The following post includes the Contents and the Introduction of the first part of the review by Allan Armstrong of Breaking up the British state – Scotland, Independence & Socialism, editors, Bob Fotheringham, Dave Sherry and Colm Bryce.
The full review can be read at:
THE SWP AND SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE
Part 1 – Breakin’ up is so hard to do
Part One – “Breakin’ up is so hard to do”
1. Murray Armstrong, one-time IS and SWP member, reviews ButBS in bella caledonia
2. Setting the scene – the SWP from anti-devolution to pro-devolution, then from anti-independence to pro-independence
3. The SWP, some of its breakaways, IndyRef1, the Radical Independence Campaign and the problem with ‘national exceptionalism’
4. The SWP promotes anti-imperialist arguments to support the SNP’s constitutional proposals just as the leadership moves to a closer embrace of US and British imperialism
5. Scottish independence – a product of working class defeats or the decline of the UK’s imperialist and unionist state?
6. Maclean and the similarities and differences between Scotland and Ireland and some overlooked contradictions
7. The problems associated with dropping old British Left arguments on Maclean without understanding his republican socialist perspective
8. Missing out the significance of cultural resistance and its relationship to the legacy of John Maclean
9. An attempt at an orthodox Leninist defence of the right of national self-determination and a failure to appreciate the Norwegian precedent
Part Two – To party or not to party
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has recently published a book entitled Breaking up the British State – Scotland, Independence & Socialism (ButBS), [i] edited by Bob Fotheringham, Dave Sherry and Colm Bryce. This book has an extended introduction and nine chapters on a variety of Scottish-related topics. It includes a lot of interesting material, particularly on Scottish trade union struggles, racism and anti-racism in Scotland, and on the SNP government’s neo-liberal (with a social bent) record.
This review of BuBS is in two parts. The first part, Breakin’ up is so hard to do, [ii] examines the thinking and theories which have led to the SWP adopting Scottish independence. It points to some of the ButBS shortcomings, when applied to the political situation we confront today. The UK is facing a long-term crisis. The majority of the British ruling class now give their backing to Boris Johnson’s authoritarian populism. They are imposing a reactionary unionist clampdown on the existing ‘Devolution-all-round’ and Irish ‘Peace Process’ settlement. This was put into place, after 1997, when neoliberal New Labour (and later David Cameron’s Conservatives) adopted a liberal unionist strategy to maintain the UK in the face of recent challenges, particularly in Ireland and Scotland. This led to the devolution referenda in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the referendum in the Republic of Ireland, which dropped its constitutional claim over Northern Ireland.
British Labour, which has always been divided between liberal and conservative unionist approaches to the UK, is now further divided on national lines too. Only in Wales does Labour still cling to a liberal unionist, ‘extend devolution’ agenda. For the UK as a whole, and in Scotland in particular, Labour has become conservative unionist, unable to challenge Johnson’s undoing of New Labour’s liberal unionist settlement.
But constitutional nationalists, particularly the SNP, have also been stymied. Previously they were able push liberal unionists further along the devolutionary road, and even obtain IndyRef1. Today, constitutional nationalists, like Nicola Sturgeon, whilst putting on a better display of opposition than the liberal unionists, are also thwarted by reactionary and conservative unionists who make no real concessions.
ButBS ignores the underlying nature of the UK’s unionist and imperialist state. This state is based on the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster, with its armoury of anti-democratic Crown powers. ButBS also doesn’t recognise the political nature of the changing strategies., liberal, conservative and reactionary unionist,[iii] the British ruling class has adopted to maintain its direct control over the UK and its indirect control over the Republic of Ireland. The first part of this review goes into the political reasons why the SWP is unable to devise an immediate republican, ‘internationalism from below’ strategy’ to resist Johnston’s reactionary unionists and to offer an alternative to the constitutional nationalists’ floundering attempts to bring about constitutional change.
There is also a deep-seared economism to the thinking behind ButBs, which leads its contributors to prioritise trader union struggles. They don’t appreciate the issue of oppression, and the nature of the democratic political struggles arising from this. They ignore the issue of alienation, and the cultural resistance this has given rise to in Scotland. This review highlights the significance of these issues in the ongoing struggle for Scotland’s self-determination.
