Nationalist solutions are illusory solutions

Eyes on exits

Paul Demarty examines the rising support for independence, and the tasks of the internationalist left

Eyebrows are being raised among the British bourgeoisie following the results of a recent opinion poll on the question of Scottish independence.

In what must be the least shocking shock poll result in modern history, Ipsos Mori discovered the highest support for independence ever recorded: 58% said they would vote Yes if a new referendum were held tomorrow, while 64% agreed that there should be a new poll within five years. A crushing victory for pro-independence parties is expected when the Scots go to the polls in the Holyrood elections next May.

Partly, of course, this is a function of the immediate news cycle. Though devolution shields Scotland somewhat from the staggering incompetence of Boris Johnson’s government in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, the fact that Westminster is embroiled in warfare with various other devolved bodies in England is an uncomfortable reminder of the increasingly top-heavy structure of power in Britain. (Even London itself is viewed with suspicion in the Johnson-Cummings bunker, though Sadiq Khan caved in more readily to lockdown diktat than the Labour mayors of the north-west.) Since Scotland has benefited from its devolved room for manoeuvre on this point, naturally its citizens will wonder where else there are gains to be made, if only Westminster was robbed of all its direct control of the country. There is also the matter of Brexit - a great Tory misadventure opposed by a large majority of Scots but imposed on them anyway by English votes.

The truth is that support for independence and pro-independence parties - critically the Scottish National Party - has been riding high fairly consistently since the 2014 referendum. It is usual nowadays for establishment politicians and liberal types to scold Johnson and other Tory Brexiteers for putting ‘our precious union’ at risk. It was not him, however, but David Cameron - his slick yuppie predecessor - who promised vast concessions to Scottish voters in return for a ‘No’ vote, before immediately pivoting towards English national chauvinism (the West Lothian question and all that), inflaming national sentiment north of the border still further. It is one thing to win the war, as they say, and quite another to win the peace. He only needed to make those concessions because the ‘No’ campaign had been so dismally arrogant. The result was that an initial opinion polling lead of 10-20 points was sensationally overturned as polling day loomed.

Johnson’s innovation in Tory politics is to barely bother to pretend he cares about this ‘precious union’; Theresa May - the luckless premier who separated Cameron and Johnson in this shambolic period of British Tory government - seems really to have believed that the integrity of the United Kingdom (particularly in regard to the Six Counties) was a trump card among her party colleagues, but was taught a rude lesson by the Johnson-Cummings axis. The latter have at least sniffed the air accurately - among Tory voters, Brexit is a far higher priority, and Scotland would be a small price to pay for getting rid of Brussels. So long as the Trident submarines can be relocated in good order and the rest of the UK can negotiate the continuation of its security council seat, we rather suspect that a lot of Tory MPs would feel better to be rid of a nation that has been tendentially hostile to the Conservatives for several decades.

The only obstacle to Scottish independence, at this point, is paradoxically its popularity. After all, Scotland does not have the right to call a referendum, or to secede from the UK ad libitum. With polling numbers as they are - the unionists would be absolutely crushed - this fact makes it rather less likely that Westminster is going to agree to a rematch. Johnson may not care overmuch about the future of the union, but electoral humiliation is never a good thing for the sort of swaggering, virile leader he aspires to be.

Depending on how next year’s Holyrood elections go, he may not be able to hold the tide back (and if, as is often alleged in the press, Johnson is eyeing the exits anyway, that will be a problem for his successor). Alongside the SNP and Greens, various other factions are lining up to grab a few seats in the proportional part of the complex Scottish electoral system. The SNP may even look favourably on such ‘challengers’, having gotten tangled up in the constitutional niceties of Holyrood elections last time round: so overwhelming was the nationalist victory in the constituencies that it ended up costing them seats from the ‘proportional’ allocation, by a weird mathematical quirk. One such spill-over ticket, Action for Independence, carries the added bonus for experienced left trainspotters of the presence of one Tommy Sheridan, the disgraced former MSP who now spends his time spreading Novichok conspiracy theories for the Russian news outlet Sputnik.

The left

The question arises, more forcefully now, as to how strong the case for independence is. We must look at this from the perspective of both the bourgeoisie and the left, since it is simply a matter of fact that the left in Scotland has overwhelmingly taken a pro-independence line, albeit in fits and starts, over the last three decades.

