THE CASE FOR HOLYROOD TAKING THE LEAD
ON A BREXIT DEAL REFERENDUM
On Wednesday 30th August, The Left Against Brexit organised its first meeting in Scotland. Kirsty Haigh (Another Europe Is Possible) chaired the meeting in Strathclyde University Union. Tommy Sheppard (SNP), Maggie Chapman (Scottish Greens), Liam McCabe (NUS-Scotland President) and Michael Chessum (Labour Party and Momentum) addressed the meeting.
The platform speakers were largely agreed upon the need for a Left campaign against any likely Brexit deal, or the prospect of no deal. The negotiations remain in the hands of the May's Tory government, with the main pressure coming from the further Right, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, and from Arlene Foster's DUP, dependent on the support of the Orange Order and the Loyalists. Thus, we all have an immediate interest in defending workers' pay and conditions, women's and minority rights, and environmental and consumer protection.
A number of contributors from the floor thought that the discrediting of Westminster politics meant priority should be given to winning independence for Scotland. Michael Chessum said that he appreciated that there were keen supporters of independence at the meeting, but he was not asking them to abandon or downplay this, anymore than he would his own support for a future Corbyn Labour government. However, opposition to a Tory Brexit deal or even No deal could still unite us.
Some supporters of Scottish independence did not see difference between the political situation during IndyRef1 and that during any possible future IndyRef2. But both sides in Indy Ref1 wanted Scotland to remain in the EU. This also meant that, if Scotland had won its political independence, there would be much less economic disruption. The EU would ensure the continuation of the free movement of people and of free trade. If the UK leaves the EU, then any new Scottish independence campaign would have to deal with the arguments about the economic disruption resulting from Brexit and leaving the UK. Project Fear would move into overdrive.
However, one thing should be clear. May's government is not going to allow any referendum, whether over Brexit, any Brexit deal, Scottish independence, or a Border Poll in Northern Ireland. At the moment there appears to be only one way to break this logjam. Holyrood can hold a Brexit deal referendum. A potential parliamentary majority already exists in the SNP and Green MSPs, and if Momentum in Scotland could win over some Labour MSPs this would add to the political impact. It would also provide an immediate political focus for Another Europe Is Possible in Scotland. Furthermore, this would allow opponents of the Tories to take the initiative, instead of passively waiting for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. This just leaves politics focussed upon Theresa May and her untenable Chequers Agreement, and Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnston putting forward their delusionary Empire 2, hard Brexit schemes.
It is important that such any referendum should be over a Brexit deal or no deal - a Ratification Referendum. Scotland has already voted to Remain. There was a 62% majority, far larger than for any No vote elsewhere in the UK. Furthermore, this was achieved despite the rigged franchise. Whatever, the limitations of the White Paper, which accompanied the Scottish government's official Yes campaign in 2014, it outlined the manner in which it saw independence being implemented. Neither of the two Brexit campaigns made any attempt to do this, and issued contradictory statements. Thus a Ratification Referendum would also allow us to win over those, who voted for Brexit, but not for the versions of Brexit now being pushed by various figures in the Tory government.
But, even more importantly, a Holyrood Ratification Referendum can base itself on the civic national precedent set by IndyRef1. EU residents and all those between 16-18 would get the vote. The racist exclusion of migrants in the Brexit referendum was a disgrace. Prominent Brexiteers avoid taxation and salt away their incomes in overseas tax havens, whilst EU migrant workers pay UK taxes. A big majority of young people are hostile to Brexit, and the chauvinism and racism it has promoted.
Holding a Holyrood Ratification Referendum would place Scotland once more to the forefront of democratic change in these islands. Providing a civic national and Scottish internationalist example of how to conduct a referendum would put pressure on Westminster. This could follow the collapse of the May's Tory government, because of her inability to get her Chequers deal through parliament. A general election would be a quite likely result. This would give renewed opportunity both for independence supporters and for Corbyn supporters to campaign.
This would be the situation in which Michael Chessum's acknowledgement of the different politics of those involved in the Left Against Brexit would come to the fore. However, there could still be some political basis for further political cooperation. It seems very unlikely that Corbyn-led Labour could win an absolute majority of UK seats at Westminster. Therefore he would need to approach other parties to be able to form a government. The SNP actually has better record of voting with Corbyn for progressive legislation in Westminster, than the right wing of his own party! It would be a strong indication that Labour had at last broken with Right unionism, if it could seek support from SNP MPs to implement its manifesto commitments, in return for agreeing to Holyrood conducting IndyRef2. Indeed, for the forseeable future, this is the only likely way that such a referendum could gain legal backing.
