The recent quarrel over the timing and constitutional validity of the proposed independence referendum in Scotland has again pushed the national question to the forefront of British politics. Such developments give us a fresh opportunity to revisit this important issue.
Lenin in his book State and Revolution warned that the national question in Britain, which appeared resolved long ago, could raise its head under certain circumstances. This amazing prediction came true with the world crisis of 1974 and the deepening crisis of British capitalism. The re-emergence of nationalism in Scotland and Wales that Lenin had anticipated, was reflected in the growth of support for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party throughout the 1970s and 1980s and up to the present.
It is a dialectical contradiction that the national question could arise when the historical justification for nation states has come to an end with the decline of capitalism itself. The creation of nation states was one of the historical achievements of capitalism in the period of its ascent, especially between 1789 and 1848. That the crisis of capitalism has led to a revival of latent nationalism is a reflection of the fact that this is the epoch of decline.
The nation state has long ago become a fetter on the development of the productive forces and the advance of society. The re-emergence of the national question at this juncture is directly linked to the general crisis of world capitalism and in particular the delay of the world revolution, which can give rise to all kinds of contradictions that appeared to have been resolved.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks paid close attention to the national question in Russia, which had become a burning issue, and, as a consequence, put forward the demand for the right of nations to self-determination. Lenin developed a dialectical and sensitive view of the plight of oppressed nationalities that would allow the Bolsheviks to win them over and successfully carry through the Russian revolution. Without such a policy the victory of the revolution would have been impossible.
The national question remains an important issue today and in dealing with the national question in Britain, we should base ourselves on this rich arsenal of Marxism. In doing so, however, it is important to stress that we approach the national question from a class point of view. Marx and Engels gave due consideration to the national question, they always considered it as subordinate to “the labour question”—that is, they always considered it exclusively from the point of view of the working class and the socialist revolution. “The Hungarian shall not be free, nor the Pole, nor the Italian, as long as the worker remains a slave!” explained Marx.
We need in particular to understand the national question, not in general terms, but concretely. That was always the method of Marx and Lenin. The great thinkers of scientific socialism were proletarian internationalists. They did not glorify nationalism, but under certain circumstances they supported the right to self-determination as a progressive democratic demand.
Marx and Engels supported the right of self-determination for the Irish, Hungarians and Poles, but opposed the national struggles of the South Slavs and Czechs. Their attitude was determined by the concrete relationship of these struggles to the perspective of the European revolution, and specifically the role of tsarist Russia, which was using its sponsorship of the “self-determination” of the South Slavs and other Slav peoples to further its reactionary expansionist policy.
Lenin adopted what can be called a negative approach to the national question. In other words, rather than being in “favor” of this or that movement, we are implacably opposed to any manifestation of national oppression. Lenin explained that the demand for the right to self-determination is a democratic demand. It can be compared, say, to the question of divorce. To be in favour of the right to divorce is not at all the same thing as to advocate divorce. To defend the right to abortion is not to say that abortion is a good thing in any circumstances. Above all, at all times we must fight to uphold the sacred unity of the working class, as Lenin emphasized time and again.
Under certain circumstances, we would be in favor of the right to self-determination up to and including separation as a progressive and revolutionary demand. This is clearly the case where a nation has been subjected to forcible annexation, reduced to an enslaved colony and subjected to discrimination or oppression. In such cases the working class is obliged to support self-determination. The British Marxists consistently supported the struggles of the colonies for independence for that reason.
In the History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky outlined the Marxist position on the national question:
“Lenin early learned the inevitability of the development of centrifugal national movements in Russia, and for many years stubbornly fought – most particularly against Rosa Luxemburg – for that famous Paragraph 9 of the old party programme which formulated the right of nations to self determination – that is, to complete separation as states. In this the Bolshevik Party did not by any means undertake an evangel of separation. It merely assumed an obligation to struggle implacably against every form of national oppression including the forcible retention of this or that nationality within the boundaries of the general state. Only in this way could the Russian proletariat gradually win the confidence of the oppressed nationalities.”
