A left-wing, but flawed, vision for an independent Scotland

August 31, 2014

In Place of Fear II: A Socialist Programme for an Independent Scotland
By Jim Sillars
Vagabond Voices Publishing, 2014

Jim Sillars is a well-known and well-respected figure on the Scottish political scene.

Elected a Labour Party MP for South Ayrshire in 1970, he shifted away from mainstream Labour Party politics due to his commitment to setting up a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

In 1976, Sillars split from the British Labour Party and established the breakaway Scottish Labour Party (SLP), a left social-democratic party committed to devolution of power in the economic and political spheres.

The SLP never really took off, and in 1979 Sillars lost his Westminster seat in the British general election.

He joined the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 1980s. In 1988, he won a seat in the Glasgow Govan by-election, which he subsequently lost in the 1992 election.

In the lead-up to the historic September 18 Scottish independence referendum, Sillars has published a short book, In Place of Fear II.

The title of the book is explained by the fact that the “No” campaign — sponsored by the three neoliberal British parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat — has been pushing “Project Fear”.

This strategy exploits natural caution of the unknown to scare the Scottish people into rejecting independence and sticking with the “United Kingdom”.

The subtitle of the book is “A Socialist Programme for an Independent Scotland”, although it is really more of an old-style Labour social-democratic program spliced with a commitment to independence. It goes beyond the more centrist path promoted by Alex Salmond’s SNP.

As one might expect in a social-democratically oriented program, there is a less than adequate understanding of capitalism, and it contradicts itself at various places.

Sillars' characterisation of “socialism today” is a vast improvement on anything offered by British Labour leaders: “Socialism today can be defined as action to advance labour’s ability to prevent exploitation by capital, secure a distribution of wealth and power that favours working people and promotes co-operation which can be achieved through social ownership and by exerting public control over parts of the economy vital to the interests of the people.”

But the theoretical assumption underlying this definition is that exploitation is something capital does when it behaves badly, rather than the modus operandi of even the most “benign” capitalist economy.

This shows in Sillars’s comments on the nature of profit: “If we see profit as surplus value after the costs involved have been met, there can be no objection to it.

“Companies without profit go bust … It is what is done with the ‘profit’ that matters.”

For Sillars, socialism is capitalism with a moral compass, rather than a vision of an alternative social and economic system in which “profit” no longer plays a role.

This lack of theoretical clarity on economics is mirrored by confusion about the extent to which a referendum empowers the electorate.

The book opens with a flourish: “The referendum is about power. On 18th September 2014, between the hours of 7 am and 10 pm, absolute sovereign power will lie in the hands of the Scottish people.”

This is a huge overestimate, as the Irish people discovered when they voted against ratifying the European Union Treaty of Lisbon in a 2008 referendum.

More worryingly, Sillars appears something of a climate change sceptic: “Anxiety about climate change, stoked by lobby groups with a vested interest, has meant little critical analysis of the claims for renewables by the people who pay the subsidies — the consumers — confronted as they are by a barrage of propaganda and acronyms that create confusion about the true nature of the issues and consequences.”

On energy policy, Sillars argues: “The way forward is a mix of what are regarded as conventional sources: coal, gas and nuclear.

“Gas is crucial, and it is estimated that Scotland is sitting on huge reserves of shale gas, which can be extracted by the fracking system, which is not a new one.

“Opponents of fracking can be ignored. They have already engaged in the usual scaremongering.”

Sillars is clearly no ecosocialist.

However, Sillars is strongly committed to a policy of full employment, a policy long since jettisoned by Labour. Sillars quips: “Those who think we should accept a pool of unemployment should try swimming in it.”

Sillars thinks that, for legal reasons, there is little prospect of renationalising utilities such as electricity, gas, railways and airports. But he is at least strongly in favour of renationalising the Royal Mail and the Scottish Post Office.

Sillars also has innovative and welcome suggestions relating to education. At the moment, in Britain, independent (i.e. private, fee-paying) schools can qualify for charitable status. Sillars quotes some telling figures.

Fettes, the fee-paying school attended by no less than Tony Blair, has its council tax liability reduced from £209,139 to £41,828 as a result of the charitable status granted to private schools.

In comparison, Wester Hailes state school, where 45% of the pupils are eligible for free school meals, has to pay its full liability of £261,873.

Sillars proposes to extend eligibility for charitable status to state schools. He also proposes to make free school meals available to all primary school pupils, promises there will be no dismantling of the welfare state in an independent Scotland, and that no pensioner will be forced to live in poverty.

These, and other measures, will be paid for by a commitment to a mixed economy in which the emphasis is on education and technical development. In it, small and medium-sized enterprises will be supported and encouraged, but workplace rights are guaranteed.

Compared to the standard neoliberal fare on offer from the mainstream British parties, this is an attractive package.

Sillars also has a measured and sensible attitude towards the much-discussed question of whether an independent Scotland should maintain a currency union with the rest of Britain.

Sillars argues that, although there would have to be a transition period of five-to-eight years after independence, Scotland would ultimately require a separate currency.

His reasoning is solid: The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England has nine members. Five are drawn from within the Bank, and four are appointed by the British chancellor.

Six of the nine went to “Oxbridge”. Only one has any past connection outside the bubble of the South of England. Two come from the Goldman Sachs stable, and one is from the employers’ organisation, the CBI. All are anchored in London.

Does anyone seriously believe that planking a lone Scot in among that lot will alter its commitment to the interests of London's financial sector?

Sillars is also clear that an independent Scotland would have a foreign policy far different from that pursued by Britain: “Scotland will not seek to project hard military power. Its foreign policy will emphasise humanitarian engagement with the rest of the world, and building trade relations.

“Fact: Scotland does not have a single state enemy. No state threatens us with invasion.”

But surprisingly, Sillars continues: “The one threat, shared by many other states, is that from non-state actors, terrorists, who direct their attacks at civil society and national economic assets.”

Yet the only major terrorist threats in recent Scottish history are a direct product of Scotland’s membership of the “United Kingdom” and Britain’s neo-colonialist interventions in Ireland and the Middle East.

Freed from Britain, it is hard to imagine Scotland becoming the focus of any serious organised terrorist threat.

Overall, then, this short book is a welcome, though uneven, contribution to the debates leading up to the September 18 referendum.

Perhaps its main value lies in its illustrating the truth of the adage that in contemporary Scotland the centre of political gravity lies well to the left of England.

It is not difficult to imagine many of the positive proposals that Sillars makes in the book becoming the focus of mainstream political discussion in an independent Scotland.

[Abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Alex Miller is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]

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