Party notes: Scotland and English nationalism

The English are revolting? Jack Conrad looks at the national question in Britain

Yet again influential establishment voices have been raised, bitterly denouncing what is called England’s grossly unfair treatment compared with Scotland. Not only the usual suspects in and around the Tory high command have joined in the hue and cry, but liberal media pundits and a certain Ken Livingstone too. London is exploited by Scotland, he grumbles.

Tony Blair’s famously botched ministerial reshuffle has been eagerly pounced upon by those promoting English nationalism and fuelling short-sighted English resentments. John Reid - MP for Hamilton North and Belshill - is now minister of health. However, his remit only covers the national health service in England. Oh mortification and lamentation - the Holyrood parliament is responsible for healthcare in his constituency. According to English nationalists, this is a constitutional outrage of the first order.

Supposedly Reid’s appointment confirms the dire warnings issued by Tam Dalyell 25 years ago. This oddball Labourite opponent of devolution coined the so-called ‘West Lothian question’: how can an MP elected in Scotland have authority over England in conditions of a devolved Scottish parliament? A complete non-problem, except for a brittle constitutionalist in search of a ‘principled’ argument.

Not that this is half of it. Scotland accounts for around eight percent of the population of the United Kingdom. Despite that, Scotland has a disproportionate number of MPs in the House of Commons, runs the standard English nationalist protest. Even when they are reduced from 72 to 59 at the next general election, Scotland is still set to enjoy a distinct advantage. We are told that a ‘fair’ number would be around 36. Furthermore, Scotland receives more per head in tax revenues. For every £1 spent on the English the Scottish get £1.25. Some of that money comes from England - and, say critics, it is profligately wasted. Students and the elderly in Scotland thereby get a marginally better deal than their counterparts in England. What a heinous crime.

The complaints do not stop there. Scottish politicians are said to dominate New Labour. Blair was born and raised in Scotland. As was Lord Falconer, the minister of constitutional affairs, who effectively replaced Lord Ervine - another damned Scot! Likewise the speaker of the Commons. Then there is Gordon Brown, Gavin Strang and Alister Darling. Ian McCartney, party chair and a Scot to boot, had the cheek to get elected from Makerfield, an English constituency!

All this is portrayed as a sinister Scottish takeover of England and proof of Scottish greed and perfidy. Nonsense, of course. But dangerous nonsense, which the left must vigorously combat.

The idea that Scotland with its five million population can, or does, lord it over England with its 48 million population is a joke. However, the people of Scotland and England can be turned against each other. The divisive and debilitating effects of such internal nationalisms can be seen all too readily in Canada, Italy and Belgium - eg, Parti Québecois, Northern League and the Vlaams Blok.

Though it contradicts petty nationalist dogma, there is a British nation-state with origins in the 18th century, which incorporates England, Scotland and Wales. National consciousness is always complex and contested. But in the context of Britain it can certainly be described as dual - British-English, British-Scottish, British-Welsh. Till the middle of the 20th century Britain ruled a world empire and still ranks as an important imperialist power. Naturally there are mutual relations of interdependence but, to state the obvious, neither England nor Scotland are oppressed.

That so many Scots happily live in England and Scottish politicians occupy leading governmental positions is no bad thing. It testifies to integration. Our complaint is not over where someone happened to be born. That stinks of chauvinism and verges on xenophobia. Blair, Brown, Strang, Darling, etc are objectionable not on grounds of nationality, but because they are dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries who serve the capitalist system of exploitation. Class loyalty, not accident of birth, should be the criterion for properly assessing and judging politicians.

True, within Britain there is uneven economic development. Inevitable under the capitalist mode of production. South east England has grown faster and consequently sucks in waves of migrants. Twenty million now live there. Meanwhile traditional industries - such as steel, coal, shipbuilding and engineering - have declined. That particularly affected areas such as the Clyde and the central belt in Scotland, south Wales and northern England. Crucially though, over the last 30 years or so, even the semblance of class politics have been pushed to the margins. The defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ Great Strike proved a decisive moment.

Nationalism, ethnicity and the politics of identity serve as a kind of substitute. These pseudo-solidarities vie with each other for crumbs before the beneficent state ... and play directly into the hand of the ruling class. Divided, the working class is much more easily ruled.

Every mainstream party in Scotland nowadays dresses itself up in tartan garb and together they help promote an entirely bogus history of antagonism with England and the English. Take Bannockburn and 1341. It is celebrated as a heroic blow for Scottish independence against England - not as a battle between rival feudalists. Worse, the Scottish National Party is not alone in encouraging the belief that Scotland would be better off separated from the English. Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes of the Scottish Socialist Party promote independence as the cutting edge of their programme for national socialism. Disgracefully members of the Socialist Worker platform have - with a few honourable exceptions - adopted an almost total diplomatic silence over this. The last SSP conference actually saw them voting as a bloc in favour of prioritising independence as an aim in election propaganda!

Obviously the stirrings of English nationalism are a reaction to Scottish (and Welsh) nationalism. And for those below the results are bound to be equally barren.

Does that mean communists and revolutionary socialists should respond by dismissing the national question? In other words can nationalism be successfully combated by counterposing to it a national nihilism and an abstract socialism? No, it cannot. Socialism can only be achieved by wholeheartedly championing and massively extending democracy. Indeed socialism is victory in the battle for democracy.

Britain is not the last word in democracy - a cruel national myth. Rather it is quasi- or semi-democratic. The constitution is the least democratic our rulers can get away with. Democracy is hobbled and hollowed out by all manner of institutional checks and balances, such as the monarchy, the royal prerogative, the House of Lords, a presidential prime minister, judge-made law, etc. Above all the means of production and armed bodies such as the police and the army remain as far removed from democratic control as feasibly possible. That is why communists favour a through-going democratisation and giving democracy a definite social content.

This is summed up in our slogan for a federal republic. If there were no national question in Scotland and Wales, then reorganising the British part of the UK as an England-Scotland-Wales federal republic would be a profoundly retrograde step. In general, and as a matter of principle, communists favour centralised republics.

However, undeniably since the early-1970s Scotland and Wales have experienced growing and palpable nationalist sentiments. That demands a concrete programmatic answer. Trying to ignore nationalism is as good as useless, if not positively harmful. Hence, as part and parcel of the fight for extreme democracy, we advocate the right of people in Scotland and Wales to exercise self-determination through a federal republic.

Does that necessitate reinventing Scotland and Wales as oppressed nations? Hardly. Non-oppressed nations, such as the USA, Germany, France, etc, freely exercise self-determination - and so they should. Only an ignorant fool or an anti-democrat would argue differently.

Our plan for Scottish and Welsh self-determination is specifically designed to confront and defeat separatism, using the tried and tested weapons of unity and democracy. Hence, though nationalists are prone to imagine otherwise, self-determination does not automatically imply independence. On the contrary self-determination denotes the existence of a constitutional right to opt either for independence or unity - as the majority sees fit. For our part we urge ever closer unity.

Instead of merely weakening the existing UK state by breaking away a small component kingdom, our intention is to sweep away the whole royal-bureaucratic assemblage - making ready the launch pad for the CPGB’s maximum programme of universal human liberation and communism.