‘Yes’, a non-nationalist argument for Scottish independence. Part 1

185coverThe 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.

 

The Darling Salmond debate – a short comment

_76766730_76764547The talking heads who appeared in the middle of and at the end of the debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond are there so we don’t even make up our own minds about what we had been watching.  There was nothing new they said, but there was, if only because the debate format allowed the two sides to get to grips with each other as opposed to facing interviewers with one eye on ‘balance’ and decorum.

What we learnt was that, even with the certainty of being asked what plan B was in relation to a future currency in the independent state – should it not be allowed into a currency union with the rest of the UK – Salmond persisted in thinking he could get away without answering the question.

Of course Darling had his own moment of uncomfortable grilling when he refused to answer yes or no to the question of whether an independent prosperous Scotland was possible.  However this is much less important – he says yes and so what?  It’s the view of one person who thinks Scotland would still be better off inside the UK.  He says no – so what?  He’s already said that cuts in living standards will still be required by independence so you either believe that or you don’t and that’s the real question here.

The question of the currency however is important because it reveals what is meant by independence.  The real issue with the SNP and the currency is not that they won’t tell everyone what plan B is but that they don’t actually tell us what plan A amounts to because to do so would tell us what the limits of any possible ‘independence’ would be.

Plan A, as Darling explained but the importance of which was partially lost in the shouting and Salmond’s discomfort, is to keep the pound sterling in a currency union with what will then be a foreign country.  Salmond’s claim that the pound belongs to the Scottish people through years of hard work made him sound like a UKIP Neanderthal .  His claim that it belongs as much to Scotland as to England and Wales is so stupid it has to rely on the widespread ignorance of much of the population about economics.  If it really did belong to Scotland he would not be looking to the Bank of England to be the lender of last resort.  That would be a job for the Bank of Scotland or, more likely, a joint Bank of the rest of the UK and Scotland.  Then ‘independence’ might have some fig leaf to cover its modesty.

Not that ‘real’ independence is a worthwhile or achievable objective anyway.  Independence would mean real autonomy, some sort of substantial self-sufficiency and separation from the rest of the world.  The most developed countries of the world are so inter-dependent that real independence would mean turning the clock back centuries.  Trade, investment, production of all sorts of goods and services, movement of people, creation and movement of ideas – all these are international.  What we eat, inhabit, read, watch, play, think about and discuss are international.  The nature and agenda in none of these is set in one country, not even in the USA.

As I have said before – small countries do what they are told by big countries and they join alliances to prevent this being too nakedly coercive, in other words they attempt to avoid the behaviour Scotland engaged in for centuries as part of the British Empire.  A currency union with the rest of the UK would see broad economic policy set in London but without any input into electing its government.  This was the real argument that Darling put but was largely ignored.

It was ignored because there is no nationalist alternative to the real decisions being made outside Scotland and not by the Scottish people.  Joining the Euro would see the major decisions on economic policy being set by the biggest economic and political powers, particularly Germany.  The advantage of the Euro is that it involves a much larger framework which mirrors more adequately the real international development of the economy and the social forces it unleashes.

In short Salmond, while he looked stupid over plan B, could not actually withstand much of an examination over plan A.  Such an examination would reveal that all the honeyed words about a just and prosperous Scotland is dependent, not on the existence of an ‘independent’ state, but on the workings of an international economic system that has nothing at all to do with justice or democracy.

Trade, investment, movement of people, technological development, unemployment, poverty, job insecurity, working terms and conditions – all are the result, not of decisions by ‘London’, by the UK state or by any democratic or even undemocratic vote anywhere.  They are the result of how the economic system works, by how the capitalist system functions at an international and global level.

Trade, investment and technological development are all the result of the pursuit of profit, not the pursuit of justice or prosperity.  Unemployment, poverty, job insecurity, zero hours contracts and shit wages and conditions are all the result of this pursuit.  Neither Darling nor Salmond stated that they were going to change this dynamic of the system one iota.

And this brings us to the big argument that Salmond used again and again and that really did have force.  If Scotland were independent (no matter how real this would be) the Scottish people would get the government they voted for unlike now where, as Salmond said, they voted for only one Tory MP but got a Tory Government.

Of course there are people (a majority) within Scotland who did not vote for the SNP but are stuck with them as the Government, and places in England that did not vote for the Tories and are similarly stuck.  Even with a proportional voting system the SNP form the Scottish Government with a majority of the seats (over 53%) but with only a minority of the vote (44%) on a turnout of just over 50% – that is a government based on less than a quarter of the electorate.

That the proper starting point of democracy is the nation, however defined, is obvious to those who are nationalist but is not obvious to those of us who are not and who think that nationalism is reactionary and a political viewpoint that belongs to a very unhappy history.  For a socialist a Scottish state would be no more ‘ours’ than the British one is now.

An Edinburgh parliament would be no more an expression of the needs of working people than a London one.  Both would be dependent on, and be in support of, an economic system that will produce inequality and insecurity no matter what its nationality.  Scotland may have less Tories but it is no less capitalist, no less unequal and no less unjust.  Many previous Tory supporters now vote SNP while others hide their fundamentally right wing views behind the hypocritical and dishonest posturing of the Liberal Democrats.

The real question is – what is the best state framework in which to unite working people of all nationalities to fight for a new economic and social system?

And the answer to this is undoubtedly one in which national divisions are reduced – not built up and increased.  There should therefore be fewer borders, not more, which points to further unity not division – to a united Europe not a further divided state.

It therefore means not only rejecting Scottish separatism but refusing to accept British nationalism as the goal – rejecting Salmond and Darling.

It means seeking further unity among ourselves and not relying on the likes of Salmond to further divide us or on either Darling or Salmond to unite us in a Europe built to the demands of bankers and big business.

It means not relying on States to create a just, prosperous and fair society but realising that ultimately this depends on fighting and creating one ourselves.

