Workers Hammer No. 228
Down with English chauvinism! No illusions in Scottish nationalism!
For workers republics
LONDON, 13 September — As the 18 September Scottish referendum approaches, polls indicate that a majority might vote yes. A vote for independence is the last thing prime minister David Cameron expected when he agreed to the referendum two years ago. For several years, around a third of the population of Scotland supported independence. But the attitude of the English bourgeoisie towards Scotland, which lies somewhere between contempt and hatred, has driven more Scottish people towards separation. The more the London government issues dire warnings against Scottish independence, the more the polls swing towards a yes vote. By now Cameron can barely show his face in Scotland for fear of driving even more people into the independence camp.
The Tories had precious little support in Scotland to begin with — the party famously has fewer Scottish Members of Parliament than there are giant pandas in Edinburgh Zoo — that is, one Tory MP to two pandas. Much more significant in terms of the outcome of the referendum is the Labour Party’s refusal to offer any meaningful opposition to Tory attacks on welfare and to the privatisation of the National Health Service. Obviously, the Tories can’t win Scotland, but they might help lose it for Labour, the party with the largest number of Scottish MPs in Westminster. Labour’s accommodation to Tory austerity may well be the deciding factor in the outcome of the referendum.
The pro-UK “Better Together” campaign is a hapless coalition of Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour. Its chief spokesman, Labour’s Alistair Darling, was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the 2008 banking crisis. Darling negotiated a bailout for Britain’s colossal banking sector, for which Britain’s working people have been forced to pay ever since. With the “Better Together” campaign offering voters only more of the same — aside from last-minute promises to grant more powers to the Scottish parliament, not to mention another royal baby — an audience member at a televised debate asked Darling: if we would be better together, why are we not better now?
Support for the yes campaign has also grown as a measure of defiance of the incessant outpouring of vile English chauvinism emanating from the London press and political pundits. Even before the referendum deal had been agreed, the Daily Mail railed against Scotland’s first minister and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond. One headline blared: “If Mr Cameron fails to stand up to the devious, slippery Alex Salmond, the end of the Union will be his wretched legacy” (26 January 2012). Another Mail article pontificated that “the Union of England, Scotland and Wales” is nothing less than “history’s greatest success story” (29 January 2012). When polls showed a slight majority for the yes campaign, the Sun’s English edition (8 September) ran the vile anti-Scottish headline “Jocky Horror Show”, while the Guardian (8 September) headline trumpeted: “Last stand to keep the union”. To judge by the hysteria in the bourgeois press, one might think that the SNP is about to re-enact the 1745 uprising by the Jacobites (followers of Charles Edward Stuart, the son of a Catholic pretender to the British throne) that aimed to overthrow the Protestant ascendancy and threatened the 1707 union of the Scottish and English parliaments.
As Marxists we oppose the whole edifice known as the “United Kingdom” — comprising the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established (Protestant) churches and incorporating the Orange statelet in Northern Ireland. The Westminster parliament embodies the privileged status accorded to banking and finance capital in London and the South East of England by the ruling class, which is contemptuous of the now de-industrialised areas of northern England as well as of Scotland and Wales. Doubtless there are many people in Northumbria, Lancashire and the Midlands who would like to go with Scotland to escape Westminster rule.
We support the right of self-determination for Scotland and Wales, which includes the right to form independent states. In itself, the referendum does not pose an issue of principle and we do not advocate either a yes or a no vote. Our programme is for a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles. Within such a federation, we do not predetermine what Scotland’s status will be — an independent workers republic, an autonomous region or any other status that is compatible with working-class rule.
As Marxists, we have long upheld the right of self-determination for Scotland. But, as distinct from nationalists, who support separation in all cases, whether or not we advocate independence depends on the depth of national antagonisms between the working people of the different nations. In the case of Scotland today the evidence is contradictory. While the polls indicate a rise in support for independence, opposition to separation remains high, estimated at well over 40 per cent in the population as a whole. As regards the trade unions, the Scottish TUC issued a statement at the Britain-wide annual TUC Congress in Liverpool on 8 September which said: “The STUC and unions representing the majority of union members in Scotland have democratically decided not to recommend either a YES or NO vote.”
