Three hundred years after the Act of Union with England, and with elections to the Scottish parliament due on 3 May, polls indicate a resurgence in support for Scottish independence. Phillip Stott reports on the current situation and how the left can take up the national question in Scotland and Britain.
The end of the union?
Despite prime minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown’s attempt to promote ‘Britishness’, a series of opinion polls have shown little enthusiasm for being branded British. Indeed, there is clear evidence that a British identity has weakened considerably in Scotland, England and Wales. But does rising poll support for Scottish independence – in Scotland and England – mean that the end of the union is now on the cards?
The first article of the Treaty of Union signed 300 years ago declared: “That the Two Kingdoms of England and Scotland shall… forever after be United into One Kingdom by the name of Great Britain”. Even pro-union historians and politicians admit that this was an agreement between two ruling elites to advance their economic interests. One historian commented recently: “Scottish MPs [unelected] concluded that incorporation with England offered the best remedy [to a financial crisis] – provided that the Scots could negotiate access to England’s colonies, a long-held ambition”.
The majority of people in Scotland in 1707 were opposed to the union and many were outraged at the decision to abolish the Scottish parliament without any reference to the Scottish people themselves. Riots and the stoning of the carriages of the pro-union elite as they made their way down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to sign the treaty marked the opposition to a union carried out over the heads of the Scottish people. It was a union to advance the interests of the rich and the developing merchant and capitalist class. Robert Burns was later famously to write that those who voted for the union had been “bought and sold for English gold. A parcel of rogues in a nation”.
The undemocratic nature of the Act of Union served to reinforce the already existing Scottish national consciousness and ensured that the national question would be an issue that was not going to go away.
Moreover, it was an unequal union in the sense that England, with a stronger economy and state, largely incorporated the more economically backward Scotland into a larger economic power. Scotland was effectively fast-tracked from a feudal and largely rural country into the economic epicentre of the new Great Britain. As capitalist relations took root, initially coal, tobacco and linen and, following the industrial revolution, steel, shipbuilding and other manufacturing and industrial sectors formed the basis of the Scottish economy, along with agriculture.
But this policy of capitalist industrialisation came at a cost. The brutal smashing of the ‘old life’ of the rural communities was epitomised by the Highland Clearances. Tens of thousands of families were driven off the land to work in the developing capitalist sectors of the economy. Such events, along with the fact that the Act of Union resulted in all political decisions affecting Scotland being taken in Westminster, left a bitter legacy.
Scotland emerged as a key workshop for British capitalism – itself known as the workshop of the world. By the 1770s, 40% of linen exported from Britain came from Scotland and Scottish linen production quadrupled in 50 years. By the 1880s and the ‘white heat’ of the industrial revolution, Scotland was producing 85% of Britain’s pig iron exports. In shipbuilding, by the late 1880s, the Clyde was building 70% of all ship iron tonnage, employing 20,000 shipyard workers out of a total in Britain of 47,000. By the beginning of the 20th century, the proportion of Scots employed in primary production was 33% higher than in England and Wales. Even as late as 1939, Glasgow was the largest exporter of steam locomotives in the world.
In addition, an important section of the Scottish middle class benefited by being incorporated into the British state machine, including the army and civil service. The Scots’ elite found roles in business, the medial profession and, in an echo of today’s controversies, as MPs. This absorption of the Scottish capitalist class and sections of the middle class into the British imperialist state, alongside the pre-eminent role of British capitalism in the world, allowed a stability and a certain acceptance of the union settlement. This was reflected in the increasing identification with being British, including probably among a majority of the working class in Scotland.
