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New Scotland, New Wales

Is the working class better off?

Tony Blair’s devolution referenda gave him the result he wanted. The people of Scotland (enthusiastically) and Wales (diffidently) voted to establish a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers and a Welsh Assembly with few powers of any kind. However there are a wide variety of interpretations of what this actually means for the people of these countries. In Scotland, Labour campaigned for a ‘Yes, Yes’ vote on the grounds that it would strengthen the United Kingdom; the Scottish Nationalist Party claims that the same result was a step towards full independence for Scotland.

Socialist Labour members in both Scotland and Wales were naturally involved in the political events surrounding the referenda, but a sense of direction for the party as a whole seemed to be lacking and various differences of opinion on these issues rose to the surface. Now the referenda has been and gone, let us take a considered look at our positions.

Comrades in Wales were initially very cautious. NEC member Dave Proctor wrote in Socialist News last November: ‘Nor can we assume that a Welsh assembly would be a socialist structure.... let’s work for a Socialist Labour government, and there will then be no need to attempt creation of our own little socialist enclave.’

In the following issue, Pete Ashley took this even further: ‘Any future assembly will only be another layer of unaccountable bureaucracy, a talking shop, not a tool for the socialist transformation of Wales as many Welsh socialists naively believe’. He concludes ‘Socialist Labour should campaign for a vote against the Welsh Assembly.’

Almost a year later at the time of the referenda Socialist News (Sept/Oct 1997) makes no mention of Wales, but is dramatically more enthusiastic about devolution in Scotland. Chris Herriot writes that ‘the demand for a Scottish parliament must be recognised as a class movement.... Socialist Labour in Scotland supports a Scottish parliament with full powers; we believe we have no alternative but to vote ‘double yes’ and fight for change within the Parliament.... if we have an opportunity to break the stranglehold of capitalism in one part of the UK before another, it would be absolute folly not to do so. The Scottish parliament ... offers a potential path to such development.’

This policy is based on an intervention by SLP members in Scotland. Before this, at the time of the General Election, policy was far less detailed. The election manifesto does have a clear position on the question of devolution, ‘The Socialist Labour Party is committed to devolving government to regions – and to the countries of Scotland and Wales’, and also mentions the destruction of steel and coal industries in Wales as well as the fact that the wealth from the exploitation of North Sea oil has not been used for the benefit of people in Scotland to any great extent.

All of these are issues which affect the working-class in those countries. But where is the class position of our party on the question of devolution or independence in Scotland and Wales? The manifesto section on Scotland and Wales makes no direct mention of the need for socialism and no mention at all of a specifically working-class agenda. If Socialist Labour truly is going to represent and fight for the interests of working people throughout the land, then we had better get our priorities right. Nationalist politics must always be understood in the context of how it affects the class interests of the people who experience it.

In the last paragraph of the section headlined ‘Scotland and Wales’ in the Socialist Labour Election Manifesto it states: ‘... Socialist Labour believes the choice of devolution or full independence is one that can only be made by the people of Scotland and Wales themselves. Decisions of such profound importance must rest with those who are directly involved and whose lives would be most affected by the consequences’.

Indeed. But the people ‘most affected by the consequences’ are always the working class! It has been the case now for nigh on two-hundred years and it always will be the case until workers have power. Power to do what? The power to take those very same ‘decisions of such profound importance’ that the manifesto refers to. Ultimately this means the power to run the society we live in – control over our environment, control of our own lives and resources that have been squandered by the ruling capitalist class.

In any situation class must come before nation. Which is not to deny that some nations are oppressed as a direct consequence of international capitalism. But it is always the working class that pays for it the most. In the context of Britain, the nations of Scotland, Wales and England were united in a union for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, as early as 1603 in the union of the crowns (or the 1707 union of England and Scotland), before the development of modern capitalism. Therefore there is nothing about the United Kingdom of particular benefit to the working class.

