Two more different places do not come to mind, yet what we have been witnessing are two instances of the national question which have been in the news recently. I was originally going to write only on Scotland, but the immediacy of the catastrophe that is happening to the Kurds in Syria and the fight being waged against great odds while the world watches (and literally the Turkish army sits in its tanks watching while prevented Turkish Kurds from joining the fight in support of those fighting in Koban?) needs to be addressed. So I decided to discuss both issues and to ask where the left stands and where it should stand on what should have been termed historically the national question and what criteria we should use to ascertain whether there is a legitimate issue that should be supported.
As we watch the power of states in the advanced capitalist world be weakened through the internationalisation of capital beyond national borders, one would think that the national question (a question arising at the end of the 19th century with the consolidation of nation states like Germany and Italy in the 1870s in the context of the consolidation of bourgeois nationalism and then the creation in the early 20th century of new nation states following the collapse of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, e.g., Hungary, Greece, Czechoslovakia) would have ceased to be a relevant consideration. However, even as we sit here and watch the control over “domestic” capital weaken in state by state (this can be easily seen in the inability to control taxation of profits of MNCs), the issue of the national question still raises its head. This is not only the situation in the post-world war II period of anti-colonialist struggles (e.g., India, Algeria, Mozambique, Zimbabwe), nor the struggle against neo-colonialism and imperialism’s attempts to control the economic and political situations in other countries, but also includes the issue of the rights of nations currently in union, through historical circumstance, or forced through being conquered historically to be part of a state (e.g., The Basque, Catalonia, Scotland, Wales).
Since both questions impact significantly on the issue of anti-imperialist in theory and practice, they bring to the fore issues that the Left needs to address. Inevitably, there will be differences among the Left due to different perspectives on the both the acceptance of the right of self-determination, the issue of nation-state themselves, and how this impacts upon anti-imperialist struggles.
The issue of Scotland’s referendum actually led to divisions among the Left in Britain and clearly among Scots themselves. Scotland does not meet the obvious scenario of automatic support. The Scots are not an oppressed minority in Britain and have benefitted from British imperialism. For many, this is a classic situation whereby this is an attempt by the Scottish ruling class to rule over their own working class. Moreover, for many on the left, the fear of splitting the working class (and losing one where socialist ideals have not collapsed), the belief that bigger states are better from the perspective of the left for organising, the rejection of socialism in one country (not relevant at the moment but something that would have been relevant in the future if Scottish socialists were able to pull more weight). So, why should we support independence?
On the other hand, shouldn’t Scots have control over their own country or at least a stronger say in its priorities? The Treaty of Union between Scotland and England was agreed in 1706; surely a discussion of maintaining that union is in order after 300+ years. There is also the fact that Scotland’s social and economic future is determined by more reactionary politicians in Westminster rather than by Scots themselves, the opposition to attempts to privatise the NHS, introduce tuition fees in Scotland (universities are free at this time), the impact of austerity (there was strong opposition to the cuts) and the democratic impact among Scots in deciding whether or not to remain in Britain (97% of those eligible to vote registered for the referendum vote, although turnout was only 86.4% on average). Finally, there is the issue of weakening British imperialism and that is a big issue, both economically and politically, and should not be ignored in examining this issue. For many on the left, that was the biggest issue under consideration.
The political parties:
To understand the some of the situation some history of the perspectives held by the mainstream parties must be discussed at least very quickly. Historically, the Scottish Tories have been a pro-Union party and did not support devolution. In many senses, the Scottish Tories are almost irrelevant as they have little or no support; they have 15 reps in the Scottish parliament, and only 1 rep in the British parliament. Their youth conference was cancelled due to lack of interest; their supporters are literally dying out. The Lib Dems have been supporting the idea of a proper federation of nations containing England, Wales and Scotland, so they support devolution and the formation of a federated country. Independence would, needless to say, make that scenario irrelevant; the Lib Dems are also weak in Scotland with strength in only a couple of areas. For Labour, historically, devolution was an attempt to avoid the issue of independence; that is, offer them some powers and hopefully that will forestall the independence issue from rearing its head. As such, all 3 mainstream parties associated with Westminster were opposed to Scottish Independence and joined forces to try and defeat the referendum.
The political parties supporting independence were the Scottish National Party, The Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialist Party. Additionally part of the Labour supporting independence and rejecting Labour’s traditional position of staying in the union with more powers devolved to Scotland formed Labour for Independence, the Radical Independence Campaign campaigned on a Yes vote for independence based on fighting austerity, preserving the NHS and against privatisation and protection of the social welfare state.