However, even then a strong Scottish national identity always existed, even if it co-existed alongside an identification with being British for a period. The embers of a future fire were still glowing. But the relative decline in the world position of British capitalism in the 20th century, and the collapse of manufacturing which particularly devastated many Scottish working-class communities, began to remove the ‘glue’ that had held the union together. This resulted in the emergence of a more powerful national consciousness. Support for Scottish independence increased from around 7% in 1979 to at least one third by the late 1990s – with some polls indicating that a majority backed the idea. A major factor in reigniting the national question was also the decline of the Tory Party in Scotland over this period. The number of Tory MPs fell dramatically in Scotland during the 1980s and 1990s. This meant that while successive Tory governments were being elected in Westminster, a majority of people in Scotland were voting against them. This had the effect of increasing demands for a separate Scottish parliament that would more accurately reflect the political views of the people of Scotland. By 1997, not a single Tory MP was left.
The demand for constitutional change grew. The majority of the capitalist class was forced, reluctantly, to accept the need to change the political structure or face more far-reaching demands for complete independence that could threaten the existence of a British state.
The demand for the return of a Scottish parliament, or home rule, was enshrined in the labour movement from its inception in Scotland. The Labour Party traditionally backed the idea of a parliament for Scotland. So in 1997, after winning the election, such was the pressure to deliver that even Tony Blair’s sanitised New Labour was compelled to cede to a referendum on devolution. Seventy percent voted for the creation of a Scottish parliament, while in Wales a majority backed the setting up of a Welsh assembly.
The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) supported a double yes vote in the referendum: Yes for the Scottish parliament and yes to it having tax varying powers. But we also explained, before devolution was introduced, that the parliament would lack real power. Reliant on an insufficient block grant from the UK government, Holyrood was always going to be dependent on Westminster for its financial survival. There was no scope for raising significantly more resources for public spending, tackling poverty, etc. We argued, as we do now, for a parliament with full powers over the economy, tax, benefits and defence. A parliament backed up by a mass movement of the working class and young people with the power to nationalise industry, increase the minimum wage and benefits, one that could refuse to send troops to Iraq, and remove Trident. Instead, devolution has proved incapable of changing the lives of the millions of people who voted for its creation in the first place.
Under the control of New Labour and the Lib Dems, the Scottish parliament has been used like a neo-liberal battering ram against the working class. Privatisation has been imposed in schools and hospitals. Council housing has been sold-off and hospital cuts and closures have provoked massive community protests. Public-sector pensions have also been a target. A recent poll, Social Attitudes in Scotland, found 55% believed that the Scottish parliament had made no difference to how Scotland was governed. More than half thought that the NHS was either no better or worse now than before the parliament was set up.
There is also massive opposition to Blair’s New Labour government in Westminster. The Iraq war is hugely unpopular, as is the decision to replace Trident with a new weapons system at the cost of at least £20 billion. The ongoing profit bonanza for big business stands in stark contrast to the neo-liberal assault by the bosses in conjunction with Brown. All of these factors have contributed to a powerful anti-Labour mood that could result in the Scottish National Party (SNP) becoming the biggest party in Scotland in the May elections.
A series of opinion polls have shown the SNP ahead of Labour in voting intentions for May and have also indicated a growing level of support for independence. At this stage, the SNP is primarily benefiting from the anti-Labour mood. Private polling for Labour has underlined this, showing that the main factor in pushing people to the SNP is the unpopularity of Blair.
However, it is also clear that support for the idea of an independent Scotland is growing as a result of both the anti-working class policies of New Labour and the overwhelming feeling that the current ‘constitutional settlement’ is not working. In the absence of a significant workers’ party many people are looking to vote SNP as a way of punishing New Labour. While recent polls on independence vary – support for an independent state often depends on how the question is asked – most indicate a level of support at between 40-50%.
The response of Blair and Brown has been to launch a ‘blitzkrieg’ on the SNP and the dangers of independence. Blair’s speech to the October Scottish Labour Party conference in Oban was widely seen as a disastrous start of the campaign to ‘save the union’. Blair claimed that Scotland faced a ‘constitutional nightmare’ if it voted for an SNP-led government: “Already they are publishing plans for separation – separate currency, separate pensions and social security systems, leaving NATO”.