The high level of opposition to Scottish separation testifies to the degree of assimilation that exists, in the absence of decisive differences of language or religion, between the Scottish and English — as well as the Welsh — nations. By contrast, in Canada we call for Quebec independence in order to remove the roadblock of national antagonisms that divides the workers of English Canada and Quebec, poisoning prospects for united class struggle against capitalism. In Scotland, the reformist left groups are solidly for a yes vote. Their perspective has nothing to do with the Leninist approach of trying to get the national question off the agenda. Instead, they shamelessly promote illusions in the bourgeois-nationalist SNP as the means to resist the Tory government.
Our approach to the national question is guided by the need to minimise the barriers to working-class unity. As proletarian internationalists, we give no support whatsoever to nationalism, whether it be the great power chauvinism of the oppressor countries or the nationalism of the oppressed. We vehemently oppose the British chauvinism and racism which is being whipped up by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who are feeding off relentless attacks on immigrants’ rights imposed previously by Labour and now by the Tories. The reactionary Orange Order plans a march in Edinburgh to bang its drums for the Union. Given the Orangemen’s history of violent provocations against the oppressed Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, their support for the pro-UK campaign will be more likely to entice Scots of Irish Catholic background to vote yes.
We oppose Scottish nationalism and warn against illusions that an independent capitalist Scotland will shelter working people from the chill winds of capitalist austerity, or that it will provide an opt-out from British imperialism and its wars. As an opposition to British imperialism, the SNP is not about to set the heather ablaze. Rather these nationalists are committed to preserving “a strong, new relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK”. Furthermore, the SNP’s “new” Scotland will bow to the monarchy, the cornerstone of that reactionary edifice known as the “United Kingdom”. In the SNP’s words, “the Queen will be our Head of State, the pound will be our currency and you will still be watching your favourite programmes on TV”. Such toadying to the Crown would shame even the likes of robber-baron Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born 19th century US steel magnate who opposed “kings and queens and privilege in all its forms” and said: “A king is an insult to every other man in the land.” The minimum condition for any semblance of sovereignty for Scotland must be a break with the English monarchy and the establishment of its own currency.
When it comes to the foreign policy of an “independent” Scotland, the SNP can best be described as “junior imperialists in waiting”. The nationalists are committed to maintaining Scotland’s membership of the major Western imperialist clubs — the NATO military alliance and the European Union (EU). Earlier this year, Alex Salmond expressed his support to NATO’s current vendetta against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The SNP leader declared his support for the NATO-installed, fascist-infested regime in Kiev, saying that he had “no hesitation in condemning Russia’s activities in the Ukraine [and] the illegal annexation of the Crimea” (bbc.co.uk, 11 May). Support for such forces is consistent with the SNP’s enthusing over the Nazi-loving Baltic nationalists who were fomenting counterrevolution in the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.
While there is much opposition to NATO membership in Scotland, illusions in the EU are common. Just as the single European currency is instrumental in the impoverishment of poorer countries such as Greece within the EU, a currency union with England would cede control over Scotland’s interest rate, spending and monetary policy to the Bank of England, making a mockery of Scottish sovereignty. We are opposed in principle to the EU, the imperialist conglomerate which was founded as an economic adjunct to NATO against the Soviet Union and remains the vehicle with which the European capitalists jointly exploit the European workers, while its more powerful imperialist members lord it over the weaker states.
The yes campaign’s popularity in Scotland does not rest primarily on the SNP’s attitude towards the EU, or its position on currency union. As one punter said, the problem is not what currency to use, but how to obtain enough of it. The SNP has skillfully positioned itself as the only viable alternative to Tory rule in Scotland, building on their record in 2011 when they defied the polls to win a majority in the Scottish parliament. Back then, the SNP’s electoral victory did not indicate a vote for independence. Rather the SNP built its reputation among voters with a range of populist policies, including free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly and a freeze on the council tax, in addition to refusing to impose university tuition fees. These minimal measures don’t begin to reverse the cuts to welfare provision of recent decades, but in the absence of a viable alternative coming from Labour, people turn to the SNP.
The growth of the SNP is also a product of the refusal of the trade union leadership to mount any effective class struggle against Tory government austerity — itself a product of their abiding ties to Labour and to the capitalist order. The treachery of the trade union leadership was clearly shown in October last year at Grangemouth, Scotland’s only oil refinery. The union was set up for attack by the Labour Party leadership, which instigated a witch hunt against Stephen Deans, who was then a senior shop steward at Grangemouth and also chair of the local Labour Party branch. Labour leader Ed Miliband ordered a police investigation of the branch, over alleged corruption in the selection of a parliamentary candidate. And although not a shred of evidence was found, the oil bosses continued to hound Deans. On the eve of a strike by workers in the plant in defence of their union representative, oil boss Jim Ratcliffe threatened to close Grangemouth petrochemical facility. Rather than fight, the leadership of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, called off the strike before it began. They signed a deal which included a three-year pay freeze, a no-strike agreement and an end to the final-salary pension plan — and hailed the outcome as a victory.
