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Socialists and the Scottish Question

Gordon Morgan

"I will remind you I am an English Nationalist" – Margaret Thatcher, 1992.
"Sovereignty (over Scotland) rests with me as an English MP and that’s the way it will stay" – Tony Blair, March 1997.

THE 1997 GENERAL Election campaign in Scotland was dominated by the proposed Scottish parliament. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats were committed in their manifestos to a Scottish parliament in line with the devolution scheme agreed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The Tories chose to attack this proposal as tantamount to breaking up the UK. The Scottish National Party (SNP) meanwhile advocated independence for Scotland (in Europe).

The Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA), which stood candidates in 16 seats, has a policy for national self-determination and a commitment to struggle for a socialist Scotland. It advocates "a sovereign Scottish parliament, controlled by the Scottish people for the Scottish people ... subordinate neither to Westminster nor Brussels ... with powers to transform Scotland into a democratic republic".

More controversially, the SSA supports a multi-option referendum to include four questions – its democratic republic position, plus independence, devolution and the status quo. It moreover recognises, that, whilst a referendum is likely, different questions may be present, and it states that it would campaign for "a first preference vote for ’independence’, a second preference vote for devolution".

This position of the SSA, which I support, of advocating a vote for independence in a hypothetical referendum, has been attacked within the SSA by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB/Weekly Worker) and externally by the Socialist Workers Party and other socialist groups.

I propose in this article to review our general approach to the Scottish question and how this relates to other democratic and "transitional" demands. Some issues I hope to clarify are:

  • What is the Scottish Nation?
  • How does being Scottish interrelate with class consciousness?
  • What is Scottish nationalism in the 1990s and does it conflict with socialism?

Most of these questions – amongst others – are constantly being discussed and redefined within the Scottish political-cultural milieu. These discussions themselves redefine the terms of the subjects under debate. This, in itself, is evidence of a separate Scottish dimension to political discussion.

The Marxist consensus?
1. Scotland is a nation. It has a distinctive geographical location; most of the trappings of a state: separate law, administration, etc; a history as a separate state; an identifiable nationalist movement. It therefore meets not only Lenin’s and Trotsky’s but even Stalin’s definition of nationhood. As such it falls within a very small band of nations which have been consistently referred to by Marx, Engels, the Comintern and Trotskyists as having a clear national question.

2. Scotland is not an oppressed nation. This is somewhat of a truism, as Marxists take "oppressed nations" to imply a particular relationship with imperialism: that of colonial exploitation. Scotland is fully integrated within the capitalist economy as part of a (post?) imperialist state. Its separate capitalism was integrated with English capital during the expansionist phase of empire, and it acted as "junior partner" of British imperialism. It is clearly not currently an English colony.

The fact it is not a "colony" does not mean the Scottish people are not economically disadvantaged by being part of Britain, nor does it prevent the Scottish people ("nation") from being politically oppressed (particularly after the 1979 referendum). Such matters were not part of the analysis of Lenin who examined the imperialist phase of capitalism rather than the current phase of late capitalism.

Nevertheless, as traditional Marxist canon required "oppressed nation" status as a prerequisite for supporting national liberation movements, some groups have sought to prove that Scotland qualifies. I clearly state that it does not.

3. The SNP is a petit-bourgeois nationalist party. Once again, this is almost a truism and is essentially a label of default. The SNP has no major bourgeois backers. True, it has held discussions with US officials and with oil interests, and occasionally managers of financial trusts announce their support. True, the Economist intermittently suggests that the Tones should get rid of Scotland. But this does not amount to a party acting as a party of, and for, the multinationals or any other discernible section of the large bourgeoisie. Unlike Labour, a true bourgeois workers’ party, the SNP is too responsive to its membership to be relied on by the bourgeoisie.

The SNP likes to portray itself as a Social-Democratic party and inconsistently has sought links with the unions. Its policies are largely to the left of Labour, and it has courted the working-class vote from Labour with some success. However, objectively, the SNP has no organic links to the workers’ movement, nor is it happy at being described as a socialist party. Despite many of its founders coming from the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the SNP has never had a clear socialist programme, and is clearly not a workers’ party.

