Devolution for Scotland has proved to be a disappointment. For many people in Scotland the achievement of an elected devolved parliament after almost 300 years of centralised Westminster government was rightly seen as a step forward.
Statement from the International Socialists, CWI (Scotland)
This statement has been written in the aftermath of the May 1st Scottish elections which saw a severe defeat for the main pro-independence, nationalist party the Scottish National Party.
The purpose of this statement is to explain the approach, programme and method of the International Socialists and the Committee for a Workers International on the national question.
In doing so we seek to clarify what we believe to be a principled socialist and Marxist attitude to the national question in Scotland.
We have always adopted a consistent position on the national question. The CWI has historically defended the national rights of the Scottish people. At the same time we have explained that to guarantee those rights and end poverty it is necessary to link the national struggle to the fight for socialism.
In this statement, as well as outlining the analysis of the CWI, references will be made to a statement drawn up by the policy coordinator of the Scottish Socialist Party Alan McCombes. This statement entitled “Which way forward towards independence and socialism” proposed the setting up of an Independence Convention.
In raising our differences with this proposal we aim to contrast our attitude toward the national question in Scotland to the ideas now put forward by the leadership of the SSP.
Devolution for Scotland has proved to be a disappointment. For many people in Scotland the achievement of an elected devolved parliament after almost 300 years of centralised Westminster government was rightly seen as a step forward.
Philip Stott, International Socialists, CWI Scotland.
Certainly there have been some modest reforms introduced. The abolition of tuition fees and the return of a limited student grant for some was welcomed. However, what the Scottish executive gave with the right hand, they took away with the left. Tuition fees are now paid back after graduation rather than before. Student debt and poverty has continued unabated.
Similarly the much vaunted McCrone deal for teachers has led, for many teachers, to an increasing burden for teaching staff and the undermining of working conditions.
The initial enthusiasm of the 1997 referendum, which saw more than 70% of people voting in favour of the creation of the first parliament in Scotland for over 300 years, has vanished. It has been replaced with a feeling of disappointment and increasing anger at the performance of the Scottish executive and of the majority of the MSP’s from the capitalist establishment political parties.
After only 1 year a poll carried out in 2000 to coincide with the first anniversary of the setting up of the parliament found only 1% of people believeing the Executive had done a very good job. It has been downhill since then. The scandal over MSP’s pay rises, disgraced First Minister Henry McLeish and the Officegate affair, and of course the ever spiraling costs of the Holyrood building project have undermined public support for the Scottish parliament.
Above all it has been the inability of the executive to tackle poverty, low pay, job insecurity, student debt and the rundown of public services that has led to the increasing alienation of the Scottish people to “their’ parliament. There are two key reasons for this.
Firstly, as we, the CWI, explained before devolution was introduced, the parliament lacked real power. Reliant on an insufficient block grant from the UK government, Holyrood was always going to be dependent on Westminster for its financial survival. There was no scope for raising significantly more resources for public spending, tackling poverty etc. We argued, as we do now, for a parliament with full powers over the economy, tax, benefits and defence. We fight for a socialist majority in such a parliament that would play an important role, alongside a mass movement of the working class and the youth, in leading a struggle to end capitalism. A parliament with the power to nationalize industry, increase the minimum wage and benefits and one that could refuse to allow troops to be sent to Iraq. Instead, devolution has proved incapable of changing the lives of the millions of people who voted for it’s creation in the first place.
Secondly, what we have got is a New Labour government implementing a neo-liberal, cost cutting and privatization agenda at a UK level backed up by a New Labour/Liberal government in Scotland pursuing the same policies. Since 1999 there has been an orgy of privatization in Scotland.
Local authority housing is being transferred out of the hands of local councils. Schools, hospitals and transport have been given the PFI/PPP privatisation treatment.
Income inequality has widened. The latest survey from the low pay unit in Scotland showed that in 2002 the richest 10% in Scotland saw their wage increase by 30 pounds a week, while the poorest 10% saw an increase of 9 pounds a week. One in three workers in Scotland earn less than the low pay threshold, including four out of ten women workers.
Westminster is seen by a majority of people in Scotland as having real control. By 2001, after only two years of devolution, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found only 15% of people believed Holyrood held the power and 66% thought it was held by Westminster. This has led to dissatisfaction with the parliament and an increase in support for more powers for Holyrood. In 2001 68% thought the parliament should have more powers. 61% thought that the welfare system should be devolved with 24% opposed. An even larger majority support the Scottish parliament having powers over tax.
Rejection of the capitalist establishment
May 1st saw a wholesale rejection of the four main capitalist parties in Scotland. Despite New Labour being returned to power their vote fell across the board. Their share of the vote fell by 4% to 33% in the first vote and 5% to 32% in the PR based party list vote, which resulted in the loss of six MSP’s. It was the lowest vote Labour had received in Scotland since 1931. The SNP did even worse. Their vote slumped by 5% to 24% and 7% to 21% respectively and they lost eight seats, almost 25% of their MSP’s. This has now provoked a political crisis with. SNP leader, John Swinney, being challenged for the leadership. The Liberals lost one MSP and the Tories held the same number.
