Scotland and the national question today

The coming Scottish Parliament elections are poised to open up a new crisis for the Tory Boris Johnson government at Westminster, with the break-up of the United Kingdom a possible ultimate outcome. In edited extracts from the opening chapter of a recent new book from the Socialist Party Scotland – ‘Scotland and the National Question – A Marxist Approach’ – Philip Stott discusses Scotland and the national question today.

Forty years of increased capitalist ‘globalisation’ has delivered two of the most devastating economic crises in world history. The 2007-08 world financial collapse and the subsequent decade of austerity have now been followed by the Covid catastrophe.

These world-changing events have underlined the utter incapacity of capitalism to repair the decaying edifice of their system. The increased economic stagnation and soaring levels of inequality – seared into the DNA of capitalism – has brought untold misery for the global working class and the poor.

The reaction to this will, on the one hand, provoke mass struggles and even uprisings of the masses that will shake the bourgeoisie and threaten their rule. Not least will this be the case around issues of national, ethnic and religious oppression. The struggle for basic national democratic rights is likely to reach untold levels of intensity in the years ahead.

The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw an eruption of national, ethnic and religious tensions. Added to this was the orgy of national conflict that followed the collapse of Stalinism and the return to capitalism after 1990 and the break-up of countries in the Middle East, East Africa etc.

Confirming Leon Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, in the neo-colonial world, the bourgeoisie is too weak and too tied to imperialism to carry out the bourgeois revolutions similar to those that removed feudalism in Western Europe. That task was to unify nation-states, resolve the land question, overcome national division and lay the basis for modern economic development.

Moreover, even in those advanced capitalist countries where the national question was supposedly ‘solved’ – in reality only pushed into the background for a time – it has re-emerged with a vengeance.

This is certainly the case in Britain where the issue of Scottish independence and the possible break-up of the United Kingdom has become a dominant political issue for all classes in society. The revolutionary crisis that erupted in the Spanish state in 2017 over Catalonia’s ‘illegal’ referendum was another example.

At root these challenges underline a fundamental point made by Marxists; there can be no lasting solution to the national question – the oppression of nations and national minorities – while capitalism and class exploitation remain. Indeed that the struggle for democratic rights – including for the Palestinians, the Kurds and other stateless peoples – is bound up with the need to build a new social and economic structure. A socialist society that would guarantee the fullest democratic and economic rights for all religious, ethnic and national groupings devoid of even a hint of oppression.

There is therefore a huge responsibility to deal in the most concrete way with a programme on the national question that rejects a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Such a task poses continuing theoretical and programmatic challenges for Marxists.

A complex issue

The national question is significantly more complex today than when Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were writing and participating in the revolutionary events of the late 19th and early 20th century. The pioneers of Marxism, in developing a programme for the national question, championed the right of nations to self-determination up to and including the right of separation.

In the main, they were writing about the oppressed nations in the colonial world where bourgeois revolutions had not taken place and where the domination of imperialism and local dictatorships acted as a huge oppressive barrier to economic and democratic progress. As Lenin explained: “Whoever does not recognise and champion the equality of nations and languages and does not fight against all national oppression or inequality is not a Marxist; he is not even a democrat”. (Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question)

At the same time, at least in the nations where bourgeois revolutions had taken place, Lenin spoke of “capitalism’s world-historical tendency to break down national barriers, assimilate nations – a tendency which manifests itself more and more powerfully with every passing decade”. Of the advanced capitalist states, he wrote: “Western Europe [by 1871] has been transformed into a settled system of bourgeois states, which, as a general rule, were nationally uniform states”. (Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination)

Today, in the era of capitalist stagnation punctured by economic crises, we have to deal with the reality of the reversal of the tendency that Lenin pointed to. Instead, we are living through a period where the tendency is towards the accentuation of division, even to separation – and the break-up of existing nation-states is posed, including in a number of the more developed capitalist nations in Western Europe. Democratic demands for autonomy and independence are continually denied by bourgeois governments, world imperialism and regional powers.

