Scotland: for a democratic federal republic!

Submitted by AWL on 12 January, 2012 - 12:20

Written in 2009

Blink once, and the momentum for Scottish independence looks like a steamroller travelling faster and faster downhill. Blink a second time, and it looks quite different.

In 1969-71 large oil and gas reserves were discovered offshore from Scotland. The Scottish National Party boomed rapidly, reaching 30.4% of Scottish votes in the October 1974 general election. Its vote has bounced up and down since then, but since 1988 it has been almost always above or close to 20% in UK general elections.

In by-elections the SNP has continued to achieve particularly dramatic results. In the 2008 Glasgow East by-election a 22% swing to the SNP saw the party win the second-safest Labour seat in Scotland, and the 26th-safest Labour seat in the UK. Although the SNP failed to win the subsequent Glenrothes by-election, it did succeed in increasing its vote by over 13%.

In 1979 Scotland voted 51.6% to 48.4% for creating an elected Scottish Assembly, but the British government of the time had said that the Assembly would not go ahead unless the vote for it was 40% of the whole electorate, as well as a majority of those voting. By 1997, when a second referendum was held, the majority was 74.3% to 25.7% for a Scottish Parliament — and one with vastly greater powers than the Assembly on offer in the 1979 referendum.

In 2007 the SNP won 32.9% of the vote in the Scottish Parliamentary election. As the biggest single party at Holyrood, the SNP went on to form a minority Scottish government committed to independence. The SNP has pledged to hold a referendum on independence in 2010, following the conclusion of what it terms the “National Conversation” about Scotland’s constitutional future, and talks of Scotland being independent by 2017.

By 2005, 68% of people in Scotland identified themselves as “predominantly Scottish”, 21% as “equally Scottish and British”, and only 9% as “predominantly British”. Some opinion polls have also shown a majority for independence.
Now blink again.

The growth in electoral support for the SNP is not as impressive as it appears at first sight. The 18% of the vote secured by the SNP in the 2005 Westminster general election was just 3% higher than their vote in 1955 in constituencies where they stood candidates. Extending the comparison over a longer period of time, since the inter-war years support for the SNP has increased by an average of 1% per decade: 7% over 70 years.

The SNP’s victory in Glasgow East was certainly spectacular — but the party took a conscious decision to put the demand for independence “on a back burner” for the duration of the by-election campaign. Similarly, in the subsequent Glenrothes by-election it decided to “park” the issue of independence.

A vote for the SNP is not necessarily a vote for independence. A survey of SNP voters in the 1997 general election found that 23% supported Scottish independence and withdrawal from the European Union (the SNP’s official policy in the 1960s and 1970s), 37% backed Scottish independence within the European Union, and 34% backed “independence within the UK” (i.e. Donald Dewar’s description of Labour’s devolution policy).

Ten years later, in the Scottish Parliament elections which saw the SNP emerge as the largest party in Holyrood, it was a similar story: nearly one in four of those who voted SNP supported some form of devolution rather than full independence.
Over the last three and a half decades support for independence has increased by just 6%. 21% backed independence in 1974, when the first data were collected. Support declined after the 1979 referendum, and then began to grow again under Thatcher, reaching a peak of 37% in 1997. Since then, support has stabilised at around 27%. Over the same period of time support for devolution has increased by around 11%.

Of people questioned on the issue each year from 1997 to 2001, 49% had supported independence at least once, but only 5% had supported it at every asking. It is possible, by phrasing the question the right way, to get a poll majority for independence; but, given the option of a Scottish parliament with increased powers as an alternative to independence, in surveys between 1998 and 2001 between 54% and 62% went for that, with only 20% to 23% choosing independence instead.
Trends in the strength of Scottish identity have paralleled trends in support for independence. In 1974, when the question was first asked, some 66% of Scots defined themselves as Scottish rather than British (not to be confused with: only Scottish, not British). This fell to around 55% after the 1979 referendum, increased again under Thatcher, reached a peak of 80% after the opening of the Scottish Parliament, and then fell again to 70% by 2003 — an increase of 4% over three decades.

In the run-up to the SNP victory in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary election, which was widely expected, “Independence First” organised two demonstrations calling for a referendum on independence. The point of the marches was to allow people to show themselves more vigorously for independence than just to the extent of saying yes in an opinion poll or voting for the SNP.

