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The Battle for Britain: workers take steps to defeat separatism and build unity

National unity. Doctors in Glasgow join colleagues around Britain in protest against the chaos of the new appointments system, 2007. Photo Workers

Next year’s referendum can become an opportunity for the British working class to rebuild and revitalise our country...

With 12 months to go until voters in Scotland are asked to say Yes or No to the referendum question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, the bulk of Britons have no say in an issue vital to their future – the possible break up of their nation. A recent poll of British opinion outside Scotland has 53 per cent rejecting separation. The same poll within Scotland points to the effectiveness of the growing campaign against the separatists, maintaining a healthy lead – 44 per cent no with the separatist yes at 25 per cent. Among those “certain to vote” 52 per cent are against, with 28 per cent in favour.

The resulting large numbers of those undecided, the volatility of polling and danger of low turnout on the day, means hard work must be done to win this argument decisively. By re-uniting British workers and the trade union movement we have the potential to reverse our impoverishment and to rebuild and transform Britain.

Such unity should be a foregone conclusion. After all it was the Britain-wide solidarity, forged in adversity by trade unions in the 19th century, that was the biggest factor in creating British society, pulling together the threads of social and cultural interaction, creating a British nation. Separatists are blind to this development; their minds leap from feudal myth straight to the present day. And it was the hopes and demands of our common struggle against Nazism in World War 2 that gave birth to the all-Britain provision of education, healthcare and arts funding that workers strive to defend today.

Unions join ‘no’ campaign

A potentially strong and decisive working class and its trade union movement is threatened by a permanent split. Recognising this, a growing number of unions are taking their responsibility for class unity seriously. They have argued for – and won in their conferences – opposition to the break up of Britain and support for affiliation the No campaign organisation, Better Together, and its specialist section for unions, Work Together.


Referendum meeting in Clydebank in October, organised by the local trades council. Speakers for working class unity were shouted down. Photo Workers

Albeit small, these unions are embedded in the industrial working class and its struggles. The train drivers of ASLEF were the first, in May of this year, followed by Community, which represents workers in the steel industry. USDAW – the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers – came on board and the National Union of Mineworkers signalled its support too.

The ASLEF conference was unanimous in its support of the No campaign, with one speaker arguing that the referendum should be Britain-wide and not be just among Scottish voters. Their Scottish Secretary, Kevin Lindsay, commented, “We believe the protection of pensions, public services and vital industry is best achieved by working people in Scotland working with people from across the UK.”

'The ASLEF conference was unanimous in its support of the No campaign, with one speaker arguing that the referendum should be Britain-wide and not be just among Scottish voters.'

Community’s Scottish Officer, John-Paul McHugh, said, “Workers across the whole UK stand united in solidarity. Whether we are from Glasgow, Grimsby or Glamorgan, we know that by working together we can achieve so much more than we could apart. The complete failure of the SNP to support the Scottish steel industry when contracts were being handed out for the Forth Road Bridge replacement was a taste of what life would be like in a separate Scotland.”

USDAW points to its Annual Delegate Meeting having “overwhelmingly rejected the arguments used to advance the case for separation.” It had reached its policy “by carefully considering the evidence for and against independence” and concluded that it “does not accept that the lives of our members will be improved if Scotland becomes independent, and this is why we are joining with other like-minded organisations in the Better Together campaign to make a positive and strong case for Scotland remaining part of the UK family.”

USDAW’s list of “10 Reasons Why Scotland is Better being Part of the UK” includes a warning “that an independent Scotland would be required to join the euro”, that “800,000 Scots live and work in England and Wales without the need for papers or passports” and that the “pensions of 1 million Scots are guaranteed by the UK welfare system”. Its Scottish Divisional Officer, Lawrence Watson, wrote in The Scotsman, “The challenges and difficulties faced by USDAW members are the same whether they live in Manchester or Motherwell.”