With the turnout falling to below 50% for a parliament that is barely four years old such statistics are only a pale reflection of the increasing contempt with which the institutions and representatives of capitalism are viewed. It is of course an international trend with the emergence of mass abstentionism and falling support for the traditional parties of capitalism and the parties that used to represent the working class. The increasing Americanisation of politics, where a minority participate in elections, is becoming the norm in a number of countries. There is an increasing polarization of politics with new forces to the left and right emerging to begin to fill the vacuum that exists.
The rise of the left and anti-establishment forces.
The Scottish elections clearly indicated that process. As well as being the lowest turnout in the history of a national election in Scotland, the SSP, the Greens and anti-establishment, single issue and left independents made a big impact. 20% of the electorate used their second vote to back these parties and candidates. In total 17 MSP’s were elected from outside the four main parties. An increase from the three that were elected in 1999.
Nationally the SSP won 6% of the first vote and 6.7% (128,000 votes) of the second vote. In Glasgow the SSP vote was an impressive 16%. Six SSP MSP’s were elected, all on the party list PR section which requires around a 6% share of the poll in any of the eight Scottish regions to win a seat. The Green vote was also significant with seven MSP’s being elected.
These results are an indication of the potential to build a mass working class alternative in Scotland. The CWI in Scotland campaigns for the building of such a party. We believe the SSP along with the trade unions can potentially play a central role in that process if the correct policies and approach is taken. Not least of which a correct programme on the national question is essential if such a party is to be built.
The national question
There is not the space in this statement to trace the origins of the Scottish nation and the historical development of national consciousness in Scotland. That will require a more substantial work which we will undertake in the future
It is important, however, to understand that a Scottish national consciousness has existed continuously – despite the union with England in 1707. It has gone through different phases with a strengthening and weakening of the national question depending on circumstances.
For an extended historical period, underpinned by the rise of the British Empire, the development of society and the economy in Scotland, which was tied by a thousand threads to British imperialism, the national question did not emerge as a dominant issue.
Nevertheless, as a reflection of the strength of national consciousness, support for home rule did form part of the programme of the labour movement in Scotland from its inception.
Sections of Scottish society benefited significantly from the union with England. As well as the Scottish ruling class, the middle class played a big role in the military, the civil service and other parts of the British state.
The decline of British imperialism and the destruction of the traditional industrial and manufacturing base of Scotland was a key factor that led to a strong revival of a national consciousness.
The Scottish National Party – a middle class nationalist party which stood for an independent Scotland but had made a minimal impact up till then – won some spectacular election results in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.
With the discovery of North- sea oil and the “it’s Scotland’s oil” slogan the SNP hoped to show the economic basis existed for an independent capitalist Scotland to thrive.
They made some impact, but they were unable to consolidate support among the working class, other than as a protest vote. Support for the SNP tended to be in the rural, middle class areas where the leadership of the party originated.
This partly reflected the fact that the middle classes felt the demise of British imperialism with the loss of opportunity and status for them more keenly.
At the same time the working class in Scotland were suffering blow after blow with the decimation of the mining, shipbuilding and engineering sectors of the economy.
There was growing support for constitutional change in Scotland. By 1979 the then massively unpopular Labour government finally agreed a referendum on a Scottish assembly. The referendum saw a majority vote in favour of the setting up of an assembly. But the vote was lost by the insertion of an arbitrary rule which meant 40% of the entire electorate had to vote yes. With large abstentionism this threshold was not reached.
Thatcherism – cuts, privatization, neo-liberal policies and attacks on the working class – dominated the 1980’s. Major class battles erupted. Most notably the year long British miners strike. As the class struggle intensified on an all-Britain level the national question was pushed into the background.
It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the national question reemerged with force. The 1987 general election had seen Thatcher returned to power again, but in Scotland the Tories had been trounced.
The Poll Tax was introduced into Scotland first in 1988 which inflamed the national question. Not only did Scotland have a Tory government that it did not vote for, but now it was to be the guinea pig for the Poll Tax experiment.
A mass non-payment campaign took off which Militant (CWI) played the leading role in organising. When the Poll Tax was introduced in England and Wales a year later it was also met with mass-non payment. Thatcher resigned and the poll tax was scrapped. The SNP leadership however played a negligible role in the poll tax campaign.
The SNP moved to the left. Jim Sillars won the Govan by-election in Glasgow in 1988 denouncing the “feeble fifty’ Scottish Labour MP’s who were incapable of standing up to Thatcher and the poll tax.
With Labour, soon to be new Labour, moving further to the right the SNP with a “left” programme of limited nationalization and public spending increases were tapping into a mood to the left of new Labour.
Support for the SNP and independence increased significantly around that time.
Militant launched Scottish Militant Labour in 1991 and Tommy Sheridan was elected to Glasgow City Council in 1992 after being jailed for defying a court interdict not to obstruct a Warrant Sale in Glasgow.
The 1992 general election again saw a Tory government reelected but Scotland had returned only one Tory MP. Again this underlined the “democratic deficit” as it became known.