Trotsky then goes on to explain the basic policy of Bolshevism in this matter:
“But that was only one side of the matter. The policy of Bolshevism in the national sphere had also another side, apparently contradicting the first but in reality supplementing it. Within the framework of the party, and of the workers’ organizations in general, Bolshevism insisted upon a rigid centralism, implacably warring against every taint of nationalism which might set the workers one against the other or disunite them. While flatly refusing to the bourgeois states the right to impose compulsory citizenship, or even a state language, upon a national minority, Bolshevism at the same time made it a verily sacred task to unite as closely as possible, by means of voluntary class discipline the workers of different nationalities. Thus, it flatly rejected the national federation principle in building the party. A revolutionary organization is not the prototype of the future state, but merely the instrument for its creation. An instrument ought to be adapted to fashioning the product; it ought not to include the product. Thus a centralized organization can guarantee the success of a revolutionary struggle – even where the task is to destroy the centralized oppression of nationalities.” (History of the Russian Revolution, p.891)
National question in Scotland
While actively opposing any manifestation of national or racial oppression, Marxists are by no means under any obligation to act as evangelists of national separation. On the contrary, all other things being equal, we are not in favour of setting up new frontiers, but stand for the abolition of all frontiers and the establishment of the Socialist United States of Europe and ultimately a Socialist World Federation. We must not make the slightest concession to petty bourgeois nationalism. However, it is necessary to adopt a flexible policy that will enable us to get an echo among sections of the population that are under the influence of nationalist ideas and demagogy.
In the 1970s, when we first discussed this issue of nationalism in Britain, we characterized both Scotland and Wales as nations given their common territory, tradition and national consciousness. This objective recognition is important because the right of self-determination applies to nations and not arbitrary groups.
We were firmly opposed to petty bourgeois nationalism, which demagogically presented national independence as the solution to the problems faced by the Scottish and Welsh people, but we adopted a sensitive approach to national aspirations and supported the demand for devolution, namely increased autonomy for the Welsh and Scottish people. At the same time, we linked the fight for devolution with the need for a socialist programme to tackle the problems facing the working class. Again, this was directly linked to the unity of the working class in the struggle for a socialist Britain as part of the struggle for a Socialist Europe and Socialist World Federation.
At the time, when we discussed and debated the question, we produced two documents, written by Ted Grant, 1 dealing with nationalism and particularly the referenda over devolution in Scotland and Wales. In these documents, we analyzed the reasons for the growth in nationalism as stemming from the decline of British capitalism and the failure of successive Labour governments to tackle the problems faced by the working class and the middle class. This was especially the case in Wales and Scotland, which were the areas worst affected by the crisis compared to other parts of Britain. While there was disillusionment in England, this took the form of increased support for the Liberal and other parties. In Wales and Scotland, it took the form of increased support for the nationalists.
Scotland today is considered a Labour stronghold as far as seats at Westminster are concerned, but this was not always the case. In fact, in 1955, the Tories secured 55% of the votes in Scotland. However, over the last 50 years, the Tory Party, widely considered to be the most successful bourgeois party in Europe, has been reduced to a rump in Scotland, as was the case in Wales.
This was a reflection of the crisis of British capitalism, the polarization in society, and the strength of the working class. Labour was always dominant in the central belt of Scotland, while the other parties, such as the Liberals and nationalists, were reduced to the rural areas. This reflected the shift in class consciousness in Scotland over this period.
From a class point of view, nationalism is mainly a bourgeois and petty bourgeois phenomenon. The growing disquiet amongst the middle classes, and the failure of Labour to offer a way forward, pushed a layer into the hands of the nationalists. The real tradition of the Scottish working class was a class tradition with revolutionary overtones. It is the tradition of the Glasgow Rent Strike of 1915, of Red Clydeside in 1919 and, more recently, the occupation of the Upper Clyde shipyards and the Miners’ Strike.
However, since the early 1980s, especially under the Thatcher government, there has been a swing towards nationalism amongst the middle class and sections of the working class, especially the youth.ÂÂ This was mainly because of the failure of right wing Labour in Scotland and in Westminster to offer a serious alternative to the workers and youth. Throughout this period, the growing disillusionment with Labour’s counter-reformism also pushed a section of workers towards the nationalists.
