Socialists and Scottish Independence

Issue: 114

Neil Davidson

Gordon Brown addressed the annual Fabian Society Conference in January 2006 on the theme of ‘The Future of Britishness’.1 He asked his audience:

What is the British equivalent of the US 4th of July, or even the French 14th of July?… What is our equivalent for a national celebration of who we are and what we stand for? In recent years we have had magnificent celebrations of VE Day, the Jubilee and, last year, Trafalgar Day. Perhaps Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are the nearest we have come to a British day that is—in every corner of our country—commemorative, unifying, and an expression of British ideas of standing firm in the world in the name of liberty responsibility and fairness?2

Brown’s bewilderment may seem surprising, given that he has recently become, in Tom Nairn’s phrase, the ‘bard of Britishness’.3 For there is one obvious candidate for a British national day: 1 May 1707, the date on which the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England came into effect with the first meeting of the British parliament. Yet there is no public commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the British state, only exhibitions of documents and artworks in the national archives, museums and galleries.4 There were just as few commemorations of the bicentenary in 1907. Why is such a central date in British history being allowed to pass virtually unnoticed again? A hundred years ago there would have been three main reasons. One was the English habit—not yet extinct, alas—of seeing British history as a continuation of English history, which deprives 1707 of any particular significance. The second was that the politics of the Treaty of Union were highly undemocratic, even by modern standards. Unlike the American Declaration of Independence or the fall of the Bastille, they were scarcely a model of heroic national virtue, although equally part of the global bourgeois revolution. The third and perhaps most important was the apparent invulnerability of Britain. With an empire surely destined to last forever, it had no need to dwell on its somewhat disreputable origins. Reality has since impinged. The empire has been reduced to an unwanted fragment of its first colony in Ireland and the territorial‑constitutional integrity of the British state itself has come under varying levels of threat.

An official commemoration in 2007 would provide an opportunity for supporters of Scottish independence to use the origins of the Union as an argument for bringing it to an end. The current anniversary has been particularly sensitive, with Scottish parliamentary elections taking place two days after the tricentenary. These are conducted under a version of proportional representation deliberately adopted to prevent any one party, particularly the Scottish National Party (SNP), from gaining a majority of seats.

Scotland has been governed by a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats since the setting up of the devolved parliament in 1999, with the SNP as the official opposition and the Tories trailing behind. The voting system allowed a number of smaller, more radical parties to achieve a presence—the Scottish Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Senior Citizen’s Unity Party—together with a scattering of mainly left wing independents. Commentators have expected the outgoing coalition to do badly this time because of the unpopularity of Labour, with the main beneficiaries being above all the SNP and then the smaller parties, all committed, with varying degrees of priority, to Scottish independence.

This would not necessarily mean an immediate push for independence. The SNP also attracts voters looking to punish Labour on left wing grounds, especially since the Liberal Democrats are excluded as an alternative because they are part of the coalition and the far left has recently experienced a necessary but damaging split. The SNP has cultivated a ‘social democratic’ image, particularly over the issues of war and nuclear weapons, even if—as we shall see—any probing of its domestic programme reveals a commitment to the same neoliberal consensus as the other main parties. Its leader Alex Salmond is ostensibly committed to a referendum on independence, but if the SNP emerges as the largest single party it would have to form a coalition to take over the executive. No other major party will support the referendum idea, and Salmond may have the excuse he needs to abandon the idea—as one of the shrewdest operators in Scottish politics, he knows perfectly well that such a referendum would almost certainly be lost. And there is a precedent which suggests that an SNP‑led coalition would not necessarily herald major constitutional change. In Canada the nationalist Parti Quebecois took office at the provisional level in 1976. But Quebec has not become an independent state, despite two referendums on the issue and several Parti Quebecois provisional governments over the past 30 years.

Principles, false trails and red herrings

Socialists in Scotland will have to make tactical shifts in response to the election results. But they will still have to be underpinned by a broader set of principles. What are these and how do they affect our attitude to the Anglo-Scottish Union and a possible Scottish secession? The existence of Scottish nationhood is not at issue. Scotland is a nation, not because it matches some arbitrary check-list of criteria, but because the Scots possess a national consciousness, even if this consciousness only became fully developed much later than is usually supposed—in the latter half of the 18th century, by my reading of the evidence—and arose in conjunction with a British national consciousness. 5 Scotland is a nation, but the mere existence of nationhood does not always result in a demand for statehood.