The mood in favour of some sort of constitutional change was overwhelming in Scotland. A big majority of people backed devolution – the setting up of a parliament in Scotland but within the UK structure. A minority supported a completely independent Scotland. Even Blair’s New Labour was forced to bow to pressure and promised a referendum if they were elected in 1997. The Scottish parliament became a reality. But the national question remains unresolved.
No capitalist solution
Until capitalism is ended and a democratic, planned socialist society is built, free from compulsion and national oppression there can be no permanent solution to national, religious and ethnic conflicts.
In the case of Britain and other “advanced” capitalist nations the creation of a modern nation state was a result of the victory of the capitalist revolution over the feudal societies it replaced.
England, which was economically and politically dominant, effectively absorbed, with the backing of the Scottish ruling class at that time, Scotland into a union which formed the basis of the modern nation state of Britain.
While capitalism was advancing the economy – the productive forces – many of the national tensions that later were to come to the fore, stayed in the background.
That is not to argue that after the union of 1707 there was no Scottish nation, or national consciousness. It was the ending of the dominant position of British imperialism and the decay of British capitalism that brought the national question back onto the agenda in Scotland and to a lesser degree in Wales.
The “glue” of capitalist economic development that was a powerful factor in holding Britain together began to come unstuck. This was exacerbated by the failure of the Labour and trade union leaders to offer a way out of the nightmare of capitalism. Instead they acted, in the last analysis as defenders of class society.
An indication of the central role Scotland played as the workshop of Britain is indicated by the following examples. By the 1850’s Scotland was producing 42% of Siemans steel. In shipbuilding, the Clyde produced 70% of all British iron tonnage between 1851 and 1870 – at which time 20,000 people in Scotland worked in the shipyards. Up until the Second World War, Glasgow was the biggest exporter of steam locomotives in the world. By the beginning of the 20th century the number of Scots employed in primary industry was one-third higher than in England and Wales and 11% higher in heavy industry. (BP Lennan – An economic history of modern Scotland).
And yet within a short time after the Second World War these industries were to be utterly decimated with entire industries like coal, steel and shipbuilding and textiles largely wiped out. Mass unemployment, with whole communities left without the hope of a long term job was a finished recipe for the emergence of Scottish nationalism.
The outer shell
As mentioned earlier by the late 1960’s there was the clear indication of a growth in national consciousness and in support for the SNP. In part this was a protest by sections of the working class at the abject failure of the Labour leaders to lead a struggle against a failing capitalist system. On the other hand the class struggle did not go away.
The miners strikes of the early 1970’s involved thousands of Scottish miners. The famous Upper Clyde Shipyard occupation was a testimony to the determination of the working class to defend their livelihoods. It also had a big impact on the consciousness of the Scottish and British working class. It bolstered the left inside the Labour party. Tony Benn, who was beginning to break from the right wing Labour establishment cited the UCS struggle as a defining moment in his political evolution to the left. Unfortunately the trade union leaders did not provide the solidarity, tactics and strategy to lead this movement to a victory.
The strengthening of support for national independence was, for sections of the working class, a searching for a way out of the nightmare that capitalism represented – a system that was hacking away at the past gains of the workers movement.
This fact combined with the lack of a lead from the leadership of the traditional organisations that represented working class people left a big political vacuum.
As Trotsky commented in relation to national consciousness, the growth in support for Scottish independence was the “outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”. A searching for a solution to poverty, unemployment and insecurity.
A socialist programme on the national question
Some on the left, including the official Labour left in Scotland in 1979 dismissed the very existence of a Scottish national consciousness. People like Robin Cook, who at that time stood on the left of the Labour Party campaigned against devolution.
Others equated support for national independence as a reactionary idea. This has led them to oppose calls for devolution or national independence as a diversion from the struggle for socialism.
So in 1979, for example, during the referendum on the setting up of a Scottish Assembly the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) slogan was “We don’t need devolution – What we need is revolution”. Such infantile sloganising was based on their analysis that there was no national question in Scotland because Scotland had not been a colonial exploited nation.
Scotland was not as clear cut an imperial colony as Ireland which was an agricultural reserve, a “bread basket”, for British imperialism.
However, sections of the Scottish people suffered horrendous crimes at the hands of British capitalism. These included the Highland clearances and the brutal human cost of the forced destruction of the old feudal society.
These crimes were indelibly ingrained into the consciousness of the Scottish people. It bolstered the feeling of anger and bitterness towards the “English” and is still a factor in the consciousness of today.
As we have explained the “union” of 1707 was primarily one which was acquiesced to by the feudal Kings, church and landlords who constituted the Scottish ruling class at that time.
As industrial, manufacturing and finance capitalism grew in dominance Scotland became a central cog in the wheel that was to become British Imperialism. The Scottish economy was emeshed into that of Britain as a whole.
Not only the capitalist class, but significant sections of the middle class in Scotland benefited from the union and the world role played by British imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
However it would be a serious mistake simply to judge the criteria of a nation as one that has been a colony of imperialism. That would be to ignore the fact that Scotland has a clearly defined territory, a long history of a separate religious, legal and education system, and above all a strong national identity amongst its people.
