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Response to SD statement on Scottish independence referendum
14 September 2014
Like Rayner Lysaght, I too have grave misgivings over the SD statement on Scotland. The dismissal of Scotland’s right to independence is part of a wider problem in Europe where oppressed nations such as Catalonia and the Basque country get lumped in with reactionary regional movements in Italy or Belgium.
Firstly, I do agree that that the Scottish Left have made rather weak and in some cases conjunctural arguments about the importance of a Yes vote and there hasn’t been that much discussion on whether or to what degree Scotland is an oppressed nation. There has, of course, been much greater discussion of this in the Basque Country and also in Catalonia, where the arguments on this point a far more convincing and sharper, notwithstanding some silly arguments by Spanish lefties about the bourgeois nature not only of Catalan nationalism but of all Catalans themselves, which is contrasted to a supposed proletarian culture in Spain.
However, there are a number of points. First is, that Scotland is a nation. As such it has a right, and that right is absolute, to decide its future. Whether this is in the interests of the working class, is the question that socialists have to answer. Scotland’s failed colonial enterprise and its incorporation into the British State in 1707 was not in any circumstances a marriage of equals nor was it democratic. In fact, the referendum on the 18th of September is the first time ever, in its history that Scots have been asked to vote on the question of independence. The rag bag army of scumbags who pushed the union through were no more representative of the Scottish people than those who voted for the Act of Union between Ireland and Britain.
The relative position of Scotland as integral part of the British State is not an argument around the question of national oppression. Indeed, many Irishmen (not that many women) also occupied ranks of privilege within the Empire and many Irishmen fought in Britain’s wars abroad, a fact testified to by the main entrance to Stephen’s Green in Dublin where the arch is inscribed with the names of those Irishmen killed in the Boer War. There is no doubt that the Scottish ruling class and their descendants born in Scotland were considered British by the English as were those born in Ireland, famously the Duke of Wellington, though none of us would really consider him to be Irish. What excluded the mass of the Irish population from such “inclusion” was religion, they were invariably Catholic. However, one manifestation of the oppression of a nation, is the destruction of its culture. The Scottish language, and by this I mean Gaelic, and not the Scots dialect of English, was all but destroyed. Scottish language and culture were pushed to the brink at a quicker pace than Irish, with no need for a famine to help it along. The highland clearances and industrialisation did the job as well as contempt for the “peasant” language. Destroying a culture, through oppression and economics (as is the case in both Ireland and Scotland) and then producing a culture similar in many ways to that of the Oppressor nation, (again the case in both Ireland and Scotland) is not a sign of a lack of oppression but actually goes to prove the point.
Some of the left and this includes comrades in SD have advanced arguments around the lack of tanks on the streets and the lack of open rebellion against the crown. Such arguments could also be made in the case of Ireland. It should be remembered that the RIC was an armed force, whose main use of arms was putting peasant land agitation down and securing evictions and only rarely was it employed against independence rebellions (three times in the 19th Century, none of which were that significant in military terms, though the Fenians did have a mass base).
Aside from the argument that can be made about Ireland, the lack of tanks and the outward signs of oppression have another explanation and that is the cultural hegemony of the English bourgeoisie. Scots came to a rapid acceptance of their subordinate role within the British State (whatever their relative position to African, Asian and Latin American colonies) and internalised this view. The reason there are no tanks on the streets to keep the Scots in check is the same reason that there are no tanks on the streets to keep the working class in check, except at times of crisis and then only to the degree it is needed and the State is capable of doing so. Capitalism knows how to calculate the doses of oppression required and administer it accordingly. In this they were very successful in Scotland and indeed in Ireland. Even today, West Brit and Two Nationist ideas can be easily found not just amongst the capitalists but also among the working class in Ireland. The fact that the Scots, for a long time, accepted, or were perceived as accepting the Cultural Hegemony (a la Gramsci) of the English (newly packaged as the British) is actually not an indicator of a lack of oppression, but a sign that something much deeper and profound has taken place.
A Progressive Scotland?
The SD statement about the SNP as not being more progressive has a great deal of truth to it. Though, no nation, needs to jump through the hoops of political correctness in order to prove itself worthy of exercising the right to self determination. The argument only has merit, in the sense that, in effect, many nationalists think that this is in fact the case, that they are naturally more progressive, regardless of the reality of their policies.
