SWP one-eighty on Scottish independence, and the return of the prodigal son

Submitted by Matthew on 1 February, 2012 - 1:36

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is calling for a yes vote in the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional status which is due to be held in 2014.

According to recent issues of its paper:

“(We) back independence for Scotland. The UK is an imperialist power that pillages the world’s resources. A yes vote in the referendum would weaken the British state…. The break up of our ‘kingdom’ would be one small victory against its rotten record.” (Socialist Worker 2285)

“Britain is a major imperialist power that still wants to be able to invade and rob other countries across the globe. A clear yes vote for independence would weaken the British state and undermine its ability to engage in future wars.” (SW 2286)

Problem number one, for the SWP, with this position: Its argument for a yes vote is a “timeless” one. Britain has been an imperialist power for centuries. So why is it only now that the SWP has decided that Scottish independence would be a “good thing”?

In the past the SWP has been vigorously anti-independence. When it briefly joined the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 2001, for example, one of the sticking points was its refusal to share the SSP’s unconditional support for Scottish independence. What has changed since then?

Problem number two with this argument: It is a “universal” one. If the break-up of Britain along national lines is a ‘good thing’ because of Britain’s imperialist history, then, logically, the break-up of any and all imperialist states along national lines would equally be a ‘good thing’.

So, should the Alaskan Independence Party ever achieve its goal of a multi-question referendum on the state’s constitutional status, the SWP would call for a vote for independence? Independence for Alaska might not be a fatal blow to US imperialism, but it would certainly be a setback.

On the other hand, given Germany’s record of “invading and robbing other countries”, socialists should presumably have opposed the reunification of Germany in 1990. (Some socialists actually did so — but their arguments were largely based on emotional revulsion against German identity: “Nie wieder Deutschland”.)

In fact, why does the SWP not take its argument to its logical conclusion and advocate the break-up of the European Union?

True, that would throw European history back by over half a century and recreate a patchwork of warring states. But it would certainly weaken capitalism at a continental level – not just at the level of one state – and doubtless constitute “one small victory against its rotten record.”

Although the SWP’s pro-independence articles stress that the key divide in the world is class, that workers need unity in a struggle against their rulers, and that “our class unity will continue to be our greatest strength”, they fail to explain how Scottish independence relates to such basic socialist ideas.

They fail to do so because independence for Scotland is at odds with such ideas. Socialists generally favour the creation of larger political units and breaking down existing state barriers where they exist as this provides the most fruitful ground for creating working-class unity.

In fact, the very articles which advocate Scottish independence admit that in an independent Scotland “Scottish rulers will still exploit Scottish workers… Scottish workers will still need to fight their bosses … and workers in Scotland, Wales and England and beyond will still need unity in struggle against our rulers.”

Nowhere do the articles even attempt to explain how the creation of a new national boundary and a new national unit of capital accumulation will facilitate “unity in struggle against our rulers.”

The SWP’s current argument for a yes vote is different from previous arguments advanced by the SWP in which it described circumstances where, supposedly, socialists might support a vote for independence.

According to former SWP guru Chris Bambery, for example, speaking at a debate with the SSP in 1999: “We would have no problem in voting for a referendum which posed separation as a vote of confidence in the Blair government. We’d have to judge on the concrete terms.”

Similarly, in an article published in Socialist Worker in 2006, Neil Davidson argued: “Britain is an imperialist state at war. … A referendum in these circumstances would effectively be a judgement on Britain’s role in the New World Order, and New Labour’s record more generally.”

This is consistent with what Davidson wrote in his above-quoted article in International Socialism: “Support (by socialists) for separation should always depend on the concrete circumstances in which the issue is posed and its impact on the wider struggle against capitalism.”

So, again, if in 1999, 2006 and 2007 (and many other years as well), support for independence was justified only in a set of narrowly defined circumstances, why now can it be justified on the basis of generalities about Britain’s imperialist past (and present)?

There appear to be two reasons for the SWP’s embrace of independence for Scotland.

One is the ongoing collapse of the SWP into a crude and classless “anti-imperialism”, in which a class perspective is subordinated to supporting any movement or demand, no matter how reactionary, which is deemed to be in conflict with “imperialism”. Thus, Scottish independence is a ‘good thing’ because it weakens British imperialism.

The second reason for the SWP flipping is accommodation to prevailing left orthodoxy.

On the Scottish far left support for independence is now mainstream. The SSP and the Socialist Party (Scotland) have been consistently pro-independence. The International Socialist Group (Scotland), which broke away from the SWP last year, has also joined the ranks of this choir.

Far easier for the SWP to drift with this pro-independence current than to try to promote political clarity (especially given its own deficiencies in that department).

Oppose Sheridan speaking ban, but no hero’s welcome!

Tommy Sheridan — one-time leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, one-time leader of “Solidarity — Scotland’s Socialist Movement”, and then a convicted perjurer —was released from prison on Monday 30 January.

In 2006 Sheridan won a libel case against the News of the World concerning allegations about his private life. In January of last year he was sentenced to three years in prison for having committed perjury during the libel trial.

Anyone serving a prison sentence of less than four years is entitled to automatic release after the half-way point in their sentence, and the six months prior to their release can be spent on a home detention curfew.

Hence Sheridan’s release from prison after just a year.

But stringent conditions have been attached to Sheridan for the next six months: he has been banned by the Scottish Prison Service from speaking in public.

This means that he will have no chance to intervene in campaigning around this May’s local government elections, or to intervene in the early stages of the referendum campaign (in which Sheridan, when allowed to do so, will be calling for support for independence).

Sheridan’s lawyer, Aamer Anwar, has described the ban as an attempt to “gag” his client and as “unprecedented and absolutely draconian, denying my client the right to earn a living.”

Socialists should oppose the ban on Sheridan speaking in public. Apart from the legal arguments about the imposition of the ban, there is a more fundamental democratic argument that the ban represents an infringement of Sheridan’s rights.

Banning Sheridan from speaking in public also denies people the right to call him to account in public.

Sheridan has served a prison sentence for his perjury. But he still has to answer to the left for his bogus allegations against socialists, wild claims about conspiracies and vendettas supposedly targeted against him, and his style of questioning female witnesses in the libel and perjury trials.

But the protests of Aamer Anwar (and, speaking through his lawyer, of Sheridan himself) about the “gag” imposed on Sheridan also reek of hypocrisy.

With a fine sense of timing, Sheridan’s release from prison coincided almost to the day with the (delayed) release of Gregor Gall’s book, Tommy Sheridan: From Hero to Zero?

The book’s appearance was delayed by attempts by Aamer Anwar, acting on behalf of Sheridan, to prevent its publication. As the Scotsman reported last March:

“(Sheridan) has instructed his solicitor to threaten Professor Gregor Gall, and the academic’s employer, the University of Hertfordshire, with legal action over the publication of Gall’s book.”

“We will use every legal challenge to stop it from being published,” promised Anwar. Sheridan’s solicitor demanded to know what financial support had been provided to Gall, questioned whether the book was really an academic work, and accused Gall of research misconduct.

Eight months later a university investigation concluded that the allegations were “without any merit or foundation.” Double standards from Tommy Sheridan? Surely not!

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