It is true that national identity in Scotland has waxed and waned depending on circumstances. During the height of the powers of British imperialism a majority of the middle and upper classes and sections of the working class would have described themselves as primarily British and in some cases Scottish as well. That reflected the degree to which Scotland had been absorbed into the political and economic life of the British state.
However a Scottish identity has always existed and in the past couple of decades has strengthened considerably. Today around 70-80% of people now describe themselves as being Scottish as opposed to British. In 1979 this figure was 56%.
During the 1979 referendum Militant (CWI) campaigned for a Yes vote. There was even some debate among the Scottish membership of Militant over whether Scotland was really a nation. It was the British leadership of Militant who argued strongly in favour of the idea that Scotland was in fact a nation. We supported devolution because, like Lenin, we defended the right of nations to self determination.
In this concrete case it was clear that significant layers of the working class supported devolution as a democratic advance.
This in turn was bound up with an outlook that more devolved power for Scotland could assist in the struggle to change the lives of working people.
Militant did not simply call for a yes vote, we also explained the limits of the devolved assembly and put forward a programme of public ownership and democratic working class control and management of the economy. We called for unity of the Scottish, English and Welsh working class and we put forward the slogan of a Socialist Britain with autonomy for Scotland.
Since then, for the factors dealt with in this statement, support for independence has increased markedly as has national consciousness – which is not the same thing.
A socialist party that wants to build a road to the working class has to take a principled position on the national aspirations of the Scottish people.
We have done this consistently throughout all the twists and turns around the national question over the last four decades.
At the same time account must be taken of the changing moods around the national question. One of the key tasks of a socialist approach on the national question is to win those workers and young people who are looking towards nationalist ideas to a socialist organization that is fighting to end capitalism.
To do this it is necessary to prove that such an organisation will be the best fighters for national and democratic rights while at the same time defending working class unity and socialism.
Independent socialist Scotland
The CWI’s programme has evolved as the moods and consciousness of the working class has developed. By the mid 1990’s we advanced a programme for a socialist Scotland as part of a socialist federation of Britain.
We left open whether Scotland would be an independent state and would voluntarily join a socialist federation or whether Scotland would have a high degree of autonomy within a socialist federation of Britain.
This was also against the backdrop of a sharp fall in the class struggle, the collapse of Stalinism and the decisive shift to the right by the Labour and trade union leaders. These processes created a big political vacuum. Without a mass working class alternative to act as a counterweight it was inevitable that nationalist ideas would strengthen for a period.
By the late 1990’s the idea of independence for Scotland had the support of around 30-40% – in late 1998 one poll had support for independence at 50% – of the Scottish people. In particular a majority of the youth and a significant section of the working class supported independence.
For many of them this was intimately linked to finding a solution to poverty and the inequalities under capitalism. In other words it was a class outlook wrapped up in a national consciousness. To turn our backs on this mood would have led to the danger of cutting ourselves of from key sections of the working class who could be won to socialist ideas.
If the SNP – a capitalist nationalist party – were left as the only ones advocating national independence, there was a real danger that if the mood around the national question hardened even further in the direction of independence whole sections could be lost to nationalism.
To take account of this change in consciousness in 1998 Scottish Militant Labour, the then Scottish section of the CWI, changed it’s programme on the national question. With the support of the CWI internationally we advocated an independent socialist Scotland which would link up with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland in a socialist confederation or alliance.
The role of Marxism
The launch of the SSP in 1998 was hotly debated in the CWI. The opinion of a majority of the CWI was that while supporting the setting up of the politically broad SSP, it was essential that our Marxist forces, built over decades of work, maintain themselves as a clear organsied trend within the broader SSP. A majority of the leadership of SML disagreed and to all intents and purposes the former SML was dissolved into the SSP.
However, a minority but a significant number of SML members disagreed with this approach. When a number of the leaders of the SSP broke with the CWI, the forces of the CWI in Scotland were reorganized and relaunched in 2001.
One of the points we made at that time was that by giving up on the task of building a distinct Marxist organization the leadership of the SSP would inevitably abandon the ideas they previously defended.
This can be clearly seen in the approach to the national question, including the recent statement produced by the SSP EC on “Where now for independence and socialism”.
The document from the Scottish Socialist Party EC is important in that it gives a clear articulation of the outlook of the leading layer of the SSP. So how does it differ from the approach of the CWI?
The document, written by a former member of the CWI, lays heavy emphasis on the struggle for national independence as a precondition for the achievement of a socialist Scotland.
The document argues that independence for Scotland would mean that: “Resolving the constitutional conflict which has clouded Scottish politics for generations would also focus future political struggle more clearly on the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism.”
The EC statement goes onto say that they are not arguing for a two stages approach. But in reality that is precisely what it does do.
A two stages approach argues that it is first necessary to achieve national independence before commencing a struggle for socialism. In the statement it argues that the break-up of the British state would: “be a huge advance for democracy and a devastating defeat for the British ruling establishment and American Imperialism. If we play a role with others in bringing about such a dramatic outcome, we would then stand poised to become a mass force fighting for socialism.”