The description of the SNP as a petit-bourgeois party does not imply anything regarding tactical support, or otherwise, for them in particular contexts. On issues like Trident they clearly have a more radical line than Labour, and socialists continue to work with them in broad-based campaigns.

Scottish nation
Almost all Scots enter Scottish on their passport under "nationality" rather than British. All adult Scots know that Scotland ceased to be a separate state in 1707 after the Act of Union. Most countries have a set of creation myths. In Scotland these largely comprise pseudo-history regarding Bruce and Bannockburn, St Columba, etc, and in more modern times Red Clydeside, Maclean, etc. Myths and their presentation are the currency of political discourse and living culture.

What then are the creation myths of Britain? Suppose, or actually ask someone in England, when their country was formed. Provided a blank response is ignored, we are likely to have answers relating to 1066, the Wars of Roses, possibly even Magna Carta or the Glorious Revolution. I would place a small bet against any response being 1707. Yet, supposedly, the union of the parliaments created a new parliament of Britain which replaced those of Scotland and England. In reality the English parliament continued unchanged.

I have elaborated this at length because the Act of Union, and its interpretation, is one of the liveliest points of discussion within Scotland. The classical Marxist line is that Scotland was incorporated as a "junior partner" in the emerging British Empire. This orthodoxy, which I have repeated above, serves well as an example of the economics and politics associated with the growth of imperialism. After the failure of the Darien scheme in 1699 – Scotland’s attempt to become an imperial power – key sections of the Scottish bourgeoisie wanted union at any price.

This classical line does, however, suffer from an imperial-centric view and it skims over such issues as various rebellions, clearances, etc, as features of capitalism, whilst ignoring the political context in which they occurred. This is important as it is precisely these events which, when viewed in another context, forged the modern view of Scotland and defined the symbiosis of class and national identity.

The Scottish parliament had been discussing various treaties with England, including a non-incorporating treaty, for many years before 1707. In general, a non-incorporating treaty would have meant a federal Britain. This was not acceptable to England.

England imposed trade sanctions against Scotland, had a fleet positioned at Leith, had a large army outside Edinburgh and offered large bribes before the Free Vote for Union was taken. Most Scottish signatories to the treaty – the "parcel of rogues" – still saw the treaty as reversible and Scottish MPs voted unanimously in London to repeal it in 1712 (English MPs voted this down!).

A rejection of the strictures of the Union was a common thread of dissent and revolt over the following century including the rebellions of 1714 and 1745. Not for nothing does the "British" national anthem contain the stanza "Lord, grant that General Wade ... like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush".

The capitalist and landowning classes clearly eventually benefited from the Union, and with the growth of Empire, other classes including the working class shared the spoils of colonial exploitation. To begin with though, capitalism required to extend throughout Scotland. This was done in a typically oppressive fashion. To quote James D. Young (The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class), "the problem of civilising the Highlands was inextricably tied up with the task of imposing a unique system of planned capitalism on Scotland as a whole".

At the end of the 18th century, the sense of injustice over English subjugation, and on traditional dress, etc, taxes, clearances – the so-called Jacobite tradition – met with the emerging demands for political freedom exemplified by the French Revolution – the Jacobins. The first movement for political emancipation was the Friends of the People, then the United Scotsmen were born. This was followed by other more expressly working-class movements including the rebellion of 1820 and eventually by crofters’ movements – which are the direct ancestry of the British Labour, and Communist, Parties. All of these parties had as part of their programme the demand for Home Rule as part of a general list of democratic demands including the demand for the vote.

It has become common to describe the situation in Scotland during the 18th century as one of "internal colonialism". According to strict economic forms this may not be accurate; however, again to quote James D. Young, "if the colonial relationships in which the Scottish elite functioned were not crude colonial ones, the colonial relationship between England and Scotland defined the context in which the industrialisation and the making of the Scottish working class occurred".

Nationality and class consciousness
"By 1820 it is possible to talk of a Scottish radical tradition, which is increasingly working-class in character, and embraces Scottish national rights as central to the programme of political and social reforms." Bob McLean (Labour and Scottish Home Rule).

