The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) triggered a wave of heartfelt political obituaries from the ‘thought leaders’ of British liberalism. These people had looked to Sturgeon to be their champion, even if many of them are based in London and are opposed to Scottish independence.
For the liberals in the British media, she was the ideal leader, one who did not challenge the priorities of British imperialism in any significant way, but who would wag her finger at Boris Johnson in a slightly more charismatic way than does bloodless Labour leader Keir Starmer.
The other quality the media liberals loved was, of course, Sturgeon’s rabidly pro-European Union stance. Put those two things together and you have everything your average British liberal or social democrat is looking for in a political leader: symbolism and an embrace of all the fundamental priorities of British imperialism.
This might seem strange, coming from the leader of a party that is (nominally at least) dedicated to breaking up the British state. Why would such a person find herself so in line with the priorities of British imperialism? To answer that question, we need to look back over the record of the SNP and dissect some of the mythology that has been created around the question of Scottish independence.
Scottish nationalist myths exposed
We must first examine the historical roots of the union between England and Scotland, because those who argue for Scottish independence, including many calling themselves Marxists, state that this was simply a case of ‘English imperialism’ at work.
The reality was very different, however, and by exploring this we can start to see what a fraud Scottish nationalism has been upon the people. Unlike the case of Ireland, which suffered multiple waves of invasion and colonial repression during the modern, bourgeois period of history, the relationship between Scotland’s rulers and their English equivalents has always been more complicated.
Though the feudal aristocracies of both territories clashed repeatedly in disputes over rights to the Scottish crown, they were also closely linked via land ownership that stretched across the borders and by marriage. Robert the Bruce spent a large part of his youth in the English court, spoke French (the language of the English court), and was married to Elizabeth de Burgh, who was the daughter of one of the most powerful Norman aristocrats of the day.
This close relationship between the Scottish and English feudal aristocracies only grew over the centuries, as did the trade between the two, and the border between the two regions became increasingly blurred.
Even after the revolutionary wars of the 17th century, in which Scotland’s rulers changed sides twice, Oliver Cromwell chose to negotiate with the Scots in order to try and reach a settlement. There was no repeat in Scotland of English brutality in Ireland, which speaks to the very different quality of the relationship between London and Edinburgh.
Scotland was to be treated as a partner to negotiate with; Ireland was conquered territory and was to be subjected to endless and brutal repression.
The 1707 act of union, which came four decades after the ‘restoration’ of Charles II to the English throne, carried this approach forward, representing as it did a merger of the two ruling classes in order to secure the external borders of Britain while expanding the scope of its burgeoning internal capitalist market.*
This merger was very successful for the Scottish aristocracy and the nascent Scottish bourgeoisie, who were to become very important figures in the East India Company, the British military and the political hierarchy of the newly-formed British state. Eleven Scots have held the position of British prime minister, with very many more serving in British cabinets.
Industrialisation in Scotland created a very important industrial centre in Glasgow, alongside smaller but still significant ones in Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. The comparison with Ireland must also be made here, because while Scotland was developing its industries, Ireland was being relegated ever further into the position of a largely agrarian economy under the control of a few aristocratic landlords to serve as a source of cheap labour and food for rapidly developing British capitalism.
As Karl Marx noted in 1870: “Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians.
“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.
“He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the negroes in the former slave states of the USA.
“The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.” (Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York, 9 April 1870)
What Marx noted in England was repeated in the industrial centres of Scotland. The native working class in Scotland was never subjected to the same imperialist superexploitation as the Irish. The Scottish worker in the period of mass industrialisation suffered from all the ills and horrors that developing modern industry and its appalling working conditions inflicted upon the proletariat everywhere in Britain.
This suffering was felt everywhere that industry sprang up: by the pottery workers in Stoke, by the miners in Northumbria, by the metal workers in Birmingham and by the match girls in London. It was not, either then or now, a special suffering preserved only for the Scottish.
The colonial nature of British rule in Ireland was always quite different, leading to the necessity of a national-liberation movement aimed at freeing Ireland from this extra layer of oppression – as Marxists like James Connolly were to point out many times.