This is an echo of the ideas put forward by the Communist Party and left nationalists in the past that the national struggle comes first before the struggle for socialism. In practice this has meant handing over the leadership of the national struggle to the forces of nationalism and capitalism. This has only served to disorientate the working class and weaken the socialist movement.
There are big differences between Ireland after the First World War and Scotland today. In Ireland there was a clear demand for national independence. However, the national question divided the working class between Protestant and Catholic. The only way to unite the working class was to link the national struggle to the fight for a socialist Ireland.
Ireland, in 1919 and 1920, was ablaze with strikes, general strikes and even Soviets established in some parts of Ireland. The working class could have taken the leadership of the national struggle.
The fatal mistake of the Labour and trade union leaders in Ireland was to subordinate the interests of the working class to the middle class nationalists of Sinn Fein under the slogan of “Labour must wait”. In other words the independence struggle comes first, then we can talk about socialism later on. As history proved this was to have disastrous consequences. The only force capable of leading a struggle against their exploiters; British imperialism and the Irish capitalists and big landowners, was the working class, catholic and protestant, behind a socialist programme. This was not done. British imperialism succeeded in partitioning Ireland in 1921 and the socialist movement was put back for decades.
While it is clearly not the same situation in Scotland today the lessons of history still need to be learned. If the national independence struggle is not linked to a class movement and a programme to end capitalism the very real danger exists that the ideas of nationalism can gain at the expense of socialism.
Weaving through the SSP EC’s document is a one-sided analysis of the national question. It exaggerates the current mood on this issue. For example the statement refers to a growing trend away from identification with Britain (which we dealt with earlier in this statement) and towards independence.
But the growing feeling of having a Scottish rather than a British identity does not automatically translate into support for independence. As we have pointed out 70-80% of people in Scotland would describe themselves as Scottish, yet support for independence is currently at less than half of that figure.
A statistical analysis that charts support for independence since 1979 was produced recently. In 1979 only 7% of those polled backed independence. It reached a high point of 37% during the referendum for a Scottish parliament in 1997. Since then those supporting an independent Scotland either within or outwith the EU has fallen to 29% in 2002. This figure is unchanged since 1999.
This underlines the analysis made by the International Socialists and the CWI that support for independence, which rose dramatically during the late 1980’s and the 1990’s has receded in the last few years. At the same time the figures produced in this analysis confirms our position that support for independence is highest among the working class, people with a left wing outlook, and younger people. Although it has fallen among these groups since the 1997 devolution referendum. For example, amongst skilled manual workers support for independence in 2001/2 stood at 34% (48% in September 1997), for semi-skilled manual workers it was 34% (49%) and for non- manual workers it was 25% (30%). This compared to 13% (25%) of professional workers who backed independence.
25% (34%) of women and 35% (40%) of men supported independence in 2001/2. One third of 18-24 year olds back independence. Of those who are ideologically left wing (based on views about the extent of inequalities in wealth and power, about government's responsibility for redistributing income, about whether big business exploits workers, and about whether management takes advantage of workers) 46% support independence with only 19% of those who are right wing supporting an independent Scotland.
(Statistics from Attitudes to Scottish Independence and the SNP by Lindsay Paterson 2003)
The picture the SSP statement paints is of linear, continuous and growing support for national independence.
However, the reality is more complex. Moods around the national question ebb and flow. While there are combinations of factors that can propel the national question forward, there are other factors that can cut across such moods and undermine support for independence.
The national question did not feature as a major issue at all during the 2003 Scottish elections. Although the SSP and the Greens both stand for independence the support for these parties was not primarily based on this factor. In the case of the SSP it was the class questions the party took up; low pay, privatisation, income inequality and the war on Iraq that was the basis for the gains won by the SSP. This was a relection of the fact that it has been the class and social issues that have predominated in the minds of working class people in the past period as the national question has been pushed back.
There is no serious attempt in the SSP EC’s statement to analyse the different variants that can affect consciousness on the national question issue. The role of a Marxist analysis is to take an all-sided view of actual and likely developments. Not to try and fit facts into a preconceived perspective regardless of what is really taking place on the ground.
The two examples given in the statement as to how the national question can be affected by future events underline this one-sided approach.
The document argues that a victory for the Tories at a future Westminster election would strengthen support for independence. This is possible. On the other hand, were the reelection of the Tories to become the trigger for a major working class movement across Britain to remove the government then a different perspective could emerge. Under these conditions support for Scotland separating from the UK may be thrown back as the common class interests of workers across Britain are emphasized.
The other case cited is a significant economic recession which would lead to major cuts in public spending and increases in unemployment. It is argued that this would also harden support for independence. But it could also have the opposite effect. A deep economic downturn could undermine the idea that a crisis ridden Scottish economy could survive as an independent state. This could also cut away at support for national independence.
There is deep disappointment at the reality of devolution amongst the working class in Scotland. Poverty, low pay and the crisis in the NHS have continued unabated.
To some extent this had raised questions in the minds of workers as to whether an independent parliament would really deliver any improvements. This is particularly the case given the bland, grey and lifeless politicians that dominate the parliamentary chambers of Holyrood.
SNP and independence
Working class people in general have absolutely no confidence in the capitalist establishment politicians who have delivered little except awarding themselves massive pay rises. Why fight for an independent Scotland if it means that lot running the show?
