Nov 14 2009

Can the SNP deliver independence?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 7:15 pm

We assess the politics behind the SNP government’s proposed independence referendum and its likelihood of success.

Megrahi, behind-the-scenes deals and the ‘liberal’ US onslaught

Political developments in Scotland are hotting-up in the aftermath of the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the SNP’s Justice Minister, to release Abdelbaset Ali-Mohamed al-Megrahi, the so-called Libyan bomber, on compassionate grounds.

Whatever the undisclosed background negotiations behind this move, involving New Labour at Westminster and SNP at Holyrood, the political fallout has been considerable. Earlier negotiations between the British and Libyan government, involving Tony Blair and Jack Straw, had strongly implied a prisoner transfer agreement. Megrahi would finish his sentence in Libya, in return for BP oil concessions. The Scottish government thwarted this. It denied any right to the British government to interfere with the decision taken by the Scottish judiciary, which had been given original responsibility for Megrahi’s trial, held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, in 2000-1.

What has become abundantly clear is that Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson wanted Megrahi released before his death, to ensure that British corporate interests in Libya weren’t jeopardised if he died in a British jail. MacAskill’s willingness to take responsibility for Megrahi’s release was an added bonus for the New Labour-led British government. It meant that the SNP-led Scottish government could take all the blame, when the right wing press, both in Britain and the US, orchestrated the howls of outrage about ‘weakness’ in the face of terrorism.

It is possible that the SNP leadership thought that, with Barack Obama as President, the new US Democrat government would welcome MacAskill’s compassionate approach. After all Obama had personally given an undertaking to the Moslem world in Cairo on June 4th that he represented a new type of American leader. However, as the continuing war in Afghanistan (and now Pakistan), the continued build up of pressure on Iran, and the US’s failure to discipline Netanyahu in the face of continued Israeli settlements on the West Bank demonstrate, Obama is only trying to re-brand US imperialism, not challenge it.

So ‘liberal’ Obama, Hilary Clinton, and the late Ted Kennedy, led the attack on the Scottish government. Meanwhile, the rabid American Right soon ended any delusions about the longstanding affectionate ties between Scotland and the US. In their eyes, Scotland replaced France as the country all ‘good American’s love to hate. Only now it is the Scots who are ‘haggis-eating surrender monkeys’. Back in Scotland, the British unionist parties, New Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem, characteristically decided to echo the sentiments emanating from the US. They launched an attack on the Scottish government and the nationalist SNP.

The SNP recovers from the attacks and announces its independence referendum

The SNP has been trying for years to win the approval of corporate America, with the prospect of low business taxation and the attempted cultivation of Scottish-American business figures and politicians. Donald Trump, the dodgy property speculator, has been assiduously wooed. Therefore, defending MacAskill’s decision in the face of blatant US imperial pressure did not come easily to the SNP leadership, particularly after the display of Scottish saltires being waved at Tripoli’s airport, welcoming Megrahi upon his return. After all, MacAskill still insisted that he acted solely on compassionate grounds, and that he upheld the Scottish court’s extremely dubious decision that Megrahi was guilty. MacAskill didn’t want to tread on the toes of the Scottish legal establishment.

Early opinion polls seemed to indicate that MacAskill was indeed isolated. However, the Church of Scotland, followed by the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, gave their public backing to MacAskill. Whilst this was undoubtedly embarrassing to sections of the unionist alliance, it was the decision of Nelson Mandela to support MacAskill that turned the tables. Within days, support for MacAskill’s decision had risen to 45% in Scotland.

Sensing a possible drubbing in any Scottish General Election their actions might precipitate, the unionist opposition retreated from a vote of ‘No confidence’ in MacAskill at Holyrood. They settled for a motion condemning the Scottish government’s handling of the affair. Although the unionist parties have an overall majority in Holyrood, their alliance began to break up. Former Scottish Labour Ministers, Henry McLeish and Malcolm Chisholm, backed MacAskill, and the Conservatives decided to switch the focus of attention to Gordon Brown and Westminster Government involvement in Megrahi’s release.

It was in this context that the SNP Government announced next year’s legislative programme on September 3rd, with its proposal for a referendum on Scottish independence given flagship status. Now the unionist parties can kill this off at the first hurdle, by using their majority to vote down any such bill in Holyrood. Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond well knows this, but has likely calculated on there being a British Conservative Government under David Cameron next year. This could place the SNP in a good position before the next Holyrood General Election in 2011, especially with an impotent New Labour in ‘opposition’ at Westminster.

The November 12th Glasgow North East by-election

However, a more immediate by-election battle is taking place in Glasgow North East on November 12th, after the resignation of the disgraced Westminster Speaker, Michael Martin. With the SNP not wanting to be portrayed as the ‘Orange’ party (Labour’s main accusation against it, when it stood against Scottish party leader, Helen Liddell, in the notorious Monklands East by-election in 1994) their leadership is taking no chances. It has adopted David Kerr as candidate. He is a member of Opus Dei!

Glasgow City Council is one of the few Scottish councils still under Labour control, so the SNP cannot so easily be held responsible for the type of unpopular local policies, which contributed to their surprise defeat in the Glenrothes by-election last November. So, Labour has now switched its focus to an alleged SNP bias against Glasgow city, highlighted by the Scottish Government’s decision to cancel the planned Glasgow airport rail link.

The SNP strategy of trying to appeal to all Scots, regardless of class, has also come unstuck. The introduction of new local service charges for pensioners in Fife was just one indicator of where the SNP’s real loyalties lie. In Edinburgh they share responsibility with the Lib-Dems for the council’s attempt to impose draconian pay cuts on refuse disposal workers, with the threat of privatisation looming. In West Dunbartonshire, they have suspended SSP councillor, Jim Bollan, for nine months, for his tireless commitment to working class communities.

The long honeymoon, enjoyed by the current SNP government, is now under strain. The SNP is wedded to a neo-liberal economic model, which once placed failed corporations such as the Royal Bank of Scotland in the driving seat of their proposed new Scottish economy, and lauded the successes of the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’. Today, the SNP meekly accepts its role in administering the Westminster government’s measures to deal with the current crisis – massive public spending cuts to bail out the bankers.

The Scottish government has also frozen council taxes now for three years. This further contributes to the squeeze on social spending. Added to all this, the full consequences of the SNP’s fawning before Trump means that the Scottish government looks prepared to back a compulsory purchase order to evict residents from their homes in Aberdeenshire to make way for Trump’s new golf course and leisure complex –the new Clearances.

The build-up of reactionary forces and the divided Left

Although the prime press interest in Glasgow North East will be the battle between New Labour and the SNP, there will be other significant political struggles going on. In the last election here, the Conservatives did not field a candidate, following the mainstream parties’ convention of not standing against the Speaker. This left the way open for the Scottish Unionists to stand. They represent that traditional Orange wing, abandoned by the Conservatives, when the party broke their link with the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1970’s. David Cameron has recently reforged that alliance. Official British Conservative backing for a Protestant unionist party in ‘the Six Counties’ will have knock on effects in Glasgow, where sectarian divisions still exist.

However, the Orange Order in Scotland is still not prepared to throw its weight fully behind the Tories. Grand Master, Ian Wilson, has said the Order will be backing the Labour Party, wherever they are best placed to defeat the SNP in elections. Labour remains Scotland’s premier Unionist party.

Both the previous New Labour/Lib-Dem and current SNP Scottish governments at Holyrood have promoted a bureaucratic and moralistic campaign against sectarianism in Scotland, based on the false notion that there is a ‘war between two tribes’, Protestant and Catholic or, sometimes more simply, between Rangers and Celtic. The real underlying issue is support for, or opposition to, the British occupation of part of Ireland. One of the aims of this official ‘anti-sectarian’ campaign is to cutback on the many Orange Order and the handful of Irish Republican marches held in Scotland’s Central Belt. This will become a focus of opposition for hard line loyalists. There is also the planned provocation in Glasgow, organised by the fascist Islamophobic English Defence League’s satellite organisation, the ‘Scottish Defence League’ (SDL), on November 14th.

The BNP are standing in the Glasgow North East by-election. They would love to have the sort of clout that loyalists in ‘the Six Counties’ demonstrated, when the PSNI meekly bowed before their intimidation of Roma families in Belfast. Furthermore, despite BNP denials, there is obviously an overlap between BNP and EDL/SDL. Like the loyalists in ‘the Six Counties’, they have shown a growing admiration for the apartheid state of Israel and its brutal methods. So, it is only an inner hard core of Nazi ‘Sieg Heiling’, swastika worshippers that cling on to the old anti-semitism. The majority of Union Jack waving fascists find plenty to celebrate in the history of British unionism and imperialism.

Furthermore, there are other nasty links being forged. The mainstream, usually socially liberal, Church of Scotland is under growing attack by the reactionary Fellowship of Confessing Churches (FCC), with 45 parishes threatening to break away, unless the Church publicly condemns homosexuality. The FCC is backed by Sam Cole, DUP councillor and Orange Lodge chaplain, along with Maurice Bradley, former mayor of Coleraine, Danny Kennedy, Ulster Unionist depute leader, Sir David McNee, former Chief Constable of Strathclyde, and a hundred members of the ultra-conservative Presbyterian Church of America, which also opposes the ordination of women ministers.

