Scotland: Socialists and the national question

The race for the leadership of the Scottish National Party took a dramatic twist recently when on the day nominations closed former SNP leader Alex Salmond announced he was standing for party convener.

Salmond, only a few weeks ago, ruled out a return as party leader by quoting the words of a US Civil War leader General Sherman: “If nominated I’ll decline, if drafted I’ll defer and if elected I’ll resign.”

This U-turn by Salmond, who is likely to be supported by a majority of the SNP members, is a desperate attempt to halt the slide in the SNP’s support following a series of electoral setbacks which culminated in the resignation of former leader John Swinney. At the recent European elections the SNP’s share of the vote slumped to 19%. This was the worst result for the SNP since the 1987 general election. The high point for the SNP was the 1994 Euro elections when they polled 33% and then 28% at the inaugural election for the Scottish parliament in 1999. However, in the 2003 Scottish elections the SNP lost one fifth of their MSP’s when their vote fell to 23%. The claimed membership of the SNP has also fallen significantly to just over 8,000 members from more than 15,000 in the 1990’s.

The decline in support for the SNP is partly a consequence of a turn to the right by their leadership over the last few years. Ironically, the evolution to embrace a low business tax, pro-free market agenda modeled on the “Celtic Tiger” in Ireland began under Alex Salmond who was leader of the SNP from 1990 until he resigned in 2000. As a result they have been unable to build a basis of support among the working class and radicalised young people.

Support for independence fallen

The perception of the SNP as yet another tired old party of the political establishment has also coincided with a general decline in support for independence – the party’s flagship policy.

This has been a product of a number of factors. There is enormous cynicism and disappointment at the performance of the devolved Scottish parliament. Record levels of privatisation, increasing poverty and no significant improvement in the state of health and education in Scotland has provoked seething anger among the working class and the population generally toward the political establishment, including the SNP. The cost of the Scottish parliament building, now due to cost over £400 million, and the handsome wage rises handed out by MSP’s to themselves, has produced outrage. There is little or no confidence that any of these politicians could, or should, be given the responsibility to run any kind of parliament.

One of the effects of this has been a rise in support for anti-establishment parties and candidates. At both the 2004 Euro elections and the Scottish parliament election in 2003, more than 20% of voters backed the smaller parties of the left including the Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens as well the right including parties like UKIP. The main establishment parties of New Labour the Tories and the SNP all saw their support fall.

The idea put forward by the SNP, of a big business dominated independent Scotland offering a route out of poverty, low pay and worsening public services is ruled out. Significant sections of the working class have increasingly understood this which has led to a fall in support for independence. This has been reinforced among a section of more conscious workers by the experience of the independent states that have emerged in the former USSR and Eastern Europe following the collapse of Stalinism. Rather than bringing stability and an improvement in living standards, from the Baltic states to the former Yugoslavia, capitalism and the reintroduction of a market economy has resulted in increased poverty, unemployment and exploitation for a majority of the population.

The growing struggles of the working class in Scotland and throughout Britain which have included nursery nurses, civil servants and railworkers, as well as the opposition to the war and now the occupation of Iraq have pushed class and international issues to the fore in the recent period. This has also had the effect, even if temporarily, of undermining support for the “break up of the UK” among people in Scotland.

So while in 1997 support for independence was 37% by 2002 it had fallen to 28%. Today most polls show support for independence at around 25%. Nevertheless, backing for independence is higher, although still a minority, among young people and the working class than the middle class. This underlines the fact that for a section of the working class, the national question in Scotland reflects a searching for a way out of the horrors that capitalism represents.

The CWI has consistently defended the right of the people of Scotland to decide their own relationship with the rest of Britain up to and including the right of Scotland to form an independent state. As support for independence grew significantly during the 1990’s we put forward a programme on the national question which stands for an independent socialist Scotland which would form part of a voluntary and democratic confederation with England, Wales and Ireland. But at all times we sought to expose the false idea that independence on a capitalist basis would offer a way out of the nightmare of poverty, low pay and worsening social conditions for the working class. We also emphasised the need for a united struggle by workers across Britain to defend their class interests.

