Federalism or independence – what’s best?

Note: This article was published on 20 January 2021, shortly before a number of young women accused the Young Communist League (YCL) and Johnnie Hunter, by name, of grossly mishandling an allegation of sexual assault by one of its members. This is a disturbing development and, though we are leaving this article up as a record of an event which took place, we want to ensure these women are heard. Their statement can be found on Twitter and Facebook. (2/2/21)

RSP member Allan Armstrong recently took part in a debate with Johnnie Hunter on ‘Federalism or independence for Scotland – what’s best?’. Hunter is the General Secretary of the Young Communist League (YCL), which is affiliated to the Communist Party of Britain, formerly the ‘official’ CP (i.e. it was affiliated with the party of governance in the Soviet Union).

The meeting was organised and hosted by the Dumfries Trades Union Council, who should be lauded for regularly holding discussion sessions on a wide variety of issues. It was very well structured, both speakers were given 15 minutes to present their views, before the chair allowed contributions from other participants, followed by a return to the two keynote speakers to respond and wrap up.

The main debate

Hunter went first and he quickly acknowledged the prominence of the national question in the Scottish zeitgeist. His answer to the national question is that progressive reforms should be made to the UK constitution to bring about federalism. That is, increased devolution, with only a minority of matters, for example the military, being centralised to an all-UK/GB level. Echoing a motion passed by the STUC’s November congress, Hunter expressed a desire that an independence referendum takes place soon and believes that federalism should be listed on the ballot paper as a third option. As a left-wing unionist, he believes that this would prevent right-wing unionists from having too much sway. Ultimately, his vision for progressive federalism remained quite nebulous; this vague half-heartedness is a common characteristic of federalist proposals.

Hunter used his opening remarks to incessantly criticise and condemn the SNP, who have been in power for a decade but not allowed devolution to achieve its full potential. He cited his criticisms as influenced by a July 2020 article by SNP member and YesAlba co-convener George Kerevan. Although Hunter acknowledged that the SNP is a fairly broad church, he thinks, if that analogy can be extended, that the church’s clergy have a very tight grip on power and are unwilling to make concessions to the lay people. The shepherd leads the way, not the sheep. (For the sake of balance, readers may wish to read reflections on the SNP internal election results from Tejas Mukerji and/or George Kerevan.)

Some folk may have been surprised when Armstrong stated that he also has an overwhelmingly negative opinion of the SNP leadership. To him, the SNP leadership primarily represent a wannabe Scottish ruling class. Their long-term goal is to become the actual ruling class. To them, independence amounts to little more than a junior managerial buyout of the UK state, leaving everything else in place (e.g. the economic system, the London currency, the crown powers’ sovereignty, NATO-membership, foreign owned nuclear weapons at Faslane, the nearly complete absence of any manufacturing industry). For the sake of balance, he outlined with reference to Labour manifestos that Corbyn (who the CPB encouraged people to vote for) was often no better, and was sometimes worse, e.g. support for Trident.

Both the SNP and Labour are struggling to deal with reality. The reality is that we do not live under a liberal unionist government, but a right-wing reactionary populist government that is not going to concede any referendum. Therefore, it is somewhat redundant to discuss the layout of hypothetical ballot papers. This is a challenge to both the RSP/RIC and the YCL/CPB, and we can work together in this respect.

Armstrong painted a picture of the 2014 referendum. By no means was that referendum a recognition by the UK state of the right to self-determination. The Tories merely wanted to nip the Scottish national question in the bud, wrongly believing that support lay at 28-33% and no higher. Labour was included in the anti-independence side, but only for decorative effect. The CPB did not join Better Together but backed the left unionist ‘Red Paper Collective’ and were completely marginal to the conservative and reactionary unionists who dominated the ‘No’ campaign. RIC was far more influential in the Yes campaign.

These non-Tory pro-union groupings can be compared to a nodding dog in the back of a car. They had no influence or control over the Tories at the wheel of the vehicle. The electorate understood this dynamic, and so, the party of Red Clydeside has now been reduced to Red Morningside; the swanky part of Edinburgh where Labour’s sole MP in Scotland sits. Public celebrations on the night of the unionist victory, were limited to Loyalists and neo-fascists running amok. Trade union parades for example did not occur, despite the near unconditional support of the aristocracy of labour for the UK union.

Armstrong summarised Hunter’s position: under the GB/UK framework the working-class has, over history, seen improvements to its living and working conditions; therefore, the GB/UK framework should be defended, but also reformed; for example, into a federation. As someone who became politically active in 1968, Armstrong mentioned that he subscribed to this point-of-view himself for many years, but went on to reject this sort of self-determination denial after his experience in the anti-poll tax campaign.

The defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike was a turning point for him. In hindsight, the failure of the National Union of Mineworkers and the working-class in that fight can partially be attributed to the labour movement’s bureaucratic soft social democracy on an all-Britain/all-UK basis. Several years later, a movement arose in opposition to Thatcher’s Poll Tax. The bureaucratic leaderships of the Labour Party, the TUC and the STUC each opposed the autonomous anti-poll tax movement. Again, the labour aristocracy’s bureaucratic soft social democracy on an all-Britain/all-UK framework could have allowed Thatcher and the ruling-class to have their way.

But the grassroots movement recognised a winning solution in the form of ‘internationalism from below’. The grassroots movements in Scotland, England and Wales each organised both nationally and internationally without the usual bureaucratic middlemen. This sort of action deliberately opposed the anti-working-class unionist ‘internationalism from above’ of the more bureaucratic elements of the labour movement. The implementation of this republican strategy (i.e. popular sovereignty against the sovereignty of the labour aristocracy) ultimately led to victories for the working-class against the Tories. This sort of republican ‘internationalism from below’ is what is needed today.

It would be wrong to define republicanism simply as the vague desire to abolish monarchy. Republicanism comprises a recognition of the sovereignty of the people against the anti-democratic Crown-Powers-in-parliament. Armstrong believes that federalism is incompatible with the UK state’s constitution; quite simply the Crown Powers would oppose any kind of progressive federalism.

Even the existing very mild post-1997 form of devolution-all-round is under attack, for example by the Internal Market Bill or from Nigel Farage’s latest party. This party already has a presence in the Holyrood Scottish Parliament, due to the defection of Michelle Ballantyne MSP from the Tories. Representing the CPB Johnnie Hunter will stand in the May 2021 elections against her. Best of luck, Johnnie.

But as mentioned, federalism is nigh-impossible under the current UK constitution, which enshrines the sovereignty of the Crown Powers in Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont. Aware of this, we must raise our game, and fight for something different. The inhabitants of these British-Irish islands must mobilise on a basis of popular sovereignty, a republicanism in the here and now which maximises participation in political action and which enables democratic control at the grassroots level. This is a strategy to build up the confidence which is required to truly defy a Tory government and the UK state which lies behind it. This is needed to conduct the extra-constitutional action, for example civil disobedience, required to defy the UK state and its rules. Not just in pursuit of new republican states, but in pursuit of economic, social and socio-economic issues, as well as campaigning in solidarity as part of an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy. This is the remit of RIC. Taking this into account, alongside Armstrong’s experience, Hunter’s claim that secessionist politics undermine class cohesion within the UK is unconvincing.

Hunter acknowledged that the 2014 referendum energised and engaged many young people in an exciting way. For example, there was a RIC conference attended by 3,000 people; not a bad turnout considering that an SNP conference was being held next door at the same time, forcing people to choose. One participant who belongs to neither the RSP/RIC nor the YCL/CPB poetically voiced his nostalgia for his involvement with RIC in the Dumfries area in the run-up to the 2014 referendum. He called RIC the first large-scale campaign since the anti-poll tax movement which led to a noticeable upsurge in activity by masses of people, who were unaffiliated to either the SNP or Greens. The level of debate, discussion and enthusiasm for socialism was buzzing.

But we cannot rest on our laurels. This participant expressed regret that his local RIC branch has fallen into dormancy, and Hunter also reported that the positive energy had mostly dissipated over the past several years, with many sections having been co-opted, demobilised and deradicalized by the SNP. RSP members owned up to this situation, but are also actively reversing these trends, for example through the reconstitution of RIC, and the animated vibrancy of our own young platform. Armstrong would like to see RIC renamed as a Republican Internationalist Coalition.

If I had to vote between Hunter and Armstrong, I would vote Armstrong. However, while Hunter is standing in the May Holyrood election to put over the YCL’s view of progressive federalism, so far there is no sign of the Scottish Left putting forward a republican ‘internationalism from below’ alternative.

Brexit

There was less agreement regarding Brexit. These disagreements were not discussed as fully as they could have been, but desires for a future meeting to do so were expressed.

