With the referendum lost, the left must move beyond attempts to build progressive islands

After the Scottish referendum, the left must ditch its obsession with creating progressive islands and focus on re-building its core industrial strength.

Michael Chessum
25 September 2014

Watching the Glasgow result finally come through on Friday morning, I felt what many may have been feeling: not just disappointment that Scotland was going to vote No, but a realisation about what, in the stark light of day, the moment really represented.

The Yes vote really was a case of a grassroots campaign coming up against the might of the Westminster establishment, replete with interventions from the leader of the free world. But the fact that the radical parts of the Yes campaign have managed to inspire people is a genuine achievement in more ways than one. Above all else, support for Scottish independence has been driven by desperation and a lack of alternatives.

In the context of the defeats of recent decades, and the rightward shift of the Labour Party, the independence referendum presented an opportunity to change something – anything – in the context of perhaps the most stifling political consensus since universal suffrage. In truth it was this instinct, not an ideologically-rooted calculation, which drove many voters in Scotland, and much of the left across the UK, to back a Yes vote. (Anyone who thinks a referendum on EU membership will be a walkover: take heed)

In the context of declining industrial strength, the British left has a tendency to become obsessed with projects which aim not at directly confronting the present order, but creating islands of progress within a hostile society.

To take a very minor example, the student movement has suffered a series of material defeats and strains over the past two decades – the steady increase in fees, a rise in the cost of living which has forced students to spend their spare hours in paid work, and the continuing bureaucratisation of student unions – which have weakened its ability to mobilise. With this has come a progressive withering of an industrial model of organising, and an increasing predilection towards creating progressive spaces within campuses.

With the price and quality of housing being perhaps the most pressing material issue for students and access to education, the most prominent efforts to combat high prices and poor conditions have not been the creation of tenants unions – which would organise collectively to fight landlords – but housing co-ops, which aim at creating cheap, non-profit housing for a relatively small number of students. Food co-ops, many of which do little more than subsidise their wholesale prices with voluntary labour, have also attracted support and attention, while campaigns which organise workers and students to demand cheap or subsidised food on campus have proven less popular.

Another campaign, Fossil Free, has engaged thousands of students in the past couple of years in an attempt to get universities to divest from fossil fuel companies – and the early signs are that it may well succeed, just as anti-arms trade divestment campaigns have succeeded before it. This of course does not mean that fossil fuel companies will not have shares – it just means that somebody else will own them, cleansing some campuses of complicity but not ultimately addressing the root of the problem.

Scottish independence can be understood in these terms. Much though it may make tactical sense, the left’s support for Scottish independence was in part a retreat from tackling the ruling class at Westminster – attempting instead to build a progressive island which could influence the world by means of education, capacity-building and example-setting.

All of these projects are surely a useful method of engaging people, providing resources to the broader movement, and pushing an agenda. Just as a campaign for divestment from Fossil Fuels may provide a way of talking to many thousands of students about climate change, Scottish independence created an atmosphere in which social-democratic and socialist ideas could be made mainstream and popular.

The question will always be, however, what exactly these methods set as examples. Crucially, they are not fundamentally oppositional to the establishment because they do not call into question the fundamentals of profit or hierarchy beyond their own boundaries. Often, they ally with sections of the economic or academic elite, who through self-interest or principle approve of the aims – be they the business elements of the SNP, or the liberal professoriate.

In the wake of the result, we will be presented with limitless scapegoats for the No vote. A pernicious strand of logic that stood uncorrected behind much of the frenetic left-wing support for independence could now play itself out: generational divisions (“because it’s the elderly that robbed us”), regional grievances, and a bitter refusal to unite with layers of leftwing activists who opted not to back a Yes.

There is now a very real danger that many left wing independence supporters recruited in the process of the Yes campaign will fight not as a class, or even as part of the broader left, but as the leftist part of the separatist movement in the medium-to-long-term. Building a genuine socialist movement is, bluntly, about uniting everyone who does not own the means of production, not about uniting ‘#the45’ – the Scots who voted “the right way”. The left must have far more faith in a No-voting retired Clydeside ship-builder than it does in a right wing landowner who happened to vote Yes.

South of the border, the reasons why much of the left put so much hope in a Yes vote are potmarked with an instinct – normalised by the defeats of the past three decades – to abandon class politics in favour of easy answers. Above all, we need honesty about how on earth it came to pass that seemingly the best or most exciting prospect for anti-establishment renewal in Britain came not from a wave of working class unrest demanding expropriation of the rich, but from a campaign for secession run in alliance with Scottish nationalists, many of them rightwing.

It was desperation and a lack of alternatives that led the British left to this impasse; to get out of it, we will need to do more than hold faith in a wantonly spineless Labour leadership, or stare longingly at islands of progress in the distance. The Yes campaign has provided a stunning example of how to fight the establishment in a small pocket: now we need to generalise it, and bolster it with broader class politics and industrial strength.

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