The Left against Europe 1

DSC_0122The failure of David Cameron to prevent Jean Claude Juncker becoming President of the European Commission drew widespread comment that it will now be harder for Britain to stay in the European Union (EU).  If the Tory Party wins the next British general election Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by 2017.  Under pressure from The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and from within his own Eurosceptic ranks he has developed a policy that has temporarily settled the in-fighting within his Party.

In Ireland referenda on the development of the EU have been fairly frequent.  In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice by 53.9% with only 34.8% of the electorate voting.  The vote was held again in 2002 and the Treaty was passed by 62.9%, with 49.5% of the electorate voting.

In 2008 53.4% voted against the Lisbon Treaty (on a turnout of 53.1%) so once again the vote was re-held to get the ‘right’ result. The next vote in October 2009 resulted 67.1% voting in favour of the treaty, once again on a higher turnout of 59%.

The Left in Ireland has been in the opposition within these EU referenda and opposed the original entry into the European Economic Community in 1972, which was decisively approved in a referendum by over 80% of those voting.  In Britain the Left also opposed British membership of the EEC in a 1975 referendum, which was passed by a majority of 67.2% in a turnout of 64.0%.

When I was in a second hand bookshop in Glasgow some weeks ago my attention was therefore drawn to an old copy of New Left Review from 1972, which was a special issue on ‘The Left Against Europe’.  The whole issue was devoted to one article written by Tom Nairn on the ‘great debate’ in Britain in the previous year whether Britain should join the Common Market, as the EEC was popularly called.  This debate eventually led to a vote in the Westminster Parliament to join and accession into membership in 1973, before the new Labour Government elected in 1974 held a referendum in 1975 to ratify staying in.

Nairn states that the debate was far from ‘great’ and that quotation marks enclosed the phrase from the outset.  It continued what he called a ‘stale and exasperated argument about the topic which had dragged on for years.’  The Cameron promise shows that it still continues.

The ‘great debate’ Nairn says “never at any moment approached ‘greatness, or even excitement.”  Nairn uses it however to examine the Left’s opposition to the EEC and this examination is worth looking at to see what lessons it provides for today.  The issue of the EU matters to the Left and working class as much as it still does for the Tory Party.

Whether Britain stays in or leaves also matters to the Irish State.  Its original membership was only viable if the British also joined and Britain leaving would create a real problem.  Only last week it was reported that a delegation from the German Parliament’s Finance Committee had issued a report – that the Irish tax regime “had failed to reach one of the goals of Irish economic promotion, namely to be less dependent on Britain.  Instead Ireland has moved from de facto full dependency on Britain to a shared dependency on Britain and the US in developing and securing employment.”

Nairn puts the British decision to join down to the hegemonic interests of finance in the City of London and the timing down to global monetary instability prompted by the dollar crisis that eventually forced the dollar off convertibility to gold in August 1971.  He quotes the Economist magazine stating that a future attempt at monetary union within the EEC will see Britain in the inside, with the strongest financial centre and having a dominant say in what gets done.

Not quite how things turned out but this story isn’t over and the choice to join the Euro is one that still faces the British capitalist class.

Nairn notes the virtual unity of the Conservative Party in seeking membership of the Common Market and the limited opposition of a marginalised rump led by the arch-bigot Enoch Powell, who by coincidence, has had the depths of his bigotry recalled by a flag supporting him going up in a loyalist area of Belfast.  Today the decline of the Tory Party into a backward, reactionary and ultimately self-defeating nationalism is evidenced by the ascendancy of Eurosceptics within that Party.

It is examination of the attitude of the Left however that is the purpose of this long 120 page article.  The opposition of the Labour Party to joining the Common Market in this ‘great debate’, or the vast majority of it at least, is put down to pure opportunism.  Under the leadership of Harold Wilson it opposed joining for purely party political purposes, Wilson having attempted to lead Britain into the EEC when in power between 1964 and 1970.

The ability of Labour to perform this U-turn is put down to the fundamentally nationalist character of the party.  For Nairn, the Labour Party is not fundamentally a class or popular Party but a nationalist Party and its reformism and ‘betrayals’ of the working class a result of its nationalism.  This nationalism is one shared in a basic sense by its supporters and voters, which explains why – despite the betrayals – they still support and vote for it.  Otherwise the phenomenon of continued support despite continued betrayal become inexplicable, unless workers are to be understood as fundamentally stupid – voting again and again for people who betray their beliefs and expectations.

Nairn records the opposition of the Left of the Labour Party in particular and its opposition to the Common Market on the basis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘socialism’.  In this respect the themes of the ‘great debate’ resonate today.

  • The Left in the Labour party presented Britain as more internationalist than the inward looking European States.  Open, free trading Britain was compared to the protectionist EEC.  Didn’t Britain look beyond the petty European states towards the countries of the Commonwealth and Britain’s wider role in international affairs and international bodies?  The latter providing the basis for a real socialist foreign policy.
  • Entry into the EEC would erect obstacles to the fight for socialism in Britain and prevent further socialist measures by a future Labour Government.  The EEC is a capitalist club and entry would mean the loss of the potential for socialism that does exist.
  • Refusal to enter this club would pose the question of an alternative, which would allow a socialist answer to be given.
  • The independence of Britain would allow the real popular character of the British nation to be revealed through its labour movement in a way that would be impossible within the rules of the EEC.

So what does this remind you of?

Well, swap Scotland for Britain and you have much of the Left nationalist case for Scottish independence today.

Just as the EEC is supposed to be more capitalist that the British state (God knows how) so Scotland is less reactionary than Britain (which is even less comprehensible).  London rule is capitalist but somehow Edinburgh rule is less capitalist!

Left nationalists proclaim the international potential of Scottish independence in the same self-refuting way the Labour Party did in the 1971 ‘great debate.’  Nationalist separation is somehow internationalist.  Why?  Because somehow, again unexplained or simply incredibly, there exists more potential for socialism in Edinburgh than London; just as the nations within the EEC and the EEC itself were assumed to be barriers to socialism that the British imperialist state wasn’t.

Today one part of the imperialist state – with a history of disproportionate participation in empire building – is again more socialist, or with the potential for it, than Britain as a whole.  Again while Scottish Left nationalists claim that the real Scottish nation is more left wing so did the Labour Party claim the real British nation was more socialist than the capitalist EEC, including such historical bastions of reaction as Paris and Rome.