This process was also assisted by the Stalinists in the Communist Party and their fellow-travellers who continually injected the poison of nationalism into the workers movement, especially in Scotland, which reflected their national degeneration as an organisation. The “British Road to Socialism” very quickly became a “Scottish Road” to Socialism, which pandered to nationalist prejudices.
The election of a series of Thatcher governments served to build up a deep-seated anti-Tory mood in the working class and youth. This was especially strong in Wales and Scotland. However, the shift to the right in the Labour Party served to repel this potential anti-Tory reservoir. It pushed a layer of workers and youth towards the nationalists. In the late 1980s, while the SNP belatedly joined the anti-poll tax campaign, the Labour leaders were not prepared to break the law and oversaw the implementation of this hated tax by bailiffs. Once again, this gave the SNP a more radical image, which they did not deserve, especially amongst the youth.
Though there are still enormous reserves of support for Labour in the working class in Scotland, the actions of the reformists have continually eroded this support to the advantage of the nationalists. Over the last 25 years, support for the SNP has more than doubled, while support for Scottish independence has gone from 12% to around 38% today. While this is still not a majority, it represents a potential danger to the unity of the working class that we cannot ignore.
In 1997, along with the working class throughout Britain, there was a surge in Scotland behind Labour to get rid of the hated Tory government. However, the growing disillusionment with the Blair/Brown government pushed workers more and more behind the nationalists, who had shifted to the left – at least in words.
The setting up of a Scottish Parliament in 1999, which we supported, has nevertheless answered none of the fundamental problems facing the Scottish people. A series of Lib-Labour governments, elected on the basis of proportional representation, failed to deliver real change, although it is true that certain welcome reforms were introduced, such as the abolition of tuition fees and warrant sales.
ÂÂ With the introduction of these reforms, the Scottish Labour Party attempted to distance themselves from the Blair government and the Party in London. Nevertheless, they did not go far enough and increasing disillusionment eventually led to the defeat of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood and the coming to power to a minority SNP government in 2007. During this election, the SNP had shifted to the left in words and played up the importance of social issues, while at the same time playing down the issue of independence.
In the 2007 election, the SNP had gained 47 seats to Labour’s 46 and the Tories’ 17. It held onto power by its finger tips. However, in May 2011, the SNP managed to win an outright majority with 69 seats and 47% of the vote. The SNP gained 32 constituencies, 22 from the Scottish Labour Party, nine from the Liberal Democrats and one from the Tories. This is the most seats any party has ever held at Holyrood, and more votes and seats than the SNP has ever won in a Westminster election.
The Scottish Labour Party lost seven seats and suffered their worst election defeat in Scotland since 1931, with huge losses in their traditional Central Belt constituencies and for the first time having to rely on the regional lists to elect members within these areas. This provoked further crisis in their ranks. They did, however, remain the largest opposition party. The Liberal Democrats were soundly thrashed, with their share of the vote halved and their seat total reduced from 17 to 5. The Tories also suffered continued decline.
The limitations of the Scottish parliament were becoming apparent as the nationalists protested at the limits imposed from London. The majority of people clearly wanted increased powers and more control over their lives, especially as the economic crisis deepened. It is in this context that the SNP promised a referendum on independence before the end of its term and revealed its intentions to present a referendum bill to the Scottish parliament.
This has served to ruffle feathers of the Coalition at Westminster, with Cameron threatening to block any referendum on constitutional grounds. But with Holyrood threatening to proceed, Cameron was forced to drop his belligerent tone and seek a compromise and dialogue with Salmond. While agreeing to a referendum, Cameron has attempted to rule out any additional question to “for or against” independence. Salmond wanted a second question on the ballot about ‘devolution max’, meaning greater powers for the Scottish parliament, which would certainly win an overwhelming approval, even if independence were defeated. This argument has now served to thrust the Scottish national question and the issue of independence firmly to the forefront of Scottish politics.
