Class and the question of Scottish independence are inextricably linked, argues Chris Bambery
Just over twenty years ago the people of Scotland voted in a referendum in favour of the creation of a Scottish Parliament, controlling much but not all of Scotland’s affairs. Over 74 percent of votes backed the devolution of certain powers from Westminster to Edinburgh. The proposal was backed by Labour, the SNP, Liberals and Greens but opposed by the Tories. The Yes vote was highest in the most working-class parts of the country, with Glasgow voting 85 percent in favour.
The manifesto of the New Labour government of Tony Blair, elected with a landslide majority earlier in 1997, had made a commitment to create a Scottish Parliament. But Blair was no fan! Later he would admit he was “never a passionate believer" in devolution, and was concerned about the “danger” it could lead to separation. But at the same time, he felt he could not go back on the promise contained in the manifesto.
In fact, any going back would have sparked widespread anger because the push for a Scottish Parliament came from the grassroots, especially among Labour voters.
In 1992 the Tories had won the previous UK general election, despite the widespread belief that Labour was on the verge of victory. Yet in Scotland, they were a minority party with just 11 MPs. The prospect of another five more years of Tory rule, after the previous 13, created popular anger.
The Scottish Trade Union Congress called a demonstration in Glasgow in favour of a Scottish Parliament which attracted thousands to Glasgow’s George Square.
The director of 7:84 Scotland theatre company, David Hayman, caught the mood when he posed a series of questions to the crowd and demanded an answer, it went thus:
On Thursday April 9 did you vote Conservative?!
On Thursday April 9 did you vote for the destruction of our health service/”
On April 9 did you vote for the dismantling of our industry?”
Did you vote for the decay of our educational system?”
Did you vote for greed?”
Did you vote for selfishness?”
The English did, for the fourth election in a row. The people of England have voted for greed and selfishness and I’ll tell you something; there’s fifty million of them and only five million of us, so we don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever having a parliament we deserve unless we have our own parliament. Right?”
In truth, the people of Sheffield, Liverpool and inner London had not voted for those things but working people in Scotland were looking for a shield to protect them from the worst of Thatcherism, and a Scottish Parliament where the Tories would be in a minority offered them that.
Hayman’s rhetoric was light years away from that of 1971 when workers across Britain had rallied to support the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in against closures, or of the year-long 1984-1985 miner’s strike when English, Welsh and Scottish strikers had stood shoulder to shoulder. Memories of great working class victories in the 1970s had faded but the scars of the defeats inflicted by Thatcher were still raw.
Even the battle over the Poll Tax, whose defeat would bring down Thatcher, had been organised separately north and south of the border because it was introduced a year earlier in Scotland.
Tony Blair’s worries, however, that devolution might fuel support for Scottish independence proved right, in large part because of his record in office. New Labour’s full-hearted adoption of neo-liberalism, its love affair with the City of London, its push for privatisation and, above all, Blair’s decision to stand 100 percent with George W. Bush in invading Iraq, were deeply unpopular with many Labour voters and among young people. They increasingly began to see independence as an escape pod from a Planet UK addicted to greed, the free market and war.
Scottish Labour was also weakening. It had never had a large membership, largely because the right wing controlled party in the West of Scotland saw members as too left wing and too dangerous. The brightest stars were still attracted to Westminster and not to the new parliament in Holyrood, not realising until way too late where the future was.
In contrast, what the Scottish National Party did was re-position itself by, in rhetoric at least, adopting many positions associated with Old Labour. The electoral system devised for the Scottish Parliament supposedly ruled out one-party government, so, the theory went, blocking the SNP from forming one. From 1999, when the parliament came into being, Labour ruled in coalition with the Liberals until 2007 when the SNP became the biggest party and formed a minority government. They’ve remained in office until now forming two minority governments and one majority administration, despite all the obstacles.