Finally, even posing the nationalist question somehow gives rise to a socialist answer, or less extravagantly, gives rise to the potential for a socialist answer.  But it’s as if, if you ask the right question in the right way somehow socialism will pop up almost naturally as the answer.  And where is the evidence for this even when, as in Ireland for example, the capitalist crisis brought the Irish State to bankruptcy and exposed double standards that made working class people pay for the reckless gambling debts of the rich?

What more striking exposure of the rottenness of capitalism could be imagined?  Yet still there has been no alternative created and still in both Ireland and Britain there is no successful resistance to austerity – the most immediate question to which the socialist movement has been unable to provide an answer.

What this exposes, among many other things, is that the essence of socialism is not the displacement or even destruction of this or that aspect of capitalism or its state but the development of the working class.  Capitalism can only be superseded, at least progressively, by the development of something positive.  Unfortunately the Left thinks always in negative terms – of what it is against – and when it looks to achieve even this it posits the existing capitalist state or some configuration of it, usually its own nationalist version, as the mechanism of transformation.

It is ironic that Tom Nairn ridicules the claims that the the fight against the Tories, for national ‘independence’, against inflation and for socialism were, in 1971, ‘all the same thing’.  This is exactly the same claim made today in 2014, except we might replace inflation with austerity and support the claims of ‘Scotland’ instead of ‘Britain’.   He shows how Labourism rejuvenated itself and re-established unity within its own ranks by claiming to unite British workers in opposition to bureaucracy and international capitalism.  Except all this rested on the unity of British workers with the British state, shackled by the chain of nationalism.

But the question of Scottish separation is a derivative lesson to be drawn from reading ‘The Left Against Europe’.  The major lesson is the need to give real content to the socialist claim that it is international by its very nature.  Not an aspiration, not simply a goal to reach, an attitude to strike or an opinion to hold dearly but a practical and immediate part of its political programme.

What he says about this will be taken up in the next post.

Forward to part 2

A Scottish road to nationalism

Scotarmy

‘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.

 

 

Scotland is different II

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‘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

My sister received a leaflet from the local Scottish Socialist Party branch opposing the bedroom tax and saying it would be abolished by independence.  It also announced a meeting which would show Ken Loach’s film ‘Spirit of ‘45’, which records the famous victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 election.

It is therefore ironic to note that the Labour vote in 1945 in Scotland was not very different from the rest of the UK. One observer noted that “The most Conservative of the big British cities is – Glasgow!  And it did so by staying as it was before.  London is far “redder” than Glasgow” (quoted in ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, p. 205).

When one considers that the only party ever to get an overall majority of the vote in a Scottish election is the Conservative Party in 1955 a claim for Scotland’s necessary or intrinsic progressiveness looks pretty weak.  At this time many Scottish workers voted Conservative, the party having a membership of 250,000, and many were infected by Orange, anti-Catholic sectarianism.  This strain in Scottish society has of course very much diminished but it has not at all disappeared.

Historically Scotland was a stronghold of the Liberal Party; in the19th century it won a majority of the vote in every of the 20 elections held between 1832 and 1910.  Trade unions developed earlier in England and Scottish workers were lower paid and considered more docile.  This may have built a head of steam for ‘Red Clydeside’ before, during and after World War 1, on which rests to a significant degree Scotland’s reputation for workers’ militancy.

However the main burden of the argument for a more left wing Scotland rests on the domination of the Labour Party in Scotland for most of the last 50 years.  In 1959 the Conservative Party was still ahead of Labour but in the 1966 election Labour won 49.9%, the highest it was to achieve.

Subsequently the dominance of the Party relied more and more on the first-past-the-post electoral system and the limitations of its support were masked somewhat by the decline in the Conservatives, with that party being negatively affected by the electoral system.   So in the 1992 Westminster election the Tories gained over one quarter of the vote but only 11 (15%) of the seats.  In the following 1997 election its vote was 17.5% but it won no seats.  The decline of Labour is reflected in the fact that its vote in Glasgow in 2011 was less than 24% of its vote in that city in 1951 and this is only partly explained by the decline of the city itself.

The Labour Party was never the ‘national’ party of Scotland not only because its strength was essentially regional, for example it only won Edinburgh for the first time in 1984, but because the country’s class differences meant that it would have been very difficult for any single party to play this role.  It is this role that the SNP now hopes to take up but it can only succeed if class distinctions are buried.  Victory in the referendum would help such a project.

Two authors put the strength of the Labour Party in Scotland down to the relatively large role of council housing, the size of the trade union movement in Scotland and the political patronage of the Labour Party in local government.  They contrast this with the relative low membership of the Scottish party, which has generally been on the decline since the 1950s; its weak organisation, limited resources and relative lack of ideological ferment.

The decline in the three pillars of Labour is pretty dramatic: council housing fell from 54.4% of all homes in 1979 to 15.1% in 2005.  Trade union membership fell from 55% of the Scottish workforce in 1980 to 39.2% in 1991 and 32.2% in 2010.

Its power base in local councils has also declined.  In 1980 it won 45.4% of the vote, getting 494 councillors elected out of 1,182 seats and winning 24 out of 53 district councils while in the proportional vote election in 2007 it won only 28.1% of the vote, only 348 out of 1,222 seats and only 2 councils.  This decline has run parallel with nepotism and corruption scandals damaging the party but revealing the rotten underbelly of municipal state ‘socialism’.

Some of these trends are not unique to Scotland.  English council housing fell from a peak of 29% of homes in 1975 to 18% in 1985.  Trade union membership across the UK fell from a density of 55.4% in 1979 to 23.5% in 2009.  In English local government Labour had 9,630 out of 20,380 councillors (47.3%) in 1979 falling to 3,743 out of 18,216 (20.5%) in 2009. It controlled 169 out of 386 councils in 1998 (43.8%) and only 33 out of 351 in 2009 (9.4%).

