Scotland: Exeunt, stage left?

Would an independent Scotland provide a radical impetus for socialism? Chris Gray examines the claims

As readers will know, in the Scottish parliamentary elections of May 2011 the Scottish National Party won a working majority. The UK prime minister, David Cameron, and Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party, subsequently agreed that a referendum would be held on September 18 2014 to determine whether Scotland should remain part of the UK. How did all this come about?

Political journalist and author David Torrance sees the “turning point in the British general election of October 1974, when the SNP captured 30% of the vote, gaining 11 MPs”.1 In contrast, Chris Bambery - formerly of the Socialist Workers Party and now a leader of the International Socialist Group split from the SWP in Scotland - locates the Thatcher government as marking the period when the decisive change took place:

The Thatcher years were a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland. When she was first elected in 1979, there seemed no possibility of a Scottish parliament being achieved - support for the Scottish National Party had collapsed and the union seemed totally secure. Under Tory rule all changed utterly.

At the 1987 general election, the Tory share of the Scottish vote had fallen to 24% and they had lost 11 MPs, holding just 10 Westminster constituency seats … The Tories never won a majority in Scotland under Thatcher, and by the time she quit they were facing annihilation.2

He goes on to record: “In the 1997 Westminster general election, the Tories were wiped out north of the border. Because of the proportional representation system they were able to maintain a presence in the forthcoming Holyrood parliament, but only as a fringe party.”3 On balance, I think Bambery has it right.

Why, then, does the SNP argue that Scotland requires independence? Alex Salmond states, quite correctly, that Scotland is a nation and therefore has the right to determine its own fate: “… nations have a right to self-determination. [They] usually are better able to govern themselves, as opposed to let somebody else do it for them.”4 On the same basis Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister, believes Scots have the right to refuse what they see as misgovernment:

I simply do not believe that Scotland should have to put up with long periods of UK government led by a party we did not vote for. It is - surely - democratically indefensible that, although the Tories have never won a majority of votes or seats in Scotland in my entire lifetime - or even come anywhere close - they have nevertheless governed Scotland for more than half my lifetime.5

Coupled with this is the assertion that the available powers of devolved government do not adequately compensate for this disadvantage. Salmond argues:

… with devolution, we can create a social wage. But we cannot avoid the anti-social consequences of the UK’s austerity measures. With devolution, we can take steps to mitigate the impact of the UK government’s welfare reforms. But only with independence can we create a welfare system which makes work pay without reducing people to penury and despair. With devolution, in many key areas we can only lobby Westminster. With independence, we can deliver for Scotland.6

This has a certain plausibility, although it is not entirely clear how being independent could offset UK-generated austerity - especially if, as will surely be demanded, an independent Scotland is forced to take over the burden of the country’s proportionate share of UK government debt.

More benign

Resonating with Alex Salmond’s broadly ‘social democratic’ stance we find assertions to the effect that Scottish nationalism is essentially a more benign form than other specimens of that ilk. This idea in fact goes back at least as far as John MacLean (1879-1923), who, concluding that support for socialism was stronger in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, decided to found a Scottish Workers’ Republican Party.7

Several subsequent Scottish nationalists, especially those of a leftwing persuasion, have argued that, in effect, Scotland is special. (Actually, the members of every nation are special, but nationalists regard their own nation as more special than any other.) For example, Tommy Sheridan asserts:

“… Scotland … undoubtedly emerges as red and radical in relation to trade unionism and support for socialist ideas. Such a conclusion does not indicate that individual Scottish citizens are more acutely predisposed to socialist, radical or progressive ideas than English citizens; it is merely that Scotland’s size, culture, tradition and working class history fuse to produce a positive environment for such ideas to flourish and, within the new Scottish political system, find positive expression in growing support for radical forces such as the [Scottish Socialist Party], the Greens and the independents.”8

Chris Bambery argues along similar lines:

Scots are more likely to identify themselves as working class and to support policies that aim to redistribute wealth from top to bottom. In many ways, that’s not different from working people in the north of England, who also do not vote for Tory governments …

