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Scottish Trades Union Congress 2020 Unions need to start the conversation about an independent Scotland

Joining the Labour leadership and others in endorsing the continuation of the United Kingdom would be a disaster for the labour movement, says STEPHEN SMELLIE

UNISON’s February Scottish council agreed a motion stating that the decision as to when or if a second independence referendum should be held was a decision for the Scottish Parliament. 

It was a simple restatement of the principle that the Scottish people were sovereign and that Westminster does not have the right to determine the best form of government for the Scottish people.

The December UK election returned 48 SNP MPs and there is a majority of MSPs in favour of a second referendum. 

The STUC will this week agree that if there is a majority for referendum-supporting parties in May’s Scottish election the case would be “unanswerable.” 

In some respects, we have been here before. A Tory government in Westminster, Labour split. The SNP winning elections in Scotland. Calls for a referendum on independence.

However, we have never had a majority in opinion polls in favour of independence. 

In 2014, at the start of the campaign support for Yes stood around 25 per cent. 

The support for a referendum and independence at current levels is a game-changer for Scottish politics. 

Some will continue to deny the sovereignty of the Scottish people to decide for themselves whether a referendum should happen. 

Some will cite Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon’s reference to “once in a generation,” as if any politician could decide that for all future voters. 

Any democrat will surely recognise that the principle must stand even if they don’t agree with the proposition or fear the outcome of a vote.

It must also be a game-changer for the trade union movement. We are correct to stand for the democratic rights of the Scottish people. 

However, we must go further. We must recognise the possibility that independence could happen. 

That does not mean that there isn’t still much debate on whether it would be the best option. 

However, with the possibility becoming greater than ever before, it is time for trade unions to engage in a discussion about what independence might look like and to seek to influence that.

Would an independent Scotland inevitably be a social democratic or even socialist country? 

Of course not. It is also not inevitable that it would be the neoliberal austerity-driven nation that some say, and some want. 

The future is not written. Trade unions need to start contributing to the discussion about what independence would be for and what an independent Scotland should aspire to. 

There are huge economic, environmental and democratic issues that an independent state would face. 

Unless trade unions are involved in discussing these issues and putting forward our ideas on how they should be dealt with, other forces in society will be left to shape and write that future.

Some in the trade union movement will want to join the leadership of the Labour Party and dig trenches and join with those people and interests of all stripes to defend the continuation of the United Kingdom. 

That means defending a Tory-led Brexit-distorted country where inequality is central to the capitalist project being further developed by the current Prime Minister. 

That has not worked out well for Labour in Scotland, with its single MP and diminishing forces in the Scottish Parliament. 

It would be a disaster for trade unions to adopt that position when increasing numbers of our members support independence.

In 2014 some unions and the STUC adopted a neutral position but sought to influence the debate around the kind of just and fair Scotland we wanted to see. 

That approach worked, in that the debate, at least on the Yes side, was less about flags and more focused on that question. 

The increase to 45 per cent for Yes was at least in part attributable to the positive vision put forward.

That won’t be enough this time. It won’t be enough just to raise aspirations of a fairer, just and green future. 

Trade unions will need to involve themselves in working out how that can be achieved. 

Finance, economic policy, climate change, relations with the rest of the UK, Europe, energy, land, public ownership — all issues that if left to independence-supporting neoliberals will produce something akin to the SNP’s Growth Commission proposals for years of austerity.

Perhaps a Just and Green Independence Commission, involving trade unions, could look at what an independent Scotland needs to do to achieve the future we aspire to for our members. 

One that sees Scotland for working people, not the Amazons and Microsofts. 

For families and not for private landlords. For public good and not private profit. 

For care workers and not off-shore profiteers. For a Just Transition for workers and not just profits for energy companies.

We don’t have to declare support for independence, but we must declare support for workers in any independent Scotland.

Stephen Smellie is depute convener Unison Scotland.

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