SCOTLAND SUPPLEMENT II - A joint oppressor
Left nationalists are in thrall to a bogus history, argues Jack Conrad. Scotland was not subject to an English takeover with the 1707 Act of Union. Nor does Scotland suffer from English cultural imperialism
Europe’s first nations had an embryonic existence, which for the sake of neatness is usually dated back to the 13th and 14th centuries. Here we have fertilisation, eg, Geoffrey Chaucer and his use of Middle English in works such as Tales of Caunterbury (1400). At the time the prestigious languages in England were Norman-French and Latin. Chaucer’s Middle English reflected the growing importance of market relations: ie, circulation, and the rise of capitalism. He was the first author of standing to use many common English phrases and words: ‘add’, ‘agree’, ‘desk’, ‘dishonest’, etc. Because of the printing press, by the early 16th century, his writings gained a mass audience amongst the educated minority. All part of a wider process of establishing and disseminating a standard English.
John Barbour did something similar with his verse romance The Brus (The Bruce). He led the way for vernacular Scots gaining a social standing. Similar examples can be cited from other parts of Europe. Jacob van Maerlant’s rhyming world chronicle, Spieghel historial, is in Middle Dutch. Dante Alighieri argued for the promotion of a vernacular literature and his Divine comedy (1320) helped establish Tuscan as the standard written form of Italian. So, a definite trend.
The middling sort could thereby mobilise a mass political movement by speaking in a common language … and appealing to common interests. The stunning success of the United Provinces, then the English Commonwealth (followed by the 1688 Glorious Revolution and parliamentary sovereignty) was the clincher. Others sought to follow, imitate, compete. America’s Federalists, the Jacobins, the United Irishmen, each wanted to found their own nation-state.
Certainly, since the 1789 French Revolution, the nation has served the bourgeoisie as the prime ideological means of securing popular support. In his influential book, Benedict Anderson testifies to the extraordinary power of this modern invention:
Dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a political grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival, for these are all bodies one can join and leave at easy will.1
Yet, as shown by the 1848 revolutions, the springtime of the peoples, the growth of national consciousness allowed the popular classes to begin to act in their own interests on a hitherto unprecedented scale: eg, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Austria and Hungary. In the Communist manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had already announced the arrival of communism as “itself a power” - thrown back, for the moment by a combination of social democratic counterrevolutionary betrayal, Stalinite counterrevolution within the revolution and then counterrevolution within the counterrevolution.2
Nations are indisputably the product of history, but they are also the product of the telling and retelling of history. Every country nowadays has its carefully manufactured narrative. Universities once exclusively taught the classics, metaphysics and the lives of the saints. Now entire departments are devoted to national history. Through the intellectual efforts of professional historians, national consciousness is promoted, augmented and, where necessary, overhauled and, if need be, reinvented.
In many respects 19th century Germany led the way. Lagging behind in terms of the actual material reality of the nation-state, idealist philosophers, historians, composers and poets paved the way in the mind.3 “Every nation,” Hegel maintained, in a youthful work, “has its own imagery, its gods, angels, devils or saints who live in the nation’s traditions, whose stories and deeds the nurse tells her charges and so wins them over by impressing their imagination.”4 Nations were deemed to have their own unique character and destiny. According to Leopold von Ranke - the father of German historiography - between the global and the actions of individual actors there was the “primeval” nation.5
Well before Germany was united into a single nation-state there was the story of Germany. Eg, in the early 19th century the Society for Older German Historical Knowledge sponsored a huge collection of documents called the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. The purported history of Germany from Roman times to 1500 was chronicled. The Germany of countless petty and not so petty kingdoms was thereby united in the mind. Well before Germany there existed the idea of Germany - an invitation for Otto von Bismarck. In 1871 he carried out his revolution from above and united Germany to widespread popular acclaim.
Victorian Britain introduced a modified version of von Ranke’s model. After the 1867 Reform Act, which gave skilled male workers the vote, Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount of Sherbrooke, a Tory education minister, famously announced: “We must educate our masters”.6 Royal history was fused with the history of Britain as an imperial state and projected backwards onto the distant past - religion and religious history, pre-capitalist relations of exploitation, class struggles were subsumed, blurred or simply denied. Those above sought to inculcate a sense of patriotism and the community of all classes. With the forward march of mass literacy, mass conscript armies and mass parliamentary democracy, it became ever more necessary to gain a heartfelt identification with the nation.
Primary and secondary schools duly taught history along national lines: England, Scotland and Wales ... till we arrive at the three-in-one nation-state of Great Britain and its agriculture, industry, science and conquests. Nowadays, not least because of changing demographics, the glories of empire are no longer celebrated, flaws are admitted, even horrendous crimes, above all, black slavery, but history is viewed teleologically. Past events are selected and reselected to provide the almost predetermined steps towards today’s multicultural Britain and its officially approved anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-extremist (= anti-socialist) values.
