This article features in the current issue of the 1916 Societies magazine.
By Jim Slaven
As Scotland enters the final three months of the independence referendum campaign it remains too close to call. The No campaign have been consistently ahead throughout but the gap has been steadily narrowing. It seems certain that barring some unforeseen catastrophe befalling one of the campaigns the referendum will go right to the wire. While constitutional nationalists in Ireland, and their supporters in Scotland, have insisted on sitting on the fence on the future of the UK state the 1916 Societies have been clear about our commitment to campaigning for a Yes vote. We will continue to view the constitutional debate in Scotland as an opportunity to offer a republican analysis of the UK state and to link Scotland’s referendum with the campaign for an all Ireland constitutional referendum.
It is not only the polls that have been narrowing so has the difference between what each campaign is offering. The SNP, and the official Yes campaign which they control, has pursued a conservative strategy aimed at convincing unionist voters that voting Yes would not make that much difference. This has led the nationalists to campaigning to retain the British monarchy, keeping the British military and most recently keeping the British pound with the Bank of England as lender of last resort. In truth what the SNP’s are arguing for is closer to Dominion status than what any objective observer would describe as independence.
At the same time the three unionist parties, Labour, Liberals and the Conservatives are now all jointly promising more powers for the Scottish Parliament in the event of a No vote. While each differs on which further powers they would like to see devolved they all agree the process of constitutional change will continue irrespective of the outcome of the referendum.
While this narrowing of the terms of the debate can partly be explained by the SNP’s obsession with following opinion polls and focus groups which have consistently shown that the majority of Scots are in favour of more powers for the Scottish Parliament (which is referred to as Devomax in Scotland) rather than independence. It must also be acknowledged that the UK state has consistently sought to limit the parameters of the constitutional debate. And in this regard they have been successful.
Three years ago former UK Prime Minister John Major delivered a speech in which he argued the state should be relaxed about devolving powers to Celtic nations or English regions as long as they retained key strategic state powers at Westminster. In recent weeks another former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has said much the same. These key state powers can be summarised as the monarch remaining head of state, the hard power of British Military continuing along with the soft power of joint diplomatic and intelligence services and control of the economy remaining in London.
People will already have noticed that the SNP (and constitutional nationalists in Ireland) have basically conceded that all these powers will remain untouched irrespective of the outcome of the referendum. What the nationalists want is to reach an accommodation with the UK state which allows them to administer UK state power in Scotland under a Scottish flag. Their objective is to shift certain governmental functions from London to Edinburgh. For constitutional nationalists this process of constitutional change is about moving certain government departments from one geographical location to another while leaving state power untouched.
While the UK state seeks to control the dynamic of constitutional change there are no guarantees they will succeed in this regard. Scotland is a site of struggle and one in which republicans must engage. Since the mid 1990’s Britain’s Ancien Regime has been in a state of constitutional flux. The state recognised that the centre could not hold and that some form of constitutional reform was essential if they were to avoid the break up of the state. Tony Blair’s devolution all round strategy was an attempt to resolve the question. It failed. Built on inherently unstable foundations in which each devolved institution was given different powers rather than ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ as one Blair minister claimed it would this in fact led to a ratcheting effect where each devolved institution demanded ever increasing powers.
The Scottish independence referendum and the commitment to have another constitutional referendum in Wales, talk of a Six County border poll, further devolution to English regions and the proposed ‘in or out’ European referendum should all be viewed in this context. The state recognises the unravelling of Blair’s strategy and is seeking to reconfigure itself for a generation. The ruling class do not care how Scotland administers its health service, education system etc etc. They care about maintaining control of state power and if that means further devolution and moving to a quasi federal structure then that is what they will do. Its sudden fondness for referenda (everywhere except in Ireland of course) is designed to give this reconfiguration of the UK state a democratic gloss.
The great thing about Scotland’s constitutional referendum is that it offers the people of Scotland an opportunity to seize the initiative. Because no matter how hard the state tries they cannot control the dynamic and now the constitutional genie is out of the bottle they cannot put it back in. Change is coming to Scotland and to the UK state. Those Scottish nationalists arguing that if Scotland votes No we will get no new powers for the Scottish Parliament or even, as some have argued, that the UK Government will take powers away from Holyrood are just plain wrong. They misunderstand the direction of travel of constitutional change. There has been a shift in national consciousness within Scottish society over the last 30 years and the status quo is not an option.
Change is coming and the question for republicans is what the nature of that change will be and how it will effect our struggle going forward. Constitutional nationalists remain in a state of subjection to the dominant ideology of the UK state. Lacking both the politics and the imagination to challenge British hegemony. Republicans must rethink our struggle recognising the key role ideology plays in politics. Only by devising new strategies and tactics for the twenty first century will republicanism be in a position to make an aspirational and transformational case for the maximum change in society.
For republicans this referendum is not about shifting certain Government functions from one location to another. For republicans this is an opportunity to weaken UK state power. It is a staging post in our struggle to break the UK state and establish a democratic republic as envisaged in the 1916 Proclamation. We are not on the side of a Yes vote because we back the SNP and their limited vision of change that is no change at all. We are on the side of a Yes vote because, as anti-imperialists, we recognise that the break up of the British state would be good for Scotland, good for Ireland and good for humanity. The date we are focused on is not September 18th but September 19th because it is then our work really begins.