Imperialism’s Scottish problem

Issue: 173

Roddy Slorach

A review of Breaking Up the British State: Scotland, Independence and Socialism, Bob Fotheringham, Colm Bryce and Dave Sherry (eds) (Bookmarks, 2021), £12

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland’s devolved government, was perhaps the only politician to emerge with any credibility from last November’s COP26 talks in Glasgow. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ensured she had been excluded from the talks.1 Consequently untarnished by the proceedings, Sturgeon used photo opportunities with Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and United States president Joe Biden to project herself and the Scottish National Party she leads as a progressive alternative to Britain’s Tory government.

Although Sturgeon avoided the issue throughout COP26, demands for a new “IndyRef2” independence referendum featured prominently on the massive Climate Justice march in Glasgow on 6th November. The presence of thousands of saltire flags suggests that many protestors saw independence as a means to achieve radical action on the climate crisis.2 Indeed, one COP26 delegate from Tonga drew a parallel between the struggles of Pacific Islanders for decolonisation and Scottish independence, saying: “Justice isn’t just about shifting the fossil fuel industry. It’s about shifting the structures of oppression… The people of Scotland understand that”.3 His comment reflects a widespread belief that Scotland is an oppressed nation.

The version of Scottish nationalism that has grown in the last few decades involves campaigning to break with the British state. However, as this excellent new book shows, Scottish national identity was integral to a greater British nationalism for the previous two and a half centuries, reflecting the central role of Scotland’s rulers in building the British Empire.

Scottish independence divides the left into two opposing camps. Many Labour Party supporters argue that those demanding independence are abandoning class politics in favour of nationalism. Others, particularly in Scotland itself, increasingly see independence as a prerequisite for radical change and believe Scots to be more radical than the wider British population.4 This book addresses these arguments by examining Scotland’s specific historical development and the class interests involved in its national question.5

Breaking Up the British State analyses the nature of Scotland’s accession into the Union, its status within this state, and the politics of its movement for independence. The starting point for the authors is that Scottish secession would strike a massive blow to the British ruling class. Scottish independence poses an existential threat to Britain’s role as a key ally of US imperialism; it puts at risk Britain’s place on the United Nations Security Council, its support for future imperialist wars and the continued existence of the Trident nuclear submarines based in the estuary of the River Clyde.

The book begins with a concise summary of the Marxist approach to the national question today. The primary principle is identified as opposition to the greater nationalism of the imperialist state in question. This is illustrated by historical examples, ranging from the principled support Karl Marx himself gave to the Irish freedom struggle to Lenin’s writings on the right of nations to self-determination and, most recently, Catalonia’s attempt to secede from the Spanish state. Contrasting the British state’s oppression of Ireland with its integration of Scotland into an imperial partnership, the authors reject the idea that the latter should be seen as an oppressed nation. Nevertheless, Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is relevant to this national movement due to its potential to grow beyond the “bourgeois democratic demand” of a new independent state into a deeper challenge to the imperialist order.6

The second chapter demolishes nationalist myths, such as the romantic notion that the clan system represented an egalitarian alternative to feudalism. It explains how the 1707 Act of Union both initiated Scotland’s bourgeois revolution and completed the work of the English Revolution begun almost 70 years earlier. The English ruling class needed the Union to close the door on a potential counter-revolution by Scottish nobles in alliance with the Catholic French crown. However, the treaty actually preserved Scotland’s feudal structures—evidence that it was “not the result of national oppression but rather a joint venture in class oppression”.7 The Jacobite counter-revolution was decisively crushed at Culloden in 1746. After the clearances that followed—in the Lowlands as well as the Highlands, and largely carried out by Scots—the stage was set for huge social and economic change.

Scotland went on to cram “economic growth that in England had spread itself over two centuries…into about 30 years of crowded development between 1750-1780”.8 One of Europe’s most economically backward states was transformed into an industrial powerhouse, with its rulers and armies playing a disproportionately greater role in building and administering the British Empire than its partners south of the border. Two Scots, James Matheson and William Jardine, were the main figures behind Britain’s infamous Opium Wars, defending the profits made from 12 million Chinese opium addicts.9 The Great Indian Uprising of 1857, meanwhile, “was crushed by mainly Scottish regiments”.10

The notion of a distinctly Scottish radicalism minimises crimes such as these and ignores a common history linking the fortunes of working-class struggles north and south of the border. A series of cross-class alliances led to costly defeats for these same struggles. Labour Party and trade union leaders helped prop up the British state during the years of Red Clydeside and the wider Great Unrest of 1910-1920, and the 1984-5 miners’ strike was undermined by disastrous appeals to “Save Scottish Steel”. Well chosen events and quotes from the lives of John Maclean and James Connolly are threaded through this history, with a separate chapter exploring the history of the working class in Scotland.

The second half of the book explores the relationship between the remarkable rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the struggle for independence. It shows how these phenomena, although closely related, are far from the same thing. Some of the factors behind the equally spectacular decline of Scotland’s Labour Party are shown to be peculiar to Scotland, whereas others are common to the wider crisis of Europe’s social-democratic parties.