Tories and Labour
The very fact that the unity of the United Kingdom could be openly called into question at this time is an indication of the complete degeneration of British capitalism and its political representatives. The Tory Party and its leaders are a faithful reflection of this degeneration. Instead of the old, far-sighted political representatives that British capitalism had in its imperial heyday, the present leadership is composed of superficial spin doctors and hopeless empiricists who stumble from one makeshift compromise to another. Thus, in his haste to outmanoeuvre the SNP, Cameron was himself outmanoeuvred by Salmond.ÂÂ
The belligerent intervention of Cameron was clearly a mistake from the standpoint of the British ruling class. It caused upset in Scotland, where it was seen as a clear attempt to meddle in the affairs of the Scots. This has played into the hands of the nationalists who have played on the sentiment that Scots should decide their own affairs without interference from London, especially from a Tory prime minister. This blatant interference is even more galling since the Tories are an endangered species in Scotland and have no democratic mandate. As the joke goes, the Tories have less Scottish Westminster MPs than there are giant pandas in Edinburgh zoo.
While the roots of nationalism are really quite shallow in the working class, there is a growing feeling that the people of Scotland are being governed by a remote clique of rich men in Westminster, who do not understand their problems and are indifferent to them. The SNP is demagogically playing on this feeling, propagating the false idea that Scottish independence is the solution to the problems of the Scottish people, while the Tory Party – the party of the rich and privileged - has come out strongly in favour of the Union at all costs.ÂÂ
The growth in support for the nationalists is the responsibility of right-wing Labour, which has dominated Scottish politics for decades, and which has treated Scotland as a kind of “rotten borough”, which would always deliver the votes to send opportunists and careerist carpetbaggers to Westminster. The shift to the right in the Labour Party that began with Kinnock and was deepened under Blair resulted in the Scottish party stumbling from one crisis to another. Leaders were replaced one after the other.
This lamentable spectacle was in sharp contrast to the SNP, whose leader, Alex Salmond, is a smooth opportunist, projecting the air of confidence of a professional bourgeois politician. The Labour leaders, who are incapable of offering an independent class position on this or any other question, have scandalously pledged to join the Tories in a ‘pro-Union’ alliance to ensure that independence is defeated in the referendum. Such a bi-partisan stance by Labour threatens to alienate workers and youth who are looking for a real alternative, rather than an alliance with the discredited Tory party. By acting in this way, Labour is only adding to the perceptions that it is an Establishment party, desperate to maintain the increasingly unpopular status quo.
Of course, this coincides with the policy of Big Business, which wants to keep the Union and does not want the instability associated with an independent Scotland. The British ruling class recognizes that the Scottish economy is firmly rooted in the British economy, with 45.2% of its exports going to the UK and only 4.7% going to the EU. That is where their interests lie. This is what dictates the policy of big business, including the Tories. They have therefore firmly come out against such a proposal.
There is a section of the Tory Party leaders who are ambivalent about Scottish independence. For their own narrow and short-term party interests, they see independence in Scotland as a way to strengthen the Tory party in Westminster. An independent Scotland would be unable to send Labour MPs to Westminster, which would provide the Tories with a near-permanent majority in the London parliament. If Scotland becomes independent, the Tories will only lose one Tory seat out of the 59 seats north of the border. By contrast there are 41 Labour members, 11 Liberal Democrats and 6 SNP members.
Nevertheless, the fact that such a perspective is being offered by some leading Tories shows how narrow, short-sighted and degenerate they have become. Even if this were the case, the idea that there would be a semi-permanent Tory government in England is completely false. There have been many occasions when Labour has won outright majorities in England and Wales, and Labour governments would have been returned, according to Professor Curtice of Strathclyde University, in 1945, 1950, 1997 and 2001.
As for the Liberal Democrats, they were once the party of Home Rule, but are now paying the bitter price for governing together with Cameron’s English Tories. The Liberals have been annihilated in Scotland, where their space has been occupied by the SNP.