SSP leadership and left nationalism

This approach, which at one time a number of the leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party would have defended has now been abandoned by them. They left the CWI over fundamental political differences and after rejecting the need to defend and strengthen a Marxist programme and organisation while building the SSP.

A recent article in the Scottish Socialist Voice, the SSP’s paper, entitled “Where now for the SNP” graphically underlined an increasing tendency to put forward a left nationalist position on the national question in Scotland. Left nationalism, which can use radical and socialistic phraseology is ultimately in agreement with right wing nationalism that the central task today is the fight for independence and the “breaking apart of the UK state.” This is done without explaining the need to break decisively with capitalism as the only route out of poverty and inequality.

Alan McCombes, the author of the article and a former member of the CWI, puts forward the idea that a central task facing the SSP is a campaign to “break apart the UK”. In order to accelerate this he advocates support for a “left” leadership for the SNP who, he hopes, would return the party to its policies of the early 1990’s. He states: “In the early to mid 1990s, when the SNP was making huge inroads into the Central Belt Labour vote, the party hammered home a message that was strong and clear. It stood for an independent Scotland which would scrap nuclear weapons, create 200,000 new jobs, build 50,000 new council houses, increase NHS spending by 15 per cent, reverse Tory privatisation, restore student grants, increase pensions, and scrap anti-trade union laws.”

Alan McCombes goes on explain his view of the benefits of the SNP electing a “left” candidate to lead the SNP: “A victory for either Roseanna Cunningham or Alex Neil – both of them capable and charismatic figures – would have the effect of regenerating interest in politics generally. It would help to shift the ideological centre of gravity in Scotland further to the left and, at the same time, strengthen support for independence. All of this would create a more politicised climate, favourable to both the SNP and the SSP.”

These two quotes from the article are extremely significant. In the first case Alan McCombes is guilty of exaggerating the “left” programme of the SNP from the early 1990’s. Nowhere in the article does he attempt to explain the limitations of that manifesto. As we have pointed out on many occasions, and as Alan McCombes did when he was a member of the CWI, the SNP’s manifesto did not seek to go beyond the limitations of capitalism. It would have left the overwhelming majority of the Scottish economy in the hands of big business who would still have controlled the economic levers of power and would have opposed even these relatively timid measures.

Indeed in 1989 in an article in the Militant newspaper Alan McCombes argued that even the left of the SNP at that time had an “economic programme which is essentially no more radical than that of Labour’s right wing or even sections of the Liberal Democrats” (31 March 1989). He went on to analyse SNP left winger Jim Sillars who had won a spectacular by-election victory over Labour in Govan in 1988 and who described himself as a socialist in the style of the Keir Hardie as promoting “a mild version of reformism- nationalism decorated in pink ribbons.”

Furthermore, even the SNP’s mild social-democratic programme from 1992 would have incurred the wrath of the ruling class who were in the middle of a counter-offensive against the gains won by the working class during the economic upswing from 1950 to 1973. Only a programme that sought to bring the multinationals that dominate the economy under public ownership and control would have allowed significant reforms to be implemented and guaranteed for the long term.


Alan McCombes also forgets that is wasn’t only Scottish nationalism that advanced as Labour moved to the right and began to lose its working class base of support. Scottish Militant Labour (CWI), the Marxist organisation that both he and Tommy Sheridan, among others, were leading members of also made a significant impact at that time.

In total between May 1992 and February 1994, SML won 33.3% of the vote in the 17 elections that we contested. SML had four councilors on Glasgow District Council and two elected to Strathclyde Regional Council during that time. The vacuum that had opened up to the left of Labour was not only filled partially by a radical nationalist party, the SNP, it also showed the potential to build a clear socialist alternative that would defend the democratic rights of the Scottish people. SML’s success was based on our leading role during the poll tax struggle but also an effective exposing of the limits of the SNP’s programme and their anti-working class actions when they ran local councils in Scotland. Alan McCombes, and other former members of the CWI seem to have forgotten these lessons today.