Given the unpopularity of Blair and the inevitable reaction to him coming to Scotland and ‘telling us what to do’, it was no surprise that support for the SNP and independence increased in the polls following the conference. This has not prevented Brown and other Westminster Scottish MPs from trying to repeat the trick from the 1999 Scottish parliament elections when they claimed, to some effect on SNP support, that independence would create an ‘economic Armageddon’ for Scotland.
One Labour minister after another has predicted the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of investment if Scotland became independent. Government figures for income and expenditure have shown an £11 billion ‘black hole’ between what is raised and spent in Scotland, and New Labour has attempted to argue that Scotland could not be economically viable as an independent country. The SNP has countered by arguing that many small countries, including Norway, Ireland and Iceland, are economically successful and are a model to follow. New Labour’s strategy is being holed beneath the water by the deep unpopularity of Blair’s government and Jack McConnell’s Scottish Executive. Former First Minister, Henry McLeish, has criticised this campaign as being ‘too negative’, and has called for Labour to face up to the need for a discussion on giving the Scottish parliament more powers.
With the Scottish elections due on 3 May, two days after the 300th anniversary of the formal signing of the Act of Union, independence is likely to feature as a major issue during the election campaign. The SNP has pledged to move a bill for a referendum on independence. However, the SNP would need to form a coalition with other parties to form the Scottish Executive. So desperate is the SNP to prove itself a responsible party of government in the eyes of big business that it has already made noises about forming a coalition with the anti-independence Lib Dems. The Lib Dems have made it clear that they will not form a coalition with the SNP if an independence referendum is a ‘deal breaker’. The problem for the SNP is that unless it makes a major breakthrough in May it would need the Lib Dem MSPs to form a coalition government, possibly alongside the Greens. Therefore, it is not ruled out that the SNP could agree to the formation of an Executive while allowing a free vote on a referendum bill. SNP leader, Alex Salmond, has made it clear that his party’s proposal for a referendum could be delayed three or four years.
In taking this approach, the SNP is responding to the pressure of the overwhelming majority of the capitalist establishment in Scotland and the UK who are opposed to the break-up of Britain for economic and political reasons.
The ruling class in Britain, including the majority of Scottish big business, will be prepared to go to great lengths to avoid the economic and political destabilisation the break-up of the UK would entail. They are, of course, primarily concerned about their profits and class interests. They are organically opposed to any moves that would threaten to undermine the running of capitalism.
This includes their concern over the inevitable loss of prestige and influence on the international arena that would follow the secession of Scotland from the union. British imperialism does not have the same weight as it did in the past. However, as we see with Iraq and Afghanistan, it still aims to play a role on the world stage. It has to compete with other capitalist powers in Europe and internationally. The idea of Scottish independence, which has the potential to ignite secessionist movements in Wales and add more combustible material to the volatile situation in Northern Ireland, is viewed with horror by the ruling class in Britain.
For these reasons it will require a mass movement in Scotland to achieve independence. Moreover, it is very likely that, faced with the possibility of such a movement, the ruling class will be prepared to make more concessions on the national question in an effort to head off a rupture of the union.
The pro-capitalist SNP will continue to ‘tack and weave’. It has long ago accepted a policy of ‘gradualism’. Key to that strategy is the SNP proving itself a ‘safe pair of hands’ for capitalist interests. So it hopes to form the government in the devolved parliament to prove its reliability for big business.
The SNP has laid out its pro-capitalist stall by pledging to slash corporation tax in an independent Scotland from 30% to 20%, allowing big business to make even more super-profits. An indication of how the SNP would act against the working class was underlined by its attack on local government workers in Falkirk. The SNP controls that council and terminated the contracts of thousands of workers, forcing them to sign new ‘single status’ contracts with inferior wages and conditions. Any SNP-led Scottish Executive would rapidly be exposed for its anti-working class policies, notwithstanding its populist policies on some issues.