What there has been is a significant increase in support for a parliament with more powers over tax, benefits and pensions etc. Even the Tories in Scotland have come out in favour of more powers for Holyrood which brings them closer to the SNP’s new policy of “full fiscal freedom.”
The SNP’s embracing of neo-liberal, pro-market policies has been accompanied with a watering down of their policy on independence. Without question this has also impacted on sections of their potential support who no longer believe the SNP are serious about struggling for independence.
In the past the SNP were perceived by their own membership and sections of the population as being the political vehicle that would bring about national independence.
Recently the SNP leadership have began to change their position. The SNP fought the 1999 Scottish elections with a set of policies that had independence 10th in a list of 10 key pledges.
There has been growing tensions inside the SNP between the “fundamentalists” – who have opposed the leadership’s moves to, as they see it, water down the commitment to independence and the “gradualists”.
The current SNP leadership while still formerly standing for independence are increasingly moving to a position of supporting “extreme devolution” i.e. a Scottish parliament which has wide ranging powers, but which may fall short of full national independence.
Kenny McKaskill, a leading figure in the SNP, recently raised the idea of Scotland maintaining its links with England if Scotland was to prosper economically.
The SNP leadership are in their own way partly reflecting the fact that support for independence has fallen back over the recent period as the class and social issues have come to the fore. A similar process has affected the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru, who have also watered down their policy on the national question.
It is also a product of the entrenched opposition to the break up of the British state by the capitalists – both Scottish and British. The SNP leadership have baulked at the inevitable confrontation with the capitalist class which at this stage the struggle for independence would involve.
An additional factor has been the impact of globalization on pro –capitalist nationalist parties. The idea of an independent Scotland “standing alone” given the vice-like grip of the international capitalist economy on Scotland has led to the SNP putting forward “independence in Europe”, and support for the Euro currency, as a counterweight to the British union.
Were the Euro to fail because of the deteriorating economic situation and the increasing hostility amongst the working class to the Euro project, this could further undermine the SNP’s position.
For the working class, the question of how a capitalist independent Scotland would survive economically after breaking from the union can be a big factor in undermining support for independence.
The British capitalists would launch a ferocious campaign aimed at demonstrating the economic and social carnage that would follow if Scotland became independent. We saw a flavour of that in the 1999 Scottish election campaign. Headlines in the tabloid press included “400,000 jobs to go in an independent Scotland”.
Only a socialist and internationalist programme that would explain the need to sweep capitalism away could effectively undermine these arguments. Such a case should not be about promoting capitalist independence but instead building support for an independent socialist Scotland linked to a socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland and Europe.
The working class
Movements of the working class have had the effect of cutting across and stalling support for independence. In the last couple of years the opposition to New Labour’s policies have increased among the working class across Britain. The firefighters, railworkers, nursery nurses have all been involved in strike action recently. At the time of writing a national postal workers strike over pay is possible in the next few weeks.
In union after union Blairite candidates have been defeated by candidates of the left. Millions participated in the mass anti-war movement which erupted in an unprecedented scale across Britain.
These factors have had the effect of pushing the national question into the background as the social and class issues have come to the fore. When the working class begin to move and as the class questions become predominant the national question can be pushed back. This can be temporary however as a lull in the class struggle and defeats for the workers movement can push the national question back onto the agenda.
The collapse of Stalinism represented an ideological triumph for the capitalist class internationally. For most of the 1990’s, particularly in Britain, the workers movement was at a low ebb. The former workers parties moved over decisively to the camp of neo-liberal capitalism and as a result the working class have been left increasingly without any political representation.
The idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism was not accepted, even in Scotland, by anymore than a small minority of the population. Under these conditions it is not surprising that, given the lack of a socialist and class alternative, support for independence in Scotland increased during the 1990’s.
Today we have entered a different political situation. Capitalism is being increasingly questioned by a growing section of the working class and young people. After the so-called “triumph” of globalization has come recession and stagnation. There are the beginnings of a significant revival in the class struggle in Scotland and throughout Britain. In Europe we have seen a series of general strikes or near general strikes in a number of countries.
The task of building new mass parties of the working class is at an early stage but it can, with the correct programme and methods, take a big leap forward in the period ahead.
This new situation will see the working class increasingly stamp their imprint on society. If that is the case then the tendency will be for the national question to recede. It is important to underline the fact that the national question will be a permanent feature until capitalism is defeated and a free and democratic socialist society established. It can reemerge with a vengence in the future. It is vital for a serious Marxist force to have a clearly worked out programme that can take account of these changes.
Ruling class opposed
The capitalists are opposed to the break up of Britain for different reasons. On the one hand there is the threat of economic dislocation that could result in Scotland became independent. The Scottish economy is intimately linked with that of the rest of Britain and the inevitable impact on trade and profits are a key factor why big business in Scotland is overwhelmingly against independence. A major national conflict would threaten the stability of capitalism on a UK basis.
There is also the loss of international prestige if British imperialism, weakened although it is, were to lose “control” in its own backyard.
