Unenlightened myth

A reply to the Communist Tendency in the Scottish Socialist Party

“…there was an even more fatal flaw in the CPGB-PCC’s politics. It does not recognise Scotland as a nation and claims that Scots are merely a minority nationality (ethnic group) within a British nation. This theoretical position is so racist, it gives succour to the most reactionary wing of Scottish nationalism, which has expressed itself in Scottish Settler Watch and the Scottish Separatist Group (SSG). They also define the people of Scotland in ethnic/cultural terms. The SSG arrived at an identical political recommendation to the CPGB-PCC on the day of the Blair’s plebiscite - stay at home! Following the logic of their theoretical position, the CPGB-PCC should have been arguing that Scots living anywhere in the UK (or ‘Britain’) had the right to vote, but not non-Scots living in Scotland! (The insistence that Scotland is not a nation is even more bizarre, when the Weekly Worker awards nation status to Kosova. It is doubtful whether anyone living in Kosova considers themselves part of the Kosovan nation - most think they are Albanian.)”

Support grows for nationalism in Scotland, a nationalism which threatens to split and greatly weaken the working class movement. Communists and all genuine socialists are obliged to combat this contagion. The more virulent nationalism, the more pronounced must be our internationalism and calls for workers’ unity. Evidently not all who describe themselves as communists or socialists have done their duty. On the contrary. Scottish Militant Labour has broken with the Socialist Party in England and Wales along national lines. The Scottish Socialist Party - at the head of which stands SML - demands an independent class state in Scotland. The Communist Tendency in the SSP writes disparagingly about the ‘Brit’ left and takes as its starting point the principle of nationality, not class. Indeed the rather hysterical passage reproduced above, taken from the Communist Tendency’s polemic against the CPGB (Weekly Worker November 5), is fairly representative of left separatist thinking in Scotland. Hence a reply will not only allow us to elaborate our views, but draw a sharp line of demarcation between international communism and national socialism.

The CPGB “does not recognise Scotland as a nation and claims that Scots are merely a minority nationality (ethnic group) within a British nation.” To begin then, it is necessary to ask ourselves what a nation is and distinguish this category from the categories ‘nationality’ and ‘state community’. So what is a nation? I have no problem in starting out with the basic argument presented by Stalin in his famous pamphlet Marxism and the national question (see JV Stalin Works Vol 2, Moscow 1953). Incidentally, for the sake of incorrigible Stalinophobes, Lenin had the highest opinion of this work. He gave it “prime place” in the “Marxist literature” on the subject. No doubt that is why he backed Stalin’s appointment as commissar for nationalities in the first Soviet government.

A nation is a “definite community of people”, insisted Stalin, often formed through the merger of the most diverse tribes, nationalities and ethnic groups, brought about in the first place by the dynamic of capitalism (Karl Kautsky had a similar objective approach). Stalin cites “the British, the Germans” as a “historically constituted community of people” (ibid p303).

Nations must not be confused with loose empires such as that of Alexander the Great or state communities such as Belgium, Spain or the former Soviet Union which have a common territory but no common language. A nation also must have, “strictly speaking”, a “common economic life” and “economic cohesion” (ibid pp305, 306). Stalin suggests that his native Georgia was not a nation till the late 19th century. The development of the means of communication (not least print) and the rise of capitalism shattered the economic isolation of the old, warring principalities, and overcame the isolation and indifference of the peasants by drawing them together into a single whole. Such conditions create a “common culture” (ibid p307).

Stalin stresses that nations have a history, hence a beginning and an end. Nations come into existence and will certainly go out of existence. In other words they are not fixed categories with their origins in the mist of time but are fluid and transient. So to understand this or that contemporary nation we must seek out non-selves, not project what is back into history.

How do things stand in relationship to the British Isles? Traditionally academic historiography has been taught within an invented ‘national’ paradigm. This went hand in hand with the ideology of nascent imperialism. From the late 19th century onwards ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Ireland’ were taught by elementary and secondary school teachers as something ancient, each ‘unit’ having its own distinct people, character and destiny (at its crudest Anglo-Saxon and Celt). Far from being a source of disunity, such a ‘national’ history served to forge a common identity under the crown against ‘inferior’ or ‘enemy’ peoples (as can be seen in libraries and bookshops, ‘national’ history has become axiomatic).

