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The Internationalist
September 2014

Cast a Critical Vote for Scottish Independence, and
Fight for Socialist Revolution to Bring Down the Monarchy, NATO and the Rule of Capital

For a Scottish Workers Republic in a
Socialist Federation of the British Isles

Striking refinery workers at Grangemouth, Scotland outside shut-down plant, October 2013. Labour Party provoked the strike, Unite trade-union bureaucrats sold it out in deal brokered by Scottish National Party leader Salmond.  (Photo: Tony Nicoletti/Daily Record [Glasgow])

Obama, the Pope and Harry Potter author J.R. Rowling have all weighed in against it. Sean Connery is for it. Lord George Robertson, former head of NATO and “defense” minister under the war criminal Tony Blair, told the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. that a “yes” vote in the September 18 referendum on Scottish independence “would be cataclysmic for the world” and “the forces of darkness would simply love it.” Boris Johnson, the piggish Tory (Conservative) mayor of London, went berserk about the dim future for the British “brand” if it became the “former United Kingdom” (i.e. “FUK”): “What the FUK do we think we are doing?”

In the days leading up to the September 18 Scottish vote, all three parties in Britain’s parliament at Westminster have been thrown into a “blind panic” (New Statesman, 12 September) as polls show a neck-and-neck race, and possibly a majority for secession. Suddenly plans were announced for fast-track enactment of “devo supermax,” increased devolution (transfer) of tax moneys to the Scottish parliament (but not from oil, sales or corporation taxes). Scottish former Labour prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown was dispatched, bearing “more gold than when Ethelred the Unready paid danegeld to the Vikings” (Guardian, 9 September).1

Conservative prime minister David Cameron ordered the Scottish St. Andrew’s cross flag, the Saltire, raised at No. 10 Downing Street. He, his coalition ally Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg and Labour opposition leader Ed Milibrand all rushed north for a last-minute appeal for a “no” vote. So widely despised is “Team Westminster” that Alex Salmond, the first minister of the Scottish parliament at Holyrood and leader of the pro-independence campaign, offered to pay their travel expenses. The governor of the Bank of England added to the “Better Together” campaign (a/k/a Project Fear) by declaring that there was no way an independent Scotland could use the pound sterling as its currency.

No laughing matter now. From right: Tory prime minister David Cameron, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Labour Party chief Ed Miliband.  (Photo: London Evening Standard)

The British chauvinist opponents of a “yes” vote on September 18 may cause revulsion and awaken immediate sympathy with the alleged “forces of darkness.” But of course, the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily a friend. What position, then, should proletarian internationalists and class-conscious British and Scottish workers take on the impending Scottish independence referendum?

Certainly revolutionary Marxists are implacable enemies of the “United Kingdom” and all of its archaic institutions such as the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established churches that serve as props for British imperialism. “Britishness” means domination centered on the “Home Counties” of southeast England and above all London, with utter contempt for Scots, Welsh and Irish Catholics. Tory “Little Englanders” in particular have been waving the Union Jack against British membership in the European Union.

It was no accident that the last resurgence of fascist thuggery took the form of the “English Defence League” waving the flag of St. George. Since then we have had the electoral ascendance of the ultra-rightist UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is not only anti-immigrant and anti-European Union but also wants to roll back Scottish devolution. And on September 13, 12,000 reactionary Protestant loyalists of the Orange Order, including many from Northern Ireland, marched through Edinburgh in opposition to Scottish independence.

English Defence League fascists in anti-Muslim march carrying British Union Jack flag and wearing face masks with English cross of St. George.  (Photo:Rex)

The question being voted up or down on September 18 is quite simple: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” But as framed by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which currently holds office in Edinburgh, the result of a “yes” vote would be at most “independence lite”: the Act of Union of 1707 would be repealed, but not the Union of the Crowns going back to 1603, and the pound would be retained as currency. The SNP is now openly pro-NATO. While SNP head Salmond criticized the war against Serbia in 1999 and marched against the Iraq war in 2003, supposed SNP left-winger and deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon now volunteers an independent Scotland as an airbase for imperialist attacks such as that against Libya in 2011.

