No concession to nationalism
Jack Straw’s devolution plans need a workers’ response
THE PROVISIONAL Central Committee of the Communist Party has always had a clear, if relatively unelaborated, position on the national question in Britain - ie, nations and nationalities must have the right to self-determination.
However, our belief has been that the right to separate should not be exercised. The peoples of Scotland, Wales and England have long been fully integrated, and the British working class has a history of unity of organisation and action. To combat divisive nationalism, comrades in England should stress the right to self-determination, while those in Scotland and Wales should campaign for continued unity.
At a recent London seminar on the national question in Britain, several comrades proposed, in response to the upsurge of nationalism in Scotland, that the ‘elaboration’ should take the form of a break with past policy: they suggested that the Party should now advocate that the existing unitary state should be broken up into federal republics. In my view this represents a retreat from principle - a concession to nationalism, not a measured response to its growth.
We are of course already agreed that the monarchy must go. It would be smashed in a workers’ revolution if it had not already been reformed out of existence in favour of a bourgeois republic. So the argument is over a federal as opposed to a unitary state, not over the question of a republic. The republican demand can continue to be posed on an all-Britain basis.
In what sense would a demand for a federal assembly be fundamentally different from Labour’s devolution policy? We would have to be clear on what powers it would have, and would be in danger of merely setting out our preferred (bourgeois) constitution - a ‘lesser of two evils’ in effect.
Would the federalism replace the more general call for self-determination in our minimum platform? The minimum platform demands what workers need - a weekly income of at least £275, abortion on demand, etc. We need democratic rights, including the right of self-determination, the better to organise as we see fit, according to circumstances. But we do not need a separate bourgeois parliament for Scotland - it would not lead to improved living conditions for Scottish workers, nor further our aim of destroying the British bourgeois state.
Or should the federal republic be programmatic, providing the organisational basis of a future workers’ state? The revolution may well evolve in such a form, but we cannot tell at this stage how workers will decide to organise their own self-government. Posing the demand now can only aid the spread of nationalism, at a time when Scottish comrades ought to be uncompromising in their championing of workers’ unity. The ruling class is the enemy, not ‘the English’.
Is the republican break-up of the British state a prerequisite for the advance to socialism? This is certainly the position of the Republican Worker Tendency with its schema for a ‘republican road to communism’ (See Allan Armstrong’s article, Weekly Worker 102).
It was argued at the seminar that the original Act of Union was imposed on Scotland and should therefore be broken up to allow for voluntary unity to develop. This is like saying that, because the imposition of arranged marriages is undesirable, they can never lead to an eventual happy union.
Several comparisons were made with our position on Ireland. Comrades, the situation is totally different. British imperialism continues its long history of bloody oppression of the Irish through armed suppression of their rights. The imposition of an artificial border allowed imperialism, either directly or through its loyalist agents, to organise the Six Counties along apartheid lines - an arrangement which still holds on an informal basis today. The occupation by a foreign power of part of that country against the will of the Irish nation still applies. That is why our slogan has been, “For the IRA; against the British army”.
Are the Scots oppressed by the English in the same way? Of course not. Glasgow is just as much integrated into the British state as Manchester or Birmingham. Local organs of control are staffed overwhelmingly by Glaswegians: local councils, the police, the civil service, the courts are not run by ‘settlers’. Small businesses are largely locally owned and big business is controlled by transnational, not ‘English’ companies.
Yet, in the present period of reaction, when the ideas of communism have been discredited, nationalism has stepped in with its easy answers. ‘Get rid of the English,’ is the cry, ‘and Scottish oil can be used to improve the lives of workers.’ These false arguments must be met head on by Scottish comrades. We cannot counter them by ourselves adding to the call for separation.
If the call for independence becomes so all-embracing that separation appears inevitable then we should insist that the democratic right of the Scottish people must be honoured. A call for a federal republic might then be a way of starting the task of rebuilding workers’ unity. That situation is far from the case today, when our job must be to tell workers the truth: they will gain nothing from dividing our nationalities.