Despite our largely bogus history, it is hardly surprising that run-of-the-mill Scottish nationalists assume that the kingdom of Scotland was a nation prior to the 1707 Act of Union. Left nationalists too: in their Imagine - we have already quoted it - Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan claim that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe”, going back to the 13th century.7 In another jointly authored book, Restless land, this time with Roz Paterson, we find McCombes talking of the “emerging flame of national consciousness” and saying that, with Edward I as overlord, there was the danger that Scotland would become simply another English region “alongside Yorkshire and Northumberland”.8 Even worse is Chris Bambery, former national organiser of the Socialist Workers Party. Mesolithic settlers, Neolithic cattle-herders, Pictish peasants, Anglo-Saxon incomers, Viking raiders, Gaelic clans, Jacobite rebels, the lowland enlightenment, the highland clearances, Red Clydesiders, Labour voters, poll tax protestors - all find themselves fused into a singularity in his execrable A people’s history of Scotland (2014). Indeed, showing his complete surrender to the standard tropes of rightwing Scottish nationalism, the comrade seriously tells us that “a good account of [William] Wallace’s life” can be found in Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart.9 He might just as well announce DW Giffith’s 1915 Birth of a nation (originally titled The Clansman) a “good account” of American history. As we shall show, though, there is a considerable overlap between left and right nationalism.
Certainly, the national history sponsored by the UK state in the late 19th century is never seriously analysed or questioned. Official history was drilled into left anti-nationalist skulls at school. Few challenge the paradigm. Hence Scotland’s supposed journey from the arrival of the aboriginal Cruithni all the way to the campaign for a second independence referendum in 2021. Scotland is and has been throughout time immemorial. Eg, if Robert de Bruce was crowned king over a territory called the kingdom of Scotland, then, for left nationalists, there must have been a nation of Scotland. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing more stupid.
Scotland as victim
When 17th century English radicals such John Lilburne and Gerrard Winstanley branded the whole rat pack of kings and queens going back to 1066 as foreign exploiters, they were not far from the truth. In strict historical terms where they fell into error was to contrast the Norman yoke with Anglo-Saxon liberty. But, given their time, they were looking for an inspiring vision. And they found their Garden of Eden in the fiction of Anglo-Saxon liberty. More to the point, the Levellers and Diggers aimed to unite the popular classes against their oppressors.10
Nowadays, there is good history available, Marxist and non-Marxist. No less to the point, the political aim of the Scottish National Party, along with their radical outriders, is to bring all people in Scotland, from brickies to bankers, together “under one banner”. That necessarily, by definition, involves cleaving apart the historically established workers’ movement in Britain and denying the primacy of class consciousness.
Towards that end, Scotland post-1707 is painted by the more deluded Scottish nationalists as an oppressed nation.11 In this case it is the English yoke. Put another way, Scotland is to this day ruled by foreigners. Eg, the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement imagines itself as struggling for “national liberation”.12 Another left-nationalist, Bob Goupillot, a canting and qualifying “republican communist”, writes that a Scottish office and secretary of state for Scotland “smacks of colonialism” and that, “whilst being on a different scale to the Irish, Scots have experienced elements of national oppression which need to be acknowledged by others and overcome”.13 Along similar left-nationalist lines Mhairi McAlpine seriously declares that the “struggle for Scottish independence is, at its heart, an anti-colonial struggle”.14 And, on the far fringes, there is the terroristic Scottish National Liberation Army and its political wing, the Scottish Freedom Party. Their call is for English “settlers” to “leave, leave!” Their aim: an independent Gaelic-speaking Scotland.15
So let us look at the politics of 1707. Yes, there was bullying, blackmail and bribery: English money was paid out to a few chosen nobles, pensions were promised, along with offers of peerages and various sinecures. And, of course, the Act of Union, which merged the two parliaments, was no democratic agreement between two sovereign peoples. Neither Scotland nor England were democracies of any kind. Hence no need for the well-worn Daniel Defoe and Robbie Burns quotes: the novelist, Defoe, was an English agent; the poet, Burns, an outraged Scottish radical.
The Court Party, which enjoyed considerable support from Queen Anne, along with their allies in the Flying Squad (Squadrone Volante), dominated the unicameral Scottish parliament. Both were largely made up of aristocrats and, no surprise, pursued their narrow sectional interests. The Scottish parliament voted by 110 to 69 for the union.
The Country Party, the main opposition bloc in parliament, fought a desperate rearguard action. There was a furious ‘pen and ink’ war. Wallace and Bruce were invoked. The Country Party even threatened to unleash the mob. Martial law was declared.
However, the leader of the Country Party, James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton, could easily have sat on the benches of the Court Party. Arrogant and haughty, he held landed estates north and south of the border. But, as a descendant of the Stuart line, he probably harboured ambitions to become the absolutist ruler of an independent Scotland.
There was, though, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a lowland laird who essentially represented the interests of the “small, independent, freeholding landowner” class.16 He and his little band of co-thinkers formed what might be called the left wing of the Country Party. Fletcher rejected an “incorporation union”: instead he wanted a “federal union”.17 Interestingly, he also proposed annual elections and upheld the demand for a popular militia: amongst his most noted books is A discourse of government relating to militias (1698) - it includes the phrase, “a well-regulated militia”, which, of course, later found its way into the US constitution (second amendment). Though no republican, let alone a democrat, Fletcher sought to limit the powers of the crown and increase the powers of the estates. This makes him something of a hero for the nationalist left: he is “one of the most outstanding political thinkers in Scottish history”.18 For them Fletcher of Saltoun is the acceptable face of the Country Party.
