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International Socialism, September 1977


The National Question


From International Socialism (1st series), No.101, September 1977, pp.9-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The rise of the Nationalist Parties in Scotland and Wales has had considerable impact on the British labour movement. It threatens to undermine the Labour Party’s electoral base and has divided socialists as to whether the demands of the Nationalists for autonomy and independence should be supported. The question was discussed at the conference of the Socialist Workers Party in June, when the following theses were approved. However, many differing viewpoints were expressed and the conference agreed to open a debate on the national question in Britain. Readers are invited to contribute their views on the theses and on the other issues raised by the emergence of the Nationalists.

‘AS A CONSCIOUS expression of the proletarian class struggle to throw off the yoke of the bourgeoisie, and in accordance with its main fight, which is the fight against the bourgeois democracy and the unmasking of its hyprocrisy, the Communist Party should not place its main emphasis in the national question on abstract and formal principles, but on an exact evaluation of the historical and economic milieu.’ (Lenin: Theses on National Question for Second Congress of Comintern).

1. We have to begin by making a clear distinction between two quite separate phenomena which are confused by all varieties of reformism: the unity of a particular state structure, and the unity in struggle of the different sections of the working class that are exploited within that state structure.

As revolutionary socialists, our goal is to lead the working class to smash the bourgeois state. We cannot, therefore, give any credence to any notions to the effect that the unity of the state structure of the United Kingdom is somehow something ‘sacred’, something that benefits working people.

To do so would be to fall into the trap of supporting, however indirectly and however good our intentions, the predominant form of nationalist, anti-working class ideology in Britain – that of British nationalism. For us to campaign in any referendum or any election around the slogan of unity of the British national state would therefore be absolutely wrong. Under no circumstance can we be opposed to devolution or separation of Scotland or Wales from the bourgeois British state. It is true that devolved or separatist parliaments in Wales or Scotland would be bourgeois parliaments, bound hand and foot to the multinationals. They would not provide the workers in these countries with any greater control over their own lives. They would be an integral part of international imperialism. But this is no reason for us, as revolutionary Marxists, to see them as a greater evil than the united British, imperialist state which exists at present.

We cannot regard separation of Scotland (or Wales) as the greater evil, in the way that reformists do, who identify with the present united British state as a mechanism for gradually moving towards socialism.

2. Hence we are not against devolution within the British state. Nor do we use the argument (used by many reformists) that we have to accept devolution reluctantly, because it is the only way to stop separation. For we are not against the complete splitting off of Scotland or Wales. To be against it would be in favour of the present British nationalist set up as compared to the Scottish or Welsh nationalist alternative. That is why it would line us up with sections of big business and the Tory party.

3. Does this mean that we argue for devolution or even separation? Certainly, there are circumstances in which we would be in favour of such an argument. This is where the combined and uneven development of capitalism has produced the oppression of one nation by another – whether the oppression be political, economic or cultural (e.g. the denial of the right to use one’s native tongue in school and at work).

Under these circumstances, the demand for national independence (or autonomy) can arouse the fighting energies of the most oppressed sections of the population, including the workers, against one of the expressions of capitalist rule. Revolutionary socialists cannot stand aside from such a struggle. Thus, for instance, in the Basque country and Catalonia, revolutionary socialists have been forced (often despite their own inclinations) to take part in the struggle for national rights against the neo-Francoist state.

But even in these circumstances, revolutionary socialists have to engage in the national struggle with great care. For the national demands are often containable within capitalism (even if it is reluctant to go to the trouble of changing its state form so as to contain them) – and then nationalist slogans that mobilised workers against the system can become slogans that tie them to elements who are integrated into the system, (e.g. the nationalist ferment in Slovakia in 1967 helped in the overthrow of Novotny; but the same ferment helped the Slovak, Husak, to consolidate his power in 1969). Therefore, for revolutionaries, demands for national rights have always to be subordinated to internationalist working class demands (e.g. Free Euskadi; Dissolve the repressive bodies; Long live the Spanish working class). The success of the social democrats and the conservative nationalists in the recent elections in the Basque country shows the danger of believing that radical nationalist slogans always lead to radical results.