Tragically, the Left today is divided in Scotland. In the last Glasgow North East election, the SSP easily defeated both the Scottish Unionists and the BNP, although Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was able to do better still and get 14% of the vote, in the confusion caused by the absence of an official Labour candidate, with Michael Martin standing solely as the Speaker. The SLP has left no organisation on the ground and is, in effect, now only one man’s vanity party.

The concern now is that, with a Left split between the SSP, Solidarity/Tommy Sheridan party and the SLP, the BNP’s vote could overtake the Socialist vote. Whilst Sheridan will cultivate the celebrity vote, he faces competition from John Smeaton, the ‘people’s hero’. Meanwhile, John Swinburne, the ex-MSP, from the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party, and Mikey Hughes, former Big Brother runner-up, campaigning for the disabled, are also standing. More worrying than any likely BNP vote in itself, would be the opportunity this could provide them to become the ‘shock troops’ of hard right unionism in Scotland, at a time when the issue of Scottish independence is coming to the fore.

When Nick Griffin visited Scotland on October 28th, he said he supported a referendum for Scottish independence. However, he made it quite clear that the BNP would strongly oppose those campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote. He is lining himself up with ultra unionists like the Tory, Michael Forsyth, and New Labour’s Wendy Alexander, who also want a referendum campaign to see off any threat of Scottish independence for the foreseeable future. You can rest assured, whatever differences they still have, that these ultra-unionists don’t intend to confine their opposition to polite democratic debate – and the BNP are signalling that their services can be called upon to defend the Union.

The SNP unprepared for the British state counter-attack – a socialist republican and ‘internationalism from below’ approach needed

The SNP remains a thoroughly constitutionalist party, and has indicated, by its recently declared support for the British monarchy, its complete willingness to play politics by Westminster rules. The problem is, that the British ruling class only play be these rules when it suits them. When their state is under threat, both Conservative and Labour governments have shown their preparedness to utilise the antidemocratic Crown Powers to thwart any challenges, as any Republican living in Ireland can testify. If necessary, they would not be averse to covertly encouraging British loyalists, as the British state’s continued financial support for their organisations in ‘the Six Counties’ demonstrates.

Furthermore, the SNP’s complete lack of appreciation of the continued imperial role of British troops in the world is highlighted by its continued support for the British Army’s Scottish regiments. SNP Westminster defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson, has announced that ‘English’ troops would be welcome to remain in Scotland after ‘independence’. It probably won’t be long before the SNP retreats further to accommodate US imperialism. They could settle for Scotland being removed from the NATO frontline to become a ‘supporting’ state within NATO’s Orwellian renamed second tier, ‘The Partnership for Peace’. NATO bases in Scotland would still remain available for imperial use.

Scotland, with its North Sea Oil, and its numerous British and NATO military bases, is far more central to ruling class interests, than ‘the Six Counties’. It is unlikely that the British state will just wait until the Scottish independence referendum bill comes to Holyrood. US and British security services are probably preparing a strategy, using both official and unofficial forces, to marginalise the threat of the break-up of the UK and the potential loss of NATO bases.

Although there is no deep-seated tradition of independent republican organisations in Scotland, there is nevertheless widespread popular support for a Scottish Republic. Furthermore, this is strongly linked to support for public services provided on the basis of need, and opposition to British and American imperial wars. A vote for the SNP has sometimes expressed this feeling in a sentimental way. As the SNP moves further to the Right such support is becoming as undeserved as a vote for Labour from those hoping to improve their lives.

It is the job of socialist republicans to organise such sentiments in an effective way, by linking everyday struggles, such as the ‘Save Our Schools’ campaign in Glasgow today, with the demand for a Scottish Republic tomorrow, when the SNP independence referendum comes up against British unionist intransigence. Only the SSP links its support for independence with opposition to all imperialist wars, whether or not they are sanctioned by the UN – a thoroughly undemocratic body, which is nothing other than a plaything of the imperial powers. In contrast, the SNP stance on the ongoing US/British war in Afghanistan has been profoundly ambiguous.

Since the British state and its Irish government allies coordinate their actions through the ‘Peace Process’ and Devolution-all-round; and both the British and Scottish TUCs and the Irish CTU promote ‘social partnerships’, which subordinate workers’ interests to those of the bosses; whilst the BNP and loyalists are trying to cement links ‘across the border’ and ‘across the water’, it becomes all the more imperative that Socialists in these islands organise ourselves on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’ to more effectively promote working class interests throughout these islands. We need to build on the success of last year’s Republican Socialist Convention.

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Mar 02 2004

The Scottish Independence Covention

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 07RCN @ 3:22 pm

Independence under the Crown or a Scottish Republic?

Allan Armstrong examines the case put by the proponents and opponents of the Scottish Independence Convention in the SSP and develops the RCN’s distinct republican approach.

The political nature of and the ambiguities in the Pro-Convention camp

After last May’s election to the Scottish Parliament, Alan McCombes, on behalf of the SSP leadership, put forward a proposal that our party should give its backing to a Scottish Independence Convention. The principle was agreed at last August’s National Council meeting. This proposal has probably produced more internal debate than any other issue since the party’s foundation. This has also spilled over into a historical debate conducted in books, pamphlets, magazine articles, letters to Scottish Socialist Voice and at Socialism 2003.

There have been two responses – Pro and Anti. To date we have seen the following major contributions from the Pro-Convention camp:-

  • 1. After May 1st: Which way forward towards independence and socialism? by Alan McCombes and the SSP Executive Committee.
  • 2. Socialism, the national question and the Independence Convention in Scotland by Gregor Gall (formerly of the SW Platform, but now supporting the leadership on this issue).
  • 3. The Independence Convention and socialist strategy by Duncan Rowan of the ISM Platform (1).

So far, the contributions from the Pro camp have come from two political perspectives – Left social democratic and Left nationalist. Gregor’s contribution calls for a transitional approach to socialism. He argues that a movement for a Scottish Independence Convention offers the prospect of creating at least a more favourable, i.e. Social democratic, political settlement in Scotland (2). Gregor provides survey evidence to show that the forces favouring independence come mainly from the supporters of progressive reform in Scotland. Therefore, in the present political situation, independence would strengthen these forces and provide a better terrain upon which to advance towards socialism.

In Alan’s own contribution the two political perspectives are somewhat uneasily combined. One ambiguous statement has been interpreted by the SSP’s Left nationalists (the SRSM – and influential office bearers like Kevin Williamson) as giving unqualified support for Scottish independence. Alan states that, Even on a non-socialist basis, we should support independence as a progressive democratic advance…(3) This, of course begs the question – What sort of non-socialist independence? Could we be party to the creation of a Scottish Free State which retained most of the key features of the British state, but gave them a good lick of tartan paint?

Although the SSP supports ‘an independent socialist Scotland’, Alan, and most others, would agree that this is not how the issue of Scottish independence is likely to be presented at first. The option of an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ is not going to be found on any Independence referendum ballot paper, even if the SSP wins the political leadership of the Scottish Independence Convention. The numbers of SNP local council and Scottish, Westminster and European parliamentary representatives (fluctuating levels of support notwithstanding) show that the idea of a capitalist ‘independent’ Scotland currently has more political purchase than any support for socialism, with or without a Scottish prefix.

The need for a democratic republican approach

The RCN takes a distinctive approach to the issue of the Scottish Independence Convention. The very political ambiguity, which has been a continuing feature of the SSA and now the SSP, is also present in the idea of the Scottish Independence Convention. Any campaign, which the SSP mounts for such a Convention, can only help us advance the cause of socialism if it offers substantial democratic change. This article will make the case for building the Scottish Independence Convention on democratic republican principles. The RCN has always placed a high priority on contesting the UK state’s Crown Powers. Anti-monarchism is not the same thing as consistent democratic republicanism. The former only opposes the UK’s hereditary office-bearers. The latter challenges all the state’s anti-democratic powers. This is why at SSA/SSP Conferences we have proposed that any elected MSP’s should refuse the oath of allegiance which gives sanction to these powers. Whilst we are a minority Platform, this demand has always been well supported at Conference, with a third of delegates voting in favour in 2002, i.e. a majority of non-Platform delegates.

The RCN believes a widespread republican sentiment already exists in Scotland. If we build on firm democratic republican principles, this sentiment can be organised as a political force demanding a Scottish republic. This would end any prospect of anti-democratic powers being transferred to the new representatives of a Scottish ruling class in a ‘Scottish Free State’. A Scottish republic isn’t yet socialism, but it represents much firmer ground on which to advance than devolution, federalism under the Crown or ‘independence’ under the Windsors.

