How Scottish trade unions are shifting in favour of independence

The SNP could use Labour’s promise to maintain coalition austerity policies to increase union support.

In 1968, Mick McGahey, president of the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland, attacked nationalism, an increasingly prominent force in Scottish politics, as a bourgeois deviation from the class struggle: “[The Scots are] entitled to decide the form and power of their own institutions,” he said at a specially convened trade union conference on devolution. “But Scottish workers have more in common with London dockers, Durham miners and Sheffield engineers than they have ever had with Scottish barons and landlord traitors.” The belief, expressed here by McGahey, that working class interests are indivisible across the United Kingdom was deeply embedded in the British organised labour movement throughout the 20th Century, and no more so than between the late-1940s and mid-1970s when Britain was at its most identifiably social democratic.

Today, the post-war welfare consensus has been shattered by more than three decades of Westminster-led neo-liberal reform, while trade union influence has diminished under the weight of Thatcher-era constraints. Moreover, the nationalism McGahey so forcefully denounced holds the reins of power in devolved Scotland and - current polls aside - stands a realistic chance of breaking-up the British state in next year’s independence referendum. In the midst of all this, Scottish trade unionism faces a difficult choice: to reaffirm its traditional commitment to the UK or abandon a British political system which seems exhausted of all radical potential.            

Few people are better qualified to assess that choice than Dave Moxham, deputy general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), an umbrella body representing 37 affiliated trade unions and 630,000 workers across Scotland. Speaking to the New Statesman recently, Moxham explained the challenge the constitutional question poses his organisation: “The constitution stands apart from things like workplace protection because people don’t become trade unionists in order to win independence or stay in the UK. If we were to declare for a Yes vote or a No vote, we’d be projecting a complicated dynamic in binary terms. Where would that leave those constituent unions who voted differently?”

The STUC has a long history of support for devolution. In the 1970s it argued for the creation of a Scottish workers assembly and, two decades later, was instrumental in delivering the Holyrood parliament. For a while, it looked as though it might play a similar role in the independence debate, campaigning alongside other civil society organisations for a multi-option ballot. But the UK parties vetoed this, leaving the STUC reluctant to rush into an endorsement of any one constitutional position: “Initially, there was an assumption that the civil society alliance which emerged in the ‘80s and ‘90s over devolution might re-emerge”, Moxham said. “But the consensus which existed then is now more evenly split between [opposing] positions. Because of this, we’re not prepared to make up our mind until a series of key concerns have been addressed.”

These concerns were articulated in a detailed report - A Just Scotland - the STUC published last November. The report calls on the debate’s main protagonists to outline how their preferred constitutional settlements might improve life for working class Scots. Referring to the widespread support for a more powerful Scottish parliament which exists among anti-independence trade unionists, it also challenges Scottish Labour to produce bold proposals for the next phase of devolution, something Moxham believes is crucial: “Labour desperately needs to change if it’s going to regain its historical position in Scotland. This means bringing forward a positive vision and sweeping away all the pejorative language it has been using about, for instance, Scotland’s finances [outside the UK].”

Nonetheless, Scottish Labour’s relationship to the unions could have a substantial bearing on outcome of the referendum. Many women and public sector workers – two core constituencies in the referendum battle – are members of major unions, like Unison and Unite, which are still formally affiliated to the party and maintain relatively close links to its leadership. Without high levels of support from these groups, it will be extremely hard for the SNP to secure a majority for independence, not least because Scotland’s professional classes have remained steadfastly opposed to separation for decades.

At the same time, there is little doubt Labour’s sway over the unions has weakened. Not long after the STUC refused an invitation to join Better Together, the pro-UK campaign vehicle, the second largest branch of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) in Scotland, which represents Edinburgh, Stirling, Fife and Falkirk postal workers, voted to back independence. The CWU branch vote echoed a 2010 poll conducted by the Scottish Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which showed more than half its membership favoured secession. These developments reflect an underlying trend in Scottish politics: that of natural Labour supporters gradually switching to the SNP at Holyrood elections.

Cross-border ties between unions, which for so long helped cement solidarity among Scottish and English workers, also seem to have deteriorated over the last ten or twenty years. The onset of devolution and the transfer of control to Edinburgh of, among other things, transport, health and education policy, created a new layer of state power with which Scottish branches of British unions had to negotiate, reducing their reliance on larger, Westminster-focused, UK-wide structures. The recent statement of support for Scottish independence by Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) boss Bob Crow - not to mention the conspicuous failure of Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), to speak out against it when last given the chance - has added to this sense of divergence.

There are powerful political dynamics at work here too. Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont’s speech last September questioning the sustainability of universal benefits in Scotland established a clear ideological divide in the referendum campaign, pitching the SNP’s more conventional approach to social democracy against Labour’s Blairite demands for greater means-testing. This contrast has grown sharper still since Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – the most prominent centre-left voice in the SNP leadership - assumed control of the nationalists’ referendum strategy at the end of 2012. Given the severity of the coalition’s public spending cuts, worsening material inequality and the continued presence of nuclear weapons on the Clyde (something the STUC strongly opposes), it’s easy to see why, for large numbers of Scottish trade unionists, the appeal of London rule is beginning to wear thin.

Of course, scepticism about the likelihood of independence transforming Scotland into some sort of “progressive beacon” persists. At a recent seminar of the Red Paper Collective, a left-wing devolutionist group with close links to the unions, delegates cited the over-reliance of the Scottish economy on international finance capitalism, as well as its high levels of foreign ownership, as evidence that self-government will not lead to a revival of socialist politics. The neo-liberal streak in SNP economic policy also featured heavily in the Collective’s critique and, according to Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at Bradford University, represents a significant factor in the shaping of trade union attitudes to the national question: “The potential for unions to support independence on the grounds of social justice and workers’ rights is undermined by the SNP’s overtly pro-business agenda”, he told the New Statesman. “In order to win unions away from Labour, it will have to become more radical and reject the neo-liberal model.”

The opposition of organised labour in Scotland to separatism, formed over decades of shared struggle with workers across Britain, is less intense today than it was during, for instance, the mid-20th Century, when Mick McGahey presided over the Scottish NUM. A pragmatic assessment of the likely risks and benefits of independence –rather than political conviction or ideology –now tends to inform the response of Scottish trade unionism to the nationalist challenge. To whose advantage will this work in 2014? Professor Gall thinks the answer depends on how effectively the Yes campaign employs the language of social democracy to frame its case for self-government: “The basis of union support for independence exists because it is under the British model that the welfare state has been continually attacked. The SNP could use Labour’s promise to continue coalition austerity policies, albeit at a slightly slower rate, as a way of opening the door to the unions. But it will take boldness and political foresight to grasp this opportunity.” 

Pro-independence graffiti is written on the gable end wall of a derelict cottage in Bannockburn, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder