Labouring Under Old Illusions

In a recent article for the Red Paper Collective (republished in Conter), Mike Cowley pleads with the pro-independence left to abandon its support for independence and throw its weight behind Scottish Labour’s (immaterial) federalist option. While Cowley’s interjections are hardly anything new, insofar as they echo long-held left-unionist concerns they merit proper consideration. This article offers a reply from the pro-independence left (much of which remains unrepresented by Conter).

The SNP and Independence

Building on previous critiques of the SNP (levied by pro-independence, socialist writers) Cowley elegantly sums up the corporate character of Scotland’s hegemonic political party. He tackles the SNP’s abysmal record on health, education, and the neoliberal nature of the Growth Commission. Yet, in doing so, he transcends mere preaching to the choir, opting instead for a protracted lecture on egg-sucking for the elderly. The pro-independence socialists Cowley is addressing spend most of their time delivering devastating, extensive critiques of the SNP to anyone who will listen. Moreover, the “elephant in the room” to which Cowley refers (that the SNP forms the only existing vehicle for Scottish independence) has also been the subject of extensive engagement on the ‘Yes Left’. Some concluded that the SNP did not have to be the only political force capable of shaping the future of Scottish independence and worked (and are still working) to make those aspirations a reality. Others accepted the SNP’s hegemony over independence but remained convinced that despite the SNP’s commitment to the interests of capital, independence could nevertheless be a positive step for the working class. Importantly, no-one on the ‘Yes Left’ understands Scottish independence under the SNP as the guarantor of a socialist utopia. Rather, we understand it as an integral part of a wider class struggle. 

To elaborate, I think Chris Bambery’s invocation of Lenin on self-determination is incredibly useful: 

“… finance capital, in its striving towards expansion, will ‘freely’ buy and bribe the freest, most democratic and republican government and the elected officials of any country, however “independent” it may be. The domination of finance capital, as of capital in general, cannot be abolished by any kind of reforms in the realm of political democracy, and self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this realm.

The domination of finance capital, however, does not in the least destroy the significance of political democracy as the freer, wider and more distinct form of class oppression and class struggle. Hence, all arguments about the ‘impossibility of achieving’ economically one of the demands of political democracy under capitalism reduce themselves to a theoretically incorrect definition of the general and fundamental relations of capitalism and of political democracy in general.”

One must begin by noting (as Bambery does) that Scotland does not fall into the category of “oppressed nation” that Lenin was concerned with. Yet, it is reasonable to conclude that the method of Lenin’s argument is applicable to modern day struggles for independence in developed nations, just as Bambery does when he applies Lenin’s logic to Catalonia. The point is simply that the fight for political democracy forms an essential part of class struggle. To shy from this struggle on the basis that the relevant nation will remain dominated by finance capital is to deny the value of any class-based struggle that does not promise the immediate abolition of capitalism. 

For myself, and many others, support for independence centres around this single issue: democracy. On this matter Cowley and many other left-unionists appear to be in agreement with the ‘Yes Left’. In their support for federalism, they recognise the injustices that arise from the overcentralisation of the British state and the significance of correcting that over-centralisation as part of a wider class struggle. But do they offer us a means of challenging that overcentralisation? Do they even offer us a means of protecting the limited powers that Scotland already has? 

Importantly, no-one on the ‘Yes Left’ understands Scottish independence under the SNP as the guarantor of a socialist utopia. Rather, we understand it as an integral part of a wider class struggle.

It is no secret that the Tories stand in direct opposition to further devolution never mind full-blown federalism. What is less commonly discussed, is the fact that they regularly seek to undermine the existing, limited devolution arrangement. The Internal Markets Bill was only the most recent example of the British ruling class’s disregard for devolution and democracy and it will not be the last. The question then, for all those who agree that political democracy forms an essential part of class struggle, is the following: what is the best way to 1) protect the limited gains made so far in terms of devolved powers and 2) extend those gains to achieve genuine political democracy for the people of Scotland? 

Scottish Labour as an Alternative

Having ruled out the possibility of the SNP achieving some improved form of political democracy for Scotland through independence, Cowley turns to Scottish Labour to answer this question:

“But what of a Scottish Labour left now largely supportive of Scotland’s right to a second referendum should next May’s Holyrood elections result in a majority for pro-Yes parties?”

It is perhaps telling that Cowley does not subject Scottish Labour to anything like the same standard of critical analysis he was able to deploy against the SNP just sentences earlier. His heroic vehicle for change has just seen a longstanding right-wing insurrection project topple its leader. MSP Neil Findlay talks openly about the party’s inability to hold a single meeting, without key details being leaked to journalists before they had even left the room. Moreover, the current leadership frontrunner Anas Sarwar (Editor: now leader) outright rejected the idea of any sort of referendum on Scotland’s future in his Guardian article on the 31st of January, stating: 

“We can achieve that by bringing power closer to people without the protracted and deeply divisive process of a constitutional referendum.”

Anas Sarwar MSP

Sarwar instead, backs Keir Starmer’s recently announced plans for a UK-wide Constitutional Commission. If one ever needed conclusive evidence that the British Labour Party isn’t taking constitutional reform for Scotland seriously, the appointment of Gordon Brown to lead this commission ought to suffice.

None of this is even to mention the reality of the Scottish Labour Party’s history in Scottish politics and the justifiable mistrust this has engendered among the Scottish people. If the independence debate is to receive an “injection of class politics” (a desire we share with Cowley) it will not come from Scottish Labour. Rather it will come from extra-parliamentary mobilisation.

Of Unity and Division

As is common on the unionist-left (see Sarwar above), Cowley talks of the need to overcome the divisiveness of independence politics and strive for unity. But any good Marxist should be comfortable enough with contradictions to understand that division is both the opposite of unity and the condition of unity; that to unite, it is necessary to divide. For example, in 2014, independence sparked a clear division between the ruling class and the working class. Yet, at the same time, it was the source of a tremendous unity within the working class communities of Scotland, resulting in mass mobilisation and organisation. 

Clearly then, question then is not one of division, but rather one of location: where are the lines being drawn? Cowley suggests that:

“Ultimately, for the independence-supporting left, an SNP bereft of class character or politics presents a better option to socialists than a British labour movement populated still by millions of rank and file trade unionists.”

While Cowley’s representation of the British left may be numerically accurate, the comparison he draws here is a deeply disingenuous one. Firstly, to juxtapose the SNP, Scotland’s dominant political party, with “millions of rank and file trade unionists” in Britain, is blatantly dishonest. In what sense has the pro-independence left chosen one group over the other? If the argument is being made on the grounds of parliamentary abandonment, I am sorry to be the one to inform Cowley that parliamentary arithmetic is the least of the British left’s problems. This particular concern over the division of the working classes subscribes to left-delusions about electoralism that have come to characterise the post-Corbyn era. These delusions would require another article to address in full but suffice to say for now that the British left requires a nationwide project of political education and external organisation before it can even aspire to enact any meaningful, lasting change. This is something the left used to understand well (Connolly perhaps summed it up best in his proclamation that, ‘…the struggle for the conquest of the political state of the capitalist is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle.’) but now it appears so deeply penetrated by the ruling ideology that its aspirations are entirely confined to parliamentary reformism. The liberation of the working people will not arrive in the form of a parliamentary majority, and the longer we remain fixed upon electoral victory, the longer the real victory will elude us.

In light of all of this, I see no drawing of lines between the Scottish and English working classes. Nor do I see any abandonment. On the contrary, independence presents itself, to those of us on the ‘Yes Left’, as a form of internationalism from below and an opportunity for solidarity among working people across borders.


Cowley is correct to criticise the Growth Commission and the SNP, but he is wrong to say that these matters (currency etc.) stand unopposed (or unaddressed) on the pro-independence left. With the announcement of a new referendum comes new opportunities for organisation. Of course, things have changed drastically since 2014, but the inevitability of another mass movement will remain a constant source of potential for pressure, change, and transformation. It is in the people of Scotland, rather than the Scottish Labour Party, that we place our hope. Yet, we do not do so naively. Instead we move forward, as we always have: critically, with Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Pro-independence socialists have always sought to embody Marta Harnecker’s call for the left to approach politics “not as the art of the possible, but as the art of making the impossible possible.” In this regard, Cowley appears to have recognised the impossibility of our task, without acknowledging the impossibility of his own. Though left-unionists may scoff at the loftiness of our aspirations, their own politics is inevitably rooted in an electoralist brand of utopianism that far exceeds our own.

However, the generosity Cowley extends to us (the pro-independence left) we extend to him in return. His keenness for the Scottish Labour Party to support an independence referendum is welcomed and his commitment to the discourse on Scottish independence is appreciated insofar as it allows pro-independence socialists the opportunity to rearticulate our position.

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