Scotland: Independence fight looms

Scotland is not an oppressed nation, declares James Turley

The issue of Scottish independence, which seemed to recede as the economic crisis started to bite in various peripheral economies in Europe, has been propelled back onto the agenda by the Scottish National Party’s crushing victory in the Holyrood elections in May.

That made some kind of referendum on Scottish secession from the union more or less inevitable - barring a most unlikely total collapse of Alex Salmond’s administration in the short term. It is yet another headache for a Westminster government already feeling a little tense in the temples, and the practicalities of a campaign for independence are coming to the fore.

Most recently, ComRes conducted a poll of English adults on the question. This is not exactly a hypothetical issue; the Westminster parties, and the Tories in particular, are liable to throw every imaginable obstacle in the way of the SNP, and Michael Moore (the minister for Scotland, not the firebrand left-liberal filmmaker) has already suggested rather craftily that, as the union is an English issue too, the English (and Welsh) should have a say in any referendum.

Well, the results are in - a little under half favour maintaining the union, with 36% supporting Scottish independence. Exactly what that implies really depends on who you ask - the BBC, which commissioned the poll, emphasises the 48% against independence and the 45% in favour of a nationwide referendum.[1] This is clearly the interpretation favoured by ComRes, who read into it a mandate for giving England and Wales their own poll on the issue.

The Scotsman, meanwhile, opens its article on the subject by saying that “support for Scottish independence is as strong in England as it is north of the border, according to the latest polling evidence”. Alex Salmond clearly agrees: “We welcome this poll, as it shows that the ordinary people of England are quite relaxed about Scotland becoming independent.”[2]

So who has it right? Should Salmond be jumping for joy or crying into his beer? The truth is that it is a bit of both. It truly is quite statistically remarkable that support for independence is indeed more or less identical north and south of the border. Polls in Scotland place support between 25% and 38%, and clear opposition consistently at about 45%-50%. The ComRes figures are comfortably within those ranges.

Salmond should certainly be encouraged that the English people do not, at first glance, appear to be a solid bloc of unionists; government strategists, meanwhile, will wonder where all this apparent goodwill for Scottish nationalism has come from, and will have work to do in order to get the English more convincingly on side.

The SNP should be worried, however, that this work may not be all that difficult. Much of the favourable sentiment for independence will be a deflection of narrow, English-chauvinist interests - particularly, the tendency for MPs to bray about Scotland receiving ‘too much’ money from Westminster will be at the fore of many people’s minds. That spurious economic logic may be outweighing an ideological commitment to the union in the minds of some.

Indeed, there is a real material basis for this phenomenon, and it is partly the same basis as for Scottish nationalism. The long and painful process of deindustrialisation has resulted in an enormously lopsided geographical and institutional distribution of economic activity. Put simply, money flows into the City of London, is half-heartedly skimmed for tax takings, and flows back out. The result is that London as such is an economic unit unto itself, in a very unequal relationship with the rest of the country.

Against the background of the real existence of a Scottish national question, it appears as though England exploits and oppresses Scotland, and there is thus a real basis for Scottish nationalism to become a more serious force than it has previously been. Conversely, there is a real basis for a backlash, for English people inside and especially outside the capital to grow resentful of the ‘unfair’ benefits for Scotland and Wales.

Those people will be susceptible to a change in tack from the political class, and such a change is inevitable, as the battle heats up. Even if Salmond somehow neutralises an all-Britain referendum on the union, that hardly exhausts the means of obstructing Scottish self-determination. Salmond enjoyed support north of the border from the Murdoch press in May - how long will that last? We should expect a barrage of unionist propaganda from these quarters and others. Should all this fail, legal-technical pedantry will be brought to bear - and then there is the small matter of negotiations over North Sea oil, public finances ...

The idea of an all-Britain referendum on Scottish independence is dangerous because it is based on a half-truth. It is quite correct that this is not only a question for the Scottish, but also for the English. National borders are ultimately an encumbrance for the working class - another means by which the bourgeoisie can keep itself in charge. The relations between the different British nationalities have very real political consequences for all of us, and it is quite correct for the English working class to take a serious political interest in these affairs - just as women’s liberation is also a question for men, racism for whites and so on.

The left has generally failed on this question in two ways. Most prominently there is a recent history of left nationalism in Scotland itself, particularly in the form of the Scottish Socialist Party. That organisation committed itself to the goal of an “independent socialist Scotland”; over the years, the formulation has become increasingly front-loaded, and an independent capitalist Scotland is basically seen as a step forward by the comrades. The logic of such nationalist projects engenders, in fact, quite the opposite result - demobilisation, defeat, and reliance on patronage from Brussels, as opposed to London. Any left organisation caught giving cover to that kind of disaster is doomed to failure - that is, if the SSP had not already spectacularly imploded anyway.

The opposite error is economism - specifically, the failure to understand that there truly is a democratic question here, that even if independence would solve exactly none of the Scottish masses’ problems and exacerbate not a few, it is nonetheless theirs to claim if they want it. (Abstention on the national question is an old ultra-leftist error, but it has other uses - the Socialist Workers Party, for instance, went from open hostility to Scottish nationalism to dismissing its significance as a mere ‘tactical issue’ precisely so it could paper over its differences with the SSP majority.)

The communist position on this is quite clear - Scotland has the right to self-determination. If the Scottish masses truly get behind separation from the union, then it is the job of communists and all working class forces to see that this demand is realised. Michael Moore’s idea is an attempt to dress up the denial of self-determination in pseudo-democratic verbiage - in fact, it is the antithesis of democracy, the reinforcement of the power of the bourgeois state over popular sovereignty.

It is nevertheless not our job to advocate separation. In some circumstances, this may be sadly necessary; it was certainly necessary to oppose the colonial ‘union’ of Britain and Ireland, and the various reactionary compromises - ‘home rule’, the maintenance of the union in the Six Counties - that have succeeded it, for example.

Scotland is not an oppressed nation. It participated in the British empire (in some quarters more enthusiastically even than the English), and it has benefited from the resultant superprofits accordingly. That this is no longer obvious is due, as I have said, to the obscene centralisation of economic power and political authority in London, and it makes no more sense to call Scotland oppressed than it does to call Yorkshire oppressed. To argue anything else is simply to peddle historically illiterate left-nationalist obscurantism.

The present union between England, Scotland and Wales (not to mention the Northern Ireland statelet) is not a voluntary union of peoples. It is a union of crowns, won in blood and fire centuries ago. Any democratic resolution of this issue means attacking the British state as a whole, whose denial of self-determination to Britain’s national components is only one of innumerable affronts to democracy.

Communists aim for the unity of all British workers against the state that governs us all, and the capitalist class that exploits us. We demand a federal republic of Scotland, England and Wales - that is the way to win a union of three nationalities based on solidarity and fraternity, not the market and the threat of force.


  1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-13995097
  2. The Scotsman July 5.