The National Question in Scotland – Part Two

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The idea that an independent Scotland on a capitalist basis would solve the problems of the Scottish people is false to the core. On the contrary, it would result in falling living standards as wages were driven down to boost competitiveness.

Scottish National Party

Despite the SNP’s traditional claim of “rich Scots versus Poor Brits” and an economic future based on “Scotland’s oil”, North Sea oil is due to fall from 0.7% of UK national income in 2011-12 to only 0.2% by 2022-23. The banking sector, which plays a big role in the economy, is in difficulties and propped up by the British state. The SNP is a typical petty bourgeois nationalist party, which faces in different directions according to its constituency. In an attempt to move away from their original image of “Tartan Tories”, they have adopted a left or “socialist” colouration in the urban areas where Labour was the main opposition. They understood only too well that this was the only way in which they could challenge Labour in its working class heartlands. With this image, they were able to chip away at Labour’s support. In the rural areas, on the other hand, they still maintained their bourgeois nationalist orientation.

Behind this “left” rhetoric, however, is a pro-business policy of continued capitalist rule in Scotland. Salmond had promised “a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector” in 2007 and also encouraged Fred Goodwin, former RSB chief, to buy ABN Amro, a deal that helped push the bank into collapse. The SNP manifesto also contained a commitment for a public sector wage freeze and a 20% cut in corporation tax.

Their idea of an independent Scotland would mean a “race to the bottom” between Scottish and other European workers, forced to compete for shrinking markets. In the context of the world crisis of capitalism, an independent Scotland would be crushed, as shown by the example of Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The fact that Greece is ruled by a European troika is an illustration of how national independence has been undermined in this epoch of crisis. All their talk of “independence in Europe” at a time when Europe is in the grip of an economic crisis that threatens to drag everything down with it, including the Euro, is meaningless. All countries, while nominally independent, are under the grip of the world market and the industrial and financial monopolies.

The real class character of the SNP is demonstrated by the commitment to cut corporation tax by 20% and its implementation of a 5-year public sector wage freeze. The working class can expect no better treatment at the hands of the nationalists than they received from the English Tories and Liberals.

In Scotland, the SNP government, in agreement with London, had managed to delay the implementation of the planned cuts in the short term, avoiding the odium for the present. This goes some way to explaining its current popularity. However, in April, they will be forced to implement austerity measures in Scotland that will be the equivalent of two years’ worth in just one year. As the cuts fall, the SNP will try to blame London and pass on the responsibility of implementing them to Labour councils.

In the short term, this can pose difficulties for Labour. We can see the recent example of Glasgow City Council, which is under Labour control, and only managed to push through its budget by two votes after a rash of defections. Now six deselected councillors plan to launch a rival party. This is unlikely to succeed but it reveals the pressures that are building up.

In the meantime, the SNP, which is riding high in the opinion polls, hopes to take control of Glasgow in the May elections. (It took seven of Glasgow’s 15 Holyrood seats in last year’s Scottish Parliament vote, but this was a high-point.) Whether that happens will remain to be seen. In the long run, such success may well only prepare the SNP for a bigger fall in popularity as they implement cuts at both local and Scotland-wide level.

Sectarians and nationalism

The 57 Heinz varieties of sects have always capitulated to petty bourgeois nationalism. They see the slogan of self-determination and national independence as an absolute “principle”, independent of time and place. Such an approach has nothing in common with the attitude of Marx and Lenin, who based themselves on the concrete situation, and always subordinated the national question to the class question. It would be a fatal mistake for Marxists to dress themselves up in the garb of nationalism, or to become evangelists for the independence of Scotland. This would be an opportunist capitulation to the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie, no matter how the capitulation may be dressed up in “revolutionary” language.

The national question in Scotland resurfaced in a debate in the Militant tendency in 1991, where the continued rise of nationalism in Scotland was used by the leadership to justify the “Scottish turn”. This “turn” was based on the setting up of an open organisation - Scottish Militant Labour - to supposedly undercut the dangers of Scottish nationalism. In effect, although they vehemently denied it, the leaders of the majority group, were bending to the pressures of frustration and, in particular, nationalism. This soon became evident when, in 1998, Scottish Militant Labour was transformed into the Scottish Socialist Party and adopted the aim of an independent socialist Scotland. In the rest of Britain, they adopted the name of Socialist Party of England and Wales, to demonstrate their separate identity from Scotland.