ButBS upholds what it sees as Lenin’s theory of national self-determination. This claim is found to be wanting as it misses the most obvious parallel. Lenin looked to the case of another unionist state – Norway. In any international comparison Norway was low on oppressed nation criteria, but nevertheless, was denied the democratic right of national self-determination by the Swedish imperial and unionist state. The SWP’s failure to ground support for Scottish self-determination upon the democratic principle of opposition to oppression (even if this has not yet become overt oppression) leaves ButBS dependent on less firm grounds in its support for Scottish independence. This part of the review concludes by looking at contested arenas where such debates are already taking place.
The second part of this review, To party or not to party? will look into the SWP’s long-standing claim that it provides the Socialist party alternative to the constitutional parties – particularly the social democrats, be they Labour or the SNP. Social democracy has changed its meaning over time[iv], and can now mean little more than a commitment to state intervention in the running of the economy. The SNP adopted such social democratic thinking under Alex Salmond. This has been taken further under Nicola Sturgeon. Far from being incompatible with neo-liberalism, it amounts to a social neo-liberalism, first developed under New Labour.
The second part will take up the issue of political organisation raised in ButBS. It looks at why ButBSis muted in making any party claims for the SWP. It makes a criticism of the wider social democratic legacy, which has had such an impact on the British Left. Whilst wanting to reject British Labourism, ButBS is still mired in an acceptance of much Left social democratic thinking.
The SWP is one of the larger British political organisations claiming to be revolutionary socialist, adhering to what it claims to be Leninist methods of organisation. Therefore, in upholding the need for a revolutionary party, ButBS contributors want to embrace Vladimir Lenin (and Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky too). In an attempt to appear orthodox, ButBSuncritically invokes the Bolsheviks’ 1917 Declaration of Rights. This declaration addressed the oppressed nations in the new state inherited from the Tsarist Russian empire. However, for various reasons, this declaration has not left Socialists a legacy which we can champion today. The Bolshevik’s failure to embrace an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy contributed to this.
Therefore, the second part of this review concludes by advancing the case for a different sort of party – a socialist republican party, developing the strategy of ‘internationalism from below’ first promoted in these islands by James Connolly and John Maclean. And they were part of a wider tradition, with representatives in Poland and Ukraine too. Their thinking and strategies were to be tested in the 1904-7 and 1916-21/3[v] International Revolutionary Waves. Their thinking retains considerable relevance today, especially when some Socialists, understandably anxious to oppose the imperialist designs of the US and British ruling cases, end up giving support to the spurious anti-imperialist claims of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a declining imperialist power, and Xi Jinping’s China, a rising imperialist power.
I have written an earlier and fuller analysis of the IS/SWP (and other significant Left political organisations in Scotland) and their relationship to the issue of Scottish self-determination, in my tribute to Neil Davidson.[vi] Neil was an SWP member from 1978-2014. I have used the same method in this article of adding substantial footnotes, which further develop points made in the main text, and also provide examples from my own direct political experience and writings.
[ii] With apologies to Neil Sedaka
[iii] From Pre-Brit to Ex-Brit- Understanding the Unionist nature of the UK state and the reasons for its ongoing demise, Allan Armstrong https://allanarmstrong831930095.files. wordpress.com/2021/ 07/from-pre-brit-to-ex-brit-4.pdf, p.31-33
[v] In retrospect it can be seen that this International Revolutionary Wave ended in 1921, marked by events in the fateful month of March. However, there were still hopes that this revolutionary wave could be revived in Germany. The failure of the Hamburg Rising in October 1923 ended this possibility.
1. Riding two horses at once – The SWP and scottish independence _ Allan Armstrong
2. Britain must break to defend ‘Real Labour’ or the break-up of the UK state to advance republican socialism – Allan Armstrong
3. From Grey to Red Granite – viewing the Left, the Scottish Question and the nature of the UK state through ter lens of Neil Davidson’s writings and political work – Allan Armstrong
4. Breaking up the British state – Scotland and independence – Murray Armstrong, bella caledonia