Category: Common Weal

Up close, Scottish nationalism looks a lot like other nationalisms

by Stephen Low, a Labour Party member and part of the Red Paper Collective

Nationalism has many potential outcomes, but they are all based on a concern for ‘our people’ not ‘the people’

CybernatsScottish nationalism, we are always told, is civic, tolerant and open, different to other nationalisms. So welcoming in fact that many signed up to independence will argue that it isn’t really nationalism at all.

From Billy Bragg’s distanceit all looks very cuddly. Up close though, finding safety in numbers through a process of division, it looks a lot less pleasant.

Taking just a few examples: demonstrators gather outside the BBC and unfurl banners denouncing people as ‘anti–Scottish’, claiming that only the ‘corrupt media’ stops people supporting Independence.

A writer, Alan Bissett, prominent enough to be invited to perform to the conference of the governing nationalist party, describes current constitutional arrangements as ‘Subjugation; cultural, political and economic’. The acme of liberal independence supporting commentators, Gerry Hassan, expresses satisfaction that the Scots ‘are becoming a people’ and ‘developing voice in its deepest sense’.

It’s easy to recognise tropes here familiar from other, less favourably looked on nationalisms. Principally that only by asserting ourselves as a nation can we throw off alien influences and truly be ourselves. Perhaps then, Scotish nationalism isn’t all that exceptional after all.

Responding to JK Rowling’s endorsement of a No vote, a writer from the ‘National Collective’ declares Scotland is ‘a State of Mind’. Independence is all about ‘the story we choose to believe in’.

How very open, how very welcoming; anyone can be Scottish, provided they share our state of mind.

Except this, naturally, involves embracing independence. The status of those of us unwilling to do this isn’t quite spelled out. Neither is the corollary; if anyone can be Scottish by sharing ‘our’ state of mind. Also, what if, like myself, you don’t? If the ‘story you choose to believe in’ is a multi- or even non-national one, are you somehow less Scottish?

This is as much about exclusion as it is inclusion. And it is this process, more than independence that is developing momentum. Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and one of the gurus of the Radical Independence Campaign, used to describe non Indyfan lefties as ‘fellow travellers‘ for whom they should ‘keep a seat at the table’. He now issues dire warnings that ‘We are not afraid of you, we are going to win and history will remember you for how you behaved’.

Of course, all of the above matter much less than the SNP and the Scottish government.Recently, Nicola Sturgeon drew a distinction between ‘essentialist’ and ‘utilitarian’ nationalists. This isn’t anything to do with fundamental outlook, just a tactical difference about the timing of state formation. The deputy first minister went on to explain, in a phrase redolent of Michael Gove on steroids, that she wanted a new Scottish constitution to ‘embody the values of the nation’.

What those values might be were (thankfully) left undefined. Add to this the vaguely sinister sounding intentions of education secretary Mike Russell that the views of scientists on research bodies ‘might be aligned’ with those of the Scottish government.

A more serious indicator of what might be in store was given when Ed Balls and George Osborne, invoking the national interest of the rest of the UK, said they didn’t support a currency union with an independent Scotland. They were immediately decried by the First Minister and his supporters as ‘bullies’ ganging up on Scotland.

In the howls of anguish that followed, it was taken as read that assertions by the UK couldn’t be valid in themselves, they were merely attacks on Scotland. The ‘Scottish’ interest wasn’t just deemed to be the most important or priority viewpoint, but the only legitimately held opinion.

The economics or even politics of the situation (eg If Balls or Osborne were interested in having a supranational banking arrangement deciding governmental borrowing limits, they would have joined the Euro) were abandoned in favour of the financially illiterate spasm of ‘It’s our pound too’.

Stripped to its essence, it was a case of the leader of a nationalist party building support for a policy by saying foreigners were attacking the country. If that looks like it has worked then don’t think it will stop on September 19. Nationalist ends won’t be willed in the referendum without embedding nationalist means to sustain them afterwards.

Clearly the SNP aren’t some sort of Jobbik style proto fascists. But suggesting that ‘Technocratic Administrative Boundary Adjustment’ or ‘Blood and Soil’ are the only two possible settings on the nationalist dial isn’t right either.

Nationalism has many potential outcomes, but they are all predicated on defining and separating, with concern for ‘our people’ not ‘the people’. Real progressive politics does the opposite. People at home or in the places that will shortly be abroad if there is a yes vote in September would do well to remember that.


Scottish Independence – there are no shortcuts to a British working class response.