This whole approach was in effect the adoption of John MacLean’s mistaken position when he put forward the need for a separate Scottish Workers’ Republic. His mistake arose also from frunstration and a lack of confidence in the militancy of workers in the rest of Britain. However, within a few years the whole of Britain was rocked by a General Strike in 1926.

This stand by the SML and SSP represented a complete abandonment of everything we had stood for in the past. “Socialists should be prepared to support such a step [independence], even on a non-socialist basis as promoted by the SNP”, wrote Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCoombes, the then leaders of the SSP. “The material foundations already exist in Scotland for a thriving, blooming socialist democracy... We have land, water, fish, timber, oil, gas and electricity in abundance. We have a moderate climate, where floods, droughts and hurricanes are almost unknown”! (2)

It showed just how far they had capitulated to nationalism, and not only in Scotland. To their shame, they gave support to the Croats in their move to break away from Yugoslavia. We pointed out that the break-up of Yugoslavia was a criminal act that did not serve the interests of any of the peoples. The subsequent history of the ex-Yugoslavia demonstrated the utterly reactionary nature of this development, which cannot be justified from the standpoint of the working class.

Despite their earlier heated denials, this initiative in Scotland was an attempt to emulate the earlier spilt off from Labour in 1976, when John Sillars and Robertson set up the ill-fated Scottish Labour Party. We condemned this split at the time, but this was conveniently forgotten.

The “Marxists” went so far as to set up a separate politically autonomous Scottish party, to speak in the name of the Scottish working class. Such an erroneous approach was not new. It had originally been advocated by the ex-Trotskyists of the American SWP, which put forward the idea of separate parties of the working class, based on nationality, race and gender. Rather than unity of the workers, they stood for separation! This went against the basic principles of Bolshevism, which was opposed to dangerous division in the working class movement. They had abandoned the ABCs of Marxism on the national question.

Even in Tsarist Russia (“a prison house of nationalities”), where the Great Russians made up 43% of the population, Lenin was implacably opposed to the setting up of separate parties along national lines. He stood firmly for principle of the unity of the working class. He fought against the attempts of the Bund to have a separate organization for the Jewish workers, despite the fact that the Jews suffered a special oppression and even spoke a different language.

The Scottish Socialist Party made an initial impact. Given the growing disillusionment with the Blair government in London, they were able for a while to tap into the mood of a layer to the left of Labour and managed to win six SMPs and two councillors in May 2003. However by 2007, these were all lost and the party imploded. The attempt to break the political dominance of the Labour Party, or even establish a sizeable party to its left, turned out to be a failure. Since then, the shift to the right in the Labour Party nationally and the succession of Labour governments in London had created an even greater space for the Scottish nationalists.

Thus, the attempts to build an independent party in Scotland, largely on an opportunist basis, capable of competing with Labour, ended in disaster. The SSP soon split and has more or less disappeared.

Scots want independence?

While the nationalists have gained a majority in Holyrood, their support has not been won on the basis of independence, but was gained from disillusioned workers in response to being let down by the right-wing Labour Party in Westminster and its Scottish counter-part. We must therefore be wary in equating support for the nationalists as support for independence.

The support for Scottish independence according to the opinion polls has fluctuated in the last decade or so, rising to a peak of 47% in March 1998 to a 20-year low point in 2009 of 20%. In December 2011, it had gone back up to 38%. (A YouGov poll in January found support for independence at 33% and opposition at 53%). This has coincided in support for the SNP rising to over 50% in the polls, with Labour at 26%, the Tories on 12%, the Lib Dems falling to 8% and others at 4% (December 2011).

While there is not at this stage a majority for Scottish independence, the support for such a measure does illustrate the yearning for greater control over their affairs. We must be sensitive to this feeling, which represents an understandable and progressive desire of the Scottish people to gain a more direct control over their lives. Therefore, we must support the demand for greater powers for the Scottish parliament (‘devolution max’).