Since it is popular democratic advance we seek, our strategy should incorporate this principle by seeking the widest participation from the beginning. This means rejecting a narrow cross-Party pressure group approach, with its emphasis on party political representatives supplemented by the ‘great and good’ (or the ‘unco guid’!) Our aim should be for a Constituent Assembly with wide-ranging popular representatives. Many of these would be drawn from the network of trade union, community and cultural campaigns, which the SSP should encourage from the outset. Gregor’s contribution also recognises this need.

Furthermore, we should realise that the British ruling class strategy to maintain its control covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland, not just Scotland. Jack McConnell can call for support from Labour and other unionists throughout Britain when necessary to prop up his administration in Scotland. SSP proposals will meet with nothing but hostility from the rulers of the UK and their state. We have to draw upon socialist and democratic allies throughout these islands to further our strategy. This means we need to adopt an ‘internationalism from below’ perspective.

Economic or political independence?

First, we have to consider exactly what we mean by ‘Scottish independence’. We need to draw a distinction between economic and political independence. Economically, Scotland is fully part of the global capitalist system. Scotland would remain so even if it had a politically independent state such as Norway’s. Commentators have long bemoaned the branch plant nature of Scotland’s economy. However, this type of situation is now a global phenomenon. The transnational companies broke up much single plant, integrated production in response to the major international working class offensive which took place from 1968 to 1975. They have dispersed the manufacture of component parts to many plants in different countries. The assembly plants along the production chain now usually rely on multi-sourcing for their components.

In the 1970s it might have been possible for a government to nationalise a particular industry – say Chrysler’s Linwood car plant. Now there are few important integrated industries left in Scotland. If a particular industry was to be nationalised, its factories would not link together the whole of the production chain through to the finished products. Any incoming reforming government would find that all they had taken over through nationalising say, the ‘car industry’, was carburettor and windscreen wiper production. Such a state-owned industry would get short shrift from the global corporations. Chrysler, for example, could easily turn to alternative sources for components.

Scotland is the location of one significant player in present-day global capitalism. Many financial institutions have offices in Edinburgh. Tommy Sheridan has pointed out that the Royal Bank and Bank of Scotland alone make £2 billion profit annually (4). Untold millions pass daily along the electronic circuits monitored by Edinburgh’s banks and finance offices. Yet this ‘money’ would not be available to any socialist or radical reforming government. Finance is the most liquid of all forms of capital. It only passes through particular nodes in the international electronic network when these are subjected to minimum or to no taxation. Trying to collect a tax from such networks would be harder than trying to recover sunken treasure at the bottom of the ocean with a magnet tied to a fishing line!

Quite clearly, the economic constraints imposed by global capitalism mean that any longer term socialist strategy must be international from the start. However, we don’t have to join the Jeremiahs on the Left who say that little or nothing is possible unless the whole international working class strikes simultaneously. Most socialists can recognise the difference between pay awards and conditions found in unorganised and organised workplaces, or those dictated by the employers and those won by workers’ own action. So we should be able to recognise the difference between living in a more democratic state – even under global capitalism.

Whether there be trade unions or no trade unions; collective or no collective agreements, capitalist economic power still exists. Whether we live under parliamentary democratic, one party or military rule, capitalist political power still exists. Yet the differences in each of these cases are still important, particularly in the scope they give us to organise. This means we have to examine the nature of political independence in today’s world.

The nature of political independence

New Labour’s imperial apologists like to pretend that national sovereignty is meaningless in a globalised world of interdependent production, distribution and exchange. Therefore we should all to bow to the dictates of the global corporations. National governments should create the best conditions to attract these firms, hoping for a ‘trickle-down’ of the ‘benefits’ to their citizens, or subjects in the case of the UK.

This is a bit like saying to women that it doesn’t really matter whether you have the freedom to choose your own partner. Arranged or forced marriages are just another form of partnership in a world where economic, social and emotional pressures make marriages for most a necessity. The best way wives can gain the ‘benefits’ in such arrangement is to bow to their husbands’ every demand! No – having the right to self-determination, holding sovereignty, or exercising the freedom to choose, are still very important, even when there are considerable external restraints and relatively few choices.

Thus the type of national state is important when it comes to the pressure socialists and the wider working class can exert in society. If that wasn’t the case, the neo-liberal governments, at the behest of the powerful corporations, would not be putting so much effort into undermining what democratic rights remain. Scotland forms part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK). The UK state is a unionist, imperialist, constitutional monarchy.

The hard-won democratic elements within this state are limited. The formula through which the UK state rulers seek legitimacy for their activities is ‘the sovereignty of the Crown in parliament’. When it comes to the crunch it is the parliamentary element which is subordinate. This poses major limitations on our ability to organise.

The constitutional monarchy gives the ruling class a whole battery of repressive Crown Powers – in effect, their ‘hidden state’. This means they wield their real political power behind our backs, whilst the royal family acts as its highly privileged public cover. All the flummery surrounding the royal family provides a useful fig-leaf for these powers. However, the ruling class would soon sacrifice these royal parasites if they no longer served their interests. But when it comes to the state’s repressive powers that is another matter altogether!

The UK is also a unionist state. The right to genuine Scottish self-determination is not only denied by the Westminster Parliament, but also by the continued Union of the Crowns. Therefore, if ‘independence’ is only defined as breaking from Westminster, this would still leave a whole host of powers affecting Scotland untouched. Secession from the Union Parliament at Westminster still leaves ‘Elizabrit’ as head of state. This continued link will be used by all the conservative forces in an ‘independent’ Scotland to ensure that as much as possible of the unaccountable Crown Powers are left in any new Scottish constitution.

If we don’t break the Crown Powers and the full UK constitutional link, we could see the ‘Hooray Hamishes’ of the Scottish establishment, or the forelock-tuggers of New and Old Labour, putting forward Prince William as senior Commanding Officer of ‘her majesty’s forces’ in Scotland. Alternatively maybe some knighted clan chief could be lined up as Governor General of Scotland. It doesn’t need much imagination to see which side he would come down on if there was a proposal to scrap the Trident nuclear submarine base. Is Faslane to become the UK state’s ‘Guantanamo Bay’ in Scotland?!

The sentimental republicans in the SNP will try to promise us a referendum on the continuation of the monarchy after ‘independence’. By then the significant Crown Powers could have constitutional force – with SNP government approval! This is why Alan McCombes leaves us hostage to fortune when he argues that one of the purposes of a Scottish Independence Convention is to draw up a constitutional plan, in which some constitutional issues would have to be left to one side… possibly {my emphasis} the issue of monarchy vs republic…! Instead the Independence Convention would concentrate on questions such as how powers will be transferred…(5). Which powers are we talking about here – the Crown Powers? We don’t want to transfer them, we want to abolish them!

The British ruling class and the link between imperialism and unionism in their UK state

The UK state has been forged to serve British ruling class interests throughout the world. Their unionist state is fundamentally an imperialist state. This British ruling class was formed, over a long period of time, from the landlords, merchants, financiers and industrialists of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. They have developed a common project in promoting the British Empire. There was even an historic possibility of this united ruling class imposing a top-down unitary British state and hence forging a united British nation and national identity. However, the very unionist nature of the state (as well as the role of ultra-unionist reactionaries in Ireland) worked against this.

The 1707 Act of Union retained certain privileges for the old Scottish landlord and merchant class within the reformed UK. The 1801 Act of Union brought the Irish landlords and bigger merchants more fully on board too. Special provision still had to be made to govern Ireland through Dublin Castle, since peasant resentment towards the regime remained. Yet, with the restricted franchise, Tories and Whigs dominated official politics in every constituent nation of the UK during the hey-day of the ‘free-trade empire’ in the early nineteenth century.

In the later nineteenth century, the UK state conceded increased measures of administrative devolution to the newer Irish, Scottish and Welsh middle classes. These measures acted as a further barrier to the formation of a unitary British state. Neither did the concessions, made to the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, weaken the imperialist nature of the UK state – far from it. Most of those pushing for Home Rule in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, wanted a better division of the imperial spoils and were keen to maintain an Imperial Parliament at Westminster.

There was another barrier to forming a unitary British nation – this time from below. The popular classes from the constituent nations increasingly participated in politics as they won an extension to the franchise. This led to the recognition of various hybrid nationalities (e.g. Scottish-British, Welsh-British and Irish-British), with special political, administrative and cultural arrangements for each. As the power of British imperialism has declined, so has the relative strength of the British pole of each of these hybrid nationality identifications.

One exception to this lies in Northern Ireland, where a new Ulster-British identification has gained in strength since 1922. However, the Ulster-Britishers’ ferocious adherence to the Union Jack and their celebration of overseas British military exploits, highlights the imperial connection. This is tied to their defence of real and imagined privileges within the UK state and what remains of the British Empire.

The denial of the right to self-determination for the constituent nations of the UK is disguised by invoking a united British ‘nation-state’. Yet Britishness is an imperially created state identity, which has forged chains for the nations of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and now, even for England (as Scottish Labour unionist votes at Westminster for foundation hospitals and top-up fees have recently highlighted!). Just as Labourism represents a stillborn socialism; so Britishness represents a failed unitary nation or a bureaucratically imposed ‘internationalism’. Indeed the two are intimately connected in the British unionist Labour party.