However - and this needs to be understood - there was discontent both in Scotland and England. Popular opinion on both sides of the border resented and protested against the 1707 Act of Union - not only a union of parliaments, but a customs and monetary union too. And, of course, Scotland was desperately poor and as good as bankrupt. Economically, it was not seen as a catch, but a leach.
Yes, the initial effects of the merger were not positive for Scotland and, yes, there was 1715 and 1745 ... often portrayed as a “national rising”.19 Yet, after 1746 and the battle of Culloden, there was rapid economic development and with that came a dawning of British national consciousness, including in the highlands. Jacobitism was almost effortlessly swapped for a cult of a Greater Britain. The great aristocrats, the lowlands bourgeoisie and highland lairds alike were eager to enrol into the British ruling class. The “more outspoken” were already presenting themselves as North Britons ... and even superior to the feckless English.20
Protestantism, inter-continental wars with absolutist Spain and France, joint colonisation of Ulster, North America and Australasia - an empire of work colonies - made and remade consciousness. Likewise the joint building, administering and maintaining of the vast British - not English - empire of exploitation in the Caribbean, Africa and India. For the already rich and powerful, for the well educated, for the greedy, for the madly ambitious, Scottishness meant the reality, or at least the distinct possibility, of sharing in the spoils.
Despite that, for Scottish left nationalists, Britain is an entirely artificial, or royal, construct. Within the state prison house of UKana, the oppressed nations of Scotland and Wales suffocate, but await their moment of freedom. Laughably, a “pre-bourgeois” Britain “inevitably” leads to “second round” of nationalist breakouts.21 In other words, after the failures of 1715 and 1745 there comes 2014, 2021 … all in the name of “completing” the bourgeois revolution! As if Britain is feudal, not quintessentially capitalist. Anyway - or so we are told - only when national independence has been finally secured will the road to a (national) socialism be opened up.
For Scottish left nationalists, the nation (country) is Scottish, the state and the ruling institutions are British or English. That is why Scotland counts as an oppressed nation, the immediate task being self-evident: Scotland must join those who have successfully fought for national liberation - Cuba, Vietnam and Venezuela are held up as models. Amongst them, amongst the angels, that is where Scotland’s future lies. Morally very convenient. It was Britain that established a global empire, traded in black slaves, raped India and took American and Australian natives to the verge of extinction. Not Scotland.
Countering this nonsense is child’s play. By definition national oppression involves all classes. There are upper and lower classes in every colonial country. But the upper classes lose out economically to the imperial power. They have no state with which to defend and advance their interests. National oppression therefore sees the exploitation of the upper classes too. Yet for aristocratic and bourgeois Scotland, unity with an England that had finally overthrown absolutism in 1688 proved a blessing. Fortunes were made, high offices were obtained and previously closed opportunities opened (more of this below).
Those below constitute another awkward problem for left nationalists. There has definitively been universal suffrage throughout Britain since the 1928 Representation of the People Act (when equal voting rights for women were finally conceded). Before that it was Liberal versus Tory, then Liberal versus Tory versus Labour: ie, voters in Scotland happily supported all-Britain parties. What was true before 1928 was true after 1928. Take the 1955 general election. The Tories won 36 seats, with 50.1% of the vote, Labour was close behind (34 MPs and 46.7% of the vote), the Liberals got just one MP, with 1.9% of the vote, the Communist Party of Great Britain came fourth, losing its lone MP … and the SNP came fifth, it got a mere 12,112 votes.22 Basically a mirror image of England.
Compare that with Ireland - that is, when it was an integral part of the United Kingdom. Once the property-owning (male) small farmers got the vote, they began returning MPs who would promote their class and national interests: first from Charles Stewart’s Home Rule League, then John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, then, finally, Sinn Féin. In the 1918 general election Sinn Féin secured 73 of Ireland’s 105 MPs. Amongst their ranks, Constance Georgine Markievicz. Countess Markievicz was the first woman elected to the House of Commons (along with other Sinn Féiners she refused to take her seat). After that it was pro-treaty vs anti-treaty civil war. Hence the Irish-Irish, not the British-Irish, behaved in a manner that would be expected of an oppressed people under conditions of a wider and wider franchise. Scotland, precisely because it does not suffer from national oppression, had an altogether different politics: instead of nation it was class - crucially the working class (an all-British phenomenon).
Undoubtedly, the mass of Scottish people in 1707 did not think of themselves as British, but the same can be surely said of those in England and Wales. Though the idea of a British commonality can be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, it tended to be associated with plans for feudal overlordship to be extended across the whole of the archipelago. In other words, ‘revolutionary centralisers’ such as Edward I sought to add to their realms of exploitation. Nevertheless, leading elements amongst the intelligentsia started to look towards some sort of equal union. John Mair (c1470-1550) wrote A history of Greater Britain, as well England as Scotland (1521) when he was principal of the University of Glasgow. He wove the story of England and Scotland together and suggested an eventual political union between the two kingdoms. Mair wanted to end the internecine conflicts and bring about a strong Britannia, which would lead Europe against imperial Spain and the papacy. A project enthusiastically taken up by the well-read Scottish king, James VI, who was, of course, painfully aware of the instability of his old realm: his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, had been forced to abdicate and his father, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was butchered by assassins when James was only a couple of months old.