The GMB convenor at Babcock Marine, Eric McLeod, wrote for the Work Together campaign, “By being part of the UK we are able to do the work of maintaining and re-fitting the Royal Navy Fleet. The two aircraft carriers alone mean decades of work at Rosyth. No Ministry of Defence means no more shipbuilding jobs in Scotland.”

But a lot of fence-sitting is going on among the larger unions, and the Scottish Trades Union Congress itself only pledges to “enable debate”. Others have deferred deciding – for example, the Musicians’ Union rejected a “fence-sitting” motion at its July conference; it will decide policy early in 2014. The Communications Workers Union (CWU) is assessing its position after consultative meetings throughout October – with strong arguments against separation to be presented by its executive. These include the warning that “an independent Scotland would not have the capacity to recapitalise banks in the event of another financial collapse on the scale of the one in 2008.”

Who bailed out Scottish banks?

In the worst collapse in capitalism since the Great Depression, it was Britain’s taxpayers that bailed out the Scottish banks.

Speaking for the Better Together campaign, former Chancellor Alistair Darling echoed the CWU remarks: “I had to write out a cheque to bail out RBS. I could do it on the credit of the UK; I could not have done it on the credit of Scotland, because it’s not big enough. The Irish Government underwrote its banks. It took the world 20 minutes to realise it couldn’t afford it.”

 “'Independence” in Europe that would entail seeking fresh EU membership, with the inevitable condition of joining the euro.'

No wonder Alex Salmond avoids mention of his much-vaunted “arc of prosperity” – an arc of impoverishment would be the result of an “independence” in Europe that would entail seeking fresh EU membership, with the inevitable condition of joining the euro. Scots would find themselves in a workhouse with Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Fevered discussion of other currencies – the groat, old Scots merk or remaining in a sterling zone – all disguise what would be the certainty of being drawn into the euro.

Financing “independence” with “Scotland’s Oil” is a pipe dream, as Brian Wilson and other No campaign analysts have proven. Wilson recently exposed the SNP’s admission that oil and gas tax revenue is already being used to fund current spending (presumably with an eye to referendum voters). So much, then, for SNP plans to build an “oil fund” to bankroll its separate Scotland. It would take full British backup to finance new oil and gas exploration in increasingly difficult waters. There will be no second oil boom. And the oil and gas market is too volatile to base a new economy upon.

A love affair – with NATO

In response – to help draw up his Economic Plan for Independence – Salmond brings out the heavy canon in the form of Joseph Stiglitz, Clinton’s former US economic policy advisor. His credits include devising the economic break-up of Yugoslavia. That was done with help from the bombs and boots of NATO; that’s an organisation that would have an enhanced role in a separate Scotland.

The SNP’s quest for a strategic “Nordic identity” would combine defence with trade and diplomacy in yet another “arc” embracing Scandinavia, Iceland and Canada. The “SNP-speak” in its documents uses the tell-tale phrase “the high north” – one straight out of the lexicon of US-NATO strategy. In 2009 a NATO seminar had been held on ‘Security Prospects in the High North’ and a ‘National Security Presidential Directive’ was issued putting the US view of “broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic Region”. The Voice of Russia interpreted this and a subsequent Nordic Baltic Summit as follows: “Europeans have decided to watch the Russians in the Arctic and how they behave there closely. The idea of creating an Arctic ‘Mini-Nato’ was discussed at the Summit in London... The heightened activity of North Europe is explained by an increased interest in the Arctic and its natural resources.” A separate Scotland would seek to be part of that activity.

It would seem Salmond, to capture the votes of leftists, liberals and some trade unionists, would call for the removal of Trident nuclear submarines (to be shifted – at great expense – a little further down Britain’s west coast) and, in return, agree to an enhanced role for Scotland in NATO.

On a visit to New York on 6 April for Tartan Day (a “day” pushed through the US Senate by Trent Lott, right-wing Republican ally of the SNP), Salmond held talks with US government officials about NATO membership for an independent Scotland, as well as signalling that US bases could be established in Scotland. He was quoted in a Scotsman article that day (“Salmond opens way for US military bases”) saying the bases would be allowed as long as they were non-nuclear.

