Scottish independence and the struggle for socialism

Alan McCombes is the editor of Scottish Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Scottish Socialist Party.

For socialists, internationalism has always been a sacred principle. "The workingmen have no country", declared the founders of scientific socialism 150 years ago.

In 1863, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels founded the International Workingmen's Association, the First International. The movement was created in recognition of the fact that the world was not a patchwork quilt of hermetically sealed national states, but a chain of interlinked nations in which major events in a single country could have continent-wide, and even worldwide, repercussions.

This world view was dramatically borne out by the events of 1917-1919, when the successful Bolshevik revolution immediately ignited a forest fire of mass revolutionary movements across Europe.

More recently, in the 1960s, the US ruling class expounded the "domino theory", and attempted to bomb Vietnam into oblivion for fear that "godless communism" would sweep through the whole of east Asia.

The same fears dictated the behaviour of the Reagan government towards the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Fearing the spread of revolution into other parts of Central America, and eventually into Mexico and South America, the US government imposed an economic blockade and threatened full-scale military intervention against a country with a population less than half that of Scotland.

At the turn of the 1990s, in a distorted variant of workers internationalism, a series of local demonstrations in Leipzig against the East German regime expanded into a movement which eventually engulfed the whole of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The movement, which began in a single city, eventually led to the restoration of capitalism across a third of the planet and to the resurrection of ancient ethnic rivalries which had long lain dormant.

As a new millennium approaches, the internationalist principles promoted by Karl Marx are more relevant than ever before. In the era of transcontinental capitalism and instantaneous worldwide communication via telephone, satellite TV and the internet, the existence of 193 separate nation states, each with its own national economy and state apparatus, is a relic from an earlier technological stage.

Even sections of the capitalist class have now been forced to face up to the historical obsolescence of the nation state by, for example, forming larger trading blocs and regional alliances.

The launch of a single European currency at the start of 1999 represented a further step in the direction of pan-European political union. Although the project may unravel in the foreseeable future, particularly if Europe is plunged into a severe recession or slump, it is nonetheless clear that big business feels itself increasingly restrained by national borders and the existence of a mish-mash of different currencies, labour laws and fiscal regimes.

Nation and class

From an opposite class standpoint, socialists also strive to overcome national barriers as we strive towards our ultimate goal of a new world based on international socialist cooperation. We rightly reject any political ideology which preaches solidarity on the basis of race, language, culture or geography as incompatible with socialism and instead promote solidarity on the basis of class, irrespective of nationality, religion or ethnic origin.

These are elementary principles. But just as a child will never learn to read and write simply by reciting by rote the letters of the alphabet, socialists will never build a movement capable of overthrowing capitalism without going beyond the ABCs of scientific socialism.

Karl Marx himself, who in words and deeds strove to unite the working class across national borders, nonetheless supported the struggles of the Irish people and the Polish people for independent nationhood. Marx recognised that victory for the Irish people and the Polish people would strike twin blows against British imperialism and the tsarist empire, which in turn could open the floodgates of revolution across Europe.

Later, in the early part of the twentieth century, Lenin was accused by members of his own party of "nationalist-socialism" because he developed a program on the national question which went beyond the repetition of basic internationalist slogans.

Following the disintegration of the totalitarian Stalinist states of Eastern Europe, it has become fashionable to disparage Lenin as a despot who introduced totalitarian rule into Russia. However, as opposed to the authoritarian tyrant of academic mythology, Lenin's writings and speechesbefore, during and after the Russian Revolutionare saturated with the spirit of democracy, not least of all on the national question.

Within a few years of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the centralised, repressive and autocratic tsarist state had been dismantled and replaced by a highly decentralised structure. A genuinely democratic federation had begun to take shape, within which, irrespective of their size, the various republics were granted equal representation in the government. Small nations that wished to secede were set free; new democratic republics were established in territories which had known only vicious persecution; and smaller territories with no national history were granted varying degrees of autonomy.

New nations were created by the Russian Revolution. New alphabets were even invented in order to facilitate the development of national languages.

It was precisely over the national question that Lenin's opposition to the bureaucratic methods of Stalin finally erupted into open conflict. From his deathbed, Lenin lambasted Stalin for his Great Russian chauvinism in his dealings with the smaller nationalities and for his reckless and ill-informed accusations of "nationalist-socialism" against the Georgian Bolsheviks. Stalin in turn accused Lenin of "national liberalism".