British unionism and the right to self-determination

The unionist nature of the state means that the constituent nations of England, Scotland, Wales and part of Ireland may be given some constitutional recognition within the UK. However, they have no constitutionally recognised right to self-determination. Sometimes it is argued that, since the UK has no written constitution, this right lies with political parties winning a democratic mandate. The repression meted out by the British state, in the face of the large majority in Ireland who voted for Sinn Fein and independence in 1918, shows the falsity of this view.

Significant measures of constitutional reform, even within the UK state framework, have been met by ruling class resort to extra-parliamentary force. The 1912 Irish Home Rule Bill led to the formation of the reactionary armed Ulster Volunteer Force and the Curragh Mutiny of British army officers, all with active Conservative and Unionist Party support.

In 1969 the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland came up against the armed force of the RUC and B Specials (some actively involved in pogroms). These paramiltary forces were held at the disposal of the Ulster Unionist Party and its Orange statelet (with its large UK state financial subventions). As their control faltered a British Labour government rushed in troops to give them support.

During the late 1960s and the 1970s serious divisions once more developed amongst the ruling class over the best strategy to maintain their UK state. This occurred in the context of rising labour unrest and a dramatic upsurge of national democratic movements, including those in Scotland and Wales. The Royal Commission, which eventually reported under Lord Kilbrandon in 1973, came down in favour of adopting a liberal devolutionary approach. However, this was heavily contested by the mainly conservative advocates of Direct Rule.

The liberal forces pushing for Devolution remained impeccably constitutional. This meant that their opponents did not have to use many of the extra-parliamentary powers at their disposal. Nevertheless, the Queen used the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977 to remind {us} of the benefits which the Union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings – the union and empire obviously going hand-in-hand!

The relative mildness of the actual rebuke could not cover-up the seriousness behind the public jettisoning of the Queen’s supposed political neutrality – A Majestic Mistake as the Daily Record put it at the time (6). Of course, this was no mistake but an opening ‘whiff of grapeshot’ designed to panic all her loyal supporters in the monarchist-supporting SNP.

However, this particular intervention was also combined with a series of British military exercises with Scottish nationalists as their putative target. In one of these exercises, Royal Marines asked participants to shout, English Go Home to make it more realistic! (7) Since the late 1960s, the state security agencies have been involved in agent provocateur activities. These often emphasise anti-English sentiment. Parcel bombs were posted by duped individuals to selected addresses with messages denouncing the English nature of the target.

The long-standing anti-English, ‘post-box’ in Dublin, which has remained suspiciously unchallenged by successive governments, has all the hallmarks of state-supported entrapment. Last year saw the jailing of a naïve 17 year old Dunbartonshire schoolboy, Paul Smith, after he contacted the internet address of an anti-English ‘organisation’. He was encouraged to post letters containing poison to Prince William, Cherie Blair and Mike Rumbles, MSP (8). Those in the security agencies wanting to defend the existing constitutional set-up, hope to sideline democratic opposition to the British UK state into anti-English chauvinism. The state security agencies’ activities may have been considerably reduced in Scotland since the 1970s and early ‘80s. However, if a campaign for a Scottish Independence Convention takes-off, it will be those nationalist forces which pedal anti-English chauvinism who will become the immediate focus for such state attention. Scottish Socialist Voice needs to be acutely aware of this. It must combat anti-English chauvinism in the same principled manner that it attacks racism. Otherwise those drawn to such sentiments could well become unwitting conduits for clandestine state promoted division-mongering.

The use of the Crown Powers to support ruling class interests in the UK and abroad

We can’t afford to lightly dismiss the ruling class’ ‘hidden state’. The Crown Powers provide the British ruling class with a whole repressive armoury to counter any serious challenge to its rule – be it economic, social or political. They have been widely used.

The murderous suppression of the Civil Rights demonstrators on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1971 and the undemocratic imposition of the poll-tax in Scotland in 1987, both led to a rise in democratic republican feeling. If socialists fail to see this and leave the politics to others, it’s not surprising that non-socialist forces take the political lead. What socialist would leave the current leaders of the trade unions unchallenged? Such leaders would soon be openly acting as a personnel management service for the employers! So socialists should aim to lead economic, social and political challenges to the bosses and their state.

Just as we champion workers’ struggles for better pay, conditions and welfare reforms, so we need to advocate democratic republican reform too. Our ‘school of struggle’ for socialism must prepare us for political as well as for economic power. However, more immediately, you can’t make significant advances on the economic and social front without beginning the process of dismantling the ruling class’s draconian political powers. Poll tax protesters found themselves detained at ‘her majesty’s pleasure’. Civil rights demonstrators were gunned down by ‘her majesty’s paratroopers. So what has our ruling class in reserve if faced with a serious socialist challenge to its power?! In the present corporate business-dominated world, any government considering a significant measure of economic and social reform is subject to serious measures of destabilisation by the major imperial powers, particularly the USA and UK. The elected Chavez government in Venezuela is currently under sustained attack by the US state and oil corporations. The vicious Uribe Velez government in neighbouring Colombia, with its death squads and merciless repression, represents Bush and Blairs’ favoured model when corporate business power is seriously challenged.

And we have ‘pre-emptive’ armed strikes, followed by occupying military and domestic client dictatorships, when ‘rogue regimes’ get in the way of US and British imperial interests. Few are going to shed any tears over the demise of the formerly imperially backed Taliban and Saddam regimes. Yet their replacement, by a motley crew of imperially-approved, mafia-style gangsters and clerical supremacists, offers no democratic future for the long suffering people of Afghanistan or Iraq.

However, the destabilisation treatment isn’t just reserved for ‘non-white’ regimes. Back in 1975, the Crown-appointed Governor General of Australia deposed the mildly reforming Australian Labour Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. He had proposed the closure of Australian ports to US nuclear submarines.

Today British and US imperialism are more closely linked under Blair – with the former now more than willing to act at the bidding of the latter. Therefore any serious movement, even for economic and social reforms within the UK, will soon come up against the force of the ruling class’s ‘hidden state’. The head of every repressive state agency swears an oath of loyalty to the Crown – not to parliament. Every elected politician at Westminster, Edinburgh or Cardiff also has to swear this oath of loyalty. This is done to show their compliance with the ‘hidden state’ which our rulers may have to invoke if normal parliamentary government does not suffice.

The oath of loyalty is the ‘polite’ political equivalent of the Orange arches erected over Northern Irish roads every July, to belittle all forced to walk under them. It shows who’s boss and exactly who has the right to trample on any lowly subject’s assumed rights. Pro-Scottish Independence Convention supporters need to have the measure of the forces we are up against.

The economism and Left unionism underlying the Anti-Convention camp

However, there has been opposition to the proposals for a Scottish Independence Convention from an Anti-Convention camp formed by the CWI, SW and WU Platforms. So far they have made the following major contributions to the debate:-

  • 1. Scotland and the National Question, Statement from the International Socialists, CWI Platform.
  • 2. The debate that will not go away by Mike Gonzalez of the SW Platform.
  • 3. Is Independence a road to Socialism in Scotland? by Neil Davidson of the SW Platform.
  • 4. Socialism and Scottish independence by Nick Rogers of the WU Platform.

These Platforms also represent two overlapping perspectives – the economistic and the Left unionist – within the SSP, despite there being considerable differences between them in other respects. Economism puts emphasis on the struggle for pay, conditions and welfare reforms, whilst downplaying the need for political or democratic reforms. Left unionism best describes those who believe a British state still provides the most favourable framework for advance towards socialism (whatever specific arrangements might have to be accommodated to acknowledge Scotland, Wales and Northern Irelands’ political existence, e.g. Devolution). Economism tends to unionism in the UK, because it tacitly accepts the existing state framework as the basis for its economic and social reforms. The CWI is the most consistently economistic tendency. This has led to a distinct tension within the CWI ranks. They have been forced to recognise the impact of the wider national challenges to the UK state upon working class consciousness.

A decade or so ago, the old Militant organisation was recognised as being one of the most unionist organisations on the Left. This has been particularly marked in Northern Ireland. Here their hostility towards Irish republicanism led them to flirtation with the PUP (a loyalist party with close links to the paramilitary UVF) on the grounds it represented an important section of the Protestant working class!

However, the rise of constitutional nationalism in Scotland and Wales forced Militant to another form of political accommodation. In Scotland, where the national challenge has been broadest, the CWI have moved to declaring their support for an independent socialist Scotland. This would appear to have pushed them out of the Left unionist and nearer to the Left nationalist camp – on paper anyhow.

In Wales, where the national challenge has been weaker, the CWI still hold to a Left unionist ‘socialist federation of Britain’ position. Since they hold such contradictory positions in each of the constituent nations of the UK (and partitioned Ireland) they have no consistent overall political strategy for socialists in these islands.