And despite its electoral posturing, the SNP is ultimately no less committed to capitalist austerity than its southern big brothers. In the current “nation-building” phase, in which it is locked in a struggle with Labour for the latter’s urban bastions, the SNP has managed to simultaneously promise a welfare state paradise together with a reduction in corporate taxes! Talk of a “Celtic Lion”, a Scottish pendant to the Irish “Celtic Tiger,” has disappeared following the financial crash of 2007-08. But the SNP’s real appetites are revealed by its groveling to the likes of Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch and its support from Scottish billionaires like Stagecoach chairman (and anti-abortion bigot) Brian Souter, owner of Megabus.

Scottish independence would result in the creation of another minor imperialist power – hardly a goal for working people. Instead, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), backed by all of the Scottish ostensible socialist left, is campaigning to vote “Yes to save the welfare state.” Many working-class voters, yearning for social democracy and fed up with the relentless Social Darwinism to the south, say that’s why they will vote for independence. Yet economic realities are such that no matter what the SNP or RIC promise, there will be no return to “welfare state” capitalism. A signal benefit of secession would be to drive home that reality, to get the national question off the agenda and focus Scottish workers’ struggle against the Scottish bosses.

Once Again on the Scottish Nation…

Geography is not destiny. As a favorite historian of Maggie Thatcher pointed out: “The people of these islands have seldom been united, politically or culturally. Efforts were made to unite them from the 12th century onwards, but they only came under the same monarch in 1603, and the complete political union, which was at last achieved in 1801, endured only till 1922. Since then the process has been reversed” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Unity of the Kingdom” in The English World [1982]). The “United Kingdom” as an overall term for England, Wales, Scotland and all or parts of Ireland only became the official designation in 1801.

But in discussing the question of independence for Scotland, we lend no credence to the kitsch “Braveheart” mythology shared by both left and right nationalists that sees Scottish nationhood as existing from time immemorial, even going back to the days when the Picts allegedly slaughtered invading Romans in droves. While various pseudo-Marxists (associated with Stalinism or the late Gerry Healy’s brand of pseudo-Trotskyism) deny there is a Scottish nation at all (as opposed to a “British” one), in fact Scotland underwent a process of bourgeois revolution parallel to, but not identical with, that to the south.

Scotland broke with the Catholic Church later (1560) but more thoroughly. Its armed forces first opposed, then allied with King Charles in the 1640s Civil War, were trounced by Cromwell, but then rose against the restored monarchy. Having laid the basis for a bourgeois nation state, albeit a small and poor one, its rulers then bankrupted the country in a foreign adventure (trying to imitate England by setting up a colony in Panama) and accepted union in 1707. But through it all, Scotland retained its own systems of Roman law and local government, its own school and university system and its own form of Protestantism, the Presbyterian Calvinist Scottish Kirk.

Scottish ruling class participated in British Empire with a vengeance. Royal Bank of Scotland grew out of a slaving company. Lower right: captured Africans being forced into the hold of a slave ship. 

In the 1700s the Highlands were “cleared,” as often by Lowlands Scots as by Englishmen, their hapless population of peasant smallholders (crofters) furnishing colonists and soldiers, and eventually proletarians. The Scottish ruling class participated in the course of the empire with a vengeance. The Royal Bank of Scotland got its start in the slave trade. Between 1850 and 1939, a third of all British colonial governors were Scots. At its peak in the early 20th century, given the rather meager home market, Scottish industry was even more export- and Empire-oriented than English firms. But what had the Scots joined as junior partner? As Marx noted in 1867, “By engaging in the conquest of Ireland, Cromwell threw the English Republic out the window.”

The final stabilization of the bourgeois revolution involved inviting over yet another foreign dynasty – the House of Hanover – as rulers, a tradition going back to the Norman kings a millennium ago. In reaction to the American colonial secessionists and the French Revolution it became a British fashion to sneer at “paper constitutions,” and no other “national” anthem was needed other than “God save the King” (or Queen). In short, a multinational construct was built in which Scottish regiments were used to crush the Irish uprising of 1798, Irish soldiers enforced the Highland Clearances, London police were sent against Welsh miners and English troops against the Glasgow general strike of 1919.

But as Leon Trotsky noted in Where is Britain Going (1925), “Scotland entered on the capitalist path later than England: a sharper turn in the life of the masses of the people gave rise to a sharper political reaction.” He was referring to the fact that Scots were disproportionately represented in the left wing of the British workers movement. The Scottish Trades Union Congress refused in 1897 to affiliate to the other TUC because the STUC was more advanced in independent working-class politics and mass unionization in the industrial area along the River Clyde. This is further illustrated by Scottish socialist and later communist John Maclean, the embodiment of “Red Clydeside,” and by the Independent Labour Party stronghold in Glasgow.