RSP member Benn Rapson exposed a certain inconsistency in the CPB/YCL’s operations. They considered themselves capable of holding a distinctly ‘left’ version of Brexit – a campaign very much framed by the right – but are apparently incapable of doing the same against the SNP. Just because the main party of independence puts forward specific views, why should this stop the CPB backing a different vision of independence?

Hunter argued that to characterise all Brexit voters as racists is dangerous folly. Whilst acknowledging that there are racism problems in Britain, particularly in England, Hunter attributes these largely to the monopoly media. People simply want to have power much closer to home, for example through a regionalist federalism. He believes that the electorate’s distrust towards the EU can be attributed to the gradual growth of neoliberalism in the UK, which correlates with the UK’s entry into the EU. Mentioning that it is not necessarily an orthodox communist position, he outlined his hopes that Brexit will cause a ‘domino effect’, leading to further exits of other EU member states.

Armstrong acknowledged that the CPB’s Lexit campaign raised many legitimate points. He voted Remain but asked that his views do not be confused as support for the EU. He outlined his position by drawing parallels between the 2014 Scotland and 2016 EU referendums. In both instances, voters were essentially asked to choose between two different wings of the ruling class or a wannabe ruling class. Despite an absence of any real left forces behind Scottish independence prior to the 2012 announcement of the 2014 referendum, the SNP’s inability to deliver independence on its own terms creates a vacuum to be filled by a more radical independence campaign.

Armstrong went on to outline that neither were there any real left forces behind the Brexit campaign. There was early evidence that any campaign for Brexit would likely be dominated by right-wing forces. Namely, the No2EU socialists (an umbrella platform which included the CPB) stood in two elections prior to the 2016 referendum. In the 2009 EU election, the three overtly hard and far right parties (UKIP, BNP, English Democrat) when combined got 23.8% of the vote and 13 MEPs (11 UKIP, 2 BNP), the two non-Labour left ‘parties’ (SLP and No2EU) when combined got 2.1% of the vote and 0 MEPs.

No2EU had five years in which to alter the balance of forces. So, No2EU stood again in the June 2014 EU elections. However, No2EU’s vote fell from 1.0% in 2009 to 0.2% in 2014, an 80% drop! UKIP got 26.6% (up from 16%) whilst its breakaway, An Independence from Europe, got a further 1.4% of the vote. The far-right BNP’s vote was five times that of No2EU, whilst one of its breakaways, the English Democrats, got four times No2EU’s vote. These election results, which also don’t account for the significant but at the time still disguised Tory Europhobic vote, should have shown that there was no prospect of a left-led Brexit under the prevailing political conditions.

In the 2016 EU referendum, Remain and Leave simply represented two different wings of the ruling class. However, one wing was evidently much more reactionary than the other. Since the electoral success of that wing, the UK state has become increasingly centralised since then – so much for radical regionalism! Armstrong agreed with Hunter: not everybody who voted for Brexit is racist. The concern is, rather, who Brexit-voters have been prepared to give power to ­– the UKIP, Brexit and Tory parties. Because the campaign was so heavily controlled by the right, it was clear that this would take an anti-migrant, anti-worker form, which has been proven by the new Immigration Bill and by ongoing deregulation, for example the new Trade Bill, and the proposed ‘freeports’.

Miscellaneous points

RSP member Benn Rapson pondered whether the SNP, in a hypothetical newly independent Scotland, would continue to be the party of governance, given its current internal power struggles, having already achieved its raison d’etre, and would not disband or fracture. Rightly or wrongly, Hunter and Armstrong agreed that there is strong historical precedent (for example in Ireland, India and South Africa) that those who have campaigned for secession usually hold onto power for long afterwards, pushing the left into the margins, and seeking collaboration with the formerly anti-independence forces. Hunter believes that the sheer size of the SNP – c.120k members out of a maximum 5.5m – makes the leadership more robust than ever.

Hunter noted that many on the left of the independence movement are complacent about how easily its aims could be achieved, for example, economic transformation and nuclear disarmament. He stated that independence would present new opportunities to the working class, but also new challenges. This is a fair point. Many challenges lie ahead. Activists should prepare educationally and organisationally.