Unfortunately, the death of Lenin paved the way for the rise to power of this "Great Russian bully" as Lenin described him (notwithstanding Stalin's Georgian origins).1 This in turn led to the eventual suppression of democracy and national rights in the USSR in violation of every elementary principle of socialism.

Although we live in a completely different society from that which confronted Lenin, the basic method by which Lenin approached the national question retains its validity.

Long before the Russian Revolution, Lenin had recognised that the national question presented an opportunity as well as a danger to the socialist movement.

"We would be poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat's great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilize every popular movement against every single imperialist misfortune…"

Writing in 1916 about the Easter Rising in Dublin, Lenin said:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe … is to repudiate social revolution. So one army must line up and say "we are for socialism" and another say "we are for imperialism" and this will be the social revolution! Whoever expects to see such a pure revolution will never live to see it …

The socialist revolution cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements.2

And while pointing out that, as a general rule, socialists favour bigger, broader, multinational states, Lenin carefully added the qualification: "all other conditions being equal."3

As a general rule, Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood for "the right of nations to self-determination". The leaders of the Polish Marxist movement, including Karl Radek and the heroic revolutionary fighter Rosa Luxemburg, opposed this formula as a "national reformist" slogan.

Fired with revolutionary internationalist zeal and contemptuous of the narrow parochialism of the Polish upper and middle classes, Rosa Luxemburg and her co-leaders of the Polish Marxist movement went overboard in the opposite direction. In concentrating purely on the class issues, they denied even the possibility of national liberation.

This in turn meant abandoning big sections of the working class to the Polish Socialist Party—in reality a nationalist party, socialist in name only—whose leader, Joseph Pilsudski, went on to become fascist dictator of Poland.

Replying to the criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg that his policy in favour of the right of nations to self-determination would foment national divisions, Lenin drew an analogy with human relationships and the right to divorce. Supporting the right to divorce did not mean advocating that every marriage should dissolve, he argued.

However Lenin's analogy has frequently been interpreted in a one-sided manner, particularly by those socialists who imagine that the task of socialists is simply to counterpose international socialism to demands for national independence irrespective of the circumstances.

"Standing for the right to divorce does not mean advocating divorce … We are in favour of a loving, voluntary union", declared one socialist polemicist in the UK, arguing against the idea of Scottish independence.

Of course, no-one would oppose "a loving, voluntary union" whether in the sphere of politics or personal relations. But when a marriage has ceased to be "a loving, voluntary union" even the most optimistic marriage guidance counsellor is sometimes forced to recommend divorce.

Lenin illustrated his analogy by citing the example of the secession of Norway from Sweden following an overwhelming referendum vote in favour of independence by the Norwegian people. Rather than weakening links between the working classes of the two nations, by removing the national resentment of Norway towards its larger and more powerful neighbour, relations between the two improved, Lenin argued.4

Since then, the independent countries of Scandinavia have evolved a quasi-confederal relationship. There has been a long history of close cooperation among the Scandinavian countries: for example, the labour movements of the various countries campaign for common standards of welfare, wages and conditions. The workers parties and trade unions have regular joint conferences.

There is also throughout Scandinavia coordination of railway timetables, roads, telecommunications, airlines and postal services—even though the individual states remain politically independent of one another.

Ultimately, Lenin's skilful and sympathetic policy on the national question proved an unqualified success: in the smaller nations of the tsarist empire, tens of millions were inspired to support the Russian Revolution, confident that the Bolsheviks were the most resolute defenders of the rights of national minorities.

Crucial questions

There are sections of the British left today that simplistically equate support for national independence with "nationalism". In fact, whether or not a demand for national independence can be dismissed as nationalist depends upon the answers to some crucial questions: "Who is raising the demand?" "Why are they raising the demand?" "What will be the consequences?"

In 1934, when Spain was spiralling towards civil war, the exiled Russian revolutionary leader and socialist internationalist Leon Trotsky called for the working class in Catalonia to take power and declare an independent republic.