"I am certain that London will never lead the Clyde or Scotland, so we must lead ourselves! ... A Scottish break-away at this juncture would bring the empire crashing to the ground, and free the waiting workers of the world! ... I stand for a Scottish Workers’ Republic.... But the Scottish workers must be joined in one big industrial union with their English and Welsh comrades against industrial capitalism." John Maclean.

In 1888 Keir Hardie stood as Labour candidate in Mid Lanark and four months later the Scottish Labour Party was formed. Scottish Home Rule was the 5th of 18 policy points. This party fused with the ILP in 1894. In 1897 the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) broke from the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) and in 1902 set up a Scottish party which, in 1906, became the Scottish Labour Party. It merged with the Labour Party in 1909, though this was on financial grounds. A Scottish Advisory Council of the Labour Party was set up in 1915.

All the leaders of Scottish Labour throughout the 1920s supported Home Rule. In 1924 the minority Labour government moved a Home Rule Bill which was talked out by Unionists. It was only after this failure that a movement separate from Labour seeking Home Rule was set up. Till then Labour was the main standard bearer for Home Rule. Only in 1928 was a separate nationalist party formed.

During the 1930s and 1940s Labour MPs’ support for Home Rule waned. However, it was only in 1958 that support for "legislative devolution" was dropped by Labour in Scotland. The STUC has never abandoned support for Home Rule. The Communist Party, having abandoned Home Rule, reinserted it into its 1951 programme. With the rise of the SNP in the 1960s both the Tories and Labour re-examined "devolution", and Home Rule has been a constant debate within Scottish Labour ever since.

Since the 1979 referendum on devolution – when a clear majority of Scots voted for a Scottish parliament but their will was denied by Westminster – the STUC has been at the forefront of all campaigns for a parliament. The STUC has remained independent of the TUC for 100 years and continues to reflect Scottish trade unionists’ national aspirations.

What is Scottish nationalism in the nineties?
The SNP wants to establish a Scottish parliament separate from Westminster. If achieved it would seek separate representation in the European Union (EU), aim to adhere to the strictures of Maastricht, and hold a referendum on joining the Europeah Monetary Union (EMU) with its leadership advocating joining.

Labour seeks a Scottish parliament with economic powers over Scottish affairs (but with a block grant from Westminster as well as some tax powers). It would remain in the EU and would hold a referendum on the EMU. It would have separate Brussels representation for Scotland on "the committee of the regions".

In practise these goals would have the same effect. An Edinburgh parliament would have limited powers, most decisions would be taken by the EU which would not be accountable to the Scottish people. For these reasons socialists in the Scottish Socialist Movement and now the SSA have argued that the parliament should set its own powers and take such as are necessary to overcome the social and economic problems besetting the working class in Scotland.

The central dilemma facing both Labour and the SNP is what to do about the EU and what alternatives are there if they didn’t join the EMU. Socialists in both parties accept the analysis of the EU as a club representing multinationals which should be opposed, but as most accept a programme of managing capital and attracting investment and balancing trade, they are daunted from seeing any alternative.

Is there then any realistic programme for nationalism in the 1990s and what is our attitude to it?

Clearly I reject any prospect for an isolationist state embarking on a separate development path. Socialism in one country was impossible in the 1920s, it is more so now. This is not to say I reject taking power in one country, nor should we hold back the struggle for workers’ power because workers in other countries are not ready. In such circumstances John Maclean’s call for a "Scottish Workers’ Republic" would become an agitational slogan.

Marxists have always stated that the working class and its parties must take the lead in solving the national question. In Scotland there is a strong tradition of socialists in favour of Home Rule. Comrades from the Socialist Movement, now in the SSA, participated and were at times at the forefront of raising that demand within the Labour Party and wider movement. We have sought to promote broad forums where democratic aspirations can be linked across parties in common action. Thus we took leading roles in Scotland United, questioned the legitimacy of the government’s right to impose Poll Taxes on Scotland, pushed the demand for a multi-option referendum on a Scottish parliament, and tried to foster debate on what a Scottish parliament needs to do.