This underlines the utter incapacity of capitalism in this epoch to resolve any of the fundamental issues facing society. Indeed even the historic achievements of capitalism, the creation of nation-states and the development of the economy, have long since been thrown into reverse. In the neo-colonial world this process, alongside imperialist intervention, has led to human catastrophe as the present Covid-19 health and economic crisis underlines.

Scottish independence

The capitalist economic crisis ushered in by the collapse of large parts of the world’s banking system in 2007-08 acted as a great spur in driving forward the demands for Scottish independence.

The Scottish independence referendum of September 2014 was a seismic event. Socialist Party Scotland described it as an “electoral uprising against austerity and the political establishment”. One million six hundred thousand overwhelmingly working-class and young people voted Yes to an independent state in the teeth of a ferocious campaign of opposition by the British ruling class and indeed the bourgeois internationally.

Project Fear, as it was called by its proponents, was the mobilisation of the billionaire controlled media, big business and the political elite in a blanket campaign of class hostility to the threat of the break-up of the British state. US President Barack Obama, the then prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, the heads of the European Union, the Pope and the premier of China all came out against Scottish independence.

In the run-up to the referendum, one opinion poll had the Yes side ahead, sending shock waves through the establishment. Martin Kettle, writing in the British Guardian newspaper in September 2014, summed up the mood of the capitalist class: “This weekend the unthinkable has elbowed its way into the driving seat of British politics. No other issue now matters. These may not be the ten days that will shake the world as John Reed called the Russian revolution. But they will be ten days that could change all our lives, shaking the British state and its people to their very foundations”.

An unprecedented turnout of 84.6% – the largest participation in Scotland for any plebiscite or election since the introduction of universal suffrage – saw hundreds of thousands participate who had never previously voted or had not voted in decades. It was a heroic attempt to find an escape route from unemployment and low pay, brutal poverty and cuts. No less was it a damning verdict on the political elite, rightly held responsible for these crimes.  Working-class dominated cities like Dundee and Glasgow voted for independence, as did the majority of young people.

While the No side won by 55% to 45%, with the older generation and rural and middle class communities voting heavily against independence, it was in many ways a pyrrhic, empty victory that has not “settled the question for generations” as the then UK Tory prime minister David Cameron had hoped. Instead, as we explained at the time, the “winners become the losers and the losers the winners”.

In the wake of the referendum, the base of support for the ‘pro-union’ capitalist parties has been dramatically weakened. Scottish Labour, who spearheaded the ‘Better Together’ No campaign, suffered an electoral annihilation just eight months after their referendum ‘victory’.

The May 2015 elections to the UK parliament at Westminster saw Scottish Labour lose 39 of its 40 MPs, as the working class took brutal revenge against the party that had lined up beside the Tories and big business against independence. Since then Scottish Labour has slumped to an even worse position. In the December 2019 general election, they polled 200,000 fewer votes than in the 2015 wipe-out.

In contrast, a landslide of support towards the Scottish National Party (SNP), who led the campaign for a Yes vote, saw it secure 56 of the 59 available seats to the Westminster parliament. The SNP has currently cemented itself as the largest party in Scotland.

Support for Scottish independence has increased significantly during the pandemic. Consistently, polls now show a majority backing independence. The economic and social catastrophe of post-Covid capitalism is very likely to see an explosion in both class struggle and demands for a second independence referendum. The determination of Boris Johnson and the British ruling class to refuse a referendum is likely to provoke a major national conflict.

A catalyst for change

Apart from the dead-end that capitalism represents today for the working class, the national question in Scotland has been the catalyst for a challenge to the capitalist establishment for other important reasons.