Our comrades must agitate—through their own organisations and through the Workers Alliance—for the proclamation of the independent republic of Catalonia … the working class must prove to the Catalan masses that it has a sincere interest in the defence of Catalan independence.5

Trotsky anticipated that if the working class of Catalonia took power, the reverberations would echo throughout every corner of the Iberian peninsula and pave the way for the victory of socialism throughout Spain.

Later, in 1939, he called for "an independent Soviet Ukraine"a breakaway from the Stalinised USSR. "In order to draw together more closely and honestly, it is sometimes necessary first to separate", he wrote.

In the same article, he argued, "The national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex, but at the same time extremely important forms of class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution."

He went on to argue that "the triumph of the socialist revolution on a world scale is the end-product of multiple movements, campaigns and battles, and not at all a ready-made precondition for solving all questions automatically."6

In Ireland, James Connolly played a leading role in the Easter Rising, and declared that "the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour and the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland".

In Scotland, the legendary revolutionary Marxist leader, John MacLean, called for a Scottish Workers Republic from 1920 until his death four years later—while simultaneously spending a sizeable part of his time in England and Wales, forging working-class solidarity.

MacLean raised his demand for an independent Scottish workers republic because he believed that a war between Britain and the United States was imminent—a view shared at that time by many mainstream capitalist commentators, based on the growing trade war between the two imperialist powers.

Although the revolutionary struggles that had convulsed Clydeside in 1919 were matched by similar struggles in Belfast and Liverpool, they had failed to ignite a general movement across Britain as a whole. MacLean concluded that "Scotland is more ready for socialism than England" and that it was possible to establish a Scottish workers republic sooner rather than later—thus averting the horror of a new world war.

On various counts, MacLean was to prove mistaken. War with the US failed to materialise. The idea of a Scottish workers republic fell largely on stony ground. In contrast to Ireland, which had suffered centuries of oppression and where national discontent had been a mighty revolutionary force, Scotland had benefited from its involvement as a partner in the British empire, then still one of the major powers of world capitalism. MacLean himself was left isolated from the mainstream of the Scottish labour movement and without influence in the emerging British Communist Party. There barely existed in Scotland at that stage any significant support for national independence.

Finally, the outbreak of a revolutionary British-wide general strike within a few years of MacLean's early death revealed that the political gap between Scotland and England was narrower than MacLean had estimated.

Nonetheless, these were honest mistakes of a genuine revolutionary. The position adopted by John MacLean on Scottish independence should neither be opposed on principle nor defended uncritically. A slogan or a policy may be correct at one stage but become redundant when conditions themselves change.

Distinctive history

In one sense, MacLean was far in advance of his time: in the final years of the twentieth century, the idea of an independent socialist Scotland has become a much more attractive prospect for whole swathes of workers and youth.

More than ever before, there is doubt over the future of the 300 year old Union between Scotland and England. Just as decaying Stalinism proved incapable of holding together the multinational states of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, it is becoming more and more questionable whether decaying capitalism can hold together the multinational state that is the United Kingdom.

Scotland has a distinctive history which sets it apart from Ireland and Wales—both of which were conquered and subjugated by England in the Middle Ages.

The history of Ireland is a prolonged and bloodstained tale of national resistance and murderous oppression. Wales, mainly as a result of its geographical proximity to England, evolved in the opposite direction: migration in both directions, intermarriage and the development of the Welsh economy by English capital led to partial integration of the two countries, although there remains in Wales a powerful sense of national injustice which is likely to grow rather than diminish in the future.

Scotland, in contrast, successfully resisted English colonisation. As far back as the thirteenth century, William Wallace organised a mass movement of resistance against the forcible incorporation of Scotland into the feudal realm of King Edward I of England.

Wallace's ragged guerilla army was made up of the landless peasantry, the craftsmen, the dispossessed former nobility and the poor. In contrast to the mythology propagated by right-wing groups in the US who elevated the film Braveheart into a celebration of Celtic national-racial purity, Wallace's army included Irish, French, Flemish and English immigrants and united Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and English-speaking Lowland Scots.

Although Wallace was eventually defeated and tortured to death, his campaign of resistance set Scotland ablaze and forged the beginning of a Scottish national conciousness. The "Wars of Independence" raged on for thirty years, culminating in the victory of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn, leading to the emergence of Scotland as an independent kingdom.

This in turn paved the way for Scotland to evolve into a rudimentary nation state with its own indigenous ruling class and a separate national economy which survived independently for more than 400 years.