There is a principled political basis for future cooperation in the Left Against Brexit campaign. This would mean opposing the strengthening of the UK's anti-democratic powers by upholding the right of self-determination. The Tories are even tearing up the limited Devolution deal brought forward under New Labour. Furthermore, continued cooperation would mean championing workers, women's and minority rights; and defending the free movement of people.
Or as a celebrated Scottish internationalist, Hamish Henderson, once declared - 'Freedom Come All Ye!'
Allan Armstrong, Radical Independence Campaign, 31.8.18
2. A Letter sent in reply to reply to Iain McWhirter's Voices article of 7.10.18
Iain MacWhirter's Voices article on 7.10.18 suggests that if Nicola Sturgeon backs a People's Vote at Westminster, this "would give her energetic but increasingly despondent troops something to do." One problem with this is that the SNP MPs do not control events at Westminster. So, such an eventuality depends on others - dissident Tories, uncertain Labour, the Lib-Dems, Plaid Cymru and the one Green. They are a far from coherent political force - which in some ways is just as well! Furthermore, the anti-democratic nature of Westminster, especially its first-past-the post system, gives the Tories a dominant position that does not reflect political reality in the UK at large, especially Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. This is made even worse with the Tories being in coalition with the pro-Brexit DUP. They do not even represent the view of the electorate in Northern Ireland, who voted to remain in the EU.
The net result of this lack of democracy at Westminster is that the only parliamentary forces currently determining the nature of Brexit are May and her backers on one hand, and Johnson and Rees Mogg backed by the DUP on the other. And as long as May can hold the Tories together, the government can ensure that the current political paralysis prevails and the options are confined to these two unpalatable alternatives. Even in England and Wales they represent a minority view. Many Brexit voters were originally persuaded that the UK could still remain in the customs union and free market. But Labour are as divided as the Tories, so if we accept that Westminster calls the shots, all we can do is sit and wait, whilst politics is dragged even further Right.
Sometimes, the argument is made that supporting another referendum on Brexit would leave the door open to the overthrow of any future IndyRef2 result. This analogy does not hold. Back in 2014, the SNP government offered a White Paper showing what they considered to be the consequences of voting for Scottish independence. In 2016, neither wing of the Brexiteers, the Tory Right nor UKIP, offered us anything. If there is an analogy, it is between a vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and the vote the Scottish people would have to make over any new constitution following a successful independence referendum.
This points the way to the nature of the new referendum needed and where it needs to be conducted. We do not want a rerun of the 2016 vote. After all, people in Scotland made it very clear where we stand - 62%, including every single council area, voted to Remain. What is required is a Ratification referendum over the proposed deal. Many who were drawn into voting for Brexit did not do so to complete the Thatcherite counter-revolution. Yet the only two positions now in contention at Westminster are variations on this. The aim of a Ratification referendum should be to get an even bigger majority against the current Brexit proposals than was won for Remain, by winning over some of those who were conned the last time.
And the way to break this logjam is not for the SNP government to give backing to some putative Westminster People's Vote, but to get Holyrood to hold its own Ratification referendum. Such a referendum should ensure that all EU residents and 16-18 year olds are given the vote, as was the case in IndyRef1. The denial of the vote to these people in the Brexit referendum was a disgrace, and represented a pandering to ethnic British nationalism. Nicola Sturgeon's call for all residents to be given the vote in future Scottish referenda provides an even better example for democrats in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
What would be the result of holding such a referendum? A Holyrood Ratification referendum would place enormous pressure on Westminster to follow. Just as importantly it could provide an example the wider franchise needed, which included those most affected. It would also represent a defeat for May, who wants to avoid any democratic vote. The call of the Brexiteers to 'take back control' was never meant to increase popular democracy, but to allow the anti-democratic UK state to 'take back control'. We can see this in Scotland, where even the limited post-1998 devolution settlement is now under attack. And if Westminster was still unmoved, a decisive rejection of any Tory Brexit deal in Scotland could also provide a renewed impetus for the Scottish independence campaign. But any future Scottish vote on independence, if Brexit goes ahead, should still be separated from vote on EU membership. Democrats should not combine two separate issues in one vote.
Best of all, holding a Ratification referendum means that the political initiative would pass back to Scotland, and not just the SNP's "increasingly despondent" troops identified by Iain. After all, there were 85,000 far from despondent people on the streets of Edinburgh, including many SNP members, on October 6th. The loud singing of 'Freedom Come All Ye', as we marched past the assembled choir, represented the very best of the Scottish internationalist tradition needed to challenge the decaying UK political system fronted by a decadent Westminster. On September 18th, 2014 we saw not a defeated, but a thwarted democratic revolution. The need for its renewal is so much starker today.
Allan Armstrong, 8.10.18