In part, the absence of generalised and sustained mass action by the workers’ movement in Scotland and across Britain to meet the post-2007-08 austerity offensive created a vacuum that was filled by a surge towards independence by the working class and young people. Linked to this has been the lack of a mass workers’ party in Scotland for the last three decades. Without a political point of reference, not surprisingly, significant sections of the working class have continued to seek a way out of the nightmarish existence that capitalism represents and have increasingly turned to independence.  Is this not a perfect illustration of Trotsky’s description in his book

The History of the Russian Revolution, that the nationalism of the oppressed can be “the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”?

Some sections of the left in Scotland and Britain however – the Communist Party, much of the Labour left etc – have dismissed the desire for independence among the working class as a purely reactionary feature. Scotland was never an oppressed nation, they claim.

The collapse in support for Scottish Labour over the last decade is rooted in their refusal to accept the right of self-determination for Scotland, to the point of vehemently opposing an indyref2 and a commitment to vote against it in the Scottish parliament.

George Galloway, influenced by the political line of the Communist Party and Stalinism, has even gone as far as to propose a political bloc with the Tories and other pro-union forces to defeat Scottish independence. Galloway has form on this. He shared an anti-independence platform with former Tory leader Ruth Davidson in the 2014 referendum.  In 2021, he plans to stand as part of an ‘Alliance for Unity’ in the Scottish elections. The key pledges of the alliance are: “Stand up to the SNP against Scottish separatism. Seek to form a government of ‘national unity’ if we are the kingmakers. Work with any and all pro-Union parties to stop nationalists from holding a second Independence referendum”.

Marxists, however, have the responsibility of separating out the genuine democratic desires of the working class, who see in independence an escape route from poverty and austerity, from those of the pro-capitalist SNP leadership who defend class oppression and would seek to continue it in an independent capitalist Scotland.

The role of socialists in this situation is to fight for the democratic right to self-determination but also to point clearly to the antagonistic and polar opposite class interests inherent in the independence movement. The most effective way of doing this is not to oppose the separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK but is to support the desire for independence while explaining the need to carry through a rupture with capitalism and establish an independent socialist Scotland.

At the same time, as Lenin and Trotsky explained on many occasions, Marxists have to stand implacably for the unity of the working class and its organisations across nations. It is, therefore, necessary to stand not only for an independent socialist Scotland but also a voluntary democratic socialist confederation of Scotland with England, Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe. In this way it is then possible to win support for united class interests, including among workers in the rest of Britain.

Such an approach has been completely absent from much of the pro-independence left in Scotland. Tommy Sheridan, who played a key role as a member of Militant in the mass anti-poll tax campaign in the 1980s and early 1990s, and was a former Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) MSP in the parliament for eight years, is still calling for a vote for the SNP in elections as he has done since 2015.

The SSP itself proposed an ‘independence alliance’ with the pro-capitalist SNP and the Greens after the 2014 indyref. Their mistaken two stages approach of first independence and then socialism has continued. This has led them to prettify what capitalist independence would deliver. As of September 2020, their website states: “With independence, we can escape from endless cuts, never ending austerity and we won’t have to live under Tory rule ever again… We will shake off the chains imposed by a tiny corporate elite based in London, who are unelected, unaccountable and unwanted. Without these, democracy and accountability in Scotland will flourish”.

Yet under capitalist independence global corporate chains would still bind Scotland, whether they emanate from Edinburgh, London, New York or Berlin. Only socialism can break the chains of big business through a programme of widespread public ownership and democratic workers’ control. Marxists have a responsibility of explaining that capitalist independence cannot offer a way out of the crisis.

No left turn

The SNP has emerged over the past decade as the largest electoral force in Scotland – including among the working class and young people. As we have consistently explained this transformation reflects, in a distorted way, the enormous political vacuum that exists for a new workers’ party following Labour’s transformation into a pro-capitalist entity under the Blairites. The defeat of Corbynism at a UK level has also reinforced that trend.