In his accession speech to the Westminster parliament on March 19 1603, after he had been crowned king of England, James Stewart stated that god had not only united two great feudal lineages, but two peoples with a common “language, religion and similitude of manners”. They live on one island “separated neither by sea, nor great river, mountain, nor other strength of nature”.23 After advice from courtly spin doctors - north and south - he took to presenting himself as James I of Great Britain and Ireland.
Attempts to bring together the English and Scottish kingdoms in a political union floundered due to a refusal by the English elite to treat their Scottish counterparts as equals. However, conditions changed. On the one hand, there was the abject failure of the Darien scheme in the 1690s. The bid to establish a specifically Scottish trading colony in Panama ended in financial ruination for the kingdom’s aristocracy, bourgeoisie and even many town councils. On the other hand, in England there was the decisive triumph of capitalism. What those backing Oliver Cromwell began, those backing William of Orange completed. Compared with other European powers post-1688, England stood out as a beacon of bourgeois liberty and economic dynamism. And, in order to prevent its old enemy, absolutist France, regaining a foothold in Scotland and launching a counterrevolutionary war, the ruling class in England was prepared to make substantial concessions: namely a financial bailout, along with access to vast new markets and high office in the swelling military, political and bureaucratic apparatus.
Left to itself, Scotland could not have carved out an independent existence - Darian provides ample proof on that score. In all probability, without unity with England the kingdom would have fallen into the clutches of the French monarchy. That or faced stagnation, decay and fragmentation under the impact of rival feudal interests. The fate suffered by Poland provides a telling example of such social retrogression.
The more intelligent - or rather the more crafty - left nationalists therefore turn to softer, vaguer, more pliable categories such as internal colonialism or cultural imperialism. We are told that the “Celtic fringes of Scotland, Ireland and Wales” were the “internal colonies of the British empire” (Alan McCombes and Roz Paterson).24 James D Young - a particularly obnoxious left-nationalist ideologue - wrote of “the colonial dimension being real and tangible”, because the English ruling class displayed “colonial attitudes”.25 Hence the complaint of Scotland suffering from a “warped and distorted” national identity ... because of the magnetic pull of the 50 million-plus population of England.26 A frankly xenophobic judgement, which would certainly rule out the kind of unified state formed by the Bolsheviks in 1922. By far the largest republic in the Soviet Union was the Russian Federal Socialist Republic. It dwarfed the Ukrainian, Transcaucasian and Byelorussian republics. Nonetheless, left nationalism still finds its fuming justification: a “section of the population, including a large portion of the working class,” feels “forcibly subsumed under English/Britishness”.27 Feelings, no matter how irrational, need to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, how force is involved nowadays is something of a mystery for me. Are people arrested for listening to Radio nan Gàidheal? Is the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid banned? Presumably, though, these left-nationalists would, given their independent Scottish class state, advocate a Kulturkampf (culture struggle) to eradicate English/British influences.
The idea of internal colonialism was introduced into the debate around Scotland by the American sociologist, Michael Hechter, in the 1970s. A rational-choice theorist, Hechter approached the UK in terms of an English “core” colonising the so-called Celtic “periphery”: Scotland, Wales, Ireland and to a lesser extent Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Thus Scotland was supposedly characterised by economic dependence, lower living standards and an industry which served the “core” as an auxiliary. According to Hechter, the process of internal colonialism commenced with the union of the crowns in 1603 and accelerated after the union of parliaments in 1707. Indeed he fields evidence which purports to show that national inequality persisted till 1966 - the point where Hechter closes his study.28 As one critic, Krishan Kumar, bitingly comments, he seems to have written his book “without ever having set foot in the British Isles”.29 His ignorance of British realities are, though, fundamentally historical.
In my opinion Neil Davidson did an excellent job in demolishing the Hechter thesis. He fielded the examples of the three leading non-agricultural industries of the 18th century - coal, linen and tobacco. Far from Scotland exhibiting backwardness and peripheral features, it took the lead in terms of technique, per capita production and capital accumulation. After the 1707 union - in particular following the final defeat of the Stewart dynasts and the highland threat - Scotland experienced a spectacular economic boom. Similar leaps were repeated in the 19th century. Engineering and shipbuilding in Scotland accounted for a huge tranche of the world market into the 20th century and was found on the cutting edge of technological change and innovation. As a consequence, far from being a ‘peripheral’ economic region in Britain, Scotland - or more precisely, the lowlands - lay at the “core”.30 Scottish aristocrats, capitalists and middle class careerists thrived through promoting and participating in the British market, the British state machine and the British empire. Glasgow was one of the premier industrial workshops of the world and on a par with Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Belfast and Cardiff. As for Edinburgh, it was a global banking centre second only to the City of London.
What goes for the economy can also be seen in terms of the cadre who staffed civil (bourgeois) society and the state. Well-trained doctors, men of letters, soldiers of fortune, politicians on the make - all headed south and prospered mightily. Scots came to disproportionally occupy a whole variety of top posts. Eg, during the first half of the 18th century 25% of all regimental officers were Scottish.
Moreover, there is the widespread and persistent phenomenon of Scots being elected in English constituencies. Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Herbert Asquith and Andrew Bonar Law stood at the apex of British politics in the first quarter of the 20th century. Each held the highest office of prime minister. After his 1997 general election victory Tony Blair (Edinburgh-born) appointed a whole pack of Scottish ministers, including foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer and lord chancellor - in terms of population proportion, a massive imbalance against the English. Andrew Neil - the millionaire Scottish broadcaster - waspishly referred to a “Scottish Raj”.31 Such a situation - where the ‘colonised nation’ provides the leading personnel for the ‘colonising nation’ in such numbers - is uncharacteristic, to say the least.
