Scotland’s Independence Referendum

Austerity, nationalism and class collaboration

On 18 September, residents of Scotland aged 16 and older will be asked a simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ As the referendum on independence draws near, the considerable number of undecided voters are moving towards voting ‘Yes’, and the polls are too close to call. Both sides are wheeling out celebrity endorsers and trading accusations and statistics, while the pros and cons are argued in pubs, homes and workplaces across the country.

The British establishment never expected it to come to this. When the Scottish parliament was created a decade and a half ago, the election rules were designed to make it difficult for any one party to gain an absolute majority. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) defied expectations in the 2011 election, taking Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats – laying the basis for the current referendum, which pits the SNP-sponsored ‘Yes’ campaign against ‘Better Together’, a coalition led by the Labour Party, the main opposition party in the Scottish parliament. In the closing days of the campaign, Labour and their Tory and Lib Dem allies are close to panic, promising various increases in devolutionary power in an attempt to bolster the ‘No’ campaign.

The SNP’s success can be partly attributed to their posture as social democrats opposed to the austerity policies implemented by the Tory/Lib Dem government in Westminster and to Labour’s refusal even to claim they would present any real alternative. It did not take much to popularise the idea that life in an independent Scotland could be easier for ordinary people.

Yet the root cause of austerity in Scotland is not English antipathy towards the Scots – the same anti-working class campaign has been waged across Britain, Europe and beyond. Rather, it is the fact that the capitalists’ economic system is plagued by inherent contradictions and irrationalities. While the bourgeois nationalist SNP takes a nominal anti-austerity stance in the interests of furthering the goal of independence, their project for an independent capitalist Scotland is not going to improve the lives of Scottish working people.

Scottish bourgeoisie: a house divided

A Scottish government White Paper, ‘Building Security and Creating Opportunity: Economic Policy Choices in an Independent Scotland’ (November 2013), outlines detailed plans for independence, including reforms such as renationalisation of the post, scrapping the bedroom tax, more hours of free childcare and removing nuclear weapons from the Clyde. All of these proposals are intended to facilitate the smoother running of Scottish capitalism with a kinder facade:

‘Independence would allow future Scottish governments to combine powers over business investment, employment creation, taxation and welfare to secure stronger levels of economic growth from which all the people of Scotland could benefit. It would ensure economic policy is designed for the needs and opportunities of the Scottish economy, provide greater flexibility in decision making and offer an opportunity to rebalance the economy.’

The SNP has promised to cut corporation tax by three percent after achieving independence, creating an environment in which global finance will see Scotland as a profitable investment opportunity. Ireland, with an even lower rate of tax on business, took the same route to ‘prosperity’ and has been ravaged by brutal austerity as the government seeks to entice foreign investment. Scottish capital, as a constituent component of British imperialism, is of course much stronger than Irish capital, and will continue to pursue its own ‘investment opportunities’ abroad. But the SNP’s pledge to create a more ‘business-friendly’ environment than David Cameron has done should leave no room for doubting whose interests will be served in an independent Scotland.

At the same time, Scotland’s business interests are divided over how best to ‘rebalance the economy’ in their favour. Big capitalists in the leading sectors of the Scottish economy (oil, banking, whiskey and fisheries) are more inclined to the ‘No’ camp, while smaller businesses tend towards ‘Yes’, though it is by no means a clear divide. Much of the division hangs on calculations over the uncertainty of future income from North Sea oil and the financial viability of an independent Scotland.

English and Scottish capital, and their respective ruling classes, are deeply intertwined, going back beyond the union of 1707. Even with political independence, many of those ties are likely to remain. The SNP’s nationalist dream of an independent Scotland (with about one-tenth the population of its neighbour to the south) charting its own economic course is unachievable, as a leaked paper presented to the SNP cabinet last year suggested (The Scotsman, 11 September 2014). Nothing demonstrates this dependence more clearly than the desire of SNP leader Alex Salmond to retain the pound sterling, with the external economic constraints that would entail.

The high degree of economic integration – indeed, virtual fusion – is the source not only of divisions within the Scottish ruling class but of the leverage that London has over Edinburgh. Britain’s Chancellor George Osborne has attempted to apply pressure on Scottish capital by stating that his government is opposed to a joint currency. On the other hand, the SNP has a considerable bargaining chip in the UK’s Trident nuclear arsenal, currently located at the deep water Faslane Naval Base near Glasgow. The White Paper projects a Scottish refusal to house the weapons, which would create considerable difficulty and expense for the British state. There are also related disputes and unresolved questions around the SNP’s objectives of retaining Scottish membership of NATO and the European Union, which may not be as straightforward as Salmond implies.

