Scotland and working class unity

In an edited version of a talk given to the CPGB's Communist University 2000, Neil Davidson, author of The origins of Scottish nationhood and a member of the Socialist Workers Party, argues that the Scottish nation is a reality, but socialists should not make a principle out of arguing for its separation from Britain

When did the Scottish nation come into being? Most accounts, including those by Marxists like John Foster, assume that it has existed since around the late 13th century, the decisive period in its formation being that of the Wars of Independence from 1296 until around 1327. The key piece of evidence to support this claim is, of course, the Declaration of Arbroath, signed by sections of the Scottish feudal baronage in 1320.

Although a unified Scottish state clearly existed from 1057, I have always found the idea of a feudal Scottish nation as being inherently implausible. The barons who signed the Declaration of Arbroath scarcely regarded the peasants whose labour provided their wealth as fully human, let alone members of a national community. In the Marxist tradition, nationhood has been associated with the development of capitalism, at least since the publication of Lenin's The right of nations to self-determination in 1913. But essentially the same position is taken by the more materialist bourgeois sociologists, like Ernest Gellner, although they tend to see industrialisation, rather than capitalism per se, as the decisive factor.

If you say Scotland is an exception to this rule, you then leave yourself open to arguments saying the same thing for virtually every other nation, in Europe at least: for the Scottish William Wallace, the French Joan of Arc; for the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, the English Magna Carta in 1213 ; for the Scottish Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the Serbian battle of Kosova in 1389. And so on.

The question remains, however, of when Scottish nationhood did come into existence. The need to answer this question was brought home to me when I was writing a book about the Scottish bourgeois revolution, which will be published next year (there is a summary of the basic argument in the collection, Scotland, class and nation). I date the revolution between 1688 and 1746. Now, the reason for this is quite important, because Scotland was a backward country compared to most countries in western Europe. In terms of its social structure and levels of economic development it was far closer to Poland than England, or even a more developed feudal state like France. The Scottish bourgeoisie were incapable of achieving a revolution on their own, and therefore the moment when the Scottish bourgeois revolution becomes possible is really 1688, when the English Revolution is completed and England becomes an ally for the Scottish bourgeoisie in overcoming and helping to destroy Scottish feudalism, a process completed after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

It is obvious in the case of Scotland that the development of the capitalist economy largely happened after the bourgeois revolution, rather than before it - which is unusual, but made possible by the relationship with England. But bourgeois revolutions usually produce a moment of capitalist state formation when a national consciousness is also created: France and America are obvious examples. That could not be the case with Scotland, however, because one of the key moments in the Scottish revolution, the Act of Union in 1707, rather than forming a Scottish state, actually dissolved it.

Could the formation of the Scottish nation therefore have taken place after the union, not before it, as everyone assumes? Was it was actually a product of the formation of Great Britain? In my opinion the Scottish nation and the British nation both come into existence jointly after 1707. It is now fairly well established, by Linda Colley among others, that Britishness is a product of the different nations that comprise the United Kingdom. But I think the reverse is also true: that Scotland has partly been formed and created by the existence of the British state and a British nation. Let me begin the argument by defining my terms.

First, nationhood is subjective, by which I simply mean that the only way you can actually say that a nation exists is when a group of people collectively consider themselves to be one, when they come to possess a national consciousness. Nevertheless, it is clear that material factors - namely, processes of development associated with the origins of the capitalist system - had to occur in order for that form of collective consciousness to arise in the first place.

My disagreement with the checklist of factors offered by Stalin as defining a nation (in his pamphlet 'Marxism and the national question') is not that I think language, economy, geography and so on are unimportant - clearly I do, since I argue in The origins of Scottish nationhood that these things are part of what prevented Scotland from becoming a nation and allowed England to do so. But these were only decisive in the initial formation of nations in the united Netherlands, England, and subsequently America and France. They are not an eternal, ahistorical measure of whether a nation exists or not. Around 1848, the nation-state, with an attendant national consciousness, becomes the typical and universal form of state under capitalism and the specific components no longer needed to be present - or they could be invented from scratch.

Take the Italian state, for example, which was formed in the 1860s. The dialect that became the Italian language was spoken by two and a half percent of the population and was imposed on the rest by the state as part of an effort to unite them. Massimo d'Azeglio, the Piedmontese politician, said, "We have made Italy: now we must make Italians." In other words, 'We have made the state: now we must make the nation', and of course they did, regardless of the absence of the lack of any basis in language, geography or common economy.

