One Year to the Scottish referendum on Independence

_65598596_ballotToday marks one year until the Scottish people vote on whether Scotland is to be independent and this morning I listened to an interview with Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on radio 4.  It was an interesting interview both for what was said and what was not said.

Invited by the interviewer to agree that the Scottish people will decide based on what was economically good for them she agreed.  What made the difference she said was that decisions on what should happen in Scotland are best taken in Scotland.

There was no mention of the issue being in any sense one of national and democratic rights, nothing about national oppression.  This would of course be a hard argument to make given that Scotland can exit the UK without facing the sort of threats and war that Ireland suffered almost 100 years ago.

The argument that decisions under independence would be taken in Scotland took something of a battering when Sturgeon accepted that the Scottish National Party favoured retaining sterling as the currency.  That’s a bucket load of decisions still being taken in London then, either in Downing Street or Canary Wharf.  It was also somewhat embarrassing when the interviewer quoted a statement by the SNP leader Alex Salmond in 1999 that described sterling ‘as a millstone round Scotland’s neck’.  For many years he had supported joining the Euro until the crisis in the Eurozone made this a less easy and obvious sell.  The change she said had been prompted by advice from ‘experts.’

Since the SNP also favour Scotland’s membership of the EU and NATO plus keeping the British monarchy the elements of independence start to look less impressive. More decisions from Brussels and Washington here.

The interview elicited the real concern for independence mentioned by Sturgeon, which is increased control over the levers of the State and its ability to tax and distribute the proceeds, including operation of the welfare state.  On this score the SNP have simultaneously attempted to present a future independent Scotland as some sort of social-democratic nirvana while also promising lower corporation taxes for foreign companies.

In this respect it seeks to emulate the Irish State and previously held the latter up as a model of what an independent Scotland could achieve until the proverbial hit the fan and the Irish became a model for austerity instead of prosperity.  The Irish are no longer referred to as the future and nationalists have to defend themselves against the charge that a newly independent state could not afford to support the large Scottish financial sector should it go into the same sort of crisis as the 2008 credit crunch.  Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS (Halifax Bank of Scotland) featured prominently in that financial crisis.

The case for independence then revolves around the respective ownership shares by Scotland and rump UK of the oil reserves and the national debt.  Ownership is a question of geography not of class.  Once again ownership by the state or at least increased capacity to tax resources is held up as in the interests of Scottish workers.

The state, in this case an independent Scottish one, is presented as the vehicle to deliver on the needs of workers.  The concern of the SNP to capture control of the state machine, irrespective of its actual power to control the economy – absent an independent currency and insertion into the EU – betray the real class forces behind the pursuit of independence.

Those on the left in Scotland supporting independence in effect tail end the promises of these forces that the capitalist state, in this case an independent Scottish one, can be the vehicle for working class advance.  As I have been at pains to point out in numerous posts it is the independent movement of the working class itself that will deliver and represent such an advance.  It cannot be devolved to the capitalist state whether newly minted or not.

The attractions of nationalism boil down to the attractions of state power which have less and less substance the smaller the state but which seemingly have greater and greater attraction the smaller and therefore closer it comes to some people being beside it.

In a debate that assumes capitalist ownership, that assumes a capitalist state, that revolves around nationality but excludes any opposition to national oppression the tasks of Marxists is a difficult one.

The first is to base oneself on the commonality of class interests regardless of nationality as the bedrock of working class unity and need for internationalism.  This requires defence of the Scottish people’s right to self determination free from any sort of outside threat or force.  It involves opposition to nationalist arguments and those which present the state as the vehicle for progress.  It requires being alive to the prospect that such a debate will increase the divisions between Scottish and other British workers and also divide the Scottish working class itself between those more and more committed to nationalist solutions and those who see no reason for an independent state.

Opinion polls appear to show a comfortable majority against independence and it looks likely at this point that the referendum will result in a vote against it.  In the meantime the referendum is an important event that has important implications for the development of working class politics not only in Scotland but also in the rest of the UK.  The parallels drawn with Ireland by many in the debate demonstrate that it has important implications here as well.

Some Scottish commentators have noted the dominance of the issue in the media inside Scotland and comparative absence in the rest of Britain.  I hope the blog will be able to keep up with and contribute to understanding this important struggle.  The relationship between socialism and nationalism is one that has repeatedly proven a difficult one for socialists and the Scottish debate may allow us to learn more about how best to address the difficulties.

3 thoughts on “One Year to the Scottish referendum on Independence

  1. If the referendum is lost then it is because of a failure of a middle class leadership to attract the working class.
    Last time i looked the YES office in Glasgow was selling cufflinks for £50 a pair.
    That would mean a lot to those on benefits and/or the low paid.
    Only the working class can deliver a YES vote.

  2. The relationship between socialism and nationalism is a difficult one especially when the vocabularies of socialism and nationalism are often juxtaposed. In historical sequence the school of nationalism proceeded the movement of socialism. In the mind of some Marxists nationalism is sure to be superseded by world economic developments, the thesis was restated not long ago by the late Eric Hobsbawn. The thesis only holds if you hold to a cultural account of nationalism. But what if nationalism proper is an fact an alternative theory of the centrality of the State to bourgeois society? If we return to the classical liberal theory of the State as articulated by Hobbes, Locke and Spinoza the idea of the modern State is an expression of opposition to the feudal and absolute states. What is the primary difference ? Well the pre-modern ideology of States expressed the idea that might is right, the right of the stronger to maintain political power, the divine right of conquest. The classical liberals did not dismiss the right of political conquest as easily as we do today, they had to take it seriously as an explanation and justification of the State. The right of conquest in modern times is most associated with colonialism. They challenged not the morality of the pre-modern account but its rationality.

