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There is no single ‘Scottish question’

GREGOR GALL examines the issues raised in a new pamphlet from the Jimmy Reid Foundation

IN SCOTLAND, it feels like the tectonic plates of politics have moved again so that another turning point is coming. 

This may be the result of the Scottish Parliament elections on May 6. 

The outcome of the 2019 general election, Brexit and the economic and social impact of the coronavirus crisis have added to this movement. 

A majority Conservative government in Westminster, in the age of fixed-term parliaments, has seemingly closed off the option of a Britain-wide advance through a radical Labour Party and the smouldering ashes from the defeated independence referendum of 2014 have been reignited into red hot coals by the differing ways in which Holyrood and Westminster governments have responded to the pandemic. 

Though politics is about much more than just constitutional options, it is becoming increasingly clear that the advancement of progressive politics in Scotland can only happen under a different constitutional settlement. 

But which one is that and how does the left develop a consensus around the issues at hand that will then lead to manifest progressive social and economic change?

Consequently, the Jimmy Reid Foundation commissioned Professor James Mitchell of the University of Edinburgh, as an internationally recognised expert, to outline and assess the constitutional options for society in Scotland from a left perspective. 

In keeping with the mission of the Jimmy Reid Foundation to inform and educate as well as provide a left forum for developing debate and discussion leading (hopefully) to a consensus, the foundation does not take a position on the key matter of being pro- or anti-independence. 

We have, however, made it clear that the foundation supports the right to have another referendum on the matter. 

Along with our sister organisation, the Scottish Left Review magazine, the Jimmy Reid Foundation, after the 2019 general election, passed the following motion:

We assert our belief in the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future and therefore, whilst maintaining our stance of not taking a position on the specific question of independence for Scotland, that is, being pro- or anti-independence, we support the right of the people of Scotland to determine that future through a constitutional referendum.

In line with not taking either a pro- or anti-independence (or any other) position, Mitchell has taken on a big and challenging task in being asked to outline and assess the constitutional options for progressive societal change in Scotland. 

He has approached it in a thoughtful and critical but non-partisan way. Most importantly, he raises the kind of searching questions that each of us must ask ourselves of our preferred options as well as those of our political adversaries on the matter. 

Indeed, Mitchell makes it clear that rather being a single “Scottish question” as per the nomenclature of “the national question,” there are in fact many Scottish questions. 

And, in doing so, he makes clear there is a level of complexity that needs to be comprehended and then responded to.

For those supporting independence, for example, the key question must be asked and answered, namely, what kind of independence? 

This must necessarily follow on to the matters of: independence from “what” and from “whom,” and independence for “what” and for “whom”? 

These questions seek to get beneath the superficial if cosy-sounding platitudes we hear from politicians of many different parties about “putting Scotland first,” “defending Scotland,” “defending Scotland’s national interest,” promoting the “Scottish national interest” etc because Scotland is not one, homogeneous entity. 

Different groups within society in Scotland (as elsewhere) have different interests. Some are contradictory, some are complementary. 

So, society in Scotland is traversed by class, race, gender, sexual orientation and many more axes and identities. 

The danger with a superficial debate is that if constitutional change is instituted, then it ends up being much less effective in achieving the desired economic and social goals than was hoped for and expected — essentially because “due diligence” was not carried on it. 

The argument of “let’s just get independence first and then sort things out after” that can be heard from some left-of-centre supporters of independence is one such superficial fallacy. 

This is because it does not take into account that the very political forces that can or could help bring about independence will also play a large role in shaping what form that independence subsequently takes. 

Though somewhat melodramatic, here I’m reminded of the exhortation of a soon-to-be-murdered James Connolly in the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 in the war against British imperialism. 

He intoned his supporters in the Irish Citizens’ Army to keep hold of their guns if the insurrection was successful because the very forces that the Irish Citizens’ Army was fighting with and alongside would be the same forces the Irish Citizens’ Army would be fighting against once independence was achieved so long as the goal of socialism was to be achieved on the island of Ireland. 

For those supporting a continued union with the rest of Britain, especially of a federal type, the standard left argument is that it prioritises “class” over “nation” because it seeks to maintain the unity and strength of workers. 

Although that argument has had less traction as a result of working-class support in England for Brexit in the referendum in 2016 and for the Tories in the general election of 2019, even without these developments, it is an argument that can be seen to be built on weak foundations. 

This is because the working class has been on the back foot since its showings of cross-country class solidarity of the 1970s and ’80s — and this shows no signs of changing — while there is no earthly reason why workers’ solidarity cannot be exercised across borders. There are many examples of this to substantiate the point. 

Mitchell helpfully begins by considering the social and economic context to the debate as well as some of the still salient but also forgotten episodes and details of the constitutional context. 

It is this background that must anchor the debate, lest we forget the “bigger picture” of what the debate on constitutional change should really be all about. 

The Jimmy Reid Foundation hopes this pamphlet is then widely circulated and widely read and we look forward to it informing and guiding the debate.

Professor Gregor Gall is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

The pamphlet is on sale for £3 from reidfoundation.scot.

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