If, however, such a demand was to gain majority support and then come to fruition, there is no reason why Scotland could not become a functioning capitalist nation‑state like any other. ‘An independent Scotland’, notes Tony Judt in his important history of post-war Europe, ‘was a perfectly plausible proposition—particularly in a European Union in which it would have been by no means the smallest or poorest nation‑state’.6 This does not mean accepting the highly imaginative parallels that are often drawn with Ireland. As Tom Devine noted, ‘the spectacular growth rates of Ireland’ are ‘simply not repeatable in Scotland’, since Scotland does not have the ‘Irish starting point of a low-wage, low-cost environment with a deep pool of unemployed’ which ‘made a rapid take off possible’.7

An independent Scotland would be intrinsically neither better nor worse than any other capitalist state. It is hypocrisy to oppose Scottish nationalism while remaining silent about British nationalism. When those warmongering privatisers Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander claim to be ‘international socialists’ by defending the British state, they are only the latest in a long line of Labour politicians who disparage every nationalism except their own.8

Whether socialists in Scotland should seek to establish a separate state is another question. Support for the right to self‑determination is not the same as supporting separation, any more than supporting the right to divorce is to insist that particular couples should do so. Support for separation should always depend on the concrete circumstances in which the issue is posed and its impact on the wider struggle against capitalism. Separatist sentiment which reflects class feeling against capitalism, neoliberalism, oppression and imperialist war is very different from that based on nationalist antagonism and an attempt to gain benefits at the expense of other workers.

Finally, even where it is right to support secession, extraordinary care has to be taken not to encourage divisions between workers who belong to different national groups. Socialists should, for example, oppose any attempts to set up breakaway Scottish trade unions, as this would fragment working class organisations in the face of capitalists who operate on both sides of the border. Even if secession were to take place, common union membership can exist across national boundaries, as it does across Canada and the US, and across Ireland and Britain. Class unity is about solidarity, which recognises no borders.

Is there a Scottish national ‘movement’?

Since the 1960s over-optimistic predictions about the impending appearance of a ‘majority for independence’ have always proved wrong. Recently, these have been based on the rise in the number of Scots claiming their identity is mainly or exclusively Scottish, as opposed to British. But it is quite possible to assert a Scottish national consciousness without feeling that this necessarily implies any association with Scottish nationalism or a desire for independence. A sense of Britishness has been shared with Scottish national consciousness since the latter half of the 18th century precisely because political and economic issues have tended to be resolved at a British level. It is a cliche of recent political, historical and sociological writing on Scotland that Scottishness is a national identity, while Britishness is a mere state identity.9 But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the function of national identity under capitalism. British ‘national consciousness’ is no more or less artificial than Scottish, French or Swedish national consciousness. No nations are more or less ‘real’ than others and the assertion of the Scottish ‘side’ of this dual identity has no necessary political implications.

What then is the level of popular demand for secession? Not all voters for the SNP or the other pro-independence parties support independence, while some voters for the other parties do, with some recent polls suggesting more than 50 percent support.10 So there are many people prepared to express a wish for independence in an opinion poll who then vote for ‘unionist’ parties—above all the Labour Party—in actual elections, even though they know that these parties are fundamentally opposed to independence. This calls into question the strength of their views on independence. Further evidence suggests that support for independence may be relatively superficial. One study of the 1997 general election found that ‘out of 16 issues “constitutional issues/devolution” ranked 16th in importance with voters’.11 This was despite outgoing prime minister John Major talking up the ‘constitutional threat’ of devolution.

The low level of interest was replicated again during 2001. One poll showed that ‘constitutional issues/devolution’ received 8 percent support, coming 15th out of 17 in a ranking of issues Scottish voters regarded as ‘very important’ in helping them decide what party to vote for—a long way after healthcare, education, law and order, pensions, taxation, unemployment and so on.12 Similar results have been repeated since.

David McCrone and Lindsay Paterson questioned people between 1997 and 2000: 45 percent supported independence at least once, but only 7 percent supported it on all four occasions, and only 14 percent on three out of the four. They concluded that ‘there is no stable core for independence’, but added, ‘Many more people are prepared to countenance independence if they were persuaded that it would generate more responsive government, and would be likely to produce the kind of society they aspire to’.13

They may be so persuaded in the future, but for the moment there is no ‘movement’ for Scottish independence in the way there is a movement against imperialist intervention in the Middle East, or local movements against the closure of hospital accident and emergency services. Supporters of the demand are not organising to demonstrate, petition, debate and generally mobilise. There is no sign that they are prepared to do anything more than express a vague aspiration in opinion polls and sometimes vote for parties who stand for independence and—in the case of the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity and the Greens—many other things beside. A demonstration on 30 September 2006, called by the pan-nationalist front Independence First, mobilised 1,000 people according to the organisers.14 Contrast this with 100,000 who protested against the Iraq war on the streets of Glasgow on 15 February 2003, and the thousands who have protested since.

