Scotland: Declaring for nationalism or socialism?

The new £430 million Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh was opened by the Queen in a blaze of establishment pomp and ceremony recently.

Ten times over budget, the cost of the Scottish parliament fiasco has brought public ridicule and anger raining down upon the heads of the politicians and civil servants responsible for this financial mess.

It has not been lost on millions of people in Scotland that vast sums of public money have been squandered on a lavish parliament to house politicians who have presided over increasing poverty, low pay, privatisation and worsening public services. These have been the hallmark of the New Labour/Liberal Scottish executive since devolution was introduced in 1999.

The disappointment at the achievements of the devolved parliament was summed up in a recent poll for Scottish TV which found only 8% of Scots believed that the parliament had achieved a lot in five years. This was a slump from the meagre 25% who thought the same after two years of devolution. More than a third of those asked, 36%, said the parliament had achieved nothing at all.

All of the main establishment parties in Scotland offer, to a greater or lesser degree, the same menu of neo-liberal, pro-business polices. This includes the Scottish National Party, whose newly elected leader, Alex Salmond has wasted no time in pledging that an SNP government would cut business tax in Scotland to below the UK level within two years of coming to power. On public spending he has also insisted that in Scotland "we already have social – democratic levels of spending on public services." In other words there will be no increase in resources for the NHS, education and council services under the SNP because there already is enough money going in. This will be news to the thousands of people who have recently taken to the streets over hospital closures – not to mention the tens of thousands of low paid workers in the NHS and other public services.

In reality because all of the main parties in Scotland base themselves on capitalism they are all prepared to carry out attacks on the living standards of workers and the middle class. As is the case internationally, the majority of people are to the left of the political establishment, especially to those parties like New Labour who used to be seen as the main vehicle for workers’ interests. Although in reality the Labour party always had a pro-capitalist leadership, it nevertheless had a mass base of support among workers and trade unionists. This meant that parties like Labour were forced under pressure to at least partially carry out policies in the interests of the working class. That is no longer the case and young people and workers are searching for an alternative.

Scottish Socialist Party

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) – within which the CWI has played an active part since its launch in 1998 – has succeeded in building a base of support with an appeal to this disenfranchised layer. It is important to note, however, that the public profile of people like SSP MSP Tommy Sheridan was established when he, and other leaders of the SSP, were members of the Militant and the CWI. Militant, for example, was central in Scotland and throughout Britain, to building the mass anti-poll tax movement that led to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Tommy Sheridan and 33 other members of the Militant in Britain were jailed for opposing the poll tax. However, many of the leaders of the SSP broke with the CWI over the need to put forward a consistent Marxist programme in the SSP based on the programme of Militant and the CWI. This was rejected by Tommy Sheridan and others.

There has been an increasing tendency recently by the leadership of the SSP to move away from advocating the idea that socialism is the only answer to the problems facing the working class. This has been reflected in the approach to the national question, where, in the recent period there has been an adaptation to nationalist ideas. In reality, this means an emphasis on the need to fight for the break up of the UK state leading to the formation of an independent Scotland without arguing that only on the basis of socialism could a way out of the poverty, low pay and the inequalities that exist on the basis of capitalism be found.

The SSP formerly stands for an independent socialist Scotland, but this aspiration is increasingly being relegated to a vague future only possible after the achievement of an independent Scottish republic. One of the consequences of this has been that the SSP leadership are now arguing that such a republic, which is not foreseen to be a socialist one, would provide a way out of at least the worst aspects of life under the British state.

This was graphically illustrated at the recent event organised by the SSP to coincide with the Queen’s opening of the Scottish parliament. Quite rightly the SSP organised an alternative rally to contrast with the establishment jamboree up at Holyrood. This could have been an opportunity to put the case for the SSP’s call for an independent socialist Scotland. Instead the SSP leadership took the initiative to draw up a document entitled "The declaration of Calton Hill" which called for: "an independent Scottish republic built on the principles of liberty, equality, diversity and solidarity. These principles can never be put into practice while Scotland remains subordinate to the hierarchical and anti-democratic institutions of the British State. We believe these principles can be brought about by a freely elected Scottish Government with full control of Scotland’s revenues." But for socialists, while opposing all forms of national oppression and defending the right of the Scottish people to determine their own relationship with the rest of the UK up to and including independence, this statement is not correct.

It clearly argues that if only Scotland was independent from the "British state" in the form of an independent republic then that would resolve the problem. This clearly implies that the SSP is now arguing that an independent, capitalist Scotland could solve many of the problems faced today. The CWI opposes all national oppression of peoples no matter what class they come from. But genuine independence entails breaking the power of capital and the monopolies which means a socialist Scotland. The declaration makes no reference to the yawning class divisions that exist in Scotland: the millionaire bankers and national and multi-national corporations that control the economy of Scotland on the one hand and the hundreds of thousands of low paid workers, pensioners surviving on a meagre pension and young people facing debt, poverty and lack of opportunity on the other.

