In the midst of all the doubt and uncertainty over the outcome of the September 2014 Referendum on Scottish Independence one thing is for sure…there’s never a dull moment on the campaign trail with George Galloway. The Respect MP for Bradford and his anti-Independence road-show, “Just Say Naw” rolled into Edinburgh at the beginning of February. The Point sent along Graeme McIver to listen to the arguments and dodge the brick-bats.
Anyone who has attended as many political meetings as myself over the years is used to the vast array of pamphleteers, leafleters and paper sellers trying to catch the attention of the audience descending on the venue. What is unusual about George Galloway’s meeting however, is to find yourself wedged between the fascist and self proclaimed infidels of the Scottish Defence League on one side (well…less that a dozen of them), and, separated by a police cordon on the other, the activists of the Radical Independence Campaign. Add into the mix a counter demonstration against the SDL by Unite Against Fascism and you have a head spinning introduction to the event about to unfold. (Standing stoically in no man’s land between both sides was a guy called Tony, originally from Leeds but who now lives in East Lothian, bearing a placard stating, “Vote Yes – it’s more fun!”)
Galloway is no stranger to controversy and as the double picket proved is unloved by many on the far left as well as the far right. George of course would not lose a wink of sleep over any of this. He is unrepentant in his views on a huge variety of issues and cares not for the condemnation nor the diatribes aimed against him. Whether criticism emanates from US Senators, sectarian bigots or “drink-soaked Trotskyite popinjays” he remains unapologetic in the face of his many detractors. Within the left he is both a huge asset and at the same time a particularly divisive figure. I previously worked and campaigned with George and his allies during the 2011 Holyrood election campaign and whilst we personally got on well it would be fair to say that the temporary unity between my political organisation and his was not a marriage made in heaven. I still hold the view that he would have been a welcome addition to the Holyrood Parliament where his debating skills and socialist arguments would have lit up the often turgid Holyrood chamber however, as with all divorces, there were matters contested and unresolved as our organisations went their separate ways. But those disagreements are for another day. The purpose of this article is not to explore or dissect the root of these conflicts or to pass judgement or analysis on other aspects of George’s political career. To do so would lead to any discussion of the substantive issues raised within this piece being diverted down an altogether different road from the debate I wish to see take place. Instead this article examines George’s perspectives and conclusions on the issue of Independence. His arguments against separation from a left viewpoint deserve to be addressed and his conclusions challenged on their own merit rather than being dismissed because of concerns about other aspects of George Galloway’s politics.
Just Say Naw
The sedate and lavish interior of Edinburgh’s George Street Assembly Rooms provide a stark contrast to the raucous nature of the protests outside yet the serenity is soon shattered as the Respect MP for Bradford makes his way to the stage. George, dressed it has to be said, like an extra from the film Guys and Dolls with a long frock coat and a black fedora hat enters to the strains of the Stealers Wheels cult 70’s classic, “Stuck in the Middle with You.” “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” he quips in reference to the protests outside as he begins his case against the idea of Independence for Scotland.
What followed was at times brilliant oration, masterful polemics, enthralling theatre, controversy, insult, humour, invective and at least in my mind, some wrong conclusions and what struck me most, an overwhelming and crushing pessimism. George is a sight to behold in full flow, employing colourful language, powerful arguments, an unmovable certainty and a petulant dismissiveness of anyone who challenged the orthodoxy of his view. Styling himself as, “Bertie Auld to Alex Salmond’s Jim Baxter” he ensured that Slim Jim Salmond was subject to more than a few bone crunching challenges from the snapping Bertie at the lectern. Yet, to keep the footballing analogies going there were a few school boy errors along the way.
So what is the jist of Galloway’s leftist campaign against a Yes vote?
He set the scene immediately to distance himself from the main Better Together Campaign led by his erstwhile comrade Alistair Darling. “I cannot go on a platform with these people…I won’t stand in front of the Union Jack…I hate Tories more than anything.”
He went on to state that he loved Scotland but wanted it to remain within the UK. George felt that he needed to conduct this tour of the country as the politicians of Better Together were not presenting the argument against Independence well enough. He savaged the “cyber-nats” who attacked him online accusing them of “disfiguring the debate and employing “the language of civil war.” He railed against those who claimed Scotland’s bid for Independence was comparable to the Irish struggle and the cause of the Palestinians. He dismissed the idea that an Independent Scotland would mean the end of Tory rule in Scotland. On the contrary, he declared that the Tories would be in power in Westminster, “forever” setting the fiscal policy agenda of Scotland who would be joined in a neo-liberal race to the bottom with Salmond cutting spending as we go ending free personal care, free prescriptions and benefits. The SNP celebrated as they brought in Thatcher he argued and were a party of business, a point he underlined when he described Nicola Sturgeon as, “Thatcher in a kilt.” George claimed that without the 71 Labour MP’s (Scotland only elects 59 MP’s…and they’re not all Labour) forming a bulwark against the Tories and UKIP then England and Wales would never be free from right-wing domination.
