‘Is the 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
I have mentioned before that the Yes side of the Scottish independence debate appears to present a positive message that contains hope and optimism while the No campaign appears negative and doubting.
Speaking to my daughter and sister however, it is similarly the case that the Yes campaign also has its powerful negative argument. This consists of the claim that to vote No is to vote for the status quo and the status quo is neither popular nor acceptable.
But why is the status quo so bad? What causes it to be like this?
For anyone who calls themselves socialist, by definition the problem is the social system. One that produces disaffection everywhere and therefore cannot arise from ‘London rule’. Socialists are also, or rather they should be, well used to nationalist campaigns that put the ills of society down to the nationality of the state, and which therefore obscure real causes.
Some on the left however have argued that Scottish workers and Scottish society generally is more progressive and that this justifies separation from England and Wales, in order to forge ahead in creating a more egalitarian society that can form a better starting point for the creation of socialism.
In a number of places within the two books reviewed the idea of making a fresh start is raised. However what this demonstrates is not that some formula has been discovered that wipes the slate clean and allows past defeats to be overcome, but that the left has no answers to the problems that have beset socialism. This means that these will still be there after independence, in worse circumstances and to a worse degree, should the objective of a separate Scottish capitalist state be achieved.
Even if it were true that the Scottish working class is more progressive, for a socialist this would mean finding ways through which Scottish workers could lead the rest of the British working class, of which they are an integral part. Instead Scottish nationalists seek the creation of a separate state, one that can only be capitalist in current circumstances, and give it the role of catalyst for progressive change.
The key role of the state in substituting itself for the activity of the working class as the agent of change is demonstrated not only in the unavoidable claims that a Scottish state will be more progressive simply because it is Scottish but also in claims made for the unalterably reactionary nature of Britain as a political unit and the UK state.
In order to respond to the argument that, if they are more advanced, Scottish workers should lead their English and Welsh sisters and brothers, it is asserted that this cannot happen because there is something in British politics or the UK state which just cannot be changed. Behind the seemingly positive message of Scottish advance, of Yes to independence, is a pessimistic and very negative view of the British working class. What lies behind the smokescreen of hope is a mountain of despair:
“There is a very simple answer to the question, ‘is socialism possible in contemporary Britain?’ On the basis that it is possible, the answer is yes, but it isn’t going to happen.” (Is the a Scottish Road to Socialism, p 57)
“. . . key vested interests are so entrenched within the very fabric of the UK state that it is difficult to see them ever relinquishing control.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 45)
“Labour can offer no guarantee that it can deliver greater capacity for providing ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ whilst defending the union.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 59)
“We find ourselves in a unitary, multi-national British state that is politically locked into a neo-liberal world order. In 2014, we have the opportunity to break free from that state and to start again in a newly independent country.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 117-118)
“I find it simply impossible to look at Britain and conceive of any strategy at all that might even bring a hint of socialism to London. . . If we want change in our lifetimes, we’re going to need independence” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 128)
“There is not a scintilla of evidence that Labour can be reformed, that significant forces wish it to be reformed or that any UK socialist party can emerge to replace it.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 157)
“This is what needs to be understood about Britain, that it is structurally incapable of being progressive.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 164)
Since Scotland is an integral part of Britain and the state in Scotland a component part of the British state, the damnation of Britain and the British state is really an equal damning of Scotland. Except that what these authors really mean is that it is England and the English that are the problem. Otherwise their assertions make no sense whatsoever.
Somehow the unreformable nature of the British state and British politics does not apply north of the border. Apparently a Scottish capitalist state can be reformed. Such a new state will not be part of the neo-liberal world order. How? God knows – for even a workers revolution in Scotland that placed political power in the hands of a completely democratic workers’ state could not escape being locked into a neoliberal world order.
Only in a scenario of immediate spread of the revolution could it have any hope of surviving and still be something worthy of the description socialist. But such a prospect would immediately depend on not just solidarity but spread of the revolution to, of all places, England and Wales.
Aware of the self-defeating argument that Scottish workers are better off being separated from England the argument is then put that the great leap forward by Scottish workers would act as an example which English and Welsh workers would follow.
The two problems with this is, firstly it isn’t shown how this cannot be done more easily by Scottish and English workers remaining united and avoiding nationalist division. And secondly, the example that Scottish nationalism is giving to English workers is not the need for solidarity and unity but that English workers are incapable, that the Scots are better off advancing by themselves and that this is the way forward for them to follow. So, if there is a No vote, what our left nationalists are really saying is that English workers should dump the Scots.
Left nationalists might reply that it is not English workers but the ‘British’ state that is unreformable but the nationalist argument is that this state cannot be dealt with by British workers but only by Scottish workers leaving it. This can only mean that a new Scottish capitalist state will somehow be more reformable and/or that English workers are a drag on Scottish workers in defeating the British state.