The SNP has quite skilfully exploited the opposition to the war in Iraq and Trident to build support. The SNP claims that there would be no Scottish troops in Iraq if Scotland was independent, nor would Trident be allowed to be sited on the Clyde. In reality, the SNP’s opposition to the Iraq war was because of its ‘illegal’ character. It supported the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and calls for troops from Muslim countries to continue the occupation of Iraq instead of US and British forces.
However, there is still a possibility of New Labour and the Lib Dems forming the Scottish Executive after May. Depending on the parliamentary arithmetic, it is not ruled out that a grand anti-independence coalition of parties, including the Tories, could be formed.
An unstable situation
THE RULING CLASS in Britain was forced to concede powers from the centre at Westminster to Scotland and Wales in 1997 in an effort to head off a more powerful secessionist movement from developing. As far back as 1992, following the re-election of a Tory government under John Major, the Financial Times commented: “The demand for a degree of self-government cannot be resisted. On this Mr Major is wrong and the Labour Party quite right. But the union should also be preserved”.
Many leading figures in New Labour predicted that devolution would resolve the problem. George Robertson, former Labour defence minister and Secretary General of NATO, boasted that devolution would kill independence ‘stone dead’. For the first few years of the Scottish parliament’s existence support for independence fell and there was a mood to wait and see what devolution could deliver. Support for the SNP fell away dramatically. In 1999, the SNP polled 28% of the vote, winning 35 MSPs. By 2003, that had fallen to 23% and 28 MSPs. In the 2005 Westminster elections, it only polled 18%, coming third behind the Lib Dems. The primary reason for this was the lessening of the intensity of the national question. The SNP also failed to build on the opposition to New Labour because it had moved to the right and embraced a more pronounced neo-liberal programme. Among significant sections of the working class, even those who supported independence, it was not seen as the main issue to fight on compared to the immediate concerns of low pay, pensions, the war in Iraq, and other class issues. However, it was inevitable that at some point that mood would begin to change.
There is deep unpopularity over the lack of achievements of the Scottish parliament. But there is also a growing mood for the parliament to be given more powers. Recent polls have underlined this. Only 12% of people support the powers of the parliament being left as they are, while 60-70% support increased powers – responsibility, for example, for all tax revenue raised in Scotland. So-called ‘fiscal autonomy’ has even been advocated by the Tory Party in Scotland. The problem for New Labour is that both Brown and McConnell have thus far opposed any idea that increased powers should be devolved to the Scottish parliament. This position is untenable in the long term and is leading to increased support for the SNP. It is very likely that a debate will open up on changing the constitutional arrangements again.
This could happen even if the SNP fails to form a coalition after 3 May. A significant increase in the SNP’s vote and an unstable coalition of the pro-union parties could also hasten a re-examination of the situation. But if the SNP wins enough seats to become the largest party there would be enormous pressure to accept that more concessions need to be made, short of independence. The SNP would be in favour of such a move. It would proclaim increased powers as another step towards independence. The SNP ‘gradualists’ long ago overtook the so-called ‘fundamentalists’ in the party. And Salmond has hinted in the past that he would accept, at least for a period, a looser ‘Council of the Isles’. It is possible that a more federal-type structure may be put forward, granting wide-ranging autonomy for Scotland – more akin to the situation in Spain with the Generalidad (Catalan parliament) which holds wide-ranging autonomous powers within the Spanish state. The capitalists may well be prepared, if they feel they have no option, to sanction more concessions in an attempt to head off a bigger movement for independence.
