The 1707 Act of Union and the rise of the Scottish working class

Submitted by cathy n on 16 March, 2007 - 2:32

“In the question of the self-determination of nations, as in every other question, we are interested, first and foremost, in the self-determination of the proletariat within a given nation....” VI Lenin

The London establishment and the government and the British Labour Party are agitated by the fear that the Scottish Nationalist Party and others who want an independent Scotland will in the 2007 elections win a majority in the Scottish Parliament.

A sense of distinct Scottish identity has survived 300 years of union with England and the long Scottish equal partnership with England at the centre of the British empire. The setting up of a Scottish Parliament did not satisfy, placate or politically disarm Scottish nationalism. It has encouraged and stimulated it.

Whatever happens in 2007 the movement towards Scottish independence increasingly looks like it is becoming an irresistible force. The “Scottish breakaway” from England, Wales and Northern Ireland is now, it seems, a probability.

For international socialists the rise of Scottish nationalism raises important questions. Not new questions but old ones in a new form. Virtually all those in Scotland who consider themselves socialists are now for Scottish independence. Some are enthusiastically for it, while others go passively with the flow of a strong current. Others have convinced themselves that the attainment of “an independent Scottish Republic” is indistinguishable from a Scottish Workers’ Republic, or at least the close prelude to it.

For international socialists the issues are on one level simple and straightforward: if a majority of the Scottish people want independence, then we will defend their right to have it, and if necessary their right to act to get it. Our first and central concern is that the unity forged over centuries of the Scottish and English, Welsh and Northern Irish labour movements should survive any secession of the Scottish state.

The great precedent is the attitude of the Swedish and Norwegian socialists to Norway’s separation from Sweden in 1905. Lenin summed up the experience:

“The geographic, economic and language ties between Norway and Sweden are as intimate as those between the Great Russians and many other Slav nations. But the union between Norway and Sweden was not a voluntary one, .... Despite the very extensive autonomy which Norway enjoyed (she had her own parliament, etc.), there was constant friction between Norway and Sweden... [In 1905] the overwhelming majority... voted for complete separation from Sweden. After a short period of indecision, the Swedes resigned themselves to the fact of secession.

“This example shows us... the form secession sometimes assumes under conditions of political freedom and democracy.

“No [socialist] will deny — unless he would profess indifference to questions of political freedom and democracy (in which case he is naturally no longer a [socialist]) — that this example virtually proves that it is the bounden duty of class-conscious workers to conduct systematic propaganda and prepare the ground for the settlement of conflicts that may arise over the secession of nations, not in the [autocratic] “Russian way”, but only in the way they were settled in 1905 between Norway and Sweden....

“What position did the Norwegian and Swedish proletariat take, and indeed had to take, in the conflict over secession? After [emphasis Lenin’s] Norway seceded, the class-conscious workers of Norway would naturally have voted for a republic... The Norwegian proletariat had to oppose this aristocracy and support Norwegian peasant democracy.

And the Swedish proletariat?... “The Swedish Socialists would have betrayed the cause of socialism and democracy if... they had failed to demand, not only equality of nations in general... but also... Norway’s freedom to secede.

“The close alliance between the Norwegian and Swedish workers, their complete fraternal class solidarity, gained from the Swedish workers’ recognition of the right of the Norwegians to secede.”

(V I Lenin: The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, early 1914)

Scotland was not an involuntary partner in making the union. Nor was it an oppressed nation in the 300 years union with England and Wales. It was a major partner and beneficiary in England’s colonial and imperial enterprises.

As Stan Crooke demonstrates in this Workers’ Liberty, it is myth rather than history that, in Robert Burns’s song the Scottish people were “bought and sold for English gold” in making the union.

But if Scots now want independence then Scotland should have it and is entitled to the support of democrats throughout the rest of the present United Kingdom. What is not clear cut or straightforward and simple is what attitudes Scottish international socialists should take to the agitation for Scottish independence now, before there is a secure and stable majority for it.

A Scottish Republic would by definition for socialists and consistent democrats be a democratic step beyond the UK’s constitutional monarchy. A small step that would simultaneously weaken the forces of republicanism in the present UK. In any case, this question of replacing Britain’s constitutional monarchy with a plutocratic republic is for all practical considerations too small to be a decisive consideration with socialists.

The idea that an independent Scotland would be on the high road to a socialist Scotland is sheer delusion generated by those woolly-minded socialists who need pseudo-socialist mystification in order to justify their advocacy of Scottish independence.

The idea that the Scots are or were an oppressed people, tricked if not coerced into the union, is more ideologising fantasy, than “historical” fact — the fantasy of historical oppression that complements the fantasy that an independent Scotland will necessarily be socialist. International socialists have no tolerance for either of these fantasies. We believe it is our duty to hold to a true picture of UK-Scottish history and to a true picture of the road to socialism in Scotland — the education and organisation of the working class to fight for it.

Socialists must resist both narrow-minded petty-bourgeois and fantasy-addled “socialist” nationalism.

Scottish separatism has been stimulated by the end of the British Empire and by the immersion of the old UK in the EU.

Paradoxically, the creation of a broader European federation of peoples has led, and not only in the UK, to the prising apart of the component parts of some old nation states — Italy for example — in which once divergent peoples had been bolted together and bound in a common state by the development of the capitalist national economy (and in Britain’s case in the 300 years since 1707 also by the advantages for the UK including Scotland that came from the British Empire).

If there is to be a separation, then it is the duty of socialists to ensure that it is as radical and Republican a break as possible — that is takes the Scottish working class forward. We must insist against all the nationalists that the Scottish working class has no common interest with the Scottish bourgeoisie, be they for or against an independent Scotland. That it has more in the common with the English, Welsh and Northern Irish working class than with any Scots of other classes.

We publish this article by Stan Crooke as a contribution towards the work of demystifying Scottish and Scottish-English history.

Sean Matgamna

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