But contrary to a certain mythology, Scotland as a whole was never “left” – the predominant party up until the First World War was the Liberal Party (in many ways, the SNP are heirs of William Gladstone). The heyday of Labour in Scotland in the later 20th century came as Scottish (and British) industry were in decline. In the 1966 election Labour won 49.9% – a high water mark based on a system of public housing, state benefits and jobs and subsidies to a tottering industrial sector. But as it became increasingly clear that the British Empire was rotting alive, the SNP turned into something more than an eccentrics’ club, winning its first MP in 1967. The Scottish-English ruling-class marriage was going down.

…and the Resurgence of Scottish Nationalism

If the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Near East is history’s revenge for the failure of the Stalinists and Arab nationalists to wage an all-out struggle against imperialism, instead pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of “peaceful coexistence,” the rise of Scottish nationalism is the blowback from the defeat of union struggles and the capitulation of the workers movement, both English and Scottish, to capitalist reaction. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, a series of union battles ended up in defeat, centrally because the leaders allowed them to be isolated and were unprepared for a frontal confrontation with the capitalist state. For that, militant trade-unionism was in adequate, a program for international socialist revolution was necessary.

Communist Party shop steward convenor Jimmy Reid addresses workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders during "work-in" against closing the yard, July 1971.  (Photo: Allan Milligan)

The 1971-72 struggle at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders yards slated for closure eventually won a temporary reprieve with £192 billion in government subsidies to the shipyard bosses. But the UCS shop stewards led by Jimmy Reid and other Communist Party supporters instead of striking staged a “work-in” to claim the yards were still profitable, and to avoid a Britain-wide social explosion against the Tory government. There followed several years of labor unrest and plant occupations leading to the election of the Labour government of James Callaghan. But Labour in office was stymied by recession and inflation. After the 1978-79 “Winter of Discontent” of strikes, a backlash led to the election of Conservative Thatcher.

Following her “victory” in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, the Tory union-basher provoked the miners strike of 1984-85 and threw the full weight of the police and army against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) led by Arthur Scargill. Scottish participation in the strike was weaker than in Yorkshire, Kent and South Wales, and prominent Scottish Stalinists like Reid and Mick McGahey were well to the right of Scargill. Shamelessly abandoned by the TUC (and with bourgeois repression against Scargill egged on by the Healyite pseudo-Trotskyists), the miners were isolated and the heroic strike went down to defeat.

There were defensive occupations against plant closures at Caterpiller in Uddingston in 1987 and at Timex in Dundee in 1993, but the Scottish TUC sold out the latter struggle as perfidiously as the betrayals of its British namesake. As Thatcher and the Conservatives targeted the “nanny state,” in 1989 the Scots were selected as guinea pigs for the infamous poll tax. The SNP and various left groups called for resistance in the form of massive non-payment, but Labour did not. When the protests culminated in London in March 1990, the poll tax became a dead letter and Thatcher was soon out. Yet Labour still managed to lose the national elections of 1992.

By the 1990s, “Red Clydeside” was a distant memory. Scotland was disproportionately hit by deindustrialization and Scottish workers were no longer in the forefront of the British labor movement spearheading militant class struggle. As disgruntlement in the north set in over the failure to oust the Tories, a “Scotland United” popular front (a class-collaborationist alliance with the bourgeois SNP) soon emerged. Although a capitalist party, the SNP sought to appeal to Labour voters with a “social-democratic” program: Scotland was to use its historically evolved niche to evade the worst effects of Thatcherism.

In the 1997, the “new broom” for the restabilization of the UK arrived in the shape of Tony Blair and New Labour. With the assistance of U.S. imperialism, the “Peace Process” in Northern Ireland integrated a housebroken Sinn Fein to prop up the status quo, with Catholics and Protestants more rigidly segregated than ever. In Scotland, devolution (autonomy) together with proportional representation was supposed to strangle any impulses toward independence. But New Labour continued the Tories’ policies of unbridled capitalist profiteering, vicious austerity and imperialist war, leading to a sharp drop in its support in the north.