Scotland has a proud history of working class struggle from Red Clydeside to the 16 month Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation beginning in 1971, to the 103 day sit-in in the Caterpillar plant in Uddingston in 1987 and the occupation of Timex in Dundee in 1993.  All this is something to learn from and share with workers from every other country as part of the international struggle of the working class, not a claim to some special badge of righteousness on which to pin a nationalist programme.

These can be seen as proud episodes in working class struggle within Scotland and Britain but they should not be placed within some supposed innate Scottish empathy with the oppressed that contrasts a Scottish “desire for fairness and justice” to the English ”ideological base”. (‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’, p. 34)  The Scottish working class never developed, even at the height of its militancy, a separate mass working class party or an autonomous political programme.  The story of the Scottish working class movement is inextricably linked with that of the British working class movement as a whole.  Within this framework each nation’s socialists can be proud of the history of revolt against oppression in their own particular country.

So while Scottish socialists can be proud of Red Clydeside, so English socialists can be proud of the Peasants Revolt, the Putney Debates, the Peterloo massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs,  the General Strike in 1926, Saltley Gate, Grunwick and  the heroic miners strikes in England, Wales and Scotland.

This is the history of the fight against exploitation and oppression that socialists across Britain should see as reference points in the fight for working class unity across the three nations.

Such an appreciation of the British class struggle would allow comparisons to be drawn between today’s referendum and previous elections.  In February 1974 the Tory Party in Government called an election in the wake of the miners’ strike under the slogan ‘Who Governs Britain?’ and after another election in October it was clear that is wasn’t the Tories when a new Labour Government was elected.  Today the independence referendum does not arise on the cusp of working class struggle in Scotland but is timed more to coincide with the 700th anniversary of a medieval battle.

A final argument can be put that, even if Scotland is not materially more left wing or progressive, left leadership can make the independence movement a progressive agent of change.  This is supported by the fact that supporters of independence, it is argued, are disproportionately left wing: “. . . the vast majority of support for independence in Scotland comes from the most progressive sections of society – young people and workers in Scotland’s larger town and cities.  On the other hand, who do we find lined up to support the British state?  The elderly (!), the wealthy, and those whose business and political interests mean that they have most to lose from the break up of the British state – in other words, the most conservative and reactionary elements of Scottish society.” (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? p 53)

All three independent Scottish parties are on the political left and “believe in Scottish democracy” and Scottish nationalism now plays “a much more progressive role in recent decades”. (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? p 48 & 52).  The SNP election programme contains “anti-imperialist pledges” it is claimed. (Time to Choose p. 36)

On the other hand even some supporters of independence would presumably regard this latter remark as nonsense, as the SNP “are a pro-capitalist party who favour neoliberal corporate control.” (Time to Choose p. 89)

Against the claim that the pro-independence support is relatively more left-wing others have argued that “only a minority of working people in Scotland currently support independence and most independence supporters do not have strongly socialist perspectives”.  The “programmatic demands and slogans of the main pro-independence party, the SNP, are likely to weaken rather than strengthen attitudes of working class solidarity in the process of any independence struggle.” (p 92)  Another author records an opinion poll which shows that of those supporting independence in 2002 46% were ‘left’ and 48% ‘centre/right’. (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? P. 35)

Irrespective of left hopes of political leadership of the independence movement, it is the SNP which dominates in the real world.  Those claiming that a left leadership can make all the difference need to explain how this works in reverse when this is not the case. Does right wing leadership not rob the demand for independence of progressive content if left leadership is necessary?

It is also the base of the SNP which is the bedrock  of the independence vote – “elements of the new middle class, small businesses, unorganised sections of the working class, and nouveau riche ‘entrepreneurs’”. (Time to Choose p. 16)

Use of rather nebulous descriptions such as ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ allows all sorts of violence to political principle to be perpetrated.  What matters is the objective significance of a political programme and practice. A demand becomes socialist not because a left wing movement takes it up.  It is equally logically possible that the Scottish left is less socialist for its championing of nationalism.

It is not what people think they are that matters but the objective meaning of their political programme.  Many women will be familiar with the guy who walks into a bar thinking he’s god’s gift to the opposite sex . . . Because parts of the left take up a cause it must therefore be progressive or correct needs to be demonstrated; it does not by itself stand as proof of anything.

The British working class – including its Scottish component – has suffered from ‘Thatcherism’ and the political retreat that this has engendered.  The rise of nationalism amongst much of the Scottish left is the product of this defeat as its rise is hardly conceivable without it.

This is not at all surprising.  What would be surprising would be that Scottish workers somehow resisted this shift, not by sticking to their traditional politics, but by embracing nationalism.

Were Scottish workers really so different, more radical and militant, this would be reflected in their ability to lead the rest of the British working class in resisting what is called neoliberalism.  The left case for independence has arisen because it has been unable to do so not because it is – uniquely within these islands – in a position to play this role.

This failure has led to, for some, a collapse into narrow nationalism while pretending that somehow Scotland is more left wing.  We will come to the proposed strategy that arises from this in the next post on the independence referendum.

 

Scotland is different

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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.

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“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.

Is Scotland an oppressed nation?

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‘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 remember having a brief chat with a left nationalist who argued that, in the context of a reference to Ireland, that there are degrees of national oppression. And so undoubtedly there is. What is demonstrated by the Scottish independence debate is that the measure of it, if it even exists, is very small. We know this because there is no real demand for change.

What we have had are references to “bluff, bullying and bluster” by Alex Salmond over leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats, rejecting use of sterling by a new ‘independent’ state. But even here the essential nationalist case is not that Scotland is being told what it can and cannot do but that all this is bluff and bluster, a pure negotiating tactic and not meant to be taken seriously.

Not strong grounds to claim oppression.

A couple of arguments have been raised to demonstrate the national oppression of Scotland. These include the prevention of devolution after the 1979 referendum despite the nearly 52% yes vote on an almost 64% turnout. This was indeed a denial of national democratic rights. It was changed very quickly when the New Labour government of Tony Blair took office in 1997, a new referendum held within six months and the Scottish parliament set up two years later.