The English question
THE POST-1999 devolutionary situation has had a knock-on effect in England. This is partly reflected in an increased English identity and a weakening of a British consciousness. According to a poll conducted in January 2007, 11% of people in England see themselves as ‘English not British’, and a further 11% as ‘more English and British’. This represents a significant change compared to the outlook prior to 1999. The search for an identity has accelerated following the granting of a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. Polls indicate support for an English parliament, as well as support for the idea of an independent Scotland. Sections of the Tory Party have flirted with English nationalism by attacking Scottish MPs for voting on matters that affect English constituents, and calling for Scottish MPs to be excluded from voting on such legislation at Westminster. There has also been a long-term complaint that Scotland receives too much money from Westminster for public spending on health and education.
The 2004 Education Bill that imposed top-up fees for students in England but not Scotland was only passed by the votes of Scottish Labour MPs. There was understandable resentment among workers and young people in England at this. Tory MP, Boris Johnson, has said it would be unacceptable for Brown to be prime minister because he is a Scottish MP. This is not the position of the capitalist establishment. However, they are very concerned to avoid anything that could inflame the national question further. But, given the weakened position of the Tory Party in Scotland and the fact that the Tories have become a primarily English party, sections of the party and press could move in a more English nationalist direction. It would be wrong to exaggerate the strength of feeling on this issue. But it is a warning as to how a mood of resentment could develop unless a powerful independent working-class voice is built to offer an alternative.
If the Tories were to win the next UK general election the national question would erupt. In Scotland, the Tories, who have one MP, would be seen as an illegitimate government with no right to legislate for Scotland. Support for independence would increase dramatically. More importantly, it would not be passive support. It is likely that under these circumstances a movement on the streets, in communities and workplaces would emerge to demand independence or an extreme form of autonomy. The ruling class would be faced with the option of granting more far-reaching concessions or face a confrontation that could spiral out of control.
Equally, if an SNP-led Scottish Executive were refused the right to hold a referendum on independence by a Westminster government, an explosion could be detonated.
Socialism or left nationalism?
The CWI has a long history of fighting for the democratic rights of the Scottish people. We support unconditionally the right of the people of Scotland to make their own decisions about their relationship with the other nations of Britain, including the right to be an independent country. We campaigned for a Scottish parliament in the 1979 and 1997 devolution referenda. We also pointed out that the devolution settlement of 1997, based as it was on a continuation of capitalism and with an anti-working class majority in the Scottish parliament, would fail to meet the aspirations of the majority of the Scottish people. The experience of devolution has underlined the point that on the basis of capitalism there will be no solution to the national question.
We fully understand and sympathise with the outlook of a section of the working class and youth who see independence as a way of breaking away from the seemingly unending attacks on their rights and who are disgusted by the role of British imperialism in Iraq.
While taking account of this mood, however, we have taken care to explain that an independent Scotland that failed to break with capitalism would not be an answer to the problems of low pay, privatisation, poverty and war. These are products of a brutal capitalist system that the SNP is committed to continuing – even allowing big business to make ever more rapacious profits at the expense of the working class.
We stand instead for a socialist solution based on public ownership and democratic working-class control of the economic resources of Scotland, a living minimum wage, free education, an end to privatisation, etc. Because of the strengthening of support for independence, we have, since the late 1990s, advocated an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland.
This approach has put us at odds with the leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) who have thrown away the opportunity to build a significant socialist force in Scotland because of their political mistakes. Not just over the issues surrounding Tommy Sheridan’s removal as party convener, but also on the national question, where they have completely abandoned a socialist and class position.
The SSP leadership has instead put socialism into the ‘deep freeze’ by prioritising the ‘break-up of Britain’ while promoting the benefits of an independent Scottish republic. This was reflected in the failed attempt to launch the Independence Convention. This was justified to the SSP membership: “The clearest route to independence is the fast, broad highway of the independence convention, involving a united front of the SNP, the SSP, the Greens and other pro-independence forces”. As was the Calton Hill declaration, drawn up by the SSP leadership, which claimed that a route out of poverty, war and discrimination could be found in a Scottish republic – without explaining the need for socialism. (see Declaring for nationalism or socialism?)