If Scotland voted Yes, Galloway argued that politics in the country would be poisoned for 30 years, not by disagreements between left and right but between which side were you on in the battle against the English. He accused the SNP of constructing a narrative where everything is the fault of the English or accusing their opponents of being on their side. Post independent Scotland would be riven with the factionalism that dominated Irish politics in the years following their break from Britain. Once problems began to emerge in an Independent Scotland he stated then first the nationalists would blame the English for any problems then those who had stood with the them during the referendum then finally they would blame the immigrants.
The anti-war movement in the UK would be split and rendered ineffective and the SNP (who celebrate militarism, “as long as it’s in a kilt”) forced to join in with American foreign policy as continued members of NATO and would be unwilling and unable to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde. Scotland would never be accepted into the EU George stated because member states like Spain and Italy would never give succour to breakaway movements in their own countries and warned of the spectre of nationalism that led to Roma gypsies being attacked in Slovakia once it separated from the Czech Republic
He was withering in his criticism of the Scottish National Party arguing that whilst the working class of the UK had united to defeat the Nazi’s the leadership of the SNP had to be interned during the war. He spoke of his fears of increased sectarianism under an SNP governed Scotland where Catholics would be increasingly at risk in a country where “nationalism would lead us in an unpleasant direction of travel….A Celtic Brigadoon.”
He challenged Salmond’s vision of Independence where the monarchy is retained, NATO membership is maintained and plans for a shared currency would mean a surrender of sovereignty to a foreign power. “That’s not Independence” he argued “but dependence.” Rather than ridding themselves of the Tories Scotland would find itself permanently under Conservative control. With working class unity destroyed Scotland and the remainder of the UK would become a neo-liberal paradise. Had we not been part of Great Britain he stated that an Independent Scotland would have been destroyed, like Iceland, because of our inability to bail out the banks. The tax base in Scotland was too small he argued to survive the, “tsunami that smashed into our economy.”
His most heart-felt plea was for the maintenance of British working class unity arguing that bus drivers in Bradford and Bathgate had more in common with each other than with rich bosses like Brian Souter. Scotland shared a language and culture with England he said where we work for the same employers, join the same trade unions and read the same newspapers. He claimed that Independence was the equivalent to abandoning the working class of England and Wales to perpetual Tory rule saying that it was like Scot’s only lifeboats leaving the Titanic and waving bye-bye to the Durham Miners Band playing on the deck. The British working class, united, stood a better chance of confronting our real oppressors…not the English but the economic system. For this reason he stated that Independence was not only wrong, it was he said, “Immoral." He argued, “so how will dividing the country, its working people and substituting the Union Jack for the Saltire bring about a transformation for working people in Scotland? It won’t. Because the government doesn’t decide what your life is like. It’s the economy stupid!” Describing life in Salmond’s “monocratic” Scotland George says, “The same people will have the same wealth and the same people the same lack of wealth." The banks would disappear down the road to London he argued and would be joined in this exodus by other corporations.
Independence George says would lead to end of real Labour values and the destruction of everything that social democracy has achieved in the UK. “In these storm –tossed times, do you really want to get out of an ocean liner and into a rowing boat?”
So who was to blame for allowing the Scottish working class to be hoodwinked by the empty promises of nationalism? George was unequivocal in his condemnation of New Labour who he said had betrayed “real” Labour values and had ignored the “clear and present danger of separatism.” He claimed that under if the Labour party had stuck to the course steered by “giants” such as Willie Ross (“The King of Scotland”), John Smith and Donald Dewar rather than the increasingly ineffective current leadership then, “nobody would vote for Independence.” He argued that even the worst Labour Government is always better than the best Tory administration. “Brown was better than Blair and Milliband is better than Brown.”
Q and A
During the course of the evening George took a number of questions from the audience and dealt with them in a manner akin to a headmaster at a strict boarding school dealing with unruly pupils. Rather than address the substantive points he simply sought to denigrate the questioner or to question their credentials next to his. When challenged on his assessment that the millions of working class people in England and Wales would permanently vote Tory he took the questioner to task over his Trotskyite background, before ignoring the question and instead asking the audience if they wanted a Trotskyist in charge of the country?