Scottish National Party
Despite the SNP’s traditional claim of “rich Scots versus Poor Brits” and an economic future based on “Scotland’s oil”, North Sea oil is due to fall from 0.7% of UK national income in 2011-12 to only 0.2% by 2022-23. The banking sector, which plays a big role in the economy, is in difficulties and propped up by the British state.
The SNP is a typical petty bourgeois nationalist party, which faces in different directions according to its constituency. In an attempt to move away from their original image of “Tartan Tories”, they have adopted a left or “socialist” colouration in the urban areas where Labour was the main opposition. They understood only too well that this was the only way in which they could challenge Labour in its working class heartlands. With this image, they were able to chip away at Labour’s support. In the rural areas, on the other hand, they still maintained their bourgeois nationalist orientation.
Behind this “left” rhetoric, however, is a pro-business policy of continued capitalist rule in Scotland. Salmond had promised “a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector” in 2007 and also encouraged Fred Goodwin, former RSB chief, to buy ABN Amro, a deal that helped push the bank into collapse. The SNP manifesto also contained a commitment for a public sector wage freeze and a 20% cut in corporation tax.
Their idea of an independent Scotland would mean a “race to the bottom” between Scottish and other European workers, forced to compete for shrinking markets. In the context of the world crisis of capitalism, an independent Scotland would be crushed, as shown by the example of Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The fact that Greece is ruled by a European troika is an illustration of how national independence has been undermined in this epoch of crisis. All their talk of “independence in Europe” at a time when Europe is in the grip of an economic crisis that threatens to drag everything down with it, including the Euro, is meaningless. All countries, while nominally independent, are under the grip of the world market and the industrial and financial monopolies.
The real class character of the SNP is demonstrated by the commitment to cut corporation tax by 20% and its implementation of a 5-year public sector wage freeze. The working class can expect no better treatment at the hands of the nationalists than they received from the English Tories and Liberals.
In Scotland, the SNP government, in agreement with London, had managed to delay the implementation of the planned cuts in the short term, avoiding the odium for the present. This goes some way to explaining its current popularity. However, in April, they will be forced to implement austerity measures in Scotland that will be the equivalent of two years’ worth in just one year. As the cuts fall, the SNP will try to blame London and pass on the responsibility of implementing them to Labour councils.
In the short term, this can pose difficulties for Labour. We can see the recent example of Glasgow City Council, which is under Labour control, and only managed to push through its budget by two votes after a rash of defections. Now six deselected councillors plan to launch a rival party. This is unlikely to succeed but it reveals the pressures that are building up.
In the meantime, the SNP, which is riding high in the opinion polls, hopes to take control of Glasgow in the May elections. (It took seven of Glasgow’s 15 Holyrood seats in last year’s Scottish Parliament vote, but this was a high-point.) Whether that happens will remain to be seen. In the long run, such success may well only prepare the SNP for a bigger fall in popularity as they implement cuts at both local and Scotland-wide level.
Sectarians and nationalism
The 57 Heinz varieties of sects have always capitulated to petty bourgeois nationalism. They see the slogan of self-determination and national independence as an absolute “principle”, independent of time and place. Such an approach has nothing in common with the attitude of Marx and Lenin, who based themselves on the concrete situation, and always subordinated the national question to the class question. It would be a fatal mistake for Marxists to dress themselves up in the garb of nationalism, or to become evangelists for the independence of Scotland. This would be an opportunist capitulation to the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie, no matter how the capitulation may be dressed up in “revolutionary” language.
The national question in Scotland resurfaced in a debate in the Militant tendency in 1991, where the continued rise of nationalism in Scotland was used by the leadership to justify the “Scottish turn”. This “turn” was based on the setting up of an open organisation - Scottish Militant Labour - to supposedly undercut the dangers of Scottish nationalism. In effect, although they vehemently denied it, the leaders of the majority group, were bending to the pressures of frustration and, in particular, nationalism. This soon became evident when, in 1998, Scottish Militant Labour was transformed into the Scottish Socialist Party and adopted the aim of an independent socialist Scotland. In the rest of Britain, they adopted the name of Socialist Party of England and Wales, to demonstrate their separate identity from Scotland.