(The referendum demand was just a convenient hook on which to hang the explanation for calling the demonstrations. There is little doubt that the SNP’s decision to postpone a referendum to a more convenient time — i.e. following a possible Tory victory in the next Westminster general election — is rational from the point of view of attempting to achieve independence.)

The marches were supported by the SNP, the Scottish Socialist Party, Sheridan’s breakway “Solidarity”, and by the Greens.

The organisers claimed just 1000 people on the first march, on 30 September 2006. They gave no figures for the second, on 31 March 2007. The suggestion that it was smaller is confirmed by the pictures of it they have published. They also organised an electronic petition. It drew only 1300 names.

The tepidity of pro-independence opinion and the lack of enthusiasm for taking to the streets to demonstrate in support of independence is unsurprising given the tepidity of what the SNP presents as the gains of independence:
“With the right policies in place, we could make Scotland a much more competitive place to do business [i.e. cheaper for multinationals]. Policies such as cutting corporation tax to 20% [so, cutting public services, or raising taxes on workers?], reducing business red tape [i.e. regulations to protect workers and consumers], and implementing a distinctive immigration policy to target migrants with the skills we need [i.e. shutting out poor migrants and letting in only the well-off or well-qualified]”.

There is in SNP publicity no talk of throwing off the yoke of foreign rule, or enabling the Scottish people to breath freely after ages under the boot of the conqueror. Nor, given the history of Scotland as a more or less equal partner in the British Empire and British capitalism, could there plausibly be, although it took the SNP nearly half a century to recognise this.

The SNP would keep Scotland within the EU, retain the House of Windsor as the monarchy, and keep the pound (although possibly only in the short-term). Many of the big-business people who support the SNP do so explicitly on the grounds that at present Scotland, with higher public spending per head than the rest of the UK but a lower tax take, suffers from a “dependency culture”, and independence would bring a bracing shock of neo-liberal austerity.

Unless they are right, the difference in everyday life in an independent Scotland would be small. In fact, given New Labour’s policies of battering the unemployed and creating ever higher hurdles to claiming welfare benefits, even if those business people were right, everyday life in an independent Scotland would not be substantially different from now.

“Scotland’s oil” has been the SNP’s main economic hope. “It’s ours, all ours”, they have cried, emulating Grampa Joad in the film version of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”. But now they probably need to add Joad’s preface: “It’s no good, but it’s mine, all mine”.

According to British government figures, about 81% of “probable” workable North Sea oil reserves, and 77% of gas, have now been extracted. The oil companies give a similar picture. The SNP insists that “half of the oil is yet to come”, but with manifestly diminishing confidence.

These days, to calm worries about the obvious “start-up” economic costs of independence, the SNP plays more on the supposed competitive advantages of small countries in the EU (or half-in it, via the EEA).

Unfortunately, one of the prize success stories it has cited is Iceland, now in chaos following the collapse of its banks. Scottish banking has also lost its lustre. Before 2008, Edinburgh was headquarters for two of Britain’s five largest banks, RBS and HBOS. Both have now had to be bailed out by London, HBOS via an assisted takeover by Lloyds TSB, and RBS via de facto nationalisation.

It is certainly true that other countries in what the SNP traditionally referred to as the “arc of prosperity” have not suffered the economic meltdown experienced by Iceland. Even so, the example of Iceland has sufficed to dent the image of small states banding together in a Northern version of the Golden Triangle.

Why, then, the first-blink picture? Granted that the flow towards independence is tepid and slow, why does it nonetheless appear to be so copious?

The immediate answer to that question is rooted in the changing nature of the relationship between Scottish nationalism (more accurately: Scottish identity and Scottish national consciousness) and Unionism, and in the more recent changes in the nature of Scottish nationalism itself.

Scottish nationalism was a non-existent political force throughout the nineteenth century and into the early years of the last century. This was because the British state and the British Empire — not independence — were regarded as the best medium through which to advance Scottish national interests. In that sense, as numerous historians have commented, Unionism was a historic form of Scottish nationalism.

Concerns about the preservation of Scottish identity or about the relationship between Scotland and England did not manifest themselves in a Scottish-nationalist project. Exemplified by the short-lived National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights of the early 1850s and the Scottish Home Rule Association founded in 1886, those who questioned the Unionist status quo wanted reform and improvement, not repeal.

