Scotland is different



In my first post on the Scottish referendum debate I noted that the Yes campaign appeared to be offering something positive  while the No campaign was involved in almost purely negative rhetoric.  This is also how it appears in the left case for Scottish separation.  This argues that a Yes vote will open up a Scottish road, if not to socialism, then to a place that brings the possibility of achieving socialism much nearer.

There are two parts to this assertion.  First that Scotland is in some senses more left wing than England (Wales it would seem, unfortunately, doesn’t really count) and secondly that ‘independence’ would free Scotland, the Scottish people or the Scottish working class, to make advances to socialism.  Sometimes socialism is framed in terms of a kind of Scandinavian social democracy and sometimes in more radical terms.

Let’s take these claims one by one.

First that Scotland is more left wing, radical or in some way more egalitarian; a more fertile ground for socialism if separated from the rest of Britain.

Marxists believe that the ideas in peoples’ heads arise not simply from within their heads, from preformed views, but are a result of their interaction with the world around them, particularly their interaction with fellow human beings, through the way that the society in which they live is structured.  One fundamental way society is structured is how people cooperate to produce the means by which they survive and prosper, or otherwise.  This involves the creation of classes and even when not class conscious workers’ views of the world are heavily imprinted by the fact that they see the world as workers.

This means that if Scottish workers are in some fundamental sense more egalitarian or progressive this should be reflected in Scottish society. This does not mean that there is any one-to-one correlation between the economic and social structure of society and the politics expressed in that society but if there was a strong and persistent egalitarian politics within Scotland while its society was not otherwise very different from, say England, this would require some explanation, especially since both have existed under the same state and both with a similar relationship to that state.

Inequality is high in the UK relative to other OECD countries, ranked 7th out of 35.  Inequality in Scotland is lower than it is in the rest of the UK, a result of particularly high inequality in London, resulting in inequality in Scotland being roughly equivalent to the median level of the OECD.  Tax and social transfers by the UK state are slightly more redistributive than other OECD states but not particularly high given the higher initial level of inequality.

Inequality has been rising in the OECD countries for the past few decades and particularly in the 1980s and 1990s in the UK, although it has been rising at a much slower rate since.  In the OECD however it grew much more quickly in this latter period and even more so in the Nordic countries that the SNP and some on the left see as the model to emulate.

The level and worsening trend of inequality in Scotland is therefore very similar to that of the rest of the UK outside London.  The richest 1% of Scotland’s adult population earned 6.3% of total pre-tax income in 1997 and 9.4% in 2009.  In Sweden the richest 1% increased its share to 9%.

This growing failure of the Nordic countries is a result of growing basic inequality in these countries and a reduction in effectiveness of redistributive policies.  In addition some of these Nordic countries display high levels of wealth (as opposed to income) inequality.

The authors of the report from which these figures are taken state that adoption of Nordic style redistribution policies would not result in closing the gap between Scotland and the Nordic countries given the different starting points of inequality.  That is, given the basic inequality within the economic system to begin with before tax and benefit changes involving redistribution.

The authors point out that in order to redistribute income from high earners to lower income earners you need high earners in the first place.  In other words the basic economic system must still be inequitable.  It is not a very robust socialist policy to rely on income inequality based on basic economic relationships to generate the revenue to equalise society.  It accepts this basic inequality and hopes that the rich will simply accept that they become significantly less rich despite the underlying inequality of power.

This is why Marxists do not place much faith in any capitalist state redistributing the high incomes of the rich to workers, not to mention their wealth and ownership of capital.  In its place we seek the growth of worker-owned production so that more equal income and power relations are generated by workers through their own actions rather than rely on taxing – and therefore relying on – the unequal ownership of productive resources.  The identification of socialism with acceptance of basic capitalist relations and the simple amelioration of the worst effects of this by state tax and spending is therefore mistaken.  It has increasingly failed in those countries held up as the exemplars of success.

One of the authors in ‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’ illustrate the figures above:

“. . . Scotland is a capitalist, class society with staggering inequalities of wealth and power.  One study, in 2003, showed that two Edinburgh districts have more millionaires than anywhere in Britain other than Hampshire in London.  ‘Blackhill is better heeled than Belgravia and Morningside is more upmarket than Mayfair’ reported the Telegraph (6 February 2003). Contrast this to the figure that men in the Calton ward of Glasgow live to an average age of 54.  With these facts in mind, we dispute any idea that Scotland has a distinctively ‘collectivist’ civil society.  The neo-liberal trajectory in Scotland, like elsewhere, has led to extreme polarisation of income.”