This whole approach was in effect the adoption of John MacLean’s mistaken position when he put forward the need for a separate Scottish Workers’ Republic. His mistake arose also from frunstration and a lack of confidence in the militancy of workers in the rest of Britain. However, within a few years the whole of Britain was rocked by a General Strike in 1926.
This stand by the SML and SSP represented a complete abandonment of everything we had stood for in the past. “Socialists should be prepared to support such a step [independence], even on a non-socialist basis as promoted by the SNP”, wrote Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCoombes, the then leaders of the SSP. “The material foundations already exist in Scotland for a thriving, blooming socialist democracy... We have land, water, fish, timber, oil, gas and electricity in abundance. We have a moderate climate, where floods, droughts and hurricanes are almost unknown”! (2)
It showed just how far they had capitulated to nationalism, and not only in Scotland. To their shame, they gave support to the Croats in their move to break away from Yugoslavia. We pointed out that the break-up of Yugoslavia was a criminal act that did not serve the interests of any of the peoples. The subsequent history of the ex-Yugoslavia demonstrated the utterly reactionary nature of this development, which cannot be justified from the standpoint of the working class.
Despite their earlier heated denials, this initiative in Scotland was an attempt to emulate the earlier spilt off from Labour in 1976, when John Sillars and Robertson set up the ill-fated Scottish Labour Party. We condemned this split at the time, but this was conveniently forgotten.
The “Marxists” went so far as to set up a separate politically autonomous Scottish party, to speak in the name of the Scottish working class. Such an erroneous approach was not new. It had originally been advocated by the ex-Trotskyists of the American SWP, which put forward the idea of separate parties of the working class, based on nationality, race and gender. Rather than unity of the workers, they stood for separation! This went against the basic principles of Bolshevism, which was opposed to dangerous division in the working class movement. They had abandoned the ABCs of Marxism on the national question.
Even in Tsarist Russia (“a prison house of nationalities”), where the Great Russians made up 43% of the population, Lenin was implacably opposed to the setting up of separate parties along national lines. He stood firmly for principle of the unity of the working class. He fought against the attempts of the Bund to have a separate organization for the Jewish workers, despite the fact that the Jews suffered a special oppression and even spoke a different language.
The Scottish Socialist Party made an initial impact. Given the growing disillusionment with the Blair government in London, they were able for a while to tap into the mood of a layer to the left of Labour and managed to win six SMPs and two councillors in May 2003. However by 2007, these were all lost and the party imploded. The attempt to break the political dominance of the Labour Party, or even establish a sizeable party to its left, turned out to be a failure. Since then, the shift to the right in the Labour Party nationally and the succession of Labour governments in London had created an even greater space for the Scottish nationalists.
Thus, the attempts to build an independent party in Scotland, largely on an opportunist basis, capable of competing with Labour, ended in disaster. The SSP soon split and has more or less disappeared.
Scots want independence?
While the nationalists have gained a majority in Holyrood, their support has not been won on the basis of independence, but was gained from disillusioned workers in response to being let down by the right-wing Labour Party in Westminster and its Scottish counter-part. We must therefore be wary in equating support for the nationalists as support for independence.
The support for Scottish independence according to the opinion polls has fluctuated in the last decade or so, rising to a peak of 47% in March 1998 to a 20-year low point in 2009 of 20%. In December 2011, it had gone back up to 38%. (A YouGov poll in January found support for independence at 33% and opposition at 53%). This has coincided in support for the SNP rising to over 50% in the polls, with Labour at 26%, the Tories on 12%, the Lib Dems falling to 8% and others at 4% (December 2011).
While there is not at this stage a majority for Scottish independence, the support for such a measure does illustrate the yearning for greater control over their affairs. We must be sensitive to this feeling, which represents an understandable and progressive desire of the Scottish people to gain a more direct control over their lives. Therefore, we must support the demand for greater powers for the Scottish parliament (‘devolution max’).