[However,] two-thirds of Scots regard themselves as working class, and the Scottish Election Survey in 2007 found that those who identified as working class saw themselves as more Scottish than the middle class did, reinforcing the politics of class and nation.”9

Both these authors are following in the footsteps of former Scottish Labour MP Jim Sillars, who eventually ended up in the SNP. He declared:

What is emerging is an active and progressive nationalism, not ugly, not born of a desire to do down anyone else, with a wish to free the energies and attributes of the Scottish people so that they can engage not only on the reconstruction of our own society, but on the problems that keep the vast mass of humanity in a miserable existence.”10

Well, he would say that, no doubt, wouldn’t he, given his own efforts to promote just that sort of ‘internationalist nationalism’? But Sillars gave this position his own special twist, arguing that, “As the European Community develops and extends its influence on policy, it is essential that Scotland has a seat at its top table, where issues are considered and policy decisions made.”11

Sillars envisages a special role for Scotland in this regard:

We can reinforce the cause of the small nations and the autonomous groups inside Europe and start a movement designed to force the institutions to be more open and receptive, recognising the legitimacy of the decentralist case.

There is a lack of leadership among Europe’s small nations. Too often they readily allow the larger units to dictate the agenda and point the direction for future development. I see a leadership role for Scotland within the community, leading the coalition of the small against the large - and winning.”12

This would be plausible if it were certain that a Scots government would definitely play a leftwing role in reforming the European Union, but it is, alas, far from certain that we shall get this kind of Scottish government.

Sillars’ latest literary contribution to the debate - while including some useful additional proposals, such as a land value tax to replace council tax and business rates - does not add substantially to his position.13 Running through the argument is an assumption that any rejection of independence will merely entail a repetition of the existing set-up. This is asserted, but nowhere proved. Very likely a call to merely reform the union would not have the necessary purchase, but that is not to say that a focus on European reform might not spark the necessary movement.


Mick Hume and Derek Owen discuss this kind of approach in detail in their 1988 book,14 but, before considering what they have to say, let us review some other recent leftwing contributions to the debate.

For example, Colin Fox, writing in the Morning Star, asks:

So what are the perceived advantages of independence for working class Scots? The list is a long one. There would be no measures like the hated bedroom tax here after independence, no privatisation of Royal Mail, no more poll tax experimentation, no more blaming immigrants and claimants for an economic crisis caused by City bankers, no more Trident nuclear missiles stationed on the Clyde, no more Scottish soldiers sent to die in Iraq or Afghanistan and above all no more hated Tory governments. Scotland would, according to the latest OECD reports, be the eighth richest country in the world.15

James Foley and Pete Ramand take a similar line. They very much look forward to Scotland’s departure from the UK:

We are excited by the prospect of breaking up Britain. A ‘yes’ vote would close a dark chapter of Scottish history, and force all UK nations to confront our colonial past. It would end the fantasy of holding Europe down with nuclear force, rather than diplomacy. And it would weaken, beyond redemption, one of the most reactionary client regimes in world affairs. As internationalists, we welcome these prospects, and wish to persuade others across Britain that Scottish independence is the first step towards changing our unjust society.”16

Readers will appreciate that this passage is long on rhetoric and short on ratiocination: how would a Scottish breakaway force us to confront our colonial past? UK Independence Party supporters would certainly continue to ignore the dark side of empire, and why should others be stimulated into questioning it by Scotland’s departure? And what is this about holding down Europe by nuclear force as opposed to diplomacy? Don’t the various treaties that constitute the European Union enshrine diplomacy as a mode of international social control as much as nuclear weaponry? And why should the most reactionary UK be weakened “beyond redemption” by a Scottish vote for independence? Could not the UK even then reinvent itself? (Admittedly, it would be easier to do this effectively if it was not a kingdom).