Second, national consciousness is different from nationalism, and can exist without it. The former is a more or less passive expression of collective identification by a social group; the latter is the more or less active participation of a social group for the construction or defence of a state. In one sense this is the difference between culture and politics, although culture can in some circumstances also be intensely political. Most Scots - to the endless chagrin of nationalists - display a high level of Scottish national consciousness, but a low level of Scottish nationalism.

Third, the attitude of socialists to nationalism has to begin from the fact that it is a necessary part of the capitalist system; it did not precede it, and will not survive it. The nation-state is not simply a matter of economic convenience for local capitalist classes, but the means by which they secure their hegemony over the working class. Nobody says to workers that they must take pay cuts, pay high taxes, accept job losses, etc, to save the capitalist system, or any part of it. They say you must do these things for Britain, or for Scotland, in the 'national interest'. It is the way in which reformism helps to bind the working class to the capitalist state. And in the absence of clear internationalist class consciousness it provides an alternative form of collective identity which is both an expression of and a partial consolation for the alienation endemic under capitalism. For this reason, even where socialists support particular national movements against imperialism or for democratic rights - and there are many places in the world where that is still an urgent task - they never 'paint it red' or sow illusions in the extent of the radicalism of which it is capable.

I mentioned earlier the elements that were important in the initial formation of national consciousness. There are four of these. First, the construction of trading networks - interconnected markets and so on - which set the spatial boundaries of a distinct economic area. Second, the use within these networks of a particular language, which allows people to trade and for bureaucratic instruction and communication to take place. Third, the rise of absolutism, which not only tended to abandon the fuzzy boundaries of the old estate monarchies for definite state borders, but also strengthened both economic networks and linguistic comprehensibility through the centralised raising of taxes and military force. Fourth, and finally, what Eric Hobsbawm calls proto-nationalism - although I prefer to call it proto-national consciousness - where an older form of collective identity, usually regnal solidarity with a particular dynasty or some form of protestant Christianity, becomes the basis of national consciousness once the other three were in place.

In the 1690s Scotland was extremely backward economically, and this can be demonstrated quite clearly by two examples. The first is the Darien expedition, the attempt to establish an empire in the Panamanian Isthmus by the Scottish state. This was a disastrous failure, usually blamed partly on the English and partly on the Spanish empire. The real reason for the Darien disaster was that neither the Scottish state nor Scottish civil society was capable of actually sustaining a project of that sort. It simply did not have the resources. It was a desperate throw to try to overleap a developmental impasse, and one which ended with something like a third to a half of national capital wasted in the scheme.

The second is the great famine of the 1690s. This was not some minor blip in an otherwise smooth economic ascent (as many Scottish historians now claim), but a disaster which killed off about a fifth of the population. Only two countries in Europe did not suffer from famine in the 1690s - England and the united Netherlands, the two countries that had burst through into capitalist development at this time. Scotland had not, which is why it suffered catastrophically.

These were the kind of setbacks that pushed some sections of the Scottish ruling class towards a union with England. They had a common language, English: the early Scottish intellectuals and writers were under no illusion that they spoke something called Scots. They knew they spoke English.

The trouble is, from the point of view of developing a Scottish nation, as soon as you go past the highland line, there is a completely different language: Irish or Gaelic. The fact that people spoke Gaelic meant they were completely separate, in the sense of not being able to communicate with the people in the lowlands - a major barrier to any kind of national formation. Similarly the absolutist state was incredibly weak in Scotland.

Although Protestantism, and specifically Presbyterianism, was extremely important, it was virtually the only component of national consciousness that Scotland had up to the late 17th century. Even so, this was only the case in the lowlands, and excluded Catholics and - of much greater numerical importance - Episcopalians, the majority of whom lived north of the Tay and particularly in the highlands.

When Scotland was absorbed into the new British state after the Treaty of Union, there was only the very beginnings of some kind of national consciousness in the lowlands - but nothing in the highlands. People in the highlands did not think of themselves as belonging to a nation: they could not have done. They could see themselves as being Scottish only in the sense of having some distant allegiance to a Scottish king (who also happened to be the English king). There was not the level of development there to sustain a national idea.

The crucial turning point was 1746, with the destruction of Scottish feudalism by the military force of the British state. The highlanders were made to carry the blame for the Jacobean rising in 1745-46. They were demonised as a barbaric alien intrusion into both lowland Scotland and England, who brought the nation almost to the brink of disaster. In fact the Jacobites were not the highland movement: they were largely based in the north east lowlands. Ironically the highlanders actually made up most of the troops who fought the uprising. But the highlanders were cast into the role of 'the other'.

