Scottish nationalism and British imperialism










‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013.

One way of addressing the arguments about socialism and Scottish independence is to review the two books above, which give a platform to a fairly wide range of views, both those in favour of a Yes vote in the coming referendum and those in favour of a No vote.  It is also interesting to compare the arguments between the two over time to see how they have stood up, or fallen down.

In my first post I said that for socialists the relationship between independence and the self-determination of the working class involves a number of questions and not just that independence must in some way be a move towards socialism or makes it easier to achieve.  It would be possible to be a passionate supporter of independence by believing that in itself it was a step forward without also implying any great move forward for socialism.  What is striking in both books is the absence of this argument and the keenness of those supporting independence to minimise such an argument and argue that independence is either intimately bound up with socialism or makes it easier to achieve.

In 2007 one contributor wrote that “when the national question rears up again, as it inevitably must, the debate will not be over the degree of devolution, but a blunt choice between defending the British state or a bold demand for independence and socialism”.  In fact, of course, it is not.  It appears as a choice between the British state and a Scottish state – both capitalist.  Two instead of one and the consequences of each.

Colin Fox argues in ‘Time to Choose’ that “the key question is can the socialist cause be advanced in Scotland through independence or not?  And the answer is yes it can, but only provided it involves a complete repudiation of neo-liberalism, corporatism, the financialisation of our economy and existing class relations.”

The first problem is that the independence campaign is led by the Scottish National Party, a “pro-capitalist, neo-liberal party moving to the right” according to Fox, which would undoubtedly form the first government of the new capitalist state and, buoyed by a stunning victory, would put an indelible stamp on its new constitution. If there is a Yes majority there will therefore be no “repudiation of neo-liberalism, corporatism, the financialisation of our economy and existing class relations.”

If independence can only advance the socialist cause in Scotland by a complete renunciation of these things then clearly independence, the real independence currently on offer, will not advance the cause of socialism.

However if Scotland was an oppressed country, so that everyone within it suffered some denial of democratic rights, by virtue of being Scottish or living in Scotland, then it would be possible to argue that Scotland should be independent and that socialists should support such a demand even without the repudiation of neoliberalism etc.

Once again however the argument that Scotland is an oppressed nation is by and large conspicuous by its absence in the two books, despite the large and varied pro-independence contributions.

However one contribution in ‘Time to Choose’ does not shy away from making such a claim.  “The struggle for Scottish independence is, at its heart, an anti-colonial struggle.”

But who are the colonists?  It can hardly be the English born population in Scotland, its largest ‘minority’, all 422,386 of them.  But what other candidates for this role are there?

“Scottish independence is a blow at the heart of imperialism.”  But if imperialism is understood as an economic system nothing of the economic system in Scotland will essentially change.  If it is understood as the political arrangement of states we will have two capitalist states instead of one, both in the EU and both in NATO.

Both countries currently form a unitary state in which both are part of the same imperialist state.  While Britain has often been called England the Empire has always been called by its proper name – the British Empire.  Scotland has played a disproportionate role in this Empire, in its expansion and exploitation of the rest of the world, despite the proclivity of Scottish nationalists to talk about the British state and Scotland as if they were two entirely different places.

Left nationalists obscure the integral role of Scotland in British imperialism, talking about “independence that would . . .  free us from the shackles of British imperialism”, (Colin Fox ‘Time to Choose’). How could Scotland be shackled by British imperialism?  The Scottish people have been exploited not by the English but by fellow Scots.

Or rather they used to be.  Scottish capitalism, in partnership with the English as part of the British Empire, took an identifiably large role in building this empire precisely because it was separately involved.  The Scottish banks and other financial institutions, which continue to this day, and most of its major industrial corporations were owned and controlled within Scotland.  So much was this the case that one recent study by an economic historian has said that Scotland was even more oriented to Empire than the English.[i]

Part of this was due to the narrowness of the domestic market, a result of low incomes, itself a result of relatively low wages or the greater exploitation of Scottish workers by Scottish bosses.

In the 1960s however manufacturing employment began to fall in Scotland, in this respect no different from that of Britain as a whole.  In the UK manufacturing as a share of employment peaked in 1966 while in Scotland the percentage of industrial employment fell from 39.3% in 1965 to 32.3% in 1979, 17.7% in 1993 and 11.1% in 2007.  Scottish deindustrialisation looks greater than that of many other OECD (advanced capitalist) countries only because its starting point was higher while its finishing point is unremarkable.

