by DAPHNE LAWLESS (Fightback, Auckland)
A “Pyrrhic victory” is where one side wins a battle at such a cost that it goes on to lose the war. It looks like the victory of the “No” side in the referendum on Scottish independence on September 20 may go down as a clear historical example of these.
The referendum on “Should Scotland become an independent country?” was a primary historical demand of the Scottish National Party (SNP), who have formed a government in the Scottish Parliament since 2011. As it stands, Scotland’s Parliament is responsible for health, education and other local matters, but has no power over foreign policy or defence and only limited rights to raise its own taxes.
The SNP led the Yes campaign, with the support of the Scottish Greens and some socialist forces such as the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). On the other side at the referendum were all three traditional UK major parties – the governing coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and the opposition Labour Party.
The “No” campaign, under the name “Better Together”, was widely criticised for its patronising and fear-mongering approach, telling scare stories of massive job losses and Scotland being excluded from both the British pound and the euro. This almost backfired altogether, when in the last weeks of the campaign, polls showed “Yes” ahead by a tiny margin. This was an amazing return, when “No” was leading 65-35% back in 2012.
As it turned out, the “No” vote rallied to win by a margin of 55-45%. On the face of it, this looks reasonably comfortable. But most significant was the fact that, of all Scotland’s local councils, the only places where “Yes” won a majority were Glasgow and Dundee – the two councils with the highest levels of poverty and the longest history of working-class activism.
Triumphalist “pro-British” far-right groups went on the rampage in Edinburgh after the “No” vote were announced. But the joy of the right wing was short lived. In the month since the vote, the membership of the SNP has tripled, to 75,000 members. The SNP are also riding high in the polls for both London and Scottish parliaments, with – crucially – the Labour Party vote having crashed. The government parties had to promise massively increased powers for Scotland’s Parliament (short of independence) to win back wavering voters in the last week of the campaign. Now they face a revolt against their promises from English backbenchers who oppose any concessions to nationalism.
The British Labour Party seems to be the biggest victim of the referendum. The Conservatives were almost wiped out in Scotland after the Thatcher years, and Scotland’s 59 MPs in the London parliament have since then gone overwhelmingly to Labour. One big fear among the Labour “No” campaign was that an independent Scotland would mean long-term Conservative dominance over a rump state of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But the referendum results and its aftermath clearly show that Labour made a possibly fatal error to team up with the parties of David Cameron’s “austerity” government. The massive shift of support to “Yes” in the last few months of the campaign was not a surge in Scottish nationalism in itself. It was primary a movement against the cuts agenda of the London government, and against the ability of English Tories to enforce a neoliberal agenda north of the border, which has repeatedly voted against it for 40 years.
Like their equivalents in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the British Labour Party has long ago given up offering a social democratic alternative, and simply strives to put a kinder face on neoliberalism and cuts. Standing with the Tories and LibDems under “Better Together” showed that clearly to the Scottish electorate. On the other hand, the SNP’s outgoing leader Alex Salmond steered them from traditional nationalism towards a social-democratic (though still business-friendly) position. Salmond’s rhetoric on the campaign trail was of an independent Scotland developing a high-tech, high-wage, socially secure mixed economy like Sweden or Norway.
For the Scottish working class, the nationalists are increasingly speaking their language, which Labour seems to have forgotten. It is of course doubtful whether an SNP-led independent government in Edinburgh would have been prepared to make any serious break with globalized neoliberalism. For example, the SNP was careful to call for an independent Kingdom of Scotland under the British monarchy, rather than a republic.
But the results of the votes in Glasgow and Dundee make it clear that generations of massive majorities for Labour are on the verge of tipping towards the nationalists, who now speak the language of reformism. On current polls, the SNP might win a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster in the next election, wiping out Labour and being able to demand many more powers for Scotland, or even the beginning of a new independence process.
Meanwhile, the Radical Independence Campaign has decided to stick together in the aftermath of the referendum, building a clear socialist case for Scotland to decide its own future. They will be holding a conference. The split in the Scottish Socialist Party in 2006 between supporters and opponents of former leader Tommy Sheridan dashed what was the brightest hope for the revolutionary left in English-speaking countries. This might indicate a new beginning.