Since that time, devolution and/or independence have been seen as a bulwark against national austerity measures irrespective of whether the Tories or Labour are in the driver’s seat. While some Scottish voters even now will vote Labour, at least in national elections, it is as a “lesser evil.” The Scottish National Health Service remains in the hands of the state while in England this has been steadily eroded. The last major private hospital built in Scotland was nationalized in 2004. And as the UK government first imposed and then increased university fees, in Scotland university education remains state-funded and tuition-free for students. Prescription drugs are also free in Scotland, as is personal care for the elderly.

This, more than Scottish nationalist ideology, is a main factor in the growing support for a “yes” vote on September 18. The SNP government has managed to opt out of such measures as the infamous “bedroom tax” (a punitive reduction in council housing subsidies for recipients with “unoccupied space”) but runs the risk of being punished by a reduction in the block grant which it receives from the UK Exchequer (treasury). This could be avoided by turning over all taxation levied in Scotland to Edinburgh while consigning foreign policy and military matters to London. But the central power could still contrive to put Scotland on rations, and due to a consensus of the Westminster parties such a “devo max” is not on offer in this referendum.2

The other key motivation, which the SNP has been harping on since the ’70s, is the question of North Sea oil, and whether or not an independent Scotland would be better off if it got its hands on the royalties and other fees due from that industry. Thus the whole referendum debate has been framed in terms of rather immediate economic benefit. SNP leader Salmond proclaims that with oil revenues, Scotland would be “the wealthiest country in the world ever to declare its independence.” Many dream of a future as an idealized Norway. But the “black gold” may turn out to be fool’s gold, as experts say North Sea oil reserves are likely to run out in a couple of decades. And already the Scandinavian “welfare states” ain’t what they used to be.

Considerations on Scottish Secession

Scottish National Party leaders Alex Salmand and Nicola Sturgeon present Scottish government white paper on case for independence, November 2013.  (Photo: Daily Record [Glasgow])

Since various leftists have expended much ink on the question of whether Scotland is oppressed and if so, how much, it should be recalled that for Leninists, self-determination (and its exercise) are not a reward for oppression but a democratic right applicable to every nation. In 1913, Lenin summed up the principles of the Marxist position on the national question: “As democrats, we are irreconcilably hostile to any, however slight, oppression of any nationality and to any privileges for any nationality. As democrats, we demand the right of nations to self-determination in the political sense of that term...i.e., the right to secede.” (“Draft Program of the 4th Congress of Social Democrats of the Latvian Area” [May-June 1913]).

Or again: “Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations – such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers” (“The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” [February-May 1914]). In that polemic against Rosa Luxemburg, who denied the right of self-determination, the Bolshevik leader discussed the 1905 separation of Norway from Sweden, which has certain parallels to Scotland and England today. After several hundred years as a united kingdom with Denmark, Norway was attached to Sweden during the Napoleonic Wars at the start of the 19th century. Lenin commented:

“The geographic, economic and language ties between Norway and Sweden are as intimate as those between the Great Russians and many other Slav nations…. Despite the very extensive autonomy which Norway enjoyed (she had her own parliament, etc.), there was constant friction between Norway and Sweden for many decades after the union, and the Norwegians strove hard to throw off the yoke of the Swedish aristocracy. At last, in August 1905, they succeeded: the Norwegian parliament resolved that the Swedish king was no longer king of Norway….”

In response to Luxemburg’s dismissal of Norwegian independence as “simply a manifestation of peasant and petty-bourgeois particularism,” Lenin wrote that “the Norwegian proletariat had to oppose this [Swedish] aristocracy and support Norwegian peasant democracy (with all its philistine limitations).” He added: “Swedish Social-Democrats would have betrayed the cause of socialism and democracy … if they had failed to demand not only equality of nations in general … but also the right of nations to self-determination, Norway’s freedom to secede.” Thus, “[t]he dissolution of the ties imposed upon Norway by the monarchs of Europe and the Swedish aristocracy strengthened the ties between the Norwegian and Swedish workers.”

For Marxists as opposed to nationalists, self-determination does not presume some utopian freedom from “foreign” interference. It is purely a political right to constitute a separate state. It is quite beside the point that an independent Scotland would be subject to the capitalist world market, the European Union (if it were accepted into that imperialist lash-up), large capitalist firms, the International Monetary Fund or the like. This is self-evident, and is true for every country that has acceded to national independence. The removal of the political connection will “merely” prevent the SNP, or any other political force which ends up running an independent Scotland, from blaming Westminster for its own anti-working class measures.