No matter. Once we Scots are ‘oot o’ the door’, great progress can be made. Here the lure of the ‘Nordic model’ (Scandinavian-style social democracy) beckons.17 It will indeed be possible to go further. Foley and Ramand are enthusiastic about participatory democracy in Brazil:

Porto Alegre in Brazil has run a powerful experiment in participatory budgeting. Since the late 1980s, under the rule of the left-of-centre Workers Party (PT), spending decisions in the city have been made by neighbourhood assemblies. Thousands of citizens, rich and poor, take part in two dozen annual assemblies, where residents debate and vote for funding priorities, and choose representatives who meet weekly to carry out the wishes of the community. They could resolve, for instance, whether to prioritise fixing a road, building a bridge, or setting up a cooperative day care centre … Similar experiments have been carried out in Venezuela, Ecuador and India.18

Foley and Ramand argue for the extension of this principle into private economic enterprises: “Scotland should give workers the legal right to veto management decisions by a simple majority vote, and allow workers to assume control over companies as cooperatives.”19

In fact more can be expected from a progressive Scottish state:

Caroline Lucas MP … has led calls for a ‘green new deal’. This would involve £50 billion government spending on green technology over five years, including building green council housing to stop another round of booming house-price inflation. A ‘carbon army’ would be trained to insulate homes, which would slash fuel and energy costs for the poorest in society.20

How would such a radical/socialist-inclined Scotland deal with internal and external opposition to this project? Foley and Ramand quite rightly point to the need for “strong capital controls and restrictions on finance”.21 They believe the example of Cuba shows that the battle to survive as an independent state could be won in these circumstances. Unfortunately, they do not elaborate, beyond assuring us of the necessity to build “broad extra-parliamentary social movements”.22 That such movements would be necessary is undeniable, but what are the full lessons of the Cuban experience in this area? We are not instructed as to these.

All this is very appealing, but it is presented as a uniquely Scottish enterprise - indeed a version of ‘socialism in one country’ (‘really existing’). Alas, the authors will probably not succeed in convincing a majority of their compatriots to support them: the likely beneficiaries of a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum will almost certainly be the SNP, and there’s the rub.


The SNP deploys a degree of similar rhetoric to its leftwing rivals - eg, in relation to a new Scottish constitution - but its economic perspectives are doggedly pro-capitalist: this allegiance inevitably limits its ability to deliver what working class people in Scotland want in terms of improved living standards and rights.

Whatever else Alex Salmond might be, he is undoubtedly a shrewd politician, and such a proclivity encourages a degree of opportunism which we have already seen demonstrated.23 A notable instance is his continued close relationship with Rupert Murdoch, which seems to have survived the recent News of the World phone-hacking revelations. David Torrance reports that “even after the Milly Dowler hacking scandal prompted Murdoch to close down the News of the World, Salmond invited [Murdoch] to Bute House for tea, and played down the resulting Leveson inquiry in the first edition of the Scottish Sun on Sunday.”24

However, it is not so much the company he keeps and speaks up for that fosters mistrust but the proposals for increasing the economic leverage of an independent Scotland within the framework of the EU. A major plank of SNP policy is the proposal to operate an independently set rate of corporation tax, once independence is achieved. Iain Maclean and his co-authors offer useful information on this:

[Corporation tax] produces about 7% of Scottish tax revenue, but the debate has been principally about using it to promote economic growth. The comparison is made with Ireland, which has for many years had low corporation tax, to attract international companies. Much of the tax revenue which accrues to Ireland might otherwise have been collected in other countries. Companies will register their businesses in Ireland, and book profits there, even if associated economic activity is elsewhere. The Microsoft Corporation operates its worldwide business from centres in three low tax jurisdictions - Ireland, Puerto Rico and Singapore. These reduce its effective tax rate to 17.5% ... This tax reduction was entirely legal, and was facilitated by having different corporate tax rates in different countries.

