Britain - Scottish "nationalism", regionalist illusions and political opportunism

Apr/May 1996

For over half-a-century, Scottish nationalism has been represented, with varying success, by only one significant organisation - the SNP (Scottish National Party) - which was both respectable and moderate. Over the past period, however, due to a number of different factors, the attitudes of the other parliamentary parties towards regionalist feelings in Scotland have started to change, although still very cautiously in most cases.

Thus the Liberal-Democrats have set up their own Scottish outfit. The Conservatives, who had been so far the most fiercely opposed to any kind of Scottish regionalism - after all their full name is still the Conservative and Unionist Party - have softened up too, offering a more prominent role for the Scottish Grand Committee (the assembly of the 72 Scottish MPs in Westminster) and more autonomy from the Scottish Office for Scotland's new unitary local councils.

As to the Labour Party, so far it has resisted setting up a separate Scottish organisation, although there were quite a few unofficial attempts in that direction in the past. The last one, Jim Sillars' Scottish Labour Party, in the late 70s, was unable to attract the support of a significant layer of the Labour Party milieu and ended up disappearing into the SNP. Scottish regionalism, if not nationalism, however, has always been well represented in the Labour Party ranks, due partly at least to the long-standing existence of the separate Scottish TUC. Over the past period, the fact that the SNP and Liberal-Democrats have replaced the Tories as Labour's main challenger in Scotland has undoubtedly boosted the regionalist pressure within the party, leading to the adoption of a clear commitment to setting up a Scottish Parliament with a measure of devolved powers.

This shift among the main parties, although still very cautious, is easily understandable when taking account the changing circumstances in Europe. As paradoxical as it may seem, the development of Europe - so long as it is not stopped or reversed due to Europe's own contradictions - is making the prospect of regional autonomy or even independence more acceptable for the old European countries. Twenty or thirty years ago, the prospect of Scotland becoming autonomous would have meant for Britain the risk of losing its full economic and political control over the Scottish market. But today, the same autonomy would have much less significant consequences within the European single market and under the authority of the European institutions. This is certainly a significant factor behind the shift of the Tory party in particular (as much as behind their shift as regards Northern Ireland in fact). All the more so as the hard core of the "blue" middle-class electorate is bound to become less and less concerned with such matters as public opinion shifts away from the "Queen and Country" motto. At some future point, the Tory party - or, why not, a revamped "New Tory" version - could well follow the lead of the Liberal-Democrats and reverse the party's traditional opposition to Scottish devolution, since after all this is not a threat to capitalist profit anyway.

As to the Left, not unexpectedly it has followed a course more or less parallel to that of the Labour Party, although with varying degrees of sympathy towards Scottish nationalism. First, there was the emergence of a number of rival Scottish-based groups following the breakup of the Communist Party, in whose ranks Scottish nationalism had had a constituency for a long time. Then, came the setting up of Scottish Militant Labour (SML) which was the Militant Tendency's first step in its break from the Labour Party. More recently, a new Scottish Socialist Alliance was formed by a number of Left groups in Scotland, including SML, after they fell out with Arthur Scargill's new Socialist Labour Party over, among other things, Scargill's refusal to set up a separate Scottish organisation.

That being said, that bourgeois politicians should resort, out of pure demagogy and narrow self-interest, to harking back to the ancient days of Scottish independence is one thing, but that revolutionaries should follow suit is quite another. Indeed, it would be ironical if revolutionaries who claim to be fighting for a worldwide communist society free of the straightjacket of national borders, should want to revive the ghost of a nation state which became extinct nearly 300 years ago!

For our part, we believe that the task of revolutionaries is to fight for the class-based unity of the proletariat, not to nurture or condone more or less artificial potential causes of divisions in its ranks, in the name of illusions - or prejudices - dressed up in national aspirations.

The roots of Scottish nationalism

We will not here go over the arcane, and all too frequent romanticisation, of Scotland's ancient history. Let us just say that to all intents and purposes Scotland's existence as a separate nation state was finally terminated once and for all by the so-called "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. William of Orange was called in by the richest layers of the English bourgeoisie to consolidate the gains they had made during the English revolution, tighten their dictatorship over society and open up an era of looting by the propertied classes. In Ireland, the new regime had to face an all-out uprising. Not so in Scotland, however, where a very short-lived rebellion affected only the sparsely populated rural Highlands. As to the Scottish bourgeoisie and propertied classes, they followed willingly the lead of their English counterparts in supporting William's reactionary regime, thereby signing in deed the final death warrant of Scotland's relatively independent existence before it was formalised nineteen years later, with the setting up of the Union in 1707.

