How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 1

Celtic snp2_310902033This week I had a conversation arising out of Jeremy Corbyn’s interview in the Andrew Marr show on the BBC.  Like others I have spoken to who saw it I can’t remember ever making a point of watching until I knew it featured this interview.

The basic issue that arose was how Corbyn could claim to support a united Ireland but oppose Scottish independence.  Surely if you support the independence of one you should support it for the other?

Given that I agree with Corbyn I answered this question by pointing out that in both cases we were talking about removing borders (or stopping them being erected) and thereby preventing barriers to unity.

Through a united Ireland the unity of Irish people would be advanced, and by opposing the separation of Scotland from England and Wales you would support the unity of British people.  Since unity of the working class irrespective of nationality is a basic socialist principle it would require some argument to trump it.  None has been advanced for Scottish separation that isn’t either factually incorrect (like Scotland is an oppressed nation) or exceedingly weak (it would also be good for the English!).

An obvious response would be – does that mean you are also in favour of unity of Britain and Ireland?   And the answer is yes.  Provided the unity was one of equals, then there could be no objection to political arrangements that would further the erosion of national division and increase the grounds for united action by the working classes of the nationalities involved – English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.  Previous unity of the islands involved British imperialist domination that was rejected by the majority of the Irish people and history demonstrated that no unity of the peoples was possible under these conditions, at that time at least. As I pointed out in this discussion – I am in favour of a united Europe.

The independence of Ireland has not been an over-riding principle for socialists and this is something that divides us from republicans, including those describing themselves as socialist republicans, or more bizarrely, republican socialists, whose socialism is in reality a variety of republicanism.  So much so that their socialism is not a means to overcome national division but a means of emphasising their nationalism: ensuring what they believe will be effective independence as opposed to nominal independence under a neo-colonial yoke.

What matters to socialists therefore is the unity of people, particularly of the working class, which is the bearer of a new socialist society, and not particularly the unity of state formations.  This is why socialists support self-determination so that unity is the voluntary unity required to overcome national divisions and not the forced unity of foreign rule and occupation.

As I have said before the absence of violent repression by English armed forces in Scotland stands in stark contrast to British repression in Ireland.  So while socialists support self-determination for Scotland we believe it should be exercised by continuing voluntary unity with the rest of Britain.  That the majority of Scottish people decided this in the referendum is therefore to be welcomed.

But if this is the case why do I support the unity of the Northern and Southern Irish states when quite clearly the majority in the north do not favour unity with the south?  Surely that would involve the coerced unity that you have just said you oppose?

Let’s leave aside for the purposes of this argument that unlike the Scots the population of Northern Ireland is not a nation and therefore not subject to the right of self-determination.  Leave aside also the argument that even if we restrict ourselves to the Protestant population it too, while being an identifiable people, are also not a nation and any purported right to self-determination on their behalf is transparently a means of frustrating the right to self-determination of the Irish people as a whole.

We’ll also ignore the historical fact that any declared separateness of the Ulster Protestants is inaccurate because it does not refer to Ulster but a truncated part of it and did not seem to arise when the whole of the island was ruled by Britain, when the Protestant population in the North was quite happy to consider itself Irish, the specifically ‘loyal’ part of the nation.

It’s much harder to put aside the coerced separation of partition and the continual violence needed to maintain it even if this is usually, but not always, ‘merely’ in the form of a threat to the majority of the Irish people residing south of the border.

We will however also ignore the visceral opposition to considering themselves Irish that some Northern Protestants express when the idea of a united Ireland is proposed.  Down this road leads capitulation to the most deranged bigotry – I recall being told by my father that my uncle refused to eat off a white plate with a green trim in a bed and breakfast in Blackpool, such was his sectarian impulses.  He even apparently showed some ambivalence about supporting the Northern Ireland football team because they played in green – much better the red, white and blue of Linfield and Rangers.

While it is of no interest of socialists to impose national identities on peoples against their will it is necessary for such identities to have some grounding in reality to be considered seriously by everyone else.

On this basis however it might seem that Irish Protestants in the northern state have some grounds to claim separate political rights since they obviously are in some senses a separate people.  It might appear that it doesn’t matter whether this is a nationality, defined as ‘Northern Irish’ or as simply British inhabitants of part of Ireland, or both.

What matters however again is the objective basis for claiming rights to self-determination because some of the argumentation above is really beside the point.

And the point is that (some) Irish Protestants have been provided with what they can consider self-determination, exercised as unity under the British state, which they chose to participate in through rampant and systematic sectarian discrimination; itself reflecting the objective fact that their claims for national status were based primarily on sectarian self-identification as a colonial population in what they considered, when it suited them, was (26/32 of) a foreign country.

