Comrades, I’m delighted to be here to speak to you tonight. It will hopefully be clear from what I have to say that I’m speaking not on behalf of Yes Scotland but in a personal capacity. I’m happy to answer any questions about Yes Scotland at the end.
I’m heartened by the addition of the Scottish Socialists for Independence to the campaign – not least for the music, and strength of left tradition, which is rarer than it ought to be. And I was pleased at the last meeting to join in the song our generation of socialists often sing at meetings and gatherings.
It features the lines:
there’s mair nor a roch wind blowing
through the great glen of the world the day
There’s work to be done to make the referendum campaign more than a rough wind – so that the gloom which is settling over Scotland and Britain can be cleared, and our sights lifted to something more hopeful.
Yet so far we’ve seen little more than the breezy debate of our devolution politics becoming a little rougher.
On one side the huffing and puffing of my Labour party as it insists the whole constitutional issue is a great distraction from the lives of ordinary people.
On the other, the SNP’s panting proclamations of how corporation tax cuts can be progressive; and how a fairer Scotland will follow as a matter of course.
My energy at work, at Yes Scotland, is often focussed on saying independence amounts to a few more powers for Scotland, but no great redistribution of power, no great renewal of our economy, no great reconstruction of society: pretty much more of the same.
Comrades, there is nothing a socialist wants to hear less than the claim that nothing will change.
Our own instincts, and our sense of history, tells us Scotland will not become something better of its own accord. Scotland may become slightly happier and fairer just because of independence. But each of us knows really that something more would have to happen for independence to be a significant step towards socialism.
It is the tradition and the challenge of socialists to make such opportunities more than a rough wind.
For various obvious reasons it is the SNP line which gets through as the main case for independence. But if we can develop a clear and coherent socialist case, it will be heard.
Many on the left say independence is whatever the SNP offer. This is the line of my Labour Party, and of many comrades writing in the Red Paper.
They argue that the great achievements of the Left were fought through the British class struggle.
That we benefit from the greatest achievement of the left in Britain, the pooling and sharing of resources across Britain. That welfare gains will be maintained across the UK only if we stick together.
It is the claim that the Clydesiders were Home Rulers, and that independence is nothing like the democratic power they sought.
That if we don’t all move up together, we choose a race to the bottom
That we can only challenge capital at a British level, and that the post-imperial posturing of Britain needs to be reduced not through fragmentation but a gradual closure of that part of our collective history.
They believe they have deduced this from history, and that their pessimism is only an intellectual reflection of the reality in Scotland.
Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary of the STUC and one of the most important voices in the debate, hit on the problem of much of the Red Paper Collective when he wrote in his article: ‘arguments which are built on the foundations of past accomplishments should be approached with care’.
We do not need to doubt the importance of the British class struggle to doubt the necessity to preserve the UK. But we do need to be much clearer about what’s at stake and what’s on offer.
The Red Paper Collective have set out their reservations about what we can do. But the Red paper they are emulating, of 1974, was much more positive, and had faith that we are still moving towards socialism in Scotland.
Those defending the Union have no monopoly on the Red Paper project.
After all, this is our tradition: to review society and review our theories of what can be done, and to find a way to take such arguments directly to the people – to become radical: to speak to people in Scotland who work and are underpaid, who live dreary and difficult lives.
In their best moments, socialists have managed this.
So as well as rejecting the timidity of the SNP’s aim, we need to be clearer about our proposals of a change in the structure of welfare, the government of Scotland, the condition and nature of work.
We need to expose the powers as they are currently held:
The dead hand of the City, extracting ever more of people’s wealth
The arms of the British state, crushing welfare provision
The fingers of private business in different parts of our social and civic life, privatising leisure and public affairs
When we are told that current powers are not being used fully, we mustn’t squirm into defending the SNP, but we should agree; and we should argue that we want the most important powers, over the economy, work, benefits, and social insurance, to be used for much more radical ends than those the SNP aspire to.
We need to argue, like the Red Paper has done, that powers must be used for a purpose: only once powers are able to be used by those who lack power can buttons be pressed, rules be broken, and the balance of the economy tipped to those who are the many, who produce the wealth of our economy and society. Only then can we turn Scotland upside down.
So what can the prospect of independence really mean?
For my generation it is chiefly about work. The type of work most people of my age do makes them disillusioned with society and uninspired with politics.
Low wage jobs are on the rise – a fifth of people earn below a living wage.
There is a gap growing in the middle of the economy – four out of five jobs created since 2009 are low waged.
Women are in more low paid, poor contract jobs, and underemployment has never been higher.
People have skills but not jobs: by 2020 there will be over a million people with skills but without jobs to match them.
These are the basics. We need to start from the bottom up – for the economy as a whole and the various sectors of Scotland’s economy to be addressed.
We can establish policies for freedom and justice in work and wages: a living wage, a decent and rising share of the national income going to the people who produce our wealth.
We can abolish the means test and provide a minimum income for those who cannot work.
We can develop a National Labour Contract Standard which will abolish contracts that work for bosses not workers.
We can use the state to encourage trade unionism, to improve our 25% unionisation to match and surpass other European countries, and improve the abysmal 15% collective bargaining coverage.
We can tackle unequal education, remove financial barriers, and allocate resources to address gender and class.
We can plan investment in a jobs-heavy dynamic production that is useful for society – creating goods for individuals and society: prioritising good food and homes – and ensuring women and men are employed across the economy.
We can allow for much greater investment in cooperatives, take companies into public ownership.
And we can revisit old ideas of the likes of GDH Cole in empowering people at work – for this is where the greatest problems lie: equip and empower our people, especially young people, and much of the rest will happen through the people’s own social accord.
Comrades, a socialist reconstruction of society must be our aim, from the bottom up, from people’s labour, their living standards and workplace conditions.
Work needs to be done in all these areas, and it falls to folk like you and I to do it.
There are four projects I want to mention now, which urgently need people’s input.
The first is a new Trade Union website soon to be launched.
The second is a pro-independence response to the Red Paper
We also need a left response to the White Paper when it comes out
We need publications on democratic ownership and workplace reform, and the labour market, and other issues laid down by the STUC as crucial.
These things need to be done – and will be done only with coordination across the left.
It is of course easy to say all this, but difficult to bring to practice. I was discussing some of this this morning with a comrade who works at the STUC, and we were pessimistic. Pessimistic about the ability of the Left’s intellect to bring about ideas that are effective.
But such pessimism of the intellect is unsurprising when there has been too much vague proclaiming of possibilities and not enough policy or strategy. Over the next year we need to breed a new habit of rigor and application.
A habit of rigor breeds confidence in what we are demanding and fighting for.
It gives us the knowledge to work for change.
And it gives us the ability to translate that into a language as many people as possible can understand.
To carry that message to the workplaces of Scotland, through trade unions, NGOs, and the networks, societies and parties of Scotland.
I am optimistic we will win, but we need to optimise the opportunity of independence by presenting our own case much more clearly than we have done – and by bringing home to people the idea that something much more exciting can change with independence than business as usual.
So I’m delighted to be here for the unfurling of the banner. But we need to know what we are marching for, and how we can take this opportunity to direct the political winds in Scotland, to clear the skies and set sail in an altogether better direction.
12th September 2013