It is debatable whether the SNP today actually believes it is possible to achieve majority support for independence in a referendum. The aftermath of every single election since October 1974 has seen the party plunge into internal recriminations over its failure once again to deliver a majority vote for independence. There is now a division between the fundamentalists, who put the achievement of independence before all other considerations, and those who accept that this is unlikely to happen, at least in the foreseeable future, and consequently want more devolved powers through a ‘Catalan’ solution of greater autonomy within the UK. This debate has been relatively muted so far. But Dennis MacLeod, a Canada-based capitalist, and Mike Russell, a former front bench spokesperson for the SNP, have proposed a stages strategy which accepts that a transition to independence will be necessary. Since ‘some further time may be needed before the majority of our fellow Scots are ready’ they propose a ‘devolution stage two’ or ‘new Union’ to act as a ‘staging post’ in which the powers currently reserved to Westminster would be devolved, except for foreign affairs and military command.15 Closer to the leadership of the SNP, shadow justice minister Kenny Macaskill has gone further and suggested that independence itself could be abandoned in favour of a renegotiated Union.16

Should it matter to socialists if there is no majority for secession? Socialists who want to argue for Scottish independence are saying that the left should create a movement where none exists, and persuade people who currently do not support independence that they should, in circumstances where even the bourgeois nationalists are in retreat. Why would socialists want to do this?

300 years of national oppression?

One reason might be that Scotland is oppressed and that support for secession should therefore be a matter of principle. The opposition of the majority of Scots to the Union in 1706-7 and the bribery which accompanied the negotiations (exaggerated, but real nonetheless) are still regularly cited as reasons why the Union should be opposed now. But it is completely misleading to talk about ‘the Union’ as if it was signed last week and nothing has happened since. Only nine years after the signing some of the very same people who had opposed the Union were advocating its military defence against Jacobite attempts to dissolve it and restore French‑backed absolutism across the whole of Britain. And 30 years after that, in 1745‑46, there were actual popular risings in Perth and Stirling against the Jacobites—an aspect of our ‘hidden history’ of struggle that left nationalists are naturally unwilling to celebrate.17

A misleading parallel is often drawn with Ireland, because of the supposed existence of a commonly oppressive ‘Unionism’ in both countries. However, as Patrick Weight noted:

Ordinary Scots endured no major injustice that the English did not endure between 1707 and 2000, with the exception of the Highland Clearances. No meaningful comparison can therefore be made with the Irish experience of Union, in which millions were starved and killed and repeated attempts were made to extinguish their religion, culture and way of life—a task which the Scots had happily assisted the English with.18

In Ireland Unionism is the ideology of a distinct social group which gained from British rule—the relatively privileged descendants of the colonial settlers who were marked out from the native population by their religion. In the case of the Protestant working class those privileges have been very relative indeed, but no less effective for all that in dividing it from the Catholic working class. None of this applies in Scotland. There is no social factor that has united the opponents of Scottish independence—or indeed its supporters. The term ‘Unionist’ becomes simply a term of abuse which would apply to most members of the Scottish working class, since historically they have voted for a party (Labour) opposed to independence. In fact, ‘Unionism’ in Scotland emerged as a term referring to the defence by ‘Liberal Unionists’ and Tories of the Union with Ireland, not Scotland, for the simple reason that virtually no one in Scotland was interested at the time in breaking from Britain.19 Some ‘stateless nations’, such as Quebec and Catalonia, have been oppressed in the very recent past. This has not been true of the Scots.20

For claims of oppression to be valid today, Scots would have to suffer systematic discrimination simply because they are Scots, not because of the normal economic operations of the capitalist system. But there is no law controlling what a Scottish person must or must not do that does not apply to everyone else in Britain. Take two recent examples were widely claimed as demonstrating Scottish oppression. One is how ‘Scotland’s oil’ was supposedly appropriated by a succession of British governments. We need only ask what would have happened if the oil had been discovered off the south west coast of England: would Westminster have fought the multinational corporations to redistribute the oil wealth among the English people? Both Labour and Conservative governments would have behaved exactly as they did in the Scottish case, so why treat this as an example of a specifically national oppression? The other case is the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland a year earlier than England. This is a perfect example of how the operation of bourgeois politics in capitalist society can be wilfully misinterpreted as having a ‘national’ dimension that is in fact completely absent. Conservative think‑tanks had been developing the tax since 1984 as an all-British measure that would shift the burden of payment onto the working class. An accident of timing gave it added impetus: the Scottish rates revaluation of 1984-85 provoked outrage among home owners, businesses and Conservative activists who were handed higher bills. The then secretary of state for Scotland, George Younger, was under pressure from his own members who feared losing votes in the general election of 1987, and he persuaded the cabinet to introduce the Poll Tax Enabling Bill in Scotland first.21 The resulting disaster was brought about by an attempt to placate the class base of Scottish conservatism, not to continue the work of the ‘conquering English’ in oppressing the Scots. Everything looks national if you look at it through nationalist spectacles.

