Why Scottish independence isn't the progressive choice

There is little to be gained from defining problems on Clydeside as 'national' issues but problems on Merseyside as 'economic' ones.

Scots, it is frequently stated, are progressive or radical, even left-wing. This, on some readings, gives independence a radical potential. Posed slightly differently, independence is deemed necessary to preserve a welfare state that is cared about here in Scotland but, by implication, not elsewhere. "We’re different up here" is the assertion. But who are we different from? And how different are we?

Given much of current debate around independence is predicated around the idea that there is a gulf in attitude north and south of the border, this is no small matter. Many will assert that we are seeking a progressive future through independence to escape the politics of a UK simultaneously proclaimed to be moving to the right and incapable of change. (In such narratives the oft stated enthusiasm of the SNP to keep levels of corporation tax below those set at Westminster and their intention to grow the financial sector as a share of the Scottish economy seldom get much of a hearing.)

If the comparison is between Scotland (population: five million) and England (53 million), it’s no real surprise to find some diversity of views. Yet even here, a Nuffield Foundation report in 2011 concluded that in terms of being "more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best". In what, perhaps, should serve as a warning for those who would conflate constitutional and social change they also note that "like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution."

But what if a less disproportionate comparison is used? A Study for the Red Paper Collective of British Social Attitudes Surveys going back to the mid-1980s examined not the difference between Scotland and England but rather between Scotland and our 15 million closest neighbours, the three northern regions of England.

Looking at a range of measures that might indicate some level of progressive opinion (e.g. role of government in tackling unemployment, support for taxation to fund services, attitude to benefit claimants etc), Scots are no different at all. It can, of course, be argued that during much of this timeframe Scotland operated largely within the same political and economic environment as the three regions sampled, so a degree of congruity is to be expected. This would be to miss the point. It is not simply that Scottish opinion was and is the same as these places – it is that Scots reacted in the same way to the same issues.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, our problems of unemployment, industrial decline and exploitation are much the same. Yet many are increasingly content to define Scottish difficulties as being a national question while issues in the English north are an economic question.

Such an analysis ignores the realities of the political and economic power wielded by business and capital. Much of the Scottish economy is owned and controlled at a UK level. But for the north of England as much as Scotland, 'the UK' in this context is really a synonym for the City of London. (See Richard Leonard in The Red Paper on Scotland 2014 .)

In this context, insisting that progress for people in Scotland depends on independence is saying that those with similar problems and outlook to our own must be written off as partners in building something better. Despite problems on Clydeside and Merseyside having similar causes and people feeling the same about them, the response, put bluntly, is a statement that "Connection with you is holding us back".

Those who advocate such a course seldom show any signs of having considered how Scotland’s retreating from tackling issues on a UK basis, in pursuit of a (quite possibly illusory) sectional advantage, will impact on those they wish to leave behind.

Some of course are explicit in advocating a lifeboat scenario, saying in effect, "It’s all terribly sad for the Scousers, but it’s nothing to do with us". This attitude suffices for nationalists, who, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, don’t really care about anyone’s country but their own. But for those who would claim to espouse any sort of politics of the left - this is an inadequate response.

The question of whether or not Scotland leaving the UK would be a progressive move depends of course on a range of factors far wider than the convergence of opinion between Scotland and the north of England. But that congruence of attitude is not trivial either.

Their issues of lack of accountability and economic democracy, the consequences of financialisation and external ownership are our issues too. They feel the same way about these things as we do. In such circumstances, surely the burden of proof lies with those who would argue for putting a political divide between us. They should show, rather than simply assert, how independence would improve, or at least do no harm, to our capacity to jointly confront our common problems.

Stephen Low is a member of the Red Paper Collective

A poster at the Scottish independence campaign headquarters on November 21, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.