Importantly the fact that the SNP, a middle class pro-capitalist nationalist party, dumped that manifesto was itself a reflection of the intense opposition from the “business community” in Scotland to such mild reforms. It was also a reflection of the prevailing outlook of the capitalists internationally who were pursuing a policy based on globalisation of neo-liberal policies and counter reforms. The fact that Alan McCombes can describe the SNP’s manifesto from that time as: “a message that was strong and clear” is more of a reflection of his own adaptation to reformist ideas that promote illusions in what can be achieved within the framework of capitalism. Alan McCombes for example called on delegates at the 2004 SSP conference to oppose amendments, drafted by CWI members, that called for public ownership of the economy to be part of the SSP’s European manifesto.

The second extract from the article exaggerates the “left” credentials of both Alex Neil and Roseanna Cunningham. Cunningham is one of the deputy leaders of the SNP and while formerly being from the left she has also moved to the right along with the rest of the SNP leadership during the 1990s. She has not opposed the turn to a more pronounced business agenda by the SNP leadership. Cunningham has explicitly come out in favour of the SNP’s “wealth creation” i.e. pro- capitalist policies when she wrote in a recent article: “it is vital for the future of Scotland that our economy continues to grow and thrive” Sunday Herald (25 July 2004). The SNP’s Justice spokesperson in the Scottish parliament has backed a populist “crackdown” on the parents of anti-social young people. While the issue of crime and anti-social behaviour are an increasing problem in working class communites, Cunningham opportunistically supported these measures without calling for resources to deal with the social conditions that give rise to these problems.

More importantly, however, are Alan McCombes’s comments that a left nationalist leadership: “would have the effect of regenerating interest in politics generally. It would help to shift the ideological centre of gravity in Scotland further to the left.” This, he argues, would benefit both the SNP and the SSP. This quote betrays a significant turning away from the idea that it is the working class, moving increasingly into conflict with capitalism, which will be the main driving force in radicalising Scottish society.

The national question can play a very important role in sharpening class conflict in Scotland and any party, especially one that aims to build majority support among the working class, must maintain a principled approach on this issue at all times. But to propose, that a left SNP is necessary to push Scotland to the left can lead to the SSP basing itself on developments in the SNP and not to the new, radicalised workers, trade unionists and young people, many of whom are not in favour of independence at this stage.

Instead it is the class questions that are the dominant issues at present. There is also a growing interest in socialist and Marxist ideas generally in society. The real danger exists of the SSP leadership now facing in the wrong direction and missing out on the chance to significantly strengthen the forces of socialism in the next period. Not only that but even the gains made by the SSP up till now could be lost if the perception among workers and young people was that the SSP’s primary concern was the break up of the UK and that this was leading to a watering down of a socialist and class approach to the national question as well as moves towards an accommodation with sections of the not very left SNP.

In a bizarre twist the SSP leadership are proposing a strategy to resuscitate ailing Scottish nationalism in the form of the SNP. This attempt to act as unpaid political advisors to the SNP is linked to the outlook of the SSP leadership that only through the fight for Scottish independence can political advances be made for socialism and the SSP. Therefore the main priority is to support all measures that can advance the cause of an independent Scotland.

This has led to Alan McCombes blurring the differences between “left” nationalism and socialism. It will have the effect of disarming activists in the SSP and miseducating those who are looking towards the SSP at this stage. In fact the biggest obstacle to the building of a genuine mass socialist force in Scotland is likely to be left nationalism. Not that of Roseanna Cunningham or others that Alan McCombes cites in the article but a radical, populist nationalism that is capable of condemning some of the worst aspects of capitalism without putting forward a programme for its overthrow.

It is essential that socialists and Marxists clearly differentiate their political and programmatic ideas from those of radical nationalism that don’t aim to go beyond the limits of capitalism. This means explaining, that only a policy based on the need to break completely with capitalism, while defending the national and democratic rights of the people of Scotland up to and including independence, can a solution to poverty and inequality be found. That does not mean the SSP should not take part in campaigns involving the SNP, or sections of it. However, it does mean that the SSP leadership ought to maintain a clear political independence and a right to criticise the false ideas of nationalism.

Break up the UK

The SSP leadership is doing the opposite. They are proposing to set up an “independence convention”, which is designed as a parliamentary bloc between the SSP, SNP and the Greens. The consequence of this will be to submerge a broad socialist banner into an independence movement that will promote illusions in the so-called benefits of capitalist independence.