The 2014 referendum was essentially a yes or no vote to independence. Cameron and the Tories, the Lib Dems and Labour honestly thought it was a done deal. In fact, the possibility of Devo Max was not included in the referendum, most probably as it was believed that the No vote would lose.
If people were expecting a nationalist position being put forward by those seeking independence and hence an easy victory, they were to be disappointed. Instead the pro-independence forces ran an anti-austerity campaign based upon democratic control over their country rather than through Westminster. Protection of the NHS from privatisation, opposition to the imposition of tuition fees (which exist in England but not in Scotland), protection of the social welfare state, and control over taxation to ensure this became the basis on which the campaign was done. Several things advocated by the SNP where they dodged issues that could have been addressed and opposed such as the lack of the need to a military and elimination of trident missiles in its borders were not touched.
The touchy and essentially non-resolvable issue of currency post-independence was going to be seized on by anti-independence parties irrespective of whether it was argued that they kept the pound (irrespective of the British government refusing to be a lender of last resort), went with the Euro (suicide if they wanted to maintain a social welfare state post-independence) or chose a new Scottish currency (which faced the danger of over-valuation due to Scottish oil and gas rather than a devaluation which would help the economy) – in any choice, there was going to be a problem around this issue. So essentially, there was no way that could be answered satisfactorily and Independence supporters would have been hammered anyhow.
The most important and noticeable positive about this referendum was the democratic participation. Unlike so many elections in the advanced capitalist world where people do not know what is happening and there is little to tell one mainstream party from the next, people interviewed on the streets could discuss the positives and negatives of both sides. The campaign was fought on the ground with discussions and debates between Scots. People understood how important this vote was, 97% registration of eligible voters (from 16 years upward) and with votes from 84.6% of Scots on average. This is a massive voter turnout compared to 65.1% in the last UK general election and demonstrates that people will actually vote if they think that there is actually something to vote about.
Instead, what happened is the use of the stick to beat Scots over the head (supermarkets telling them that food prices would rise as though the same roads didn’t exist, so-called Scottish banks saying they will move headquarters and hence jobs to London, companies threatening to move out of Scotland). Then came the dangling of a carrot in the shape of Devo Max following a poll conducted by yougov which showed the independence campaign actually ahead by a couple of percentage points and literally created a panic in the halls of Westminster.
Out of hiding (some may even say exile) following his loss to the Tories in the last election rode Gordon Brown offering what was essentially a devo max to Scotland, provided, of course, that they voted NO in the referendum complete with timetable! This was rapidly signed onto by the rest of the No campaign parties. Westminster politicians de-camped for Scotland (the last time they were there, if ever, was on holiday) and given the hatred for the Tories up there, one wonders if that meant a whole lot of anything; perhaps seeing all those Labour Westminster politicians was supposed to be a big thrill for Scots.
The result showed that the stick and carrot approach was successful. The referendum was lost, but I would argue that the Independence Campaign actually won the war.
Within hours of the first reporting of results, already the Tories were backing away from the agreement arguing that the whole issue of Scotland must be raised in the context of a general settlement including discussions of an English parliament (the Tory right and English nationalists were babbling about the need for an English settlement immediately), there is no way that the promises in Gordon Brown’s proposal could be met if a constitutional solution would be needed to be done. So the Scots got sold a Mickey Mouse agreement that none will uphold.
Among the youngest voters, the idea of an independent Scotland was appealing. It was less so for those that were just entering the job market (fears of job losses are serious for that age group) — 71% of 16 and 17 year olds voted yes; 48% of 18-24 years old supported independence – let’s compare that to 73% of those over 65 voted no. The working class came out stronger for Independence (see Glasgow and Dundee) and this will hurt the Scottish Labour party as members of the party split on this issue and the failure of getting what was promised will create backlash. So, while Labour for Independence got it votes out; the same could not be said of Scottish Labour (and for that matter the SNP; the voting percentage in some areas where they are dominant was lower than expected including in Alex Salmond’s own district). This will certainly impact on their votes in the next General Election (May 2015) and in the next Scottish Parliament elections. The impact on the Scots Tories, the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Liberal Dems will not be good.
The Tories are already hated in Scotland (David Cameron begging Scots not to vote Yes just to stick it to the bloody Tories was kind of humorous and not a common plea for politicians campaigning, but it gives a good idea of how much the Tories are hated up in Scotland), the Lib Dems have strongholds in Orkney, the Shetland Islands and a few other places but are essentially irrelevant; it is Scottish Labour that will lose a lot from this referendum vote in the future.