Scottish Communists: go back to your roots

During the meeting, I raised the CPB/YCL’s ‘democratic centralist’ method, and outlined how it conceals the extent of support for politics in their ranks more in line with the politics of our own, for example popular sovereignty and ‘internationalism from below’, not to mention Scottish independence, which hugely enthuses the working class. ‘Democratic centralist’ means that following a period of internal debate, all members must absolutely pull the party line. Their members are then, suppressing and repressing their true beliefs in favour of a fabricated unity. Hunter confirmed this situation (a full and frank exchange of views is had, but once democracy has been decided, there is a unity of purpose and a unity of action’). With iron Marxist-Leninist discipline, he did not divulge any information about the extent of unvoiced support for the RSP’s political philosophies.

Without meaning to trample on official communist traditions, can this type of organising genuinely be considered ‘scientific socialism’, as claimed? I do not think so. It would be interesting to know how their internal debates are settled. At the whim of their more established and dominant personalities? By a vote? And if so, is there a democratic deficit wherein Scottish members make up only a minority of the franchise?

Until the late 1950s, the CPGB as it was then known strongly supported the UK state’s possession and control of nuclear weaponry. It therefore opposed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s demands for unilateral nuclear disarmament by the (Great) British state. But the YCL politically diverged from the party, and enthusiastically got involved with the CND. Afraid of a schism, the party acquiesced to the YCL’s more righteous position. Perhaps something similar will happen with respect to the proposed dissolution of the UK state?

The CPGB was formed in 1920. Before then, many of those Scots who would go on to join the CPGB had received a political education from the legendary republican socialist John Maclean (1879-1923). John Maclean was lauded by the Soviet Republic/Soviet Union, and continues to be considered a hero by the CPB, YCL, and RSP. Hero adoration must be translated into heroic emulation.

Remember, John Maclean refused to join the CPGB. His refusal was primarily motivated by the strategy falling too heavily upon parliamentary campaigning and working within the framework of the UK state, rather than seeking to break it up. The CPGB’s strategy was ultimately authored by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and we can only speculate on his logic in this instance. Once William Gallacher (1881-1965) had acquiesced to Lenin’s strategy, the official state-backed CP could put down roots in Scotland.

But now, just over a century on, the YCL and the CPB must acquiesce that an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy of popular sovereignty against the anti-democratic Crown Powers is the way forward. It should also be acknowledged that similar dynamics play out in the Labour Party. Keir Hardie (1856-1915) and Cunninghame Graham’s (1852-1936) calls for Scottish Home Rule have similarly fallen by the wayside. Comrades. The YCL would be very welcome to engage with and join RIC.

Final remarks

To quote from the RSP code of conduct: the way we treat each other now is the model for the socialist society we want to see grow in the future; no one has a monopoly on the having ‘the right answer’; the ‘right answer’ today may not be the best for tomorrow. This sort of fraternal discussion must continue. The YCL have the right to respond to this piece, and in line with our commitment to a written democratic culture, or a Republic of Letters, we would very much encourage them to do so.


Glossary

Federalism: A mixed or compound mode of government that combines a general government (the central or “federal” government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system. Its distinctive feature is a relationship of parity between the two levels of government established. It can thus be defined as a form of government in which powers are divided between two levels of government of equal status.

NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. An intergovernmental military alliance between 30 European and North American countries. An attack on one is an attack on all. Small countries are continually pressured by the USA to increase their military spending, and are sporadically obliged to follow the USA into immoral wars. Turkey is a member state which allows for tense intra-NATO power dynamics.

Internationalism from below: A socialist strategy for achieving a better world. Politics is conducted both within one’s own nation, and in support of other nations, whether they be in the same state or further afield. Not to be confused with the more prestigious ‘internationalism from above’ of which NATO could be considered an example.

Sovereignty: The supreme power within a territory. In any state, sovereignty is wielded by the person, body, or institution that has the ultimate authority over others. Freedom from external control.

Democratic centralism: A principle of communist party organisation. Members have the opportunity to argue for their beliefs internally throughout the Congress period where democratic centralism is temporarily dissolved, and open discussion takes place. Congress delegates then decide on a united line that has to be followed in public by all members, regardless of previous disagreements. 

Home rule: A historical movement to secure internal autonomy for Ireland within the British Empire. It was also advocated for other UK sub-states.

Written culture: Writing requires purpose, discipline, and deep thinking about what one believes. As an organisation we wish to be accessible, not impenetrable. Having a record of an organisation’s positions and writings means that readers and new members can immediately begin familiarising themselves with the organisation. This is an open culture which always invites those who wish to express comradely critique to write back.

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