Inevitably this leads to a recognition that any progressive state would need to confront capital to survive. We have organised demonstrations against Maastricht and supported the Cancel the Debt campaign. The SSA rejects the "terms for European Monetary Union and a single currency", supports the "European wide march for Jobs", tries to foster "dialogue, co-operation and united activity amongst the European left", and is "ultimately for a socialist Europe".

In practise there is no contradiction between advocating a parliament in Scotland – which we require to address the social and economic problems and democratic deficit of Scottish workers – and advocating united action with workers in England and other European countries against capitalism.

It was in this context that the SSA addressed the question of a multi-option referendum. How would we vote – for status quo, independence or devolution?

Marxists such as the CPGB, whilst happy to support self-determination in the abstract, a Scottish Workers’ Republic, or a "sovereign Scottish parliament", nevertheless view support for a bourgeois democratic reform as a diversion. They advocate abstention in a referendum. This was precisely the line adopted by the Workers Revolutionary Party up to 2 days before the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum when even they, in the depths of Healyite isolationism, recognised that this line was untenable and came out for a "yes" vote for a Scottish parliament.

Both the CPGB and the SWP, and indeed many "classical" Marxists, see nationalism "as a nasty and divisive force that lines the working class up with its own oppressors" (Weekly Worker), yet they still demand self-determination for Scotland. Whilst many national movements take this form, most strands of Scottish national consciousness are intricately bound with socialist aspirations and traditions of internationalism.

The SWP equates the break-up of the British state with the break-up of the British Trade Union movement – this need not occur at the level of individual unions and at the level of federations, the STUC has always been independent. Most socialists would however, welcome the effect a separation of Scotland would have on the British imperial traditions, on reforming Westminster and on undermining Labourism.

I believe socialists should support independence in this hypothetical referendum. We should point out the limitations of separate development but also the resources at our disposal – with equal exchange Scotland has immense natural and technical resources. We would point out that these resources could only be brought to fully benefit the working class by confronting capital and this would require a workers’ government to take power.

The SSA will promote its Charter for Socialist Change in the course of a referendum campaign thus relating wider aspects of our programme to actual struggles.

The SSA and socialist regroupment
The SSA Charter for Socialist Change includes a full list of demands on a future Scottish parliament and, indeed, the main short term objective of the SSA is to raise a socialist agenda within a Scottish parliament which would have elections based on proportional representation. It should be noted that the demands include critiques of the economy, and trade and international relations which require co-operation with workers in other countries.

SSA was formed less than a year ago out of the Scottish Socialist Movement (SSM). Initial discussions with the SLP broke down over the right of affiliations of left groups and over the autonomy of the Scottish section. The SSA is open to affiliation from any group. The SSM, Scottish Militant, the Scottish Communist Party, and several environmental groups affiliated. The bulk of members are unaffiliated to any organisation.

After the election, a reappraisal of the political situation is now required. Labour is committed to a Scottish parliament on the statute books within a year. It is important that a genuine broad-based campaign for socialist policies is fought for, focused on (but not limited to) legislation in this parliament. For once, direct representation of socialists is possible. The SSA will aim to stand in every seat and would hope to have MPs. This goal will be progressed if there is a further round of regroupment with socialists from SLP, Labour and SNP and the SSA is transformed into a truly representative umbrella of the left.

It is unlikely that Labour would have an overall majority in a Scottish parliament. Alliances would be necessary. It is in this context that a demand for a workers’ government could be raised by the SSA based on its Charter. The SSA would call on all socialist MPs whether Labour or SNP to back this programme.

These scenarios are, however, speculation. The immediate context is one of struggling to obtain a representative parliament with as much power as possible in the face of likely Blair backsliding. Over the last year Blair has proved that his support for a Scottish parliament is a tradable commodity. Scots remember Labour’s betrayal of their manifesto commitment for a parliament in 1979 and won’t stand for a recurrence. A Scottish parliament of whatever hue is at this time a democratic and progressive demand which all socialists should support.