Already membership in the SNP, the Scottish Greens (formerly only existent in Edinburgh) and the Scottish Socialist party is increasing since the referendum vote. As England sinks to the right, the left and progressive forces in Scotland are gaining support. While David Cameron thinks that this will be the end of the matter for a whole generation at least, the issue of who voted for independence mitigates against this scenario.
Is there a constitutional crisis?
So let’s talk about the “constitutional crisis” brought about by the No vote in Scotland. Britain is not like the US where the states have clear and defined rights in the US constitution over their own taxation and spending and determining their laws with the federal government, able to act on some things but not others. In fact, Britain does not have a formal constitution; it has a series of laws and agreements that have never been formally codified into a written constitution.
So, if Scotland is given the broad powers (including levying and collecting a broader range of taxes and control over spending of revenues rather than obtaining disbursements from the UK parliament) what is their role in the UK Parliament? How can they vote on legislation which only affects England, what about Wales? The Welsh Assembly has very weak powers; it also gets far too little from disbursements from the UK Parliament relative to its needs as much of Wales contains part of the former industrial areas (see Barnett Formula).
The British government is one of the most centralised governments in the advanced capitalist world and rather than ensuring that local areas actually have some control over their spending and provision of services, the Tories have further centralised power and control as part of austerity measures. So, for example, council tax was frozen under the Tories and that meant that local governments could not raise revenues to help alleviate the cuts in central government funding. In fact, most cuts are cuts in services from local government provision.
Given the first-past-the-post election system in Britain, we have a government which was not directly elected that is destroying the state sector and the social welfare state for solely ideological reasons. This situation will continue as the Labour party has been singing the praises of neoliberalism with the shadow secretary of the exchequer, Ed Balls, arguing that spending cuts will continue. The Tories are planning to increase spending cuts and so are the Lib Dems, but they are basically irrelevant to the discussion at this point. What is the latest problem is the election of a UKIP member of parliament. While that will certainly send the Tories even further to the right, there is no guarantee that Labour will shift left, all indications are that it will stay in the centre-right and hope that the Tores and UKIP destroy each other so that they can come into power in the next general election. Perhaps the state of mainstream politics can be understood where people in the northwest of England in a Labour party base voted UKIP into second place in a by-election as they opposed austerity; UKIP will certainly continue austerity … perhaps watching the leader Nigel Farage drinking and mugging in a pub brings warm thoughts to working class voters?!
What Britain need is more decentralisation and local decision-making. It is in local areas where communities can be organised to fight austerity and a different, more democratic, type of politics can be constructed. If powers are transferred to local areas, greater control by communities over spending can be undertaken. A solution to tax redistribution to ensure that those that need revenue can access it through transfer from wealthier areas is a stumbling block and will need addressing.
So what should the left be arguing for? Do we want or need an English parliament? Given the first-past-the-post voting system, the UK government is already extremely undemocratic and it is hard for left groups to break into Parliament. Here are some ideas that have been thrown into the mix by some members of the British left. After all we do not want English nationalism which is reactionary (all nationalisms of the dominant group are reactionary) to have the sole say in this situation, while they will not listen to us at all, we should never be silent … If there is a constitutional convention actually called, we must participate and bring left ideas into the mix. How about a written constitution with a human rights bill as part of the constitution? How about election based upon proportional representation to break the stranglehold of the rightwards shift in English political life? Separation between church and state sounds wonderful, getting rid of the monarchy is obvious although it probably doesn’t have wide support for some reason. How about decentralisation and increasing control to local authorities; that would be a major democratic step forwards!
Out of the long decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its carve-up by British and French imperialism, we can say that three nations really got messed about: the Armenians, the Palestinians and the Kurds. The Palestinians got screwed under the British Mandate and the carve-up of Palestine by the UN. The damage that British and French imperialism did to these areas still creates problems; think of Lebanon where it is constitutionally mandated which positions go to which ethnic and religious groupings and the problems it still creates. In many cases, the creation of these states and who got to rule them was decided as pay-offs to families and groups that had helped the British and French move against the Ottomans (see the Sykes-Picot Agreement).
Most people are aware of the Armenian genocide and the situation of the Palestinians. What they may not be aware of is the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. Essentially, the Kurds were divided up between 4 states that came out of the carve-up: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and have been ethnic minorities in these countries (see: early Kurdish nationalism). As in every national struggle, there are diverse political opinions reflected among the Kurds (both in these counties where they live and in the diaspora); some favour independence, some favour autonomy and some favour struggling within the political systems in the countries in which they live. In common with many other national struggles, the Kurds are members of different religions (e.g., Muslims of various sects, Christians, Yazidi). So, for example the Yazidi’s are Kurds and members of a minority religion in the area. People may remember the rescue of Yazidi’s fleeing ISIS in Iraq, what they may have not known is that it was the Syrian Kurds that carried out the rescue getting the Yazidis through the mountains to safety.