Since for socialists national rights are democratic rights, which are reactionary if without democratic content, it would appear that the right to self-determination of the Irish/Ulster Protestants or Northern Ireland, however one wants to put it, is a reactionary demand that cannot be supported.  And it cannot be supported because not only does it not facilitate the unity of peoples but it furthers their disunity along sectarian grounds, plus the division that arises from living in two separate Irish states.  The violent and sectarian history of this self-determination is cast iron proof of the thoroughly reactionary nature of Irish unionism.

Belfast socialists discuss Scotland after the referendum

A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

Last night I went to a meeting organised by the Irish Socialist Network (ISN) on Scotland after the referendum in the Realta Centre in Belfast.  The speaker was Colm Breathnach, who is Irish and a former member of the ISN but is now living in Scotland

He said at the start that he was not going to go over the pros and cons of the vote but look at the situation now.  In fact a lot of what he had to say was about the pros and cons of the referendum campaign and his impressions of it, and particularly of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) , of which he is a supporter.

He enthused about the activity of what he called this ‘mass movement’ the like of which he had not seen or been involved in before.  It was described as a grass-roots progressive campaign that effectively led the Yes campaign in the referendum and dragged it, and thereby the SNP, to the left.

He supported independence because it gave the working class a ‘better terrain’ on which to fight.  He gave a consistently positive and enthusiastic account of the pro-independence movement and of his impressions of those involved.  He criticised the fear spread among workers by the No campaign while acknowledging that their fear of the consequences of independence was at least partly justified.  He claimed the independence movement was a reflection of progressive working class politics while also acknowledging that a lot of working class people voted No.

He claimed to have no illusions in the SNP but his criticisms of it were muted, very muted in fact, and he didn’t find it necessary to provide any clear characterisation of the nature of that party. His attitude to the Labour Party on the other hand was scathing – a ‘husk’ that no one progressive could possibly support.

He rejected the charge that the left in Scotland were following reactionary nationalism and told me, it was me who put this to him, that I hadn’t been listening to what he had said.  The Yes campaign had been about the vision of a new fairer society and not about national identity or nationalism.

The debate therefore started and ended where it might have been expected to – impressions of a movement for independence that wasn’t nationalist and an incredulous denial that the campaign for a separate state had been a nationalist one.  Weren’t there different sorts of nationalism anyway e.g. British nationalism and Palestinian nationalism?  They weren’t all the same.  He was in favour of internationalism and working class solidarity and unity among Scottish, English and other European workers.

He said accusingly, that if I wanted the Scottish, Welsh and English working class to be united in one state why wouldn’t I want the Irish to be included as well?  Why wouldn’t I be in favour of the Irish Republic rejoining Britain?

Oh my god!  If ever an argument could be expected to crush opposition to nationalism (or whatever it is) in front of an audience from a republican background this was it!  How on earth could anyone succumb to a view that had this as its logical conclusion?

All this was at the end of the meeting so there was no opportunity to reply.  I’m glad however I have a blog.

Listening to a speaker it can be very easy to follow their stream of argument without noticing the holes and contradictions within it, especially if one hasn’t got a strong and considered view on it already.  But surely I cannot have been alone in wondering why it was necessary to claim there are different sorts of nationalism when the Yes campaign was very, very definitely not a nationalist one.

Surely it was noticed that the claim he wanted unity among Scottish, English and Welsh workers sat in flat contradiction to the view that he very definitely didn’t want them all to coexist in the one state. Was this not privileging the interests of separate (capitalist) states over the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality?  Well that’s how it looked to me.

I heard echoes of the view that working class unity among nationalities is possible without their being in the one state but the ridiculous argument that being inside one state doesn’t makes this easier was not advanced in justification. Instead I was asked why I supported the existence of the British state formation, the implication being that one formation of capitalist states is as good as another (although the implications of this for the demand for a separate Scottish state were probably furthest from the speaker’s thoughts).

I would have replied, had I the opportunity, that the British State has the advantage of already existing and containing within it a voluntary union of nationalities; that socialists are in favour of the voluntary union of nationalities; that the working class in Britain is united in one labour movement irrespective of nationality with a long tradition that includes exemplary struggle and that, yes ,this should even include the Irish if such unity could be voluntary and on the basis of equality.  That is, there would be an absence of the national oppression that has characterised previous and current British rule in Ireland and that has been absent from relations with Scotland except in relation to the latter’s role as oppressor

There is nothing special about the form of the British state in achieving this except that nationalist division would be a backward step away from it.  If the British state proved a barrier to wider unity on a continental state then calling for its supersession would be progressive.  In any case the creation of a European working class movement is required and every step in defeating nationalist division is to be welcomed.

None of this would have convinced the speaker because for him the British working class does not exist.

I put it to him that when I used to live in Scotland in the 1970s the Left in Scotland opposed Scottish nationalism as reactionary and it now supports this nationalism, but that this support does not make it progressive.  He said things had changed.  And so they have, in the way I have just described.

