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Socialist Democracy statement

Scotland: Independence and the Working class

September 2014

On September 18 the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on whether the country should become an independent state.  While the outcome of that vote will have its most immediate effect in Scotland its repercussions will be felt across the whole of Europe.  As the region/nation where the movement for greater autonomy or outright independence from existing European states has advanced most the outcome of the independence referendum in Scotland will provide a significant boost or setback to a broader political trend.  There is no doubt that regional movements within Spain, Italy and Belgium are looking to Scotland to provide a justification for their own projects.  In this regard the independence referendum could potentially alter the structure of states within the European Union.  

For socialists the Scottish independence referendum is important because of its potential to alter the current framework in which the labour movement operates in Britain and across Europe and the consequences this would have for the development of a unified workers movement.  It is also important because it has created a division in the socialist left with many groups coming out in support of independence for Scotland and other regions within Europe.  It has a particular importance for Irish socialists given Scotland’s close proximity to Ireland, the long history of interaction between the two nations,  and the promotion of the Irish state as a model for an independent Scotland.


When it comes to determining a socialist position on the questions of national independence there are a number of principles that should be applied. The first is the democratic principle of the right of self-determination – that nations should be free to determine their own future.  If that right is denied by another state then that nation can be said to be oppressed.  Any struggle for national rights is therefore a struggle against oppression and against imperialism. As socialists we are against all forms of oppression and such struggles, even if they are nationalistic in character, should be supported unconditionally.

The second principle, and the one which is absolute, is the advance of the workers movement and the struggle for socialism. So we are for democracy and against oppression not just because we are democrats or humanitarians but because we believe victories or defeats in these struggles are bound up with the struggle for socialism. We recognise that within struggles against national oppression there is an anti-capitalist dynamic – that the success of such struggles can weaken imperialism and open up the possibilities for the advance of working class politics within both the oppressed and oppressor nations. While this may not always be realised the potential is there.  The question is whether such potential and possibilities exist in regard to Scotland. 


An oppressed nation? 

Very few of the left advocates for Scottish independence base their arguments on the claim that Scotland is oppressed as a nation.  No doubt they are aware of the weakness of such a proposition.  The history of Scotland in the capitalist era, both before and since the establishment of the Union and the modern British state, has not been one of an oppressed nation. Rather, it has been one of relative privilege.  Capitalism had been developing in Scotland prior to the Union to the extent that there had even been an attempt at a colonial project.  It was the failure of this project, and the desire of the Scottish capitalist class to again access to overseas colonies, that spurred the partnership with England.  

Scotland was an equal partner within the British state and the British Empire.  Indeed, given the relative size of Scotland to England, Scots played a disproportionate role in the running of the state and the Empire.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland was one of the most advanced capitalist countries in the world both economically and ideologically.  It was no coincidence that Scottish intellectuals were the pioneers of the European Enlightenment that would inspire the French and American revolutions.  From the inception of the Union to the present day Scots have been an integral part of British state and the British ruling class.  The relationship of Scotland to the British state is qualitatively different to that of Ireland.  In the case of Ireland there was a colonial relationship under which Irish people were denied the right to self determination - Ireland was an oppressed nation.  Moreover, despite the formal ending of colonialism, Ireland continues to be an oppressed nation - it remains a country dominated by imperialism where the right of self determination is denied through the maintenance of partition. 

In contrast, Scotland as a nation has been in a privileged position, and through British imperialism has played a role in the oppression of other nations.  This is not to not to say that that people in Scotland were not oppressed and do not continue to be oppressed .  There is no shortage of oppression in terms of class, race, gender etc.  However no-one is being oppressed because of their Scottish nationality.   While the pro-independence left dismiss the question of national oppression as a distraction or an attempt to set up a straw man argument it actually goes to the heart of issue.  For if Scotland is not an oppressed nation, and the movement for independence is not part of a struggle against oppression, on what basis can independence be advocated by socialists as a mechanism for advancing the interests of the workers?      

A progressive nation?

Probably the main argument of the left supporters of independence is that Scotland as a nation is more progressive than other parts of Britain and that independence will lift a barrier to the country moving in a more radical direction.  This idea is summed up in Radical Independence Campaign’s slogan;  “Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be for all of us”.  

But there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case.  Public surveys have shown that in terms of social attitudes and views on government polices the Scots are no more left wing than people in England.  Moreover, during the period of devolution support for reformist policies in Scotland has actually declined.  Such a trend does not suggest that independence will spur a revival of social democracy let alone socialism.   

The traditional dominance of the Labour Party in Scotland has also been cited as evidence as a more progressive viewpoint.  Yet the extent of such dominance has been exaggerated.  For example, in the first half of the 20th century it was the Conservative Party that dominated Scottish politics, to the degree that it remains that only party to achieve a majority of the votes in the country in a general election.  That this is attributed to an “Orange Vote” highlights the sectarian element in Scottish society (an element still visible today) casting more doubt on the “progressive” character of the nation.  Over the last decade the nationalist SNP has supplanted Labour as the governing party in Scotland.  

