By Jim Slaven
With Christmas out of the way thoughts turn to New Year resolutions. Politically this is more likely to entail agreement on a calendar of events, programme of work etc. However for any of that to make any sense these lists must be embedded in strategy aimed at advancement to realistic goals and objectives. A key part of this process is setting priorities for the coming year. Given everything that has happened over the last few months this might not be the best time to point this out but for Irish republicans in Scotland the priority must be building support for a Yes vote in the forthcoming independence referendum.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the Offensive Behaviour Bill debate was the glaring lack of understanding and at times outright hostility it has created (or perhaps more accurately uncovered) between nationalists and republicans. It does not say much about the level of public discourse in this country that an honest discussion about a major piece of legislation which increases police powers and limits free speech descends very quickly into name calling and abuse. The notion that any criticism of the SNP is anti-Scottish or a unionist plot organised by the Labour party is clearly laughable. I mean if Labour could organise a conspiracy like that they would not be in their present shambolic decline. It also does nothing to raise the level of debate to label the SNP anti Catholic or anti Irish, neither of which they are in my view.
A more politically prosaic explanation for recent difficulties is that the SNP made an error when they first got into office of downplaying the ethno-religious problem that Scotland faced. To mention it was ‘talking Scotland down’ and the problem was deemed ‘not a priority’. As predicted at the time this situation could not hold and when faced with some high profile incidents the SNP were left vulnerable to the accusation that they had took their eye of the ball and oversaw deterioration in the situation. Rather than pause at this point they made another mistake of accepting a wish list from the police and prosecutors which quickly became the Offensive Behaviour Bill. Hence they compounded an error with another error. And now we are where we are.
While the passing of this Bill has been bruising for all concerned republicans must remain focused when considering our political priorities for the time ahead. Clearly we do not agree with the SNP government on many things but we do agree that the British state should be broken up. The referendum on independence is a once in a generation, historic opportunity and we should do everything in our power to achieve a Yes vote. Republicans in Scotland must be clear headed and strategic in our approach and this must include building alliances with other progressives around a campaign for independence.
The referendum will dominate politics in Scotland and Irish republicans will not be able to stand by and focus on events elsewhere. Historical data seems to suggest many in the Irish community will vote against independence. Many will do so at the behest of the Labour party. Such debate and division within the community is all the more reason for republicans to show leadership on the issue. A Yes vote is in the interest of Irish reunification (and in the interest of the Irish community in Scotland) and our actions must reflect this. The break up of Britain and the establishment of an independent Scotland is a strategic objective. It will not deliver the Scottish republic we seek; it is however a necessary, if not sufficient, signpost on the road to the republic.
We should be clear and unequivocal in our support for national self determination. We should also be just as strident in pointing out the utter futility (not to mention contradictions) of voting unionist. When the Labour party ran Scotland like one party state they did so in the interests of capital not of the working class. During that period their elected representatives did zero to advance the interests of the Irish community while they sought to advance themselves. As I argued at the time their opposition to the Offensive Behaviour Bill was tactical and opportunistic. Now they are in opposition (everywhere) we should take their offers of support and soothing words with a heavy dose of salt.
Presently the level of pre referendum debate is shallow and unimaginative. With many politicians appearing happier reworking old arguments from 1999 (or even 1979) rather than engaging with Scotland as it is in 2012. For Unionists this means returning to the scare tactics which have failed before and will fail again. For the SNP this means adopting a conservative approach talking down (ironically) the potential for change, constantly attempting to ease unionist fears over the monarchy, military or even Britishness. I’m reliably informed the SNP leadership views this ‘triangulation’ as clever. It might be but such tactical manoeuvring will only get you so far. Within this debate about the nation’s future there must also be space for more radical voices.
New Labour’s ‘Devolution all round’ strategy was intended to consolidate the British state. As we predicted at the time they were never going to be able to control the political dynamic in the way they envisaged. Scotland has undergone a shift in consciousness and with that the desire for change has grown. Very few Scots now view themselves or the world through the prism of Britishness. Similarly very few now believe the solutions to Scotland’s problems can be found in the present constitutional arrangements. The centre of political gravity has shifted and power will continue to shift from London to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
The question is what we want to do with that power. We must begin discussing what type of society it is we are seeking to build in Scotland. For republicans it must be about Scotland being independent so we can do things differently. It must be about building alliances to challenge and resist right-wing hegemony. It must be about engaging the silent majority, the marginalised and silenced with our vision of a society based on rights and equality. It should be about putting the wit and wisdom of the nation (not to mention its other resources) to use for the benefit of all. A first step must be creating space where pro independence forces can debate and discuss such ideas in the spirit of solidarity and comradeship. Republicans must play our part in creating the conditions for such an initiative.
A tactical alliance with nationalists in advance of the independence referendum does not mean signing up to every dot and coma of their programme. While we have very different visions for the future of Scotland we should not allow these legitimate political differences to cloud our judgement when it comes to building common cause to achieve shared objectives. Independence is a huge political prize and we should keep our eyes fixed firmly on that prize. A No vote in the referendum will be a disaster for Scotland. It will be a disaster for working class communities across the country. It will also be a disaster for all of us who strive for the maximum change in society. If we let this opportunity pass us by we will regret it for a very long time.