In addition the English press of the time took the highlanders to represent Scotland as a whole. There was a campaign equating all Scots with highlanders, and all highlanders with Jacobites. They were all represented as backward, and as supporting absolutism and Catholicism. Leading members of the tiny Scottish bourgeoisie had increasingly considered themselves British for at least 100 years. From about 1603 onwards, with the unity of the crowns, there had been an argument for a British entity.

A certain Scot named Samuel Vetch, almost as soon as the union treaty had been signed, asked London for help in invading Canada to establish a British empire outpost there. The point is, Vetch spoke about Britishness, and associated it with empire. Ulster was the first place where people, including many Scots, spoke about themselves as being British. Part of the reason was that they were settlers in an imperial colonial situation.

This situation was reproduced on a huge scale in America, which is absolutely crucial to the story of the development of the British nation. It was around about the time of the wars for control of Canada in the 1750s and 1760s, and in the War of Independence, that Britishness was really forged. Curiously though, it was the highlands which now played a major role in bringing the British nation into being. The role of highlanders was central for two reasons.

Firstly, they proved themselves as warriors, as a vanguard of British imperialism. They demonstrated that they were prepared to do battle on behalf of the British state and could be trusted. It is no accident that in the 1790s it was the highland troops who were called on first to fight against the growing radical movement in the lowlands.

The second important role of the highlanders was that of colonists. In North Carolina highlanders fought on the side of the crown. The same crown, the same Hanoverian regime, that slaughtered their relatives and friends, yet after Culloden they are fighting for that regime in America, against the revolutionary movement. This illustrates the difference between the highlands and Ireland. The Irish Presbyterians, by and large, fought on the side of the revolutionary armies against Britain. Highlanders, who were also Presbyterians by this time, fought on the side of the crown.

The Presbyterian Irish - the Scots Irish, as they were called - saw the struggle in America in a sense as being an extension of the struggle in Ireland. They had fled Ireland to get away from the oppression there. But there had been a sea change in the attitude of the highlanders. Partly it was fear after what happened at Culloden. Partly it was the attitude of their clan chiefs, who were landlords by this time. They had taken them over to America and were now actively supporting the Hanoverian regime. Partly it was because they were given land. So there was a complex set of reasons for their supporting the crown, and this is the second factor in shifting the attitude of the British state towards the highlanders: their role as colonists.

When industrialisation began, from roughly 1790 onwards, it was a cataclysmic experience in Scottish history, which sucked in highlanders into the great industrial towns of the south west: into Glasgow, Paisley, Falkirk. As the geographical barrier of the highland line became less important, as people mixed and exchanged views, as people from the lowlands settled on farms in the highlands, it became apparent that highlander and lowlander had more in common than either had previously thought.

Then there was the attitude of the Scottish enlightenment. The great intellectuals of the Scottish bourgeoisie were beginning to think of themselves as both British and Scottish, with the highlands and the lowlands uniting to form a Scottishness which would not have existed before. They needed what all bourgeoisies need at this point in their formation: a great national myth. And they discovered it in the so-called writings of Ossian, the great third century blind harper.

This was the new Homeric saga, the great work which gave legitimacy to Scottish culture, a legitimacy that was violently defended by the Scottish intelligentsia. Samuel Johnson famously denounced the whole thing, as he did most things Scottish, but only two or three of the enlightenment figures actually cast doubt on the legitimacy or reality of Ossian.

So there was an attempt to rehabilitate the highlands, through a culture that was partly invented, partly rediscovered from the Gaelic tradition, partly adapted from Irish sources. Walter Scott is the person who, more than any other author, embodied this contradictory attitude. In his novels he portrayed the highlands as having a glorious, dramatic, romantic past, that was, however, now over. We can look back on feudalism, the whole clan society, as a heroic past to celebrate, but those days are gone, and now we need to get on with making money and running the empire - that was the message.

The final stage in the foundation of both Scottishness and Britishness comes with the arrival of industrialisation, and the creation of the working class itself. It is difficult to conceive of the change that took place in Scotland, in a matter of 25 years, between about 1780 and the first decade of the 19th century. England had 300-400 years of slow development, punctuated by the odd civil war and revolution, but by and large it took from about 1381 through to 1688 for agrarian capitalism to finally become established.

In Scotland these 300 years were compressed into less than 30. Agrarian transformation takes place roughly between the 1760s and the 1780s. The industrial development takes place in another 20 years. Cities spring up. Glasgow grows to about five or six times its size. There are miles of street built in 1781 alone, extending the boundaries in a way that would still be dramatic today.