Scottish nationalism 

The only way the notion of Scotland as a progressive nation can be sustained is by characterising the SNP as left wing and the rise of Scottish nationalism as having a potentially radical dynamic.  However, there is nothing in the SNP’s history, its record in government or its vision of a independent Scotland, that would lend any support to this contention.  The SNP has always been a thoroughly bourgeois party that has based itself on that section of the Scottish capitalist class that sees its interests better served outside of the Union.  It has never had an orientation towards the working class nor adopted a programme that could even be described as radical or populist.  While claiming to be promoting a Scottish version of social democracy its record in government since 2007 has been one of adherence to the capitalist consensus.  On some issues, such as student tuition fees, renewable energy and classroom sizes, it has positioned itself a fraction to the left of Labour, but the main thrust of its programme is conservative.  During the period of economic crisis and austerity it has not hesitated in imposing the cuts demanded by Westminster. Under the SNP, public spending has fallen by 24 per cent in Scotland, with only the variations of the Barnett funding formula that distributes funds to the various regions delaying the 30 percent cut imposed across England and Wales.  The impact of some of the worst elements of welfare reform, such as the bedroom tax, may have been mitigated but this is a thin veneer on an essentially neo-liberal programme.


The neo-liberal orientation of the SNP becomes even clearer when we examine its vision for a independent Scotland.  Its White Paper on Independence identifies the “prize” of independence as the opportunity to create one of the “most competitive and attractive economies in Europe” for investment.  To this end the first priority of an independent Scotland would be to cut corporation tax to a rate 3 per cent below that of Britain.   Here we see the dynamic of a future rivalry between Scotland and Britain as each state attempts to make itself the preferred location for capital.  Of course reducing costs for capital will not just mean lowering taxes - it will also involve lowering labour costs through reducing the wage share of the economy and making working conditions ever more flexible.   Unsurprisingly the White Paper does not highlight this element, but it does point to the mechanism through which it could be achieved.  Described as a“National Convention on Employment and Labour Relations, involving employers and trade unions,”  this is a “social partnership” model in which the state, trade union leadership and employers act in concert to impose the demands of capitalism upon the working class.  The experience of Ireland, where this arrangement has been established for decades, should stand as a warning.  In Ireland, as in Scotland, social partnership was initially put forward as a means to shield workers from the worst of the neo-liberal offensive - but what it actually produced was the imposition of the harshest austerity with the least resistance. Today Irish trade unions have almost ceased to exist as independent organisations of the working class.  Any doubts that such a scenario could unfold in an independent Scotland should be dispelled by the recent assault on trade union organisation at the Grangemouth oil refinery and the role played by the SNP and the leadership of UNITE.

The SNP has also committed itself to the institutional bulwarks of neo-liberal orthodoxy in the form of the Bank of England and the European Union.  By far the biggest portion of the mainstream debate on independence has centred on the determination of the SNP to retain sterling as Scotland’s currency.  But this has only raised the question of what scope there would be for an alternative economic strategy in a state that doesn’t even control its own monetary policy. The Bank of England’s record in bailing out financial institutions and pursuing polices, such as quantitative easing and ultra low interest rates, that have served to depress workers living standards, can only serve to reinforce these doubts.  

A second pillar of neo-liberalism in an independent Scotland would be the European Union.  The SNP’s draft constitution states clearly that Scotland would be subordinated to the rules and regulations of the EU, going so far to declare that Scottish laws that conflict with those of the EU will be deemed invalid.  While this is put in terms of adherence to human rights legislation in practice it would set the framework for whole of government policy - imposing limits on spending and deficits and opening up every area of society to market forces.  That the EU is a vehicle for neo-liberalism has been shown clearly in the harsh austerity measures that have accompanied the financial “bailouts” of states such as Ireland and Greece. 


And it is not just in the area of economic policy that the SNP has willingly accepted severe limitations.  It has also made a number of political commitments that would bind an independent Scotland closely to imperialism.  Scotland would part of the EU’s military structures and adhere to the Union’s common defence and foreign policy.  It would also remain a member of NATO - supporting the organisation’s political objectives and contributing to its military capacity.  This would involve hosting NATO facilities within its national territory. While the SNP has said this would not include nuclear armed submarines it has also made clear that there would no objection to the transit of such weapons in Scottish waters.  In response to claims that Scottish independence could weaken NATO the SNP has forcefully asserted that is not the case and that Scotland will remain a firm ally of US led imperialism. 

Left supporters of independence have cited the potential weakening of British imperialism as a justification for their stance.  Yet much of this is speculative and also ignores the fact that a weakening of the British state does not mean a weakening of imperialism in general.  A more convincing argument is that the relative decline of British imperialism, and its diminished political and economic weight in the world, has spurred a section of the Scottish capitalist class to seek a closer and more direct alignment with the EU and the US.  In this schema Scottish nationalism is a vehicle that is more likely to strengthen the hold of imperialism on Scotland rather than weaken it. 