When Alan Armstrong from the RIC campaign pointed out that he himself was an Englishman arguing for Independence and held up the idea that the Poll Tax struggle had proved that Scotland could be seen as a progressive beacon for politics in England and Wales George again refused to deal with the point and instead launched a personal attack, full of invective and bluster. “How dare you speak to me about the poll tax” he bellowed before outling the important role he had played in the campaign. “It was the British parliament that defeated the poll tax” he argued before finishing with the surreal put-down “who do you think you are? Bonnie Prince Charlie?” Another questioner tackled his conclusions about sectarianism being more likely following a Yes vote and pointing out that George was calling for a defence of the British state and its act of settlement that enshrined anti-Catholicism. George, rather than address the issue, appeared to become apoplectic at the implication he was defending the “butcher’s apron”. Finally, when a woman pointed out that rather than being a haven for neo-liberalism and a personal vote for Salmond many who campaigned for Independence did so on the basis of wanting to see a fairer, more progressive type of economy he again went aggressively on the offensive saying that Salmond would be “Prime Minister for life…it would be like the Irish Free State…God help us all!” This type of debating style may be good for radio talk shows dealing with drunken Rangers fans, in student debating societies or in the bear pit of the UK parliament but in the context of the event it provided hectoring and evasive responses to questions that deserved considered answers.
So, how should the pro-Independence left respond to George’s conclusions? Certainly they deserve to be considered for the left critique of Independence that they are. It would be churlish to dismiss them simply by arguing that he is on the same side of the debate as UKIP, the Orange Order and the SDL. (Even if George himself is happy to throw accusations at the pro-Independence side that we are in bed with the Brian Souter’s and Rupert Murdoch’s of this world.)
If Scotland is not an oppressed nation is the cause of Scottish Independence reactionary and anti-working class? Would the loss of left of centre MP’s from Scotland lead to a perpetual Tory majority in England? Would a newly Independent Scotland become a haven for anti-catholic sectarianism and anti-English hatred and racism? Would the economy of Scotland become even more neo-liberal than the Westminster system it left behind in a race to the bottom? I believe the answer to these questions is…well…naw!
The Counter Arguments
George’s criticism of the SNP was at times valid and good old fashioned knock about stuff. It is true that there is a contradiction in wanting lower corporation tax and more business friendly policies whilst at the same time aiming to spend more on public services and argue for a higher wage economy. His assessment that a currency union was unworkable appear to have been proved right this week following the announcement by the three main parties of Westminster that they would not sanction such an arrangement on the advice of a senior Whitehall mandarin. It is also undoubtedly true that the party contains an element of right wingers within their ranks. However, the rise of the SNP as an electoral force in Scotland demands a more careful analysis than simply dismissing them as Tartan Tories. George maintains a visceral and tribal hatred of the SNP from his time as Secretary of the Labour Party in Scotland and as an MP in Glasgow. Yet their successes in the 2007 and the 2011 Holyrood Elections were based on adopting policies that put them to the left of the Labour Party. This is not merely window dressing to hoodwink the gullible. They campaigned against the War in Iraq, introduced free prescriptions, have extended free school meal provision, want to get rid of Trident, worked with Labour to mitigate against the effects of the Bedroom tax in Scotland and would re-nationalise the Post Office if there is a majority in favour of Yes. Whilst clearly not a party of socialism they are a social democratic party who have attracted a huge swathe of former Labour voters precisely because they see the SNP occupying some of the ground vacated by Labour’s move to the right. This makes George’s assertion that Nicola Sturgeon is “Thatcher in a kilt” somewhat wide of the mark and quite frankly ridiculous. It also fails to understand the dynamic that has been at work in Scottish politics over the last decade or so. The latest ICM opinion poll on voting intentions for the Euro Elections show the SNP increasing their lead over Labour and the rest with 43% backing the party with Labour trailing well behind on 24%.
The Labour Party that exists across the UK today is a far cry from the “Real” Labour Party that George Galloway pines for. The majority of voters in both Scotland and the UK recognised this fact a long time ago. You can measure this disillusionment in the party that was supposed to represent ordinary working people not just in the votes it has lost in its traditional heartlands but also in the huge number of people who don’t vote believing that there is no point as nothing will change and the main parties are all the same. Whilst answering a question from the floor that implied an Independent Scotland could be more left wing George said, “don’t be fooled into thinking Tommy Sheridan will be Prime Minister, he won’t be.” Yet George expects us to put our faith instead in hoping for a Labour victory in a Westminster election where that party has been somehow magically transformed back into a mass party of the working class. It won’t be and it won’t be Tony Benn or Owen Jones who would be Prime Minister. George characterises supporters of Independence as being dreamers and utopians, but there is nothing more utopian than believing that the current Labour Party can transform society. They won’t even allow George back in!
