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Imagining Radical Scottish Independence: Learning from the Venezuelan Experience

By Ewan Robertson
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By Ewan Robertson

With two years to go until the Scottish National Party (SNP) puts a referendum on independence to the Scottish people, the likelihood appears that the form of “independence” on offer will look more like “devolution-max”: ditching any policy that would either prove unacceptable to ruling elites across the UK and further afield, or would bring meaningful sovereignty and political participation to an independent Scotland.

In this context, it is worth considering what examples of radical independence exist in the world today, and how much it’s possible to achieve given the right conditions and political will. In this article, I invite you to imagine what a radical independent Scotland would look like if took some influence from Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution”, and to consider just how meek a proposal for independence in Scotland is currently on the table compared to the Venezuelan experience.

As a caveat, of course Venezuela has a very different trajectory of development than Scotland, and there are aspects of Venezuela’s politics, society and economy the Scottish independence movement could not nor would want to replicate. Indeed, in my judgement Scotland is more progressive than Venezuela on many social issues, given the latter still experiences strong influence from the Catholic Church. For example, like most Latin American countries, abortion in Venezuela is still against the law. However, in terms of the political, social and economic transformations achieved in Venezuela over the previous decade, the Venezuelan process offers important lessons to be learned and possibly adopted into a radical vision of Scottish independence.

First, let’s consider the foundation of a new democratic republic. Following from mass disenchantment with the elitism, corruption and exclusion of Venezuela’s two party system (1958-1998), plus the effects of the implementation of an IMF structural adjustment policy in 1989, the repression of subsequent protests, and further privatisations in the 1990s, in 1998 Hugo Chavez was elected Venezuelan president at the head of the Fifth Republic Movement. The election of an outside force broke open Venezuela’s political system and allowed for the country to be re-founded as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, with a new constitution passed in a national referendum.

If this process were to be repeated in Scotland, what kind of independent state would be formed and how would it be founded? Rather than agreeing to become Scotland PLC, with the British monarchy, the pound, economic control by the Bank of England or the European Commission, and membership of NATO all still intact, we would elect a constituent assembly to draw up the constitution for a Scottish republic. That assembly would also have grassroots input, with the final product being offered to the country to be debated and passed in a national referendum, creating a truly democratic and sovereign Scottish republic.

What could such a constitution include? If it were to adopt some articles of Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, it could set the foundations for a republic based on participatory politics, social justice, respect for human development, and full control over our economic and foreign policy. The Venezuelan constitution for example states that any issue of national importance can be subject to a national referendum, which can be initiated by elected bodies or by the people if 10% of the electoral register supports such a move. In addition, all elected positions can be revoked in a referendum by the constituency that first elected them, once an official has served more than half their term. This was put into practice in 2004 when the Venezuelan opposition subjected Hugo Chavez to a recall referendum, which he then went on to win with 59% support. One wonders what would happen to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats after joining with the Conservatives in 2010 and voting to increase university tuition fees if such a democratic measure was in place in the UK.

Constitutional articles on social rights would make education, access to healthcare and social security basic human rights to be guaranteed by the state, that is, the privatisation of such services would be against the constitution of the Scottish republic. Other articles, in the name of “economic sovereignty” would likewise make Scotland’s resources such as oil, water, and forests, public property, as well as any industries considered “strategic” to national development. Finally, such a constitution, as in Venezuela’s, would declare Scotland to be a “land of peace” in which all foreign military bases or installations with military purposes would be banned from our soil. This would not only mean no more Trident nuclear submarines, but also necessarily withdrawing from NATO and ending the use of Leuchars and other bases for refuelling US warplanes on their way to the Middle East, or using the Highlands as training for British troops before going off to fight in Afghanistan. Indeed, declaring Scotland a land of peace with sovereign control over our territory and rejection of aggressive foreign alliances seems far from SNP defence spokesperson Angus Robertson’s vision of an “independent” Scotland.

Economically, Scotland could also take a lesson or two from Venezuela’s re-founded republic. With control over Scotland’s resources and a redistributive taxation system, Scotland could set “people’s budgets” that focused spending on social investment rather than on “tackling debt” and slashing public spending. The Scottish government could nationalise or re-nationalise strategic industries, telecommunications and possibly some food distribution chains in order to guarantee food security for all. I would argue going further than Venezuela by also nationalising public transport in order to provide it as a free and universal service, as well as taxing the rich far more heavily than has been done in the South American country. However, as has happened in Venezuela, far greater social spending on health, education, housing, and other areas would reduce poverty and inequality while improving health indicators and providing access to employment and educational opportunities across Scotland.