The alignment of Scottish nationalism to imperialism is consistent with its character as a movement that is seeking privileges rather than liberation.  In this it is similar to the regional/national movements that have gained support within Europe during the recent period of capitalist crisis.  Based in regions that are relatively advanced in terms of industry or natural resources the core message of this type of nationalism is that the people of these regions can do better on their own.  This is often accompanied by claims that they are subsidising poorer parts of the state.  In Scotland much of the nationalist argument centres on claims that “Scottish” oil revenues are going to London.  Such arguments are thoroughly reactionary even by the standards of capitalism.  Historically, the capitalist state has sought to reduce regional disparities, all be it in a very limited way, through financial transfers and national public services.  In Britain this is represented in such things as the Barnett funding formula, the welfare state and the NHS.  A consequence of Scottish independence would be to bring these mechanisms for smoothing out regional disparities to an end and deepen regional inequalities even further.  Scottish independence could also act a spur for further regional antagonisms as disputes arise over how assets and liabilities should be divided.  

One the worst indictments of the privilege seeking nature of Scottish nationalism is the SNP’s plan to retain the British monarchy - the historic institution and ideology that justifies all the other inequalities.  This is not just a question of symbolism - the existence of the monarchy and the unlimited powers of the “royal prerogative” would put severe restraints on democratic rights in an independent Scotland.  It makes a mockery of the claim in the draft constitution that sovereignty resides in the Scottish people.    

The working class 

If the Union created the political framework for the development of capitalism in Britain it also provided the framework for the development of the working class.  As the first, and for most of its history, the world’s leading industrialised nation, Britain has the oldest working class in the world.  Its labour traditions in terms of organisations and politics stretch back over 200 years.  British working class history has witnessed epic struggles such as the Chartist movement, the 1926 general strike and the trade union militancy of the 1970’s.  The working class has played a key role in every social and democratic advance that has taken place in the country.  While they may be reformist in nature, the trade unions and Labour party are a reflection of unity of the working class.  At various times the political consciousness of Scottish workers may have been in advance or lagged behind that of their English counterparts but their struggles have never been uniquely Scottish.  

What has given rise to nationalism, and its advance into a sections of the Scottish working class, has been the defeats suffered by the labour movement and the collapse of social democracy in the recent period.  That Scottish nationalism has risen on the back of defeats for labour is another indication of its essentially conservative character.

The left

This working class retreat is also reflected in the changing position of the various left groups on Scottish independence.  Thirty years they would have completely dismissed it but now most of them are in full support despite offering no convincing expatiation for their turnabout.  The foremost example of the pro-independence left is the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) - an early adapter to Scottish nationalism and now an affiliate of the official yes campaign.  In the early part of the century it was promoted as the model of the new left party.  Like all these parties it was distinguished by an attempt to bypass the difficulties posed by the retreat of the working class and the collapse of traditional leaderships, seeking instead to identify a radical short-cut to socialism.  In the case of the SSP this short cut was Scottish nationalism.   However, this proved to be a fatal weakness when it completely collapsed into nationalism and what support it had won was hoovered up by the SNP.  In reality the short-cut to socialism turned out to be a short cut to nationalism.  That most of the left groups should continue to support nationalism even after the disastrous experience of the SSP demonstrates the degree to which they have lost faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class.  For most left groups in the YES campaign the effect of their activity is to provide a left cover for the reactionary politics of the SNP.

Socialism and independence

Despite the reversals the working class has suffered in the recent period and the current low level of political consciousness it remains the only class that can bring about revolutionary change in society.  The idea that this can be achieved through a form of nationalism divorced from any struggle against national oppression, particularly of the type represented by the likes of the SNP, is a dangerous illusion.  In Britain a division of the working class along national lines would be a huge step backwards for the workers movement, even from the weakened state it is currently in.  For though class struggle is at a very low level, those struggles that have taken place, including in Scotland, have arisen out of Britain wide disputes.  The creation of an independent Scotland would break that unity and make the task of advancing the workers movement more difficult.

As socialists we support the right of Scotland to self determination, but we reject the idea that Scottish nationalism represents a way of advancing the interests of the working class.  Scotland is not an oppressed nation and the movement for independence is in no way part of a struggle against oppression.  There is no basis for socialists to be advocates of Scottish independence.  All the arguments for independence are in essence nationalist and pro capitalist whatever the left gloss than is placed on them. 

Our opposition to independence is not support for the status quo but for the unity of the working class in Britain and across Europe.  We do not believe for a moment that the current structures of Europe can be used to advance the interests of workers. We do believe that the way forward is through struggling against those structures and counterpoising a united socialist states of Europe. The workers movement would be weakened by a process where regional capitalist classes try to corner local resources and win the workers to a reactionary and divisive nationalism - a process that would inevitably receive a boost from a Yes vote in Scotland.  

The task for socialists in all countries, whether that be Scotland, Britain or Ireland, is indeed independence - not of nations or of regions but of the working class. Where national oppression continues we support self-determination both on its own terms and on the grounds that, in its absence, there cannot be genuine unity of the working class in the oppressed and oppressor nations.  This class independence, in terms of politics and organisation, is the very foundation of the struggle for socialism.  It is because Scottish nationalism and the call for independence throw up yet more barriers to this unity that we urge workers in Scotland to register a resounding No vote in the upcoming referendum. 

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