The British government succeeded in postponing this deindustrialisation through regional policy and attracting multinationals through incentives, which increased sixteen-fold from 1962/63 to 1969/70, but these increasingly failed to have the desired effect in the 1970s, at the end of the post-war upswing in the world economy.  Decline in Empire and decline in industrial Scotland went in tandem because the latter was in integral part of the former.

The British state had failed to prevent deindustrialisation and the demands of the Left today for nationalisation show how little they have learnt from this failure, with their repeated calls for nationalisation.  Much of the Scottish left now wants a Scottish instead of the British state to do the business.  Nationalisation did little to reverse the decline of the railways, coal or steel industries.  In fact much of the decline took place under nationalisation, with employment in the Scottish railways falling from 55,393 in 1951 to 22,910 in 1971 and employment falling in the coal industry from 89,464 to 34,315 during the same period.

It has been argued that the beginning of deindustrialisation coincided with the beginning of serious pressure for devolution and the growth of Scottish nationalism; a section of the petty bourgeoisie clearly registering the need for another capitalist project to take over from the existing partnership in a declining empire.

In this the nationalists typically saw things in reverse, with the SNP candidate in the famous Hamilton by-election in 1967 proclaiming “stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”.  In fact Scotland had been rampaging on the world for two centuries and many colonies at the time wanted it to get off.



Today however 87% of Scotland’s manufacturing industries turnover is in companies owned outside Scotland.  One study quoted in ‘Time to Choose’ states that “economic power does not lie in Scotland.  It still predominantly lies at a UK level.”  Scotland does have an autonomous financial services industry, in so far as any financial services in Britain can be described as autonomous. It also has oil but it isn’t owned by Scotland no matter what we think ‘Scotland’ means in this context.  Trade is dominated by the relationship with the rest of the UK – “Scotland exports more than twice as much to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as we do to the whole of the rest of the world put together.” (Time to Choose p. 108)

The basis for a nationalist Scotland has therefore eroded except in one very important respect, pointed out in the paper noted above.  This is in the growth of employment by the state: official Scottish Executive figures give public sector employment as a share of total employed as 23.5 % or 580,000.  However another estimate, taking account of out-sourcing and the growth of state-funded but non-state employment, puts the figure at 31% or 772,000.  The responsibility for most of this employment belongs to Edinburgh, not London; the official figures showing that 485,000 of the 580,000, or over 80%, falls under devolved budgets.

State employment in this respect substitutes for that lost by deindustrialisation.  This employment is financed by taxation of the increasingly service based economy including financial services, with its imperialist appropriation of surplus value, and of course oil, and also by debt.  What matters to Scottish nationalists are the revenues controlled by the state and hence the centrality of the debate about the tax revenue from oil and the levels of state expenditure it might support.

Scottish nationalism represents an attempt not so much to turn its back on Empire as to give a layer of the middle classes and capitalists direct access to the fruits of state activity, its taxation and expenditure.  To the working class the SNP promises fairness while to big business it promises a lower rate of corporation tax.  It doesn’t particularly matter what this rate is as long as it’s lower than that set in London; as the Tories lower it the SNP say lower still.

The state is no less the base of the nationalist left, in fact more so since it expects the state to do even more wonderful things to the Scottish working class.  For those who believe socialism is nationalisation of the economy it is no matter of principle what state might appear the most likely candidate to carry it out.

All this is why the proposals of the SNP promise such remarkable results from independence while also promising such little change to the fundamental features of the status quo.  While the currency stays the same and no radical change in policy is offered, relatively minor differences based on pure assumptions and assertions are open to the grandest of unproven promises.  No wonder there are complaints about the lack of clarity generated by the debate and confusion caused by claim and counter-claim.

Hypotheses, projections and counterfactuals take the place of hard and immediate alternatives.  So the debate is about can Scotland continue to use the pound sterling; can it stay a member of the EU or negotiate membership within months; can it continue with the Bank of England as lender of last resort and with financial regulation ‘from London’, otherwise a term of nationalist abuse.

There is no or precious little debate about whether the pound should be the currency or what a currency means or is supposed to achieve, or about how the financial services industry could provide the catalyst for a new economic crisis.  Keeping the pound, keeping financial regulation from the city of London, staying in the EU and continuing to cut corporation taxes are the marginal ‘changes’ upon which grand nationalist rhetoric hides reality.   Meanwhile the No camp assists the nationalists by claiming that they can’t have many of their fairly timid set of demands.

But if Scotland actually was an oppressed nation the nature and characteristics of such oppression would be central to the debate.  Even accepting a continuing capitalist Scotland there would be something important, something urgent, something raw that would inflame passion.  But there isn’t.