As Leninists and Trotskyists, we judge matters of democratic rights not in the abstract but from a class standpoint, from the interests of the proletariat. In Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, a referendum on independence is scheduled for November. Many supporters and opponents of Catalan independence have drawn parallels to Scotland. But not only is Catalonia the richest part of Spain, whose bourgeoisie wishes to stop subsidizing poorer southern regions; not only would independence mean separating off one of the most militant sections of the working class; but much if not most of the industrial workers do not speak Catalan, many coming from Andalucía. In Scotland, in contrast, independence would not discriminate against any sector.

Another frequent parallel is with Quebec. One similarity is the presence of a bourgeois nationalist party, the Parti Québécois (PQ) which sometimes (especially when out of office) strikes a social-democratic pose.3 But this does not capture the deep-seated nationalism of most of the French-speaking population of Quebec, which hardened when in 1970 the Canadian federal government put Quebec under military occupation without protest elsewhere and with the support of Canadian labor officialdom. Then in 1972, a Quebec general strike provoked not the slightest echo from the rest of Canadian labor. From that point on, revolutionary Marxists should have called for Quebec independence, as the League for the Fourth International does.

In Britain, national antagonisms are more muted, although contempt for Scots goes back even further than Thatcherite snarling about Scottish “subsidy junkies.” For its part, the SNP might well prefer “devo max” to the rigors of actual independence, just as the PQ talks of “sovereignty/association” rather than outright separation. But in the long run, how could anything like a Scottish welfare state coexist with a neo-Thatcherite UK where the latter calls the shots? In Quebec the left is dominated by nationalism and class confrontation will not likely come to the fore until separation from Canada.

Now you know: Scotland has more pandas than Tory members of parliament. Left: Tian Tian and Yang Guang after arriving at Glasgow Zoo, December 2011.  (Photo: AFP)

In Scotland, the Conservative Party is so discredited that there are now more pandas (2) than Scottish Tory MPs. The growing disenchantment with Labour has fed a pro-independence sentiment that not been able to budge social policies in the UK, and which isn’t going away. Meanwhile, such trade-union struggles as there are, are becoming increasingly disconnected. A UK-wide strike of teachers this year did not include Scotland; teachers there are not in the National Union of Teachers but rather the Educational Institute of Scotland (a rather right-wing union) and faced with a quite different educational system. UK-wide labor protests have often fallen flat in the north.

The referendum debate has already raised tensions, Since open Tory support to the “Better Together” campaign for a “no” vote would be the kiss of death, the spokesmen are all from Labour. There is thus a great deal of Labour pressure on the trade unions, but even the half-dozen who decided to support “No” are staying away from “Better Together.” The neutrality of the majority of unions is significant: the bureaucrats are obviously worried about a split. After a ballot of its members in Scotland showed a narrow majority for independence, the left-wing RMT transport union came out for a “yes” vote. The Scottish Socialist Party and other nationalist sources report various examples of Scottish locals coming out for yes. The CWU (communications workers), for example, is for no on the national level, but Edinburgh is for yes.

Certainly the “Better Together” campaign has absolutely nothing to offer workers. Its main spokesman, former Labour chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling, only managed to enrage Scottish voters with his threats. Home Secretary Theresa May warned in October 2013 that an independent Scotland would be invaded by “Islamic terrorists.” Labour is standing on its austerity record, while its response to the UKIP gains is to redouble its own anti-immigrant demagogy. The most that “Better Together” could come up with was renegade “left” Labourite George Galloway, who went to Scotland in June to blather about the Battle of Britain, to the delight of the right-wing Spectator, if no one else.

There are in fact sinister forces being lined up against independence. In June 2013, “Better Together” launched “Forces Together” for military personnel, veterans and their families. If Salmond were to attempt to pull together a Scottish military after independence we suspect he would not get those Scottish regiments he is so fond of. Recall that the officer corps swears allegiance to the monarch and to no one else. Meanwhile, the UK claims it has no contingency plans if the SNP were actually to make good on its promise to close down the Faslane Trident nuclear submarine base. You think? What about the talk of making the base an “extra-territorial” enclave like British bases in Cyprus, or Gibralter?