Labour was the dominant party in Scottish politics for six decades. Its current decline began with the Iraq war and accelerated after its fateful support for the “Better Together” campaign in the 2014 independence referendum. This slow political suicide has mirrored the success of the SNP, which is without parallel elsewhere in Europe over the last decade. After gaining just 6 seats in Westminster in the 1997 general election, compared to 56 for Scottish Labour, fortunes were reversed in 2015, with the SNP gaining 56 MPs and Labour reduced to only one. The party’s membership rapidly became one of the biggest per capita of any party in the world.11 That very dominance, however, has led to growing impatience at the SNP leadership’s moderate stance, in particular over the lack of any obvious drive for a second referendum.

A chapter on anti-racism highlights two sides of Scottish history. On one hand, there is the role of Scottish rulers in shaping and running the British Empire; on the other, there are struggles such as the anti-slavery campaigns of the 19th century. More recent fights by migrant communities have also helped shaped contemporary politics, including the multiracial mass protest that prevented Home Office deportations in Glasgow’s Southside in May 2021.

The final section critiques a range of influential theories within the contemporary Scottish left about the nature of the Scottish and British states. A forensic analysis of the SNP concludes that it is not the reformist alternative to Labour many socialists claim but rather a party of the European centre left. This important assessment is urgently needed by the left in the independence movement.

Much of the material in this compact and impressively researched book will be new to readers of this journal. It is thoroughly referenced and skilfully marshals an impressive array of sources. Given all this, it would have been helpful to include a guide to further reading. One frequently cited author is recently deceased Marxist historian Neil Davidson. His masterpiece, Discovering the Scottish Revolution (1692-1746), broke new ground by explaining the class nature of the Union in relation to wider international events, while also further developing Davidson’s contribution to Marxist theory on bourgeois revolutions.

A further quibble concerns the omission of the story behind two symbols of Scottish identity. A celebrated essay written in 1983 told how the kilt was invented in the late 1720s by an English industrialist for his Highland workforce, “not to preserve their way of life but to…bring them out of the heather and into the factory”.12 Thanks to its adoption by the army, the kilt survived the ban imposed on Highland dress after Culloden. Tartans were created for regiments first and only later made to order for clans. With Highland society safely destroyed, the upper and middle class adopted kilts and tartan as part of their “authentic” Scottish culture and identity.

Breaking Up the British State is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the nature of Scotland’s national question. It concludes with the need to turn the struggle to break up the British state into a fight for revolution. As the present crisis creates new and unforeseen ruptures in the new world disorder, an insurgent movement for Scottish secession could decisively weaken the UK state and inspire anti-imperialists everywhere.

Roddy Slorach works as a senior disability advisor at Imperial College London and is active in the UCU. He is also author of A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability (Bookmarks, 2016).


1 Johnson told his party’s 2019 conference he did not want Sturgeon “anywhere near” COP26—BBC News, 2021.

2 The blue and white saltire, Scotland’s national flag, has become synonymous with the independence cause.

3 The National, 2021.

4 There is insufficient space to address this issue further here, other than to observe that the myth of Scottish radicalism is also peddled by the right. The idea that Scots share a uniquely “democratic intellect” was first mooted by the sometime Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland Walter Elliot in an essay written in 1932. See Jackson, 2020, p39.

5 Possible scenarios for the independence struggle were discussed by Donny Gluckstein, one of this book’s authors, in an earlier issue of this journal—Gluckstein, 2021.

6 Fotheringham, Bryce and Sherry, 2021, pp45-52.

7 Fotheringham, Bryce and Sherry, 2021, p67.

8 Fotheringham, Bryce and Sherry, 2021, p129.

9 Fotheringham, Bryce and Sherry, 2021, p269. Jardine Matheson Holdings retains vast business interests in China and is now valued at over $66 billion—see

10 Fotheringham, Bryce and Sherry, 2021, p270.

11 Fotheringham, Bryce and Sherry, 2021, p318.

12 See Trevor-Roper, 1983. Here, as elsewhere, Hugh Trevor-Roper—a Tory and staunch unionist—is keen to stress the benefits of the Union. For an excellent analysis of Trevor-Roper’s work on Scottish history, see Davidson, 2008.


BBC News, 2021, “How Nicola Sturgeon Has Carved Out a Role at COP26” (8 November),

Davidson, Neil, 2008, “The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History”, History Reviews of New Books, volume 37, issue 1 (September).

Fotheringham, Bob, Colm Bryce and Dave Sherry (eds), 2021, Breaking Up the British State: Scotland, Independence and Socialism (Bookmarks).

Gluckstein, Donny, 2021, “Scottish Independence: Prospects for Breaking Up the British State”, International Socialism 171 (summer),

Jackson, Ben, 2020, The Case for Scottish Independence: A History of Nationalist Political Thought in Modern Scotland (Cambridge University Press).

The National, 2021, “COP26: Johnson’s Plan Backfires as Independence Takes Centre Stage” (4 November),

Trevor-Roper, Hugh, 1983, “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland”, in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press).