Nationalist ideas (and unfortunately this applies to the Calton Hill declaration), promotes the idea that the Scottish people are "all in this together". By doing this the declaration ignores the class divisions in society and argues that independence from the British state, without breaking from capitalism would be a solution to problems that fundamentally are a product of capitalism i.e private ownership of wealth and the means to produce wealth in society.

That’s why the CWI has consistently argued that the corporations that dominate the economy must be taken into public ownership under the democratic control and management of the working class. We also explain that given the dominance of the multi-national corporations internationally, it is necessary to link the struggle for socialism in Scotland with a movement of the working class across borders and continents with the aim of establishing a voluntary and democratic confederation of socialist states.

There are many ideas contained in the declaration that could be supported; an end to poverty and a redistribution of wealth; the removal of nuclear weapons; the abolition of the monarchy; an end to racism and oppression etc. But the declaration was constructed in such a way that the entire emphasis of the document was that an independent Scottish republic could achieve these goals. There was no mention of socialism in the declaration and as a result the danger is that it will promote illusions in what can be achieved in an independent capitalist republic. It should not be forgotten that the USA is a republic, and has a written constitution, as is France, but because they are based on the class rule of a capitalist elite the majority of their populations are consigned to a life of struggle and insecurity.

It was therefore wrong of the SSP leadership to draw up a document that consciously omitted any reference to the need to stand for socialism. It was even more wrong given that only a handful of individuals outside of the SSP took part in its drafting. The argument put forward by the SSP leadership was that they wanted to appeal to people who were not socialist but would support the call for an independent Scottish republic. It is correct to appeal on a socialist basis to those who may support independence for Scotland as offering being a route out of the conditions that they face. But by taking the approach that they did the SSP leadership will only succeed in reinforcing support for nationalist ideas at the expense of socialism.

Independent socialist Scotland

The slogan of an independent socialist Scotland, adopted by Scottish Militant Labour (CWI) in the late 1990’s, was an attempt to reach those workers and young people who looked to Scottish independence as a solution with socialist ideas. We did so by putting the idea of independence in the context of socialism and also explained the need to unite the working class by linking the struggles of the Scottish workers to those of workers in England, Wales and Ireland. At that time (1997) backing for independence stood at around 38%, with a majority of those aged 18-25 supporting the idea of an independent Scotland. Even then, while being extremely sympathetic to those who had illusions in nationalism and supported independence, we always sought to link that to the struggle for socialism as the only lasting solution to the nightmare of life under capitalism. Marxists have a responsibility to differentiate between the nationalism of a low paid worker or a young person slaving away in a call centre in Scotland, whose class oppression can be bound up with opposition to the union, with that of the ruling class or elements of it who promote nationalism to protect and further their own class interests.

This approach has been abandoned by the SSP leaders in favour of a cross – class appeal in an effort to build a campaign to "Break apart the UK state." Ironically, this turn by the SSP leadership comes at a time when support for independence has dipped significantly in Scotland. Currently, according to opinion polls, between 25-30% of people back independence, while the numbers of those who expect to see an independent Scotland within 20 years has fallen from 51% in 1999 to 29% today. (Statistics from John Curtice – Strathclyde University).

The lamentable failures of devolution – not to mention the failure of the politicians running the parliament – to reverse the crisis in public services, or solve poverty and inequality has without doubt cooled, albeit temporarily, support for constitutional change. However, the declining support for independence in Scotland is also a result of a wider feeling that a small economy like Scotland could not hope to survive in a globalised world economy dominated by multinational corporations. Many workers have the feeling that the idea of a big business dominated independent Scotland offering a route out of poverty, low pay and worsening public services is ruled out.

Independence convention

15 months ago the SSP Executive Committee came forward with a proposal to launch a cross-party "independence convention". This was an attempt by the SSP leadership to bring together the SNP, the Greens and the SSP to campaign for Scottish independence. The CWI opposed this move because we believed the SSP leadership’s proposals would lead to the submerging of socialist ideas into a convention whose role would be to promote the benefits of capitalist independence. Rather than strengthening the forces of socialism such a "popular front" for independence would serve only to weaken and disorientate the forces of socialism while bolstering those of nationalism.

We also argued that to attempt to launch such a convention against the background of a falling away in support for independence among the population was likely not to get off the ground. So it has been proved. The plans for the launch of the convention have now been postponed. The SNP leadership have rejected the independence convention proposal.

