Do Not Paint Nationalism Red

By Stephen Low, Labour Party member

How should socialists approach the question of whether or not to support Scottish independence? Put simply, by determining what will best serve the interests of the working class. So let us attempt this. Using as our yardstick not the blandishments foisted on us by the tax dodgers and millionaires of the YES campaign or its Better Together mirror image, but the ideas and concepts of classical socialist theory.

So how historically have issues around national independence been viewed?

The Social-Democratic Party’s recognition of the right of all nationalities to self-determination most certainly does not mean that Social-Democrats reject an independent appraisal of the advisability of the state secession of any nation in each separate case. Social-Democracy should, on the contrary, give its independent appraisal, taking into consideration the conditions of capitalist development and the oppression of the proletarians of various nations by the united bourgeoisie of all nationalities, as well as the general tasks of democracy, first of all and most of all the interests of the proletarian class struggle for socialism.

So Lenin at least was clear that supporting the principle of the right of self determination for all nations does not translate into unqualified support for every petty bourgeois secessionist project that comes along. Socialists are not, and should never be, nationalists. Our values, aims and concerns are humanist and global. The concerns of nationalists, by definition, are not. Nations are historical contingencies – they come and go – so supporting a drive for this or that state entity cannot be a matter of principle for socialists, only one of tactics and strategy.

There are of course situations where socialist support for particular national projects is more or less obvious. The freedom of colonies from imperial domination is one such clear cut example, as are situations where national minorities seek to escape from oppression. But does Scotland fall into either of these categories?

Scotland is not a colony of England. The Union of 1707 was not an act of imperial conquest – it was an agreed merger between the bourgeoisies of two countries. The Scots, shaken to the core by the failure of the Darien Scheme gained a new source of capital, and security via a partnership with a more established class. The English, turned a potential competitor – and source of challenge through alliances with European Absolutism – into a partner. For a developing capitalism it was a win-win situation. The capitalist class which then developed was British, not English, as was the blood soaked imperial project they then pursued .

The contrast between Scotland and Ireland, could not be more stark. Scotland after 1707 was subject to what was at the time, the most rapid industrialisation process in history. Ireland, which was a colony received underdevelopment and famine. Marx and Engels certainly never viewed Scotland as an English Colony. They often discuss the status of Ireland outlining the mechanics of colonial exploitation, but despite frequently referencing Scottish conditions, the idea that the relationship with England is colonial is nowhere suggested.

Neither can it be argued that Scots are facing national oppression. That’s not to say people in Scotland are free. The merest glance at any of our cities is enough to show people are being oppressed: by poverty or racism, by unemployment and inadequate housing, blighted prospects and lack of opportunity. In other words the oppression in Glasgow is exactly the same as that endured in Manchester, Liverpool or London. No one is oppressed for being Scottish.

But what of the key question, will independence increase our effectiveness in confronting capital?

The Scottish economy is highly integrated into the UK economy. Scotland does more trade with the rest of the UK than with the rest of the world. Ownership in the Scottish economy is largely at a UK level. To take one significant example, Richard Leonard of the GMB writing for the Red Paper Collective has points out

“…the economic power owned by working people, but not controlled by working people in our pension and insurance funds is organised at the UK level with the largest UK pension funds… all British wide in their membership and organisation. So if democratic reform of pension and insurance funds is, as I believe it should be a significant element of a new left strategy to re-direct investment and provide for both popular socialised ownership and control in the economy it is at the UK level that reform will be at its most effective”

It might also be added that industrial decline on the Tyne and the Clyde have similar causes – and solutions. Suggesting that the former is an economic question yet the latter is a national one is ignoring the reality of class power.

If independence as such offers such little appeal for those whose focus is class – how about Independence as offered? The distinction is important. The Independence we get will be Alex Salmond’s not John MacLean’s. The SNP, will both negotiate before, and govern after, independence.

