The positive enthusiasm of millions in the Scottish referendum and the massive rejection of austerity and privatisation have opened up a constitutional crisis in Britain. But, argues Jeremy Dewar, the working class needs to intervene with its own class demands and programme if the bosses are not to use the crisis to weaken the ability of the working class to demand widesprea reforms and redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor
“Scotland will never be the same again,” was the common verdict of Yes and No voters after the referendum. Within hours of the ballots being counted, this sentiment was being echoed in England and Wales.
But the British bourgeoisie has long been a ruling class; its main party lost no time in trying to turn this constitutional crisis to its own ends. Indeed David Cameron took just one hour after Alex Salmond’s concession to announce his response:
“We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard.”
With utter arrogance Cameron moved from staring a career-shattering defeat in the face to turning it into an opportunity to grab more powers for what he hopes will be a Tory-dominated English constitutional settlement. And speed is of the essence for now he has a majority with the broken spirited Lib Dems in tow. Who knows what will happen after May 2015?
So he went on to promise the publication of a new Scotland Bill by 25 January, which would have its second reading by 27 March, and that “the question of English votes for English laws” must be resolved “in tandem”.
His reasons are cynical, but transparent. Labour has 49 Scots MPs at Westminster, the Tories one. If Scottish MPs are debarred from voting – for example on the “reforms” to the NHS – its will be easier he presumes to complete its destruction. And Scots should beware too. With the NHS in England in private hands, how long would NHS Scotland hold out against market forces?
The working class both sides of the border need to wake up to this danger fast. There has not been a vote in Scotland on the way in which power could be more democratically accountable and the interests of the working class secured, only one on independence. The “increased powers” are vague in the extreme – almost a dud cheque.
“Millions of voices of England” and of Wales will not be “heard” unless they can join in a full democratic debate. Neither the Tories, nor Westminster – not even the SNP – has any popular mandate to decide on this. We have to demand a full debate, and ultimately an elected sovereign constitutional assembly or convention so that working people can bring into existence the most democratic state possible, a framework within which they can prosecute the class struggle and fight for socialism.
Here is what we think workers and socialists should argue for in this debate.
Labour’s proposal for a constitutional convention goes further than the Tories’ plans but still does not go far enough, i.e. to a truly democratic solution. It is to be made up of Westminster MPs, councillors and assorted representatives of civil society. Moreover it will in effect only be advisory since final decision lies with parliament.
Instead what is needed is a fully sovereign constitutional assembly. This should be elected by all UK residents aged 16 or over, with absolutely proportional representation. This would allow for minority parties and views to be heard.
This should be preceded by a voter registration campaign, aimed at raising the representation of black and Asian people and the poorer sections of the working class, whose non-participation is common. In fact this should be the basis for all future parliamentary, assembly and council elections.
The delegates should also be recallable by their electors, should they fail to represent their views at any point. All the sessions of the convention should be televised and made available on social media. Its task should be to hammer out a new constitution for the UK, including the relationship and powers of all its constituent parts.
Only in this way could the enthusiasm and level of engagement of the Scottish referendum, which virtually all politicians and media pundits (rather hypocritically) praised, be maintained and spread to the whole country.
We demand trade union freedom be written into the constitution, at a stroke abolishing all the anti-union laws and enshrining the right of every individual worker to join a trade union and the right to strike without legal impediments, such as ballots. Alongside this should stand the freedom of speech and of association without any hindrance.
Local democracy in cities, towns, counties, and regions, should be fully restored and expanded. Instead of the unfair council tax and its predecessors, the poll tax and rates, councils should have the right to set the rates of a local wealth and income tax. There should be no limits set, or fines incurred (i.e. capping) on council spending. Central state revenue should be allocated to local councils in the proportion needed to offset their uneven levels of deprivation and poverty.
We believe that a powerful central state is needed if we are to redistribute wealth from the richer areas to the poorer ones, and from the capitalists to the working class. Principally this means the power to set the rate of taxation, so that the wealth of the capitalists can be used to raise the living standards of the working and popular classes as a whole.
If this is left to the separate nations or regions, then these egalitarian measures could be undermined by the richer areas, e.g. southeast England hanging on to its wealth.
A new constitution should guarantee that education and the NHS should be totally publicly owned and funded, and democratically run by the local and, where appropriate, UK-wide populations. All services, including prescriptions, eye tests and dentistry, should be free, and adequately funded by general taxation.
We demand Britain gets out of Nato and leaves all other reactionary, imperialist military alliances. Parliament should be forbidden from going to war without a vote by the people. All British overseas forces should be withdrawn; all British colonial possessions, including Northern Ireland, should be immediately relinquished.
Against racism and chauvinism, we should insist on the right of all migrant workers and refugees to come and seek work in Britain. All such residents should acquire full citizenship rights, including the right to vote.
There are, in addition, a whole series of measures that should be taken to make the state more democratic: electoral laws that take away the advantages of media billionaires and capitalists to influence the vote; the election of judges; abolition of the House of Lords and monarchy; replacement of the standing army with a people’s militia, and of the police with workers’ guards, etc.
Such a constitution would not make Britain a socialist country; it would not even make Britain fully democratic. Only workers’ democracy and social ownership can abolish the dictatorship that exists in every capitalist workplace – and this would take a social revolution.
No. Democracy is only an arena in which to fight for an end to exploitation and for a democratically planned economy.
But if the working class can ignite a real debate – with mass local assemblies and debates, through leaflets, pamphlets and rallies, via workplace and estate meetings – then we can deepen the engagement in political struggle that has begun in Scotland. We can divert it from being a struggle between different nations and communities, into a class struggle against the exploiters, a fight for socialism.
We have highlighted the above measures because they are clearly issues raised within the debate over Scottish independence. Some of them could also be attempted by fighting for more powers to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. But this would narrow the range of allies workers north and west of the borders could be won to the struggle.
It would also sow illusions in the idea that either socialism could be achieved in one (small) country, or that the capitalist SNP could be used in that fight.
In fact Scottish workers have far more in common with English, European and the international working class than they do in Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon or Brian Soulter.
If the radicalisation of whole swathes of the Scottish working class is to continue and aspirations for a more democratic and equal society really be fulfilled, then we need to strive for a revolutionary, internationalist, socialist party: the Fifth International.