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.