with multinational companies providing cheap insurance etc. based on access to the union’s data base.

I would argue that in many ways the TU leadership has become the buffer between workers and management. Rather than challenge the legislation that has crippled our movement they have chosen instead to spend millions on QCs and Barristers to defend our position in the courts. How many major unions have seriously engaged with the United Campaign to repeal the Anti Trade Union laws? The recent strikes over public sector pensions could yet prove to be damaging in the extreme to the movement as thousands of workers who answered the call to action feel let down by the subsequent inactivity. Once again this lack of follow up action to the events of November 30th exposed the lack of faith of the leadership in the members they represent. The present situation that sees workers’ pay for the crimes of the bankers is one that would surely have been challenged far more vigorously and with more likelihood of success 30 years ago.

The plain fact is, if you don’t lead – you follow.

The STUC don’t have a RIGHT to lead a workers movement for Independence but I believe they have a DUTY to do so. Many great figures of the left such as McLean, Reid and more recently Canavan became convinced of the need for Independence to release the potential of Scottish workers. The STUC should not play a waiting game but declare now in favour of a YES vote and mount a WORKERS campaign in support.

On the other hand the position adopted by some Trade Union leaders of outright opposition to Independence is one that ignores the facts. In the main the argument is centred round SNP policies that would be harmful to workers’ rights. Policies such as continued membership of the European Union, reduction in Corporation Tax, continued membership of NATO, unelected head of state etc. They also argue that to break with the union would be to break with the rest of the UK working class who we have stood shoulder to shoulder with to defend workers’ rights.

In the first instance the assumption is that the Independence question is the sole preserve of the Scottish National Party and an Independent Scotland would be forced to accept their policies without challenge. There is little doubt and genuine fears that some of the “big names” now supporting Independence would not have the interests of workers at heart. It brings to mind the comments of James Connolly prior to the Easter Uprising in Ireland when he urged the Irish workers to keep their powder dry as the big fight would come after Independence. An Independent Scotland would not automatically see the end of Capitalism or Capitalists and a battle for workers’ rights and a more equal society would be inevitable. That is not the question. The questions have to be:

Would the success of the workers struggle be more likely in an Independent Scotland or in the UK?

Is the removal of the Trident base from our soil more likely in an Independent Scotland or within the UK?

Is the eradication of child poverty more likely in an Independent Scotland or within the UK?

Is our NHS safer in an Independent Scotland or in the UK?

We could add a multitude of other questions relating to the social standing of our new nation as opposed to the present.

On the second point of breaking the unity of the UK working class there seems to be an assumption that Scottish workers would immediately withdraw into a shell and ignore the plight of workers elsewhere in the world. As an internationalist I find this train of thought offensive. I would argue that Scottish workers, along with workers from the rest of the UK , have a proud tradition of showing solidarity with oppressed workers throughout the world and to suggest that this tradition would somehow cease in an Independent Scotland is a slur on Scottish workers. We should however look at what this great UK workers unity has delivered since the mid-80s and if we’re honest with ourselves the answer is very little. We’ve watched the gap between the rich and poor grow on a year to year basis regardless of the colour of the government. We’ve looked on, as mentioned earlier, as round after round of anti-trade union legislation has been implemented almost without challenge. We watched our country being dragged into illegal wars. We’ve watched our children in poverty and our pensioners belittled by a 50p increase – from a Labour government at that. We continue to watch as this government attacks the disabled whilst, at the same time, reducing the upper rate of taxation and refusing to close the loopholes in our tax system that allows the immoral earning of the super-rich to remain tax free.

So let’s not kid ourselves that the solidarity that is portrayed by those fearful of what Independence may bring has achieved much – either for the Scottish worker or for those of the UK as a whole.

The main reason the Independence question is facing us now is due to the lack of representation for Scottish workers at Westminster. Thirteen years of a “Labour” government brought only more misery for us. The anti-trade union, war mongering Tony Blair rode roughshod over the little opposition that came from his back benchers and any semblance of the party of Keir Hardie was laid to rest. The likelihood of the restoration of that party under the leadership of Ed Milliband or any other of the present party is as remote as a serious Scottish football challenge for the world cup.

I, as many others, come from a staunch Labour supporting family who were once proud of the achievements of their governments. The creation of the NHS, the building of new council owned houses and the provision of social welfare for their families were feats that they could rightly be proud of. However, I suspect that they will be spinning in their graves as they look on at the demise of this once great party and the seeming inability of this generation to address the problem.

I for one do not accept that the working class people of Scotland are doomed to an eternity of neo Liberal policies under future Tory or Labour governments.

That is only the alternative if we decide to remain in the UK.

I prefer to envisage a future where the rights of workers are at the forefront of government policies, where social need takes precedence over individual greed, where the most vulnerable in our society are cared for, rather than priced as a commodity for profit. I don’t kid myself that such a society will be won by a YES vote in the forthcoming referendum and I have no faith in the SNP delivering such a society.

I do however believe that the majority of people in Scotland aspire to such a situation and whether that comes under a newly formed Labour Party of Scotland or any other party, come it surely will.

There is one absolute certainty that has been proven over that past 30 years.

It will not come within the UK.

Derek Durkin

Lifelong Trade Unionist / Socialist and supporter of an Independent Scotland

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books