These historical matters are no mere curiosity. It is important to understand the difference between a real case of national oppression and a situation in which two ruling classes agree to go into business together in order to better exploit workers at home and colonised peoples abroad. In the Scottish case, it is most definitely the latter with which we are dealing.
A brief history of the SNP
We must now turn to some details regarding the Scottish National Party itself to understand why it has never really been an enemy of British imperialism.
The SNP was the product of a merger between the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish party in the early 1930s. Its first leader was Sir Alexander MacEwen, whose acceptance of a knighthood from George VI should tell us clearly that the SNP leaders have never had too much of a problem with the British establishment and its institutions. Another of the party’s early leaders was the notorious Arthur Donaldson, who was alleged to have been a Nazi sympathiser and to have desired the formation of a collaborationist government in Scotland.
At the time of its electoral breakthrough, the SNP appeared to tack to the left, beginning to position itself as a social-democratic party when it won its first parliamentary by-election in 1967. At this stage, the party was running as one that was slightly to the left of Labour, and this continued into the 1970s as the party found more electoral success.
This coincided with a growth in support within a minority of British ruling-class circles for Scottish and Welsh devolution. A referendum held in the dying days of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979 failed after a substantial number of Labour MPs opposed the measure. But the SNP continued to grow throughout the 1980s, alongside the idea of devolution for Scotland and Wales.
This was promoted not only by the SNP but increasingly by the Labour party. Having betrayed every struggle waged by the working class across Britain in the 1980s, Labour wanted to find ways of being able to run at least part of the British state.
It must also be mentioned that the popularity of devolution both within the Labour and Conservative parties is a way of putting local politicians in charge of overseeing what Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe described in 1981 as the “managed decline” of an area. By devolving responsibility over policies such as healthcare, housing or education whilst the budgets of these services are either frozen or shrunk, the national government effectively gets to devolve responsibility for its cuts.
This was something that even the Guardian noted when the office of the Greater Manchester mayor was being established. What local devolution also enables is the fragmentation of services like the NHS, splitting up workers and users into smaller bargaining units and limiting the possibilities of truly national strike or defence action as privatisation agendas are pushed.
The growth in the popularity of devolution, itself a response to declining wages and living standards, coincided with the victory of the most pro-European Union wing of the Labour party and the visit of Jacques Delors to the TUC, during which he outlined how union leaders didn’t really need to do anything to struggle against Thatcher anymore since ‘social Europe’ would secure reforms that would offer the protections that British unions were losing as a result of the long assault against them by both Tory and Labour governments.
These two political trends developed together, and not by accident. The SNP did at one point have an anti-EU wing, personified by figures such as Jim Sillars, but this was pushed to one side as the party grew in the 1990s, and had almost vanished by the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016.
By the time that devolution was being pushed through by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998, the policies of the SNP were one step to the left of Blair domestically, but almost fully on board with the British bourgeoisie when it came to international questions.
As the document published by Alex Salmond before the 2014 referendum stated: “We will continue to be a member of the EU and will have a seat at the top table to represent Scotland’s interests more effectively.”
And furthermore: “Scotland’s security will be guaranteed as a non-nuclear member of Nato, with Scotland contributing excellent conventional capabilities to the alliance.”
There is a popular illusion that Alex Salmond was somehow more ‘left’ than Sturgeon. Whilst he was certainly a more capable political leader, his policies and Sturgeon’s were entirely consistent. The ‘independence’ that they wanted was going to immediately sign away control over the Scottish economy to Brussels and Scottish defence to Washington and London.
What was going to be left for this new Scottish government to actually do? The reality of the SNP’s plans was revealed by Salmond himself seven years before the referendum, when he openly discussed his plan to base the independent Scottish economy on the model of Irish capitalism. That Irish model was based upon luring multinational corporations to (nominally) base themselves in Ireland for the purposes of tax evasion and rabid property speculation.
This model spectacularly collapsed in 2008, leading to mass migration out of the country for nearly a decade and leaving the Irish capitalist class trying to pass the bill for their decades of speculation and fraud onto Irish workers.
It is no wonder that, despite all the public jousting, Salmond and Sturgeon both remained welcome in the TV studios and newspaper columns of the British bourgeoisie, and always had access to the airwaves to voice their opinions. Their policies presented very little real threat to British imperialism or its senior partners in Washington DC. The plan of these bourgeois nationalists is for an ‘independence’ that exists in name only.