Except it is not proposed to destroy the capitalist character of the British State but simply to set up two capitalist states where previously only one existed. Much is made of the dominance by the British state by the financial interests of the City of London, but Scottish separation is not going to do anything about that. This dominance has been around for at least a century, it is not something new brought about by recent ‘neo-liberalism’. As the Irish contribution to ‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’ explains, the new Irish state did nothing to reduce the power of the City of London when it was created.
What it did do was spawn a tiny competitor to it, the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, which has been described as the wild west of international finance. Irish workers now assert the sovereignty of their state through tax deals with US multinationals and no-union factories. The SNP promise exactly the same. In the 1970s it promised that Scotland would be like Switzerland and in the 21st century that it would be like the Celtic Tiger, until it crashed and burned.
The example being set by left nationalism in Scotland is that the ills of capitalism, ‘neoliberalism’ and austerity, should be fought through small nations seeking independence. Not by seeking the broadest unity of workers.
Independence is supported because it would be a defeat for the British state and the British state is a barrier to working class socialism. In so far as it goes this is correct but what it leaves out is much more important than what it says. It is not only the bones of the left nationalist argument but its whole physiology. This makes it simple, simple minded and wrong.
Socialism is the movement of the working class and its conquest of economic, social and political power, irrespective of nationality. It can exist only at an international level. This too is a simple description. But even at this simple level is shows the incompatibility of left nationalism with socialism.
In the case of Scottish nationalism the capitalist nature of the British state is confused with its being British which allows opposition to it being British hiding the fact that whatever replaces it will still be capitalist. Scottish left nationalism seeks a new start on the basis of a newly independent nation but since Scotland is already a nation what they mean is that the new start depends on creation of a new capitalist state. Unfortunately for such ideas, socialism is not the result or product of state action no matter how new or progressive that state is.
Nationalism, no matter how left it is, always confuses action by the state for socialism, so it calls upon the state to redistribute wealth and take control of resources ‘for the people’, whereas socialism calls upon workers to take ownership of production itself and build the power of its own organisations so that one day these can replace the state. Internationalism is not the solidarity of one progressive state with another but is the international action of workers – from organising in parties and unions internationally to creating and building workers’ cooperatives internationally, across borders, not favouring the population within certain lines on a map.
The betrayal of socialism involved in the embrace of nationalism by sections of the Scottish left is revealed by this state-centred conception of socialism, although this is hidden from many because socialism is popularly identified with state action and in particular by the growth of gigantic, bureaucratic state power, exemplified by the Soviet Union. This is one reason it remains unpopular among the mass of workers.
It is revealed in assertions that Scottish nationalism is really internationalist. Often such claims are made on the basis of comparisons with the struggle for a separate state in Catalonia or the Basque Country or even Ireland, but what this reveals is not internationalism but the solidarity of nationalisms.
The point of nation states is that they compete with each other, sometimes through alliances with other nations. In fact it is usually through alliances with other nations, but this doesn’t make such alliances examples of internationalism. The Axis and Allied powers in World War II were not rival internationalisms except in the sense of being rival imperialisms.
For small countries such alliances are doubly necessary and necessarily involve subordination to bigger and more powerful states. An ‘independent’ Scotland would be no different.
So the argument that independence is to be supported because it will be a significant defeat for the British state is weak because it will simply create two capitalist states where one previously existed. It will set a rotten example for workers who seek solutions to austerity and will only exacerbate competition between nations from which workers will suffer.
National separation in the case of Scotland will not settle nationalist grievance but intensify it through Scottish competition with England. It will not significantly weaken the international imperialist system either economically, since Scotland will remain a capitalist society, or politically, since Scotland will remain part of the EU and of NATO.
What it will do is promote nationalist solutions to the problems of capitalism, or ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ as one author put it. It will further division of the British working class and make more difficult the radicalisation of this working class into a movement for a new society.
Apologists for Scottish nationalism claim that Scottish workers can still belong to British trade unions, although why they would want to if the British labour movement is an irredeemable failure is nowhere explained. The history of Ireland shows the powerful divisive potential of creation of separate states even within a single national working class. Partition has dramatically increased divisions in the Irish working class and not just along religious lines.
The small pro-nationalist left organisations in Scotland have already revealed their true colours when it comes to claims to internationalism. Almost their first step is creation of separate Scottish organisations. They are oblivious even to the possibility of supporting Scottish independence while seeking by their own organisation to demonstrate their longer term goal of workers unity by being part of a British socialist party. This is because working class unity and internationalism has no real practical significance for their programme, activity or organisation.
There is therefore something positive in a No vote that rejects the despair of nationalism. This is hope and faith in the unity of the British working class, an historical reality with a tradition that has overcome internal nationalist divisions in the past. The future of the Scottish working class lies in its unity with the rest of the British working class and building towards unity on a European scale, not national separation.