Through ill-fated ventures such as the disastrous "Darien Scheme"—a vain attempt to compete with English and Spanish imperialism by establishing a colony in Central America—the Scottish ruling class brought Scotland to the verge of financial ruination by the end of the seventeenth century.

This in turn led Scotland's bankers, landowners and merchants to turn to England for salvation. For months, the Scottish Parliament debated the Act of Union. But what was proposed was not a federal union of two sovereign states, but an "incorporating union"or, as it was referred to by anti-unionists, an "obliterating union".

For the English ruling class, a federal union or partnership on a free and equal basis was unacceptable. While a degree of independence was preserved in the spheres of law, education and religion, Scotland was in effect turned into a dependent nation, stripped of political or economic autonomy.

Outside parliament, Scotland was in turmoil. English troops were moved to the border ready to mount an invasion as riots swept Edinburgh and Glasgow in protest at the desision to dissolve the Scottish Parliament. One English government agent in Edinburgh estimated the mood in Scotland as being around fifty to one against the Union.

But the elitist Scottish Parliament, elected by just 4000 wealthy voters, voted for its own dissolution by 110 votes to sixty-seven.

Discontent continued to fester to such an extent that by 1745, Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonny Prince Charlie")—a French Catholic claimant to the British throne—was able to mobilise active popular support in the Highlands and passive support in the Presbyterian Lowlands for his campaign for the British crown by promising to restore the Scottish Parliament.

Eventually, with the rise of the British empire, Scottish opposition to the Union began to dissolve. For the Scottish ruling classes, the Union became synonymous with progress and enlightenment; as the upper classes and middle classes prospered immensely from the plunder and pillage of the British empire, the very concept of Scotland began to be regarded as a relic of a bygone age. During the nineteenth century, the Scottish establishment even began to drop the word "Scotland", replacing it with "North Britain".

However within radical circles and within the emerging labour movement there remained a yearning for "home rule" which in turn reflected the existence of an anti-imperialist sentiment and an affinity with Ireland and the oppressed nations of the empire. This was reflected in groups like the United Scotsmen which had links with the United Irishmen in Belfast and Dublin; and in the "Scottish Insurrection" of 1820 led by the weavers, which demanded Scottish independence and democratic rights.

Later the emerging labour movement inscribed on its banner the demand for home rule. Keir Hardie's Scottish Labour Party, formed in 1888, included the demand for home rule as the fifth point in an eighteen-point program. The Scottish Trades Union Congress, formed as a radical breakaway from the British TUC in 1897, adopted a pro-home rule policy in 1914.

The first act of the ten Independent Labour Party MPs who were elected from the west of Scotland to Westminster in 1922 was to present a bill to the House of Commons calling for Scottish home rule. At the same time, John MacLean was agitating for a Scottish Workers Republic.

However, throughout this period, there was never any serious mass movement in favour of independence. Historically, the Union had been cemented by the rise of the British empire. It was then galvanised by the sense of British identity forged during two world wars. It was further reinforced by the postwar upswing and the development of a Britain-wide welfare state and National Health Service (NHS); and by the existence of a Britain-wide mass workers party proclaiming the goal of a socialist Britain.

In more recent times, all of these factors have been turned upside down. The sun long ago set on the British empire. For twenty years, the welfare state, the NHS, and other public services have been under attack. The Labour Party, once the mass party of the British working class, is now openly aligned with big business. All of these ingredients have contributed to a weakening of British identity and the search for a Scottish solution to the social and economic problems of Scotland.

This in turn has been underpinned by the existence of North Sea oil, which from the late 1960s onwards, transformed the idea of Scottish independence from a romantic dream into a practical economic possibility.

Scottish National Party

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has existed for just over sixty years. For most of that time, it was regarded as a fringe party pursuing an impossible fantasy. Only in 1964, exactly thirty years after the party was formed, did it break through the one per cent barrier to achieve two per cent of the vote in Scotland.

That year marked the beginnings of the emergence of nationalism as a significant force for the first time since the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. It coincided with the coming to power of a Labour governmentthe first for thirteen years. Within two years, support for the SNP had more than doubled to five per cent across Scotland.

At the start of the decade of the 1960s, the total membership of the SNP numbered no more than a few hundred. Yet by 1968, the SNP boasted a card-carrying—and overwhelmingly youthful—membership of 120,000.

