We’re now on the eve of the referendum for whether or not Scotland should be an independent country, and as it has gotten closer the debate has gotten ever more heated. The opinion polls are so close, and so volatile, that it’s a brave gambler who puts big money on one or the other outcome.
Regardless of the result, though, once the referendum is done there are big challenges ahead. For those of us in PCS, there are organisational questions that we need to answer both within the workplace and within the union. This article is an attempt to explore those questions, though it makes no claims to a definitive answer. That’s for all PCS members to determine, through debates at Conference and activity in branches.
What if there’s a NO vote?
If there’s a ‘NO’ vote, then it’s tempting to think that we’ll then simply be left with the exact same challenges as before. Business as usual, if you will. But it’s just as possible that this won’t be the case.
One of the key arguments that the independence campaign has been built on, and this is as true for the Scottish establishment as well as for left wing groups like the Radical Independence Campaign, is an alternative to austerity and cuts. There are some who would argue that this would not be the case in reality, that a Scottish state would be as in thrall to global capital as a British one, but nonetheless this is how the debate has largely been framed.
There are left wing individuals and groups who have spoken against independence, but they are a minority both on the left and in the pro-UK camp. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that the government would see a ‘NO’ vote as a mandate for its austerity agenda.
If that’s the case, then a ‘NO’ vote will see redoubled attacks on public services and PCS members’ jobs. Taking Scotland specifically, a number of sources have suggested that devolution arrangements would be revisited. Some have suggested this would be to the benefit of Scotland, meaning further devolution and more powers, but equally there’s every chance that it could mean enforcing further cuts in Scotland.
This is based on one particularly virulent anti-Scots argument touted by right-wing English commentators, namely that England is ‘subsidising’ Scotland. In matter of fact this isn’t true, and if the money given to the Scottish government was based on its per head tax take then it would likely be higher than currently, but nonetheless the belief persists that Scotland gets more money than it deserves and this is how it gets free prescriptions, no university fees, and other boons the English have to do without.
Needless to say, the argument is never used in the hope of getting these things for England too, but as part of a nationalistic race to the bottom. ‘We don’t get them, why should they?’ Such an argument could well intensify, and be drafted in to enforce the logic of austerity, in the event of a NO vote.
As such, the challenge for PCS becomes incorporating the counter arguments to such nonsense into its own anti-austerity argument. Equally, as a union we have to ask whether we can still use the example of Scotland to show that there is an alternative, even without independence. If we can, and you would be hard pressed to find PCS members who didn’t think we could, then we need to use that in our continued efforts to defend jobs and services across the whole of the UK.
What if there’s a YES vote?
In the event of a ‘YES’ vote, the challenges the union faces are somewhat different.
First and foremost, we need to be at the forefront of challenging an independent Scottish administration to make good on its referendum policies. In theory, this should be pushing at an open door since so much of the pro-independence campaign was argued from a relatively leftist perspective. But at the same time there is no room for complacency.
As a trade union, PCS fights for class rather than nation. A nation is a cross-class body, and the state in all cases has to remain well ordered and prosperous to survive. This means maintaining the class system and acting in the interests of capital.
An independence vote is likely to create enough momentum for a level of Keynesian reform, if for no other reason that those propelled to running the new state will not want to immediately piss off so much of their base. We need to use this, build upon it and even take liberties with it. As soon as we get an inch, demand another mile.
Because at the same time, you can bet that pro-business forces will be making their own demands. There has already been a level of discussion over the possibilities that an independent Scotland offers to capital, and like the organisations of the working class they will be immediately looking to make them a reality.
So, a new situation almost immediately becomes a very old and familiar situation. The working class will get what it wants only if it is organised and enough of a threat that not conceding our demands seems more disruptive to the smooth running of things. The new boss might put on a friendlier face than the old boss, but they are at the end of it still a boss and independence is only the beginning of the struggle to win what we want for our members in Scotland, not the end.
At the same time, we also face the fact that PCS has gone from a national to an international union. This is no bad thing, as there is no reason that our organising activities should be constrained by national borders, but it does of course mean that the union’s structures will have to alter somewhat.
If that is the case, then it is worth taking the opportunity to look at the structures as a whole, rather than just marking a divide between the Scottish and British parts of the union. We believe that a union should be run from the ground up, by its members, and that a top down structure such as we have is not only antithetical to that but actively hinders it. Could a more federal structure, giving greater autonomy to those on the ground, benefit the union and its membership?
We imagine that the Left Unity faction, and in particular those in power on the NEC, would argue no. (Presuming they deigned to entertain the question at all.) But then we know that power is self-replicating and disinclined to abolish itself. Hence why the question needs to be asked in the first place – is the goal to have actual socialist values built into PCS, or merely to put a certain cadre who proclaim themselves socialists in charge of things? The answer may be self-evident.
So which way should I vote then?
Back to the question of independence, we’re not coming at you with a recommendation to vote this way or that. We support the PCS position of providing information on the union’s key demands, and how the major players in the debate respond to them, and letting people make up their own minds.
Have a look at the ‘PCS informs – you decide’ booklet (PDF download here) to see where the various campaigns, and the parties involved in them, stand on the key questions. Then make your decision accordingly.
But whichever way you vote, and whatever the outcome, once it is done our energies need to focus on the situation that follows. There are organising challenges to meet in both scenarios, and we need to face them with at least as much vigour as some have put into the referendum itself.