I also put it to him that the rise of Scottish nationalism had divided the British working class and divided the working class in Scotland.  The demand for independence if successful would mean dividing the British working class movement including its trade unions.  It was in reply to this that I was told that the British working class doesn’t exist ‘except in some peoples’ heads.’

This is no doubt why left supporters of Scottish separation hardly ever consider the unity of the British working class or factor it into their analysis.  It’s much simpler to pretend it simply doesn’t exist. We have had this argument on the blog before.

What we might have expected was some explanation of why socialists should support a separate Scottish state.  Providing a ‘better terrain’ was as much as we got, yet no one thought to ask what this meant or, more bluntly – is that it?

All in all I didn’t learn anything new from the meeting but most of the participants will at least have been exposed to some of the arguments and will have found it in some way informative.  The meeting was therefore a modest success.

I had however hoped that I would have learned more, which is why at the start of the meeting I asked some questions.

Colm said during his speech that he accepted the result of the referendum so I asked him what he meant by this and in order to explain what I meant by asking him this I said did he accept it as an exercise in self-determination by the Scottish people.

In reply he said that in saying he accepted it he meant he did not go along with the conspiracy theorists who claimed the result had been the subject of fraud, as some nationalists have claimed. But he asked what I meant by the question to which I explained – did he think the referendum was a legitimate exercise of self-determination?  His answer was less than clear.

He criticised the pro-union bias of the media – the newspapers and particularly the coverage of the BBC in Scotland.  The bias of the media is not new but such bias is a part of what Marxists call bourgeois democracy and the referendum was a part of this democracy.  He did not address the real point of the question and by failing to do so he and the nationalist movement consciously or unconsciously avoid its implications.  That is the implications of having lost.

The point of the question was to elicit his view whether, in saying he ‘accepted’ the result, he was accepting that the Scottish people had been given the opportunity to freely exercise self-determination and had done so by supporting union within the UK state.  Many nationalists appear to believe that self-determination only exists if it results in a separate state, as if determining one’s future only takes place when you vote the way they like.

The very non-committal answer showed an unwillingness to accept that the referendum was a legitimate exercise in self determination that should be accepted as such.  Whatever grounds for demanding separation exist they can not therefore include the claim that the Scottish people have not been given the opportunity to freely vote for ‘independence’ and were thereby subject to some form of national oppression. In this respect the answer showed that the left supporters of separation appeared no more inclined to really accept the result than the broader nationalist movement.  In doing so they ignore the implications for what they do next.

And this was my next question.  I asked what the strategy of the left supporters of independence was now?  Did they still hold that independence was necessary for the working class to move forward?  Or did his claim that this was really not a nationalist movement but a movement for social justice mean they would fight austerity without also requiring unity around independence?

Would they recognise that the austerity offensive from the Government in London is enforced by the Scottish Government, just as it is being enforced in the North of Ireland by Stormont, and seek unity with English and Welsh workers to oppose it?  Or would they seek to fight alone, so unnecessarily weakening themselves and the rest of the British working class?

I got a very unclear answer which involved acknowledging that whether the demand for independence was a high or low priority would be determined.  He was still strongly in favour of it.

Since the immediate requirement is to fight austerity and a new referendum is not immediately on the cards the prevarication revealed the divisiveness of the nationalist project.  In practice this means continued division of the British working class, which the nationalists appear to think doesn’t exist but the Condem Government is screwing nevertheless.

Repeatedly the speaker said that the Radical Independence Campaign was not a nationalist movement but he admitted that half of its supporters were members of the SNP, which has grown very significantly since the referendum.  They will no doubt campaign for and vote for this party.  The SNP is riding high and is reaping the benefits of relative success in the referendum.  Majorities in favour of ‘independence’ were recorded in Glasgow, Dundee and many other mainly working class areas.

Only by being unclear about what the SNP is; only by denying that a separate state is a nationalist and divisive demand and only by failing to recognise the harm this does to a united working class response to austerity can this be seen as in any way progressive.  Nationalism is what was on offer in the referendum and nationalism is what many voted for regardless of what they thought they were doing.  Colm mentioned false consciousness in his speech but didn’t properly identify who was falling victim to it.

Already figures on the Left are calling for a vote for the SNP at the next election.  The same SNP that colluded with the Tories when first entering into government in Scotland.  The same SNP that repeatedly accused the Labour Party of cuddling up to the Tories in the No campaign and the same SNP whose leader was such an ally of Rupert Murdoch.

This makes perfect sense if, as much of the Left appears to believe, ‘independence’ is the indispensable condition for progress.  The left voting for a right wing, pro-capitalist, pro neo-liberal party is the result of its collapse into nationalism.  Going by the meeting there is precious little sign of re-evaluation

Scotland is different II











‘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



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

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

Let’s take these claims one by one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

To be continued


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

Is Scotland an oppressed nation?









‘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










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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.