So Scotland is not an unusually equal society and is much like most of the rest of Britain, outside London, and even London (!) has many millions of working class residents.

However I did say that there is no one-to-one correlation between the economic and social structure of society and the politics expressed in that society.  The report above notes that there is “some evidence for preference heterogeneity between Scotland and the rest of the UK. . . As well as persistent differences in voting patterns according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, Scots are: more likely than English voters to think the gap between high and low incomes is too large (78% v. 74%); are more likely to support government efforts at redistribution (43% v. 34%); are more likely to say that social benefits are not high enough (6.2% v. 3.6%); and more likely that unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship (22% v. 18%).

What is noteworthy about these results is not the differences, which are not pronounced except perhaps somewhat in attitudes towards redistribution, but how similar they are – how the first question results in high scores in both and such low scores for the third question in both.  Since all the questions are aspects of workers dependence on the state, except the first, they measure not so much attitudes to socialism but attitudes to reliance on the state, which workers must overcome to realise their own society.

The Red Paper collective provides further evidence of similarities of views in England and Scotland.[i]  It quotes a Nuffield foundation report in 2011 which “concluded that in terms of being ‘more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best’.  In what perhaps should serve as a warning for those who would conflate constitutional and social change they also note that “Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”

The data quoted by the Red Paper collective shows that when it comes to the three northern regions of England not only are there no big differences in attitudes compared to Scotland but no real difference at all.  They therefore state that “insisting progress for people in Scotland depends on independence is saying that those with similar problems and outlook to our own must be written off as partners in building something better.”

“The problems facing Merseyside and Clydeside have the same causes and as we have seen, people feel similarly about them.  Maintaining that the difficulties of the former are ‘economic’ and the latter ‘national’ is to take the advocates of nationalism at face value.  Accepting rather than analysing their claims, and ignoring the reality of class power.”

The telling of national myths should be left to nationalists.  “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education” says Alex Salmond.  In fact the national story of Scotland is failure to build an empire by itself and then joining the English in creation of a British empire in which the values of compassion, equality and empowerment were conspicuous by their absence.


“A more collective sense of society, of looking out for one another, is a strong part of Scottish life” says the chief executive of the Yes campaign.  Except the figures for inequality and working class mortality in Glasgow show this up for the crap that it is.  Just like England and Wales working class solidarity has suffered defeats in Scotland and the values of compassion, equality and looking out for each other will come not from the state, decked in tartan or not, but from the working class itself.

It might be objected that the attitudes of Scotland are those of a nation while similar attitudes in the three English regions are only of a part of England. However to privilege the national breakdown of social attitudes is to accept privileging the interests of the national unit over those of class.  It presupposes what it has to prove – the overwhelming salience of national division – and begs the question in the assertion that only by itself can the Scottish working class move forward.  It ignores the much larger potential for working class unity – the 5 million Scots and the fifteen million in northern England together.

For socialists the unity of the working class within the 20 million is infinitely more important than the unity of all classes within the 5 million.

It can be argued that even if the basic nature of society is hardly very different in Scotland from the rest of the UK and social attitudes not very different either, and more or less the same as northern England, that still politically Scotland has proven more progressive and more left wing.  Since independence is not just for Christmas but for keeps any such political differences must be pretty fundamental and long-lived.  Does the political history of Scotland demonstrate such fundamental and more or less permanent differences?

To be continued


[i] It is interesting to note some of the nationalist comments on this paper which state tha it is not their claim that Scotland is different but that it can be different through independence that matters.  What they ignore is the nationalist claim that the latter is possible because of the former.

The arrest of Gerry Adams

images (6)When Gerry Adams was arrested for the murder in 1972 of mother-of- ten Jean McConville Sinn Féin claimed it was “political policing. The arrest of a high profile political leader during an election could hardly be anything else.  That the intention to question him was notified by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to the highest levels of government in advance and that this government tells us it is keeping Washington informed is simply confirmation.

Yet when it comes to explaining what this political policing amounts to, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness claims lamely that the arrest is due to a “small cabal” of police officers, “an embittered rump of the old RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary)”.  McGuinness claims that other police sources have described these people as the “dark side”.

So it’s not really political policing but a “rump” that presumably can be dealt with.

Yet Sinn Féin hasn’t asked for this but just a vague wish that the episode is “resolved in a satisfactory way”.  Meanwhile the party will continue to “support the reformers who have made a massive contribution to policing” while saying that if it “does not work out the way that it should” the party will review the situation “in the context of continuing with a positive and constructive role in a vitally important peace process”.