[i] The Economic basis of Scottish Nationhood since 1870, Jim Tomlinson, University of Glasgow.

2 thoughts on “Scottish nationalism and British imperialism

  1. “However if Scotland was an oppressed country, so that everyone within it suffered some denial of democratic rights, by virtue of being Scottish or living in Scotland, then it would be possible to argue that Scotland should be independent and that socialists should support such a demand even without the repudiation of neoliberalism etc.”

    Actually, I think this is also wrong. A look at Lenin’s position, and that of the Comintern in the Theses on The National Question, indicates that even where a nation is an oppressed nation within a larger state, our priority should still be to defend the unity of the workers within it. We should conduct a militant struggle against that oppression, including a demand for the maximum autonomy for the oppressed nation, opposition to a single state language and so on (Lenin gives the example of Switzerland as a model), and that should include the right to secede for that nation should they choose to do so. But, as socialists within the oppressed nation, we should oppose any such separation.

    This is also a different situation to that described in the Theses on the Colonial Question (The Theses on the National and Colonial Questions deal with two separate issues – The National Question and the Colonial Question – though they are usually treated as dealing with the same phenomenon.

    The national question deals with oppressed nations within a single state. The Colonial Question deals with already existing separate states, where one is oppressed by another. The Indian State, for example was a separate state to the British State, it was politically dominated by the latter. This is important because, as Lenin says, we should be opposed to the establishment of new class states other than in the most extreme conditions. An already existing Indian State or other colonially dominated state, is not then a new state being created. It is merely a demand for that state to be able to function as such free from political subordination.

    But, where a nation is oppressed within an existing state – as happened with all of the oppressed nations within Tsarist Russia – their independence IS the creation of new bourgeois states. We should then oppose any such separation, even whilst defending the RIGHT of those people’s to secede if they so choose. Our main task is for the self-determination of the whole of the workers within the existing state.

  2. There are three situations I can see where socialists could support Scottish independence from the rest of Britain.

    1) If The EU existed as a single state, so that all existing nation states were really just administrative areas within it. Then it would be the unity of the EU working-class that would need to be maintained and deepened. A Scotland separate from Britain would then be simply a different configuration of the administrative functions. The same thing would apply to Catalunya and other regions. It would be no different from the periodic realignment of Local Government areas that occurs within the existing nation states.

    2) If the EU were moving towards such a state, but the rest of Britain was leaving it as a result of nationalistic sentiment and a referendum, but Scotland wanted to maintain its membership of the EU. In that case, the unity of the workers in Scotland with the rest of the EU working-class would be a more important factor than retaining its links with a British working class, and a Britsih state moving in a reactionary direction.

    3) The least likely and weakest case would be if a Scottish Workers Government were established, which was taking decisive measures to support workers in an increasing situation of dual power in society, i.e. if workers were taking over factories etc. and the Workers Government was rubber stamping their ownership and control, as part of developing a nationwide co-operative economy. If the British or EU state then attempted to prevent those actions by the Workers Government, socialists would call on workers throughout Britain and the EU to support it, to oppose their own states and to follow the lead of the Scottish workers. If need be that would include the right of the Scottish state to secede.

    I say that is the least likely and weakest case, because its unlikely that such a situation would exist in Scotland alone. It would at the least go along with similar developments in parts of Britain, and probably the rest of Europe. The main issue then would be to link up all those workers struggles for a European transformation, not to break them apart on a nationalist basis, by demanding independence for various regions, which would amount to a variety of “Socialism In One Country”.

    Its also the weakest case, because even if such a situation were to arise, its unlikely that “Socialism In Scotland” could survive. The same thing applies now to Greece. Separation from the rest of the working-class should be the last thing that socialists argue for, because the chances of any state lasting out for any long period of time without being able to extend its base is slim.

    That is also true with Co-operatives as I’ve set out elsewhere. An individual Co-op cannot exist as an island of socialism. It would inevitably succumb one way or another. Some may survive for long periods if they have favourable conditions, in a way that a Workers State could not, because Capital would not see such a single Co-op as a particular threat in the way it would a Workers State. (Incidentally, the same thing applies to those Tories and UKIPPERS who argue that Britain could be like Norway. It couldn’t because Norway has the population of London, it is not a significant state threat to the EU, Britain with its ties to the US is, which is why a separate Britain would be treated by an EU state as hostile).

    The Co-op itself only survived in the 19th century because it expanded at a rapid rate, quickly recruiting millions of members, establishing itself in every town, and moving from retailing and wholesaling to production etc. Yet, the problems faced by the Co-op demonstrate the challenges workers face in developing their own property in opposition to capital and its state.

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