4. The situation is further complicated in the case of Scotland and Wales by the fact that these countries do not suffer from elements of political economic or cultural oppression (except in the case of the smallish Welsh speaking minority). The Scottish bourgeoisie entered into union with the English bourgeoisie on a more or less voluntary basis (it wanted to co-exploit the British empire, and did so – incidentally, it also co-exploited the Highlands with the clearances). Scotland is a backward economic region – but less so for instance, than the North East of England, which has a lower per capita national income. The vast majority of Scots speak English as a native tongue, and a native of East Ham is likely to be more discriminated against because of his accent than a native of Edinburgh. In the Basque country or Catalonia it was, until recently, a heinous crime to display the local national emblems; the British bourgeoisie boast that many of its regiments occupying Northern Ireland fight under Scottish emblems.

All these points sum up a simple fact: Scotland was not a nation exploited by British imperialism – it was the partner in crime of England in the imperialist exploitation of the British empire.

5. Scottish nationalism is not, then, a reaction against national oppression; rather it is something else – the reaction of a small section of the Scottish bourgeoisie and a bigger section of the Scottish petit-bourgeoisie at the declining fortunes of British capitalism. They want to use North Sea oil to cut themselves off from the sinking British economy. The perspective of doing this has enabled them to offer a reformist prospect (even if an illusory one) not based on class struggle (or for that matter, on any form of struggle), to a substantial section of Scottish workers.

Within the working class movement, the nationalist ideology (and this applies in Wales as well as Scotland) is not at present an ideology that mobilises workers against one form of their oppression; rather it leads them into the pursuit of a class collaborationist reformist Utopia. And what is more, the pursuit of this new reformism necessarily involves them cutting their links with British workers. The reformist; class collaborationism of the ideology accounts for one of its key features – its passive character, its basis in electoralism rather than mass activity in the factories or localities – and also its preparedness to counenance the maintenance of the British monarchy.

There is no way in which some more radical version of nationalism than that of the SNP could lead away from the reformist conclusions. The demand for more radical policies could not be seen as a demand for a more radical struggle against (non-existent) national oppression; inevitably it would be seen as a demand for more powers for the Scottish parliament, for more North Sea oil for ‘Scotland’ as opposed to ‘England’. Any socialist verbiage would be buried beneath this nationalist reformism.

6. There are, of course, hypothetical situations in which this might change – for instance, if a Westminster parliament tried to coerce an SNP-led Edinburgh assembly, the coercion could create elements of national oppression and give rise to a mass based struggle against that oppression. But at present we are a million miles from such a situation.

7. From the previous points we have to draw two practical conclusions:

a) We do not defend the unity of the United Kingdom in any way. To do so is to line up with the predominant nationalist ideology in Britain today. What is more, by doing so, we will never win Scottish workers from Scottish nationalism. All we will seem to counterpose to their national reformism is the status quo, as defended by Thatcher etc.

Our refusal to defend the status quo means that we say that if the Scottish people want to separate from Britain, they are entitled to do so. We defend for instance, their right to have a referendum on devolution if they want one (as they clearly do). If there were a referendum in England on their right to separation, we would vote ‘yes‘.

That does not mean we are in favour of separation (any more than the fact that we are in favour of people’s rights to get divorced means that we are going to compel them all to do so: that is their decision).

We say, in effect; The question of nationalism threatens to poison relations between English, Scottish and Welsh workers. The Scottish and Welsh are entitled to a referendum to decide what they want. We ourselves do not mind what they choose.

b) We do not spread the illusion among Scottish and Welsh workers that the devolution or separation of these countries would be any gain for them. We insist that an Edinburgh or Cardiff assembly will leave the workers in exactly the same position as before. We oppose Labour movement bodies taking part in a campaign that cannot be of benefit to the class, and that can only encourage Scottish workers to put their faith in collaboration with a section of the local bourgeoisie rather than in unity with workers in England (or anywhere else).

8. This means that if a referendum is eventually held in Scotland and Wales we abstain. This is not a position that means ducking the arguments. Far from it. Most of the time our members in Scotland will be arguing with people who are in the ‘Yes’ camp. We will be saying to them

‘We do not mind if you get your devolved (or independent) parliament. But don’t believe that it will improve your condition one iota. Only class struggle can do that.’

Our abstention will mark us off from the rest of the Labour movement, retreating in fear before the new reformism, without aligning us with the Unionist, British nationalist camp.

Our position will be somewhat analogous to that of our American comrades faced with a choice between Democrats and Republicans. They know that most of their workmates will vote for the bourgeois reformism of the Democrats, and have to say to them, ‘OK, vote Democrat then – and see what good it does you!’

It’s not as nice as being able to earn the applause of one side or the other – but it is a distinctive revolutionary position that will enable us to put our politics across.

Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party

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