Our positions on devolution should certainly not be based on any desire to preserve the UK, but there is no guarantee that a devolved Scotland would benefit the workers let alone hasten the day that our class can take state power. There is nothing inherently ‘socialist’ about the demand for a Scottish parliament to have ‘tax-varying powers’.

One thing that is clear though is that the Scottish working class do have a stronger tradition of good old-fashioned class-struggle than the English. Socialist Labour stands in the tradition of Scottish/Celtic socialists such as John McLean and James Connolly who sought to link the struggles of all the workers on these islands, while fighting intransigently against any form of national oppression. Our party must always put forward policies that defend the most exploited sections of society, but what we also want is a strong self-organised working class capable of taking the running of society into our own hands.

Progressive or Not?

What were Scottish workers asked to vote for? A glorified regional council with tax-raising powers? Wales doesn’t even get that option. A local assembly will do for them, or so we are told. The question of whether Scotland should have a parliament with the power to raise taxes was separated into two questions on the referendum ballot paper. This was of course to protect New Labour from being taken to task by the Murdoch media for breaking promises on tax. By passing the buck to the Scottish bourgeoisie Tony Blair can absolve himself of responsibility for either cutting services or raising tax in Scotland. Clearly he is not expecting anyone to have the audacity to suggest that Scotland should take into public ownership its national resources presently carved up between the English and Scottish capitalist classes.

In Wales the whole affair has been kept simpler, with a single question on whether or not to have a ‘Welsh assembly’. It has to be pointed out that Wales never existed as a single nation in the way that Scotland did before the creation of the United Kingdom. This could mean that the bourgeoisie in Wales is even closer to their English counterparts than the Scottish bourgeoisie is, and in fact the voting patterns reflected this with ‘no’ votes significantly stronger in the parts of Wales geographically nearest to England.

All the more reason then for the working class to unite against both sets of capitalists. Just as the ruling classes have united in the past, the workers must unite across all national/regional boundaries especially when our enemy shows signs of falling into disarray. It is imperative that Socialist Labour, as a Britain-wide party, stands in elections for the new Parliament and Assembly if only to use the opportunities present to fight for working-class interests and raise the need for an altogether different society.

But taking advantage of existing capitalist institutions is a different thing entirely from suggesting that the establishment of a Scottish parliament would be a step forward for the working class, which is essentially what our policy says. The people of Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales, clearly believe they will gain some benefit from this development. If the people of these countries expressed a desire for real separation then we would support their struggle to gain it. But we do not advocate that they take either the course of full separation, or this Blairite rearrangement of local government.

Essentially there was nothing to vote for in the two referendums of any use to working people as a class. Socialist Labour should have said so, however unpopular that might seem in the current ‘new’ mood. We should have advocated that Scottish and Welsh voters spoil their ballot papers as part of wider action to demand a real choice in any future plebiscite on the future of the United Kingdom’s component parts. Ultimately we are not against some form of devolved assemblies – but regional workers’ councils with real democracy and power should be our aim, not yet more bourgeois parliaments that serve to legitimise and protect the system of exploitation and repression that we all live under at present.

We should raise the demand for workers assemblies as opposed to ‘Parliaments’ in the next Socialist Labour Election Manifesto – during elections to the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, local elections throughout Britain, and at any other time in the future. We actually want the working class, as a class, to replace the present ruling classes in the running of the state, in order to build our own state based on human needs and aspirations, not the forces of the market and those who presently hold power through ownership of our workplaces, our homes, our environment, our lives.

A workers’ assembly can be based upon both constituent and workplace representation, but is not to be confused with purely consultative ‘workplace councils’ that share power with employers etc. In any future socialist society, the Scottish, Welsh and English working class must be united in a federation of socialist states, each region with its own local assembly of workers delegates (including in England) and with an all-Britain wide workers assembly to replace the rotten, antiquated, ‘British parliament’ of liars, cheats and business-backed gangsters who have the nerve to claim to represent all sections of society.