Notes of the Month


Scottish Nationalism

(April 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.68, April 1974, pp.7-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE SUCCESS of the Scottish Nationalist Party in the general election has pushed to the fore the question of Scottish nationalism. Few people on the left have illusions in the SNP itself. But some do argue for support for independence for Scotland, albeit for a ‘socialist’ Scotland rather different to that envisaged by the SNP.

The case is usually justified in terms of the support marxists give to the right of nations to self-determination. It is said that Scotland is a nation and therefore must have that right. The argument is often backed up with comparisons between the situation of Scotland and that of Ireland.

Certainly, there are a number of social features which fuel national consciousness in Scotland: the legal and educational systems are separate from those in England and Wales; there are certain separate historical traditions; there are even the remnants of two ‘national’ languages (Gaelic and, at least in a literary form, Lallands, the Scots dialect that developed out of Anglo-Saxon).

But a genuinely marxist approach to the question of national independence does not rest on a mere counting of features that might be said to characterise one nation or another. Its starting point is rather different: the role played by the development of a particular national consciousness historically and in relation to the international class struggle.

Hence it was that Marx and Engels themselves could oppose certain national movements, while supporting others. They were ardent supporters of Polish nationalism, because it undermined the most reactionary power in Europe at the time, Tsarist Russia; but they were vehement opponents of the nationalism of the south Slavs because that nationalism allied itself with Russia.

The particular nationalisms that divide the world at present have not existed for all time. They are the byproducts of fairly recent historical developments. Usually, they grew up as a particular bourgeoisie sought to establish its dominance over the economic activities of the territory it inhabited. To do so successfully, it had to replace the various local traditions and dialects that characterised precapitalist society by new traditions and a uniform language and to fight to subordinate the state power to its own ‘national’ interests.

These nationalisms have been progressive insofar, and only insofar, as they have challenged reactionary powers, broken the feudal or imperialist fetters that prevent economic development, freed the mass of the population from an isolated, parochial existence, and prepared the ground for movements that can go beyond bourgeois nationalism.

The Irish republican movement, for instance, has played a progressive role for nearly 200 years by bringing vast numbers of Irish peasants and workers to see a struggle against British imperialism as a precondition for solving the problems that beset them.

But Scottish nationalism has not played any such progressive role since the 17th century when the idea of Scotland, or at least of the Scottish lowlands, as a nation grew up in opposition to Scottish feudalism. The struggles of the Scottish bourgeoisie against the remnants of feudalism took place more or less simultaneously with similar struggles in England, in the 1640s and 1688, with the movements in one country being intimately bound up with movements in the other.

The Act of Union between the two countries did not represent the suppression of the Scottish bourgeoisie by the English but rather an agreement between the two to exploit jointly the British empire. The Scottish bourgeoisie swung behind support for the union after a colonial adventure of their own failed. Indeed, it can be argued that the final bourgeois unification of Scotland was only fully achieved with the aid of English arms when the pre-capitalist society of the highlands was destroyed in the aftermath of 1745. The Scottish bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie led no sort of struggle against British imperialism; instead they mobilised the rest of the population in its support.

The contrast with Irish history could hardly be greater. Dominated and exploited by Britain, the growth of the Irish economy was stunted, the mass of the population were forced into abject poverty, the bourgeoisie could never fully develop, and its attempts to do so led to repeated conflict with the British.

The Scottish economy, on the other hand, entered the industrial revolution at the same time as the economy south of the border, and the Scottish bourgeoisie prospered.

One of the most significant things about Scottish nationalism is that it hardly existed as a movement during the hey-day of British imperialism, from the late 18th century through to the early 20th century. Once the Scottish bourgeoisie had thrown in its lot with the English, the elements of a national tradition became no more than a slight coloration on Scotland’s share of Britain’s imperial adventures.

In certain cases British imperialism itself would carefully nurture such ‘national’ traits as a sub-variety of British chauvinism. Scottish workers were led to identify with Scottish landowners and capitalists on the basis of such shared ‘nationality’ and through them with British capitalism in general. This quite reactionary form of Scottish ‘nationalism’ has by no means disappeared: remember the ‘Save the Argylls’ campaign or the newspaper emphasis on the killing in Ireland of three Scottish soldiers.