What of cultural imperialism? The argument here is that the subjugation suffered by Scotland was not of the overt type imposed on Africa and Asia. What Scotland experienced took place in the realm of consciousness. Scottish culture was deemed second-rate, compared with the English-British culture - which was, however, sneakily imposed upon the Scottish population by members of the Scottish elite. Enlightenment thinkers - Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Mackintosh, James Burnett, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, William Robertson - are a particular butt of criticism.
Not that the Scottish reformation and the associated system of parish schools escape unscathed. According to the self-confessed “ultra-nationalist” Siol nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gaels), well before the 1707 political union, it was supposedly a “tragedy for Scottish culture that the English Bible was introduced to Scotland” without the slightest effort to “adapt its language to Scottish practice”. As for the parish school system, it “emphasised literacy”. Hence it became “essential for English to be taught as it was written in the Bible and spoken by the minister in the kirk”.32 So the reason why god supposedly appeared as an Englishman before Scottish children, not as a trueborn Scot, is blamed on the unpatriotic, treacherous educated classes of Scotland. The very subtlety of this cultural imperialism means that the mass of the Scottish population are hardly aware of the English poison being drip-fed into their skulls.
Actually, what happened in the 18th century was not cultural imperialism, but assimilation - always a two-way process. Between Scotland and England there was cross-fertilisation, synthesis and the emergence of something higher, something new, something more than the sum of its parts. Scots English was as different from English English as Norwegian is from Swedish. But, even before the 1707 union, Scottish culture was being “influenced by (and then imitating) its English rival”.33 English literature became increasingly popular amongst educated Scots. Correspondingly their Scots English became increasingly English English, James VI being a case in point. Once he moved south, his broad Scots gave way to a standard (Kentish-Middlesex) English.
However, there was a strong, often brilliant and certainly unmistakable Scottish input, which both changed Englishness and created Britishness. Adam Smith furnished the groundbreaking economic theory which mapped out Britain’s capitalist future. David Hume’s scepticism provided the foundations for the utilitarianism and rationalism of the British bourgeoisie. James Mackintosh created modern English history with his History of the revolution in England. James Mill championed public education and popularised Riccardoism. In Ivanhoe (1819) Walter Scott took the radical English myth of Saxon liberty and the Norman yoke, and steered it into a conservative ‘middle course’, in what was also a parable for post-1746 Great Britain, by resolving the contradiction between the two ‘races’ into a reconciliation. Thomas Carlyle opposed democracy, but expressed a sincere, if romantic, sympathy for the lot of the poor, along with an influential critique of capitalist industrialisation.
None of these men regarded themselves as English quislings or agents of English cultural imperialism. Far from viewing themselves as ‘inferiors’, these intellectuals believed themselves to be of the best sort - superior beings - and, as we have shown, they actively shaped the emerging sense of Britishness. Hence, if England influenced and inspired Scottishness, as it undoubtedly did, so Scottish intellectuals transformed England through remaking it as part of the British national formation.
The highlands are a region where there was a process that might legitimately be called internal colonisation. But were the English the colonists? Culloden was not the defeat of the Scots by the English, as nationalist mythology has it. Nor was the horrible persecution which followed carried out by England. Such a formulation obscures the national, social and class content of the conflict. The battle of Culloden in 1746 saw the professional Hanoverian army utterly rout the highland warriors fighting on behalf of Charles Edward Stewart and his father. The latest technology of the 18th century and disciplined military techniques cut through the bravery of clan society. However, this defeat was inflicted not by England: rather by a combination of lowland Scots, and German and English regiments in the pay of the British state.
At Culloden, and during the military occupation of the highland glens that followed, the British state first pulverised clan society and then proceeded to take apart its social fabric. Some of the worst atrocities were carried out under the command of lowland Scots officers. Nationalists might argue that these men had absorbed hostile English cultural attitudes towards their fellow countrymen. However, the antagonism between the lowlands and the highlands dates back many centuries, to well before the union of the crowns in 1603. Lowlanders generally viewed highlanders as barbaric, uncouth and lawless. To travel in the highlands was, for them, to enter bandit territory; it was to risk life and limb.
Crucially, the highlands were incorporated – not into English culture, rather the British ascendancy. Clan society was not Scottish society, nor was Gaelic the language of Scotland. To conflate the two is to make an elementary mistake. The fate of the highlands was therefore not the fate of Scotland.
Moreover, it needs to be stressed that, for the highland clan chiefs and the associated elite, Britishness presented a golden chance for betterment. Once defeated, they eagerly turned away from scratching a living from highland tithes and tradition and instead embraced the cornucopia offered by capitalism. Those responsible for the highland clearances - the mass expulsion of the peasant population from the land – were, almost without exception, not only Scottish, but highland aristocrats. These grandees used Scottish agents to carry out their ‘modernisation’, along with Scottish policemen and Scottish army regiments to crush resistance. The native Gaels were uprooted by their own lairds and forced onto ships bound for North America. That or - hungry, bedraggled and footsore - they made their way to the dark, airless factories and mills of Glasgow. Turning the “whole country” into a giant “sheep-walk” was done, of course, for the sake of “primitive capital accumulation”.34
While the whole process was time-concentrated, it was in essence no different from the dispossession of the English peasants that happened through the enclosures carried out 400 years previously, or the suffering that the peasantry in mainland Europe endured during the transition to capitalism. However, after being deported, the majority of highlanders played a genuinely colonial role in their new American home. Native Amerindians were for the most part unable to distinguish between the awful treatment meted out to them by highland Scots and any of the other European colonists they came into contact with.