Now that the CWI has criticised the SSP leadership’s support for a Scottish Independence Convention, their own programmatic support for an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ leaves them in a rather uncomfortable position. Alan McCombes, who was once a prominent member of Militant/ CWI, before leaving to help form the ISM, has pointed this out.

Alan takes this shared programmatic point of an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ seriously. He therefore wants the SSP to take, what he sees as, the organisational measures necessary to advance this. Whereas for Philip Stott, an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ represents a paper political position for the CWI. It is only needed to provide a political defence when nationalists are on the ascendant, but otherwise it can be folded and put in the back pocket.

The CWI motion to conference, which calls on the SSP to drop the Scottish Independence Convention strategy, demonstrates their lack of political commitment to their own programmatic position. It isn’t based on any understanding of the anti-democratic unionist and constitutional monarchist nature of the UK state and the need for a consistent democratic challenge. It is only to be dragged out again when the SNP make significant gains.

The SWP certainly shares much of the CWI’s economism, but has in Scotland anyhow, provided the most consistent Left unionist theoretical defence of British unity (9). The SWP advocated a vote for Devolution in Scotland and Wales in the 1997 referenda, because Labour supported it and the Tories opposed it. Devolution remains consistent with the unity of Britain. The SWP see no real need to go any further than this – well, not until the next time the issue of Scottish self-determination comes ‘like a bolt from the blue’! Ironically in Northern Ireland, the SWP can be characterised as belonging to the camp of sentimental republicanism. But if your republicanism is merely sentimental, it can be put aside for immediate practical purposes. New Labour’s local devolutionary settlement, the Good Friday Agreement, can be accepted as the framework for everyday politics. Like the CWI, the SWP has no overall political strategy to unite socialists in these islands. They see no need for a political challenge to the ruling class’s New Unionist strategy designed to maintain their UK state.

However, with characteristic opportunism, the SW Platform sees no need to directly challenge the SSP leadership’s Scottish Independence Convention strategy either. The SW Platform sponsored motions to Conference on the issue are decidedly vague. Logically, they should support the CWI motion, but sectarian point-scoring, rather than principle, tends to dominate relations between these two organisations! Nick Rodgers of Workers Unity makes some interesting points in his paper, which do merit attention. However, the WU Platform appears to be the most disunited and hasn’t got enough of its supporters together to get the signatures for its proposed motion to Conference!

The weaknesses and contradictions in the Anti- Convention camp

A number of concerns have been raised by the ‘Antis’ over the leadership’s reasons for giving support to a Scottish Independence Convention. Concerns expressed have included, amongst others:-

  • 1. It represents a diversion from the class struggle.
  • 2. It over-estimates the significance of the national question as a means to challenge capitalism and imperialism.
  • 3. It depends on a misreading of the levels of current support for independence.
  • 4. It could promote working class disunity.

Both the SW and CWI Platforms have a fallback position though. If a genuine progressive movement for Scottish independence was to appear then it would get their support. What is not made clear is how such a movement would necessarily be progressive if socialists abstain when its initial politics are being determined! Yet there is an explanation for this Left unionist approach with its two possible roads:- optimum British Option A and retreat Scottish Option B. The two main Anti- Platforms believe that the working class is primarily motivated by economic and social concerns. They see little reason for socialists to consistently champion democratic change since, even if successful, we will still be left living in a capitalist state.

They argue it is better to prepare and wait for the ‘big bang’ political challenge – Revolution. To do this, we should concentrate mainly on economic and social movements as our ‘school of struggle’. According to the Left unionist view if socialists organise to promote the dismantling of the UK state, we are creating a diversion from the path of real class struggle, or fostering disunity amongst the ranks of the British working class.

This denial of the anti-capitalist potential of political or democratic struggle sits rather uncomfortably with these Platforms’ usual practice of championing economic and social reforms – higher wages and better welfare measures. Both assume the continuation of the capitalist economy! But these Platforms hold to the view that, when the working class, organised in its trade unions, vigorously pursues struggles for economic and social improvement, then demands for political reform will subside. Therefore any resort to political demands on the state, such as the right to self-determination, reflects socialists’ weakness not our strength.

For example, the CWI statement argues that,

When the working class begins to move and as the class questions become predominant the national question can be pushed back. This can be temporary however as a lull in the class struggle and defeats for the working class can push the national question back onto the agenda.

Clearly, in this view, the national question is not seen to be a class question (10). To be more precise, it is only seen to be such a question for the British ruling class and its Scottish nationalist middle class challengers! Workers are mainly concerned with pay and conditions and shouldn’t bother themselves very much about the nature of the UK state. How comforting such thinking has been to the ruling class, when it has faced real challenges in the past.

The history of economic, social and democratic struggles in the UK

A number of historical examples are often used by Left unionists to illustrate the power of united British trade union organisation. These include the 1926 General Strike, the strike wave of the early 1970s and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. Yet this argument is fundamentally flawed. The 1926 General Strike was defeated relatively quickly in 9 days, despite the magnificent working class support shown. Its leaders never contemplated a wider political challenge, viewing it as a purely trade union struggle. This turned out to be its weakness not its strength.

In contrast, the much greater challenge provided by movements for political democracy was highlighted in 1919. That year did indeed see a massive upsurge in economic struggles throughout the UK. Yet these coincided with a national democratic challenge to the UK state itself in Ireland. There was no adequate political organisation at the time to unite these economic and political struggles. Through concession and coercion the economic strike wave was rolled back by the end of 1919. This soon led to major working class set-backs. However, it took another 4 years before the UK state could bloodily contain, but not thoroughly defeat, the Irish democratic movement.

John Maclean drew a significant lesson from the government’s relatively easy defeat of economic struggle. The 40 Hours Strike collapsed after the army’s occupation of Glasgow in 1919. Maclean could see the much greater difficulties the same government faced that year when challenged by a political movement for national democracy in Ireland. The Limerick Strike of 1919 had been part of this wider political movement. Maclean abandoned the economistic British road to socialism (with its tacit acceptance of the UK state) and began to pursue the political break-up of the UK and British Empire strategy first championed by James Connolly. This did not mean abandoning economic and social issues but linking them to political or democratic struggle.

The working class strike wave of the early 1970s also coincided with a rise in democratic movements, most obviously in Ireland, but also in Scotland and Wales (along with the Black and Asian, women’s and gay movements). State repression was extensively utilised in an attempt to crush the struggle in Ireland. The British Tory government thought it had seen off this challenge when it faced down the Hunger Strikers in 1981. Bobby Sand’s winning of the Fermanagh parliamentary seat at Westminster highlighted the resilience of a movement which was prepared to politically challenge the UK state. The Britain-wide trade union strike wave, which started soon after the initial struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland, was contained more easily by the incoming Labour government of 1974. Consequently, strikes in the late 1970s were much more episodic. Trade union leaders had never aspired to anything higher than a Labour government. Wilson and Callaghan went on, unchallenged by these trade union leaders, to preside over an upgrading of military, police and intelligence capacity!

When Thatcher came to power in 1979 she began to implement the Tories’ secret Ridley Plan. This was designed to wreak vengeance on the miners for the defeat they had inflicted on the Tories in 1974. This resulted in the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. The government resorted to a wide range of repressive powers to break the NUM. Valiantly struggling miners faced the police, army, government agents, anti-union judges and bureaucratically- imposed curtailment of welfare rights.

A militant minority began to see the connection between the deployment of the state’s repressive powers in south Yorkshire and in south Armagh. Yet the Miners’ Strike was led by those who still viewed it primarily as an economic struggle. Once again this was a weakness not a strength. The miners’ power was broken; whilst Tory and Labour governments had to make a series of concessions to the Irish Republican resistance.

The link between British imperialism and the constitutional monarchist nature of the UK state

Now Alan McCombes does argue that Scottish independence:-

“would be a huge advance for democracy and a devastating defeat, not just for the British establishment, but also for American imperialism which sees Britain as its most loyal international ally” (11).

Unfortunately, this argument is presented more as a rhetorical flourish, rather than being seriously thought through to its political consequences. The UK state’s very real repressive forces, wielded under the Crown Powers, never get a mention.

This weakness in Alan’s argument has been recognised by both the SW and CWI Platforms. Thus Neil Davidson, for the SW Platform, points out that,

“If Britain is vital to the imperialist project… then is it not at all possible – in fact, is it not absolutely certain – that the ruling class will fight to retain Scotland, as they did Ireland, even though Ireland was far less important to Britain than Scotland is? Yet I see no sign that we are preparing the Scottish working class for the ultimate necessity of taking on the state, or of defending ourselves against the counter-evolution that would surely follow any attempt to do so” (12).

Alan’s former CWI comrades have also made a similar point. Philip Stott highlights, the ferocious opposition to national independence that will come from the capitalist state at this stage, with the loss of international prestige if British imperialism, weakened although it is, were to lose ‘control’ in its own backyard (13). He points out the completely lightminded way (14) in which Alan appears to deny the serious consequences of his argument.