It is claimed that Conservative Governments are elected in Britain without a mandate from Scotland. In the 1989 Euro elections Scotland became, for the first time at any elected level, a ‘Tory-free zone’ and in 1992 they were elected for a fourth term with just 25% of the Scottish vote.

Yet governments are elected all the time in Britain without a majority of the vote. English and Welsh workers have suffered the depredations of Conservative Governments no less than Scottish workers and the Tories do not devise policies aimed specifically at the Scottish people. In 2010 the ‘no mandate’ argument became weaker when eleven Liberal Democrats joined the single Tory as Scottish representatives of the new ConDem Government.

It is claimed that the introduction of the poll tax a year earlier in Scotland than England represented national oppression. If it did it obviously didn’t last long. Let’s also forget that one of the two authors of the tax was himself Scottish, dubbed “father of the poll tax.”

The referendum in itself, whatever its limitations, is a demonstration that Scotland has the right to self-determination and can exercise this right.

In this exercise there is no question of nationalists having to face questions of oppression – of the national language; the teaching of Scottish history; the right to fly the Scottish flag; discrimination in employment in favour of English colonists; the mass arrest and detention without trial of political opponents; of English police or an English army called in to police demonstrations or protests; the widespread inflicting of torture on political opponents; the shooting of demonstrators demanding civil rights or the creation of armed gangs to intimidate and terrorise those demanding independence.

If there were any of these or anything like it the referendum debate would be very different; not only the terms of the debate but also the methods of struggle.

The exploitation and oppression that does exist has been displaced and subsumed within a debate within which they cannot be clearly articulated, at least with any honesty, and certainly with any perspective that provides solutions.

Solutions to unemployment and poverty; to chronic insecurity and stress; to ignorance and powerlessness cannot be found in any nationalist programme, either left or right. They arise from the nature of the economic system not the nationality of the state apparatus that presides over it.

Class grievances are portrayed as those of a people, of Scots against ‘London’ or the ‘British state.

Through nationalism the class exploitation of workers either disappears or is rendered secondary to the more immediate demand for national ‘freedom’.

As I have said before such ‘freedom’ does not exist; there are always restrictions and external limitations, which means that pursuit of it, which requires that the demands of workers are postponed, means that they will always be postponed. Nationalism acts as a permanent brake on the aspirations of the working class.

At a certain stage the true class character of nationalism becomes clearer when the new nation trumpets its cause as competitiveness with other nations in the battlefields of lower wages, lower business taxes and willing workers. Such at least has been the Irish experience.

So Scotland is not an oppressed nation but ironically it is nationalism that has the potential to take it in such a direction and the referendum debate has demonstrated how.

Alex Salmond has made much of the “bluff, bullying and bluster” coming from leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats. But these parties are very aware that they cannot engage in too open a form of bullying because it has the potential to alienate voters and upset the legitimacy of the state they seek to rule. So their bullying has limits. A separated Scotland would provide less restrictions.

Salmond has portrayed all the decisions that will arise from separation, such as sharing the pound sterling and financial regulation, as ones that will be easily agreed to his satisfaction but in such negotiations the UK state has no reason not to flex its muscles with the smaller state. Such actions by the UK state would, within Scotland, no doubt strengthen SNP nationalism and scotch the illusions of the left that after independence nationalism would suddenly dissipate to be replaced by a left-right divide. Real bullying by the UK state would feed Scottish nationalism and further its growth within the Scottish working class while increasing the divisions between Scottish, English and Welsh workers.

So the rump British state would have every reason to want Scotland to use sterling but enough reasonable arguments to place more or less onerous conditions on Scotland in order for it to happen. It is well known that currency union must involve severe limits on monetary policy within Scotland and there is no reason why the rest of Britain should consider Scotland’s interests as equal to that of England and Wales. If burdens have to be borne there is no reason to make them equitable.

It is also clear that currency union would limit the fiscal policy of a separated Scotland so that its taxation and expenditure policy would also be subject to limits, again set at least partly by the UK state. As the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, put it: “in short, a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty.”

Scottish debt might find itself being owned by UK institutions demanding a premium from the new state and any new financial crisis arising within Bank of Scotland and RBS etc. would all too clearly demonstrate the respective powers of the two states.

Financial regulation will also come from London and there is no reason why this regulation would be to the benefit of anyone other than the City of London except with nationalist hopes or assumptions that what is good for the City is good for Edinburgh – exactly the sort of attitude now so scorned by these Scottish nationalists.

Only recently the BBC reports that the siting of Trident in Scotland is one of many areas that would be up for negotiation. Only a fool believes Salmond when he claims all these negotiations will give the SNP what they want in all of the issues, and he will be first to call out the fools when they complain about it after the negotiations are over.

The BBC states that ‘a dozen high-ranking defence veterans have written to Mr Salmond claiming a proposed constitutional ban on nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland “would be unacceptable for NATO”.’

“Were the Scottish people to vote for independence, then Scotland, as a new small nation in an uncertain world, would need international partners to help secure its economic and social objectives and allies to provide national security.”

“NATO, as an alliance with nuclear deterrence as a central part of its strategic concept, could hardly be expected to welcome a new member state whose government put in jeopardy the continued operation of the UK independent nuclear deterrent – a deterrent which protects not only the UK but all of NATO as well.”

Those putting their names to the letter include former chief of the general staff General Sir Mike Jackson (he of Bloody Sunday), Admiral Lord West of Spithead, and former chief of the air staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire. This was followed up the next day by another political intervention, this time by a serving member of the top brass, Admiral Sir George Zambellas.

How comforting is it to know that NATO will help secure the economic and social objectives of the new state? Whose security does NATO seek to protect? Why is the SNP not denouncing the political interference of the armed forces?

Such a political intervention by those recently and currently in uniform portends the future pressure put on the new separated state should it seek to have its cake of being in NATO and eating it by frustrating its operation. Of course the British monarchy, with all its disguised powers, will also continue to preside over the newly separated state.