That Scottish-nationalist Unionism has been in decline since around the time of the First World War. The economic benefits of the British Empire inevitably disappeared along with the British Empire itself. And the various institutions around which a British identity had gelled — such as the monarchy, the armed forces, and the Westminster Parliament — lost the status which they had once enjoyed at the high noon of the British Empire.

The most serious single blow to the tradition of Scottish-nationalist Unionism was delivered by Thatcher. This was not simply because her policies had an even greater socially regressive impact on Scotland than on England. More fundamentally, it was because she redefined Unionism in opposition to Scottish nationalism (and all forms of devolution) and then identified defence of the Union with her own brand of political reaction.

Thus, the ‘glue’ which had previously bonded together Scottish identity and Scottish national consciousness with Unionism gradually dissolved — not consistently, but in a succession of fits and spurts — throughout the twentieth century. This helped pave the way for the emergence of a modern Scottish nationalist movement.

And that nationalist movement itself has evolved over time. In its earliest versions — the National Party of Scotland, and the early years of the SNP — it was a mixture of pro-independence ‘hardliners’ and supporters of Home Rule, unclear as to whether it was an actual political party or simply a pressure group (directed in the main towards the Labour Party).

By the 1960s the SNP had consolidated into a political party, based on the demand for Scottish withdrawal from the UK and opposition to membership of the Common Market. It was a right-wing, narrowly nationalist party, easily dismissed by the Labour Party as “Tartan Tories”.

The SNP of today is arguably less nationalist than it was in even recent decades (which must count as a factor in explaining the increased electoral support which is has been able to muster). Its earlier inward- and backward-looking bog-standard nationalism has given way to a more inclusive and “civic” kind of nationalism (which is not to deny that it could easily regress to an earlier version).

Rather than being a response to an increasingly aggressive British nationalism, the rise of Scottish nationalism and the SNP — a real enough phenomenon, albeit one which should not be exaggerated — can therefore be seen as a product of the decline of British nationalism.

Far from being horrified at the prospect of Scottish independence leading to the break-up of Britain, for example, opinion polls in England produce a bigger majority in favour of Scottish independence than opinion polls in Scotland ever do.
Scottish separation would certainly weaken Britain militarily (though only by a fraction: Scotland is 8% of the UK’s population), and probably the British government of the day would not like it. But as long ago as 1995, John Major, as Tory Prime Minister, said that if Scots voted for independence, a London government “could not stop them.”

No-one in mainstream British politics gainsays the right of Scotland to separate if a Scottish majority wishes it. A Tory government may even see electoral advantage from separation. And individual Tory politicians certainly do (though not ones based in Scotland).

The more general answer to the question of why the flow towards independence appears to be so copious is that it is not just British nationalism which has declined but also — notwithstanding the growth in electoral support garnered by parties of the far Right — nationalism in Western Europe in general.

People in the USA, or China, or India, may feel a strong identity as American, or Chinese, or Indian, because they feel they are part of an “imagined community” mighty enough to shape the whole world. People in countries which have within living memory won their independence from a foreign yoke are “nationalist” in cherishing that achievement. There are other reasons why nationalism may run hot.
But in Western Europe, since the decline of the old colonial empires between the 1940s and the 1970s, nationalism has run tepid. No nation in Western Europe can hope to be a world-shaping power; none sees any risk of foreign conquest.

The European Union, with its bureaucratic ways, and a speed of progress glacial as measured by the ordinary pace of human life-events (though maybe not as measured against the broad sweep of European history), is not likely any time soon to create a warm “European” identity. As the ponderous manoeuvres around the draft European constitution and the subsequent Treaty of Lisbon show, it commands nothing more than grudging acceptance from its citizens, and sometimes not even that.

But for those citizens it satisfies the need to be part of an “imagined community” strong enough to hold its own in a difficult world. They no longer need to feel themselves part of a relatively big or powerful nation to get that security.
(Thus the desperation and ridiculousness in Gordon Brown’s attempts to talk up “Britishness”. People cannot feel warm about being British because Britain plays such a big part in the world (it doesn’t), nor because they feel that Britain’s autonomy is hard-won or under threat (it isn’t).)