This phenomenal growth in nationalism was part and parcel of the worldwide radicalisation of youth in the late 1960s in the shape of the Black Panthers, France '68, the Prague Spring, the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and the huge anti-Vietnam War movement. It was also specifically linked to the disenchantment that flowed from the failure of the Harold Wilson-led Labour government to transform society.

However, despite the electoral advance of the SNP in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no serious mood in favour of the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Throughout this period, support for the SNP far outstripped support for independence. In the years before Thatcher, support for independence barely reached fifteen per cent. Even many hardline SNP supporters saw the party as a lever by which to exert pressure on the Westminster parties for a better deal for Scotland. Nonetheless, although the movement towards independence was still at an early stage in the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of the SNP did reflect a growing sense of Scottish national identity.

Twenty years on, that mood has hardened immeasurably. Support for independence has fluctuated over the past ten years or so. However, there is a clear long-term trend towards independence, which is likely to be accelerated now that Scotland has its own devolved semi-parliament.

Although New Labour held off the SNP challenge in the recent Scottish Parliament elections, it would be a mistake to imagine that the national question will subside in the next period. Labour fought this election under generally favourable conditions. The UK economy has continued to grow since the early 1990s and Scottish unemployment now stands at its lowest level in twenty years.

In addition, Britain's role in the Balkans war—which was taking place as Scotland went to the polls in May—had a certain effect, accentuated by the stance of the SNP, which opposed the war.

Labour's hysterical propaganda offensive against independence also had a certain effect, particularly on middle class and elderly voters. And some people were prepared to give the new parliament a chance before taking the huge psychological leap of backing independence.

Despite fighting an election on difficult terrain, the SNP now has thirty-five MSPs (members of the Scottish Parliament), almost a third of the total. In the European elections, held a month after the Scottish Parliament elections, the SNP came within one and a half percentage points of Labour, the closest it has ever run to Labour in any election.

In addition, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Green Party, which are both pro-independence, are represented in the new Scottish Parliament and between them took ten per cent of the vote in the European elections.

If Britain was today on the verge of a new golden age of long-term growth, with Scotland sharing in the overall prosperity, it is possible that the national question in the UK would begin to diminish in importance.

However, New Labour's dream of building a modernised, prosperous state in which national antagonisms wither away is unlikely to be turned into reality. It is more likely that the UK will soon begin to stagger into a new economic recession or slump with rising unemployment, diminishing tax revenues, escalating poverty and an increasing strain on the welfare state.

Under these conditions, with New Labour under siege across Britain from left and right, wracked by internal mutinies and open splits, the SNP could potentially be poised to gain an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament in the next Scottish general election, scheduled for 2003. They would then use a parliamentary majority in the run-up to the historically symbolic year 2007exactly 300 years after the Act of Union.

That is, of course, only one possible variant. Indeed, events rarely unfold in such a linear fashion. Real life is invariably less straightforward; unforeseen circumstances usually intervene to complicate matters.

What processes could intervene to cut across the rise of the SNP and the momentum towards independence?

In the past, the strength of the labour and socialist movement on an all-Britain scale acted as a powerful counterweight to separatist tendencies. So too did the existence of mighty trade unions waging Britain-wide battles for better living standards and working conditions.

Certainly, the strength of the Labour left and simultaneous Britain-wide movements against the Tories, notably the miners' strike of 1984-5, helped reduce the appeal of the SNP for workers and youth during the early to mid-1980s. However, since the 1980s, there have been far-reaching changes in the structure of industry and the trade union movement in the UK. Most of the big nationalised industries which were the chief battlegrounds during the big all-Britain industrial battles of the 1960s and 1970s have now been privatised and broken up.

In addition, with the setting up of a Scottish Parliament, wages and conditions in most public services will increasingly be determined by separate negotiations in Scotland.

Even the conditions of students could soon diverge north and south of the border as a consequence of devolution, as mass public pressure is brought to bear on the Scottish Parliament to scrap student tuition fees.

In contrast to Westminster, where New Labour rules with a 180-seat majority, New Labour in Edinburgh has had to form a minority coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who could be forced to break ranks with Labour under the impact of mass public pressure on the issue of student fees and other issues.