All of this had a completely shattering effect on people's consciousness. The process sucked in highlanders on the one hand, and people from Ireland on the other, people who were now being pulled into the cities, and the industrialisation process. The intensity of this experience explains the greater industrial militancy of Scottish workers at this point - certainly in the general strike of 1820. Not only is there a much more militant, much more politically aware working class, but there is also an unreformed state, which has carried forward elements of feudal absolutism. (I am not suggesting, incidentally, that Scottish workers are intrinsically more militant than English workers, because the historical record simply does not bear out such a claim. But the historical conditions of the time meant that they temporarily were in advance of their English brothers and sisters.)

But what were the slogans under which the Scottish working class went into struggle after 1815? Here the matter is absolutely clear: the kind of slogans they advanced were the slogans of the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, 1688, evoking the great English struggle for liberty. Indeed this was a slogan that both the rival bourgeoisie and the working class used: England is the land of liberty. People sang God save the king at radical meetings, as well as Burns's 'Scots Wha Hae' (which was also sung by English radicals). Britishness, a British nation, is the identity which is being asserted - against the British state. The Scottish nation is also present, but it is not politically determinant.

The struggles from 1792 to 1820 were not conducted on the basis of trying to establish a separate Scottish state. They were conducted with the aim of overthrowing, re-forming and democratising the British state. In a period where the bourgeois revolution had been accomplished and the proletarian revolution was not yet possible, it was very unclear where they were going to end up, but essentially it was a British project. Consequently, the alliances between radicals were formed on an all-British basis. Ireland was obviously different, because of the colonial situation there. But, certainly in terms of England and Scotland, alliances were struck in order to transform Britain.

Why was British consciousness, and British identity, more important than Scottish identity for the working class movement? It is obvious why that was the case for the Scottish bourgeoisie. In a sense they had not only bought into the British state, but had been largely responsible for it. They were its driving force intellectually, the mainstays of its military presence abroad and, increasingly, at the forefront of its industrial production. The Scottish enlightenment was in the vanguard of international bourgeois thought of the period, and so I am always amused when I read in the Nairn-Anderson thesis about how Britain was supposed to have lacked a revolutionary bourgeois ideology.

Leaving that aside, in terms of the working class, I think there are four factors.

First - and this is the crucial difference with Ireland - there was no distinction in material conditions dividing Scottish and English workers. In Ireland itself, there clearly was a growing distinction between catholic and protestant, in the sense that protestant workers were getting fairly marginal, but in the context of the times significant, privileges, as against catholic workers. There were no distinctions of that sort that could block the unity of the British working class. That is a negative factor.

Second, and more positively, Scottishness itself had been completely reconstructed by industrialisation. The old idea of what it meant to be Scottish - which was fundamentally a lowland, rural notion - had been totally transformed by industrialisation, urbanisation and the influx of workers from Ireland and the highlands. Even the geographical centre of Scotland shifted from the east coast to the southwest. In a sense there was a completely new nation at this point.

Third, the fact that the new industrial Scotland had arisen at the same time as in England meant that the experience of workers on both sides of the border was the same. More importantly, it was the same British state that had to be fought for political rights, and Scottish and English workers felt themselves to be allies in this struggle.

Fourth, and finally, the Scots did not have any real radical tradition of their own. Movements need some sense of history. When national movements arise, they want to look back, and they want to bring the heroisms of the past into play today. But the Scots do not have very much. They have William Wallace, and then after a leap of 300 years the Covenanters, great guerrilla fighters against the absolutist state between 1660 and 1688. But there is not very much else besides that. However, they could tap into the English tradition in the same way as their bourgeois predecessors and opponents.

1820 is the point where I would draw a line under the formation of the British nation, because it now includes the working class that has sprung up in the previous 25-30 years. The joint struggles that took place in this period were crucial.

Walter Scott wrote an interesting letter to his son in 1826, bemoaning the fact that the Scottish working class were learning from English workers. That is why he believed it was important to emphasise Scottishness. That would, he hoped, stop them being sucked into forming trade unions, and becoming 'damned mischievous Englishmen'.

The whole bizarre fiasco of George IV's visit to Leith in 1822 had the same purpose. He arrived wearing a kilt and pink tights and was greeted by Edinburgh burgesses and highland landlords alike, similarly bedecked. Their kilts had mostly been designed a couple of months beforehand. That fact that this took place two years after the 1820 general strike was no accident.