A low rate of corporation tax can encourage companies to set up or relocate and, together with other policies, be used to try to promote economic growth. To take advantage of it, however, all that the company has to relocate is its taxable profit. This is relatively easy to do through accounting devices, so that profit is recognised in the lowest tax jurisdiction in which the company operates. If Scotland were able to set a lower corporation tax rate than the rest of the UK, companies might be attracted to set up businesses in Scotland. There would also however be a strong incentive for them simply to recognise their profits in a company registered there, even if no economic activity were relocated in Scotland. The net result might be extra tax revenue in Scotland, but not as much as had been lost to the rest of the UK. It was this risk that led the Calman Commission to recommend against devolving corporation tax.25

However, Gavin McCrone suggests an independent Scotland might well ruffle the feathers of other EU countries if it attempted to go down this road.26

The corporation tax issue illustrates the potentially malign effect of an SNP referendum victory, leading to the emergence of yet another state entity within the EU (or outside), and a further move towards the Balkanisation of the continent, as transnational companies play off the various tax-raising regimes and promote a race to the bottom in the interests of profit maximisation, as opposed to welfare. Instead of a plethora of corporation tax rates within the EU, we really need one uniform rate, with the tax paid to a federal government responsible to the EU parliament, which would then be able to use the proceeds for the benefit of the less well advantaged areas and less well off individuals on the continent. But none of this features in the SNP’s vision, or in the book by comrades Foley and Ramand, who, in this respect, fall short of the benchmark made earlier by Jim Sillars.

Link arms

Mick Hume and Derek Owen advanced a superior position many years ago: in the course of a historical investigation of Scottish radicalism they correctly stated that “Workers from the militant areas need to mobilise support from more moderate workers elsewhere.”27

The conclusion drawn by them was: “Our analysis of Scotland’s economic crisis points towards the necessity to challenge British capitalism, and its strongest defender, the British state. To do that effectively, Scottish workers will have to link arms with the working class in England.”28 This would involve rejecting the nationalism of the SNP29 and means that a focus on the UK and the EU is required, even if Scots have every right to proclaim themselves independent and to expect the rest of us to respect such independence should they choose to claim it.

It seems appropriate that another Scottish socialist should have the last word:

The socialist revolution is a global event. As long as it remains isolated, it remains susceptible to counterrevolution, either from without or from within. That is why the international nature of the socialist revolution is a necessity, not a desirable or optional extra. Space has implications for time. ‘Socialism in one country’ was impossible in Russia; it will not be any more possible in Scotland. It will either have to be joined by revolutions elsewhere in the UK [and further afield - CG] or be crushed by internal or external reaction30


1. D Torrance The battle for Britain: Scotland and the independence referendum London 2013, p188.

2. C Bambery A people’s history of Scotland London 2014, p270.

3. Ibid p291.

4. Quoted by D Torrance The battle for Britain: Scotland and the independence referendum London 2013, p185.

5. Ibid p190.

6. Ibid p160.

7. See C Bambery A people’s history of Scotland London 2014, p162.

8. Foreword to G Gall The political economy of Scotland Cardiff 2005, pxii.

9. C Bambery A people’s history of Scotland London 2014, p305.

10. J Sillars Scotland: the case for optimism Edinburgh 1986, p95. See also p156.

11. Ibid p188.

12. Ibid p191.

13. J Sillars In place of fear II: a socialist programme for an independent Scotland Glasgow 2014.

14. M Hume and D Owen Is there a Scottish solution? London 1988, pp39-78.

15. Morning Star February 11 2014.

16. J Foley and P Ramand Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence London 2014, p13.

17. Ibid p63.

18. EO Wright Envisioning real utopias London 2010, p99.

19. J Foley and P Ramand Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence London 2014, p116.

20. Ibid pp102-03.

21. Ibid p107.

22. Ibid p108.

23. See ibid p75.

24. D Torrance The battle for Britain: Scotland and the independence referendum London 2013, p211.

25. I Maclean, J Gallagher and G Lodge Scotland’s choices: the referendum and what happens afterwards Edinburgh 2013, p81.

26. G McCrone Scottish independence: weighing up the economics Edinburgh 2013, pp37-38.

27. M Hume and D Owen Is there a Scottish solution? London 1988, p76.

28. Ibid p96. See also p125.

29. See ibid p102.

30. N Davidson, ‘Is there a Scottish road to socialism?’, in G Gall (ed) Is there a Scottish road to socialism? Glasgow 2007, pp126-27.