To some extent the broad appeal of nationalism was dented after the 2008 crisis, which had blown a hole in the idea assiduously propagated by the SNP of an “arc of prosperity” involving Ireland, Iceland and Norway. The “arc of prosperity” has now been reduced to an “arc of crisis”. The crisis of the euro has also undermined the nationalists’ argument of Scotland joining the euro as an alternative to the pound. But since then, there has been a recovery and support for the SNP following the 2011 elections, has reached new heights. This, however, will not last as the cuts are introduced across the board.
The SNP’s support for independence was always highly qualified. They have reassured voters that the Queen would remain the head of state in the event of an independent Scotland. They would also keep the pound instead of using the euro. More recently, they have said that they would have the Bank of England as its lender of last resort!
Alongside this, despite their rhetorical anti-nuclear stance, the question of British military bases and nuclear weapons also remains a grey area in the SNP’s proposal for independence.
In contrast to Scotland, the issue of nationalism in Wales is much less prevalent. As in Scotland, the domination of a right-wing Labour Party, especially in the towns and cities of Wales, has undermined support for Labour, which has always had a solid base in Wales, reflecting its overwhelmingly proletarian class composition. This has allowed the nationalist party (Plaid Cymru) to grow and even form a coalition with Labour in past Welsh administrations. But lately the nationalist party has lost ground.
In the 2011 assembly elections, for the first time, Plaid Cymru took fewer seats than the Tories. Again, in order to win support, Plaid Cymru down played the issue of independence. While the party enjoys about 20% support, the question of independence is only supported by about 10% of the electorate. As a result, some members of Plaid Cymru, even their public representatives, being out-and-out opportunists, have dismissed independence as “irrelevant”. They say, in effect: “if you don’t like my principles, I can change them!”
Plaid Cymru is now struggling with its identity and has taken a partial shift to the left with the election of Lianne Wood as the new leader of the party. With a minority Welsh Labour government in Cardiff portraying itself as the defender of national interests against the Tory-led coalition in London, Plaid Cymru is finding it hard to position itself. It realizes that independence is not an option, that it has no appeal. Rhodri Glyn Thomas, a Plaid Cymru assembly member, has said:
“The economy is in crisis, unemployment is rising month by month and someone wants to talk about a concept [independence] no one fully understands. Unfortunately because the Scottish National Party is holding a referendum on Scottish independence, some people think we should be doing the same in Wales. I suggest they go to Scotland.”
That is why Lianne Wood want to concentrate upon social and economic issues, such as unemployment, poor wages, and increased stress at work. This is the only direction they can take if they want to challenge the dominance of the Welsh Labour Party. However, with the increasing class polarisation, Labour will also be forced to take more of a radical stand if it is to maintain its support and keep the nationalists at bay.
The Marxist position on the national question has nothing in common with either the nationalist or unionist parties. Our view is based upon the interests of the Scottish people and above all the interests of the working class in Scotland and in Britain as a whole. Scotland is a nation and its people have the right to self-determination. However, the national question, if not approached properly, especially on a class basis, can end in a disaster. In every case we must ask the question: does this help or hinder the struggle for socialism? Does it help to unite the working class, or foster harmful divisions? The answer to these questions will determine what our attitude will be, and nothing else.
As Marxists, we are duty bound to support the idea of a referendum over Scottish independence as a democratic right. The SNP won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament and the referendum is their party policy. Salmond has said the referendum will be in the autumn 2014, the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn when Robert the Bruce defeated the English, or more importantly, when Scotland will host the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup. They are keen to delay the vote for as long as possible, but this can be their undoing given the likelihood of a new world downturn.
However, we remain implacably opposed to bourgeois nationalism which seeks to divide the working class and its organizations. We will continue to consistently argue for increased devolution within Britain but against secession. We will support instead the fight for socialism in Britain and internationally and the vital unity of the working class throughout these islands in order to achieve this end.
The Scottish people have a right to a referendum on independence without any interference from the Westminster government. Marxists stand for the right of self-determination of the Scottish and Welsh peoples, up to and including the right to separate, if they so wish. We support their legitimate national aspirations to self-government. If the question on the ballot is a straight for or against leaving the UK, we shall argue against.