The separation of Scotland could also have a major destabilizing effect in Northern Ireland as the Protestant community could see it as the slippery slope to Northern Ireland being cast adrift from Britain. For all of these reasons the bourgeois will fight tooth and nail to oppose Scotland’s separation from the UK.
The SNP leadership, who have tailored their economic and political programme to entice big business to their side, have had to back down. They know there is no prospect in the short term of convincing the ruling class of their case for an independent Scotland at this stage. As a capitalist nationalist party they are not prepared to enter into decisive conflict with the class who they would rely on to run an independent Scotland. The SNP leadership’s moves to water down their position on the national question have been done to take account of the brick wall they have faced from the capitalist class in Scotland.
Is the break up of Britain progressive?
A recurring theme of the SSP leadership’s analysis is that the break of Britain would be a major defeat for capitalism. The SSP EC’s document says that “Even on a non-socialist basis we should support independence as a progressive democratic advance and as a major defeat for capitalism and imperialism on a world scale.”
The CWI defends the democratic right for the people of Scotland to decide their own relationship with the rest of Britain. We support independence and would campaign for a yes vote in an independence referendum.
But we explain that independence on a capitalist basis is no solution to any of the problems facing the working class in Scotland. It is necessary to fight for a socialist independent Scotland which would link up in a socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland as part of a socialist Europe.
Only in this way could any of the problems facing the working class under capitalism be resolved.
Changing the Union Jack for the saltire would change nothing unless capitalism was defeated and a socialist Scotland built.
We don’t argue that the break up of Britain is automatically progressive. That would depend on what class forces are leading the national struggle and what ideas predominate.
It is a dangerous idea to argue, as the SSP leadership do that an independent capitalist Scotland would automatically be progressive advance. What is progressive about the break up of Britain if it maintains the same class divisions and poverty and it splits the working class along national lines?
If it is possible we are in favour of a socialist transformation being carried out across Britain. The working class has united trade union organizations across Britain. The economy of Scotland is indivisible from that of the rest of Britain and it is not ruled out that socialism could be won throughout Britain before Scottish independence was achieved.
Ironically, despite their opposition to the break up of Britain at present the ruling class, or sections of it could draw opposite conclusions in the future. If the very existence of capitalism was at stake the capitalists would be prepared to go to great lengths, even at the expense of the stability of their own system, to hold onto their power.
Their central concern is their own class rule. If they believed that by promoting Scottish independence they could assist in dividing a working class movement in Britain they would do it.
The potential to divide the working class on national lines does exist. The British ruling class, perhaps more than any other in the world, has a long history of divide and rule tactics. From Ireland to the Indian subcontinent they have not hesitated, where it was in their interests, to resort to such methods. That could well apply to Scotland in the future. A national conflict between English and Scottish people could be encouraged to undermine class unity. Anti-English chauvinism as well as a general increase in racism already exists today. There will also be inevitable divisions among the Scottish population over independence.
The key role of socialists is to stand for working class unity. While standing for an independent socialist Scotland we also stand for the unity of the Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish working class as well as other minorities that make up the population of Britain. In that way we can counter the inevitable nationalist ideas that can potentially divide the working class.
The SSP EC’s document proposes that the SSP should take the lead in calling an “Independence Convention”. This body would campaign for independence while drawing up a “constitutional plan” for how an independent parliament would be established.
It is clear from the document and the discussion at the SSP National Council that this would be a body aimed at the Greens, the SNP the SSP and a handful of independents. However, the Greens have refused to participate in the convention and the SNP leadership have also given the idea the cold shoulder.
Although the SSP’s document claims it would be a “united front” – there are no working class forces likely to be involved. In fact the document makes no mention of the likely involvement of the working class as an independent force.
As we explained earlier the consciousness around the national question has been pushed back in the past period. There is no indication that there is any mood amongst the working class for such a convention.
If the proposed Independence Convention is, at best, only to involve the Greens and sections of the SNP plus one or two independent MSP’s why not use the parliament as a forum for developing the SSP’s position on the need for independence? Including fighting for the powers necessary for such a parliament but give it a class basis.
Even according to the supporters of the Convention proposal in the SSP there is no mass, semi-mass or even a significant campaign for independence at this stage. So what is the reason for this proposal?
A key motivation for this iniative is clearly to appeal to members of the SNP, some of whom are increasingly disillusioned with the direction of their leadership, to join the SSP.
If the SNP membership, or a section of them, are moving in the direction of socialism it is correct to appeal to them to join the SSP. Even then this should be done by explaining a socialist position on the national question. This is the most effective way of undermining any illusions they may have in independence on a capitalist basis. But as the current leadership contest in the SNP illustrates, there is no clear socialist or even left alternative emerging to Swinney at present in the SNP. It is more likely that in the main those members of the SNP who would join the SSP at this stage will bring pronounced nationalist, rather than a socialist or class outlook. The orientation of the SSP should be to the newer sections of the working class and young people, a number of whom may vote or are influenced by the SNP, and support independence. This can only be done by putting forward the struggle for independence in a socialist and internationalist context.
A genuine Independence Convention involving big working class forces – i.e. mass workers organsisations – as well as nationalist and other non- working class forces would have the character of a Constituent Assembly.