So, while Scotland is not currently an oppressed nation, the law of unintended consequences might conceivably shift it in that direction. Just as Thatcher’s policies strained the bonds within the British state she so loudly championed so Scottish nationalists might deliver their separated state into a new partnership of subordination with the rest of Britain.

But perhaps this doesn’t matter to the left nationalist case. After all as I noted right at the start, this case is based on the difference between Scotland and England and the view that socialism or moves towards it are more easily achieved through a separate state. I’ll turn to this in the next post.

PS. In his comment on my previous post Boffy correctly states that even where a nation suffers some form of national oppression within a larger state entity the “priority should still be to defend the unity of the workers.”

This should always be the case. The issue is how this might be achieved.

It might be necessary in certain circumstances not only to champion the right of a nation to self-determination but also to advocate its exercise through separation.

This will depend on the degree of national oppression and related to this (more importantly) whether the socialist movement would place itself outside of a real democratic struggle that dominated politics if it did not advocate separation (by so doing isolating itself from the working class).

Even where this is the case the role of socialists would be to warn workers about the limits of national separation, whether called national liberation or not; to separately organise the working class under its own banner and prosecute the class struggle not only against imperialism but against native capitalism.

Its role would be to draw out the class nature of working class oppression and exploitation and warn that nationalism has no solution to these. It would warn that a new capitalist state will not address working class needs, will not empower it but will be set up to enforce the power of the native capitalist class.

None of this applies to Scotland. It does not suffer such national oppression and the Scottish working class has throughout its history fought its greatest class battles in unity with English and Welsh workers.

The nationalist left in Scotland has not prioritised workers unity or, as the two books under review have made clear, prioritised exposure and condemnation of Scottish nationalism and the future to be offered by a capitalist Scotland. What they have done is attempt to argue the priority of supposed national restrictions on Scottish workers and to conflate opposition to class oppression with that of the nation claiming ‘freedom’.

The need to support separation because of national oppression, which I see as sometimes necessary, entails recognising the need for a retreat from a more open and clear class struggle against capitalism and should be the subject of bitter regret for socialists should they consider it necessary.

The opportunistic championing of Scottish nationalism by sections of the Scottish left is therefore doubly mistaken for it is assisting creation of the barriers to the fight for socialism and a united working class that they should be seeking to destroy.

Scottish nationalism and British imperialism

Canny-Glasgow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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.

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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.

Yes to self-determination for Scotland

alexapldev1I was in Glasgow a few weeks ago and was talking about the upcoming independence referendum to my daughter and sister who both live in Scotland, are eligible to vote and are keenly interested in the debate.  They had just watched the latest referendum debate on BBC Scotland during the previous week and we were discussing what they thought about it.

They are both undecided, one having been strongly No, and the other expressing the view that while her heart said Yes her head said No.  Neither had found the contributions from the two sides of the debate wholly convincing or even very enlightening and the claims and counter-claims had caused some confusion as to who was telling the truth.  All this in my view is an inevitable result of the proposal being put forward, which I will come to in a later post.

What was clear to both was that the Yes side was perceived as putting forward something positive, appeared to be expressing optimism and confidence, proposing something apparently constructive and forward-looking.  Whether it was at all persuasive was another matter but inevitably it is compared to the arguments of the No side, which are seen as almost purely negative.

I have written before that a political programme can only truly be judged on what it is for, not what it is against, and this appears as a problem primarily for the No side, which is composed mainly of the Labour Party and the Tories who can hardly present a coherent positive message together that goes much beyond the banal.  On the other hand the Yes side is dominated by the Scottish National Party.

It might be possible to argue that the first principle of politics should be that of the Hippocratic oath – to never do harm.  Thus if one thinks that Scottish independence is wrong that should be good enough to vote against it.  And so it should, except such an outlook would also have to have some view of the thing that is good which is impaired by independence.

The debate has revolved around the nature of the new currency, possible membership of the European Union, the strength of an independent Scottish economy and the view that an independent Scotland would in some sense be a fairer one.  There are a host of other reasons that again I will come to.

For a socialist the reason to support independence must be that in some way it is a move towards socialism, makes it easier to achieve socialism or at least results in a less onerous form of capitalism.

Since, not surprisingly, the debate has assumed no revolutionary change to the existing economic system, and those advocating independence as a route to socialism are very much a minority in the Yes camp, it is on the last ground – that independence will involve a less onerous form of capitalism – that it might seem most necessary to come to a view.

In my view this would be wrong.  Not because the immediate impacts for working people of independence of a still capitalist Scotland are unimportant but because socialism is necessary for workers even while it is not currently any sort of immediate possibility given the current weakness of the socialist and workers’ movement.  This is obviously, after all, a decision with long term consequences.

This weakness only demonstrates its importance negatively, through the fundamental problems of capitalism being essentially unaltered by the particular national form that capitalism takes.  This has been demonstrated by the effects of the financial crisis on a wide variety of countries and the political crises in the various parts of the world it has given a major impulse to, including most recently the Ukraine.  The financial crisis impacted on all capitalist countries and if one believes, as one should, that the underlying causes have certainly not disappeared but in fact only grown then the nature of the economic system remains the fundamental question regardless of the form of the state.

In this respect it is amusing to hear both sides’ claims in the referendum debate about the risks that would exist in an independent Scotland – when the Yes side point to the oil and the No side points to the very large banking industry that the Scottish state could not afford to bail out should another financial crisis break out.

What both sides do is invite comparisons which show how fundamentally similar the Scottish and wider UK economy are.  Oil could provide a larger revenue base for a Scottish State (at least for a while) and another financial crisis has the potential to blow it out of the water. The UK state would have a proportionately smaller revenue base from oil but would be proportionately less blown up.  What a choice.

A few days ago I came across another striking comparison of the Scottish and UK states here .

So it is on the basis that independence must in some way be a move towards socialism or makes it easier to achieve that a view on the independence vote must be taken, at least if one is convinced in some way by the need for socialism.  And this task involves raising the horizon of the debate in such a way that events that seem very far away, such as the Ukraine, can be incorporated into an understanding of the issues at stake.  It is commonplace to say that we live in an interconnected world, but just how is this world interconnected and how should it be connected?  At least it is obvious that the question of national independence raises these issues.

