Borders divide the working class more than they divide capital. That is the core socialist argument for voting no to separation in Scotland’s referendum on 18 September.
The core argument can be overruled where one nation is conquered and ruled to ruin by another. Then, the national oppression creates divisions as evil as any border. Separation lifts the oppression. Workers are better united by a common struggle in which the workers of the oppressor nation side against their own ruling class’s sway over others.
But Scotland has been an equal partner in British capitalism for centuries. Scottish capitalists were equal partners with English in ruling the British Empire, not victims of it. The core argument applies.
Already Scottish workers will stand outside the big strike on 14 October, because public sector pay terms are a shade different in Scotland.
Some will say that’s all right, because Scottish terms are a shade better than England. But a united struggle could win much better than that shade of not-quite-as-bad.
It is still true today, as when Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, that “the struggle of the proletariat [working class] with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle”.
The first move in workers’ struggles is almost always against conditions, settlements, and laws within the borders where they live. Working-class liberation can be won only by a struggle which unites workers across the world around common aims, transcending those local details. Each new border creates a new hurdle to jump in the effort to unite workers globally. It can be jumped; but it is a new hurdle.
Global capital, however, flows across borders easily. It uses borders to its advantage, by imposing a race to the bottom. Governments compete to win and keep global capitalist investment, by offering lower and lower tax rates for the rich and for business, easier and easier regulation, and more and more beaten-down workforces.
Individual workers move across borders. But often with difficulty: look at Calais, a border within the EU! Even where individual workers can move easily, whole working classes can’t move.
Working classes cannot threaten a government with losing its working class to a neighbour unless it cedes better conditions to workers. Yet global capitalists threaten governments with capital-flight unless they match their neighbours’ sweeteners.
The Scottish National Party promises that in a separate Scotland the NHS will be safer and the Trident nuclear submarines will have to be moved to England.
But it makes no sense to set up a new national frontier on the strength of those promises. It makes no sense to rank such unstable promises above the fundamental, long-term truth that the working class benefits from borders being reduced and removed.
The SNP used to promise that a separate Scotland would join the “arc of prosperity” of small states on the edge of Europe: Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Finland.
Then Iceland, Ireland, and Finland were among the hardest-hit by the 2008 world economic crash and its sequels. Norway is better off only because of its huge oil reserves. Separation will not stop the decline of the North Sea Scottish-British oil reserves, or make the exploitation of declining reserves eco-friendly.
Scottish separatists used to mock socialists who opposed separation on the grounds that we were implicitly defending the British monarchy, NATO, and the British financial system.
Now the SNP says that its separate Scotland will still have the British monarchy, NATO, and the British financial system. Socialists and democrats who oppose separation do not defend the status quo.
Our arguments — against increased nationalism and creating borders — are a world away from the official “no” camp. We have no truck with UKIP types who want to keep the status quo and the Act of Union out of “patriotic” commitment to the United Kingdom.
Will Hutton, no socialist but clear-headed on this issue, put it well in the Observer of 7 September:
“If Britain can’t find a way of sticking together, it is the death of the liberal enlightenment before the atavistic forces of nationalism and ethnicity — a dark omen for the 21st century…
“[But the only alternative is] to trump half-cock quasi-federalism with a proper version… a federal Britain… a wholesale recasting of the British state…
“The first casualty would be the Treasury, which would… become a humbler finance ministry. The next casualty would be the House of Lords…”
For united working-class struggle within a democratic federal Britain, within a democratic federal united Europe!
What happens if Scotland votes yes?
Despite what some on the left pretend, the debate on Scottish separation has been defined by the main movers, the SNP, entirely in terms of a separate Scotland allowing a better capitalism.
Given that Scotland is a net gainer from the British budget, that oil and gas revenue is declining, and that one of Scotland’s main industries after oil and gas is high finance, likely to move away from a separate Scotland, all the “better capitalism” arguments are dubious.
Economically, the most certain result is “tax arbitrage” between England and Scotland, leading to pressure to reduce taxes for the rich and big business.
The SNP plan for independence in March 2016 if they win the referendum. Experts say that the negotiations, sure to be bitter, about what currency Scotland will use and on what conditions, what share of accumulated British government debt it takes, whether it can get into the EU, and so on, will almost certainly force delay.
However, the March 2016 date, even as a possibility, will weigh on politics in the meantime.
If Labour wins the (all-UK) general election in May 2015, a resulting Labour government will be a lame-duck administration from the start. It will be set up to fall in March 2016, or whenever separation comes, because it will lose its majority with the loss of MPs from Scotland.
The Tories got 292 seats in England in 2010, as against 191 Labour, 43 Lib Dems, 1 Green, 1 Speaker. Without a swing much bigger than Labour even dreams of for now, the Tories will still have a majority in England and Wales after May 2015.
In the longer term that Tory majority could be shifted — Labour had the greatest number of seats in England in 1997, 2001, and 2005 — but not in 2015.
Paradoxically, Scottish separation, assuming that the separate Scotland manages to negotiate EU membership, might reduce the drive for Britain to leave the EU. No bourgeois would want a non-EU rump Britain stuck between continental EU and EU Scotland. Separation would also reduce Cameron’s ability to get concessions from the EU, so it would sharpen the battle in Tory and UKIP circles over the EU.
Even if separation is defeated, there will still be big implications for British politics, since all the main British parties have now signed up to much more radical devolution. There will be some of the same tax arbitrage effects, and there will be unstoppable pressure for reform of the Westminster parliament if even more of its legislation concerns only England. There will be some pressure for more autonomy for Wales.
Socialists should reinvigorate our agitation for a democratic federal republic.
Paradoxically, narrow defeat in the referendum may help the SNP more than victory. If they are defeated, they will still be seen to have won much more radical devolution, and they will have a strong hand in the negotiations about details. Any shortcomings they can blame on the shortcomings of those details.
If they win separation, they have a tricky road to navigate, and they will incur the blame for problems.