Spoilt vote?

The debate between Sandy McBurney (Letters, July 3) and Jack Conrad (‘Sinking loyalism and lifeboat nationalism’, June 26) on the Scottish referendum is welcome because it raises the question of how Marxists can contribute to an understanding of nationalism and how to defeat it.

Marxists oppose contemporary nationalism - the popular doctrine that people with a shared language or culture should form separate national states - on the grounds that it is a form of cross-class alliance. This alliance is formed between small business people, sections of the intelligentsia and part of the unemployed masses. It attempts to draw into its influence both capitalists and workers.

Nationalism within a declining capitalism is of a different nature than during its ascendant phase. In the 19th century, nationalism destroyed feudal relations that held back workers’ movements towards socialism. In a post-Stalinist world, nationalism is no longer progressive. It is part of a panoply of controls over workers. These have the potential to bring into being barbarism. For example, there are no instances of struggles for national liberation within the last 70 years that have advanced the struggle for socialism. On the contrary, they have retarded or actively destroyed it.

Stalinism - the doctrine that proclaims it is possible to build socialism in one country - is the key to understanding this historical difference. Stalinism grew out of the nationalisation of the Soviet economy. Its apologists and fellow travellers supported nationalisation and the extension of the public sector wherever they had influence. The public sector created a large social group of educated workers who see their interests as lying with the state. It is a section of this intelligentsia in the arts, education, health, housing and social care who now see nationalism as more congenial than Labourism to the progress of their interests in Scotland.

This group is pushing for demands for increased social provision, higher wages and better conditions for the unemployed in an independent Scotland. This is the bargain they have made with Scottish capitalism in return for mobilising the working class for secession. Its leadership is now coopted within the nationalist project.

How likely is it that there will be concessions? As Sandy McBurney has pointed out, the Scottish ruling class is committed to policies of austerity. The chances they would reflate the economy and reintroduce full employment and an expansion of expenditure on the welfare state are therefore small. In which case, any hoped for upsurge of working class activism would be met with repression.

If English nationalism were to grow in reaction to independence (and the rest of the UK leaving Europe), it is possible to imagine border controls and the consequent demands of ‘Scottish jobs for Scottish workers’ (and ‘English jobs for English workers’). Discrimination and prejudice would intensify as a result.

Some Marxists opposed to independence are calling for a boycott or for spoiling ballot papers. But what about calling for a ‘no’ vote? Jack Conrad thinks a negative vote is incompatible with Marxism. He describes socialists and communists calling for this vote as “left loyalists”.

He is correct to suggest that some of their arguments are conservative and have been used to support Labourism. For example, the ideas that Scottish and English workers have more in common than their employers; that immigration controls should be abolished; and that the British state needs to be overthrown - not broken up - are under attack. These old ideas have yet to be winkled out their Labourist shells. Loyalty to them forms part of what Sandy McBurney calls the “rearming of the labour movement”. Presently, they require preservation, reiteration and rethinking as part of a transnational democratic movement for a United Socialist States of Europe and against austerity, disintegration and division.

Moreover, a negative vote does not entail loyalty to the crown, the Protestant settlement or the British armed forces. Indeed, apart from breaking up the latter, membership of the Scottish National Party is consistent with a commitment to strengthening both the monarchy and the established Protestant church in Scotland. Opposition to independence does not mean a commitment to loyalism in the above sense.

Jack Conrad suggests that Marxists should raise the demand for a federal republic. Abolition of monarchical forms of government and the nationalisation of the land are some of the first measures a workers’ government would implement. However, in a contemporary context, republicanism appears to support those left nationalists who argue that socialism in Scotland will come into being through a series of stages - first, independence; second, a republic; and, third, socialism. The federal republic demand coincides with the second stage and is inconsistent with the CPGB’s criticism of ‘halfway houses’. In addition, Steve Freeman has intimated that Marxists who characterise Scottish republicanism as a form of nationalism are secret agents of the British state (Letters, July 10). The latter suggestion is intended to scare people into supporting a ‘yes’ vote.

Finally, spoiling ballot papers on the grounds that the forces on both sides are divisive is as valid a form of abstention as a boycott. A boycott implies that the calling of the referendum is in itself reactionary. It implies that referenda are modes of democracy that would not be used in a socialist society. In which case, we need to start preparing for a boycott of the 2017 referendum on Europe. We need to be discussing now with our European comrades whether a boycott - rather than a ‘yes’ vote - is the best way of developing class-consciousness on a European scale.

Paul B Smith

Scots knots

Steve Freeman ties himself in yet more knots in his most recent letter. He expresses deep regret that no-one, and certainly not I, takes much notice of his incongruous use of ‘arguments’ in favour of a ‘Scottish republic’ when he is arguing for ‘yes’ vote support for Alex Salmond’s referendum for Scottish independence.