    The alternative liberal account of the State is proffered as a rational one. The genesis of the State is based on natural necessity, prudence and the calculation of self interest. The liberal theory became known as the contract theory of the State ; the principle of individual rational consent superseded the right of conquest. This rationalist liberal theory of the State was first challenged on the ideological front by Rousseau, here is just one paragraph from The Social Contract ‘The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of the strongest, which. though seemingly meant ironically, is really established in principle. But no one will ever explain this expression for us? Strength is physical power; I do not see what morality can ever result from its effects. To yield to force is an act of necessity , not of will ; at best it is an act of prudence. In what sense can this be a duty?’

    What Rousseau is saying is that the liberal account of the State provided by Hobbes, Locke and Spinoza is not in fact a genuine revolution against the right of conquest theory, it too bows down to the principle of the greatest power. Rousseau is famous for putting the morality back into the political. Lord Action said of him that ‘He produced more effect with his pen than Aristotle, or Cicero, or Saint Augustine, or Saint Thomas Aquinas, or any other man that ever lived.’ Rousseau is the father of modern nationalism and for that reason has been celebrated and despised in equal measure. His alternative account of the centrality of the State stresses not so much the lack of individual rational consent and the liberal requirement that it should aspire to have it than a requirement for something more ; ‘legitimacy.’ The concept of legitimacy is the one Rousseau introduced into political discourse accompanied by quite a few others of great importance, the sovereignty of the people, the general will, the concept of fraternity and even then by inference the right of national self determination. If you know the works of the American liberal Irving Babbitt you know the hostility Rousseau’s moral politics provokes. Rousseau is accused of not only of introducing a pernicious moralism into politics but undermining the liberal rationalist account of the State. How can any State pass the so called legitimacy test?

    This brings me to the right of national self-determination, to which political vocabulary does this belong ? Is it a call for a rational liberal State or for something more a legitimate State.? When you listen to the current debate about the proposal for Scottish independence both vocabularies are juxtaposed. Arguments are invented that make for a rationalist economic case for political Independence. An independent State would make the society all the more prosperous ( the oil and gas) the society would be all the more equal (the low support of the Tory party). Then their is the other moral legitimacy side of the debate, by what right does an English State rule over Scotland? Do the Scottish people not have moral customs and cultural traditions that are foreign to the English.? The legitimacy side of the debate is something Marxists do not like to give any credence to though socialists often do, this is because they can’t help giving in to the legitimate right of national self determination thesis, which is primarily a maxim about political legitimacy, about the unique Scottish general will, about Scottish fraternity and morality. In fact it is hard to speak about any State without also questing the moral worth and value of the State. Speaking of the many followers of Rousseau, Babbitt says that those who think of the State in terms of his band of concepts and ideas, ‘may easily become not merely an enthusiast but a fanatic.’

    There is a possible way out of all of the above and it was first proposed by Karl Marx. The young Karl Marx began as a student of State theory, his early study of Hegel’s philosophy of Right. Hegel himself had attempted to adjudicate between the Liberals Hobbes and Locke and their main enemy Rousseau only to supersede them both with his own dialectical account of the State. Marx concluded that it was time to be done with the State as something central to political understanding. The modern State was in historical fact being ever more being subordinated to bourgeois society, the capitalist economy and the alienation of labour. The turn Marx took was to plunge political theory into society and away from the State. Marxist politics was never about providing yet another alternative version of the rationality or the legitimacy of the State. There is was to be no Socialist account of the State espoused by Marx to rival the others on offer. Marxism is not a politics of State it is a politics of class leadership or what Gramsci was later to call class hegemony. It is normal to discuss politics in terms of the State, political parties and movements contend to take command of the State. But in Marxist politics the issue of the State is of less importance, it is of only tactical importance. What is of central importance is the political leadership over society, what class has leadership over society is the one that has to be understood by political theory. When we do this we have to differentiate the macro social classes, the relations of the social classes and also the micro sectors and elites within those classes before we can deliberate are final assessments. Sometimes we find that the State is in the hands of non-capitalist powers like the military yet the bourgeois class maintains leadership over society.

    When the question of a proposed new State comes to the forefront of politics the crucial question then to ask is which class or fraction of the class is driving the issue. Then it is important to project forward and know what class or fraction of the class will be raised into social and political leadership over society if it succeeds. Will the working class be gaining political leadership over society or conceding what little political leadership it already holds, or is the social balance in the end neutral. These are the questions to be answered in regard to Scotland. My impression is that the social leadership of Scottish independence is in the hands of a mixed fraction of the middle class, the SNP is certainly not a workers party. We can also assume that there is something of an internal middle and upper class battle for leadership happening, some part of the wealthy class in Scotland must be unhappy with the status quo. It is hard to see how the working class could be raised to political leadership over society by herding behind the SNP and other middle and other upper class elements. The assessment would have to be all together different one if it was an organized party of the working class that was in the leadership position of the national movement. The only complicating factor is, should the working class set out to contend for the leadership over the national movement? In Ireland the very first people to call for the end of the Union were workers in the industries damaged by the tariffs policy imposed by the act of Union of 1800 and this well before the formation of the Home Rule Party. The workers often led the national movement, James Connolly virtually cajoled the middle class radicals into the armed rebellion of Easter 1916. Workers have generally contended for leadership over the national movement in Ireland it is not as clear that this is the Scotland.

  3. The scotish people should be very weary about independance westminster knows fully well that oil is running out up there and if things do all go wrong for the scotish people alex salmond would be the first to flee the border i wouldn be surprized to find him working at westminster when all fails

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