For the pro-capitalist bureaucracy, “saving jobs” means the workers must make sacrifices to keep the company viable. Alex Salmond, who helped broker the Grangemouth deal, bragged that the plant would now have a “bright future”. At the time we wrote: “Some future. Grangemouth — one of Scotland’s few remaining industrial complexes, where the trade union has now been crippled and workers cowed into submission — indeed prefigures the kind of future the working class can expect in [a] capitalist Scotland, independent or otherwise” (Workers Hammer no 225, Winter 2013-2014).
Foot soldiers for pro-NATO nationalists
The reformist left in Scotland, notably the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), has found its niche, selling the independence campaign to working-class areas of Scotland where the nationalists have difficulty penetrating. Tommy Sheridan demagogically put it: “You vote for independence and you will never have to endure another Tory government in Scotland” (published in Socialist Review, July/August 2014). The SSP’s Colin Fox, who sits on the Yes Scotland Advisory Board, does a hard-sell for a capitalist Scotland, saying: “The referendum offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure self-determination for Scotland, to establish a left of centre social democratic state and free five million Scots from the yoke of British imperialism” (The Case for an Independent Socialist Scotland [no date]).
In contrast to these reformists, as far back as 1992 we cut through the SNP’s populist façade in a single sentence that holds up well today. Our article said:
“Although today the SNP uses a lot of populist rhetoric, seeking to shake off its ‘Tartan Tory’ image, the bottom line for these bourgeois nationalists is that they want to become the exploiters in their own right of the Scottish workers, and are fishing around for a larger imperialist power to become their sponsor.”
—“Tory ravages, Labour perfidy fuel Scottish nationalism”, Workers Hammer no 128, March-April 1992
In the tradition of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, we stand for equality for all nations, as opposed to reformists, who divide the world into “good” and “bad” nations. The good nations are oppressed, and only they deserve the right to self-determination. Thus the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for example does not call for the right of self-determination for the Russians in Crimea, because of Russia’s great power status. But the good/bad nations theory presents obvious problems when applied to Scotland, which for reformists is “tainted” by its involvement in the Empire.
According to leading SWPer Alex Callinicos, the Scottish people “have not suffered national oppression at the hands of the UK state”. By their own logic, the SWP ought to deny Scotland the right to self-determination. But, Callinicos points out, the pro-independence campaign is drawing in the crowds. Indeed, Tommy Sheridan’s speaking tour “had up to 12,000 working class people packing out meetings all over Scotland to hear the left case for independence”. So what is a poor opportunist to do? Jumping on the independence bandwagon, the SWP conjures up a scenario wherein independence for Scotland would be a blow against British imperialism. An article by Keir McKechnie in Socialist Review (July/August 2014) gushes that, “independence for Scotland would diminish Britain’s role as the junior partner to US imperialism, seriously weakening both sides of the so called ‘special relationship’”. More than that, “the removal of Trident nuclear submarines from the Clyde would be a massive blow to Britain’s position as a leading nuclear state and a real threat to the ability of the US to use Britain as a launch pad for its missiles in Europe”.
The notion that Scottish independence would be a blow against British imperialism begs the question, why in the world would the Scottish “NATO nationalists” lead an “anti-imperialist” struggle? The only evidence McKechnie cites is the SNP’s commitment to getting rid of Trident nuclear submarines — a commitment the SWP takes as good coin. Since counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-2, Scotland’s nuclear submarine and Trident missile base at Faslane no longer occupy the same strategic importance for NATO as its bases did during the anti-Soviet Cold War. In this post-Soviet context the SNP felt emboldened to loosen Scotland’s ties with England.
In the days of the Empire, the Scots played a very valuable role as junior partners to the English rulers. The 1707 treaty allowed Scottish companies access to England’s colonial and domestic markets; Scots were represented in the East India Company out of proportion to their numbers in the population and, in the Caribbean, as historian Tom Devine noted: “The sugar, tobacco and cotton produced by these slave-based economies were absolutely central components in Scottish overseas commerce for most of the eighteenth century” (“Did Slavery make Scotia great?”, 2011). Scottish regiments played a major part in the British subjugation of India and other overseas territory which “was acquired and defended in the final analysis by the musket and the cold steel of sword and bayonet” (Tom Devine, Scotland’s Empire, 2003). The Scots also made significant contributions to Britain’s industrial revolution, including in the sciences and engineering. However, with the decline of British imperialism the English ruling class no longer needs Scotland.
