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 future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.