Subsequently the industrial revolution resulted in the tight integration of the Union into one single market and productive entity, in which Scotland was no more exploited or oppressed than certain parts of England. On the other hand, the remoteness of Scotland from the political centre of the Union certainly played a role in limiting its economic development. The Scottish population was drawn into the melting-pot of the industrial and urban explosion, not just in Scotland but also in the whole of Northern England and Northern Ireland. In this melting-pot, what was still left of previous linguistic specificities all but disappeared, and cultural traditions mutated. The sense of Scottish identity that survived was more regional than national.

Until the end of the 19th century there was no specifically Scottish political current of any significance, until a major recession gave some impetus to a "Home Rule" movement modelled on that of Ireland, and primarily based on the frustration of the Scottish middle class. But although it tried to enrol the support of Scottish workers, fighting against the consequences of the depression, it failed to gain any sizeable support among the Scottish population and finally disappeared. Keir Hardie's Scottish Labour Party set up around the same period was not much more successful and finally merged into the newly launched Independent Labour Party. Subsequently, the Scottish "Home Rule" current was to remain mostly represented by the Labour Party, whether or not the leadership was willing to go along with this demand.

Another economic depression brought Scottish nationalism back onto the agenda - that of the thirties. Disillusion in the Labour Party following MacDonald's defection to the National Government coalition, combined with the dramatic consequences of the depression in Scotland, gave a new boost to regionalist feelings and prompted the various nationalist groups to merge. The Scottish National Party came out of this in 1934, as a merger between traditional nationalists and Scottish Tories. But these "Tartan Tories" as they were often described in those days, had to wait another thirty years before they began to register some real support.

A Scottish pawn on the political chessboard

The early 60s marked a new turn, when Scotland's old heavy industries were the first in Britain to be hit by the end of the so-called postwar "boom". While Scottish workers had gained very little from this boom in terms of living standards, the middle class had grown fat on it. And since the rest of the country was not showing comparable signs of depression, frustated shopkeepers, managers and professionals turned to the SNP's demagogy and proved prepared to cling to the illusion that the only cause of the slump in Scotland was England's looting of Scottish resources.

A first tentative success came in 1961, when the SNP came second to Labour in a by-election. Then, in 1967, the SNP won the Hamilton by- election and its second seat in Parliament ever (they had won a first one in a by-election in 1945, before losing it again three months later in the general election), although the decisive factor in this success was probably less the voters' support for the SNP's programme, than their disillusion with Labour in the fourth year of Wilson's office.

By 1970, the opening of the first oil platform off the coast of Scotland revived the SNP's grandiose project for an independent Scotland, now fuelled by the "It's Scotland's Oil" campaign. 1973 marked the beginning of the oil crisis. All of a sudden oil was becoming an expensive luxury which, according to the government, Britain could no longer afford in large quantities. Then, in January 1974, came the 3-day week in industry introduced by Heath's Tory government allegedly to save electricity, but in reality in a futile attempt to isolate a national miners' strike. These events undoubtedly helped the SNP to float the image of a Scottish version of Kuwait, with London ministers being forced to beg for the right to buy some of Scotland's North-Sea oil. Its language took a more populist and less "Tartan Tory" turn, not unlike that of today's Northern League in Italy when they blame the impoverished South for living as parasites off the North's wealth.

In the middle of this flamboyant and demagogic optimism, the SNP reached the peak of its electoral influence in the October 1974 general election. This time it scored a real success with 30.4% of the vote across Scotland - an unprecedented achievement for a party which did not belong to the Big Three. Due to the first-past-the-post system, however, it did not do so well in terms of seats, winning eleven seats only against Labour's 41 and the Tories' 16. Nevertheless the SNP had managed to take over rural Tory seats as well as urban Labour seats.

A large part of this success was probably due to tactical voting by Tory voters in an election which looked certain to return a Labour government. But with such a share of the vote, the Labour leadership could no longer dismiss the SNP either. All the more so as the SNP soon found itself in a position where it could weigh on parliamentary arithmetic: in 1978, following the weakening of the Labour Party majority by a series of by- election defeats and the withdrawal of the Liberals' support for Callaghan's government, the 11 SNP MPs together with their 3 colleagues of the Welsh Plaid Cymru effectively held the balance of power in the Commons. In exchange for their support, Callaghan promised a referendum over devolution both in Scotland and in Wales. This took place in March 1979. The Scottish Nationalists were certain of the victory but... it was a flop. Although 51.6% of the voters supported devolution, they made up only 32.9% of the registered voters, far less than the minimum 40% required by the devolution bill.