The fact that the SNP led the 2014 referendum campaign for independence – against the onslaught of the capitalist class and Project Fear – means it still holds political capital. The SNP are not a traditional bourgeois party, rather their leadership is drawn from the Scottish middle class – the capitalist class in Scotland still in the main are opposed to independence. The SNP has been to the left of a rightward moving Labour Party since the late 1980s – with a brief interregnum under Corbyn when they were outflanked to the left. Their 1970s image of being Tartan Tories no longer sticks.

Strategically, their aim was to win over the Scottish working class by adopting what was seen as more progressive policies on social and to an extent economic issues. For example, opposing the Iraq war, calling for the removal of Trident nuclear weapons, free prescriptions, refusing to implement NHS privatisation, keeping the Educational Maintenance Allowance for school pupils when it was abolished in England, defending the right to asylum, opposing, at least verbally, austerity, the bedroom tax and universal credit. At the same time, they have carried out cuts consistently and sought to shift the blame onto Westminster.

Their susceptibility to pressure from the working class has also been shown by a series of retreats when faced with a movement. For example being forced into full mitigation of the bedroom tax in 2014, conceding to the 2018 Glasgow equal pay strike, on teachers’ pay in 2019, the summer 2020 school exams downgrading fiasco, and so on. They want as much as possible to avoid a collision with the working class in Scotland that could be catastrophic for their plans to win a majority for independence, as well as their electoral positions. The almost constant refrain by the SNP leadership as to how bad the situation is in England in comparison is also used to bolster their support.

Attempts have also been made to win over the trade union leadership, or at least some of them, to the orbit of the SNP. Certainly, the Scottish TUC tops have been open to these overtures and the plea for partnership arrangements with the Scottish government such as the ‘fair work’ agreement. In 2011, after the election of the ConDem coalition and the start of the austerity offensive, there were attempts, emanating from the STUC, to bring a motion to Scottish UNISON that would have led to the union accepting attacks on wages and conditions as a trade-off to safeguard jobs in local government and the public sector. This was overwhelmingly defeated, with Socialist Party Scotland members playing a key role in the debate. Further attempts to bind the trade unions into partnership working, including under independence, will also have to be resisted.

Despite this, the SNP is still an avowedly capitalist party. The burgeoning growth in SNP membership after the 2014 referendum, to over 120,000, has not led to any significant shift to the left. If anything the party is devoid of activists.  Above all, there is no change to the SNP politicians’ imposition of Tory austerity in Scotland.

In addition, many of the SNP MPs are exhibiting behaviour more in common with a traditional establishment pro-capitalist party, with life-styles and incomes completely removed from the reality of life for the majority in Scotland. An investigation into the 2015 intake of SNP MPs found that almost one-third of them had additional incomes from renting-out property on top of their £74,000 parliamentary salary.

A survey of SNP MPs, MSPs and MEPs revealed that 90% of them were drawn from the top three occupational groupings. Those from a trade union activist and working-class background are in a tiny minority. Moreover, none of the SNP councillors or Scottish parliamentarians has, so far, refused to vote against budget cuts.

Time and again the SNP leadership have underlined their commitment to the market and capitalism. Recent examples include the 2018 updated economic case for independence, which pledged an independent Scotland would seek to slash the budget deficit by holding down public spending for up to ten years, a recipe for savage cuts to public spending for years after independence.

The SNP leaders are also long-term opponents of public ownership of the profiteering privatised energy companies. In response to the 2014 North Sea oil price collapse, they demanded tax cuts for the oil multinationals who have made billions, while axing tens of thousands of oil workers’ jobs and attacking wages and conditions.

These facts underline the chasm that separates many of the policies and actions of the SNP’s public representatives from the majority of the working class in Scotland, including many of their own members. For that reason, Socialist Party Scotland has consistently warned that the SNP cannot deliver for the working class majority and that the building of a new mass workers’ party in Scotland is a vital task. Such a party would lead a mass working class movement for independence while campaigning against all cuts and for public ownership and socialist policies.

How will independence be won?