However the press conference at which all this was said was really about a threat to reverse its previous political support for the PSNI, an event that would precipitate yet another crisis in the never-ending peace process.

But how can Sinn Féin complain of political policing when it supports this policing?  How can it issue vague hopes that everything turns out ok when it also claims that policing is accountable?  Why is it threatening to withdraw support (in a very vague and indirect way) when it can hold the police to account for its actions?  Why doesn’t it just do that?

Graffiti has gone up in West Belfast attacking “Boston College Touts” (informers), i.e. those who gave their accounts of their own and Adams’ involvement in the IRA and its abduction of Jean McConville to the American institution , the acquisition of which may be the basis of his arrest.


Yet how can these people be touts when Sinn Féin supports the PSNI and has called for everyone to give the police whatever information they have on the actions of republicans (i.e. the dissidents)?  The hypocrisy involved is as staggering as it is completely unselfconscious.

McGuinness claims that “Sinn Féin’s negotiations strategy succeeded in achieving new policing arrangements, but we always knew that there remained within the PSNI an embittered rump of the old RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary).”  Yet it never made any qualification when it announced its original support for the PSNI.

Does this mean it only supports part of the PSNI or only partly support the PSNI?  Which part? How is everyone else supposed to know which part to support?  How would it and everyone else partly support the PSNI?

How can such a situation exist when Sinn Fein is in government?  How could the brilliant negotiators of Sinn Fein agree to a deal to support the police without getting a guarantee its leader would not be lifted for allegations made years ago?

Why is Sinn Féin making such an issue of Adams’ arrest when it never threatened to withdraw support from the PSNI when the PSNI spent months allowing loyalist crowds, led by the UVF, to disrupt everyone else trying to get home during the flags protests?

Why did it not threaten to withdraw support when these illegal parades were allowed by the PSNI, in fact the PSNI met with organisers to arrange them, and not do so when these parades attacked the small Catholic area of the Short Strand?  Only this week a judge found the PSNI (all of it, its leadership included and not just some “rump”) guilty of failing to enforce the law when it came to illegal loyalist parades.

Again these last few weeks drunken loyalist paramilitary mobs have taken down legal election posters and put up their own flags on main roads in Belfast,  right in front of police stations, while the PSNI has told local residents on no account to take them down.  Is it only Sinn Féin’s leaders who must be protected from the “dark side”?

And why indeed should Adams be protected?  He denies any responsibility for Jean McConville’s killing but then he also denies ever being in the IRA.  Other former IRA members, with unimpeachable republican credentials, have admitted their involvement and claimed Adams was in on it.

As the recently deceased IRA member Dolours Price put it “I wanted very much to put Gerry Adams where he belonged and where he had been. We had worked so closely with him, on many occasions and taken orders from him on many occasions and then to deny us, particularly after we had been through such a harrowing experience in prison … we were offended that he chose to deny us as much as he chose to deny his belonging to the IRA. To deny it is to offend those of us who partook in what we partook in.”

The message on the hill overlooking Belfast calls for the truth about the British Army murders of 11 people in Ballymurphy in August 1971, an enquiry into which has just been rejected by the British Government, but the same demand can apply to Adams.

But bad as these questions are for Sinn Féin none of them get anywhere near the biggest problem it has.   And this problem is that Adams would not have been arrested if the British Government had not given it the ok.  The political policing of which Sinn Féin speaks is not the actions of a “small rump” but the actions of a state.

That Sinn Féin should peddle the line of ‘sources’ within the PSNI that what is involved are the actions of “dark forces” against the reformers, “the many progressive and open-minded elements” of the PSNI that McGuinness hallucinates, is to swallow the old good-cop bad-cop tactic that old IRA men must have been warned about if caught or arrested.  That this is now the line of Sinn Féin shows how far it has travelled and so low it has sunk.

Swallowing and parroting this means buying into the designs of the British state just as much as swallowing the good cop line gives you the bad cop result.  What this means has been signalled by the British Government.

Recent speeches by Teresa Villiers, the NI Secretary of State, have glossed over the refusal of the Unionists to accept the deal offered by US diplomat Richard Haas, and supported by the British state itself,  and have conciliated their intransigent line, which itself is a play to extreme loyalism.  So the crimes of the state, never investigated with any seriousness it has been revealed, are even more to be airbrushed out of existence and instead it is the crimes of the “terrorists” which must be centre stage.  The role of state forces in sponsoring these terrorist gangs will of course also be occluded.