By that time, Labour's term was over and in the subsequent elections under the following Tory governments, the SNP lost the benefit of tactical voting. Its score was cut by half and its representation in Parliament reduced to two MPs.

Behind the issue of the Scottish Parliament

There is one particular feature which has set Scotland aside since the 18th century - having its own specific institutions. The fact that the Scottish education and legal systems, in particular, were not brought into line with those of England at the time of the Union, had been initially a concession to the Scottish middle class and religious establishment. It was for the same reason that subsequently this rather unusual state of affairs, from the point of view of a centralised state in any case, was continued. But this concession was bound to be double-edged as it also entrenched a whole layer of specifically Scottish professionals, particularly in the legal profession, who had a monopoly over their own profession but were also largely excluded from the similar professions in England. This layer of Scottish professionals was bound to object at some point to the fact that, due to the requirements of the central state, most of the top- and middle- level management of Scotland by the state, particularly in the administrative, financial and economic fields, had to be organised from London. This in itself was the source of tensions and rivalries which were only partly resolved by moving several departments of the Scottish Office to Edinburgh.

After 1979, these tensions were aggravated by the economic crisis. Once again the tendency to blame London for the fact that Scotland seemed hit harder re-emerged. With the collapse of Scotland's main industries and the concentration of the new service industries in Southern England, the Scottish middle-class was more dependent on the state for jobs than anywhere else in Britain... at a time when the local and central government were being slimmed down to reduce public expenditure. And although this slimming down was much less in Scotland than anywhere else, it was significant enough, in the absence of other available careers, to deprive a whole layer of the Scottish petty-bourgeoisie of the prospect of benefitting from the well-paid jobs that were still available elsewhere. To make matters worse, the Tory government's policy of staffing its agencies with political supporters meant that even in Edinburgh, the Scottish office was a virtual closed-shop for the Tory party, leaving many ambitions thwarted.

In this context, the objective of a Scottish parliament which would take over part of the administrative functions of the Scottish Office from London, and have a certain amount of financial autonomy, appeared to many as the only way out. Devolution came to be seen by the "deprived" Scottish petty bourgeoisie as the best vehicle to restore their social status - or to put it more crudely, to provide them with better careers - thereby giving to the issue of the Scottish parliament a new popularity which spread far beyond the usual milieu of SNP supporters.

The Labour Party apparatus and politicians had a particular interest in this prospect as well, since their regional power, which was largely based on their entrenched positions in local government, was being threatened by the Tory drive to reduce the role of local councils. Hence the shift made by the Labour Party in that direction, reluctantly at first, to the point where its official position today is that the future Labour government will set up a Scottish parliament as soon as practicable which will be allowed to raise and administer a 3% tax over and above central taxes for the specific use of Scotland.

Certainly, another important factor in Labour's shift was the fact that the idea of a Scottish Parliament found an echo among large layers of the electorate. Not that many people fell for the pro-independence demagogy of the SNP. But the political situation encouraged the illusion that somehow, Scotland was, or rather should be in a different league from the rest of Britain.

While the political map of Britain turned blue in most areas in the early 80s, Scotland remained overwhelmingly dominated by Labour, both in local government and in Parliament. General election after general election, the Scottish electorate returned increased Labour majorities while the Tories remained firmly in office in London. This generated a degree of frustration among the electorate, in particular among its more modest layers who were on the receiving end of unemployment and low-pay and, in the late 80s, of the poll tax.

So what is today the answer of the main opposition parties? On the one hand the Labour Party blames all the ills of society on the Tory government - rather than on the capitalists and their system, of course. On the other hand the SNP blames the central government in London. Since the one is equated to the other, the obvious solution seems to be that Scotland should be run by its own elected politicians and institutions, so that regionally, at least, the Tories are booted out and replaced by Labour, or a coalition of Labour and the SNP. That way, it is hoped, the constant economic deterioration of jobs and conditions experienced in the past period will be stopped as well as the continuous erosion of the welfare system.