This contrasting political climate in Scotland, with New Labour in a much weaker position than in England, with the Tory Party almost marginalised, with the national question providing added impetus to social and economic struggles, and with socialism in the form of the new Scottish Socialist Party much stronger and more influential than in any other part of the UK, Scotland is likely to be in the forefront of any future movements against British capitalism and its state.


How should socialists in Scotland and in Britain as a whole approach the national question? For socialists the struggle for national rights can never be elevated over and above the struggle for workers' power and socialism. Our attitude to the national question is essentially a strategic question.

In the past, particularly during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the broad movement for socialism in Scotland took shape as part and parcel of an all-Britain movement whose explicit aim was to bring about a socialist Britain.

For a period during the 1970s, Britain appeared to be lurching towards social revolution. The Tory government under Edward Heath was broken by the National Union of Mineworkersa victory for the working class and the left which marked the climax of a dramatic and turbulent chapter in British industrial history. The new Labour government which took power declared its intention to "bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families".

The ruling class secretly hatched plots involving sections of the security services and media. Private armies were constructed to act as a bulwark against the threat of social revolution. In the eyes of some sections of the ruling class, capitalism was doomed.

Against that background, a section of the ruling class in Scotland swung behind the SNP. For a period, the idea of an independent capitalist Scotland, awash with revenues from North Sea oil, appeared to offer an escape route: an oasis of prosperity and stability in contrast to the social battlefield that was Britain in the early and mid-1970s.

Even then, there were some voices calling for an independent socialist Scotland. But for most socialists and trade unionists, the battle for a new society was being waged at an all-Britain level, and the idea of an independent socialist Scotland appeared an irrelevant diversion. However, the political terrain is much more complicated today. In the first place, the balance of forces between socialism and nationalism has been dramatically reversed.

The ideological impact of the collapse of Stalinism, the repeated defeats inflicted on the trade union movement by Thatcher, the withering away of reformism and social democracy internationally in the harsh economic environment of the late twentieth century, and the cowardly desertion to the camp of free market capitalism by a whole generation of labour and trade union leaders, have together led to the severe weakening of the active forces of socialism in Britain.

At the same time, there has been a dramatic heightening of Scottish national identity and a steady growth in support for national independence.

Sometimes socialists have to be prepared to swim against the tide of popular sentiment. If, for example, support for Scottish independence essentially represented a backward, right-wing trend in society, an isolationist or xenophobic development, it would be incumbent upon us to stand against this mood.

But what exactly is the character of this movement: is it a reactionary turn towards national isolationism, or is it a progressive, left-wing backlash against the British capitalist state?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question. There are invariably contradictory sides to the national question in any country, some reactionary and some progressive. The key question we have to address is, which side is predominant?

In Scotland the mood for national independence contains certain elements of anti-English chauvinism. At this stage, it is mainly a problem in certain rural communities in the Highlands and in the south of Scotland. In the future, under the impact of severe economic recession and growing social and national tensions, there could emerge stronger, more organised currents of right-wing anti-English nationalism.

However, at this stage, these elements are marginalised within the SNP, whose leadership does actively campaign against anti-English bigotry.

Socialists clearly have to combat all manifestations of chauvinism. But at the same time we have to recognise that anti-English sentiment is not straightforward racism. Its roots lie in the unequal relationship between the two countries, and the status of Scotland as a historically dependent nation whose economic, political and social policy is determined elsewhere.

In other words, the very existence of the Union has been a major source of conflict and tension between Scotland and England, which paradoxically could be eased by the dissolution of the Union and the establishment of a fully self-governing, independent Scotland.

Moreover, the central driving force in favour of Scottish independence is not anti-English prejudice but class opposition to successive right-wing Tory and New Labour governments in Westminster.

For the past twenty years, there has been a growing sense of national oppression as Westminster imposes economic and social policies upon Scotland which are opposed by the majority of the Scottish people. On a range of political issues, from the existence of nuclear submarine bases on the Clyde to the growing economic gulf between rich and poor, anti-trade union legislation, the welfare state and privatisation, Scottish public opinion is decisively to the left of the New Labour government in Westminster.

Similar left-wing attitudes predominate in some of the English regions, particularly in the economically depressed north. However, there is one fundamental difference: no-one in Yorkshire or Merseyside advocates an independent Yorkshire or Merseyside as a means of advancing the struggle for working-class rights and social justice. Only in Scotland and Wales are class interests expressed in a national form.