A Britannic approach which accounts for the existence of many overlapping cultures is far more accurate and rewarding. With such an approach it can easily be recognised that our present-day arrangements of ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Ireland’ are accidental results of feudal marriage bed deals, the fortunes of war and the continuation of the monarchical system. There is no distinct ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Irish’ people or culture with its own unique and separate history.

Withdrawal of the Roman legions in the fifth century left a vacuum filled by several Celtic cultures (including the Romano-British) which competed with each other and several incoming Germanic cultures. In broad terms there was a common experience across the British Isles. The ‘English’ kingdom of Northumbria stretched from the Forth to the Humber. The Strathclyde British kingdom in ‘Scotland’ (‘Scot’, of course, being ‘Irish’ in origin) fought a bitter struggle against the Picts of Caledonia. The same commonality was witnessed in the ninth to 11th centuries. Whole swathes of the British Isles fell under the sway of invaders and colonisers from Norway and Denmark. Both the islands of Ireland and Great Britain formed part of the Scandinavian cultural world (‘Great’ Britain as opposed to ‘Little’ Britain or Brittany).

The Normans in turn did not merely conquer England. Their kings and marcher knights established domination over Wales, Scotland and in turn the best parts of Ireland, during what Marc Bloch called the “second feudal age” (M Bloch Feudal society Vol 1, London 1962, p69). By the 12th century there was a Norman empire of the British Isles (not forgetting their ambitions and domains in France). Scotland, like Wales and Ireland, was then little more than a “geographical expression” (H Kearney The British Isles Cambridge 1995, p97). Norman domination was left incomplete in Scotland by survival of earlier political entities. Norway still controlled Shetland, Orkney, the isles of Lewis and Skye and the Isle of Man. Galloway was ruled by Hiberno-Scandinavians.

The popular belief that William Wallace, and following him Robert Bruce, led some sort of “war of independence” against the English is a combination of 19th century myth and Hollywood hokum. The celebrated ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ acquired its “status of a surrogate Scottish constitution” only in modern times (M Lynch Scotland London 1992, p111). In essence the conflict between ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’ after 1294 was no different from the Wars of the Roses: ie, an internal struggle between rival feudal interests whose ideology was based on past notions of fief and vassalage, not future notions of nation and nationality. The castellan Norman lords in Scotland were ‘traditionalists’ defending their exclusive right to exploit their serfs. Edward I was the ‘revolutionary’ centraliser.

What of the servile orders? By the beginning of the 14th century most appear to have been speaking a dialect of English (Lothian). Thus within what had become the kingdom of Scotland there existed four distinct cultural entities. The arrogant Norman elite who still paraded their French. In the south and east the peasantry used English (ie, Lallans or Scots). Gaelic was standard for most classes in the North West. In Shetland and Orkney they continued to speak Scandinavian (see R McCrum, W Cran, R MacNeil The story of English London 1992, p146).

The ascent of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 and the 1707 Act of Union have wrongly been portrayed as endangering the Scottish nation. They were certainly more than a dynastic and parliamentary merger. Britain had become the site of a protestant ascendancy. Reformation and counterreformation were the common experience across the whole of the British Isles. The Cromwellian republic, the Stewart restoration, the 1688 Glorious Revolution affected every part. None of them were purely English affairs. Moreover, behind the absolutist state and the religious wars mercantile capitalism was creating a home market from which industrial capitalism could take off. Having a common language - English - was a material advantage. England took “easily a half of Scottish exports by 1700” (L Colley Britons London 1992, p12). The Highland Gaelic culture found itself in headlong retreat in the face of an evolving English-speaking British nation and an invented British anti-Catholic nationalism “superimposed, if only for a while, onto much older alignments and loyalties” (ibid p5).

The 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions attempted to exploit Scottish resentments against the Act of Union (there was an equal and opposite resentment in England). But the intention of the old and the young pretender alike was to capture London, not liberate Scotland. Both claimants to the throne of the United Kingdom received logistical aid from the great catholic enemy, France. Their rebellions had the character as much of an internal north-south civil war in Scotland as a religio-dynastic struggle between Stewarts and Hanovarians. The 1745 rebellion found little support outside a minority of the highland clans. In the south only a thin layer of the episcopalian gentry came over to the side of Charles Edward Stewart. Likewise in northern England “hardly any civilians who were not Roman Catholic joined” his cause (ibid p77).