So the past will more and more become the one imagined by unionism.  Parades? Well the Parades Commission has given every evidence that its restrictions on loyal orders can be ignored with impunity.  Getting a form of words that ends with the same result might not be difficult given even a minimal willingness of loyalism to engage with Catholic residents whose neighbourhoods they parade in.  Flegs? Well we have noted the PSNI’s preference to let drunken loyalist mobs put up whatever symbols of intimidation they want.

That about completes the Haas agenda but even these do not signal the end game and this too is coming more into focus in a statement of Villiers.

In a speech widely reported, but the reporting of which missed its most significant element, Villiers anticipated the rewriting of the political deal on which Sinn Féin can claim success.  She foresees the “evolution” of the power-sharing institutions towards them having an opposition.

The whole point however of these institutions is that no one is in opposition, in particular nationalists are not put into opposition by unionists who have not demonstrated any capacity to act in other than a sectarian fashion.

It’s put in the usual honeyed words:

“The third way in which politics could be moved forward here is through the evolution of the devolved institutions.

Let me be clear, power sharing and inclusivity are enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and the government is not going to undermine any of those principles.

. . . Yet at the same time nobody can plausibly argue that the institutions must be set in stone for all time.

Political institutions the world over adapt and change.

As the founding father of modern Conservatism – the Irishman Edmund Burke – once put it:

‘A state without the means of change is without means of preservation.’

And there are inherent weaknesses in a system in which it is very difficult to remove one’s rulers by voting and to choose a viable alternative.

That’s why this government is clear that we would welcome moves that facilitate a more normal system at Stormont that allows for formal opposition, so long as a way can be found to do this which is consistent with power sharing and inclusivity.

But we also believe that if or how this happens really has to be primarily for parties in the Assembly to take forward, not least because it is so firmly within the Assembly’s competence to deal with those matters that might characterise an opposition, such as speaking rights, financial assistance and committee chairmanships.”

So at the moment the British Government would be quite happy for the Stormont regime to have parties outside Government if this was accepted by these parties, if it was voluntary.  No longer is this anathema, no longer is such a suggestion the antithesis of what the new arrangements are about.  Now this is both a viable and even preferred destination.

But of course it has to be voluntary.  Since having the nationalists in opposition is the primary objective of unionism such a policy stance is not so much a disinterested, absent-minded meandering on possible future directions as an incentive for unionism to get nationalists, or at least Sinn Féin, out of Government, “voluntarily”.

This is not actually the preferred British solution but it is testimony to how far it will go to keep unionism inside the existing deal that it floats ideas that while mollifying unionism actually increase instability.

That it only undermines the deal more and more by emboldening unionism and feeding its triumphalist agenda demonstrates only the continuing contradictions within the imperialist settlement – continuation of a sectarian state and sectarian political arrangements while hoping that this sectarianism can be made innocuous or at least reduced to an acceptable level, just as there used to be an “acceptable level of violence.”

So the incentive for unionism is to continue not to work the existing institutions while seeming to maintain a modicum of good faith, obstruct and provoke Sinn Féin as much as it can without damaging itself and hope that the sheer impossibility of Sinn Féin putting up with its obvious powerlessness gets the right reaction.

Unfortunately for them it is perfectly obvious that Sinn Féin will cling to the Stormont regime like grim death with no humiliation too embarrassing and no rebuke too severe for it to walk away. Sinn Féin will hold on to the appearance of power even when this appearance has gone.

But if clinging to the trappings of office becomes the main objective the point of actually having it – making changes – grows ever less important.  Being in office in the North is important for Sinn Féin getting into office in the South and it believes that it being in office in both Irish states on the centenary of 1916 will be a powerful symbol.

Indeed it will.  It will symbolise that the party has realised its strategy but that this strategy is ultimately a failure.  A Sinn Féin in government in both partitioned states will still leave both partitioned states in place.  Sinn Féin will simply sit over both.  Should it stay in office the sight of it doing so will prove no more remarkable than the sight of Sinn Féin toasting the Queen of Great Britain.

How quickly can illusions be shattered.  Fresh from congratulating themselves and being congratulated by the chattering classes for its wearing of white tails and standing for “God save the Queen” the acceptance of the privileges of the British monarchy is rammed home by her state exercising its powers as it sees fit.

Why toasting the symbol of oppression should lessen this oppression or limit its exercise can nowhere be explained by Sinn Féin.  When one swallows the toast there can be little complaint when one has to swallow a whole lot more.

Whatever the outcome of Adams’ arrest the whole exercise is a brutal demonstration of Sinn Féin failure and it will cost it in the long run.  The grounds for creation of an alternative are clearer but unfortunately there is no sign yet that any such alternative is arising or has some progressive working class content.