From the point of view of the SNP’s bourgeois separatism - aiming at an independent, but cosmopolitan, capitalist Scotland with close economic ties with the rest of the UK, together with EU membership - both the strengths and the weaknesses of the case have been accentuated in the last six years. Despite a limited Tory revival, the political culture of Scotland has diverged sharply from that of England and Wales - 25% of Scottish voters voted Tory last time out, compared to 47% of English voters; in a near mirror image, the SNP got 45% of the vote in Scotland. The 2015 nationalist wave, in other words, turns out not to be a one-off. Nationalist dominance can become self-fulfilling; a UK-wide parliament, whose electoral process produces a vast Tory majority at the same time as it hands over 80% of Scottish seats to the Nats, must necessarily raise questions of democratic legitimacy. The Tories, meanwhile, are drifting in the direction of the far right, which increases the probability of chauvinist provocations (the recent Catalonian crisis is an alarming example of where that can lead).

On the other hand, we should recall the offer made by Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and co to Scottish voters in 2014. An independent Scotland would maintain the pound sterling as its currency (not to mention the UK queen as its monarch). It would retain its EU citizenship, and the lion’s share of North Sea oil revenues. It would, in short, be not only a historic step towards ‘national freedom’, but also so smooth that you might barely notice anything other than the hangover after polling night.

Those promises smacked a little of wishful thinking at the time; but it is now surely the case that Scotland will be out of the EU, along with the rest of us, before it is out of the UK, and presumably will not be readmitted without complicated negotiations. It will thus be more dependent, by and by, on keeping good relations with the rump UK, which presumably means that Johnson or his successor will be able to drive a very hard bargain on things like North Sea oil. More broadly, Scotland will be born as an economically and militarily trivial independent power at a moment of chaotic realignment in global politics. In other words, it is, from the point of view of the Scottish elite, a far riskier proposition now even than it was then.

Pragmatic questions of this sort are less relevant with respect to the left, which abandoned realism along with any residual sense that socialism in one country - even a country as resource-rich and agriculturally self-sufficient as Russia was a century ago, never mind a minnow like Scotland - might not be a good idea. The Scottish left, in its nationalist senility, has adopted a perspective discreetly abandoned in public by first-rank SNP politicians: that Scotland is the victim of centuries of national oppression. The question of who gets the oil and what trade arrangements can be arranged quickly enough naturally fall into soft focus, since, even if nothing can be done, the question of overturning such awful oppression remains. As for Milton’s Satan, it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

If this story were true, of course, the politics of Scottish independence might have looked a little like those of Irish nationalism in the 19th century: it was impossible to imagine the Irish masses coming to solidarity with British workers without the latter making a gesture of good faith and backing Irish national aspirations against their own rulers. The idea of Scottish national oppression is, however, historically risible, and frankly insulting to the millions of actual colonial subjects lorded over by an intimate coalition of Scots and English administrators for several centuries. The rise of Scottish nationalism tracks not the intensification of British imperialism, but its collapse (with necessarily devastating consequences for industries like shipbuilding - not unimportant in the great Scottish cities), and - despite the ‘remainism’ of Scottish voters - has far more in common with English Brexitism than it would like to admit. There is no ‘progressive’ nationalism, because there is no possibility of socialism within a single country: there are only alternative strategies to break the working class from national sectionalism of various types.

In that connection, the fact remains that there clearly is a national question for Scotland (and for Wales, as well as at least two in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland). From that perspective, it is the duty of British workers everywhere to fight for real self-determination. That means that it ought not to be the prerogative of the crown to permit independence plebiscites; indeed, it means that referenda ought not to be necessary, and such matters should devolve to the national legislatures by a simple vote of representatives. A coalition of parties that favour independence ought to just be able to declare it, without engaging in a demeaning kabuki dance with Westminster.

Invisible to a left increasingly terrified of nuance is the fact that self-determination does not equal independence. The only chance of a decent future for humanity - any future at all, it seems sometimes - is the unity of the working class internationally, and the establishment of its rule in strong polities that can realistically survive imperialist revenge. Britain is not such a polity, never mind Scotland; one may as well declare a soviet republic in Glenrothes. Instead of trying to split apart the historically constituted British working class, we ought to have been reaching outwards; the opposite path was taken, and the poison of nationalism therefore spreads further.

Nevertheless, in order to overcome growing nationalism and move towards working class unity, it is the duty of Marxists in England in particular to stress the right of the Scots and Welsh to self-determination. Meanwhile, it is the duty of their comrades in Scotland and Wales to campaign for continued unity across Britain. Both should demand a democratic federal republic, with the right of Scotland and Wales to secede, as the means of overcoming separatism and building unity.

A federal republic, rather than a top-down constitutional union, has a chance of drawing the poison - but not if the left retains its current credulous attitude to separatism.