Political Perspectives – Can a radical vision succeed in a referendum?

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Paul Inglis is a young socialist activist in the Labour Party

The contention is put forward by left-wing supporters of Scottish independence that an independent Scotland presents the best chance for anti-austerity politics to succeed in Scotland– That remaining in the United Kingdom will only serve to chain us to a Tory austerity project handed down from Westminster without our consent. The working class of Scotland, it is further maintained, have shown their rejection of politics as done in Westminster by their overwhelming support for the SNP, which in 2014 presented Scottish independence in defiance of Tory austerity.

Of course, many left-wing independence supporters know that the SNP does not truly present an alternative to austerity, and indeed in the last year the SNP shown this by largely dropping its stated opposition. However, the point is still put forward that the Scottish working class still want independence for anti-austerity reasons, and it is because of this that the left in Scotland must fashion some sort of power for themselves through supporting a radical vision of independence.

But can this radical vision of independence be brought about in an imminent referendum? Left nationalist parties are pushing for another referendum as soon as possible, so the “radical-vision” would have to win out on the current political landscape of Scotland- a landscape that does not necessarily present the left with favourable opportunities.

One of the chief features of that landscape is this- of all the groups that support Scottish independence, the SNP holds unchallenged hegemony. This means that, as long as they continue in this position of power, they will dominate the Yes camp of another referendum, just as they did in 2014. This presents a number of problems for political forces organising in the Yes camp, the most pressing being the unavoidable fact that another Yes Campaign would again be a top down imposition by the SNP.

The official Yes Campaign would not be the free coming-together of groups on equal footing to present a campaign, it will be established by the SNP, with them in control of activities and narratives. Due to their aforementioned hegemony, the SNP will, through the official Yes Campaign control and direct their side of the discussion to their advantage. They will reap the spontaneous outburst of Yes support like they did in 2014, because they already have a position of overwhelming power.

Can then, as some have suggested, an alternative Yes Campaign be built? One that is spontaneous and free from SNP control? One that can present radical narratives that the SNP wouldn’t touch? Yes, one can certainly be set up in the manner of the Radical Independence Campaign, but the question is, can it present an alternative to the SNP?

This question cannot be answered without considering the fact that the proposed alternative would be being built either during an independence referendum, or with the hope of acting in that referendum (and if the referendum is desired as soon as possible, then we have to assume that the indy-left do not expect they have much preparation to make in the meantime). This is where serious problems crop up.

In a referendum, the terms are set beforehand as a choice between two absolutes, and all political forces then have to acclimate to the choice. Degrees of freedom aren’t really allowed for the voter in the way that they are in a general election (problems with two party systems notwithstanding, at least voters can choose one of a variety of possible outcomes each time)- Instead there are just two realities to pick.

This top down “this or that” situation tends to hand the situation over to the most powerful forces on either side of the vote, because they are in the best position, a position of power, to bring about their favoured version of the outcome.

If we take Brexit as an example, you couldn’t really make the left wing case for, because there was no option to vote for a left wing brexit- there was only the choice of a brexit piloted by whoever won in the brexit camp. Referendums only work for the groups that already stand to gain from them. This could be a left wing force, but only if that left wing force was hegemonic going into the referendum.

If the alt-Yes campaign goes about its actions during the referendum without being in the position of hegemony, then it will find itself in the position of mopping up those radical voters who are left cold by the official Yes campaign- But only to the effect that they direct these people to vote for the SNP’s version of independence anyway. The “radical vision”, rootless and without an influence of its own, will simply help accommodate a broader group of people to the SNP than the SNP could by themselves.

The beliefs and ambitions of the indy-left are no doubt sincere, yet to realise them requires a certain held power that cannot just be pried out of an independence referendum. The fact is that in politics the field belongs to the group that has already built the influence and power required to channel spontaneous outbursts and surges. The desire on the part of the indy-left to insert their positions and take hold of a situation already in motion speaks to certain hopes for a quick-fix to chronic problems of influence that the global left has been suffering for decades. However, draping a radical point of view over a process that’s in someone else’s hands will not solve the problem. The left has to build itself up as the force that pulls forward political events as they erupt, not as the force that looks for scraps left in their wake.

You can join Scottish Labour Young Socialists for just £5 here – http://www.campaignforsocialism.org.uk/young-socialists/

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