Sorry to be pedantic, Steve, but there is no option for a Scottish republic on the ballot paper. Nor is it one of the so-called ‘unwritten questions’ either. The SNP has made it clear that a vote for separation from the UK does not mean abolishing the role of Elizabeth Windsor as Scotland’s head of state. There will be no republic. If Steve were serious about this republicanism, he would surely be seeking a price higher than gratis for his support for this creation of a new state! Some kind of commitment to republicanism, perhaps? Otherwise what is he doing voting to create a new monarchist imperialist state? Isn’t one enough to deal with?

Steve also objects very strongly to being accused of “dog-whistling” against leftwing opponents of Scottish separation, of putting about implicitly xenophobic smears. He objects that they are not smears, but “allegations”. As for their implicitly xenophobic content, he does not even bother to deny this, but instead makes a feeble joke about “dog-whistling”, pretending not to understand the term as embodying coded hostility to ‘foreigners’, whether of English or other origin, who may not fall into line behind a nationalist project.

In commenting about the “dark side” of the English ruling class (as opposed to the very light-sided Scottish ruling class), Steve speculates about the role of state agencies, such as MI5, and reactionaries, defined by the Irish question, such as the Orange Order, in mobilising against Salmond’s new bourgeois monarchy. It is certainly not unlikely that MI5, or at least elements of it, will engage in hostile activity to this, though not on the basis of fundamental class interest; rather of bureaucratic convenience.

As for the Orange Order, their main function here seems to be to give indirect cover to the pro-Nato, pro-monarchy SNP, by allowing the partisans of the lion rampant and the saltire to use the Irish tricolour for camouflage. As indeed does Steve Freeman in mentioning this ‘little matter’ of Salmond’s lesser kingdom in the same breath as the miners’ strike and the Irish struggle. What do they have in common with such historic working class and anti-imperialist struggles? Nothing!

Steve seems to think that George Galloway has changed politically since he stood up to imperialism over Iraq. Not so. At the time he was being expelled from Labour for calling for armed Arab resistance to Bush and Blair, he was just as outspoken an opponent of Scottish nationalism as he is now - to his credit in both cases, whatever his other political flaws. His views and activities about imperialism have not discernibly changed either.

Maybe if the SNP were the anti-imperialists Steve seems to think they are they would put into practice some of the spirit of Galloway’s stand over Iraq and promise to use their hoped-for state power to send modern weapons to the Palestinians to even the score in the one-sided slaughter the Israelis are inflicting.

But there is zero chance of this; the SNP’s verbal support for Palestinian rights will go the same way as their past opposition to Nato and their one-time demand for a referendum on breaking ties with the British monarchy. Like the Liberal Democrats in England - another bourgeois party that adopted left-sounding positions when power seemed far away - such talk is meaningless once it gets a chance to govern an imperialist state. And Steve Freeman, for all his misleading attempts to wrap Scottish nationalism in the flag of the Irish struggle, does not dispute my contention that Salmond’s lesser kingdom will also be just as imperialist as the current UK state.

Contrary to economistic socialists like Sandy McBurney, there is a genuine Scottish national question. It is not simply about ‘selfishness’ and keeping North Sea oil for Scots only, as he asserted recently. Though this was the genesis of the dispute between the Scottish ruling class and the English, the consequent loss of conventional Tory support in Scotland gave British Tory governments the opportunity to use Scottish workers as guinea pigs for anti-working class measures later used in England. The result being a form of left nationalism gaining a degree of support in the working class based on social democratic rhetoric from the nationalists, when for a whole period Labour retreated from social democratic ideology itself.

This is hardly a deep division in the working class as yet, though the bulk of the Scottish left has capitulated to it as readily as the bulk of the British left capitulates to Labourism and imperialism. But it does open up the possibility of a split in the historically constituted working class movement on this island that would represent a further, serious defeat for workers on either side of the border. In such circumstances, the ‘left’ credentials of Scottish nationalism would disappear as quickly as those of the Lib Dems in Westminster.

It does mean there is a real national question to be addressed - and the demand for a federal republic does indeed address this - with the strategic aim of strengthening working class unity on the basis of struggle. But those, like Steve Freeman, who have capitulated to nationalism and seek to paint Salmond’s referendum in anti-imperialist and republican colours, are as hostile to this from their own ‘left’ chauvinist standpoint as the more conventional Labourists and social-imperialists.

Ian Donovan

Striker's diary

BBC radio news bulletins on July 10 seemed to slip from saying a million would be out to saying hundreds of thousands while I was getting up for an early start on the picket line - had Coulson’s successor got to them?

I wore my Unison tabard on my (earlier than usual) way into work, just to emphasise to the public that class-conscious striking workers do not take a strike day as unpaid annual leave, but regard striking as a job in itself.