Perhaps the most decisive argument against oppression is the most obvious: if it were so, surely the majority of people would have realised by now; surely it would have been reflected in their political behaviour. As Eric Hobsbawm remarked of the first post-referendum election to the Scottish Parliament:

We would have thought it impossible, 20 years ago, that only 60 percent of the citizens would vote in the first election for a Scottish parliament in 300 years, an election supposed to realise the historical ambition of the people of that country. In the first elections in South Africa, people queued for miles to get to the polling station.22

In fact, there is only one serious reason why socialists should not oppose independence—not because Scotland is oppressed, but because it is, as part of the British state, an oppressor. The point was made many years ago in Hamish Henderson’s great internationalist epic, The Freedom Come All Ye, which looks forward to a socialist future in which ‘Broken families in the lands we’ve harried/Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair’.23 The political implications, however, need further investigation.

Scotland, Western imperialism and global capital

A characteristic statement of the ‘anti-imperialist independence’ case comes from Alan McCombes, the national policy coordinator for the Scottish Socialist Party:

Scotland is a vital cog in the Western military machine, with vital submarine and air bases. More than 80 percent of all European Union oil reserves are in Scottish waters, while Edinburgh is the fourth finance centre in Europe. The tearing of the blue out of the Union Jack and the dismantling of the 300 year old British state would also be a traumatic psychological blow for the forces of capitalism and conservatism in Britain, Europe and the USA… It is no accident that big business and the conservative right in Scotland are fanatically pro-union. The break up of the United Kingdom might not mean instant socialism, but it would mean a decisive shift in the balance of ideological and class forces.24

There is no dispute over Scotland’s imperial role (although, in Ulster at least, this preceded the Union). But would Scottish secession remove an important component of the imperialist system? And would the capitalist class, internationally as well as in Britain, oppose secession through fear of ‘psychological trauma’? Surely not. States and capitals have different interests.25 Formally, British state managers have conceded the right of self‑determination. During the 1992 general election John Major said, ‘No nation can be held within a Union against its will’.26 Shortly after the 1997 general election, when preparations for the Scottish and Welsh referendums were under way, Labour’s Donald Dewar noted that ‘the only way we [ie the Scots] could move to independence would be if people voted for independence. That is clearly their right’.27 It is extremely unlikely that British state managers would use force or sanctions to oppose the session of Scotland on a capitalist basis.

However, as Michael Keating has noted, while ‘successive British governments have recognised’ that Scotland is a self-determining nation within the Union, they have ‘then tried to deny the consequences’.28 In immediate party political terms, Labour relies heavily on its Scottish contingent in the House of Commons and would be badly weakened without it. (This is one of the not very elevated reasons behind Gordon Brown’s discovery of the joys of Britishness.) More generally, whichever party was in power, secession would weaken the influence of Britain—or ‘the rest of the UK’—on the geopolitical stage; it would make permanent membership of the UN Security Council very difficult to justify, for example. Whether it would also prove to be a devastating blow to Western imperialism is a different matter, since there is no certainty that independence would inevitably make Scotland a non-nuclear state outside of Nato. The SNP website ‘reaffirms that no nuclear weapons will be based on independent Scottish soil’ and says, ‘An SNP government will not be part of a nuclear-based commitment such as Nato.’ But it also insists that Scotland would ‘maintain active defence commitments with friends and allies through the United Nations, European Union and Partnership for Peace’.29 The Partnership for Peace is a Nato programme, involving over 20 states which are not front‑line, or required to have a nuclear basis, but which are prepared to allow their territories to be used by combat troops (as Ireland did during the Iraq war) and to act as ‘peacekeepers’ (as Spain does in Afghanistan).30 And even Nato membership is not completely ruled out. Part of Mike Russell’s failed attempt to become SNP convenor in 2004 involved support for a non‑nuclear defence policy within Nato. In his book with MacLeod he describes Nato as a ‘proven alliance’ and commends retaining membership ‘for pragmatic reasons in terms of policy presentation and the creation of confidence’. In these conditions, ‘our troops could operate within a joint UK command in certain circumstances’.31 Michael Fry has also written, ‘There is no reason why the two armies should not enjoy an extremely close working relationship’.32 State Department officials could probably rest assured that mutually beneficial arrangements can be organised.