If Scottish independence represents such a devastating defeat for the British establishment and US imperialism, we certainly need to take into account any likely ruling class response to such a challenge. The greater the challenge from our side, the more the other side will resort to their Crown Powers. No matter how nasty their plans, the ruling class will find some constitutional sanction for them under the existing Crown Powers. We live in a state whose leaders pride themselves on three centuries of constitutional rule. Coups are so un-British and so unnecessary when you have the legal power to dissolve parliament!

Yet Alan’s Left unionist critics share his tendency to misunderstand the real nature of and to underestimate the hidden powers in the UK state. Whilst they recognise the imperialist nature of Blair’s New Labour government (hard to avoid when the UK is currently at war!), they fail to link this with the constitutional monarchist nature of the UK state which buttresses British imperialism. Their demand for ‘regime change’ amounts to a call for a change of government – Gordon Brown (or Charles Kennedy) instead of Tony Blair! There is no call for thoroughgoing democratic change. Yet Blair used a very wide range of the state’s anti-democratic Crown Powers to further the war, including sanction for prior bombing raids and the mobilisation and deployment of troops, long before the parliamentary vote.

Being able to conduct wars or suppress internal challenges without recourse to a democratic vote is very handy for a state which has aspirations to wider power and influence in the world. Its leaders don’t want to feel beholden to any domestic pressure or ‘international law’, as we have seen in the recent war over Iraq. Britannia tries both to ‘rule the waves’ and ‘waive the rules’!

The link between ruling class power and the unionist nature of the UK state

However, since the UK is also a unionist state, this gives the British ruling class additional strength. This doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by the SSP’s Left unionists. The close link between British imperialism and British unionism has been highlighted by the war in Iraq. Examine the line-up of the parliamentary parties (maverick individuals aside) on the vote for war. The more aggressively unionist the parties, the more they were pro-war. It was the Tories and the Ulster Unionists who provided the votes to give Blair and New Labour a ‘democratic’ cover for the war. Neil fails to appreciate the difference between unitary, unionist and independent states and the different forms nationalism takes within them. Neil thinks he is making a particularly anti-Scottish independence point when he highlights the pernicious role played by the ‘Scottish national interest’ during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.

“In Scotland NUM area officials signed an agreement allowing enough coal to enter the strip mill at Ravenscraig in Motherwell to keep the furnaces going. The reason given by Area President Mick McGahey was the deal was ‘in the interests of Scotland’s industrial future’… And so the ‘Scottish national interest’ helped play a part in the defeat of the NUM, the destruction of the British mining industry and the perpetuation of Tory rule for another 12 years” (15).

The problem with Neil’s view is that all the NUM and Iron and Steel Trades Confederation officials he mentions were British Labour (or Labour supporting) unionists (some Left, and some, not so Left).

Neil thinks he has made another substantial point when he claims that a national element {was} in fact completely absent in the Tories’ imposition of the poll tax in Scotland in 1987.

“The whole (as it turned out) disaster was brought about by an attempt to placate the class base of Scottish conservatism, not to continue the work of proud Edward’s army (etc) in oppressing the Scots” (16).

However, it was precisely the unionist nature of the UK state which allowed the British ruling class to come to the aid of their local allies. Hence a Tory majority vote at Westminster could be used to impose a poll tax first in Scotland, on behalf of the class base of Scottish conservatism despite the scant electoral support here for the measure.

There was another even clearer case in 1969. The beleaguered Ulster Unionists were able to get assistance from a Labour UK government which sent in British troops to bolster their regime in the face of the challenge from the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps significantly, the SWP’s forerunners, the IS, chose to see the sending of British troops as the actions of a social democratic government facing down ultra conservatives and giving succour to the local Civil Rights Movement!

IS supported the sending in of British troops. They failed to see the common unionism which united Labour and the Ulster Unionists in defence of the UK state. This was more important than the secondary political divisions between them, particularly when the state’s local machinery was under threat.

It is the very unionist nature of the UK state which allows the ruling class to play off one subordinate nation against another. They can invoke petty nationalisms when necessary. When the British Navy’s Royal Dockyards at Rosyth and Devonport were threatened with closure in 1996, the British Labour Party and trade union officials from Scotland and England invoked their respective nationalities to support their own particular case (as well as suggesting a Dutch auction of pay and conditions to win government support!)

Unionist political power can be used in two ways. It can over-ride (including outvote at Westminster) any particular national opposition to specific measures (e.g. the poll tax Scotland). It can also give succour to any local British unionists facing a domestic ‘spot of bother’, (e.g. the use of British troops – including Scottish and Welsh regiments – in Northern Ireland).

Neil appears to be arguing that acceptance of a British unionist state framework at least offers the working class on this island a defence against nationalist division-mongering. Yet the UK state is a union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not a British unitary state. So there is plenty of scope for unionists to promote nationalist division. Internationalist working class consciousness, even in a multi-nation state, can never be a mechanical reflection of the state’s existence. Indeed, if you take Neil’s argument to the next logical stage, socialists should be demanding the end of any political recognition of Scotland and Wales’ existence. This would better create a unitary British state and hence a united British working class!

However, the SW Platform is not going to argue for the abolition of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly! Although, this may seem the apparent political logic of Neil’s arguments, it has to be remembered that when it comes down to it, the SW, like the CWI Platform, doesn’t see political issues concerning the democracy of the state as ‘class questions’ but diversions from real economic and social ‘class issues’. Therefore (thankfully) we aren’t likely to see the SWP. turning into British Direct Rulers!

Tailending the liberal unionists and the nationalist populists or taking an independent lead?

The failure of the SWP and CWI approach is highlighted by the positions they adopted when the nature of the UK state was contested, e.g. in the 1979 and 1997 Devolution referenda. Having refused, before these events, to recognise the democracy issue as a ‘class question’, both organisations still found that they were forced to take sides when a ‘non-class question’ presented itself. With the working class removed from their political calculations, the SWP and CWI were faced with the question of which capitalist side to support in the 1979 and 1997 Devolution referenda. The conservative and liberal unionists were given complete license to set the terms of the debate – ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ to Devolution!

Both the SWP and CWI faced difficulties in 1979 deciding which side to take. By 1997, both organisations had become good liberal unionists – giving support to Blair’s Devolutionary proposals. However, they both made verbal qualifications, declaring either ‘revolution’ or ‘socialism’ to be the real solution.

The underlying method of following the political lead given by others is painfully chronicled by Philip Stott. He outlines Militant/CWI’s changes in position. It began with tacit acceptance of administrative devolution for Scotland before 1979; followed by a switch to support for political devolution in that year; then to support for a socialist Scotland as part of a socialist federation of Britain in the mid-1990s; and finishing up (?) with support for an independent socialist Scotland in the late 1990s, when a majority of the youth and a significant section of the working class supported independence (17).

Philip admits that the CWI’s programme has evolved as the moods and consciousness of the working class has developed (18). Who then, by the late 1990s, was advancing the case for Scottish independence? Quite clearly, not the CWI, since their programme tail-ended what they saw as working class consciousness. It was the SNP – a capitalist nationalist party – {who} were left as the only ones advocating political independence. So there was a real danger that if the mood around the national question hardened even further in the direction of independence whole sections could be lost to nationalism (19).

What was the CWI’s answer to this particular development? The time had come to drop Labour’s liberal unionism and to adopt the SNP’s nationalist populism, otherwise the CWI might have found itself without an audience. They deleted socialist federation of Britain from their programme and substituted socialist independence – well for Scotland anyhow! Yet the CWI accepts that it is unlikely that an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ will be one of the ballot options in a future referendum. Therefore, we would support {capitalist} independence and would campaign for a yes vote in an independence referendum (20).

The CWI’s socialist programmatic prefix is left as abstract propaganda. The chance for socialists to politically challenge the SNP, in the here and now, on democratic grounds is not even considered – an ‘independent’ Scotland under the Crown or a democratic republican independent Scotland.

The political and class nature of support for Scottish independence

Neil and Philip both draw our attention to the fluctuating support given to Scottish independence and, in particular, to its recent decline. Neil states that

“Working class support, which reached almost 50% in 1997 fell back to the overall figure of 28% in 1999… In short, support for independence peaked at the time of the 1997 referendum and has, with occasional reversals, declined since then” (21).

Philip makes the same point, but qualifies it by noting that other statistics (in the same analysis which Neil uses) confirm our position that support for independence is highest among the working class, people with a left wing outlook, and younger people (22). However, Philip then retreats once more to his economic class questions. This means that the national question did not feature as a major issue at all during the 2003 elections. In order of importance Philip cites, low pay, privatisation, income equality, with the war on Iraq tagged on at the end (23).

Now the war is undoubtedly a political issue. In the CWI (and SWP’s) case though, there is a tendency in public to downplay political support for anti-imperialism and to emphasise the economic aspect, e.g. the money spent on war which could be used for hospitals and schools instead. However, the key thing about recent high-points in support for Scottish independence is that they coincided with times when the political nature of the UK state in Scotland was being politically contested, e.g. during the Devolution debate. The fact that Devolution is now in place means that the nature of the UK state in Scotland is almost continuously politicised.