Broadly speaking, this is progress. It lowers one of the barriers to international working-class unity (though there are others: it does not exorcise racism or xenophobia). But for international working-class unity to stride over that lower barrier, it needs legs.

For several decades now, since the rise of Stalinism, the legs of the active advocates of working-class internationalism have been short. The collapse of Stalinism at the hands of triumphant global world-market capitalism had the short-term (but already decades-long) effect of making those legs shorter still.
That “releases” the desire for “imagined community” to flow — usually tepidly, but to flow nonetheless — into more local identities which in another era might be thought too flimsy either to protect or to project. It is not special to Scotland. Wales, Catalonia, the Basque country, Brittany, Flanders, Wallonia… all show the same pattern.

Belgian Marxists, commenting on the rise of Flemish and Walloon nationalism in their country, identify another factor in the increasing bureaucratisation, mediatisation, and neo-liberal consensus of mainstream politics:
“At present, communitarian demands are not put forward under the pressure of the masses. Quite the contrary. The communitarian terrain is the playing field par excellence for politicians in agreement on the neo-liberal austerity policy to pursue who wish to colour that policy with their own regional tint.”

They report that at a hot point of the most recent conflict agitating the Flemish and Walloon nationalists — about the division or otherwise of Belgium’s only officially-bilingual parliamentary constituency, BHV — a big majority told pollsters that they had no opinion one way or another on the matter.

There is a sort of analogy here with what happened in Yugoslavia from the 1970s, when the Titoist regime became more liberal. Basic social and political questions could still not be raised in official politics; but quarrels could be vented in terms of Croatia, or Slovenia, etc., getting a fair share.

It is not law that prevents mainstream political parties in Belgium or Britain from contesting the neo-liberal consensus; but, for now, the imperative of making each country “a competitive place to do business” (as the SNP puts it) works almost as well. So “to colour the neo-liberal policy with their own regional tint” is a safe and attractive ploy for politicians.

Will the rise of “safe”, tepid, smaller-unit nationalism inevitably roll on and on to separation, in Scotland anyway? It may not, at least not in the assayable future. It may roll on to a greater and more complicated devolution of powers, without ever, on current trends, reaching the endpoint of separation. And the parallel slow trend to European unification may outpace it.

In Wales, for example, the Plaid Cymru vote has slid since 1999, and there is no strong pressure for more than minor modifications of the devolution already agreed. Yet Wales has arguably had more “national oppression” than Scotland, with the Welsh language — still spoken by about 80% of the population in 1800, and 54% of the population at the time of the 1891 census — discriminated against for centuries.

Official London encouragement for the Welsh language, which has set Welsh-speaking on the rise again since 1991, seems to have cooled down Welsh nationalism almost to stasis.

Wales is too trivial an example, and anyway has had more English immigration over the centuries than Scotland — only 75% of its population were born in Wales, as against 87% in Scotland? Its population is more Anglicised, not having had the “reminder” of distinct law, education, and banknotes which Scotland has had?
Then consider Québec and Flanders, both “further on” than Scotland in separatist impulses. For centuries the French-speaking majority of Québec suffered real oppression from the English-speaking majority of Canada, and glumly submitted to what 1960s Québecois agitators called a “conquered-people complex”.

The Parti Québecois, committed to independence for Québec, won government for the first time in 1976-85. It was also in government from 1994-2003, and has won a bigger percentage of the vote than the SNP did in Scotland in 2007 in eight out of nine provincial elections since 1976. It has passed laws to make French the only official language in Québec, prompting considerable emigration of English-speakers from the area (the English-speaking minority declined from 13% in 1971 to 8% in 2001).

Yet today the PQ does not even mention independence in its platform, talking instead of expanding “sovereignty” while implicitly accepting for now that it will be within the framework of Canada. (Two referendums, in 1980 and 1995, have rejected independence, PQ leader Jacques Parizeau complaining in 1995 that the defeat was due to “ethnic votes”).

Or Belgium. The state was created in 1830 with little to define its identity other than that it roughly corresponded to the part of the Netherlands which remained under Spanish (later Austrian) rule after the northern Netherlands won independence in the 16th century. That Belgium’s Dutch-speaking north might be united with the Netherlands, or its French-speaking south with France, has never been implausible.