Galloway also spent a large swathe of his time conflating SNP policy with arguments for Independence. It gets tiresome having to repeat the mantra that a vote for Independence is not the same as a vote to endorse Salmond or the SNP. This is a tactic often employed by left opponents as a Yes vote. For instance the idea that because the SNP currently advocate maintaining the monarchy, remaining members of Nato or propose ceding some sovereignty to the Bank of England does not make you fully Independent then why vote for it? Well precisely because all of those issues, currently reserved to Westminster would be up for genuine debate in an Independent Scotland along with the economic policies of future Scottish governments. So what if the SNP’s white paper doesn’t call for Scotland to be removed from the NATO alliance? In subsequent elections that view could be challenged by those of us to the left of the SNP campaigning passionately for real and meaningful change. How long would we wait under the current constitutional framework of Westminster to get such a debate and what would be the likelihood of achieving success?
Permanent Tory Rule!
George’s assertion that the loss of Labour MP’s from Westminster would lead to perpetual Tory rule in the rUK not only displays an astounding lack of faith in the millions of working class people of England and Wales to vote for anyone other than the Conservatives but is also factually incorrect. His over estimation of the number of Scottish MP’s is a forgivable arithmetic error, but even minus this inflated number of representatives sent from Scotland, the three most recent Labour Governments would still have commanded large majorities in the Houses of Parliament. In fact, the majority of Labour Governments elected in the UK would still have come to power even when the number of Scottish Labour MP’s were factored out of the equation. It seems perverse and contradictory for George and his supporters to on the one hand argue that there is little that separates Scottish and English voters in terms of social attitudes and on the other assert that whilst Scotland would always vote left then England would vote right in perpetuity.
George’s opening tactic of castigating those comparing Scottish oppression to that of the Irish and Palestinians was a cute one. It allowed him free reign to build straw man arguments and to point out the patently obvious differences between those liberation and anti-imperialist struggles and the comparatively sleepy backwaters of the Scottish Independence debate. It is true that on you cannot compare Glasgow to Gaza or Dundee to DunLaoghaire in 1920’s but you don’t have to see tanks in the streets to recognise a democratic deficit that needs to be addressed. Nor do these democratic demands necessarily have to be socialist or revolutionary in nature to deserve the support of the left. Of course as many left critics against Independence point out a Marxist analysis would start from the position that any bourgeois parliament, regardless of whether it is based in Edinburgh or London will maintain capitalism in that country rather than fundamentally challenge the economic system. However, that has never stopped socialists arguing for democratic improvements and reforms short of the over throw of capitalism. Indeed much of the history of the British left is exactly that. The extension of the franchise to women did not end their oppression under capitalism but it was fought for by socialists. The scrapping of the poll tax did not stop the poor paying more than their fair share in taxation but we battled against it, the abolition of the bedroom tax would not change the fact that the poorest in society are being made to pay for the crisis created by the bankers but we campaign for it anyway. Likewise a vote for an Independent Scotland does not mean that capitalism will wither and die in a tartan utopia but it would be a democratic advance worth fighting for.
Independence would also mean that the people of Scotland would get the government that they voted for. Scotland is demonstrably a nation, it is distinct entity rather than a region and it is a country that has not voted for around half the governments imposed on it since World War II. Surely a basic principle is that the people of a nation should elect their own government? That is not flag waving jingoism, that’s democratic abc’s. Those on the left who call that a capitulation to reactionary nationalism should explain which other countries in the world they believe should have the right to elect their own governments removed from them?
The argument but forward by some on the left against the Scottish people electing their own government at times strays into the realms of trans-nationalism i.e. arguing against the idea of nation states themselves. That it fine for socialists to debate in the abstract but these are questions that will find no resonance in the mass of the population. It is an abdication of responsibility to raise them as if they would be given serious credence amongst the majority of the working class. It’s fine to sloganise with statements like, “my flag is red, my country is the world” but they mean very little beyond ultra left posturing and cheap point scoring.
Nobody is arguing that the newly Independent country would be immediately socialist but it is more likely that an attempt would be made to replace the neo-liberal economic model with a more social democratic version. So not socialism but then as we know George’s proposed solution to the problems we currently face is to vote No and elect a more leftward leaning Labour Party. It is not as if he is proposing Bolshevism as an alternative.
Breaking Up the British State
Contrary to what George and his supporters may believe, pro-Indy socialists have not been deluded or duped, convinced or seduced by narrow nationalism but believe, as Internationalists, that the end of the British state represents a blow to imperialism in the world today as well as providing benefits here at home.
