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International Socialism, February 1976


Notes of the Month

The Scottish Labour Party


From International Socialism, No.86 (wrongly numbered No.85), February 1976, pp.6-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The appeal of Scottish nationalism to some working people in Scotland is, of course, a result of the failure of the Labour Party, dominant in Scotland for decades, to deliver the goods it repeatedly promises. There is nothing peculiarly Scottish in this; it is equally true in England and Wales. But the Scots (and indeed the Welsh) have a ready-made ‘national’ channel into which discontent can be funnelled.

The all-class SNP, a step backwards in terms of working class consciousness even from Labour reformism, is now supplemented by the Scottish Labour Party to which that shrewd opportunist Jim Sillars has attached himself. But this new organisation is every bit as reformist as its British parent. In no sense does it offer a way forward for Scottish workers. It is simply another reformist blind-alley.

Of course it will not do to merely assert this. If the SLP were to get off the ground in a substantial way – and this has yet to be seen – Scottish IS members and supporters would have to seek ways of involving its working class activists, assuming they existed, in common struggle in industry, the unions, against cuts, for the right to work and so on. And since this type of practical collaboration always requires sharp political differentiation, it is essential to be clear about our attitude to the whole devolution/separatism debate. This is necessary, of course, in any event.

The SLP is not formally a separatist organisation. It is for devolution and, in this respect, differs from the British Labour Party (and the Liberals and Tories) only in emphasis. But the emphasis is important, it concerns revenue. Its spokesmen have declared that it will be strictly ah individual membership organisation. Trade union affiliations will not be accepted (a case of the fox and the grapes no doubt). They also speak about organising industrial as well as geographical branches.

The real heart of its policy is economic devolution. Stealing the SNP’s clothes it speaks of ‘Scotland’s oil’ and proposes that oil tax revenues (it is not for nationalisation) be ‘divided by 5 million, not by 55 million’.

This enhanced revenue would be used to ‘solve Scotland’s economic problems’ – a straightforward appeal to sectional interests. However, since the British Labour Party speaks in the same terms about ‘Britain’s oil’ and ‘solving Britain’s economic problems’ – an equally sectional appeal – it would not require much shift in consciousness to switch from BLP to SLP.

The policy is Utopian as well as reactionary. It is very likely that devolution, possibly with some taxation powers, will be conceded. It is out of the question for any Westminster government to give up the oil revenues on which hopes of rectifying the British balance of payments problem are concentrated. Taken seriously, the SLP policy leads to separation.

Our attitude to devolution, like our attitude to local government reform – devolution writ small – is that no fundamental problem facing working people can be solved, or even seriously alleviated, by tinkering with the state structure. The role of all elected assemblies, including the one at Westminster, has been shrinking and will inevitably shrink further as capital is more and more concentrated into giant units and is more and more intertwined with the state. Decisions are not made in parliaments.

What role did parliament play in the Chrysler settlement? None. What role did it play in the struggle in the steel industry? None. Would an assembly in Edinburgh (or Cardiff) play a more important role?. It would not.

The power of the working class is its organisation in industry, its power to disrupt production. Elected assemblies can only be used, at best, for propaganda purposes. Propaganda is important; but in the specific situation in which devolution is being advanced by reformists as a solution to workers’ problems, it is essential to expose it as a false solution and a diversion from the job of developing a united and class conscious movement of workers, in Britain and internationally, for the destruction of capitalism and the creation of a democratically controlled planned economy.

But, say some left-wingers (including some who regard themselves as revolutionaries), you must accept the right of self determination for all peoples and therefore you must support the Scottish national struggle.

This advocacy of abstract rights, without a consideration of the class content or of the specific historical circumstances, is unmarxist. As was pointed out in these Notes in IS 68 (April 1974):

‘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 by-products 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 pre-capitalist 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 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 ...

‘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.’

Nothing has happened since to alter this assessment.

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