Until World War One the state, the aristocracy, and the high bourgeoisie were solidly French-speaking, disdainful of the mostly peasant Dutch-speakers. Flemish (Dutch-speaking) nationalism rose in the early 20th century and especially in World War 1. Between the world wars, Flanders and Wallonia became recognised as distinct regions with distinct official languages, though no political federalism was established.

After World War Two, Walloon (French-speaking) nationalism took the initiative in pushing for political federalism. In 1963, the “linguistic frontier” between the Dutch-speaking north and the French-speaking south was permanently “frozen” by law, in response to Flemish protests that this frontier was constantly edging north.

From 1964 economic output per head in Flanders moved ahead of previously-dominant Wallonia. Now it is 26% higher, with development centred round Antwerp, which is Europe’s busiest port after Rotterdam. (The disparity is much greater than between Scotland and England; household income per head is on average lower in Scotland than in England, but only by 9%, which is also much less than the disparity between regions in England. North-east England is 8% below Scotland).

Flemish demands again started to set the pace. A series of constitutional revisions since 1970 have established political federalism of increasing complexity. The country of ten million people now has six parliaments and five governments. Since the late 1960s, all the mainstream political parties, conservative, liberal, social-democratic, and Green, have split into separate Flemish and Walloon parties, and several new Flemish-only or Walloon-only parties have risen up.

It has become increasingly difficult to form federal governments (which must, by law, include equal numbers of French-speakers and Dutch-speakers), and in recent years there have been long periods of no federal government at all. Quarrels about detailed revision of the federal structures continue.

It is all a long way further down the line than Scotland. Surely this must come to a split? Some newspapers report a split as inevitable soon; The Economist recommends it. Yet even now Belgian Marxists consider a split only a “long-term” possibility.

There is no majority for a split in Flanders, and a strong majority against in Wallonia. No big party advocates a split other than the fascistic Vlaams Belang. The Belgian bourgeoisie does not want a split (the VBO-FEB, the bosses’ organisation, is, like the Belgian revolutionary left, among the few structures in Belgium which remains unitary).

There is no visible peaceful compromise about Brussels (officially the only bilingual area; 80% French-speaking, but inside the Dutch-speaking north). And meanwhile the Benelux union — the confederation of Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxemburg, dating from the 1940s, which has its own committee of ministers, parliament, court of justice, etc. — rolls on. A new treaty to strengthen it was adopted in June 2008, without trouble.

The Benelux governments were able to act swiftly in concert in September 2008 to nationalise (in part) Fortis, their biggest bank and a successor to the giant Société Générale which once dominated the Belgian economy, when it faced collapse.
Scotland could probably go as far as Québec or Flanders without fully separating. But there are other complications and possibilities.

Belgian Marxists comment: “Because of the institutional labyrinth that Belgium has become under the blows of successive compromises which, besides, have only led to new problems, confusion reigns as to who is responsible for what. De facto, Belgium is run in a very opaque and anti-democratic way.”

Centralised government over relatively large areas is often criticised as “remote”. It has a democratic advantage, though: everyone knows who is responsible for the decisions. The diffusion of political pressure into intricately layered structures tends to make it more difficult to mobilise across-the-board movements for change.

The logic of particularism also has a harmful effect on the labour movement. The Belgian Socialist Party has never been radical, but it had a sometimes lively left wing into the 1970s. Its division into two parties, Walloon and Flemish, in 1978, has helped consolidate its neo-liberalism.

The unions have resisted better, but the FGTB (secular) metalworkers’ federation split into three communal federations in 2006, and the CSC (Catholic) teachers are also split into separate Flemish and Walloon organisations.

Québec workers staged North America’s biggest-ever and most radical general strike in 1972. Yet, partly because of the pressure of nationalism, Québec trade unionists are divided into three federations — FTQ, CSN, CSQ — with only FTQ affiliated to the all-Canadian union confederation, and all three more or less tied to nationalist rather than any sort of independent working-class politics.
Finally, all the scenarios above are for conditions of relative capitalist stability. But capitalism is, of necessity, sometimes not even relatively stable. The case of Yugoslavia shows what can happen in crisis.