The application of international law since the break up of the Soviet Union would not allow Scotland to be a separate nuclear state alongside the UK, but there is no prohibition on recognised nuclear powers maintaining weapons on foreign territory. Any British government is likely to want these missiles to remain in Scotland, not to mention the American state which ultimately controls their use.33 William Walker has noted the ‘uncharacteristic caution’ of the SNP to pursue the subject of the Trident replacement:

The party’s leaders realise that if establishing a reputation for sound -governance and cooperation is paramount prior to the referendum, it will have little choice but to assist the government in London with the operation of Trident once it holds power in Holyrood. It cannot pick a fight with London, the US and other Nato members on such a sensitive issue without significant risk to its reputation.34

Capitalism and independence

The British bourgeoisie is by no means as obsessed with the constitutional form of the existing nation‑state as the pro‑independence wing of the Scottish left. Britain’s capitalists are interested in maintaining their class power—the national context through which they do so is less important to them. This does not mean that they would enthusiastically embrace independence, or that it would be their first choice. But neither would it constitute an insuperable problem for them, still less for the transnational capitalist class as a whole. Claims that globalisation is reducing the autonomy of states are undoubtedly exaggerated, but this process certainly intensifies the pressures that world markets have always exercised over even moderate reforming regimes. Scotland would be no exception:

The ratio of external to total sales flows in Scotland is…about 62 percent compared to just below 30 percent in the UK…the fortunes of the Scottish economy depend much more on what happens outside its borders than nations and countries of greater scale.35

A few bourgeois ideologues actually see advantages in independence. The Economist has been arguing for years that, in capitalist terms, ‘standing on its own two feet’ would be an exemplary experience for Scotland. Deprived of the subsidies which supposedly allow the Scots to maintain higher levels of public sector employment and marginally better social provision than the rest of the UK, they would finally be forced to accept economic reality and live within their means.

An SNP-led independent government would not use the same rhetoric, of course, but the party is already moving towards the same policies in practical terms. The leadership uses social democratic language, but is quick to add that it will continue to hold out bribes to capitalists to encourage investment. ‘I think private profit is entirely admirable,’ Alex Salmond recently explained to the Observer. ‘The competitive economy is a good thing, but I don’t think people should profit out of public services.’ His interviewer adds, ‘He also wants to regenerate inner cities by slashing business rates, and a priority would be to cut corporation tax’.36

Both wings of the SNP are committed to neoliberalism. Jim Mather, the SNP’s economic spokesperson, wrote in the Scottish Parliament house journal in 2003, ‘We should not apologise for encouraging wealth creation and success… We want more millionaires and any notion that an independent Scotland would be a left wing country is delusional nonsense’.37 MacLeod and Russell claim that the newly industrialising countries in Asia ‘have achieved or are achieving their new-found status by rejecting the economic constraints of doctrinaire socialism. The brand of capitalism they have adopted is not the watered down version that still appeals to many in Scotland.’ Among the components of the ‘programme of national recovery’ they expect an SNP government to introduce are ‘freezing and cutting government expenditures…the freezing of recruitment…boosting business growth by reducing corporate and personal taxes…improving government efficiency by exposure to the free market economy’ and ‘facilitating the transfer of civil servants (and potential civil servants) to the private sector’.38

The adoption of neoliberal economics is not just because of the general capitulation to these doctrines by all conventional bourgeois politicians. It is because there are particular ‘start-up’ costs associated with establishing a new state. Clive Lee noted in one of the few serious attempts to analyse the costs of secession over a decade ago that, even taking oil revenues into account, the costs of secession would leave an independent Scotland with a budget deficit. The alternatives would be to reduce spending, raise taxes or increase public borrowing, but the latter would be restricted by the fact that Scotland would inherit part of the existing British public sector borrowing requirement. Lee’s conclusions are sober, without indulging in needlessly apocalyptic predictions: ‘It seems probable, therefore, that an independent Scotland would have some difficulty in maintaining and financing public expenditure at present levels, a necessity given the problems both of social deprivation and economic decline which still affect much of the country’.39

If Scottish independence does become something that the capitalist class can live with, then one of the key arguments on the left for supporting it—that it is intrinsically contrary to the interests of the bourgeoisie—will have effectively collapsed. In spite of this, there are tactical reasons why socialists might, in certain concrete situations, urge a yes vote in a referendum on independence. If one were held today—which is extremely unlikely—a central issue would be British participation in the wars waged by US imperialism on Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so there is still a danger of socialists turning national consciousness into nationalism, creating it where it does not currently exist. There is already some limited evidence that nationalism may be weakening class identity. Lindsay Patterson and his colleagues at Edinburgh University found that in 1999 the proportion of Scots identifying with English people of the same class had fallen by nearly half (from 44 percent to 24 percent), while those identifying with Scots of different social classes had risen (from 38 percent to 43 percent).40 For working class Scots this is potentially disastrous.