So what are the political implications of all this for today? First of all, I am not saying that any of it rules out self-determination for Scotland, or even an independent Scotland at some point. But it does rule out the kind of arguments that are usually put forward as for why this should be the case.

Socialist supporters of Scottish independence usually invoke the positions held by John Maclean towards the end of his life. I think, however, you have to look at John Maclean's turn in that direction as part of a number of strategies - including his attempts to organise the unemployed - which he developed after 1920 to deal with the fact of working class retreat. It was based on a wrong analysis, which treated Scotland as comparable to Ireland, when in fact the two nations were the product of quite different patterns of historical development. What Connolly correctly argued for in Ireland was simply inappropriate in Scotland, because Scotland did not fit into the same kind of historical trajectory.

It is one of the great tragedies of the British and international left that Maclean did not join the CPGB when it was formed. He was quite wrong not to do so. Although it was never a very large party, by 1924 the CPGB was, along with Italian, one of the few properly functioning communist parties in the Comintern. Had Maclean been part of it, he might have helped it resist the political directions imposed on it later on by Zinoviev and Stalin. By 1920, Connolly, Reed, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were all dead. Maclean was, along with Gramsci, one of the few outstanding figures left in the international movement.

None of this is to detract from Maclean's achievements. Still less does it mean accepting the myth that he was driven mad by his experience in prison, but we honour a great revolutionary by honestly assessing and embracing what was best in his work - his internationalism and opposition to imperialist war - not by repeating mistaken positions taken in a period of defeat.

From the point of view of the bourgeoisie there is of course a perfectly rational case to be made for an independent Scottish capitalist state, and it is made regularly in the pages of The Scotsman by a man called George Kerevan, an ex-Trotskyist member of the SNP who now argues for a Thatcherite economic programme for Scotland.

It would mean doing what was done in the Irish Republic: creating a haven for capital with low wages and high taxation of the working class. But it is not very convincing to say, 'Vote for us, and we will establish an independent Scotland in which the American multinationals will come in and pay really low wages. They will pay low direct taxes, but workers will pay extra indirect taxes like they did in Ireland.' You cannot really inspire people to vote for your party on that basis. So the myths have to come into play.

If, as I am saying, under conditions of capitalism national identity, national consciousness is universal, then the role of myth is also universal, in terms of comprising the usually completely false histories of these nations. It is the job of Marxists and revolutionaries to demystify these things, to explain reality and expose the myths.

We must, however, also cut away some of the romantic illusions held by sections of the left. There is not only the fantasy of Scotland being in some way an oppressed nation. There is another argument, that Scotland has a particular kind of 'good' civic nationalism, as opposed to the 'bad' ethnic nationalisms, of for example the Serbs, or perhaps the English, whose nationalism manifests itself in football hooliganism and beating people up in Belgium. The complacency of these assertions is profoundly dangerous.

Leaving aside the racial attacks which black people in Scotland regularly undergo (and which are proportionately higher than in England, incidentally), the campaign against abolition of section 28 surely demonstrated, if nothing else, that there is nothing intrinsically progressive about Scotland's civic culture. Clearly, all the elements are there for a rightwing reaction. I do not suggest this is going to happen next week, but there is a minority basis for it. Scotland with its Presbyterian tradition has had heroic moments, but also has had an oppressive, imperialist tradition as well.

Where does this leave the question of socialists and Scottish independence? In the absence of any national oppression this is a tactical question, not a matter of principle. If there was a massive SNP or SSP vote and a Scottish administration intent on separation was formed, but the British state refused to recognise it, then clearly there would be a question of national oppression. Scottish independence would have to be supported.

That is an extreme example, but let us assume a more likely one where Blair holds a plebiscite and it was posed in such a way that the Blair project was on one side and Scotland separating was on the other. In these circumstances socialists would say we were for independence.

More generally, however, there are situations where the slogan of independence would be irrelevant or even damaging, particularly if the anti-capitalist mood takes shape as a general wave of struggle on an all-British basis.

The unity of the British working class was forged in the struggles at the time of industrialisation. Most of the subsequent victories for our class have been a result of that unity. Where the working classes have been defeated in the different component nations, it has often been where they have entered into struggle separately, or accepted nationalist arguments (think of those used against picketing Ravenscraig during the miners' strike of 1984-85 about the need to save 'Scotland's' steel industry, etc).

What it would be impermissible for socialists to do in the pursuit of maintaining that unity, however, is to allow the slightest suggestion that maintaining the unity of the British working class also involves maintaining the unity of the British imperialist state. Avoiding that trap will be one of the biggest challenges facing socialists in Scotland in the coming period.