It is difficult to know how much grip the official Yugoslav talk of “brotherhood and unity” of the different south-Slav nations ever had, since under the Titoist regime it was illegal to decry it, but probably some. When the old regime disintegrated at the end of the 1980s, chauvinists on the different sides — maybe smallish minorities at the start — were quickly able to set the tone, and reciprocally to boost each others’ hegemony. What was previous tepid nationalism can quickly heat up.

In Flanders the Vlaams Belang is already consistently the biggest party in Antwerp. It is not inconceivable that a big crisis could boost it to majority status in Flanders, or at least to the level of forcing other parties to court its support or to adopt large parts of its policy in order to fend it off.
The Vlaams Belang is not just jockeying for electoral advantage when it raises Flemish-nationalist demands. It would see the disruption for Belgian capitalism from Flemish separation as a secondary consideration.

It really wants and needs Flemish independence in order to achieve its aims: stopping federal welfare funds going to Wallonia; Flemishing Brussels; reducing French-speakers in Brussels and its surrounds to second-class citizens; deporting many of the Moroccan and other immigrant workers in Belgium (mainly in Brussels, and mainly speaking French as their second language), and depriving those who remain of the vote.

The SNP is not like the Vlaams Belang, or Milosevic’s Serbian chauvinists. The point is that gradual easing-apart, until one day Scotland becomes independent with scarcely a jolt, as recommended by the SNP today, is not the only way to Scottish independence. It may not even be the most probable one.

Without the impulse of a crisis the solid majority of Scotland’s big-business which, despite the best efforts of the SNP to woo its support, continue to oppose independence, and the relative majority of its population which is against or sceptical about independence, may prove unbudgeable.

And in crises politics can change radically. Despite Parizeau’s jibe about “ethnic votes”, the Parti Québecois calls itself “social democratic” and in social policy is similar to European social democracies; but before its rise in 1968 the biggest Québecois-nationalist party, the Ralliement National (which then merged into the PQ), was markedly right-wing. The opposite evolution can happen.

Not all nationalist parties are right-wing; but nationalism, especially the nationalism of nations which are not oppressed and face no early risk of oppression, is fertile ground for right-wing politics. A right-wing split from the SNP which might win hegemony in a crisis would have real, urgent reasons for getting Scottish independence in order to pursue its politics.

The independentist left in Scotland lives in hope of the inverse scenario: that Scottish independence will come from a crisis, but a crisis that tips Scotland to the left — so that the independent Scotland will look like Cuba or Venezuela, rather than like the SNP’s Iceland (in pre-credit-crunch times) or Norway or “Celtic Tiger” Ireland, let alone like a Vlaams Belang Flanders or Tudjman’s Croatia.

Even apart from the illusions here as regards Cuba or Venezuela, there is a fundamental misperception.

Capitalist crises can indeed tip politics to the left. Our hope of socialist revolution is based on that fact. But in the integrated Europe of today, let alone centuries-integrated Britain, there is no way that a dramatic left-wing radicalisation could be limited in scope and aims to one country, or one small nation within a multinational country.

If it was true 160 years ago, in the Communist Manifesto, that “united action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat”, it is ten times more true today.

A sharp shift to the left by Scottish workers would go together with a sharp shift to the left by other European workers too — an increase in cross-border unity, a turn away from the petty grab-your-own politics of “it’s our oil” or “no more French-speaking spongers here”… Or it would quickly peter out.

A sharp shift to the nationalist right on one side of the “linguistic frontier” in Belgium, similarly, would tend to trigger a shift to the nationalist right on the other side. A generalised shift to the right will tend to increase self-reinforcing communal/national division, rather than cross-border unity. It works in the opposite direction.

Thus, Scottish independence is likely to arise from a crisis, if it does, through a process in which right-wing nationalist politics gain weight both in England and Scotland. English nationalist politicians would cry to be rid of Scottish “spongers”.

Already in Scotland research has found that “over a quarter of the English and over half the Pakistanis have experienced ethnic harassment “ and “individuals who are relatively Islamophobic are likely to be relatively Anglophobic as well.”
The harassment felt by English people in Scotland was much milder than that suffered by Pakistanis; self-defining Scots or Scottish nationalists were not on average more Islamophobic than other people in Scotland (and certainly much less so than Tory voters); and harassment of Pakistanis is worse in England than in Scotland.