The issue is not so much whether there will be another referendum but rather its timing and the circumstances that could trigger it. The SNP leadership have zig-zagged their way through the last six years much like a downhill skier. The 2016 Brexit vote led to SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon demanding a second referendum, only to withdraw it after losing a third of her MPs in the 2017 Westminster election.

Boris Johnson’s return to the UK premiership in December 2019 led to new demands for indyref2. Johnson and the Tories have made clear there will be no such vote allowed. The SNP leadership say that a nationalist majority at the 2021 Scottish election will give them another new mandate for a referendum, moreover, one that ‘no government can stand against’. Yet this is the same ‘mandate’ argument that Sturgeon has used in 2016, 2017 and 2019 elections.

Boris Johnson’s refusal to allow a referendum reflects the overall opposition of British capitalism who will do all they can to prevent any possibility of the break-up of the UK. Scottish independence would be a catastrophe for capitalist interests – even more profound than Brexit. While Scotland makes up around a tenth or so of the overall UK economy, the blow to the prestige of British capitalism, on the back of Brexit, would be immense.

It would lead to a major weakening in its international standing and have profound consequences for the whole of the UK. Not least in Northern Ireland, where an increase in sectarian conflict, including demands by nationalists for an ‘Irish Unity’ border poll and counter-demands by unionists to oppose it, would be hugely destabilising.

Scottish independence would also inflame the national question in Wales. Another factor could be a rise in English nationalism and increased national and regional tensions generally. This nightmare scenario for the capitalist class which they are determined must be avoided at all costs.

To that end, the British ruling class, sections of the media etc, can and will seek to stoke up anti-nationalist moods in Scotland. The ‘plight’ of English people living in Scotland – the largest minority – and other non-Scottish minorities can be used. Sectarianism will also play a role in Scotland. Elements of the unionist community have already been involved in mobilisations against Scottish independence, flowing from fears of what the break-up of the UK would mean for Northern Ireland.

It is essential that the workers’ movement puts forward a policy of overcoming attempts to divide the working class. A programme for class unity and opposition to sectarianism and racism, including the call for a voluntary socialist confederation of Scotland with England, Wales and Ireland, is vital in that regard. Left to the SNP leadership and sections of the Scottish left, who will fail to deal with the issue, there are dangers that divisions will open up among the working class.

Both Sturgeon and the SNP leadership are massively underestimating the determination of the ruling class to block Scottish independence. Mass working-class struggle and a revolutionary threat to the billionaire class can force concessions. Appeals by the SNP to the Tories to listen to reason and accept the ‘democratic will of the people’ will fail.

Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence, therefore, that the only route to independence is a legally agreed referendum is an exercise in delusion. This is not 2014. Then, David Cameron and the Tories were confident they would comfortably win a referendum and in the process end for decades demands for separation.

They were rocked by an insurgent mood among the working class in favour of independence and there is no possibility of British capitalism revisiting that strategy. The only way to win democratic rights and self-determination is to build a campaign, rooted in the working class and the trade unions, that confronts the opposition and the capitalist interests that lie behind them. To be able to mobilise such a movement requires socialist and anti-austerity policies at its core.

For that reason, a militant movement for indyref2 must be built by the trade unions and the working class that is independent of the pro-capitalist SNP leadership. Socialist Party Scotland advocates what the SNP leadership will never do; mobilising the power of the workers’ movements in mass demonstrations, generalised strike action, occupations etc to demand the right to choose. But this can only be done while offering a vision of an independent Scotland that ends all cuts, poverty and wealth inequality. In other words, a socialist society.

Organisations of struggle

In the context of such a confrontation with a mass working-class movement for democratic rights demands for a constituent or a national assembly can come to the fore. This could be the case for example if the Westminster government and the capitalist state refused to recognise the democratic right to self-determination. Such a demand has generally been advanced when the ruling class have blocked the democratic desires of the masses, including in France in 1789 and the Russian revolution of 1917. In that sense, it is a bourgeois-democratic demand.