Just as significantly, highland Scots in America often became fiercely pro-British. Former Jacobites were some of George III’s most loyal subjects. Even the celebrated Flora Macdonald, saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, turned Hanoverian after she migrated to North Carolina. Her husband, Allan, mobilised highland settlers in support of the king against the revolutionary patriots. His men were decked out in full highland costume - tartan plaid, a large blue bonnet with a cockade of black ribbon, a tartan waistcoat with gold buttons and tartan hose. Ideologically they were more than prone to cling to a hereditary monarch rather than fight for a democratic future.
Stuff and nonsense
Communists do not have any desire to reinvigorate or reinvent official British nationalism - a well-gnawed bone that ought to be left to Michael Gove, Maurice Glasman, Nigel Farage and Paul Golding to scrap and yap over. No, Britain’s 300-year history as a blood-drenched, class-divided, imperial state must be ruthlessly exposed ... so that official Britain can be put behind us as soon as possible. Towards that end we can usefully highlight the other Britain - revolutionary trade unionism, Chartism, the Triple Alliance, etc. If we do that rigorously, if we do that successfully, history goes from an apologia, a dull fact-grubbing exercise, to being a weapon - and one of the sharpest at that - in the struggle for socialism.
As well as taking on official Britain, we are surely obliged to combat the stuff and nonsense peddled by Scottish left nationalists, who use the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, national liberation and socialism to give Nicola Sturgeon’s prosaic bid to establish an SNP-governed, royalist state valuable left cover.
To justify their scab role, left nationalists claim that the fight for a second referendum will result in an ever-rising curve of progressive demands, struggles and results. Sturgeon will be forced to depart from the narrow, safe, legal path of constitutionalism and mobilise the masses in protest strikes and street demonstrations. Westminster will eventually capitulate. Once independence is gained, the SNP will find itself compelled to grant one concession after another. Austerity will, of course, be a thing of the past. And the SNP will sooner rather than later lose out to a reinvigorated left. Meanwhile, we are assured, a ‘yes’ vote in Scotland will create conditions for far-reaching change south of the border too. A weakened UK state will find it “difficult to resist” progressive demands. Without a hint of irony, we are told: “We live in interesting times” (the so-called Chinese peasant’s curse).35
Conceivably, Scotland could take the Catalan road. Conceivably, the Westminster government would, in this case, decline to impose direct rule and put troops onto the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. Conceivably, there could be calm, reasonable negotiations that sees thorny issues, such as nuclear bases, the swollen national debt, Scottish army regiments, the threat of Orkney and Shetlands breaking from an independent Scotland with their attendant reserves of oil and gas, all equably solved. Conceivably, Scotland could be enthusiastically welcomed into the EU (including by Spain). Conceivably, a reinvigorated left could - say, after a space of a decade - see its forces storm the Holyrood parliament and declare Scotland a workers’ republic. If that happened, though, it would, for sure, serve not as a beacon that inspires others: rather a warning. Isolated, besieged, the Scottish workers’ republic, would, if it survived for more than a couple of months, be forced to become a Scottish Albania.
But all such scenarios are asking us to abandon levelheaded materialist reasoning for flights of fantasy. Opinion polls favouring independence should not be taken as a permanent, fixed feature of Scottish life. They could well be more a temporary aberration caused by the shock of Brexit and Johnson’s subsequent botched handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, the reality of Brexit means that the economic case for Scottish independence becomes less and less tenable. Swapping the UK for European Union membership means, albeit with an agreed transition period, adopting the euro. We have certainly seen the problems that brings in the experience of Greece, Spain and Italy.
Most ‘foreign’ trade in Scotland is, needless to say, not with the EU: it is overwhelmingly with the rest of the UK. An independent Scotland would, in all probability, see a flight of capital and a flight of people … mainly south. Scotland would probably experience economic stagnation. The SNP government might well conclude that it has no choice but to impose ever harsher austerity measures, if the big banks, credit agencies and money markets are to be placated.
Expect a carnival of reaction on both sides of the border. The SNP would blame England and the English for its woes. Chauvinism would be fed, stoked and unleashed to murderous effect. That would go hand in hand with promoting ‘traditional’ Scottish values and maybe an illiberal democracy. Left nationalists would be forced to adapt to the new order … that or break with left nationalism. The Westminster government would doubtless respond in kind. Hatred of Scotland and the Scots would be fed, stoked and unleashed to murderous effect. Arguably, a somewhat frayed British unionism would be replaced by a vengeful, snarling, English nationalism. Only a masochist could describe that as progress.
Why the widespread desire in Scotland to create a new capitalist state? I have argued that the relative decline of British imperialism - within an overall decline of capital as a system - laid the basis for a thoroughly modern separatist nationalism in Scotland (which, like most nationalisms, seeks to project itself back into the deep past). Using Lenin’s metaphor: the crumbs from the imperialist table have become recognisably fewer and far between.