The statement is also correct on the need for the unity of the working class, though the argument is not without its dangers. Many, indeed most, on the left in Britain have argued the same point in relation to Ireland. However, unity is not just a unity within a political entity, such as the UK, or the aptly named New Caledonia in the South Pacific, where a referendum may soon be held in a country which is as much a part of the French State as Scotland is of the UK. The unity has to be one of purpose and political programme. The question arises to what extent, in the long term, will the English working class advance, by Scotland staying in the UK or by leaving it. To the extent that there has been a unity of purpose, that took its last breath during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 and was defeated thereafter. Though it should be pointed out that at no time did large sections of the British left object to the plunder of north sea oil and gas by the English ruling class; it can hardly be argued that Scotland got a relative share of this wealth. It didn’t, and the exploitation of economic resources by foreign powers (even where you vote members to the parliament as New Caledonia also does) is one sign of the oppression of a nation.
The SD statement is correct on the weaknesses
of the debate and the lack of clear working class perspectives in the debate.
However, this weakness is not just on the Yes side but also on the No side.
Scots are being asked to vote yes to Scottish nationalism or yes to British
nationalism and all it stands for. There is no sizeable, significant
or even coherent socialist argument being advanced for staying within the
union. The most coherent “left” argument comes from George Galloway
and that about says it all. The No argument centres round the Greatness
of Britain and being all in it together, that all in the Empire together,
the war in Iraq etc. As Dr Gerry Hassan points out in a recent article
in the New Statesman:
It is true that the more recent mobilisations of Scottish workers have taken place within a statewide framework. This is only to be expected as despite devolution there are things that have a statewide character. This would also be the case in the north of Ireland, but would not be an argument for remaining part of the union.
What a Scottish Yes vote will do, is cause a huge shift in Britain’s view of itself and its relationship with the world. A reappraisal of England as opposed to Britain will be required. It is a blow to British Imperialism at its centre. England, notwithstanding the guff and the bluster, will come to an understanding of sorts with Scotland, but the idea of Empire and its history is now up for grabs and these cultural points, as Gramsci, would put it, do have their role to play in oppression.
This of course does not mean, as some in Ireland think that a United Ireland is around the corner, nor the guff from Eamon McCann in the Irish Times (11/09/2014) to the effect that Britain would not try to keep the north as part of the UK. It fought a war to keep the north as part of the UK and bankrolls unionist and loyalist reactionaries to the tune of billions to make sure they stay.
However, Britain enters the world stage a weaker world power, British imperialism will be decisively weakened and that in itself is a progressive situation. More so, if the Welsh begin to question the union as well. Tearing apart the British state and weakening it, is something to be welcomed. It is not for nothing that many English progressives have come out and supported the Yes campaign.
Within Scotland, there is much to play for. Many feel that within an independent Scotland, the working class will have greater power free from the south of England. This remains to be seen, though the debate has provoked enormous debate within Scotland and given people the sense that they might decide their future. Once you get the idea that you have a right to decide your future, the possibilities it opens are endless.
Scotland’s right to decide should be supported. I know next to nothing of the case Rayner Lysaght cited in relation to Norway and the position taken by Lenin, but I suspect it was not part of the debate. There is a need to re-examine the national question in a more complex and nuanced manner, looking at the positions taken in the past by the Bolsheviks.
The SD comrades have to ask themselves a few questions on the national question. How many oppressed nations are there in Europe? And which ones are they? I refer particularly to those in western Europe. The question is important, as I recall from conversations with some comrades that they did not even accept the clear cut examples of the Basques or the Catalans. It is not the case that all national questions are the same as some nationalists like to think, nor is it the case that none of them share common features. Neither is it the case that Ireland is the only nation that meets the criteria as an oppressed nation. The question is important as it is not likely to go away, with demands rising from nations such as the Basques, the Catalans and the Corsicans as well as regional reactionary separatisms in Italy and Belgium. Belgium is a case in point, which in my opinion, does not meet the criteria for oppressed nation status, nor any merit to a division of the State in two.
Whilst the SD statement fails to address the complexities of the issues, it has to be recognised that it fails in the context of a very poor debate on the national question within Scotland itself. I for one hope that Scots vote yes and the British/English ruling class are dealt a severe blow and that Catalonia manages to hold the referendum which has been declared illegal by the Spanish State as it goes against the constitution which was rejected by most Catalans at the time, though accepted by a majority within the Spanish State.
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
(1) Hassan, G. (New Statesman, 10/09/2014)
Independence of the Scottish mind has shown up the failure of British nationalism
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