But it is not hard to see how a right-wing Scottish nationalism burgeoning in crisis, and stimulated by right-wing English nationalism to its south, could combine Anglophobia and Islamophobia (notwithstanding the overwhelming shift by Muslim voters from Labour to the SNP following the 2003 invasion of Iraq). And it is certainly the case, as the same research shows, that SNP voters are more Anglophobic than those of any other party.

Without any great crisis prompting it, Wales saw over 200 houses burned out by nationalists between 1979 and 1990s on the grounds that they had been bought by English people; it cannot be inconceivable that something similar could happen in a Scotland shifting right in a crisis.

In short: Scottish nationalism is not an awakening against oppression, but a decomposition-product of the older, bigger European nationalisms. Its present trajectory points to nothing much more than a “minimal” independence or a slow increase in devolutionary autonomy. That has side-dangers of obscurity in politics and division in the labour movement. It also sets up tracks for a much more dangerous development in crisis conditions.

In one sense, however, this is all beside the point. The role of Marxism is not to be the Inspector General of history, nor are we the Gypsy Rose Lee of the future.
The task which Marxists set themselves is to intervene in the class struggle and to give political shape and direction to the elementary working-class struggle generated by capitalism. Spinning fantasies about the SNP’s demand for Scottish independence is no part of the Marxist programme.

In its own way, the demand for independence raised by sections of the Scottish left is only the domestic — and rather mundane — expression of a far more widespread malaise on the left.

Independence for Scotland is a “good thing”? It is for those on the left who have reduced socialism to a matter of inflicting real or imaginary blows on “imperialism”, with little or no concern about the politics of the agencies of this “anti-imperialist” struggle, or about the consequences for the working class of their victory.

And what could be more “anti-imperialist” than breaking up the state which once formed the hub of the British Empire?

Compared with the readiness of sections of the left to ignore, excuse and apologise for murderously anti-working-class organisations — such as Hamas, Hizbollah, or the Iraqi sectarian militias — cheering on the prospect of independence for Scotland is small beer. But it is the same political logic which underpins the one and the other.

As a standard, Marxists strive to counter the diversion of plebeian discontent into nationalist narrowness by advocating consistent democracy, by fighting for full national rights, by working to clear all genuine grievances of a “national” character out of the way so that workers can unite without rancour across national lines to combat the common capitalist enemy.

In the case of Scotland, this means upholding the right of the Scottish people to self-determination and to separation if they wish it. But to uphold the right to separation is not necessarily to advocate it. In Scotland, Marxists can make themselves positive advocates of separation only by painting up the SNP’s “more competitive place to do business” model with supposed socialistic virtues, or by subscribing to the SSP’s scheme that independence must mean, or will probably mean, independence in a crisis as a European fantasy-Cuba.

In other words, they can do it only by feeding nationalist illusions. But a first essential of a coherent socialist policy is to tell the truth.

As the Belgian Marxists note, we have an interest in clean, clear, straightforward political structures. In that respect, the creation of a Scottish Parliament, a sort of unofficial federalism, is a step forward from the strange previous regime where Scotland had different laws from England and Wales, but made by the same Westminster legislature.

The structure is still obscure and messy. The best way forward would be to advocate a democratic federal republic in Britain within a democratic federal Europe.

As Engels put it: “In my view, the proletariat [in general] can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic. In the gigantic territory of the United States, the federal republic is still, on the whole, a necessity, although in the Eastern states it is already becoming a hindrance. It would be a step forward in Britain where the two islands are peopled by four nations and in spite of a single Parliament three different systems of legislation already exist side by side.”
Scotland, England, and Wales have a common labour movement, very similar social and legal conditions, a large crossover of populations (of the people now living in Britain who were born in Scotland, 15% live in England or Wales; of the people living in Scotland, 15% were born outside, most in England), and a common language, so it should be possible to achieve a “closer” federalism quicker within this small area than in wider Europe.

The socialists’ aim, however, will always be to “level up” between the federal units and move to closer unity as fast as that can be done compatible with the wishes of the populations.

Above all, our aim is to unite the working class and the labour movement across national lines. Everything else is subordinate to that.


Submitted by Peter burton on Sun, 15/01/2012 - 20:35

What would a democratic federal republic look like and how would it function in practice ? How would it be different from Separation ? Wouldn't it inevitably lead to separation? What are its theoretical origins ?


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