Philip quotes the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey of 2001, in which 68% thought the parliament should have more powers (24). In other words, the current Devolution deal is not the last word on the issue – far from it. There are unionist forces which have tried to diminish the influence of the Scottish Parliament.

Their first proposal was to reduce the number of MSPs in line with the drop in Scottish MPs at Westminster. This was probably abandoned because of the careerist ambitions of Scottish New Labour members! More recently we have had Labour unionist Westminster MP, George Foulkes, wanting to tamper with the proportional representation system for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Lib-Dem unionist, David Steel, wants an upper chamber in the Scottish Parliament. Unionist desires for more centralised control will continue to clash with popular demands for more democratic control, producing political conflict.

We can not pretend that the nature of the UK state is not a class issue. What we need to decide is, which democratic option best suits the interests of our class. This then gives us a policy which can meet each political contingency as it arises. However, if we go further, and begin to politically organise a movement which can be brought to bear in any particular situation which arises, the SSP could take the political lead. Being the foremost champions of democracy, as well as of economic and social reforms, would greatly add to our influence.

Since the SW and CWI Platforms claim to come from the Leninist tradition, it is perhaps worthwhile examining Lenin’s last stated views on Norway’s secession from the Swedish state in 1905. The relationship between Norway and the Swedish state certainly had a lot in common with the current relationship between Scotland and the UK state. Furthermore, Sweden’s neutrality in the First World War showed that it was a much more passive player in the world imperial system than the UK state, either then or today. So basically, for those of a Leninist persuasion, his preferred political solution for Norway should apply to Scotland – but more so!

In December 1916 Lenin wrote that, Until 1905 autonomous Norway, as part of Sweden, enjoyed the widest autonomy, but she was not Sweden’s equal. Only by her free secession was her equality in practice proved… Secession did not ‘mitigate’ this {Swedish state} privilege (the essence of reformism lies in mitigating an evil not in destroying it) but eliminated it altogether (25). Today those reformist measures of mitigation he refers to would include Devolution and Federalism under the Crown. Both leave the essentially imperialist and unionist nature of the UK state untouched.

Changes in ruling class strategy to maintain the UK state.

One common feature underlying Alan, Philip and Neil’s contributions is they only invoke the wider British framework when discussing either trade union struggles or the anti-war movement. They don’t see a common British ruling class political strategy to defend the UK state itself, nor do they see the need to oppose this. The British ruling class has changed its strategy to maintain their unionist state. Old unionism favoured British Direct Rule; New Unionism prefers Devolution-all-round for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and, more tentatively, for the English regions.

Until the mid-1990s the ruling class’s chosen strategy was Direct Rule through Westminster. By the end of the 1970s it was the Tories who had become the principal advocates of such Direct Rule. This followed their abolition of the devolved Northern Ireland Stormont in 1972. Direct Rule was given added impetus by the defeat of Labour’s liberal devolutionary proposals for Scotland and Wales in 1979. When the Tories were returned that year, Thatcher wanted a UK plc to weather the storms in an increasingly unruly world. Direct rule became very much the order of the day throughout the UK.

However, the continuing Republican challenge in Northern Ireland, in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes, forced a ruling class rethink. The Tories’ first attempt to marginalise the Republicans, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, faltered. Therefore Major moved on to the Downing Street Agreement in 1992 with its proposals for a devolutionary deal there.

New Labour, under Blair, generalised this approach, pushing Devolution for Scotland and Wales too, to counter national democratic movements and sentiment. Indeed, the momentum gained by majority votes for Devolution in Scotland and Wales in 1997, gave further impetus to Devolution in Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement in the next year. In this manner Devolution-all-round has emerged as ruling class’s New Unionist strategy to maintain the UK state (26).

The democratic fragility of Devolution-all-round is very apparent. Opinion polls continue to show that people in Scotland don’t believe the Scottish Parliament has enough powers. This was highlighted when Blair’s tame Scottish Labour unionists, led by Jack McConnell, argued against the right of the Scottish Parliament to take any decision regarding British imperial participation in the war in Iraq. Even in Wales, where the non-legislative Welsh Assembly won only the narrowest referendum majority in 1997, there is growing resentment at the lack of any real powers.

In Northern Ireland Blair resorts to frequent suspension of Stormont Executive when it threatens to vote ‘the wrong way’. British troops, observation posts, RIR and RUC/PSNI fortified bases all remain in place. Their main concentration remains in nationalist areas. Yet their forces don’t seem to be around when loyalists are killing and maiming, whether it be sectarian attacks on nationalists or racist attacks on ethnic minorities! Interestingly, Philip, given his CWI/Militant Left unionist background, does see a connection between politics in Scotland and Ireland. The separation of Scotland could also have a major destabilising effect in Northern Ireland as the Protestant community could see it as the slippery slope to Northern Ireland being cast adrift from Britain.

Clearly Philip only sees here a negative connection between Scotland and Ireland. This is linked to the CWI’s long-standing denial of there being any fundamental democratic issue at stake in Ireland. They view the recent prolonged struggle in ‘the Six Counties’ as merely a battle of ‘warring tribes’. To counter what they see as a clash of feuding nationalisms they try to cling to the municipal socialist, ‘gas and water’, approach of the old Independent Labour Party in Belfast and the Northern Ireland Labour Party with their concentration on narrow economic and social demands.

The CWI-affiliated Socialist Party in Northern Ireland hopes that, by ignoring political demands, it can unite the working class on ‘bread and butter’ issues. The fact that a significant proportion of the working class, and not just the Republican Movement, has borne the brunt of UK state-backed repression in Northern Ireland, has to be seriously downplayed.

The Socialist Party dare not publicly campaign against the battery of repressive institutions, from her majesty’s regiments, the RIR, the PSNI, the state-backed death squads to the Unionist state supporting judiciary (who, in the person of Lord Hutton could be relied on to produce a suitably pro-government whitewash job for Blair!) To take such a stance would lead to the accusation of ‘taking sides’ and of ‘giving succour to the Republicans’. This failure to challenge severe anti-democratic measures is highlighted in the CWI Platform’s motion on Ireland to the SSP Conference.

Therefore the possibility that a growing national democratic movement in Scotland (with its considerably greater immediate potential to unite Protestant and Catholic here) could seriously weaken unionist and loyalist forces throughout the UK is not considered in the CWI’s analysis. They still accept the UK framework as the basis for their normal day-to-day class politics. They see economic and social concerns as being the essence of the class question. Any undue political disruption would upset this. Therefore they view the proposal for a Scottish Independence Convention as a threat, not a possible initial focus for a wider democratic challenge to the UK state and its repressive powers.

Opposing Left unionist attempts to ignore British unionism and to promote bureaucratic sectarianism

Ulster Unionists, New Labour and other unionists can call upon extensive help when they need it. They can use the whole UK-wide state machinery and draw on the political support of the British unionist parties.

Left unionists believe that they have the British TUC, the British Labour Party, or their own Britain-wide ‘revolutionary’ Parties (with semi-autonomous, effectively partitioned, adjuncts in the ‘26’ and the ‘6 Counties’ of Ireland) to counter ruling class power. However, far from forming the basis for an effective challenge, all of these Left unionist (or unionist accepting) organisations practice their own ‘bureaucratic internationalism’. They mimic many of the anti-democratic practices of the UK state and bring them into the socialist and working class movement in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Mike Gonzalez’ (SW Platform) contribution highlights Left unionist lack of respect for democracy. He argues that the controversy over the Scottish Independence Convention is a welcome development from the point of view of those of us who are interested in moving the SSP forward through political debate and discussion rather than bureaucratic and administrative squabbles. Because this is an issue of political principle (27). And, as we have already seen, the SW Platform is so principled, it is not stating its real political objections in its Conference motions on the issue!

What Mike writes off as bureaucratic and administrative squabbles  are genuine debates in the SSP over some of the SWP’s sectarian and bureaucratic practices. The SWP’s promotion of its own front organisations, such as the ANL and Globalise Resistance, without any democratic structures or leadership accountability, has caused considerable concern. The inept intervention of the ANL over the racist attacks in Sighthill in Glasgow is one example. Furthermore, the ANL doesn’t even recognise the nature of British fascism (with its racist and loyalist components), preferring to go along with the British populist equation of fascism with German Nazism.

Therefore, despite Mike’s dismissal, the issue of democracy and accountability, is a point of political principle. The SSA and SSP have been more democratic than any version of the Socialist Alliance, or the newly setup Respect, in England (and Wales?). Their initial sponsoring organisations, first the Socialist Party and then the Socialist Workers Party, are well-known for their sectarian and bureaucratic practices. Furthermore, the emergence of political ‘prima donnas’, with little respect for genuine democracy, was a feature of the Britain-wide, Socialist Labour Party under Arthur Scargill; whilst George Galloway, ‘leader’ of Respect, is certainly ‘democracy-and-equality lite’!