Marxists have a long history of putting forward the demand for a Constituent Assembly. Sections of the CWI have put this forward in a number of ex-colonial countries where the people have faced military dictarorship and undemocratic regimes.
The idea of a Constituent Assembly is a key democratic demand and they are, in effect, alternative centres of power of a mass character. The task of socialists and Marxists is to fight for a majority for the working class and socialist ideas within such a body.
We do not have an analogous situation in Scotland. However, were there to be a change in the mood and a mass movement began to emerge around the question of independence which the ruling class through their political representatives or other wise refused to concede to then such a demand would come into its own.
Under such conditions it would be correct to put forward the demand for a Constituent Assembly or Convention that would bring the working class and other forces together to fight for the democratic will of the people.
In effect its aim would be to supplant the existing undemocratic parliament or constitution that was refusing to recognize the democratic rights of the Scottish people.
However, socialists would fight for class and socialist demands to be an integral part of the struggle for national democratic rights. In that way we would fight to use such a body to win a majority for independence and socialism.
For such a situation to develop would require a big change in the consciousness around the national question. It would require a significant movement in the streets and workplaces that does not exist at present.
The proposed Convention meets none of these conditions. It would be nothing more than a talking shop. In effect a diversion from the key tasks facing the SSP at this stage.
The primary task of the SSP, at this stage, should be to defend the idea of an independent socialist Scotland as part of a wider socialist confederation but to prioritise campaigning on the class questions – public ownership, poverty, war, workers struggles etc. These were the key elements to the SSP’s electoral breakthrough in May 2003.
Instead this convention would have the character of a parliamentary bloc. It’s a coming together, not of organizations of the working class with nationalists and others, but instead the tops of the pro-independence parties and a few individuals.
The document proposes the convention would “prepare a credible constitutional plan that would facilitate the quickest route to achieving independence”.
This is a reformist position and in a completely lightminded way ignores the ferocious opposition to national independence that will come from the capitalist state at this stage.
As we have explained in this statement the struggle for national rights will not be won through a “constitutional plan”.
It mirrors the idea of the Scottish Constitutional Convention set up in 1992 that brought together the churches, the tops of the trade unions, Labour and the Lib Dems and drew up a plan for the implementation of a devolved Scottish parliament which played a negligible role in campaigning for a parliament.
It was the overwhelming demands of the Scottish people that was central to the ruling class being forced to accede to devolution. The capitalists were prepared to accept devolution because it did not affect their interests to a large extent. They also calculated that devolution could act as a pressure valve to let some steam out of the national question in Scotland.
Unfortunately, it is clear that the SSP leadership believe that independence can be won through a “constitutional” campaign. As we explained earlier the idea of a “quick route” to independence is an illusion – given the entrenched opposition to independence by the bourgeois. It is far more likely to be a long drawn out struggle – where socialists will need to be absolutely intransigent about the need to end capitalism and strive for working class unity.
Promoting capitalist independence?
The method of the SSP EC’s document, if carried to a conclusion, carries serious dangers. The document says: “Precisely part of the role of an Independence Convention will be to build support and confidence in the idea of an independent Scotland”.
Yet the role of the SSP, the emphasis, should be to warn that capitalist independence provides no solution for impoverished working class communities in Scotland.
We should always put independence in the context of an international overturn of capitalism as it is not possible to build socialism in one country, given the power of multinational capitalism.
We support independence but we do so at the same time as explaining that it is only socialism that can provide an answer to the nightmare of capitalist society.
By approaching the national question in the way that they have the SSP EC are only one small step from completely abandoning a socialist position in the interests of winning capitalist national independence.
The letter and the logic of their argument is that independence for Scotland would automatically be a progressive step and would then clear the way for a struggle for socialism.
Tommy Sheridan’s recent weekly column in the Scottish Mirror (20.8.03) was an example of this approach. Tommy rightly calls for the scrapping of anti-trade union laws, calls for an end to the locking up of asylum seekers in detention centres, the redistribution of wealth and a world without war and hunger. The article ends by saying we have to start somewhere and change the country in which we live. “that’s why I’m a socialist internationalist who supports independence”. In the whole article, apart from identifying himself as a socialist, there is no mention of socialism being the only way to bring a solution to poverty, hunger and war. Instead the only conclusion that could be drawn is that it is national independence that would allow society to begin to change these things. This is a clear example of promoting illusions in capitalist independence at the expense of socialism.
This is the only route the SSP leadership see for a socialist transformation in Scotland.
The consequences of this may well be to miss the opportunity to build a socialist Scotland in the meantime. To dip a socialist banner in this period where millions of workers are moving onto the offensive and young people are increasingly questioning capitalism would be an historic mistake.
The CWI will continue to fight for the democratic rights of the Scottish people.
We will support an independence referendum and campaign for a Yes vote. But independence on a capitalist basis is no solution. (As Trotsky put it we will support the struggle for independence but not the illusions).
Instead we stand for a socialist independent Scotland as part of a free and voluntary socialist confederation of England, Wales and Ireland as part of a struggle for socialism internationally.