Our picket of the town hall in a (not desperately militant) London borough succeeded in arguing one person into striking who had not intended to, and most of those working did take leaflets from us - though one colleague seemed to think that saying that he liked me personally ought to stop me from attempting to engage him politically as he crossed the picket line. I gather we closed some buildings in the borough and I think that my increasing visibility recently as a Weekly Worker reader may have contributed to a stronger turnout among my immediate colleagues than in the last strike, with a lot of managers having to do frontline cover. I engaged one person on the picket in a discussion on wider working class strategy, saying I was a supporter of the CPGB/Weekly Worker and outlining some party positions: she took the WW I had about my person.

On the way to the central London march, we heard rumours that Oxford Circus tube station had been closed and had a quite unnecessary ideological split with comrades in our local National Union of Teachers branch on how therefore to get to Portland Place, going literally our separate ways. The march seemed lacking in energy and what I heard of the speeches was full of vaguely inspiring, but politically ineffectual, reformist sloganising.

Finally, a couple of hours in the pub at the branch’s expense, where I tried in vain to raise the level of political discussion, and then home to hear on the news that ‘red’ Ed had not supported the strike, though even the BBC were saying one in five schools had been closed. A very mixed day of ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself.’

Tony Rees


Paul Demarty’s remarks on ‘privilege theory’ (‘Treating people like toy soldiers results in frivolous politics’, July 10) reminded me of a case where we can clearly distinguish a moralistic approach from a social institutional one: namely, that of Jimmy Savile.

The received wisdom in the Savile case is that ‘victims were not believed’, the problem being that young people spoke about his rape and abuse, but their immediate elders - parents, head nurses and TV producers - couldn’t bring themselves to believe it. These individuals had the wrong attitude (while the rest of us were ‘guilty’ of being taken in). The state is currently making enthusiastic efforts to compensate for ‘our’ failure with new laws and the police pursuing every last suspect TV star.

But in fact most victims of Savile didn’t speak out: they kept quiet; they knew he was protected. After all, he was the respectable face of youth culture - top DJ, presenter of youth radio and family TV, friend to prince Charles and prime minister Margaret Thatcher, marathon runner for charity, the face and voice of public service ads for car safety and the then nationalised British Rail: the long hair of which the establishment approved.

He got away with his long list of assaults because of his status: he combined pop with British altruism - a role-model for youth at the height of the welfare state; ‘fun’, fit and northern without the excesses of a Keith Richard or the Bolshiness of a John Lennon. He didn’t get this privilege by being born white, male and well-off. In fact he suffered pneumonia as a child in Leeds and spinal injuries working in the mines during World War II.

I don’t know why he abused so many, but I know why he had so much opportunity: his position in a class society which increasingly relied on the illusion of social advancement by celebrities who could be trusted to keep their mouths shut about politics - a silence complemented by the silence of their victims; in Savile’s case, girls and boys.

Rather than concentrate on condemning one individual’s attitude to another, we should attend to institutions, because it’s people with the most social power - bosses, adult relatives, priests and officials of all kinds - who abuse the most.

Mike Belbin


I plead ‘guilty’ to submitting letters regularly to the Weekly Worker - a ‘crime’ I do believe Andrew Northall (Letters, July 10) shares with me. I fully appreciate the paper’s editorial practice to encourage the expression of a diversity of opinion and, hopefully, in some debates, I have made a worthwhile contribution. Nor have I been reticent in linking to Weekly Worker articles on the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s discussion lists when I recognise their value to our own debates.

I do not speak on behalf of my party, but as a member of it, hopefully expressing its views accurately. I see no good reason why the Weekly Worker should not indicate that I am a member of the SPGB on those occasions I do not sign off as such. It is not something I am ashamed of or desire to conceal.

Andrew is correct that on one occasion the fact I do write as an individual has resulted in disagreement with fellow members who did not share my views and he himself was not slow in drawing this to your readers’ attention in a letter to the Weekly Worker, having spotted the exchanges on our internal (but open to public viewing) discussion list. This led to one SPGB member writing to the paper to disassociate his interpretation of our party’s case from mine. If there has been any more controversy caused within the SPGB because of my letters to the Weekly Worker, they have passed me by.

Perhaps, in future I should, as many trade unionists do, add the caveat, ‘SPGB (in a personal capacity)’!

Alan Johnstone

No expulsions

In response to Andrew Northall, the day the SPGB expels or otherwise restricts members for openly arguing for opinions only held by a minority of members is the day the SPGB becomes a ‘democratic centralist’ party.

Other than those opinions contradicting the declaration of principles that are agreed upon joining, expulsion is something the SPGB conferences have always rejected. SPGB members can openly disagree and argue for different positions (even after majority decisions) without threat of expulsion.

Jon D White