Book review: Yes – The Radical Case For Scottish Independence


By Jack Ferguson

In just 130 pages, the authors identify the social, economic, democratic and imperial crises creating a dystopian future for Britain, the dangers inherent in US/UK imperial alliance, and sketch an outline of the structure of capitalism in Scotland.

In doing so they put the referendum in its international context: the ongoing battles raging across the world over neoliberalism and austerity that mark the long decline of capitalism through which we’re living.

‘Yes’ is in many ways a manifesto for the Radical Independence Campaign, of which the authors, James Foley and Pete Ramand, are leading figures.

Reading it, I was in many ways reminded of the role that Alan McCombes’ book Imagine played for a slightly earlier generation of Scottish Socialists. The tone is slightly more academic, and ‘Yes’ may not be as immediately accessible to every reader as Imagine, but the vision of how Scots can create a better society here is just as inspirational.

The differences between the two books are also illustrative of their different tasks. Imagine is a wide ranging manifesto, which when it was published 2000 aimed to simply re-present the idea of socialism to a generation still reeling from the collapse of the USSR and the so-called “end of history”. It was written in a time of hope for the future, in which long years of unexciting stability under Lib/Lab coalitions had still to elapse before we had the more dramatic years of the capitalist crisis.

Fast forward to 2014, and the stakes are all together much higher. As a result ‘Yes’ strikes a more urgent, focused note. There is a creative tension within the book: on the one hand, pointing out that Britain has progressed particularly far down the neoliberal road, with an imperial history that gives it a unique place in the history of global capitalism.

In demonstrating this exceptionalism, they aim to show how abnormal and socially backward the UK is compared to most northern European countries, and the immense progress that the Scandinavian countries have made under social democratic governments. So far, so familiar. But as they state in the Introduction:

“But although we find the progressive case appealing, our aim here is not to defend this vision. We wish to go further, and define what we call a radical vision for Independence . . .

“Besides written rights and pleas for ‘fairness’ we need to know who benefits, and how they organise through political alliances. Even when we subtract Westminster and its wars and nuclear bombs, Scotland will remain a capitalist, class divided society . . .

“The Nordic examples are useful . . . But like all capitalist societies, they are not equipped for the challenges of the 21st century, and a just, sustainable Scotland would have to go further, setting new precedents. To address climate change and the rise of the 1 per cent, most economic decisions must be transferred out of private hands and placed under public control.”

They borrow the term ‘Anglobalisation’ from right wing historian Niall Ferguson to signify the continuity between the British and American empires, both aiming to subjugate the world under a certain form of English speaking capitalism. They enunciate how British policy has led us to economic collapse, and destruction of any kind of respect for political authority through the corruption of the Westminster democratic process. (A startling statistic cited is that Brits have less trust in their politicians than Greeks or Italians!)

The authors tackle head on the issues of nationalism and racism, acknowledging up front the racism that blights Scottish society, but also challenging the defenders of British nationalism to unpick their own dangerous, banal fantasies of the inherent betterness of being part of the UK, and how imperial ideology feeds Scottish racism more than any link to the independence movement. It also has the most comprehensive attempt I have seen in a Scottish socialist text to address head on the issues of anti-Irish racism.

The book is strong in its analysis of the local neoliberal strategy for Scottish cities, with a section on the retail and property led consumerist failures of Glasgow’s “regeneration”. Also strong is the account of the process by which the right captured the Scottish Labour party, pushing out left-wingers like John McAllion and Denis Canavan.

But a glaring omission from the account of recent Scottish politics is any mention of the SSP. This may prove difficult for the authors, who were themselves active protagonists in the unprincipled and wrong-headed split off from the party. But this ignores the fact that the pro-independence organised left is not a new phenomenon. There was a substantial, successful body of organised activists who adhered to the basic vision of radical changes coming through Scottish independence, something which at the time much of the “revolutionary left” found fanciful and below contempt, but which time has borne out as the best chance of progress for Scotland.

The SSP is the missing element in a historical account of how we got here. Activists spent years in the street campaigning for policies like free school meals and scrapping prescription charges that were later implemented by the SNP. We helped shift the ‘Overton Window’, creating the space which has allowed the SNP to mobilise the working class against traditional Labour domination. The history of what the SSP achieved is an indispensable part of creating any new left regroupment, and what the Scottish left does next should be bigger and better from building on that experience.

The final chapter sketches a series of immediate demands to mobilise around that begin to address the crises affecting our society. Of particular interest is the focus on what sociologist Erik Olin Wright calls ‘Empowered Participatory Governance’: direct democracy, participatory budgets and non-corporate political funding, which the previous discussion of Glasgow’s dysfunctional leadership proves is essential.

Also worth noting is the call for active measures to combat gender discrimination, such as a 50 per cent quota for parties standing for Holyrood. This in itself proves how far the left has been forced to come on issues of gender, sexual and ethnic oppression, when compared to the battle that was fought in the SSP to enshrine 50/50 candidate lists.

The book certainly weaves more discussion of sexism and racism into the heart of the text than Imagine ever did. And of absolute relevance is the discussion of climate change, and how continued adherence to the UK’s “carbon-based political order” is suicidal. They counterpoint instead a strategy of nationalising North Sea oil in order to finance a green new deal.

‘Yes’ is a book brimming with good ideas that is a product of a time of unprecedented opportunity. For SSP members, Radical Independence campaigners and all of the Yes Left, the challenge is how we can get back to a position of unified action to grasp these opportunities, organise and build the power that the Scottish working class will need to wield in order to make the vision a reality.

• Jack was organiser for Scottish Socialist Youth, the youth wing of the SSP, between 2006 and 2008, and worked with the authors on a number of campaigns

Courtesy of The Scottish Socialist Voice