Marxism & the Scottish National Question

Some elements of the Scottish bourgeoisie clearly feel oppressed in some manner, while others - among them the dominant fractions – are satisfied with their representation within the institutions of British capitalism, including the state apparatus.

Among the working class, the sense of national oppression – wider spread than among the ruling strata – is largely an ideological expression of the very real material insecurity experienced by the majority of Scots. Yet this precariousness is qualitatively the same as that found over the border in the north of England and other regions. Glasgow contains some of the most deprived areas of Britain, with shocking levels of poverty, but parts of Liverpool, Manchester and London are not far behind. The central issue is class, not nationality.

Nevertheless, Marxists recognise that the Scots constitute a nation. As such, they have the democratic right to self-determination – that is, the right to separate from Britain and form an independent state (or the right to remain in Britain if they so choose). Whatever a majority of voters decide in the referendum, it is the duty of socialists to defend that right. English revolutionaries have a particular responsibility to oppose anti-Scottish chauvinism and efforts by London to bully or curtail the rights of the Scots.

In his ‘Theses on the National Question’ (1913), V.I. Lenin noted that defending a nation’s right to self-determination does not mean that revolutionaries ‘reject an independent appraisal of the advisability of the state secession of any nation in each separate case’. Marxists must appraise each concrete situation, deciding whether or not to advocate separation on the basis of how best to advance ‘the proletarian class struggle for socialism’.

In cases where national antagonisms have poisoned relations between workers of the dominant and subordinate nationalities so much that significant joint class struggle is precluded, Marxists move from simple defence of the right to separate to active advocacy of the exercise of that right through secession. In this manner, it is hoped, the national question may be removed from the agenda, or at least sufficiently sidelined to allow class questions to come to the fore once again. In situations where joint class struggle across national lines remains a reality, Marxists do not advocate independence, and would counsel against separation.

Scottish and English (and Welsh) workers possess common class institutions. The vast majority of British trade unions organise countrywide, affiliating to the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) as well as the British TUC. From the largely ineffective one-day public-sector strikes organised by the union bureaucrats to the wildcat strikes that have spread among electricians across the country over the past few years, Scottish and English workers routinely engage in joint struggle against British capitalists. The 2013 strike at the vast Grangemouth oil refinery near Falkirk failed to spread to other refineries across the border due not to national hostilities but to the sell-out policies of the Unite union bureaucrats who surrendered without a fight.

Although it remains a very real feature of the class struggle in Britain, solidarity across national lines has, it is true, been weakened over the past period, threatened by the changed configuration of state power confronting the trade-union bureaucracy (which needs few excuses to avoid waging a concerted struggle on the broader basis provided by a unitary state):

‘Cross-border ties between unions, which for so long helped cement solidarity among Scottish and English workers, also seem to have deteriorated over the last ten or twenty years. The onset of devolution and the transfer of control to Edinburgh of, among other things, transport, health and education policy, created a new layer of state power with which Scottish branches of British unions had to negotiate, reducing their reliance on larger, Westminster-focused, UK-wide structures.’
(New Statesman, 2 April 2013)

While defending the right of the Scots to secede from Britain and establish their own state, we recognise that the creation of a Scottish state would reflect – or constitute – a setback for the class struggle. Given the continued possibility of joint class struggle against the capitalist class within Britain, we would advise workers to vote ‘No’ in the referendum on 18 September. Needless to say, this does not imply support for the status quo of British capitalism, nor a refusal to defend the right of the Scots to separate if, in their majority, they vote ‘Yes’.

Reformists push class collaboration with Scottish capitalists

Traditionally, the trade-union bureaucracy in Scotland has opposed independence, reflecting the general attitude of the leadership of the Labour Party. Recently, the trend has shifted towards a pro-independence stance, or at least neutrality (the position of the STUC). In part this represents changing attitudes among Scottish capitalists and petty-bourgeois layers, whose ideology the trade-union bureaucracy helps transmit into the working class. Yet it also represents the view of many rank-and-file workers responding to decades of defeats (which they have no faith Labour will do anything to reverse) and to the failure of the union leaders to mount a co-ordinated defence of their members. Instead of channelling working-class discontent into a proletarian-internationalist campaign against austerity, the trade-union bureaucracy reinforces the nationalist consciousness they helped to foster.