To some extent the broad appeal of nationalism was dented after the 2008 crisis, which had blown a hole in the idea assiduously propagated by the SNP of an “arc of prosperity” involving Ireland, Iceland and Norway. The “arc of prosperity” has now been reduced to an “arc of crisis”. The crisis of the euro has also undermined the nationalists’ argument of Scotland joining the euro as an alternative to the pound. But since then, there has been a recovery and support for the SNP following the 2011 elections, has reached new heights. This, however, will not last as the cuts are introduced across the board.

The SNP’s support for independence was always highly qualified. They have reassured voters that the Queen would remain the head of state in the event of an independent Scotland. They would also keep the pound instead of using the euro. More recently, they have said that they would have the Bank of England as its lender of last resort!

Alongside this, despite their rhetorical anti-nuclear stance, the question of British military bases and nuclear weapons also remains a grey area in the SNP’s proposal for independence.

Plaid Cymru

In contrast to Scotland, the issue of nationalism in Wales is much less prevalent. As in Scotland, the domination of a right-wing Labour Party, especially in the towns and cities of Wales, has undermined support for Labour, which has always had a solid base in Wales, reflecting its overwhelmingly proletarian class composition. This has allowed the nationalist party (Plaid Cymru) to grow and even form a coalition with Labour in past Welsh administrations. But lately the nationalist party has lost ground.

In the 2011 assembly elections, for the first time, Plaid Cymru took fewer seats than the Tories. Again, in order to win support, Plaid Cymru down played the issue of independence. While the party enjoys about 20% support, the question of independence is only supported by about 10% of the electorate. As a result, some members of Plaid Cymru, even their public representatives, being out-and-out opportunists, have dismissed independence as “irrelevant”. They say, in effect: “if you don’t like my principles, I can change them!”

Plaid Cymru is now struggling with its identity and has taken a partial shift to the left with the election of Lianne Wood as the new leader of the party. With a minority Welsh Labour government in Cardiff portraying itself as the defender of national interests against the Tory-led coalition in London, Plaid Cymru is finding it hard to position itself. It realizes that independence is not an option, that it has no appeal. Rhodri Glyn Thomas, a Plaid Cymru assembly member, has said:

“The economy is in crisis, unemployment is rising month by month and someone wants to talk about a concept [independence] no one fully understands. Unfortunately because the Scottish National Party is holding a referendum on Scottish independence, some people think we should be doing the same in Wales. I suggest they go to Scotland.”

That is why Lianne Wood want to concentrate upon social and economic issues, such as unemployment, poor wages, and increased stress at work. This is the only direction they can take if they want to challenge the dominance of the Welsh Labour Party. However, with the increasing class polarisation, Labour will also be forced to take more of a radical stand if it is to maintain its support and keep the nationalists at bay.

The Marxist position on the national question has nothing in common with either the nationalist or unionist parties. Our view is based upon the interests of the Scottish people and above all the interests of the working class in Scotland and in Britain as a whole. Scotland is a nation and its people have the right to self-determination. However, the national question, if not approached properly, especially on a class basis, can end in a disaster. In every case we must ask the question: does this help or hinder the struggle for socialism? Does it help to unite the working class, or foster harmful divisions? The answer to these questions will determine what our attitude will be, and nothing else.

Referendum

As Marxists, we are duty bound to support the idea of a referendum over Scottish independence as a democratic right. The SNP won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament and the referendum is their party policy. Salmond has said the referendum will be in the autumn 2014, the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn when Robert the Bruce defeated the English, or more importantly, when Scotland will host the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup. They are keen to delay the vote for as long as possible, but this can be their undoing given the likelihood of a new world downturn.

However, we remain implacably opposed to bourgeois nationalism which seeks to divide the working class and its organizations. We will continue to consistently argue for increased devolution within Britain but against secession. We will support instead the fight for socialism in Britain and internationally and the vital unity of the working class throughout these islands in order to achieve this end.

The Scottish people have a right to a referendum on independence without any interference from the Westminster government. Marxists stand for the right of self-determination of the Scottish and Welsh peoples, up to and including the right to separate, if they so wish. We support their legitimate national aspirations to self-government. If the question on the ballot is a straight for or against leaving the UK, we shall argue against.