While it is true that it is primarily raised historically and currently in the context of the neo-colonial world, it could also feature in the future in Scotland. There can be a clamour for the creation of such an assembly in order to give effect to the demands of the masses for independence.

Marxists would call for such an assembly to have a revolutionary character and to be convened and made up of delegates from mass workers’ organisations, trade unions, neighbourhood assemblies, mass youth organisations and so on, as opposed to being simply staffed by politicians from the pro-capitalist parties. It could play a very important role in mobilising the working class and young people not only for the creation of an independent state but also, crucially, in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and for the creation of a socialist Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon’s timidity in the face of Johnson’s intransigence and the class interests he defends should not be a surprise. It is the same capitulation we have seen over austerity, with the Scottish government and SNP-led councils passing on cuts with barely a murmur of opposition.

Nor can the SNP’s ‘vision’ of an independent Scotland convince the big majority of the working class to back independence. Their 2018 ‘Growth Commission’ report underlined that after independence austerity would continue unaltered in a capitalist Scotland. In contrast, an independent socialist Scotland based on public ownership of the economy and a massive programme of investment for housing, health and public services would win mass support.

The SNP itself is also facing splits and increasing internal tensions, including over how or whether to confront the entrenched opposition of the capitalist class to a second referendum. It is vital that the trade unions – with more than 500,000 members in Scotland – take up the issue of the right to a second referendum as an urgent task and seek to build a mass campaign for the democratic right to decide.

Defy the Tories

Sturgeon, in her various speeches and comments, has poured cold water on the idea that the Scottish government would hold an “advisory referendum” as it was “legally untested”. But it would be perfectly legitimate, as part of a struggle for democratic rights, to convene such a referendum if the Tories refused to concede. The question of whether it was ‘legal’ or ‘untested’ from a capitalist point of view is secondary. The bosses and right-wing governments consistently use their influence over the legal system, the courts, parliament etc to impose anti-working class laws.

What was Thatcher’s poll tax if not an example of an anti-working-class law? Defeated, alongside the ‘Iron Lady’, by mass civil disobedience and an army of non-payment – not led by the SNP but by Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party – that precisely ‘broke the law’. Now, a mass movement for indyref2, linked to trade union action against mass joblessness and further attacks on workers’ rights in the post-Covid economic crisis, could defeat Johnson and the Tories.

It is also vital that a successful movement for the right to indyref2 is led by the trade unions and a new workers’ party that could seek to link up with workers in other parts of the UK also struggling against this government of the rich and capitalism. That sees the fight for self-determination in Scotland as linked to the social and economic transformation from capitalism to socialism – not only in Scotland but across the UK and internationally.

This could help lay the basis for a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation of Scotland with England, Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe. Such an approach can also cut across the inevitable attempts by the ruling class to use nationalism to divide the workers’ movement.

By unleashing the power of the working class it would be more than possible to defeat the Tories. But the SNP leadership, because they defend capitalism, are organically fearful of mobilising the working class in a confrontation with the Tory government. They are seeking a negotiated agreement by emphasising their pro-capitalist credentials. Their approach underlines the reality that a successful struggle for a second independence referendum will need to be led by the working class armed with socialist policies to end poverty and inequality for good. Socialist Party Scotland, as we did in the 2014 referendum, is striving to assist in forging a trade union, socialist, anti-cuts and pro-working class campaign for an independent socialist Scotland.

In the wake of the pandemic and its consequences, eruptions of class and national struggle are inevitable. The pro-capitalist SNP leadership will be increasingly exposed in the eyes of the working class. This will prepare the ground for the emergence of a genuine anti-austerity and socialist alternative as a mass force over time.

Given the incapacity of capitalism to resolve any of the problems facing the working-class majority, the national question in Scotland will continue to play a dominant role. Socialist Party Scotland stands for an independent socialist Scotland as a step towards a voluntary socialist confederation of states as the only way out of the nightmare that capitalism represents today. And the only way to ensure that the democratic right to self-determination is fully achieved.

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March 2021