Certainly the British establishment seems more than keen to hang onto Scotland. On a recent Question Time program on the BBC, Conservative Damien Greene seemed to suggest that the Tories were so keen to maintain the Union because they were altruistic! He argued that the loss of Scottish Labour and SNP members of parliament would benefit his party but despite that he wished to save the union for unselfish reasons. Aye right…it is because they want to preserve the wealth, power, privilege and influence the British State has provided for them. The end of the British State would strike a blow at the heart of their attempts to portray Britain as a leading world power tail ending American foreign policy.
Lets be clear about the nature and history of the British State, we are not talking about breaking up the United Soviet Republic of Great Britain. It is not a workers paradise we are preparing to leave in order to pursue infantile nationalist dreams.
Working Class Unity?
On the issue of working class unity then I have tremendous sympathy with George’s contention that along with the majority of Scots voters then the Tories were rejected across vast swathes of English constituencies in the likes of Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Humberside and his own constituency of Bradford. It is of course true that working class people, not just in the Uk but across the world have more in common with each other than the bosses who exploit them but is it a simple as claiming that a vote for Independence is necessarily anti-working class by its nature?
George’s Titanic analogy is an interesting one. Firstly it seems to accept that the UK is holed below the water-line, sinking into the icy depths, unsaveable and doomed. Secondly, rather than abandoning the Durham Miners Brass Band playing on deck, the lifeboats of Scottish Independence are instead a glimpse that there is a way off of the condemned vessel. There is nothing exclusive about those lifeboats. They offer an example that you do not have to accept the status quo. You don’t have to go down with the sinking ship of austerity and poverty. Scottish Independence means a defacto change to the constitutional settlement in the rest of the UK. Left wing singer Billy Bragg responded to David Cameron’s latest plea to the defence of the union by issuing a statement saying, “Cameron doesn’t speak for England, he speaks for a Westminster elite. Go for it Scotland…I’m in favour of Scottish Independence because I believe ultimately it is about accountability, as is socialism. If the Scots leave, we in England will need to make some big constitutional changes. If a new English parliament or regional assemblies are created they will surely use proportional representation and as a result we will have a create choice at the ballot box.”
And therein lies the nub. A Yes vote in September opens up at least the possibilities of economic and constitutional change both sides of the border. A No vote condemns the working class of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and those parts of England who reject the Conservatives to at least a decade of more attacks on living standards. Years of growing inequality, continued anti-trade union legislation and the need for austerity as propagated by Labour and the Tories, separated only by the speed each would implement the same barbaric cuts. There is the living embodiment of the perpetual Conservative rule George Galloway talks about. Either the true blue Tory rule of Cameron’s Bullington Club elite or New Labour’s watered down version of the same thing. All of the social advances made by the British working class, the welfare state, council housing, the NHS and workers rights are not under threat from Independence but the current Westminster austerity consensus.
A No vote would embolden the political right across the UK and meaningful constitutional change would be taken off of the agenda for at least a generation. The working class of the North East, Yorkshire, Merseyside and the Humber deserve a break from the Westminster elite, without a Yes vote they are condemned to a continuation of the rotten status quo. A nightmare without end.
As George might say, “God help us all.”
Conclusion – Another Scotland (and UK) is Possible
An Independent Scotland could be a very different country from the financially broken, neo-liberal dominated, anti-English, racist and sectarian cess pit that George Galloway believes we will become. The vast majority of voters in Scotland currently eschew the rapacious right-wing economic policies of the Conservative Party and their loony right counterparts in UKIP and clearly desire a very different economic and social model to what is currently on offer. An Independent Scotland has the potential to be a progressive beacon of hope and inspiration for other parts of the UK whose voters share these values however there is nothing inevitable about the trajectory of this new nation. I’ve yet to meet a socialist campaigning for a Yes vote who believes that an Independent Scotland would be a left wing utopia. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum vote then the next day, whether in a newly independent Scotland or as a continuing part of the British state then socialists will still be fighting and campaigning against this brutal economic system. Whether it’s Salmond or Cameron, Swinney or Osborne, Souter or Sugar then the left will have to fight tooth and nail as it has always had to for the advance of our class, campaign for socialist politics and argue for a better, fairer society. The question is this…is it more or less likely that progressive, social and constitutional change can be achieved through the current British state or through its break up?
If you’re a socialist and an Internationalist then I believe you should vote Yes in September 2014 and provide an opportunity for all the peoples of the UK to create and build something better than the rotten, discredited, iniquitous, unjust and discredited elitism of Westminster.
It is not Independence that is immoral, it is maintaining the status quo and to that I’d just say naw!
Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here