The SNP, the odd populist flourish aside, are still thirled to neo-liberalism and the whip hand it gives capital. They have consistently welcomed the Corporation Tax cuts in George Osborne’s budgets, and promised that Corporation Tax rates in Scotland will be lower than in England. A view Salmond has been assiduously promoting on visits to the US. Simultaneously the SNP maintain that there will be no need for personal taxation to rise post independence. Unless one is – as Messrs Salmond and Swinney quite publicly are – a believer in the Laffer curves at the heart of Reaganomics, the future funding of public services begins to look a little shaky.

North of the Tweed will be a government with an economic strategy based on attracting jobs to Scotland based on low corporate tax rates. If successful the impact on the North of England is not difficult to imagine. It is of course quite possible that the rUK might respond with business tax cuts of their own – hardly a gain for our class. Also the fiscal transfer function of resources between areas will also be lost. Of course for some of the less grounded supporters of Independence, most particularly the Ultra Left, the nature and policies of the SNP hardly matter. Independence will either on its own unleash radical potential – or post independence the SNP will split prompting some sort of realignment which it is assumed will benefit the left.

The confidence with which these assertions are made is in inverse proportion to the evidence for them. Since 1981 there have been 39 new states created in an era which no one (outside Latin America) is going to claim as one of great success for the left.

Equally the idea of an evaporating or self destructing post independence SNP is ahistoric. The pattern for movements and parties that have achieved state making projects is generally one of political dominance for years afterwards; India achieved independence in 1948 and has been governed by a still extant Congress for much of its existence, the ANC have continued post apartheid, Mapai dominated Israeli politics for its first forty years, Tanzania, Gold Coast, Zambia and many others all point to the likelihood of scenario where the SNP as they fully intend to will go on (and on).

Obviously it is not only the organisation of capital, and its supporters, that concerns socialists – but that of the working class. The trade union movement is overwhelmingly organised at a UK level. The movement could, doubtless, cope with the setting up of an independent Scotland, but it is difficult to see how it makes life easier. Not least as some, less class conscious to be sure, workers may wonder why they should make the effort to help people who found being in the same political entity as them so intolerable. This is assuming that Trade Unions continue to organise on all UK basis and do not divide along national lines as some Left supporters of independence are already arguing for.

Marx declared famously that the working class ‘has no country’. But as he also said the proletariat, “must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”

The problem in Scotland is that independence is being pursued only in the bourgeois sense of the word. Rather than seeking a solution under the Saltire socialists, in Scotland and elsewhere would do better to remember Lenin’s advice to Zinoviev and his comrades prior to the Baku congress: ‘Do not paint nationalism red’

Originally published on


One comment

  1. Will Podmore

    Good article, thank you!
    There is growing inequality between the services provided in Scotland and Wales and those provided in England. Higher education in Wales is funded far less well than in England. Higher education in England gets far more research funding. Wales and Scotland are far better at widening participation. In secondary education, there is a widening attainment gap between Welsh students and students from the rest of Britain.
    The more devolution, the more inequality. As the President of Universities UK said, “devolution has led to a range of anomalies, discrepancies and complexities for the sector.” The Higher Education Policy Institute has also pointed out the inequalities devolution causes.
    Michael Gove is pushing hard for three different standards for GCSEs and A-levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He called his proposed split ‘a natural and legitimate consequence of devolution’. When Gove is for it …
    In education as in health care, there is a growing postcode lottery. We want common standards in our public services, not fragmentation causing inequality. So we should not accept increasingly divergent policy between England, Wales and Scotland.
    Our unions have always defended national pay bargaining and opposed regional pay, so to be consistent we must oppose proposals that would cause even more divisions within Britain. A Scottish breakaway, the break-up of Britain, would destroy national pay bargaining, to the benefit of the employing class.
    The break-up of Britain would also destroy our united, national, trade unions. It would split the British working class on national, sectarian lines. We should be breaking down national barriers, not creating them.
    So the whole British working class should do all it can to work for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum in Scotland.

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