Class Matters: A Provocation for Radical Campaigning Now


The following is an edited version of Harry Giles’ speech at the recent Yestival Edinburgh event ‘Class Matters’ at Summerhall.

I’m voting yes for the welfare state, for closing Dungavel and opening borders, for universal childcare, for raising minimum wages, for land reform, for nuclear disarmament. It’s been strange to find myself walking with nationalists, because I’m not a nationalist of any stripe. I have no desire to draw new lines on a map, new borders to be policed. But like many on the left, like many progressives, I’ve been convinced by the promises of Scottish independence. The promises to protect the gains made by past struggles – rights for women, for workers, for disabled folk, for migrants, for everyone. I’ve been convinced by those promises, and I’ve been convinced that an independent Scotland presents the best conditions for futher struggle, for futher victories for everyone who is marginalised and oppressed by neoliberal capitalism.

But. Oh, but. These are promises and potentials, and not yet realities. And the truth is that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, there’s a lot of struggle ahead of us.

Scotland is not special. Scotland is not unique. Scottish people are not uniquely disposed to be progressive, welcoming, wealth-redistributing citizens in solidarity. (Nor are Danes, Norwegians or Icelanders, by the way.) Every victory for workers – from minimum wage to the weekend – has been fought for, won, and defended by ongoing struggle. A struggle which has always been threatened, and always will be threatened, by bosses and politicians. We live in a part of the world with a terrifying degree of neoliberal consensus. We shouldn’t be mistaken in thinking that the current Scottish government, and any likely Scottish government in the near future, is anything but neoliberal.

(Just to de-jargon this for a moment: by “neoliberal” I mean the kind of capitalism we mostly have now, characterised by global networks of trade, free trade, debt and so-called austerity policies designed to constantly increase the income gap between rich and poor, the decline of manufacturing and the rise of uncertain or “precarious” work conditions, and basically a whole shitpile of oppressive horror.)

The current Government is at the soft and smiley end of neoliberalism, for sure, and it’s trying hard to make itself look as progressive as possible to get your votes, but things could be very different after the referendum. Now and after the referendum, the Government is a government of bosses and the wealthy. Even with their appealing promises, they are not your friends.

We should also not be mistaken in thinking that Europe is a progressive political organisation either. EU prosperity has relied on forcing brutal policies on Greece and Spain. It just takes manufacturing a government debt crisis and the same could happen to Scotland. Moreover, the open borders allowed within the EU – preserving which is a goal of many progressives voting for independence – are dependent on vicious and murderous immigration control on Europe’s borders. We may be freer inside, but we’re a fortress.

For reasons like this, there is a small but significant group on the socialist left in Scotland – and a larger group on the socialist left in England – arguing against Scottish independence on the grounds that it will get in the way of class struggle. These people argue that the new border divides workers against each other, splits resources and organisational capacity, and diverts our campaigning into a contest of nationalisms. They also argue that Scotland alone in Europe risks the worst of Europe’s neoliberal violence. I think these arguments are worth listening to. But I also think that that socialist contingent are failing to offer class struggle in Scotland any realistic alternative. Some of them are even that strange and lonely group, Labour-voting Communists, who still believe that the Labour party can be a revolutionary force despite all historical evidence to the contrary.

Worse, I think these socialists are ignoring the arguments of those workers facing a double oppression under the current government. There is a reason that disability rights campaign group Black Triangle has come out for Yes. There is a reason that Women for Independence is so strong while Women Together is a barely-clicked webpage. There is a reason that the majority of migrants are voting Yes. And why Scottish CND is voting Yes.

(Another aside: nuclear disarmament is also a class issue. Military spending diverts vital resources from the welfare state, making employment dependent on military installation makes workers incredibly vulnerable, and local funding is diverted to buildings for military families while other local schools and community centres struggle.)

Socialists arguing for No are asking everyone made most vulnerable by capitalism – workers also facing oppression for gender, sexuality, disability, ethnicity – to lay aside the short-term gains independence can win for them in favour of phantasms of class struggle. The workers’ movement in the UK is not strong enough at present to win those victories for us, and voting No will not make it stronger. So I would ask socialists voting No what, concretely, they can offer us instead.

Meanwhile many on the anarchist left aren’t voting at all – a position for which I have much more time. The argument here is that all of this energy around the referendum campaign is diverting much-needed attention from radical campaigns here and now. That progressives are putting all their time into a ballot which by itself guarantees nothing, instead of into radical struggle which can win more.

I actually more or less agree with this. But the vote itself won’t take much of my time, and I don’t mind getting a bit morally grubby by grudgingly consenting to the ballot system with a wee X. What I’ve decided to do, then, is to use every platform I can within the independence campaign to argue for radical struggle. Struggle now, struggle before the referendum, struggle during the referendum, and struggle after the referendum.

Only ongoing campaigning can win us the victories we’ve been promised. Only radical struggle will secure rights for workers, for women, for migrants, for the disabled, for folk who are marginalised by gender, sexuality, race and every other oppression. A vote guarantees nothing. Fighting together can guarantee everything.

Get involved in radical campaigns around Scotland now. They need you. They also need to be convinced that an independent Scotland truly has something to offer them. Why should a woman vote for independence, unless Yes-voters are fighting for her now? Why should a worker vote for independence, unless Yes-voters are struggling for workers’ rights now? Why should a migrant vote for independence, unless Yes-voters are stopping detentions and deportations now?

Remember the people facing oppression not just as workers, but by sexism, racism, homophobia. There are systems of power and exploitation that are all tangled up with capitalism – supported by and supporting capitalism. They all come down together, or not at all. The people most marginalised and oppressed by neoliberalism and the UK Government need to know there will be people fighting with them after the vote, whatever its result. Don’t go to them asking for their vote. Go to them asking what you can do: now.

Harry Giles
National Collective

Image from Documenting Yestival