Students at Stirling University in Scotland surround car of Queen Elizabeth during royal visit chanting “monarchy out,” November 1972.  (Photo: AP)

As to the monarchy, after a visit to the Queen in Balmoral (Queen Victoria’s old haunt) in 2007, Salmond began backpedaling on his criticisms of the royals. In response to the September 6 YouGov poll reporting a slight majority for independence, the press reported her majesty to be “quite concerned” at the possible break-up of the three-centuries-old union. But Salmond quickly retorted that “Her Majesty” would be “proud to be Queen of Scots” who in turn were “proud to have her as the monarch.” While at least getting rid of the House of Lords, the wretched bourgeois nationalists of the SNP would retain the Union of the Crowns. But why should the Scots tolerate a monarchy that in a crisis could serve as lightning rod for a coup d’état?

The erstwhile “Marxist” proponent of Scottish nationalism, Tom Nairn, now an SNP advisor, has made a career of comparisons between the UK and the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy. It was the claim of the social democracy in that latter empire that its policy of “cultural autonomy” was the alternative to self-determination. But it only dragged out the existence of the antiquated structure, exacerbating national tensions until the whole rotting edifice collapsed in the post-World War I upheaval in 1918. Whereupon the pusillanimous reformist and centrist Austrian social democrats betrayed the revolution.

There is no reason to drag out the niche existence of Scotland in the “United Kingdom.” An opportunity is posed to accelerate the break-up of imperialist Britain – it should be seized. The UK was founded to pursue empire, and ever since it has been a machine for the subjugation of colonial slaves, inconvenient minorities and the working class. There is no reason that Scottish independence should undermine class struggle in England or Scotland. It would strike a blow against decrepit British imperialism (it’s been a long time since Britannia ruled the waves), and while the SNP has dropped its opposition to NATO, Scottish independence could still cause problems for that imperialist alliance. Just ask Obama.

But whether or not the “yes” vote wins, it appears the referendum will be close enough so that if it doesn’t, politics for years to come would still be dominated by the issue of independence. We want to get the national question off the agenda: let Scottish workers direct their fire against Scottish bosses, starting with Alex Salmond, the former economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland. While advocating a critical “yes” vote, the League for the Fourth International calls for building a revolutionary workers party to lead class struggle against the bourgeois nationalists who would be the new masters of a Scottish state and against the Westminster parties of the rump UK and their vicious anti-working-class austerity policies.

Yes to Independence, Against Scottish Nationalism

The referendum, whatever the outcome, should be used by revolutionaries as a trigger for a fight to drive British troops out of Iraq and throw the nuclear-armed Trident submarines out of Scotland (and anywhere else in Britain). While SNP leaders salivate at the thought of all those oil royalties, revolutionary Marxists should push for a drive to unionize North Sea oil workers, and for unions to impose workers control on the platforms and at the Grangemouth refinery. While the SNP seeks to attract multinational investors by promising to cut corporation taxes, union militants should demand a sharply increased minimum wage and to end subcontracting and zero-hour contracts and precarious jobs for youth, fighting for real unionized jobs.

It is also necessary to expose the politics of class collaboration of the “socialist” left, both those that sided with the British imperialists in calling for a “no” vote and those that campaigned for “yes” by peddling illusions in a future of prosperity and parroting the demagogic claims of the bourgeois-nationalist SNP. It is a measure of the collective dementia of the referendum debate that some leftists were asking if Scotland would have the financial resources to bail out its banks in the event of another financial crisis. The answer is no – the holdings of RBS and HBOS are more than 10 times the gross domestic product. But why should they be bailed out at all?

The various opportunist leftists calling for a “yes” vote on September 18 are promoting the agenda of the Scottish capitalist government. What they are angling for is a “popular front,” a class-collaborationist coalition with the bourgeois SNP, under the watchword of fighting “austerity” and “neo-liberalism.” They may raise criticisms of Salmond, even saying “no confidence in the SNP,” but when they talk of “socialism” they are calling on Salmand & Co. to adopt social-democratic policies for administering capitalism, the policy of pre-Blair “Old Labour” with its famous Clause IV for “common ownership.”

Thus the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in listing six reasons why it is voting “yes” calls to “Stuff Cameron” and to “build a movement that forces any new government to represent our interests” (Socialist Worker, 13 September). No mention, of course, that any new capitalist government will not and cannot defend the interests of working people. An article on “The Limits of Scottish Nationalism” says that “the SNP remains a nationalist party” and that “sooner or later all nationalist parties are forced to take sides” between “the rich and poor.” But the SNP is a bourgeois party which necessarily defends the interests of the ruling class it represents.