A recent SSP amendment to the Scottish parliament which condemned the inaction of the Scottish Executive over poverty stated: “the problem of poverty will never be solved until there is a fundamental redistribution of income and wealth which requires an independent Scotland” (September 2003). This can only sow illusions in the ability of independence on a capitalist basis to tackle the problems facing working class communities in Scotland and is a serious error.

The CWI is not proposing that the SSP abandon its policy of an independent socialist Scotland, which we have argued should be linked to the idea of a socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland – a point which the SSP leadership have opposed. We are saying however that it is increasingly the case that the SSP leadership is moving away from a commitment to explain that only socialism can offer a way out. If this goes uncorrected the SSP can move further in this direction and end up not as a vehicle for the advancement of socialist ideas but of nationalism, particularly its left variant.

But Alan McCombes is also guilty of a dangerous, light-minded attitude when he writes: “The clearest route to independence is the fast, broad highway of the independence convention, involving a united front of the SNP, the SSP, the Greens and other pro-independence forces.” This is a consistent and false idea from the SSP leadership that there will be a rapid transition to Scottish independence. It completely ignores the entrenched opposition that exists among the overwhelming majority of the capitalist class both in Scotland and throughout Britain to such a move. Not to mention the fact that only a minority of the Scottish people are in favour of independence at this stage.

Capitalists oppose independence

The ruling class will be prepared to go to great lengths to avoid the economic and political destabilisation that the break up of the UK would entail. They are of course primarily concerned about their profits and class interests. The Scottish economy is tied by a thousand threads to that of Britain as a whole, as well as to foreign multinational corporations. Therefore the capitalists are organically opposed to any moves that would threaten to undermine the running of capitalism.

Another concern for the ruling class in Britain is the inevitable loss of prestige and influence on the international arena that would follow the loss of Scotland from the union. British imperialism does not have the same weight as it did in the past, however it still has to compete with other capitalist powers in Europe and internationally. The idea of Scottish independence which has the potential to ignite secessionist movements in Wales and add more combustible material to the volatile situation in Northern Ireland is viewed with horror by the ruling class in Britain.

They are therefore prepared to marshal their forces to prevent this from happening. They will point out, as they did in the 1999 Scottish parliament elections that economic Armageddon would be visited on Scotland if the union was broken. This does not mean there won’t be a significant growth in support for independence in Scotland in the future depending on the conditions that exist at that time. There could also be a movement that could result in the break up of the UK state but it will not be the linear, straightforward process that Alan McCombes believes. Instead it will inevitably be protracted and drawn out and in no sense will it be develop through the “fast, broad highway of the independence convention”

Alan Mcombes also ignores the fact that the working class can also oppose moves towards independence. If there was a fear of the social and economic consequences that could develop in the event of the break up of the UK, and a threat to split the working class who are still organised in trade unions across Britain then there can be a backlash against the idea of independence. On the other hand if the ruling class were in the future to block moves at further autonomy in Scotland it could create a constitutional crisis and ignite a ferocious struggle around the national question. At all times it is incumbent on socialists, while being the best fighters for democratic rights of the people of Scotland, to advocate the unity of the working class in Scotland, England, Wales and across Europe and internationally for that matter. Nationalist ideas, on the other hand, in all its guises, carries the threat of dividing the working class on national lines.

It is therefore necessary to understand that the mood and intensity on the national question can ebb and flow. There are a combination of factors that can hold it back or propel it forward. But the approach put forward by Alan McCombes completely underestimates the complications that will inevitably develop around this key question.


The situation that is opening up in Scotland can offer big opportunities to strengthen the forces of socialism. Unfortunately the direction of the leadership of the SSP, if not altered will lead to a weakening of the ability of the SSP to reach that new generation, some of whom can have illusions in nationalism, but who can be won to socialist ideas if a clear fighting and socialist explanation is given.

While raising our criticisms of the increasing adaptation to left nationalism by leading members of the SSP, the CWI will continue to put forward a principled defence of the democratic rights of the Scottish people. Crucially we will also advance a clear socialist and Marxist programme that is sensitive to the national aspirations of workers and young people in Scotland but also drives home the need for the working class to build a movement to end capitalism in Scotland. This is part of the struggle for a socialist alternative to poverty, hunger and war internationally.

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August 2004