The dangers of a regionalist drift

These hopes are of course only illusions. The Labour Party is first and foremost responsible, in its acts, to the capitalist class. And the interests of the capitalists are fundamentally the same in Scotland as in the rest of Britain. Assuming that a Scottish Parliament came into being under a Tory government, it would carry out the same policies that the Labour councils have been implementing over the past decade throughout the country, including in Glasgow - austerity, higher taxes, cuts in jobs and services, etc.. i.e. exactly what the government expects them to do in order to reduce public expenditure. And if this Parliament was formed under a Labour government, its Labour majority would not have a policy different from that of their own party. In this respect, Blair is clear enough - there will be no break from the profit drive for the working class. In both cases, this Scottish Parliament would at best, assuming it is allowed to to so by its majority, re-inject some funds into the state sector, but primarily in order to provide some space for the aspiring politicians and professionals who are queuing for jobs - not to improve public services, create useful jobs, and even less to stop the bosses' continuous attacks against workers' conditions.

In that sense, a Scottish Parliament would only offer the same prospect that a Labour government offers for Britain as a whole - except it would be operating in Scotland, and on a smaller scale, with the same policies being carried out by a different set of politicians - no more and no less.

And just as it is in Britain, it is the responsibility of revolutionaries in Scotland to spell out in front of the working class what the Labour Party in power, in central government, or with more limited power in a Scottish Parliament, has in store for workers. It is our responsibility to prepare workers for what will be the real policy of Labour once in office and to spread as widely as possible the idea that whoever is in power, the real and only solution to the present problems of the working class will remain that of a counter-offensive against the capitalist class and its profit drive, with the weapons of the class struggle. It is our responsibility because no- one else will do it, of course. But also, because disillusion is more often a source of demoralisation than of radicalisation, particularly after such a long period of low-ebb in the class struggle, and the working class just cannot afford another wave of demoralisation.

In this respect, there is a striking parallel between the attitude of some revolutionary groups towards the prospect of a future Labour government in Britain and their attitude towards the issue of the Scottish Parliament. In both cases, they choose to go with the current and put first the need to boot out the Tories, rather than to warn the working class against what Labour is preparing. And in both cases they are turning their backs on their political responsibilities.

In the case of Scotland there is an additional twist and an even greater danger in the reasoning of the revolutionary activists who support the prospect of a Scottish Parliament.

The justification that there would be "national" aspirations expressed by the Scottish working class, which is usually put forward, is nonsense. An aspiration to what? To the separate existence of five million people whose lives are culturally and economically tightly intertwined with those of the 55 other million who make up Britain - and have been for three centuries? To the splitting up of tens of thousands of families by yet another artificial border? Who expresses such aspirations? How many are they? How do they show this? What hopes and what illusions accompany these sentiments?

Besides, where have these alleged aspirations ever been expressed on the political scene in the past period? Because if these aspirations really existed, not in an abstract sense, as in the reasoning of the Left, but in the real world where aspirations are only meaningful in so far as those who have them show in some way their determination to fight for them, surely there would be demonstrations, strikes, sizeable events at least, in which these aspirations are expressed in a militant fashion. But there has been no expression of such Scottish "national" feelings for a very long time. No, in reality, these so-called "national" aspirations are no more, at most, than regionalist illusions fuelled by the demoralisation, possibly the despair generated by the crisis.

Should then revolutionaries confuse the issues by invoking an abstract, and irrelevant in that case, "right of nations to self-determination" in order to justify going along with these illusions? Have revolutionaries nothing to offer which answers these illusions? To say that Scottish workers want to see an end to the rot is one thing, but does it mean that they would want to live in a Scottish-only version of the same rot and profit drive, one which is likely in fact to be even worse, because of the relative dereliction of Scotland? Or is it that the revolutionaries who are so enthusiastic about the Scottish Parliament are themselves falling for the crude argument (no pun) of the SNP about the fact that Scotland is actually financing Britain with the North-Sea oil?

To draw a parallel between Scotland and the former Yugoslavia would be out of proportion, of course, in the present situation - although not necessarily all that much in the event of a deep economic and social crisis in Britain. But toying with alleged "national" feelings, even in the present conditions, is still giving a helping hand and ammunitions to reactionary forces who might seek to build a base of support for themselves on such a basis. What could be at stake today, for instance, is the risk of a more radical, future version of the SNP building on the disillusion of Scottish workers in order to turn them into footsoldiers for their own ambitions, by setting them against their own class in the rest of Britain. This could then undermine the future capacity of the British working class as a whole, and of its Scottish section in particular, to fight the battles which are necessary against the capitalist class and its system.

No amount of abstract argument - on the "right of nations" - or tactical considerations - choosing not to go against the stream - can justify revolutionaries failing their responsibilities by taking such a risk, instead of putting forward in front of the Scottish working class a clear class perspective.