Anti-poll tax marchers in Scotland, 1989.  (Photo: Phil Maxwell)

The Scottish affiliate of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers International (CWI) takes a similar tack. After decades of being buried in the Labour Party as the Militant tendency, it simply transferred the object of its pressure tactics to the SNP. After the success of the anti-poll tax campaign in the early ’90s, CWI supporters including Tommy Sheridan rallied to form the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). The program of Sheridan’s SSP was for an expanded welfare state and its actual role was that of pressure group on the SNP. This being Presbyterian/Catholic Scotland, after a few years in the sun, the party exploded in a ludicrous sex scandal.

But politically they are still singing the same refrain today. Thus Taaffe’s Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW) and its subsidiary, Socialist Party Scotland, quote one of their comrades’ intervention at a meeting starring socialist-nationalist ex-comrade Sheridan:

“We're campaigning for public ownership of the banks, the oil and gas industry and the major sectors of the economy. The powers of independence should be used to deliver a living wage for all, an end to zero-hour contracts and a fully resourced welfare state.… A mass movement against the cuts and for an independent socialist Scotland linked to the struggle for socialism in England, Wales and Ireland is the only real escape from savage austerity.”
–“Scottish referendum: A mass revolt against austerity,” The Socialist, 11 September

This could be taken straight out of the Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto calling “public ownership” of basic industry, banks, utilities, etc.

When the SPEW talks of using “the powers of independence” to provide a “fully resourced welfare state” they are putting forward a program for a capitalist government of Salmond’s SNP. But the real power of the capitalist world market will quickly cut short any such attempt to revive the “welfare state” of years gone by as it relentlessly drives down wages and rips up union gains. The only way to “escape from savage austerity” is by carrying out a socialist revolution, something you won’t hear from these dyed-in-the-wool social dems. But no doubt we will soon enough be reading the SPEW/SPS plan for organizing a “democratic” police force for the bosses as they declare cops to be “workers in uniform.”

The several non-party groups active in the referendum campaign strike a similar chord. Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence admits that the Scandinavian countries are capitalist, and far from models. But it then claims that they are an “alternative” to “neo-liberalism.” The catalogue of measures proposed amounts to an expanded welfare state, rather than the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and a planned economy. But a capitalist Scotland can’t even sustain that. Meanwhile, the various authors of Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose (2013) reject the UK and Labour as vehicles for “socialism,” but claim it will all be different in a “newly independent country.” Want to bet?

Let’s look at recent history. Last October, refinery workers at Grangemouth suffered a decisive defeat when they were blackmailed by threat of closure of the plant into accepting an agreement (brokered by Salmond) cutting jobs, pensions and pay, although a previous strike in February had defeated an attack on pensions. The walkout was sparked by the Labour Party, and they were stabbed in the back by trade-union bureaucracy of Unite. The Socialist Party Scotland called for nationalization by the SNP government. The Socialist Workers Party raised the even more ludicrous idea of pressuring Cameron to nationalize it. There were no takers.

Piper Alpha oil rig disaster 1989. While SNP bosses dream of oil royalties, Marxists call to unionize North Sea oil, impose workers control.   (Photo: AP)

And what about the North Sea oil workers themselves? None of the “socialist” blueprints for a future Scotland mention them. They have never been unionized. The oil majors outsource all hiring to contractors in the usual fashion, and the TUC affiliates have a few token sweetheart deals. Health and safety conditions are appalling. After the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster that killed 167 workers, an Offshore Industry Liaison Committee emerged, leading wildcat strikes in 1989-1990. They wanted fusion into a single industrial union. The TUC (and STUC) boycotted them with the nonsensical claim that it was “breakaway union.” Today the main opponent of unionization will be the SNP.

On the other side, those tendencies calling for a “no” vote (the rump Communist Party and the “Socialist Appeal” group among them) are just displaying their Labour loyalism and lining up behind British chauvinism. They claim to stand for the unity of a working class which is already divided and are in fact only upholding the unity of the bourgeois state. Thus the arch-social-democratic Alliance for Workers Liberty argues that if Labour wins an all-UK general election in May 2015 it would be “a lame-duck administration” that is “set up to fall in March 2016, or whenever separation comes, because it will lose its majority with the loss of MPs from Scotland” (Solidarity, 10 September). Horrors!