Galloway also displays some of the worst British chauvinist traits. At a Respect meeting in Cardiff, Galloway was asked to state why the new organisation had nothing to say about Wales. In replying he made no concession to the right of Welsh self-determination and stated that supporters of independence should be excluded (28). Galloway also wrote a Sunday Mail article, in response to a proposed Scottish Executive Bill on the Gaelic language. In it he decried a language understood by less than two percent of Scots… {which} is ‘rammed down the throats’ of the rest. Our language is English and we should thank our lucky stars for that (29). Not so ‘Gorgeous George’ in the valleys and the glens then!

Most socialists are aware of the fact that it is only the pre-existing political strength of the SSP which prevents Galloway extending the Respect alliance to Scotland. It is quite likely that there are some Left unionists who are disappointed that Galloway is not standing for election here. Yet such moves would only create socialist disunity – a continuing feature of Left unionist bureaucratically imposed ‘internationalism’.

Opposing Left nationalist attempts to promote ‘socialist separatism’ and disunity

However, if the CWI and SWP have a Left unionist blind spot for Labour’s New Unionism, what explains Alan McCombes and the ISM’s failure to see this also? The ISM, who have formed the overwhelming majority of the SSA and SSP leaderships, are in the process of making a painful break from the earlier Militant Left unionist tradition. In doing so they have become aware of the need for more inclusive democracy. This has been sharpened by their growing awareness of the significance of the wider democratic struggle for self-determination in Scotland. The SSP has greatly benefited from this.

Yet there is a danger of the ISM flipping from Left unionism to Left nationalism. One indicator of this, is the constant wariness of the SSP leadership in approaching socialists for joint activity in England, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Wales. Certainly consecutive British political leaderships have failed to build an inclusive democratic socialist organisation. Therefore the much poorer political performance of their front organisations has provided the SSP leadership with an excuse for their detached attitude towards socialists ’south of the border’.

Some want to go even further. The main Left nationalist Platform in the SSP, the SRSM, wants to put the issue of ‘Scottish independence’ beyond debate by proposing an entrenched constitutional amendment at Conference. Such moves could only lead to some socialists being driven out the SSP. Far from opening up the prospect of more united action with socialists in England, Wales and Ireland, it would lead to disunity in Scotland. Therefore, just as we have seen in the case of Left unionist, George Galloway, a Left nationalist approach can also promote disunity.

All SSP Platforms give their support to the right of Scottish self-determination. It is quite legitimate that the form this takes should be debated. Attempts to suppress the debate are sectarian and it is to be hoped that Alan and the rest of the annual conference will oppose them.

However, the SRSM also has ‘Republican’ in its title and constitution. But so far, they have made no statement proposing that this should form the political basis of a Scottish Independence Convention. Is the word ‘Scottish’ the only significant one in the SRSM’s name? Is the SRSM, like the SNP Left, merely sentimentally republican? Does that old Jacobitism provide a present day cover for going along with ‘Independence under the Crown’?!

Throughout this article it has been demonstrated that there can be no meaningful political independence for Scotland, unless the UK’s Crown Powers are broken. This means breaking the Union of the Crowns as well as the Union of Parliaments. Detaching Holyrood from Westminster still leaves the British ruling class (including its Scottish component) with plenty of powers to intervene within Scotland. Furthermore, any disgruntled Scottish/British forces will still have powerful external allies. Our strategy has to be international to counter this.

Promoting a strategy of republican internationalism from below

When we examine the socialist forces within these islands we see a very ‘mixed bag’. In Scotland, the majority of socialists are involved in the Scottish Socialist Party. This is the most successful initiative, which is both inclusive and openly socialist. In England and Wales, we find division between the Left populist Respect alliance and the sectarian Socialist and Socialist Labour Parties. We also have the Left nationalist/populist Wales Forward alliance trying to come to some sort of electoral arrangement with Respect.

In Ireland the divisions are even deeper – partly a reflection of UK promoted (and Irish government accepted) partition. The Socialist and Socialist Worker Parties both practice partitionist politics with attempts to build populist alliances in the North. Socialists within Sinn Fein are being more and more marginalised as the leadership becomes both more constitutional nationalist and more ‘responsible’ (i.e. accepting corporate business pressure).

The Irish Republican Socialist Party is trying to develop a wholly political and anti-sectarian response to the new situation created by the Good Friday Agreement but remains hamstrung by its own past bloody internal conflicts. Socialist Democracy promotes an anti-partitionist politics as well as challenging state/employer/trade union partnerships. However, it remains too small to take the lead in achieving broader socialist unity throughout Ireland.

The British and Irish governments plan more joint initiatives than socialists in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. To counter this the SSP has to unite with socialists and other democratic republicans in England, Wales and Ireland. Our answer to their New Unionist strategy of Devolution-all-round and the institutionalised sectarianism of the Good Friday Agreement should be our own strategy of socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’.

The British and Irish governments have their own Council of the Isles, with representatives from England, Ireland (North and ‘South’), Scotland, and Wales. We need our to unite own forces throughout these islands. A regularly meeting Socialist Council of the Isles would be a good start! Even if we just look at the situation in England, the best that our SSP leadership can come up with, in relation to the new Respect alliance, is a mutual non-aggression pact! In the unlikely event of Respect gaining some quick electoral credibility, there is no chance of such a top-down, populist alliance holding together under pressure. A similar, quickly formed populist Alliance was created in New Zealand. It won over 20% of the vote and several MPs. They promptly gave their support to a Labour government and then lost all their seats in the subsequent General Election! Ken Livingstone has shown that building a credible organisation outside the Labour Party is a good way to persuade Tony to let him back inside again. George Galloway will have noted this.

However, there are many socialists in England and Wales, who are not at all enamoured with the sectarian and bureaucratic antics of the leaders of the Socialist Alliance or Respect. They are impressed by what the SSP has achieved. They should be part of our audience. We shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the Respect leadership’s narrow electoralism within the confines of the UK state (or, at least those parts, which won’t bring them electoral embarrassment!)

We need to form a republican Socialist Alliance covering Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. There should be a Joint Platform which recognises the full autonomy of socialist organisation in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. The immediate political aim should be the abolition of the Crown Powers, the breaking of the Union and the ending of Partition in Ireland.

Of course, political demands must be linked to economic and social struggles. Our push for full democracy and sovereignty in the nation against the sovereignty of the bureaucrats in ‘their Crown in Parliament’ needs to be matched by support for sovereignty of trade union members in their workplaces against the sovereignty of the bureaucrats in the union HQ’s. New Labour’s support for a New Unionist political settlement for the UK has gone hand-in-hand with their new (trade) union policy of promoting economic ‘modernisation’. These linked strategies are designed to benefit the interests of the global corporations. The employer/trade union partnerships, which are undermining so many workers’ pay and conditions, are fully backed by both the British and Irish governments.

Political struggle isn’t a diversion from the central issues of how to fight PFI, support the nursery nurses, abolish the council tax or mobilise against the occupation of Iraq(30). If we pursue any of these issues seriously we need to set our sights higher than a change of government. Political struggle amounts to much more than contesting elections. We need to contest the ruling class’s political power, by exposing their antidemocratic ‘hidden state’ and, through widening genuine democracy, undermine their Crown Powers. If the SSP sees the Scottish Independence Convention proposals as part of this wider strategy, we can gain the real respect of socialists throughout these islands.

Allan Armstrong

References

  • (1) Frontline, no. 11.
  • (2) Gregor Gall, Socialism, the national question and the Independence Convention in Scotland.
  • (3) Alan McCombes, After May 1st: Which way forward towards independence and socialism?
  • (4) Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, Imagine – A Socialist Vision for the 21st century, p. 188, Rebel inc., Edinburgh, 2000.
  • (5) Alan McCombes, op. cit.
  • (6) Andrew Murray Scott and Iain Macleay, Tartan Terrorism and the Anglo-American State, p.22, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1990.
  • (7) Andrew Murray Scott and Iain Macleay, op. cit.p.22.
  • (8) The Herald, 1.11.03
  • (9) As well as Neil Davidson’s article see Discovering the Scottish Revolution,1692-1746, Pluto Publishers, 2003, See review article,
    Allan Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, in Emancipation & Liberation, no. 5/6.
  • (10) Philip Stott, Scotland and the National Question
  • (11) Alan McCombes, op. Cit.
  • (12) Neil Davidson, Is Independence a road to Socialism in Scotland?.
  • (13) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (14) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (15) Neil Davidson, op. cit.
  • (16) Neil Davidson, op. cit.
  • (17) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (18) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (19) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (20) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (21) Neil Davidson, op. cit.
  • (22) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (23) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (24) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (25) V. Lenin, The Discussion on Self Determination Summed Up, in Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, p.148, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970.
  • (26) Mike Gonzalez, The debate that will not go away.
  • (27) The Downing Street Declaration – New Unionism and the Communities of Resistance, a Republican Worker pamphlet, Glasgow, 1994.
  • (28) Interview with Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru AM, in Seren, issue 12, p. 6.
  • (29) Wilson McLeod, Securing the Future of Gaelic, in Scottish Left Review, issue 20, p.12.
  • (30) Neil Davidson, op. cit.

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