Some highlights of a long struggle for self-determination include the long “conflict” between the PKK and the Turkish government with the war abandoned in support of the development and control in autonomous zones where the Kurds are the majority and in control. The PKK is still considered a terrorist organisation by the US and most NATO countries even though they gave up the armed struggle against the Turkish government and its leader Abdullah Öcalan remains in a Turkish prison. PKK and its sister organisations in Iraq, Iran and Syria are a shining light, if you want, in the middle of an area where women are treated as less than second class. Essentially, we have this group in which women are guaranteed representation politically and in military units. Additionally, the experiments in autonomous democracy in the areas under their control are a serious change from the dictatorships, religious grouping and other reactionary forces that have ruled that region for so long.
In the wake of the US invasion of Iraq and the civil war in Syria, Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria have come under the control of the Kurds themselves. In Syria, in the 3 Northern provinces (termed Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan or western Kurdistan), the Kurds are living under self-autonomy or self-rule. Led by the PYD, there is a serious experiment in true democracy and autonomy that is being carried out. They have a people’s defence force (YPG — which exist to protect people in the region from being caught up in the Syrian civil war and they are now combatting ISIS in the town of Koban? which is where their headquarters is located; so view this correctly as a direct attack on a democratic socialist secular group by ISIS.
Those that have been watching the news know that this town has been fighting to hold back ISIS going on three weeks and that parts of the town have fallen, have been recaptured and that these people are in significant danger of falling under the hands of ISIS and an inevitable massacre. What many do not know is the powerful presence of women in the armed militias as well as in the political party itself. What many may know since it is all over the news, is that the Turkish army is sitting there in its tanks and watching ISIS try and take this town which is under-equipped in terms of anti-tank weaponry, tanks are something that ISIS actually has.
200,000 Kurdish refugees have crossed into Turkey from Syria. There are already over 500 dead in the month of fighting for Koban?; of these 298 are ISIS fighters, 226 Kurds and 9 Syrian opposition fighters, 20 civilians have been killed; 17 of them victims of IS executions. The Turkish government needless to say is torn, there are accusations that it has supported IS in the past and provided safety to their fighters, the Kurds are long-term thorns in their side; the Kurdish insurgency led to the deaths of 40,000 people from the 1980s onwards.
“For us, the PKK and Isil are the same,” said President Erdogan this week, using another term for Islamic State. “It is wrong to consider them as different from each other (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29542040).”
So where should the left stand this time? Does it matter?
In terms of the second question above, materially probably not, we don’t have weapons, we don’t have money, we do not know how to fight, but it is the principle that is important!
I find myself agreeing with David Graeber. Happily he is not the only person or group on the left saying this, there are others (e.g., see: http://socialistresistance.org/6773/solidarity-with-kobane-an-urgent-task, I am sure that there are other left groups that are saying the same, whether Marxist or Anarchist). The Danish Red-Green Alliance has donated funds to help; a small amount compared to what is needed, but it states a principle with which we should agree.
I would actually go a bit further than David Graeber, although I completely support his analogy to the Spanish Civil War. The Kurds have the right to self-determination and control over the regions in which they live. They are a persecuted national minority. At the least, they have the right of self-defence and the right to get weapons and assistance from wherever they can.
Just as the Irish fighting for their independence from Britain had that right, just as the partisans struggling against the Nazis had that right, the Kurds struggling for their survival have the same right. Even if it were a standard mainstream nationalist party in control of the Kurds in that area, I would argue this. So, let’s be clear, I am not calling for a US or imperialist invasion, I am not supporting the air strikes; what I am saying is that the Kurds have the right to request help and get weapons from where they can get them. But we actually have a situation where we have comrades literally fighting for their lives and for the people in that region, we must support them. We do not have weapons, we may not have money, but we damn well can get out on the streets and support them. The Kurds in Turkey are protesting demanding support for Koban?, 20 were killed by police and there have been violent clashes with supporters of IS; protests have spread to over 30 cities. They have been trying to cross the Turkish border to help, but are being held back by the Turkish army. Yesterday there were European wide demos in support of Koban?, there needs to be more … There have been requests for humanitarian airdrops to help the people of Koban?, that at least should be uncontroversial: there is a request to support them using the hashtag on twitter: ?#?Airdrop2Kobane?
Interestingly, today, it makes the news that British forces are now “training” the Kurds in how to use heavy weaponry … a part of me is waiting for some people on the Left to argue that the Kurds do not have the right to their support due to this …