There is also the danger of working on the basis of an illusion—the wholly false assumption that Scottish people are automatically more left wing than the English. The Tories were the only party ever to achieve an absolute majority in a general election in Scotland, as recently as 1955, even if they came close to meltdown in the Thatcher years. And when it comes to working class militancy, the Scottish record is by no means one of automatically being better than England. The militant heart of the great mining strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984-85 was Yorkshire, not Scotland, while the language of separate Scottish interests was used to keep the Ravenscraig Steel Works operating on scab coal through the 1984-85 strike. The Tory Industrial Relations Act of the early 1970s was defeated by the defiance of London dockers. The Poll Tax was finally destroyed by a riot in Trafalgar Square, even if the non-payment campaign that started in Scotland played a role. Neither national group of workers has an intrinsically higher class consciousness than the other.

Gregor Gall claims these points are irrelevant because ‘what is special and different about Scotland is that this evidence of radicalism and militancy is associated and conflated with national identity in such a way that is not possible for other “left” regions’. He writes, ‘Scottish socialism can be defined primarily in terms of being a radical populism imbued with notions of national identity’.41 ‘Populism’ is a double-edged sword and the assumption that it will always be left in tendency is unsustainable.42 As the ex-Trotskyist, market-nationalist George Kerevan (of all people) put it during an exchange with Tom Nairn, ‘Yes, electorates are fed up with mainstream politics but history is rather cruel to those who assume that it always takes a progressive form, even in Scotland’.43 The recent announcement by the millionaire and opponent of gay rights Brian Souter of his support for the SNP—gleefully welcomed by the party leadership—should remind us once again that independence would have more socially contradictory outcomes than some on the left will allow themselves to believe.

The possibility of a Scottish socialist republic

But, some argue, Scottish secession on a left wing basis, say with a government majority of Solidarity, Scottish Socialist Party, Green and Labour left MSPs would surely pose a challenge to capital. In fact, even if a majority of MSPs were socialists, an independent Scottish Parliament would no more be able to introduce socialism than the Westminster parliament. I suspect that what is involved here is the belief that Scottish secession will leave us with a new ‘socialist’ state apparatus. It will not. The state would not be destroyed simply by transferring its functions from London to Edinburgh, any more than it was destroyed after these functions transferred from London to Dublin in 1922. Grand sounding declarations about the ‘destruction of the British state’ lead, at the very least, to dangerous illusions in a Scottish parliamentary road to socialism.

Comparisons with Latin America are irrelevant here. The point about Venezuela and Bolivia is not that they are ‘independent’, but that the level of class struggle there is rather higher than is currently the case in Scotland, and that this has been expressed electorally. Even so, the reformist governments there have so far only made the smallest impact in reversing the balance between abysmal levels of poverty on the one hand and capitalist wealth on the other.

As the novelist Naomi Mitchison wrote in a letter to the Nationalist Robert Muirhead in 1953, ‘It seems to me that you are bound to assume that a self-governing Scotland is going to be immediately morally better, and I don’t see it unless there has also been a revolution’.44

But even raising the scenario of a left wing breakaway is to reveal its unreality. It would only happen in conditions of massively heightened class struggle, but in what possible circumstances would this take place in Scotland and not the rest of Britain? And if the main reason why Scots are attracted to independence is precisely because it promises a road to socialism, supposedly blocked in England and Wales, why would they embrace it at the very point when this appeared to be happening across Britain as a whole? The only conditions under which the scenario is possible are the same ones that would render it irrelevant.

But nevertheless let us suppose that it does happen. What then? The socialist revolution is a global event. As long as it remains isolated it remains susceptible to counter‑revolution, either from without or from within. ‘Socialism in one country’ was impossible in Russia; it will not be any more possible in Scotland. It will either have to be joined by revolutions elsewhere in the UK and beyond, or be crushed by internal or external reaction.

A major revival of the class struggle across Britain as a whole, one which looked as if it might be leading towards a revolutionary conclusion, might lead the ruling class to see an advantage in splitting the movement by supporting the fragmentation of a hitherto unitary state. During the general election campaign of 1950 Winston Churchill gave a speech at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh during which he complained of the centralisation of power by the post-war Labour government: ‘If England became an absolutist socialist state, owning all the means of production, distribution and exchange, I personally cannot feel Scotland would be bound to accept such a dispensation’.45 Nothing came of that at the time, of course, but things could be different in a genuinely threatening situation. Recent threats of secession by right wing governors in eastern Bolivia suggest that the tactic is likely to have a long life ahead of it. Socialist insistence that Scottish independence is a matter of principle can end up assisting our enemies.


Why is this debate so persistent? Through the years of defeat in the 1980s and early 1990s, many members of the Scottish far left effectively accepted the arguments that a majority of the English working class had succumbed to Thatcherism, that there would no longer be all-British struggles such as the miners’ strike and that the only recourse was to take Scotland as the basis for socialist activity. Having opted for this position, it then became necessary to defend it by exaggerating the special capacities of the Scottish working class, by inventing non-existent examples of national oppression, by inflating the role of Britain on the world stage in order to make its demise a matter of absolute priority and, perhaps most damaging of all, by downplaying or disparaging the actual struggles against war and capitalist globalisation precisely because they were not confined to the Caledonian prison into which left nationalism had locked itself.