From the mid-18th century onwards, being Scottish - with the obvious exception of worst-paid labour - was to share, at least to some extent, in the “lucrative” booty of the British empire.36 During the 1970s it appeared to many that Britain was on its way to becoming a failed state. That, and the booming Scottish oil industry, saw the SNP take off. In the 1974 February and October general elections the SNP’s main slogan was: “It’s Scotland’s oil”. The SNP secured 22%, then 30.4% of the Scottish vote. With Margaret Thatcher in No10, support for the SNP surged and surged again. Anti-union laws, smashing the miners, deindustrialisation, the imposition of the poll tax on Scotland before England and Wales - all fuelled the SNP’s growth. With the 2015 general election, the SNP overtook Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats at Westminster.
However, though the SNP has a wide popular base, it is a thoroughly bourgeois party. The test, as always, lies in programme. The SNP long ago sold itself to monopoly capitalism. And, of course, nowadays the SNP accepts Nato, the IMF, the World Bank and the whole architecture of post-World War II imperialism.
That is why we can only but conclude that the leftwing admirers of Scottish separatism have lost their political bearings: the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Socialist Resistance, Counterfire, etc. Their negative line of reasoning goes like this: “The break-up of the British state could significantly weaken British imperialism, its reactionary unionist ideology and its ability to intervene militarily in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.”37 Our line of reasoning runs in the opposite direction. The break-up of the British state would significantly weaken unity of the working class movement, its class-consciousness and ability to take state power on the wide foundations needed to defend and spread the socialist revolution.
It is doubtless true that Scottish secession would be a blow to British imperialism. That is, incidentally, why there would be a push-back - not least from Anthony Blinken and his boss, Joe Biden. But it hardly follows that, if Scotland achieves independence, Britain would cease being America’s number-one ally. A declining US superimperialism under Biden-Harris will still be prone to lash out militarily and wreak havoc. Just as likely, UK forces, even shorn of their Scottish regiments, will take part in US operations - not because they matter militarily, but because they matter politically.
Socialism is a positive historic movement. It requires not the negativity of Scottish independence, but working class political independence. Hence what is bad for our enemy is not necessarily good for us. What is bad for them can actually be bad for us. Eg, mobilising throughout Britain would encounter all manner of new hurdles and difficulties with the secession of Scotland. In general we prefer big states. They provide the wide arena needed to conduct the class struggle to the maximum effect. Hence if Wales too seceded and was followed by Cornwall, Yorkshire and Northumberland, such ‘Balkanisation’ would hardly be something for socialists to celebrate.
Marxists - real Marxists, that is - start, not with the nation, but with the world economy and the contradictory system of competing capitalist states. Within each state we seek to organise advanced workers - whatever their nationality, whatever their specific origins, whatever their ethnicity - into a single revolutionary party. Nothing narrow, nothing parochial here. Our aim is to promote internationalism (we look towards a new Communist International made up of real parties, not confessional sects). By contrast, left nationalists do their damnedest to fan, or alibi, division and national grievance.
The first decisive battle against capitalist rule could be fought out within a nation-state: eg, Germany, Japan, France or Italy. By the same measure there could be a breakthrough in a multinational state like Spain, India or South Africa. In general, communists, it should be stressed, take as a given what history has handed down. Despite the massacres, torture and expropriations associated with colonialism, we accept the existence of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Communism is not a project to reverse history. We do not, of course, rule out separation under exceptional circumstances: eg, Ireland in the late 19th century. Though it may appear paradoxical to left nationalists, communists raise the demand for separation solely in order to achieve the highest possible voluntary unity that objective conditions permit.
Communists want an end to the whole filthy business: national wars and oppression, borders and customs posts, detention centres and deportations. Hence, though our revolution begins with the state, its essence is universal. Having united workers as a political class to make revolution against the state, we must proceed energetically, determinedly and as swiftly as possible to the global level, where alone the dominance of capital can be superseded.
However, the tempo of class struggle and therefore class-consciousness is - and for some considerable time to come will be - markedly uneven from country to country. Some move faster, others slower. That said, there are broadly common tempos and similar levels of consciousness brought about by all manner of historically determined cultural and political factors, including agreements by capitalist governments to pool what they loftily call their sovereignties in an attempt to enhance global standing, economic weight and ability to exploit others. In such a grouping of countries - needless to say, I have the EU in mind - the working class would be well advised to move as one.38 But - and this is the point - no socialist revolution, even if it triumphs on a continental scale, can survive in isolation for long. A year or two, perhaps 10, surely no more. Sooner or later counterrevolution will burst in from without, or well up from within. Therefore, to the best of our abilities the fight for revolution must be coordinated on a global scale.
The CPGB seeks to emulate the best of the past: eg, the Communist Party of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the German Social Democracy of August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky, the Russian Social Democratic Party of Vladimir Lenin, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. Not as mimicry, but in order to make a qualitative leap, by positively overcoming the myriad grouplets, broad left dead ends and labour bureaucracies.