By Vince Mills, Campaign for Socialism and Red Paper Collective

In an UK mired in austerity it is hardly any wonder that some sections of the Scottish left, as well as individuals who want a more just society, are attracted by the argument that they would be better placed to achieve socialism, or at least a move in that direction, if Scotland were independent of the UK.

What are the underpinning arguments for that position and what left strategies have emerged on the basis of these assumptions?

The first argument in favour of this position is that there is a significant difference between the Scots and the English in terms of the extent to which they favour progressive politics with the argument being, on balance, the Scots are more favourably disposed than the English.

In fact the evidence argues in quite the opposite direction.

A Nuffield foundation report in 2011 by Curtice & Ormston, concluded that in terms of being ‘more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best’. They also note that “Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”

DifferentUpHereAs Stephen Low points out in the Red Paper Collective website, the data extracted from British Social Attitudes (BSA) Surveys suggests that when it comes to our fifteen million closest neighbours, the 3 Northern regions of England, we are no different at all. Perhaps I should add ‘unsurprisingly’ since they are areas of high unemployment and industrial decline just like Scotland and surely this played a significant part in shaping attitudes to the welfare state and neo-liberalism.

The second argument to emerge from the left, the more revolutionary left, is that if Scotland left the UK it would lead to the break-up of the British State. Alex Salmond by contrast has been at pains to stress continuity. In the Andrew Marr show after the SNP conference last October he said:

“The state we currently live in is not Great Britain, it’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. ‘Britain’ won’t disappear as a geographical expression no more than ‘Scandinavia’”.

Former Labour MP and MSP, John McAllion, and now SSP member by contrast sees independence as a way of smashing the British sate where the British left has so signally failed. Writing in Red Pepper in 2012 he states:

ric“The choice is really very simple. Go on as before inside an antiquated and reactionary state that legally shackles trade unions and has no political space for socialism. Or begin to break that state apart in the name of progress and social advance and in doing so release the energy and the potential of a left across Britain that has for far too long been in retreat.”

It is very clear from what John writes that he believes that the power of capital somehow depends on, and is sustained by the constitutional relationship that exists between Scotland and the United Kingdom. Neither John nor other socialists who make this case explain how the power of capital, which would remain vested in the City Of London would be undermined by what Salmond recognises is a mere geographical re-arrangement, not social and political transformation of society.

As the Red Paper 2014 points out The Scottish Business Insider list of the Top 500 companies in Scotland in January 2013 showed a Top 20 dominated by wholly-owned subsidiaries of foreign multinationals and London Stock Exchange quoted corporations.

A secession by Scotland would not change this. Quite the reverse, according to Eric Hobsbawn in Nations and Nationalism, it increases small state dependence on global capitalism.

“They are economically dependent in two ways: generally, on an international economy they cannot normally hope to influence as individuals; and specifically – in inverse proportion to their size – on the greater powers and transnational corporations… The optimal strategy for a neo-colonial transnational economy is precisely one in which the number of officially sovereign states is maximized and their average size and strength…is minimized”

Undeterred The Jimmy Reid Foundation, has come up with a detailed strategy for pushing an independent Scotland towards the Left but hardly one that grips the socialist imagination. It is called the ‘Common Weal’.

On ownership of the economy it says nothing about the top 20 companies and instead emphasises the role of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in transforming the Scottish economy. There are upwards of 80,000 such firms with a range of employees between 2 and 250 in Scotland and they are mainly in services. Few export directly. Many are suppliers to a single, larger firms like Ineos Grangemouth or BAE systems and hence vulnerable to changes at that level – hardly the engine of economic transformation.

Furthermore in so far as the Common Weal promotes Public ownership it is not primarily in class terms – giving democratic control of the economy to those who produce the wealth -and there is no serious discussion of how, for example, key sectors of the economy like transport and energy could be brought back into public ownership. Instead the Common Weal focuses on state interventions necessary because of market failure.

20131003020508-cw-alanbissett_1_From a left wing perspective the section on democracy and governance is positively alarming. It adopts an unashamedly partnership model for trade unions. It argues for “strong trade unions working collaboratively with employers not only on employee remuneration issues but also on strategic management issues”. This is the model which some Irish Trade unionists would argue has been devastating in terms of their capacity to resist austerity. It sits very well, by contrast, with the corporatist thinking of the big business backers of the SNP.

The Red Paper Collective is only too conscious that exposing the limitations of arguments for a Yes vote from the Left might be taken as counsel for despair.