While the Irish national consciousness has ted thousands of young men to die in fighting againsf British imperialism, elements of Scottish national consciousness have been manipulated to persuade hundreds of thousands to die for British imperialism.

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that historically the most progressive elements in the Scottish workers’ movement have rejected notions of cutting the Scottish movement off from parallel movements in England. John Maclean’s adherence to a form of nationalism was the exception rather than the rule. From the ‘National Convention’ of the Jacobins in Edinburgh in 1793 through to the shop stewards’ movement of the First World War, the best militants have seen that success or otherwise of any movement in Scotland depends on the building of close ties with similar movements in England.

Today, when the major undertakings in which Scottish workers are employed operate in both countries, the need for united action is even greater: you just can’t build a ‘Scottish’ Chrysler combine committee or a ‘Scottish’ reform movement in the General and Municipal Workers Union. The struggle to wrest the means of production from the ruling class is of necessity an all-Britain struggle.

The movement for Scottish independence is a fairly recent phenomenon, being born in its modern form in the 1920s. It has developed, not as a movement against British imperialism at the height of its power, but rather as a reaction to the ending of British economic dominance internationally.

The older established sections of Scottish industry – like their equivalents south of the border, for example, in North East England – have undergone a decline, producing unemployment rates above the average for Britain as a whole.

Under such conditions, the notion of an independent Scottish parliament has arisen among sections of the Scottish petty bourgeoisie and has enticed many workers: it has seemed like a panacea which will enable Scots to disentangle themselves from the mess of British capitalism without having to fight its main structures.

The discovery of North Sea oil has given new credibility to the panacea: it is claimed that the oil can solve the problems of the people of Scotland without any bitter fight against capitalist interests – a fight which would, after all, divide the ‘people’ of Scotland and the SNP down the middle. All that is needed is for the international oil companies to share a little of their wealth with a Scottish parliament rather than a Westminster one.

But not only SNP supporters suffer from such nationalist delusions. They are also shared by sections of the Labour movement. Insofar as the argument involves more than an opportunist chasing after nationalist votes or official positions in ‘Scottish’ institutions, it amounts to this: the Scottish people are more advanced in political consciousness than their English equivalents, therefore there would be a ‘left’ majority in a Scottish parliament and moves towards socialism would be easier.

The trouble with the argument is that it simply ignores the realities of power under modern capitalism. The ruling class has at its disposal massive economic wealth, which is concentrated on an all-Britain, if not an international, scale. It also exercises effective control over a powerful and centralised state machine. A Scottish parliament as envisaged by its ‘left-wing’ proponents would have no means of breaking either sort of power. For the only force that could break that power would be massive, united working-class action in England, Scotland and Wales simultaneously. But such action cannot be worked for by stressing the elements of national consciousness which distinguish some Scottish workers from their English brothers. And certainly it is not aided by combining with sections of the Scottish petty bourgeoisie in campaigns for Scottish nationalism.

Scottish nationalist agitation, whoever carries it out – whether the SNP, the Communist Party or even the occasional revolutionary – does not strengthen the real force for socialism, a united, class-conscious working class, but fragments and weakens it.

It is precisely for these reasons that the British ruling class, with the Kilbrandon Report, now seems ready to consider some form of ‘devolution’. Discussions about panaceas have the merit for it of distracting attention from real problems.

A Scottish parliament would represent no more than a decorative layer of tartan paint on one part of the state machine of British capitalism. Certainly it would not be able to impede the real workings of the major capitalist institutions. So why should our rulers not accept it? Its marginal inconveniences would be more than compensated for by the way it diverts attention from the real questions.

Revolutionaries do not, of course, defend the present centralised bourgeois state. When a real struggle takes place against British imperialism, as in Ireland, we have to support that struggle, regardless of our disagreements with its political leaders. If a massive movement did develop in Scotland opposed to continued unity with England, we would have to oppose any attempt by the British state to suppress it.

But we ourselves should give no support to encouraging separatist trends in Scotland. There is only one real alternative to the present centralised and bureaucratic capitalist state – a united and determined revolutionary workers’ movement leading to a united workers’ state.

Last updated on 18 November 2009