Against the elevation of Scottish independence to a matter of principle, socialists have to respond that the principles lie elsewhere. No support under any circumstances for the British state, but no pretence either that constitutional reordering of its component parts equals ‘destruction’ of the state; not the slightest concession to the myth of ‘British values’, but no pretence that ‘Scottish values’ are not equally infected with the poisons of race and empire. Above all, we need to understand that the Scottish national question is essentially a tactical question. Secession by itself will not miraculously remove the problems of state power and socialist construction that will continue to haunt us.


1: Earlier versions of this argument appeared in ‘Should Scotland Go?’
Socialist Worker, 2 December 2006, and ‘Is There a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, in Gregor Gall (ed), Is There a Scottish Road to Socialism? (Glasgow, 2007), pp124-128. I greatly benefited from discussion with comrades at an SWP members’ school in Glasgow on 2-3 December 2006 and two subsequent Marxist Forums in Edinburgh (18 January 2007) and Glasgow (2 February 2007). Thanks also to the editor for restraining my wilder excesses.

2: Gordon Brown, ‘The Future of Britishness’, Fabian Society press release.

3: Tom Nairn, with contributions from L Andrews, et al, Gordon Brown: ‘Bard of Britishness’ (Cardiff, 2006).

4: J Cuisick and T Crighton, ‘Brown Defends UK But Act Of Union Ignored’, the Sunday Herald, 14 January 2007; I Jack, ‘Grand Alliance’, the Guardian (G2), 8 February 2007.

5: Neil Davidson, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (London/Stirling, 2000), pp47-89, 112-199.

6: T Judt, Postwar, a History of Europe Since 1945 (London, 2006), p706; see P Jones, ‘The Economics of Independence’, in J E Murkens with P Jones and M Keating, Scottish Independence: a Practical Guide (Edinburgh, 2002), pp182-184, for an attempt to establish the comparative basis for assessing the wealth of Scotland.

7: T M Devine, The Scottish Nation, 1700-2007 (Harmondsworth, 2006), pp646-647.

8: G Brown and D Alexander, New Scotland, New Britain (London, 1999), p3. As the author of the standard biography of Maxton, Brown knows very well that his hero was perfectly capable of anti-English rhetoric when the occasion presented itself. He reports his appearance at the famous Scottish Home Rule Association rally in Glasgow during May 1924: ‘In a memorable speech he asked for “no greater job in life than to make English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landlord-ridden Scotland into the Scottish Socialist Republic”, and in doing so he thought he would be rendering a very great service to the people of England, Wales and Europe and to the cause of internationalism generally.’ Brown claims that Maxton later expressed regret for saying ‘English-ridden’, but gives no source. See G Brown, Maxton (Glasgow, 1988), p161.

9: See, among many others, D Eastwood, L Brockliss and M John, ‘From Dynastic Union to Unitary State: the European Experience’, in L Brockliss and D Eastwood (eds), A Union of Multiple Identities: the British Isles, c.1750-1850 (Manchester/New York, 1997), pp195, 199; N Davies, The Isles: a History (London, 1999), p1039; L Patterson et al, New Scotland, New Politics? (Edinburgh, 2001), p102; Tom Nairn, Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom (London/New York, 2002), p141.

10: D McCrone and L Patterson, ‘The Conundrum of Scottish Independence’ , in Scottish Affairs 40 (Summer 2002), pp56‑57, 60‑61.

11: R M Worcester and R Mortimore, Explaining Labour’s Landslide (London, 1999), p178.

12: R M Worcester and R Mortimore, Explaining Labour’s Second Landslide (London, 2001), p228.

13: D McCrone and L Patterson, as above, pp69-70, 73-74.

14: ‘Rally Calls For Independence Vote’,

15: D MacLeod and M Russell, Grasping the Thistle: How Scotland Must React to the Three Key Challenges of the Twenty First Century (Glendaruel, 2006), pp125-126, 238-9.

16: K Macaskill, Building the Nation—Post Devolution Nationalism in Scotland (Edinburgh, 2004).