On the contrary if the English working class is, as it must be, as likely to challenge the exploitative nature of capitalism as their brothers and sisters in Scotland, then together we can challenge capital at its heart in the City of London. I say this without the slightest doubt that winning the people of Britain to a radical anti neo-liberal project is enormously difficult. But if we want to challenge the power of capital that is what we must do. There are no short cuts.

peoples-assemblyWe need a strategy built on existing working class institutions, primarily the trade unions, but growing beyond that into a British wide People’s Movement that the People’s Assembly aspires to, a movement that advances the case for social ownership of the economy starting with the banks , and financial institutions, the energy companies and the communication and transport infrastructures that will give us the basis for transforming this rotten, unjust society into one which is fit for human beings.

Following in Scandinavian Footsteps

The Common Weal and a number of commentators have suggested that an Independent Scotland could follow in the steps of Nordic countries and create a social democratic country which could withstand global economic pressures.  Below is an extract from Scotland’s Road to Socialism Time to Choose published by SLR edited by Gregor Gall.  This is taken from the Chapter by Pauline Bryan a member of the Red Paper Collective.


Following in Scandinavian Footsteps

The SNP makes great play of its similarities to Denmark, Sweden and Norway and senior nationalists, including Alex Salmond, have made several trips to Scandinavian countries to pave the way for greater co-operation if Scotland becomes independent.  There is a particular focus on energy and initial plans have already been drawn up for an electricity super-grid between Scotland and Norway. The Scandinavian approach has been supported by Angus Robertson, the SNP’s defence and foreign affairs spokesman in Westminster who is quoted as saying that Scotland’s relationship with its Scandinavian neighbours had suffered because of a southern bias since the Act of Union in 1707.[1]

We could be lulled into thinking that in Scandinavia some countries have achieved social democracy and have established a model that Scotland could follow.  Göran Therborn wrote in 2000 [2] that social democracy had, at one time, been achieved in one country, but went on to add that single country social democracy has failed to become international.  There is not, he argued, a shared Scandinavian approach, but instead four or five separate countries finding their own separate ways forward and where each is feeling the impact of globalisation.  Since Therborn’s article the breakdown in social democracy has continued to the extent that neo liberal policies have gained an even greater hold.


Scandinavian countries slashed government budgets after the financial crisis of the early 1990s. In the aftermath of the crisis, Sweden systematically cut public provision through a combination of cuts and monetary policies. Other Scandinavian countries followed suit, and began the process of reducing public services and lowering taxation.

Besides downsizing the state, Scandinavian governments have privatised railways, airports, air-traffic control, motorways, postal services, fire departments, water systems and schools. In Sweden, Carl Bildt’s cabinet in the early ’90s made it possible to privatise health care at the county level and its introduction of school vouchers led Michael Gove, in 2008, to state  ‘We have seen the future in Sweden and it works’.[3]

Meanwhile, Denmark enjoys one of the most flexible labour markets in the world. Hiring and firing can occur at a very low cost and within one day.  It is known as “flexicurity” because it is supposedly based on being able to find an alternative job relatively quickly.  The concept is explained in the Employment in Europe Report 2006 which tells us that the use of stringent methods to protect employment is slowing down the movement of workers between jobs. This EU Commission calls on the Member States to find a common approach to combining flexibility and employment security in the labour market.[4]   They may produce more flexible workforces, but cannot deliver on the security element of alternative jobs.

Dalibor Rohac of the London based neo-liberal Legatum Institute states that “Nordic countries demonstrate that in order to make the welfare state work, we need a large dose of free-market economics. The left is right: the UK should indeed aspire to be more like Scandinavia – in liberalising its markets and bringing public spending under control.”[5]

Can one country social democracies withstand the pressures of neoliberal globalisation?  The power of globalisation is clearly asymmetical, creating vastly more resources and opportunities for capital than for people.  It would suggest therefore than in most cases smaller countries are more at the mercy of global market forces and easier to exploit.  What it would certainly require is a population committed to the project and which is prepared to make sacrifices to achieve it. And remember social democracy is not an attack on capitalism it is an accommodation to it.  Yet even social democracy was deemed to be too egalitarian in its effects since the rise of  the neo-liberal hawks under Thatcher and Reagan.


[1] Ibid

[2] Therborn, G.  Social Democracy in One Country? Dissent   47 (4).

[3] Shepherd, J.  Swedish-style ‘free schools won’t improve standards’ The Guardian 9 February 2010

[5] Rohac, D,. City AM available at accessed 20th October 2012