The standard view as understood by Marxists was recently set out in Boffy’s Blog here, repeating the words of Lenin about the view of Marxists (here called Social-Democrats) on the rights of nations to determine their own future, which applies to Scotland today:

“The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.”

“As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.”

The Scottish people therefore have the right to self-determination and the referendum gives them the opportunity to exercise that right.  How they do so is another matter and it is entirely possible for the exercise of the right to self-determination to mean continued unity with Wales and England.

The creation of a separate state is only one possible means of expressing self-determination and it would be a mistake to seek to measure the degree of independence attained as if some absolute and complete independence could be achieved.

This is not possible and seeking it only sets one off on an impossible nationalist quest for ‘real’ independence for a new Scottish state, which is doubly impossible for a small nation.  In other words absolute state self-determination is impossible, which means it can both permanently be put it on the agenda of nationalists, especially left ones, and leads to permanent failure.

Alex Salmond of the SNP has criticised the “bluff, bullying and bluster” coming from leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats, particularly their rejecting use of sterling by a new independent state.  The intervention of the later is of course all these things but Salmond and other nationalist are in no position to complain too much for this is also a ‘welcome to the world of nation states’ where bluff, bullying and bluster is the name of the game and the name of the game they seek to join.  Figures from the European Union have also weighed in to exercise their right to bully and the nationalist campaign seeks to be fully paid up and contributing members of the bullying club.

The meaning of the second part of Lenin’s argument – the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations – has been explained on this blog again and again and again.  It involves rejecting the view that socialism is the result of action by the state through, for example, it taking ownership of production or taxing the rich or spending more.  An examination of this approach in Ireland is set out here , here and here.

Self-determination of the proletariat means the creation of independent trade unions irrespective of workers’ nationality so that they can more forcefully mitigate the bullying and exploitation of capitalism – Scottish, British, Irish or otherwise – and the national divisions of workers promoted.  Such organisations are the means by which they can gain some control over their working lives.

This is taken further through the creation of workers’ cooperatives in which workers can free themselves of the bluster and bullying of owners and managers over whom they have no control and instead build the foundations of a new society based on equality of ownership and power.

It means creation of a political Party through which they can educate themselves about the bluff, bullying and bluster of current politics and find within it a basis for struggling for the creation of a new society that fulfills their desires because it is their creation.

It should therefore be obvious that the self-determination of nations, which is defined and relies on the independent power of the state, is not at all the same as the self-determination of the working class, which is not divided by nationality and is not subordinated or defined by the state.  Not only are they not the same by definition but they cannot be reconciled.

The experience of Ireland is that even the most militant nationalist movement does not lead to socialism even when it is based on a struggle against oppression.

So where does this leave the socialist argument for Scottish independence?  Well, the relationship between independence and the self-determination of the working class involves a number of questions and I shall take these up in future posts.

Lessons from the Grangemouth dispute

GRANGEMOUTH_2700282bI received an email from Socialist Democracy inviting me to contribute to a discussion based on an article they have written on the lessons of the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland. This article sets out the devastating scale of the defeat – the freeze in pay, butchery of pension entitlement and castration of union organisation.  Many in the media called it an old fashioned battle of labour against capital, such was the unvarnished clarity of what was involved.

The questions to be answered are whether there could have been a different result and what lessons can be learnt?

The article does not say whether the result could have been different.  Given the circumstances I think not, but this means we must be clear what the circumstance were that lead to this conclusion.

As for the lessons the article posits two – that the entire strategy of the trade union leaders has been overthrown and that of union support for, and reliance on, the Labour Party is a mistake.  I believe that there is a third rather more basic one, which can be explained very much as the old fashioned relationship between labour and capital.  What is this relationship?

The relations of capitalist production are unequal as they involve capitalists as owners of the means of production, including oil refineries and petrochemical works, and workers separated from ownership of such means of production and dependent on employment by the capitalist for their livelihood.  In a struggle that does not threaten or weaken these foundations it is generally the case that the capitalists will be able to impose their wishes because these align with the power structures in society.

This does not mean each and every strike or struggle by workers is doomed to defeat but that in certain disputes this power of capital is fully deployed and the fundamental imbalance in power is cruelly demonstrated.  Were it otherwise capitalism might be able to find some stable compromise, some equilibrium between the two classes that would allow a ‘fairer’ distribution of resources.  No such stable equilibrium has been found.  Marxists have been confirmed in their view that the liberation of the majority of working people requires overturning the existing system and creation of one in which the monopoly of ownership of capital is destroyed. 

This is the basic case for socialism in opposition to all those who think a better world is possible while not overthrowing the fundamental structures of society.

It is not an all or nothing case.  It does not say that workers can do nothing to protect themselves short of socialism.  Struggles that do not threaten these fundamental relations can sometimes be victorious such as when the economy is booming, unemployment is low and workers can strike or otherwise bargain for higher wages without fear of being sacked and their place being taken by the unemployed.

Of course in an economic downturn the temporary leverage of workers and trade unions is undermined and the power of capitalists to do as they wish because of their ownership of capital is reasserted.

In the case of the Grangemouth dispute this means that no workers’ action no matter how brilliant, innovative or militant could prevent Jim Ratcliffe from using his ownership of capital to close the refinery and petrochemical works and throw thousands of workers onto the dole.

Of course if you were convinced he was lying about the profitability of the plant and convinced his threats to close were a bluff the solution is simple – call his bluff and tell him his demands will not be accepted.  Unfortunately his ownership means that only he and his management know the truth and his claims that the plant only had a future if he was able to put £300 million in investment into it were credible. The same system that decrees private ownership of a refinery also necessarily involves periodic overcapacity in production and this was held over the workers’ heads as the brute fact that required they surrender or face the sack.

Under such circumstances no one can be surprised the workers decided to accept the lesser evil.

The article is correct that simple strike action would not succeed.  It was the boss who went on strike – it’s called a lockout.  It is he who brought production to a halt and threatened to make this permanent.