In actual fact, the continued state of ‘neverendum’ appears to suit these so-called ‘nationalists’ even better than the nominal ‘independence’ to which they allegedly aspire. While Scottish workers are assured that all the difficulties they face will be magically solved if only a referendum could free them from ‘the English’, the British ruling class can continue to get away with its crimes safe in the knowledge that the working class is divided and weak, while the SNP politicians are rewarded with an endless flow of gravy into their capacious feeding trough.
This puts the SNP firmly in the category of social-democratic parties, representing as it does the interests of the ruling class in the working-class movement. As Lenin long ago pointed out, imperialist superprofits derived from the rampant exploitation of the oppressed world are the material basis for this opportunism, since a part of those superprofits are used to bribe the upper layers of the working class, creating the phenomenon in all the imperialist countries of a ‘labour aristocracy’ – a privileged minority that is loyal to the system upon whom its privileges depend.
Without that constant funding stream, revisionism and social democracy in all their guises, from Scottish nationalism to Trotskyism, would not be the potent force they have been since the second world war in particular.
The referendum in 2014 marked a turning point in modern British political life. As a result of the heavy promotion of nationalist propaganda by a ruling class anxious to distract impoverished workers from seeking class-based answers to their problems, a large section of the Scottish left that had previously orbited around the Labour party went over to the SNP.
At the 2015 general election, the SNP gained half the votes cast in Scotland and Labour only a quarter, a shocking and dramatic reversal of their fortunes. Every party lost votes to the SNP in that election, but the Labour party was devastated by the huge swing away. Even ultra-loyal Labour media commentator Owen Jones warned of an impending disaster should this trend continue.
Meanwhile, although understandable given the consistent betrayal of their interests by the Labour party, their defection did nothing to improve the lot of the Scottish working class, given the wholly capitalist and pro-imperialist nature of the SNP.
This leads us to a vitally important question and one which the British ‘Marxist’ left has wholly failed to address. Is the growth in support for an independent Scotland something that should be supported by those who oppose British imperialism and seek to weaken its ability to wage wars of aggression?
According to the two leading Trotskyite parties in Britain, the answer to that is yes. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (SP) both support the movement for Scottish independence and criticise the SNP for not going far enough in pursuing it.
The SWP outlines its position as follows: “The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) has taken a strong line in favour of independence and been part of that struggle alongside a broad array of forces. As socialists, we approach Scottish independence from the standpoint of the working class.
“How can we build working-class unity and a bigger struggle against the bosses’ system and for a socialist society? In Scotland, the majority of the working class supports Scottish independence and sees it as an alternative to decades of Tory austerity and neoliberalism. It is not a narrow, nationalistic movement.”
And further: “It means socialists have to put working-class demands at the centre of the struggle. The fights against austerity and racist scapegoating or for radical Green New Deal cannot be subordinated or deferred until after we win independence.”
It is typical to find that, following much ‘radical’-sounding rhetoric, the SWP’s idea of ‘class politics’ is nothing more than the mild social democracy typified by the Bernie Sanders-inspired (and wholly dictated by the needs of monopoly capital) ‘green new deal’. But that is only part of the problem. What the SWP’s analysis typifies is the opportunistic approach of the British Trotskyites to the question of Scottish independence.
They argue for the break-up of the existing British state via the departure of Scotland, and yet they totally fail to take into account the question of the position of the working class as a whole. Centuries of capitalist development within Britain have created a proletariat, and a union movement that has grown out of it, that is unified and has been capable of waging heroic (if defeated) struggles across the whole of this island such as the miners’ strike of 1984-85.
The aim of any Marxist when analysing the current parlous state of the working-class movement should be to try and seek the real causes of that decline and properly analyse how it should be addressed.
The roots of our movement’s decline actually go back much further than the miners’ strike. They can be found in the very period to which the entire British ‘left’ (some more openly than others) wishes to return – that of the 1945-51 Labour governments and the adoption of revisionism by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
The rejection of revolutionary class struggle during this period was to leave the working class effectively leaderless, as the party that had provided revolutionary leadership turned to revisionism and class collaboration. This meant that when class struggle heated up again, when the capitalist class went on the attack as a result of the crisis of capitalism re-emerging in the 1970s, there was no force capable of providing effective leadership.