In the period following World War II, when Britain was faced with a dramatic shrinkage of its role in the world economy, the Labour government elected in 1945 undertook extensive nationalisations of industry to help British capitalism compete in the world market. The ruling class also conceded welfare reforms such as the National Health Service as a sop to the working class. These reforms consolidated support for (old) Labour among the working class throughout Britain and enabled it to become the dominant party in Scotland (and in Wales). Thus, in the post-war period, Labour became part of the glue that held the “United Kingdom” together.
The strains on the Union increased significantly with the attacks on welfare provision and privatisations of the era of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Particularly during this period, the British capitalist rulers strengthened finance capital at the expense of manufacturing. The defeat of the Britain-wide miners union in the 1984-85 strike paved the way for the atomisation of the working class.
A key point in the alienation of the Scots was the Thatcher government’s imposition in 1989 of the hated Poll Tax in Scotland a year before the rest of the country. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Scots overwhelmingly voted Labour in elections, only to be faced with Tory governments in Westminster. By the time Labour finally did get elected in 1997, under Tony Blair, the party was indistinguishable from the Tories on key questions such as hostility to the trade unions and support for banking and finance. In that sense the advent of New Labour was pivotal in driving the working class in Scotland to support the nationalists.
Since the Spartacist League/Britain was founded in 1978 we have consistently upheld the right of self-determination for Scotland. We recognise that the right of self-determination also implies the right not to separate, an option we have argued for in the past. We wrote: “we are for the right of self-determination, but call on the Scottish people to exercise that right by choosing to stay in the same state as the other peoples of Britain” (Spartacist Britain no 1, April 1978). The Scottish (and Welsh) sections of the proletariat have often played a vanguard role in Britain-wide class struggle. Marxists do not have a positive programme on the national question. How we apply the right to self-determination depends on how best to further the class struggle.
Scottish nationalism was and is conditioned not by opposition to British imperialism, but by its decline. The SNP became a factor on the political scene in the 1970s with the slogan, “it’s Scotland’s oil”. When North Sea oil came on stream, the British capitalist rulers looked upon it as the solution to the country’s economic woes. The Thatcher regime promoted North Sea oil and gas as the country’s main source of energy while gutting the coal industry, largely as a political move to destroy the militant miners union. But even at its most productive, when revenues poured into the City of London, North Sea oil did not fundamentally improve British capitalism’s position relative to that of its rivals. North Sea oil has now passed its peak. With the cost of exploration and extraction growing, oil companies are shifting their investments to more lucrative areas of the world.
Faced with a further decline in oil profits, the British ruling class increasingly views Scotland as a net economic drain. By contrast, Catalonia, which is demanding a referendum on independence from Spain, is the most economically advanced part of that country. Sentiment to cut the ties with Scotland is quite widespread among the English population too. Nowadays, chauvinist ranting about the cost of subsidising Scotland is no longer confined to the right-wing press. As Scottish journalist Iain Macwhirter recently noted, “you would think the liberal Guardian would be an exception”, but its readers share the assumption “that Scotland has been living off English taxpayers money and finally been found out” (heraldscotland.com, 14 August).
The devastation of manufacturing jobs in Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain, is the result of decades of treachery by Labour, old and new, and class collaboration. Today, all that the SSP and their ilk have to offer working people is the “bright future” promised by the SNP in an independent capitalist Scotland. One doesn’t have to be a revolutionary Marxist to see through some of the SNP’s rhetoric: when a BBC interviewer recently asked two people from the Shetland Isles — one of whom was a yes voter and the other a no voter — whether the oil belongs to Britain, Scotland or the Shetlands, both retorted: it belongs to the oil companies!
A capitalist Scotland does not have a bright future. In any event, the fundamental task will remain: building a leadership that is committed to proletarian socialist revolution, centrally in England, and to the overthrow of the entire system of Westminster parliamentary rule. The programme of the Spartacist League/ Britain is to win the workers to the perspective of building a party capable of leading the struggle to bring down capitalist rule and the establishment of a federation of workers republics in the British Isles.