Recent events at the Grangemouth petro chemical refinery have been refracted through a prism every bit as fragmented as the Scottish left. Of the multiple versions now available to hindsight, few allow for a sober consideration of the symbolism offered up by this particular instance of industrial thuggery. Instead we are presented with familiar, if creaking narratives of betrayal by the Unite bureaucracy, squandered opportunities for national secondary actions, or, freshly seasoning (deep frying?) the rhetoric of much Scottish left opinion, wistful revisitings of the same scenario, this time within an independent Scotland. It is this latter, speculative version which for Scottish Labour CFS/Red Paper Collective has emerged as the most problematic of readings; that were Scotland to make the constitutional break from the rest of the UK, ‘the social democratic impulse’ more ‘easily expressed in Scotland’ as imagined by Gregor Gall (LLB, Nov.2013) may it is implied have coalesced a qualitatively different balance of class forces and led to a settlement far less favourable to the captains of industrial capital.
By legitimising the complaints levelled against members of Falkirk CLP, Ed Milliband’s office offered INEOS the perfect cover for provoking a dispute whose first target was Labour and Unite activist Stevie Deans, followed by the terms and conditions of the workforce as a whole. The pretext conferred on INEOS was gratefully received. In many ways Deans is cast as the tragic figure in this sorry tale, ultimately constituting the only Grangemouth employee to have lost their job as a result at the close of these events, depriving workers in addition of an experienced shop steward. (Joyce, now an Independent MP, can now be found dutifully hamming up his useful idiot in residence role on behalf of Prospect/right wing press attempts to demonise Unite’s role in the debacle). As voices within Falkirk CLP call for the publication of the internal Party investigation (and some also echo calls for a further enquiry into events around the selection contest), Deans is to resign his position as Chair of the Constituency.
The quite proper ambitions of Unite in Falkirk, to assert working class agency within the rules of a selection contest, were met with a confected moral outrage of the sort customised for those moments when ordinary people resist the feral welfare cheats/redoubts of traditional ‘Britishness’ caricatures otherwise foisted on them. In fact Unite’s attempts to inject fresh union life into Falkirk CLP infers a broader, more long term perspective on reclaiming our movement, an ambition more daring in scope than anything the ‘strategic nationalists’ of the Scottish left can claim.
Straining these events through the filter of independence does a disservice to Grangemouth workers and the wider UK movement. A retreat into comfort zones serve only to distort the lessons which Grangemouth demands we recognise. As Convenor Mark Lyons has written, the judgement of workers - not national officials - on the ground was that ‘they (INEOS) were prepared to close the site down…our members preferred to keep their jobs and take a hit on their terms....’ Nor did the SNP, in appealing to the ‘national interest,’ appear anxious to distinguish between the competing interests of antagonistic class interests.
As a global elite manoeuvre to implement the Transatlantic Trades and Investment Partnership under the radar of democratic oversight, the bargaining power of governments never mind labour will be further eroded, as ‘all that is solid’ (including borders denoting state sovereignty) ‘melts into air.’ The Red Paper Collective have posited further devolved powers designed with the specific intent of facilitating collectivist solutions to social inequalities. However the belated enthusiasm for the merits of independence amongst some constituencies of the Scottish left is for us indicative of a crisis of confidence and vision amongst our number. What we ought to be prioritising is a more imaginative, transgressive body of thought within our movement, for instance one that seeks out hegemonic alliances with civil society organisations to campaign in ways as yet unimagined in detail.
Nationalism, ‘strategic’ or otherwise, serves only to relegate issues to a binary relationship with the referendum. To conflate the (hardly unique) desire of the Scottish people to be ‘better off’ with a more advanced level of class consciousness is to indulge in the kind of idealising of national character which is the left equivalence of New Labour’s identification of the ‘white working class’ as a specific sociological demographic, deserving in this case of condescension or insult in equal measure. By fetishizing our varied identities – all of which (from race to nationhood) are legitimate and keenly experienced but not at root forms of consciousness proportionate to the challenges of capitalist society – we turn our priorities on their head.While sympathising with those Comrades who honestly seek the revival of socialist ideas on more favourable terrain, their assumptions that a static Scottish character untroubled by history or an EU-bound, Monarchist and SNP-led Scotland which would result from a Yes vote would transform industrial investment and labour power with the flourish of a constitutionalist’s pen do not stand up to scrutiny. We invite all parties, post referendum, to enter into a dialogue which places centre stage the perennial concerns of social inequalities and their solutions, and to consider them on a local, national and international scale that reflect the realities of globalised capital.