Today, more than ever before, there is a powerful class dimension to the national question in Scotland and Wales. At the same time, there is a powerful national dimension to class politics in both countries.

The sections of society in favour of Scottish independence are those who are generally more socialist leaning, including a substantial majority of young people and low-paid workers. In contrast, those layers that intransigently oppose independence include the most right-wing, conservative sections of the population, in particular the Scottish ruling class of landowners, financiers and big business interests.

A similar pattern can be detected when attitudes towards independence are broken down according to age: 18-25-year-olds are strongly pro-independence; pensioners are strongly anti-independence.

As a general rule, the more combative, potentially revolutionary sections of the population—those with the least to lose—are markedly more enthusiastic about the idea of an independent Scotland.

In essence, the demand for Scottish independence reflects a desire of ordinary people for greater democracy and control over decision-making in the age of global capitalism. It represents resistance to the naked free market agenda of the London-based political parties. And it expresses a feeling that by breaking free of the United Kingdom, Scotland could begin to evolve towards a more equal society.

Socialists have to decide whether to allow what is essentially a progressive movement to be monopolised by the SNP and channelled in a pro-big business, pro-capitalist direction, or whether to intervene decisively to stamp the imprint of socialism on the national movement as it develops.

Some sections of the British left are happy to confine themselves to abstract propaganda in favour of workers' unity and internationalism. However, such an approach will guarantee that the forces of socialism are marginalised and ultimately bypassed as the national movement gathers momentum.

If socialists in Scotland were to abandon the principles of class struggle, internationalism and workers' unity in favour of a broad campaign for independence, that would amount to political surrender to the ideas of nationalism. We have to be honest at all times and explain that it is not possible to build and sustain an oasis of socialism in the middle of a worldwide capitalist desert. Even the most industrially advanced countries in the world would be unable to survive indefinitely as isolated outposts of socialism, shut off in permanent quarantine from the rest of the world.

However, we also have to take account of the fact that the struggle for socialism will not erupt simultaneously across the globe. Nor will it unfold evenly and uniformly. Because of differing traditions and conditions, it will tend to evolve in a more fragmented and disjointed manner, with events in one country spreading rapidly to neighbouring countries. But this means socialism has to be fought for first and foremost at local and national level, then spread outwards internationally.

There is no contradiction between these two tasks.

Nor is there any contradiction between standing for the break-up of an existing multinational state such as the UK and defending the unity of the working class across national borders.

For socialists in Scotland, as in other parts of the world, the debate on independence is not a debate between nationalism and internationalism: it is a debate over how best to advance the struggle for socialism in Scotland and internationally. By adopting a broad policy which combines support for independence from the British state with a socialist and internationalist perspective, the Scottish Socialist Party has begun to make a huge impact.

As well as fighting on the day-to-day "bread and butter" issues, the SSP has also been able to appeal to the idealism of young people by offering a radical vision of an independent socialist Scotland which is prepared to resist globalisation and multinational capitalism.

At the same time, the SSP explains that a socialist victory within Scotland would be only a staging post on the road to a wider alliance or confederation of socialist states on an all-European and ultimately a worldwide basis.

Coming battles

There are many other dimensions to the national question in Scotland and the UK which will continue to be debated. For example, would an independent socialist state be created in Scotland as a by-product of the successful overthrow of capitalism across Britain as a whole? Or, as appears more likely at this stage, will the United Kingdom break up into its various component parts on a capitalist basis in the first instance? Alternatively, will the socialist left lead the struggle for independence, thus establishing an independent socialist state in Scotland in advance of the rest of the UK?

It is, of course, impossible to chart out in advance the future course of Scottish and British politics. There are many variables and imponderables. But at the same time, it is necessary to try to anticipate the most likely course of future events and take these perspectives into account.

At this stage, because of the strength of the SNP and the weakness of socialism, the second variant (i.e., the UK breaking up on a capitalist basis) appears the most likely. Certainly, the SNP's vision of a social-democratic-style capitalist Scotland within the European Union appears to offer a much easier and more straightforward road forward than the long and rocky road of workers' power and socialism.