Many self-defined socialist organisations adopt essentially the same position. The left wing of the ‘Yes’ campaign is gathered in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) under the left-nationalist slogan ‘Britain is for the rich: Scotland can be ours’. The components of the RIC – including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), the Socialist Party Scotland (section of the Committee for a Workers’ International/CWI) and the International Socialist Group (ISG) – falsely argue that the only way to fight the bosses and government attacks is to achieve independence for Scotland:

‘Only with a Yes vote can we end benefit sanctions and demeaning work capability assessments, abolish the Bedroom Tax, raise the minimum wage, improve childcare and begin a mass programme of job creation.’
(‘RIC Week of Action: YES to Save the Welfare State’, 13 August 2014)

For Jonathan Shafi, a leader of the ISG and the RIC, the problem with the SNP’s White Paper is that it does not propose enough reforms to improve capitalism for ‘the Scottish people’:

‘The priorities which the independence movements are bringing forward – things like democracy, equality – we want to start thinking about our economy, whether there can be a democratic participation involved in our national resources, nationalization of key industries, though not all this is contained in the White Paper, not all of this is contained in the Scottish government’s plan. This is not just about the Scottish government, this is about the hopes and dreams of the Scottish people.’
(RT, 26 November 2013)

Shafi’s preference is for a slightly more left-wing version of the White Paper, which despite his criticisms he describes as ‘something far more progressive than the mainstream and Westminster is currently giving, and far more progressive than anything that Westminster will be able to do over the coming years’. Shafi justifies his critical defence of the bourgeois nationalist SNP’s perspective document as predicated on the ‘need to have some level of agreement’ within the broader ‘Yes’ campaign (ibid.).

Adopting a somewhat more militant position, the CWI claims: ‘A Yes vote would represent a protest against the endless austerity of the past period, a chance to raise opposition to inequality and cuts that the main political parties will not contemplate’; (, 4 September 2014). It may indeed be true that a majority of working-class people will vote ‘Yes’ as a protest against austerity, but that does not mean that Scottish independence will in any way be an effective means of stopping the cuts. To provide itself with left cover, the CWI calls for ‘an independent socialist Scotland’, but presents no evidence that independence will take Scotland any closer to socialism. The Socialist Party Scotland/CWI is quite happy to subordinate itself to a political campaign dominated by bourgeois forces pushing for an independent capitalist Scotland.

A prominent advocate of left-wing arguments in favour of Scottish independence is Neil Davidson of the SWP split RS21. As a lead writer for the SWP over many years, Davidson manoeuvred their position from opposing independence to a left-nationalist call for separation as secession grew in popularity. His main argument is that independence would weaken British imperialism:

‘Britain is an imperial state at war. A referendum called while the occupation of Afghanistan is still ongoing, with the Iraqi and Libyan interventions a recent memory, would be inseparable from the arguments against these wars and the British state’s subordinate alliance with the American empire. Scottish secession would at the very least make it more difficult for Britain to play this role, if only by reducing its practical importance for the US. Britain has always been an imperialist state, but socialists have not always called for support for independence and in other situations they were correct to oppose it, for example in the early 1920s. But devolution has changed the context in which we operate. The British state has already begun to fragment and so to call for its further fragmentation on an anti-war basis, in a situation where a majority opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, means that independence can be supported as a means to an anti-imperialist end, rather than as the political logic of Scottish nationalism.’
(International Socialism, 27 March 2012)

The SNP’s vision of Scotland as an independent country includes remaining in NATO and playing its part in the same imperialist alliance that was responsible for the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The Scottish ruling class, regardless of which bourgeois party dominates, have no intention of fulfilling Davidson’s nationalist fantasy of breaking with the ‘American Empire’, as shown by Salmond’s April visit to the United States to drum up support. Independence would of course be something of a moral defeat for the Tories, who pride themselves on being the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’, but it is in the interests of the bourgeoisie on both sides of the border to maintain strong personal, economic and military links whatever the result. An independent capitalist Scotland would itself be an imperialist power, albeit a relatively minor one.

Workers in Scotland, England, Wales and internationally are all subject to the depredations of global capitalism. Marxists support the right of the Scottish people to secede, but, in opposition to nationalists, we put forward an internationalist class-struggle perspective aimed at winning working people to the project of building a mass revolutionary party. Should the Scots vote for independence on 18 September, we will defend their right to form their own state and will advocate the greatest possible working-class unity against capitalists on both sides of the border. Whatever the outcome, workers in Scotland and the rest of Britain need an internationalist revolutionary party, fighting for a socialist federation of Europe and a society free of want and oppression.