Obviously, building, training and steeling a party of several millions - necessary for a revolution in a country like Britain - is the work of two or three decades. Outlining a programme is another matter. Whatever the inadequacies (inevitable due to the absence of constant testing and fine tuning, which alone are provided by deep social roots and practical engagement in parliamentary, mass strike and other such large-scale class battles), it can be done by a relatively small number of communist militants - if they have thoroughly schooled themselves in the politics of Marxism.
So, although the CPGB is not yet a party - a key objective - it has equipped itself with a draft programme. Unlike the narrow economism that passes for common sense on too much of the left, the CPGB takes a Marxist approach to the UK state. In our minimum programme - ie, within the limits imposed by the capitalist system - communists emphasise, bring to the fore, class (as opposed to sectional) demands that challenge the logic of the market, such as the provision of health, education and benefits based on need. They give no less emphasis to political demands which challenge how we are ruled. Briefly, the abolition of the monarchy, the secret state and the House of Lords, a people’s militia, disestablishment of the Church of England, election of judges, etc.
What about the national question? Once again our programme seeks to forge class unity and challenge how we are ruled. Hence the demand for the right to self-determination for Scotland and Wales, and a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales (the initial form we envisage of working class rule in Britain).
Incidentally, Tony Blair, Gerry Adams and Nicola Sturgeon have unwittingly done us a great service here. They have shown us that the UK constitution is neither timeless nor natural. It is plastic - a product of historical making and contemporary remaking. What has been rearranged from above can be rearranged from below.
While there must be an objective dimension, when it comes to assessing what is and what is not a nation - eg, a common territory - that hardly means discounting the ideas that people have in their heads. The coming into being of a British nation in the 18th century cannot be put above the palpable feelings of masses of people in Scotland and Wales today. Only a hopeless dogmatist would discount the subjective factor - the sincere belief of millions that they are nationally disadvantaged, held back or even oppressed. Marxists must harness it by offering positive solutions.
B Anderson Imagined communities London 1991, p132.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, pp481.↩︎
S Berger, ‘The invention of European national traditions in European romanticism’ in S Macintyre, J Maiguahca and Attila Pók (eds) The Oxford history of historical writing Vol 4, Oxford 2011, p23.↩︎
Quoted in S Avineri Hegel’s theory of the modern state Cambridge 1974, p21.↩︎
S Berger, ‘The invention of European national traditions in European romanticism’ in S Macintyre, J Maiguahca and Attila Pók (eds) The Oxford history of historical writing Vol 4, Oxford 2011, p23.↩︎
T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p178.↩︎
A McCombes and R Paterson Restless land: a radical journey through Scotland’s history Vol 1, Glasgow 2014.↩︎
C Bambery A people’s history of Scotland London 2014, p23.↩︎
See C Hill The Norman yoke London 1955.↩︎
Interestingly Alex Salmond does not consider Scotland to be an oppressed nation: “Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated. Independence matters because we do not have the powers to reach our potential. We are limited in what we can do to create jobs, grow the economy and help the vulnerable. We shouldn’t have a constitution which constrains us, but one which frees us to build a better society. Our politics should be judged on the health of our people, the welfare of young and old and the strength of our economy” (scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2012/01/1006/1). In that spirit, once the SNP held out the prospect of Scotland joining a northern European ‘arc of prosperity’, which included, of course, Ireland. The argument was not that Scotland would break free from the stranglehold of English colonial domination. Rather that Scotland - clutching at declining oil and gas reserves - would secure for itself a better, a more privileged, position in the US-dominated, imperialist pecking order (not impossible, but very unlikely). In other words, SNP Scottish nationalism falls into the same category as Bavarian, Venetian and Catalan nationalism.↩︎
B Goupillot, ‘Different roads to unity’ Weekly Worker July 20 2006.↩︎
See P Henderson (ed) The Saltoun papers: reflections on Andrew Fletcher Edinburgh 2003, p24.↩︎
A McCombes and R Paterson Restless land: a radical journey through Scotland’s history Vol 1, Glasgow 2014.↩︎
Both James VII, the Old Pretender, and his young, pretending son, repealed the 1707 Act of Union in their manifestoes.↩︎
N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p115.↩︎
A McCombes Two worlds collide Glasgow nd, p49.↩︎
JR Tanner Constitutional documents of the reign of James I Cambridge 1960, p26.↩︎
A McCombes and R Paterson Restless land: a radical journey through Scotland’s history Vol 1, Glasgow 2014.↩︎
JD Young The very bastards of creation Glasgow 1996, p23.↩︎
T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p184.↩︎
B Goupillot, ‘Different roads to unity’ Weekly Worker July 20 2006.↩︎
See M Hechter Internal colonialism London 1978.↩︎
N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p94.↩︎
R McCrum, W Cran and R MacNeil The story of English London 1992, p148.↩︎
K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p729.↩︎
L Colly Britons London 1992, p373.↩︎
K McKechnie Scotland: yes to independence, no to nationalism London 2013, p3.↩︎
We have presented a broad perspective of achieving working class regional unity: eg, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, the Arab-speaking countries, but most importantly in the EU. Given its economic weight, relative prosperity, size of population and long history of class struggles and substantive gains made by those below, an EU ruled by the working class has the potential to roll back US superimperialism, not least by lending moral and practical aid to the spreading flame of self-liberation - first Asia, South America, Africa and finally North America itself (see J Conrad Remaking Europe London 2004). Despite Brexit, this strategy has lost none of its relevance.↩︎