Of course, we do not stand on the status quo, which offers no solution to the problems of the working class or the people of Scotland. We nevertheless will stress that independence on a capitalist basis would not solve any of the problems of the working class. We must differentiate ourselves clearly from the Tories and reformists who simply want to keep the Union. In contrast, we must fight clearly for working-class unity, for a socialist Britain and socialist internationalism.
The issue of the Scottish referendum has a certain parallel with the stand we took in the Common Market referendum in 1975. Then we opposed Britain joining the Common Market and put forward as an alternative the slogan ‘Socialist United States of Europe’. This allowed us to distance ourselves from the nationalism of the right-wing Tories and left-reformists (including the Stalinists) who opposed the Common Market on purely nationalist terms.
It is important that we sharply distinguish our perspective from the Liberals, Labour and others who will also support ‘devolution maximum’ if it is on the ballot paper. We must explain we support this measure as a part of the struggle for socialism, linking it to a socialist Labour government using these powers to implement socialist policies, carrying out nationalization etc. We must also make it clear that we view this as part of the class struggle and a tool which would be used to appeal to and mobilize workers in the rest of Britain and internationally.
Naturally some of the sects have come out in favour of Scottish independence, presenting it as a “blow against the British state”. These people have no perspectives or principles and have nothing in common with Marxism. They represent an opportunistic adaptation to petty bourgeois nationalism. The perspective of socialist revolution in Scotland, or Wales for that matter cannot be separated from a revolutionary movement for the overthrow of British capitalism. The idea of “socialism in one country” was a reactionary utopia for the USSR. What can one say about the idea of a “socialist Scotland” or a “socialist Wales”?
We view the development of the trade unions and political organizations on an all-Britain scale as a tremendous historical advance and will vehemently oppose any attempt to reverse the long-term trend towards unification of the movement across national boundaries. The belief that working class revolutionary action in Glasgow will be divorced from action of workers in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, or Cardiff is ridiculous. To pose the socialist revolution in narrow nationalist terms is completely reactionary and indicates a narrow parochial mentality. As internationalists, we must pose the question of the British revolution in terms of the European and world revolution.
Historically, the British working class is one class. The English, Scottish and Welsh workers share a common history of struggle going back almost two centuries. To maintain this class unity is essential in order to defeat the British ruling class, which is fighting to maintain its domination. To effectively combat British capitalism requires the unity of working people at an all-Britain level in a common fight against the common enemy.
To achieve the outright defeat of capitalism and begin to build a new society, the Scottish workers will have to join forces with the multi-million strong labour movement of England and Wales. Any weakening of the forces of the working class by the rupture of the labour movement can only seriously undermine the long-term struggle for socialism. The class struggle in Britain has already started to pick up on a Britain-wide basis. Instinctive unity was demonstrated firstly by the student movement, which included demonstrations in Scotland despite the fact the measures it was initially protesting against only applied in England and Wales. Subsequently this has been demonstrated in the development of the local government dispute.
On the basis of the crisis and the attempt to introduce austerity, the SNP government will see its support decline. The idea of a northern European “arc of prosperity” has been dashed. Its attempt to implement pro-business policies as a sweetener to overseas “investors”, will bring it into conflict with the working class. The mighty events that impend will serve to radically change the consciousness of the broad masses in Scotland as elsewhere.
The development of industrial struggles in England, Wales and Scotland, as we saw in the magnificent strike on 30 November, will tend to unify the workers and will tend to cut across the poison of nationalism and undermine the influence of the nationalist parties. Only a revival of the traditional mass organizations of the working class on the basis of genuine socialist policies and the development of a left-wing within their ranks can provide an alternative to those layers who are looking to the SNP.
The key task facing the Scottish working class is to unite with its brothers and sisters in England and Wales to defeat the attacks of the Coalition government. It is to struggle for socialist policies as the real answer to capitalist crisis. The fight for a socialist Britain will inscribe on its banner the slogan of maximum autonomy for Wales and Scotland as part of the fight for a Socialist United States of Europe and a World Federation of Socialist States. This is the only way out.