Ironically, in refusing the offer to take part, Alex Salmond described the convention at this stage as being "a talking shop between those parties who already support independence". "Where are the trade unions, the business community, civic Scotland?" asked Salmond in an interview of Radio Scotland. Salmond, in his own way, was more accurately reflecting the lack of a social base at this stage for such a campaign than those in the SSP who have advocated that the independence convention was "a fast, broad highway to independence" (Alan McCombes Scottish Socialist Voice June 2004).

It is possible that, under certain conditions, support for independence can grow significantly in the future. As long as capitalism exists, and there is not a mass working class and socialist alternative built to end the system, the national question will continue to be a key issue for socialists in Scotland. But at this stage, it is the class issues that are dominant in the minds of a majority of the working class rather than a preparedness to struggle over independence. There is growing opposition to privatisation; action by nursery nurses, civil servants and others against job cuts and low pay; opposition to the war and occupation of Iraq and its consequences. It is against this background that the SSP has made gains in the past couple of years. It is by taking up and orientating to these struggles with a clear fighting and socialist programme that the SSP can continue to advance. Ironically, support for the SSP could be undermined amongst important sections of workers and young people who are opposed to independence at this stage if the SSP leadership was to be seen as prioritising a campaign to break up the UK.

We would oppose any attempts to maintain Scotland in the UK against the wishes of a majority of the population. Even on the basis of capitalism, the CWI supports the right of the Scottish people to self determination up to and including separation. But at the same time we would explain that only the achievement of socialism in Scotland and internationally could guarantee a decent future for the working class and young people. But the SSP leadership should bear in mind that while "union" is voluntary so is separation. There is no majority for independence at this stage. Moreover, unless the SSP leadership adopts a searing criticism of capitalism in all its forms, including a possible future independent Scotland, they could be in danger of ending up arguing for a more "progressive" form of capitalism. i.e. an independent capitalist Scotland. Such an approach would finish the SSP as a potential vehicle for the working class to struggle to change society along socialist lines.

The CWI has consistently defended the democratic rights of the Scottish people. We agree with the declaration of Calton Hill when it says: "self determination is an inherent right" We stand unequivocally for the right of self determination for Scotland. At the same time the CWI, as the SSP leadership should do, have a responsibility to explain that there is no way out on the basis of capitalism. An independent Scotland that had the same massive inequalities of wealth and class divisions that are an inevitable product of capitalism would not deliver even those aspirations outlined in the Calton Hill document.

That’s why it is necessary to fight for a socialist Scotland that would be part of an international revolt against poverty, hunger war and exploitation. An independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation with the working class in England, Wales, Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe and world.

Declaration of Calton Hill

We the undersigned call for an independent Scottish republic built on the principles of liberty, equality, diversity and solidarity.

These principles can never be put into practice while Scotland remains subordinate to the hierarchical and anti-democratic institutions of the British State.

We believe these principles can be brought about by a freely elected Scottish Government with full control of Scotland’s revenues.

We believe that the right to self determination is an inherent right, and not a boon or a favour to be granted to us whether by the Crown or the British State.

We believe that sovereignty rests in the people and vow to fight for the right to govern ourselves for the benefit of all those living in Scotland today, tomorrow and in future times.

The Government of a country is servant to the people, not master of the people.

We believe that a written Constitution will guarantee, under law, everyone’s right to freely vote, speak and assemble; and will guarantee the people’s right to privacy and protection, and access to information on all its Government’s doings.

We vow to fight for the power to refuse to send our sons and daughters to kill and die in unjust wars in foreign lands.

We vow to fight for the power to banish nuclear weapons of mass destruction from our land.

We vow to fight for the power to acquire and restrict the use of property or lands controlled by individuals, corporations or governments from beyond Scotland’s borders.

We vow to fight for the power to turn our depopulated land into a haven for those fleeing famine and persecution.

We vow to fight for the power to build a more equal society, free of poverty, through the redistribution of our vast wealth.

We vow to fight for the power to protect our soil, seas and rivers for our children and for the generations to come.

We swear to oppose all forms of national chauvinism, imperialism and racism.

We swear to oppose all forms of discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, religion, place of birth, age, disability, sexuality or language.

We aim for an independent Scottish Republic in which people may live with dignity and with self respect, free from exploitation, assuming the responsibilities of free women and men.

An independent Scottish republic will negotiate freely and as an equal with governments of other lands.

Our aim is not to erect walls of separation but to build an outward – looking Scotland that will extend the hand of friendship to all the peoples of the world.

We vow to continue the struggle for a free, democratic Scottish republic for as long as it may take.

The fight is for freedom.

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October 2004