Others called for widespread solidarity action perhaps secondary strikes.  Firstly these are illegal and related to this, workers have not yet the level of combativity to carry out such action, even those involved in the chemicals industry who would have lost their own jobs had Grangemouth closed.

If it is argued that this strategy is one we must argue for and attempt to build for the future then this is indeed an element of strategy.  In this situation however there is no reason to believe Ratcliffe gave a rat’s arse about the fate of the wider industry and of the other thousands of jobs that would have been lost.  If he was going to close Grangemouth then all these strikes would have made no difference to his plans.

A second possible answer was to call on the state to nationalise the refinery and works.  The problem with this is that neither the British State based in London nor that part that might go independent had no intention of doing so.  Both are ‘open for business’ only when it means private capitalism.  So who was going to nationalise the works?  If it is believed that strike action would compel such nationalisation then it would have had to be wider and deeper than that considered above and the first response of the State would have been to attempt to throttle it. Some people keep on forgetting the State is the protector of the enemy.

Some on the Scottish Left said the situation at Grangemouth showed the need for independence but this was not an immediate solution.  As we have just said, the Scottish National Party has no intention of nationalising private industry when private capitalists are prepared to invest if only the workers accept the necessary sacrifices.  Alex Salmond’s primary concern was with the exposure of his independence project, and the illustration of how weak the idea of a prosperous oil economy looks in light of this immediate threat to pull the plug.  Since the refinery provides fuel for northern England and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland the case for action to protect the service went beyond the border and thus implicitly provides the grounds for wide action to defend it.  It also undermines any case for a nationalist solution from the right or the left.

The article argues against the efficacy of such answers and proposes its own elements of a strategy.  Some of these are by no means very clear.

For example what does this mean? –

“The trade union and political fights have to be united around a movement that is willing to reject the claims of finance capital and to step in and expropriate capital where it is necessary to preserve the livelihood of workers.”

The only time a workers’ movement will be able on its own to expropriate capital is when there is a revolutionary situation. We’re not in one of those so it wasn’t and isn’t an answer.  (We’re also fighting industrial capital in this one.)

The article says –

“The Labour Party has promised a temporary freeze on prices, so a call could be made for a permanent cap . . .”

Just how are the laws of capitalism to be permanently abolished or even suspended when the system still exists?

They can’t.  The only way they can is if and when there is a revolution that creates the conditions for totally remodelling economic and social relations and even then prices will not be abolished for some considerable time.

The alternative proposed revolves around occupation and seeking an alternative to the Labour Party.

Once again however if the plant is really losing money and the threat of closure real then why would Ratcliffe not just let the workers occupy, sit in the refinery and – so far as he was concerned – rot away?  It would be just another way of closing the plant if he didn’t get the workers to accept his demands.

What the demand for occupation means is that workers take over ownership and run it themselves.  They cannot simply run it themselves without ownership.  No one would provide raw materials or other services without someone to contract with and you don’t form contracts with those in unlawful possession.  So the question is how would the workers take ownership?  How would they get the money to buy it and to invest perhaps the£300 million Ratcliffe says is needed?

Obviously this is much harder when pushed against a wall, with no preparation and no conception that this is the alternative.  Equally obviously if it is accepted that this is the road that workers in such situations should follow then it would be better to be prepared for such a challenge.  The challenge is precisely to the monopoly ownership of the means of production that we said at the start is the heart of the relationship between capital and labour and at the heart of capitalism.

The workers movement is big enough to fund research into the creation of worker owned businesses.  Workers might start to fight to gain control of their pension funds to invest in their own enterprises.  Money can be raised for investment from financial institutions or other funding means to be determined.    A network of employee owned cooperatives already exists.  What is involved is not utopian, in the sense it has never been done before, nor is it without rational calculation.

If workers could be ready for such an alternative the threats of closure would not be so conclusive.

In other words the alternative to capitalist ownership is workers’ ownership.  Not just in some indefinite future ‘after the revolution’ but now and not just for now but in order to build towards the future.

Finally the article criticises the unions’ support for the Labour Party.  It notes that organised workers continue to support their trade union and political leaders, although it only proposes that in order to fight both it is necessary to break from the Labour Party but not from the existing trade unions.  It calls for a ‘class struggle movement’ to be created across all the unions, which should call for a new working class party.

It obviously believes this fight can dismiss the Labour Party and need not go through it, although it does not explain how this can be achieved when it acknowledges workers continuing support for that Party.  Implicit is the view that a fight within that Party is not needed to convince workers to break from it.  This in my view is very doubtful.

It draws no lessons from its ridicule of the small socialist organisations which have attempted this road or what it correctly describes as the private character of their concerns; illustrated by their bizarre discussions and replication of policies that decades ago they excoriated the Labour Party for.  The articles’ own call for a revolutionary party is correct but of no help here since it is put forward, necessarily so, as an ideal future location.

Instead it states that – “there are many issues around which a fightback can be organised, but they cannot be organized by the current leadership of the working class . . . What it [Grangemouth] has shown up is the utter inability of the traditional leadership to defend workers and the demoralisation and lack of strategic vision on the part of the socialists.”

If what is being said is that a new leadership has to be created, and the existing one challenged, then this is correct.  If it is being said that this is a precondition for a fight-back then this is not correct. It is only in the course of struggle that existing leaderships can be defeated, as long as such objectives become part of the struggle by the mass of ordinary workers.

The workers at Grangemouth and, by extension, those beyond have suffered a cruel defeat.  One possible reaction is to be cowed by the power of capital to shatter livelihoods.  A second is to seek some magic bullet of a strategy that workers can employ to defeat such plans: a strike, secondary action or an occupation.

A third lesson is that very often workers are forcibly confronted with the reality that to secure a decent life they need to go beyond capitalism and that no amount of shifting it with militant action can change its fundamental nature.  This nature is one where capitalists own the means of production and they can open and close it when they want.  This is not a strong argument for capitalism but a powerful argument for changing society – for socialism.

As Marx said – “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!