The industrial revolution and the fruits of a worldwide British commercial and military empire cemented a merger of the main peoples in Britain. The huge industrial cities of the north sucked in the surplus rural population and created a class of proletarians. Catholic labourers flooded in from Ireland too. Hence in Scotland there came into being three overlapping cultures: the dynamic English-speaking south and east divided between indigenous Protestants and incoming Irish Catholics, and the declining Gaelic north (not forgetting the residual Scandinavian culture in Shetland and Orkney). Competition between protestant and catholic workers, the non-integration of southern Ireland into the system of real capitalism and successive uprisings in Ireland gave renewed life to the ideology of anti-Catholicism. Opposition to Irish home rule allowed the Tories to establish a mass base. Reaction was particularly marked in Scotland. As in Ulster and Liverpool the notorious Orange Order sunk deep roots. ‘No popery’ and protestant sectarianism remain a potent, though dormant, force.

It has only been with the visible decline of British imperialism that Scottish nationalism has seriously emerged. The closure of the old steel, shipbuilding, engineering and mining industries, the discovery of North Sea oil and the election of four successive Tory governments created genuine nationalist sentiments amongst the Scots, and not only those who vote SNP.

Inevitably nationalist ideology imagines its would-be Scotland back into the distant past. ‘Be a nation once again’ is the perennial slogan. The kilt, various feudal or dynastic battles, Gaelic folk tunes - all are re-interpreted and used as evidence of a distinctive Scottish culture, that the Scots were a ‘people’ and thus ought to have their own state. Such nationalist symbolism raises hostility vis-à-vis the English and simultaneously maintains that lowlands and highlands, worker and bourgeois, protestant and catholic, belong to the same national culture and thus share common interests. Yet, as we have shown, neither Scotland, nor England, nor Wales were ever nations in the sense of having a unique common language, economic life and culture. They were as much divided internally as Britain as a whole. Nevertheless within the common territory of Britain there did evolve a spreading common English language and with the development of capitalism that allowed a - by no means uniform - common economic life and culture.

Being members of the nationalist SSP, our critics understandably but stupidly brand such elementary facts as “racist” - the idea of a British identity is obviously profoundly offensive to them. How our theory “gives succour to the most reactionary wing of Scottish nationalism” we can safely leave to their fetid logic. Suffice to say, in the face of a rising tide of nationalism in Scotland, the task of communists in the rest of Britain is not simply to expose the blatant lies of nationalism but to come forth as the foremost champions of self-determination - a right we wish to see exercised in favour of unity inside a federal republic. That explains why, unlike SML and its Communist Tendency allies, the CPGB rejected Blair’s sop of a monarchist semi-parliament. We called for an active boycott of the September 11 1997 referendum. Scotland, as a territory, with all its diverse peoples, including recent migrants, must be constitutionally free to determine its own future. (A similar attitude would be adopted if there was a nationalist movement in Orkney, Shetland, etc.) The Edinburgh parliament does not provide that freedom.

We take the same “bizarre” approach to Kosova. There is no greater Albanian nation comprising Albania, western Macedonia and Kosova. There is a six-million-strong Albanian nationality. If they want to unite into one state, so be it. That ought to be their democratic right. It should be pointed out however that the Kosova Liberation Army demands independence, not pan-Albanian unity ... and no one, even if they live in Edinburgh, should be able to decide otherwise. The people of Kosova - including the Serbs - should be masters of their common territory.

There are Albanians and Albanians. Just as there are British and British. Identity is invariably complex and multiple. The Albanians evolved from the Pelesgians/Illyrians sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. Needless to say, there are numerous Albanian dialects. Indeed over the last thousand years the main groups - Gheg in the south, and Tosk in the north - have diverged. Except at their extremes they are mutually unintelligible. Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are far closer (to say nothing of the English spoken in the British Isles). Moreover neither the Albanians of Kosova nor the Albanians of Macedonia share a common economy with the Albanians of Albania (there is also the historic division between Christian and Muslim). Either way the CPGB says ‘yes’ to self-determination - which, given the best outcome, would mean a Balkans federation.

Jack Conrad