17: For the Union itself see Neil Davidson, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 (London/Sterling, Virginia, 2003), chapter 3. Of the recent books published to coincide with the tricentenary, the most important are D Watt, The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations (Edinburgh, 2007), and C A Whatley with D J Patrick, The Scots and the Union (Edinburgh, 2006). The latter in particular is an immensely serious piece of scholarship and probably the best of the available accounts. The whole field of contemporary Union studies, including these books, is reviewed in J R Young, ‘The Union Unravelled’, in Scottish Review of Books, volume 3, number 1 (11 February 2007). Popular opposition is discussed in Neil Davidson, as above, pp131-158, and K Bowie, ‘Public Opinion, Popular Politics and the Union of 1707’, in Scottish Historical Review, volume 82:2, number 214 (October 2003). On the risings against the Jacobites, see Neil Davidson, as above, pp200-202, 241-247.

18: P Weight, Patriots: National Identity in Britain, 1940-2000 (London, 2002), pp701-702.

19: C Burness, ‘Strange Associations’: the Irish Question and the Making of Scottish Unionism, 1886-1918 (East Linton, 2003), pp46‑50, 206-220.

20: For a detailed rebuttal of claims that Scotland is oppressed, see Neil Davidson, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood, as above, chapter 5.

21: J Mitchell, Conservatives and the Union: a Study of Conservative Attitudes to Scotland (Edinburgh, 1990), pp116-18; D Butler, A Adonis and T Travers, Failure in British Politics (Oxford, 1994), pp61-66, 101‑104.

22: Eric Hobsbawm in conversation with A Polito, The New Century, translated from the Italian by A Cameron (London, 2000), pp114, 115.

23: H Henderson, ‘Freedom Come‑All‑Ye’, reproduced in A Munro, The Folk Music Revival in Scotland (London, 1984), pp74-75. Henderson’s words are sung, appropriately enough, to the pipe tune, ‘The Bloody Fields of Flanders’, and were originally dedicated to ‘the Glasgow Peace Marchers, May 1960’.

24: Alan McCombes, ‘Choosing to make a Start’, in _Scottish
Left Review 20_
(January/February 2004), p7.

25: Contemporary debates tend to express this as different logics, although I prefer to see the link between capital and states as through a series of mediations. For two recent central discussions see G Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (London/New York, 1994), pp33-35, and David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford, 2003), pp27‑30, although as Arrighi has subsequently noted, Harvey’s usage is slightly different from his own. See ‘Hegemony Unravelling—1’, in New Left Review 32 (March/April 2005), pp27-30, -footnote 15. The issues are reviewed in several contributions to ‘Symposium: on David Harvey’s The New Imperialism’, in Historical Materialism, volume 14, number 4 (2006). See in particular the contributions from E M Wood, and from Sam Ashman and Alex Callinicos.

26: Herald, 3 March 1992.

27: Herald, 16 May 1997.

28: M Keating, ‘Independence in an Interdependent World’, in J E Murkens with P Jones and M Keating, Scottish Independence, as above, p296.


30: For details of the programme see the Nato website, which also contains a useful selection of historical documents and communiques:

31: D MacLeod and M Russell, Grasping the Thistle, as above, p150.

32: M Fry, ‘Scotland Alone’, in Prospect (December 2006), p27.

33: J E Murkens, ‘The Road to Independence’, in J E Murkens with P Jones and M Keating, Scottish Independence, as above, p88.

34: W Walker, ‘Not in my Backyard’, in _Scottish
Left Review 37_
(November/December 2006) p15.

35: B Ashcroft, ‘The Scottish Economy’, in N Hood, J Peat, E Peters and S Young (eds), Scotland in a Global Economy: the 2020 Vision (Basingstoke, 2002), p20.

36: L Martin, ‘Our Nation Is
Equal To Any Other’
, The Observer, 4 February 2007.

37: J Mather, ‘Less Tax Please’, Holyrood 95, 22 September 2003, p25.

38: D MacLeod and M Russell, Grasping the Thistle, as above, pp92, 132.

39: C H Lee, Scotland and the United Kingdom: the Economy and the Union in the Twentieth Century (Manchester, 1995), pp219-220

40: L Patterson et al, New Scotland, New Politics?, as above, pp108-109.

41: Gregor Gall, The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland, Radical Scotland? (Cardiff, 2005), pp176-177, 156. The notion of ‘communities of collectivism’ is taken from R Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley, 1988).

42: I have discussed Gall’s claims at greater length in Neil Davidson, ‘Scotland: almost afraid to know itself?’, International Socialism 109 (Winter 2005/6), pp179-181. For his response see ‘Debating
Radical Scotland’
, Frontline, volume 2, number 1.

43: G Kerevan, ‘Scotland in the Global Age: Tom Nairn in Conversation with George Kerevan’, in G Hassan, E Gibb and L Howland (eds), Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation (London, 2005), p230.

44: Mitchison to Muirhead, 23 April 1953, quoted in C Harvie, Scotland and Nationalism: Scottish Society and Politics, 1707‑1977 (London, 1977), p283.

45: Scotsman, 15 February 1950.