The AWL’s alternative is a “democratic federal Britain, within a democratic federal united Europe” under capitalism. Similarly the idiosyncratic Communist Party of Great Britain declares a plague on both houses, concocting schemes for a bourgeois federal republic of the British Isles. Not bloody likely, and in any case this program is counterposed to socialist revolution. To top it off, AWL says it defends different people’s “right to define their own nationality” … such as “the right of the Ukrainian people in the face of claims, backed up  by  force of arms, by Russian fascists and ultra-nationalists that they are ‘really Russian’….” This cynical sleight of hand is a vile call for supporting the Ukrainian fascists and imperialist puppets in their war on the Russian-speaking people of eastern Ukraine.

The World Socialist Web Site/Socialist Equality Party – a fragment of the Healyite tendency now following David North and notorious for opposing trade unions – is carrying out a frenetic campaign for a “No” vote. As noted earlier, Healy denied the very existence of a Scottish nation, and North & Co. oppose the right of self-determination in general, even for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. In the U.S., the Northites’ current hobbyhorse is to denounce the idea that racial oppression is central to American politics, Indeed, this has been one of their central themes amidst the wave of racist police murders of black youth from Ferguson to New York City.

Workers Power (Summer 2014) argues that a “yes” vote would signify a “major setback” for “the common project of establishing a workers’ government in Britain, which is implicit in the organisation of a labour movement” – as if the present trade-union and Labour leaders had the least intention of fighting for such a “common project.” 

But the golden palm for obfuscation and confusionism goes to the International Communist League and the Spartacist League/Britain, continuing its long history of idle flirtation with Scottish nationalism without consummation. The SL/B’s Workers Hammer (Winter 2013-2014) declared, in an article on the Grangemouth strike, “we do not advocate either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote and are indifferent to the outcome.” But continuing its recent pattern of abrupt turnabouts, its next issue ran a “correction”: “we are not taking a stand for or against independence. But we are not indifferent to the outcome, nor to the many questions it will surely pose” (Workers Hammer, Spring 2014). So much for the ICL’s claim to be a revolutionary vanguard: no line, but “not indifferent.”

And a dishonorable mention for the International “Bolshevik” Tendency: this parasitic offshoot of the Spartacist tendency has come out for voting “no” in the referendum, thus lining up with Cameron, Tony Blair and the Orange Order. This repeats its policy of voting against Quebec independence in the 1995 referendum there. The IBT is at least consistent in its chauvinist, social-democratic/Labourite economism.

Genuine Marxists have always understood that Labour was a “bourgeois workers party,” as Lenin put it, and sought to break its ranks from the reformist leadership and win them to the revolutionary program. The Labour leadership has since largely “emancipated” itself from its working-class base. Because the trade-union bureaucracy did not dare lead any mass struggles that would clash with the capitalist state, this evolution was not marked by any noteworthy confrontation. But the upshot of this process of putrefaction is a situation in which dissatisfaction with Labour and opposition to capitalist austerity has led to mass sentiment for flight in a third of the UK. This is deplorable, but it is a fact.

It’s better to lance the boil. Rather than concocting schemes for a “Scottish transition to socialism,” painting rosy pictures of an independent capitalist Scotland or seeking to prettify the SNP, as revolutionary Trotskyists we irreconcilably oppose it and all the bourgeois parties, calling for a critical vote for independence as part of the fight for workers revolution. For a Scottish workers republic in a socialist federation of the British Isles and a socialist united states of Europe!

  1. 1. Æthelred II, called “the Unready,” king of England from 978 to 1016, paid thousands of pounds of gold and silver as tribute to the Danish king (danegeld) in a failed effort to hold off Viking raids.
  2. 2. SNP leader Salmond originally wanted a third, “devo max” alternative on the ballot but this was vetoed by Cameron. Considered a tactical victory at the time, the hard-nosed “all or nothing” policy has now backfired.
  3. 3. Another similarity is that an independent Quebec would also be a minor imperialist power. Québécois generals and police officials played a leading role in the U.N. imperialist occupation of Haiti, Montreal banks are prominent in the Caribbean, and Quebec-owned industrial firms (Bombardier, AbitibiBowater, Quebecor) are major multinational monopolists.