Presumably, had Scotland been independent, Scots regiments (in keeping with SNP plans for a Scottish Defence Force, crassly synonymous with the pro-Nazi “Scottish Defence Force” of the 1930s) would now be fighting alongside al-Qaeda “rebels” in Syria. Remember it was an all-British vote that kept us out of war last month and “gave peace a chance”.

Official aid for separatists

The SNP and Yes campaign are using the machinery of Scottish government and hundreds of civil servants – all funded by tax payments of workers of Britain – to give advice and draw up plans and “white papers” for these defence and domestic fantasies. UK Foreign Office officials are already facilitating a semi-autonomous foreign policy conducted with relish by Salmond and his ministers. Witness Li Keqiang (now China’s Premier) being received first at a “state banquet” in Edinburgh Castle by Alex Salmond in 2011. And over 50 diplomats from countries around the world invited to the SNP conference.

The Yes campaign has more than double the resources of those arguing for British unity. Brian Wilson pointed out in The Scotsman in August: “The place has gone mad when the Scottish civil service is being used to formulate and communicate hypothetical policies to be pursued by a hypothetical government in a hypothetical state. But the politicisation process is now so advanced that even the most flagrant abuses pass without comment – least of all from those entrusted with defending the integrity of civil servants.”

Myth building

How did we get into this mess? Why did a once united working class allow this to happen? The answers could fill a book. Some go back a long way: the Roman empire tried to destroy the united resistance of Brigantes and Picts by building walls – we must not permit new borders within Britain! Two different currencies and two different immigration systems would inevitably lead to this.

“Braveheart” myth building has distorted history. Even William Wallace was seen in the 19th century as quite a British rebel, more along the lines of Wat Tyler the peasant revolt leader. Then came separate identity spearheaded by new words. Historian Vanessa Collingridge clarifies how the description of anything within Britain as “Celtic” only started after a 1706 language categorisation: “And where there were no historical or cultural precedents to draw upon, sometimes Celtic ‘traditions’ were simply made up.” (from Celtomania, a chapter in her book Boudica).

In the 20th century misleading comparisons with the struggle for Irish independence led activists like John MacLean into the cul-de-sac of seeking a “Scottish Workers Republic” and the STUC into advocating “Home Rule”.

With such thinking about, it was easy to divert the bold assertiveness of Scottish industrial workers that grew in the 1960s and resulted in such actions as the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in 1971-2. This became a prototype for dozens of work-ins and occupations all over Britain in the years immediately following.

An alarmed capitalist class played on backward thinking to divert a potentially powerful movement into fake nationalism – channelling it into the harmless (to capitalism) Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. The fantasy of leading trade unionists was that it would become a “Workers’ Parliament” – a line of thought continued recently in the 40th anniversary film about UCS, which ended with views of the Scottish Parliament, as if this was some kind of achievement growing out of the work-in.

Industrial workers take lead

When such dreams are punctured, rage can follow, as witnessed at one of the most disorderly public meetings of recent decades in Clydebank Town Hall last month. Packed with separatists and their ultraleft cheerleaders, the speakers for British class unity were shouted down and screeched at. Richard Leonard of the GMB union could hardly be heard in his attempt to advocate class thinking above Scottish nationalist thinking.

Anas Sarwar tried to explain he was born here when it was shouted that he should follow the example of his grandfather who had fought for Pakistan’s independence. A London woman who spoke up from the audience for the 300 years of developing British unity had the microphone snatched from her and someone shouted “Go home b--ch”.

It was brave of Clydebank Trades Council to mount the event; but the town, once a heartland of heavy industry, is now a shadow of its former self. The solidarity outlook of the previous generations of industrial workers would have made it much more difficult for such separatist thinking to prevail. In seeking to rebuild Britain’s industrial base anew, we will create not just wealth but collective social thought. It is significant that it is the industrial trade unions that have taken the lead in opposing the break up of Britain.

The No to Separation campaign website is www.bettertogether.net

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