Politically, a radical independence for Scotland could also lay the basis for a participatory democracy in which the people are able to play a commanding role in the politics and development of the country. Along with the people’s right to recall representatives and call national or local referendums, another mechanism that could be adopted from Venezuela is the “legislator people”, whereby social movements are able to draw up and introduce legislation to parliament, which must then be discussed, and perhaps passed into law. Participation could also be deepened by promoting the formation of communal councils and community media collectives throughout Scotland. Imagine an independent Scotland in which the self-organisation of communities was actively supported, with people’s councils springing up in Wester Hails, Maryhill and Tillydrone (working class areas in Scottish cities). In Venezuela communal councils receive budgets and can commission public works in their area among other activities, with many activists proposing that these bodies supersede local councils and mayors. Community media outlets in Venezuela, which are supported with favourable legislation and funding, act to challenge the hegemony over information exercised by the dominant commercial sources of information, and provide a grassroots alternative to state media too. Combating the media monopolies of the BBC, ITV, Sky and the mainstream press by empowering ordinary people to form and run their own media outlets would be of great importance for the creation of a participatory democracy in Scotland. A further step would be to introduce democracy in the economy and lay the basis for a transition to socialism with the self-organisation of workers into workers councils within various areas of industry and the economy, with a view to taking greater control over production.

Internationally, as mentioned, a substantive independence for Scotland would mean sovereignty in international affairs, such as the ability to choose our own alliances, withdrawn from imperialistic groupings such as NATO, and strike a progressive foreign policy based on humanitarian values and international solidarity. The shift in Venezuelan foreign policy away from being subservient to US interests following Chavez’s election in 1998 has borne interesting results. Venezuela has become a key country in the move to Latin American integration, helping to found the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which do not have the US or Canada as members. Venezuela has also formed a solidarity-based alliance of leftist Latin American countries, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America, and PetroCaribe, through which Venezuela sells oil at preferential rates to its Caribbean neighbours. Venezuela has also pursued alliances with Russia and China and become an outspoken critic of US foreign policy, including siding with Palestine against the US and Israel. Furthermore, Venezuela has withdrawn from the World Bank’s international court for settlement of investment disputes and the Organisation of American States (OAS) human rights court, citing them as US-based tools to judge other countries in the region.

This is not to argue that Scotland should replicate Venezuelan foreign policy, which has also faced criticisms from some voices in the left over close relations with Syria, Iran and Libya’s former head of state Muammer Gadhaffi. Rather, the point is that an independent Scotland must have the right to decide its own role on the international stage and not be co-opted into arrangements whereby the Scottish people’s own political and economic sovereignty is denied. What Venezuela and several other Latin American countries have shown is that it is possible to do this even against incalcitrant opposition from domestic ruling classes and powerful countries such as the US.

A Scottish republic that sought true independence in its affairs in such a manner would of course face its own set of problems, setbacks and opposition. For example, within Venezuela’s Bolivarian movement there is a growing threat of bureaucratisation and corruption, which stifle popular initiative and slow further radical change. Meanwhile, in order for Venezuela to realise many of the transformations mentioned, Hugo Chavez and his movement had to overcome a US-backed coup in 2002, a boss-led shutdown of the oil industry in 2003, and a recall referendum in 2004. Indeed it was successful resistance to these attempts at forcefully ending Chavez’s presidency that caused the “Bolivarian revolution” to take a further radical turn from 2005 and espouse building socialism as a goal. In Scotland too, any attempt at radical independence would be met with stiff opposition from the Scottish and UK ruling class and its institutions, such as the British state, monarchy, church, mass media, financial institutions, etc. This opposition would be backed by the US and the EU. We would also need to address our own internal contradictions and emerging problems or setbacks in the task of building a Scottish republic embodied by the real independence and sovereignty of the people.

Therefore the idea is not that an independent Scotland would want to copy Venezuela, although there are policies and aspects of the latter country’s transformation that we could learn from and adapt to our own circumstances. Rather, it is that in thinking about the kind of independence pro-independence activists want to propose and the kind of country they want to build, they should keep in mind that it’s not utopian or unrealistic to think about an independent Scotland with real sovereignty over international affairs, a participatory democratic political system, public services guaranteed as human rights over private profit, and one that promotes policies that lay a basis for socialism.

In the midst of state repression of the 1989 Caracazo riots against the neoliberal austerity program in Venezuela, where it is estimated up to 3000 civilians were killed, the radical re-founding and transformation of Venezuela may have seemed a forlorn dream to many. However, what has happened in Venezuela since 1998 reminds us that examples exist in the world today of independence on a far more radical basis that what the SNP is proposing for Scotland. Therefore it is time to be bold in arguing for radical independence, one that can build a Scotland that guarantees meaningful political participation and sovereignty for its people. Scotland’s radical independence movement should argue for a people’s republic, not the SNP’s elite-guided devolution-max.

A version of this article was written for a special issue of Emancipation and Liberation magazine (Scotland). The special issue of E&L will be distributed to an upcoming convention on radical Scottish independence in Glasgow, Scotland. It was first published on the Ewan Robertson blog.

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