The May/June issue of Radical Philosophy has an interesting looking article entitled ‘Yes’ A non-nationalist argument for Scottish Independence, written by Neil Davidson who has written books on Scottish history and until recently was a member of the Socialist Workers Party.
So what is this non-nationalist argument? Well we are well into over half of the article before this is directly addressed but it is this first part that is actually the most interesting.
But first Davidson mentions what he calls a pro-independence argument that can only be held in England. This argument is that an independent Scotland would be social-democratic or even socialist and would inspire the English Left to seriously challenge neoliberalism. If this were actually the case it would indeed be an argument for Scottish separation but it is not one that could only be held in England. Why would it not be an important consideration for socialists in Scotland? Or have the perspectives of supporters of Scottish separation unconsciously narrowed so much?
Davidson however notes that the powers already devolved have led only to “modest” although “real” reforms and that “there is nothing intrinsically progressive about Scottish statehood” although, as we shall see, the Left nationalist case is that there is something intrinsically progressive about separation.
Davidson points out contradictions within the Scottish National Party programme – opposition to nuclear weapons while supporting NATO membership and a low corporate tax (Irish-style) while promising Scandinavian-style welfare – and paints this as the starting point of the left critique of the independence movement.
While this may be true of some it is not the starting point of the Marxist critique of Scottish nationalism. The so-called contradictions of SNP policy might be better understood as the usual double-talk of capitalist politicians.
Indeed for Davidson this double talk from the SNP, or its leadership at least, extends to the demand for independence itself. He asserts that maximum devolution or ‘devo max’ is the constitutional option probably supported by most Scots, which begs the question of what is democratic in his support for separation, and is also what the SNP leaders hope to achieve and what they think they can achieve. This, he says, would also probably be acceptable to most Tories.
This is a striking admission of the manipulative nature of nationalism but what Davidson says about this aspect of the Scottish demand for independence has an even worse aspect. The leadership of the SNP cannot come out openly for devo-max “without incurring the wrath of the fundamentalist-nationalist wing of his party, for whom anything less than independence is betraying the blood of Wallace and The Bruce, and so on.”
So what we have is nationalist fundamentalism driving the call for independence, leading the SNP party as a whole and trailing behind it the majority of the Scottish radical left, united in the call for a Yes vote.
And what this article purports to do is give us a good reason to join in.
Davidson doesn’t then give us his non-nationalist reason for following this nationalist-fundamentalist demand but instead goes on to critique arguments from the No side.
He states that the ‘No’ argument- that the demand for independence is a nationalist diversion from class issues that are essentially the same on both sides of the border – “does not deserve to be taken seriously”. He does not however say why such a claim is mistaken and he does not say in what way the class issues that are primary and fundamental are not the same on both sides of the border.
He complains that supporters of Scottish independence are marked as nationalists but those supporting the status quo are not. Why are those who want to maintain the current British state not British nationalists? If they can detach their support for the British state from British nationalism why can’t supporters of Scottish independence divorce their support for an independent Scotland from Scottish nationalism?
There are two reasons. Firstly Marxists can advocate a No vote, not by supporting the British state but simply accepting that it is a better framework to advance what they really value, which is the unity of the working class across nations. On the other hand supporters of Scottish separation are compelled to defend the claim that Scottish independence, by itself, is progressive.
If there were some democratic content to the demand for independence on account of some lack of democracy arising from the union then there would be non-nationalist grounds for supporting formation of a new capitalist state, but there is none. Davidson is too knowledgeable about Scottish history to claim that this partner in Empire building is an oppressed nation. So supporters of independence are reduced to calling for creation of a new border and a new capitalist state. What is this if not nationalism?
The second reason is to do with the consequences of separation. The argument presented on this blog before is that these would be wholly negative. A new capitalist state would increase division where uncoerced union existed before. It would strengthen the forces of nationalism by giving them a stunning victory that they would be stupid not to exploit. A new state would engender competition, for example on reducing corporate taxes, and give nationalists many opportunities to demand support for ‘our’ new Scottish state and ‘our’ Scottish government. A Yes vote would strengthen nationalism. That’s why supporters of Scottish independence are accused of nationalism.
Davidson addresses other reasons why left objections to Scottish independence should be rejected, the most important of which is weakening of the British working class.
One aspect of this is the argument that the Labour Party would lose its Scottish MPs and would forever doom English workers to Tory rule. Davidson correctly rejects this argument, describing it as a “type of political-emotional blackmail” although it is in fact a popular argument on the pro-independence Scottish Left who claim that the union dooms Scotland to Tory rule, although they seem less dismayed by Tartan Tory rule from the SNP. Davidson correctly argues that the future electoral prospects of the Labour Party depend on the Labour Party. But if this is the problem then this Party is the site of struggle, not a separate capitalist state.
A second argument refuted is that an independent Scotland would still be dominated by capital, much of it external in origin. To this he responds “but who, apart from the most hopelessly naive ever imagined otherwise?”
