The RCN has been campaigning for socialists in Scotland to organise on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’ since we were founded. We persuaded the Scottish Socialist Party to organise a successful Republican Socialist Convention in Edinburgh, and have participated in two events in England. Steve Freeman organised these two meetings in London, and is a speaker in today’s RIC workshop on ‘The Break-up of the UK’. Here is the outline of his contribution.
Unionism, Nationalism and Republicanism – a Three Cornered Fight
In January 1649 the Commonwealth of England was established. In March parliament abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords, as ‘useless’ and ‘dangerous’. But the Commonwealth did not become a democratic and social republic. It was strangled at birth.
The origins of the Commonwealth can be traced back to 1638 and the rebellion of the Covenanters in Scotland. What began in Scotland as the ‘Bishops War’ soon spread to England. In 1644 a united front of Covenanters and Cromwell’s holy squadrons, the Ironsides, defeated the Royalists at the battle of Marston Moor near York. It proved to be the turning point in the revolution. In 1645 the New Model Army was established. By 1648 it had become England’s republican army which took power in 1649 as the Commonwealth. Shortly afterwards, Cromwell’s counter-revolution gathered pace. The Levellers and the Diggers were suppressed.
Today we are living with the results of Cromwell’s counter-revolution. The entire history of the next three hundred years, including the creation of Britain (1688-1707), the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of the British Empire, the creation and destruction of the welfare state has completed the historic cycle and returned us to 1638. Today it is not the governance of the Church in Scotland which is at stake but the governance of the state itself.
The Commonwealth of England
In England the destruction of the welfare state and the failure of the parliamentary system are preparing the ground for new politics. Political developments in Scotland are awakening interest in change in England. The social destruction imposed by neo-liberal capitalism will bring many reactions. One of these will be the rebirth of the Commonwealth of England – a social republic in which the citizens of England, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, disability or sexuality, become the supreme or sovereign authority.
The social republic is more than simply government of the people, by the people for the people. The democratic rights and freedoms of all citizens are guaranteed by the constitution of the republic, including the full freedom for workers to join trade unions and rights to take industrial and solidarity action. A social republic puts public service and the welfare of the people before the profits of the City and the major corporations.
The first priority of a social republic is to ensure that the social and environmental needs of the people for jobs, housing, health, education, living standards and social welfare are met. None of this can be secured without a significant expansion of the public sector and its democratic transformation. The old 1945 model of a bureaucratic social monarchy and state nationalisation has been tried and destroyed by monopoly capital. This is highlighted most recently by the knock down sale of Royal Mail. Now real democracy is the key to the future.
Next year the referendum will be the biggest political event in Scotland and a major issue in England as well. In England many people will be sitting in their armchairs watching the battle as it unfolds on our TV screens. How will people in England interpret the battle over the referendum? What political conclusions will be drawn?
At present the British ruling class, whose interests are expressed in Unionism and British nationalism, are fairly confident of victory. But if the majority starts to narrow then expect more surprises from Perfidious Albion. The ruling class understand that this battle is not confined to Scotland. Economic power and the largest section of the working class are in England and ruling class politicians will make sure the people of England are on their side.
England is seething with resentments. This can easily take the form of a growth of English chauvinism. UKIP, although formally unionist, is in effect an English Party. Nigel Farage looks and sounds like a classic Englishmen with a public school and City background, but also with the populist appeal of man-with-pint-and-fag in the pub. Foreigners are in line for the blame whether in Europe, or immigrants or ‘greedy’ Scots who want the cake and everything. The ruling class are more than willing to turn on the tap of tough talking chauvinism and fan its flames whenever necessary. We must not be too complacent to think that reaction rather than progress might not be the outcome.
The most likely scenario in 2014 is a direct confrontation between Unionists and Nationalists. People in England may look at the debate and feel repelled from ‘nationalism’ presented as a smash and grab raid and a cover for anti-English sentiments. But Unionism is hardly less appealing associated as it is with the neo-liberal and imperialist politics of the Tories, Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. In England people do not trust their politicians but don’t like or can’t identify with Scottish nationalism.
The Third Camp
People in England need to be able to look at Scotland during the referendum and see a three sided contest. If we see Unionists, Nationalist and clearly defined Republican-Internationalists then the left in England and the working class movement can gain strength from this. Only the Scottish left can deliver a third position in its strategy and tactics. If it can do this it will greatly assist the emergence of the Commonwealth of England. This is turn would help to strengthen the Scottish left in its struggle for a Scottish republic. It would be a virtuous circle.
The referendum is an opportunity to shift public opinion in England in a democratic direction. Even if the referendum is lost, there could still be a real gain that would outlast any temporary set back. The referendum will not give genuine self determination to the Scottish people. But it may bring a stronger and more united republican-internationalism. If workers in England can see that the progressive forces in Scotland are fighting for real democracy and are not anti-English but working class internationalists, this would have a big impact on political consciousness in England. In England we will be watching the Scottish referendum and beginning to think perhaps we should take a more political and constitutional road in England.
The English left
The English left currently has two attitudes to the ‘Scottish Question’. First is ‘anarchoindifference’ in which people say they don’t care if Scotland becomes independent – that is up to you. If Scotland wants to leave the Union we are not bothered. Carried to its logical extreme it can embrace not just the breakup of Britain, but the breakup of Scotland into rival regions. It is a superficial ‘internationalism’.
The second attitude is that independence is siding with nationalism. Hence the Scottish left doesn’t know what they are doing by dabbling in nationalism. The SNP is identified rightly as bourgeois nationalist, but this is seen as the sum total of all we need to know. In either case there is no dialogue between the English and Scottish left because indifference or moral censure ends the argument.
The English left must concentrate on the English question rather than feigning indifference or engaging in a moral panic about Scottish nationalism. Then the left in England would do far better. Then, and only then, a real dialogue could begin with the Scottish left. The left in England is like someone looking over the garden fence into a neighbour’s garden and pointing out the thistles growing there and giving advice about how to get rid of them. Meanwhile they have failed to notice their own garden is covered in weeds. Better for the left in England to sort out our own garden, grow some nice English roses, and invite our neighbours round for tea and cakes!!