The revisionist CPGB, along with multitude of Trotskyite organisations, offered nothing to workers but a call that they should keep voting Labour. This adaptation to social democracy by the forces that are supposed to be working for socialism is what has prevented the development of revolutionary politics among British workers.
The embrace of Scottish independence by the Trotskyites is yet another sign of their inherent opportunism, dressed up in their usual ultra-left fashion with phrases about the ‘break-up of the British state’.
But do the Trotskyites actually want to challenge British imperialism? None of their actions over the last 70 years would suggest that they are serious about this. They were one of the big forces within the Stop the War Coalition in the run up to the Iraq war, and rather than use the enormous support that movement was gathering to make a real challenge to the British state’s ability to conduct the war, they worked hard to ensure that the movement stayed within the safe channels acceptable to the British bourgeois state.
This has remained the case ever since, with the British Trotskyites talking a big game and engaging in a lot of ‘revolutionary’-sounding rhetoric, while confining their practical politics to those of the Labour left – ie, to social democracy.
As Josef Stalin pointed out to a Soviet party congress in 1934: “We have always said that the ‘lefts’ are in fact rights who mask their rightness by left phrases. Now the ‘lefts’ themselves confirm the correctness of our statement.
“Take last year’s issues of the Trotskyist Bulletin. What do Messieurs the Trotskyists demand, what do they write about, in what does their ‘left’ programme find expression? They demand: the dissolution of the state farms, on the grounds that they do not pay; the dissolution of the majority of the collective farms, on the grounds that they are fictitious; the abandonment of the policy of eliminating the kulaks; reversion to the policy of concessions, and the leasing to concessionaires of a number of our industrial enterprises, on the grounds that they do not pay.
“There you have the programme of these contemptible cowards and capitulators – their counter-revolutionary programme of restoring capitalism in the USSR!” (Report to the seventeenth party congress on the work of the central committee of the CPSU(B), 26 January 1934)
Stalin was highlighting the way in which the Trotskyites of his time dressed up their demands for the restoration of capitalism within the USSR with leftist phrases about ‘fighting bureaucracy’ or ‘restoring democracy’. In just the same way today, our British Trotskyites conceal their social-democratic politics, which are completely pro-imperialist, with ultra-left phrases about ‘breaking up the British state’.
The adoption by these so-called Marxists of Scottish nationalism is simply another manifestation of their extreme opportunism. Rather than working to raise the level of class consciousness by advancing working-class understanding of scientific socialism, as real socialists would be doing, they jump onto every passing petty-bourgeois bandwagon.
Rather than explaining how a planned economy could transform all of Britain for the better, they engage in petty nationalist fantasies in Scotland and Wales. Rather than building the unity of our class and working to break down all artificial boundaries and divisions created by capital, they seek to reinforce and solidify these boundaries.
Scottish independence is a reactionary fantasy. The politics of the SNP, when examined closely, are openly reactionary, and seek merely to position Scotland as another (very minor) section of the US-led imperialist bloc.
That the majority of self-identifying British ‘left’ organisations have gone along with this anti-worker agenda reveals once again that they are not socialists but only the left flank of British social democracy. With the SNP replacing Labour as the main social-democratic party in Scotland, the rest of the left, led by the Trotskyites, has obediently run along behind them.
Communists must reject this opportunist reasoning, not out of any love for the British state but because our task is to unify the working class of every part of this nation behind the ideas of scientific socialism. Our task is to overcome these false divisions and build our forces in every corner of Britain to the point where we can wage a serious struggle for working-class state power – the only meaningful solution to the problems of inequality, poverty and war.
Petty nationalist distractions only detract from that most urgent task.
* The so-called ‘restoration’ of the monarchy was actually more of a reinvention, since the monarchy in England ceased from that day to be a feudal institution and became instead a pillar of the new, bourgeois, order. British kings from that date were subject to the rule of the bourgeoisie, and any king who tried to overstep his bounds was speedily replaced.