But there are glaring contradictions between the social program and the economic program of the SNP. The party's social program promises substantial reforms, including the restoration of benefits to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, a £4.50 minimum wage, higher pensions, higher social welfare benefits, the restoration of free education and large-scale investment in housing and public services. Yet its economic program is for a free market capitalist Scotland modelled on the Republic of Ireland, complete with low rates of corporation tax to attract inward investment.

In practice, the economic program and the social program of the SNP are incompatible. Like the Labour government of 1974-9, a future SNP government would inevitably be forced to abandon its program of social reforms. Although North Sea oil would act as a cushion, it is likely that an independent Scotland under a free market capitalist SNP government would immediately run into serious economic problems.

It is extremely unlikely, however, that any political recoil against the economic failure of a capitalist independent Scotland would lead to any serious movement in favour of reconstituting the Union. It is more likely that such a backlash against an SNP-type government would develop in a leftward direction and lead to a massive strengthening of the forces of genuine socialism.

In that sense, even a capitalist independent Scotland would mark a step forward in the overall movement towards socialism; at the very least it would help to dispel any illusions that Scotland's problems could be solved simply by swapping a British capitalist government for a Scottish capitalist government.

That is not to advocate a stages theory based on campaigning first for a capitalist independent Scotland as a necessary first step on the road to a socialist Scotland. Such a stance would have the effect of demobilising and weakening the active forces of socialism and diminishing the influence of socialist ideas among the broad mass of the population.

At this stage, the dual task of socialists in Scotland has to be to combine support for any step forward towards independence (including campaigning for a "yes" vote in a future referendum) while simultaneously strengthening the influence of socialism by contrasting our vision of a socialist independent Scotland with the SNP's vision of a free market capitalism offering cheap labour and sky-high profits in return for multinational investment.

The rise of nationalism in Scotland over the past two decades has partly flowed from the weakness of socialism and the workers' movement on an all-Britain scale. But it has also partly flowed from the weakness of capitalism.

Every section of the ruling class in Britain fears the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom and the secession of Scotland at some time in the future. Such a development would be a huge psychological blow against capitalism in Europe and internationally. It would also lead to serious instability in Scotland, Wales, England and, not least of all, Ireland.

For that reason, the British ruling class will not light-mindedly accept such a defeat. They will resist independence in a variety of ways, including offering concessions at different stages. They will seek political forces, including within the SNP and the wider national movement, which will be prepared to compromise.

It is vital, therefore, that the socialist movement avoids any appearance of timidity or confusion on the question of independence: our slogans and policies have to be clear, unambiguous and powerful.

In this new political period, the demand for an independent socialist Scotland will act as the cutting edge of socialist propaganda in Scotland. By setting that as our key goal in Scotland, we can then begin to point towards future structures linking socialist states in Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales and other European countries as an alternative to the big business-run European Union.

We do not know exactly what the future holds for Scotland, for Britain or for Europe. All perspectives are necessarily conditional. Unforeseen events can intervene to speed or slow the processes at work, or to derail developments along an unexpected path.

Nonetheless, it is necessary that socialists attempt always to understand history as it unfolds and, as far as possible within the limits of human understanding, to chart our way through the mists of the future, to apply the core principles of socialist internationalism to the concrete conditions that arise.

By making this revolutionary break with the traditional British Labourist approach to the national question, the Scottish Socialist Party has positioned itself to play a decisive role in the gigantic political, economic and social battles that will sweep through Scotland in the first few years of the new millennium.


1. See Lenin, "The Question of Nationalities Or `Autonomisation'" in Collected Works, Vol. 36, pp. 605-11.

2. "The Discussion on Self Determination Summed Up: 10. The Irish Rebellion of 1916", CW, Vol. 22, pp. 353-8.

3. "The National Programme of the RSDLP", CW, Vol. 19, p. 545. Exactly the same point is repeated in "Critical Remarks on the National Question", CW, Vol. 20. All italics are as in the original.

4. "The Right of Nations to Self Determination: 6. The Secesssion Of Norway From Sweden", CW, Vol. 20, pp. 425-30.

5. "The Catalan Conflict and the Tasks of the Proletariat" in Writings of Leon Trotsky, Supplement 1934-40, Pathfinder, New York, 1979, pp. 496-9.

6. "Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads", Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, Pathfinder, New York, 1973, pp. 44-54.