Of course, we do not stand on the status quo, which offers no solution to the problems of the working class or the people of Scotland. We nevertheless will stress that independence on a capitalist basis would not solve any of the problems of the working class. We must differentiate ourselves clearly from the Tories and reformists who simply want to keep the Union. In contrast, we must fight clearly for working-class unity, for a socialist Britain and socialist internationalism.

The issue of the Scottish referendum has a certain parallel with the stand we took in the Common Market referendum in 1975. Then we opposed Britain joining the Common Market and put forward as an alternative the slogan ‘Socialist United States of Europe’. This allowed us to distance ourselves from the nationalism of the right-wing Tories and left-reformists (including the Stalinists) who opposed the Common Market on purely nationalist terms.

It is important that we sharply distinguish our perspective from the Liberals, Labour and others who will also support ‘devolution maximum’ if it is on the ballot paper. We must explain we support this measure as a part of the struggle for socialism, linking it to a socialist Labour government using these powers to implement socialist policies, carrying out nationalization etc. We must also make it clear that we view this as part of the class struggle and a tool which would be used to appeal to and mobilize workers in the rest of Britain and internationally.

Naturally some of the sects have come out in favour of Scottish independence, presenting it as a “blow against the British state”. These people have no perspectives or principles and have nothing in common with Marxism. They represent an opportunistic adaptation to petty bourgeois nationalism. The perspective of socialist revolution in Scotland, or Wales for that matter cannot be separated from a revolutionary movement for the overthrow of British capitalism. The idea of “socialism in one country” was a reactionary utopia for the USSR. What can one say about the idea of a “socialist Scotland” or a “socialist Wales”?

We view the development of the trade unions and political organizations on an all-Britain scale as a tremendous historical advance and will vehemently oppose any attempt to reverse the long-term trend towards unification of the movement across national boundaries. The belief that working class revolutionary action in Glasgow will be divorced from action of workers in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, or Cardiff is ridiculous. To pose the socialist revolution in narrow nationalist terms is completely reactionary and indicates a narrow parochial mentality. As internationalists, we must pose the question of the British revolution in terms of the European and world revolution.

Class unity

Historically, the British working class is one class. The English, Scottish and Welsh workers share a common history of struggle going back almost two centuries. To maintain this class unity is essential in order to defeat the British ruling class, which is fighting to maintain its domination. To effectively combat British capitalism requires the unity of working people at an all-Britain level in a common fight against the common enemy.

To achieve the outright defeat of capitalism and begin to build a new society, the Scottish workers will have to join forces with the multi-million strong labour movement of England and Wales. Any weakening of the forces of the working class by the rupture of the labour movement can only seriously undermine the long-term struggle for socialism. The class struggle in Britain has already started to pick up on a Britain-wide basis. Instinctive unity was demonstrated firstly by the student movement, which included demonstrations in Scotland despite the fact the measures it was initially protesting against only applied in England and Wales. Subsequently this has been demonstrated in the development of the local government dispute.

On the basis of the crisis and the attempt to introduce austerity, the SNP government will see its support decline. The idea of a northern European “arc of prosperity” has been dashed. Its attempt to implement pro-business policies as a sweetener to overseas “investors”, will bring it into conflict with the working class. The mighty events that impend will serve to radically change the consciousness of the broad masses in Scotland as elsewhere.

The development of industrial struggles in England, Wales and Scotland, as we saw in the magnificent strike on 30 November, will tend to unify the workers and will tend to cut across the poison of nationalism and undermine the influence of the nationalist parties. Only a revival of the traditional mass organizations of the working class on the basis of genuine socialist policies and the development of a left-wing within their ranks can provide an alternative to those layers who are looking to the SNP.

The key task facing the Scottish working class is to unite with its brothers and sisters in England and Wales to defeat the attacks of the Coalition government. It is to struggle for socialist policies as the real answer to capitalist crisis. The fight for a socialist Britain will inscribe on its banner the slogan of maximum autonomy for Wales and Scotland as part of the fight for a Socialist United States of Europe and a World Federation of Socialist States. This is the only way out.

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