The Independence Convention failed to take off not least because there were virtually no working-class forces prepared to get involved. We also opposed the launching of the convention because the SSP leadership was prepared to use it as a cover for abandoning a socialist programme.
This capitulation to left nationalism has deepened as the 3 May elections and the anniversary of the Act of Union have approached. Alan McCombes, the main policy spokesperson for the SSP, has described 3 May as the “independence election”. In an article for the SSP website, he wrote the election is “more than just a power struggle between the Union Jack and the Saltire. The choice is not just Scotland versus Britain; it is also about what kind of Scotland we want to create”. This approach marks yet another dangerous and, from a socialist point of view, unacceptable, use of language. It is clear that the author believes this election is, at least in part, about choosing a flag and a national identity and then voting on that basis. For socialists and Marxists such an approach is anathema. There are many young people and workers who have illusions in independence and see themselves as Scottish. However, for a leader of a socialist party to seek to exploit the existence of a national consciousness and illusions in nationalism and then to counterpoise it to another national identity is dangerous. It can only bolster nationalist ideas ie ‘that we are all in this together as Scots’. It can also, even if this is not the intention, reinforce divisions on a nationalist basis, especially between Scottish and English people.
It will also have the effect of lowering the level of understanding that what is primarily involved here is a struggle for the working class to put the democratic rights of the people of Scotland to the forefront of its own independent class interests, which are completely separate from the pro-capitalist parties and leaders in Scotland – including those who wrap themselves in the Saltire.
Even if later in the article McCombes explains that the SSP is fighting for a different Scotland in opposition to the SNP’s pro-big business approach, he restricts the SSP’s vision: “Our goal is to build an egalitarian, peaceful, green multicultural Scotland, where power is decentralised downwards and whose wealth is shared for the benefit of all”. But such vague if reasonable sentiments have to be linked to the need for socialism if even these limited demands are to be achieved.
The same theme is taken up in the SSP’s pre-election bulletin, Transform Scotland. Again, there is no mention of the need for socialism to achieve such a transformation. Instead, it is in the context of independence that the call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, removing troops from Iraq and introducing an £8 an hour minimum wage is made. It says there is a “sense of freedom in the air”, that freedom being a reference to a growing mood for independence. But freedom for working-class people means freedom from poverty, low pay and capitalist exploitation, which requires a struggle for socialism.
The CWI does not approach the struggle for democratic rights in an abstract or a sectarian way. We are prepared to work even with non-socialist forces which are prepared to fight in action for the democratic rights of the Scottish people. We will campaign against any attempt by the government and the capitalist state to attack, curtail and undermine our democratic rights. We will, however, stress the need for a democratic mass movement to counter those attacks, and that it should be the working class that forms the core of such a movement. But we go further and link that to the need for a programme that fights for the interests of the working class and puts socialism to the forefront.
We support a referendum on independence and would also support demands for increased powers for the parliament. However, we also stand implacably for a united working-class movement in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to resist the attacks of the bosses and the pro-capitalist governments and assemblies. We also oppose any attempts to divide the working class on the basis of nationality, whether by the ruling class, who are past masters at divide and rule, or by nationalist forces.
The establishment of mass workers’ parties with socialist programmes that can defend the interests of the working class is long overdue. By fighting for an independent socialist Scotland we can emphasise the need to build a movement, based on the working class, that aims to defend democratic rights and advocates a fundamental break with capitalism. An independent capitalist Scotland has no answers for the working class and would be used to continue the rule of the multinationals and the millionaires. Instead, we advocate that an independent socialist Scotland should form a voluntary and democratic confederation of states with England, Wales and Ireland based on socialist cooperation and working-class solidarity. Only by ending capitalism and building a democratic socialist future can we end the nightmare of war, environmental chaos, national and ethnic division, poverty and inequality that capitalism thrives on.
This article will appear in the forthcoming edition of Socialism Today, political journal of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.