This is ok as far as it goes, although reading some of the wilder left supporters of separation would give one the impression that a left wing Scotland will automatically take giant strides towards socialism free from union with England. And most people who aren’t on the left are quite ignorant of the essential socialist argument about the internationalisation of capitalism.
The argument here however, which Davidson avoids, is whether there is any effect on working class power from the economy being dominated by foreign capital: in terms of capital’s ability to shift if it doesn’t get it way or ability to put downward pressure on union rights and corporate taxes for example. In other words the question arises whether separation improves the framework and circumstances in which Scottish workers find themselves. More developed analysis of this question instead of pat answers might indicate that it would not.
Davidson then addresses what he calls “by far the most serious left argument against Scottish independence” – “that it will undermine the British trade-union movement, by preventing cross-border unity”.
This however is only one aspect of the division of the British working class that would arise from separation, for by definition there would no longer be a British working class, but an English working class and a Scottish working class. In itself this is an indication of just how important states are in defining the nature of the classes within their borders and one reason Marxists have opposed national division.
But for Davidson the disruption of unity is not an inevitable consequence of Scottish secession:
“Unity is not secured by the constitutional form of the state or by the bureaucratic structures of union organisation, but rather by the willingness to show solidarity and take joint collective action, across borders if necessary.”
Very true. But can Davidson credibly deny that it is more difficult to create and maintain working class organisation across states than within them? Is the whole history of the working class movement not that it is extremely difficult to create international workers unity because of the divisiveness of state organisation and nationalism?
Davidson notes that British unions organise in the Irish State but this rather disproves his argument since even in this case real unity, of objectives, of purpose and of action, is largely absent and much, much weaker than the unity within the purely British movement. Irish workers face a different state with different policies, different economic and political conditions arising from different state organisation, and all this makes unity across Britain and Ireland much more problematic and difficult.
Can Davidson not see that the unity of English and Scottish workers is much greater than any unity of British and Irish workers? As I have argued before, even within the one working class, within the Irish working class, the creation of two separate states North and South has deepened the division among Irish workers and is an enormous barrier to their unity.
Davidson gives the example of the Grangemouth dispute, the lessons of which I have looked at before, in order to argue that the existence of a UK-wide union did not prevent a debacle. Quite true, but the issue is whether a Scotland-only union would have helped or whether, had the Grangemouth workforce belonged to a population which had decided it was better off without England and Wales, this would have stimulated solidarity action from English and Welsh workers.
Davidson also gives the example of coordinated strikes against austerity across European countries on November 12 2012. The first point to make is that international strikes are rare. The second is that the development of the European Union and particularly the creation of the Euro have played a large role in creating the grounds for international action by the working class. National separation undermines these grounds.
Finally the left No argument which Davidson addresses is that “if Scottish independence is so unthreatening to capital, so divisive of the working class, why are most sections of the British – and, indeed, the European and US – ruling classes so opposed to it?”
Well, there is no indication that they are opposed to it because it will spur the development of a social-democratic or socialist Scotland that will inspire England as well. That Davidson points out that the neoliberal ‘Economist’ magazine used to support Scottish independence demonstrates that it is quite possible to present an argument for an independent capitalist Scotland. Indeed so much is this the case that this is the overwhelming argument being put forward by the Yes campaign.
That socialists should make up their minds by looking at what their enemies are saying is always stupid. It is attractive only to those who don’t care to think for themselves and prevents any sort of critical thought. Its exact stupidity is demonstrated here by the fact that the ‘Economist’ magazine changed its mind. When the ‘Economist’ supported ‘Yes’ were socialists therefore to say ‘No’? And after the ‘Economist’ changed its mind and decided ‘No’ was the answer were socialists to then say Yes? Davidson is far too intelligent to go along with this but it is difficult to see what other point he is making here.
He says that he suspects the reason for the change of mind is “fear of the consequences for the British state, and consequences for capital invested in Britain” and this turns out to be his reason for supporting separation, as we shall see.
It is also fairly clear that opposition by most of big business, the EU bureaucracy and USA is because capitalism is increasingly international and needs international political mechanisms to assist its operation. The international development of capitalism has been a feature almost from its beginning and was praised for its progressive potential by Marx and Engels in the ‘Communist Manifesto’, most remarkably because it gives rise to the class that will put in place an alternative – the working class.
To now seek national forms of economic and political organisation is backward, not only to the capitalist class but also to the working class. The capitalist class in the referendum have made it clear that certain steps backward will not be taken such as leaving the European Union, setting up a new Scottish currency. So Scotland will continue membership of NATO and financial regulation from London as well as an all-British energy market.
The working class is not obliged to support or go along with any of this but it is not in its interests to seek arrangements that will make it harder to organise internationally, while the capitalist class minimises the steps backward it has to take.
Socialism will be built on the international development of the forces of production, communication and society generally. It will not be constructed on national roads to anywhere or anything.
In the next post I will look at what Davidson thinks the non-nationalist argument for Scottish Independence actually is.