Because the SNP held a majority of the seats at Holyrood it could secure the 2014 independence referendum. It is worth recalling at the outset both Labour and Tories, united in the official No campaign, Better Together, were convinced there was not going to be a Yes vote for independence. Foremost of a long campaign that looked to be correct but then in the final months the Radical Independence Campaign and others injected a more radical appeal for a Yes vote based on the possibility of a another Scotland where welfare was the priority along with job creation and economic growth, and which would be free of wars and nuclear missiles.
As the polls showed the No vote lead falling, and ever Yes edging ahead, the British elite panicked. Cue Gordon Brown. The ex-Labour Prime Minister was drafted in to spearhead a last-gasp campaign based on scaring people – particularly pensioners who were told their state pension was in danger. From deep in his past, Brown rediscovered the glories of the 1945 Labour government and its creation of the NHS and the welfare state. At the close, he personally guaranteed the Scottish Parliament would get full autonomy, “devomax”. We are still waiting.
Yet the referendum campaign cost Labour dear. Blocking with the Tories left a sour taste and the Yes vote had won among the young and on the council estates. The SNP experienced a surge in membership and in the 2015 Westminster general election won 56 out of 59 Scottish parliamentary seats.
Since then it’s struggled, failing to retain its overall majority at Holyrood and in June’s Westminster election, slipping back to 35 MPs. The losses were largely because they could not turn out their own voters, uninspired as they were by the current Scottish government. In the campaign, Scottish Labour and the Tories concentrated fire on the SNP and defence of the Union. In a competition as to who was the best unionist, the Tories were always going to win, taking 13 seats to Labour’s seven. That this was held up as a comeback showed just how far Labour has slipped in what was once a fiefdom which it took for granted.
Those seven victories owed a lot to the Corbyn effect, despite the fact Scottish Labour never mentioned him or the policies he was pushing south of the border.
Since the June election, there is a palpable sense of relief among many on the left across Britain that the national question in the UK is dead and buried because the politics of class is back.
Let’s be clear the rise of Jeremy is wonderful in that it has put socialism on the agenda in a way which few of us can have ever experienced. But I think it would be profoundly wrong to think that the national question in Britain, particularly within Scotland, is dead and buried.
Support for devolution and then independence grew for material reasons: the remorseless decline of the UK and the archaic nature of the UK state. Neither has gone away.
In truth, many on the left were always uncomfortable in dealing with the national question. The bulk of Scottish Labour has always opposed independence (though there is a significant minority who support independence). Others on the left grasped they could not vote to maintain the unity of an imperialist power but were not comfortable with having to back independence, and certainly not with campaigning for it. Both groups are happy to return to what might be called class politics but which is, in reality, bread and butter electoralism or a mix of trade unionism and socialist propaganda.
But the idea that the national question in the UK, and Scottish independence, is now off the agenda is simplistic.
Support for independence does not equate with support for the SNP. But the latter remains the biggest party in Scotland.
What many people can’t get their heads round is that many of those who backed independence in 2014 back Corbyn for the same reasons. Some might put independence on hold to see what he can achieve, others will not.
Many of those who campaigned with Radical Independence were SNP members, or became so afterwards, but many were not. They still support independence but are also admirers of Jeremy. They have much in common with his supporters in Scottish Labour.
The answer here is not to follow the Scottish Labour leadership line in dissing independence all the time and seeing the SNP as the main enemy, rather than the Tories. In Edinburgh recently Radical Independence was able to bring together Corbynistas and the pro-independence left to discuss the way forward. There was much agreement.
On the question of independence, the obvious, and principled compromise is to simply agree Scotland has the right to self-determination and to hold a referendum even if people disagree on how to vote in that. Further, we might also agree on greater devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Control of immigration would be the one I’d champion.
But let’s return to why the issue of Scottish independence is not going to disappear and can erupt again at any time. It’s because it is rooted in the unending decline of the UK. That is not going to go away.
Scottish separatism emerged in the inter-war period after the collapse of Scottish capitalism - capital owned and run by the Scottish bourgeoisie. The inter-war period was a grim time for working people in Scotland but for the upper classes there a sense of doom. Today’s SNP was formed from a coming together of people from the left and ex-Tories.
Because Scotland had been such an industrial success story pre-1918 the overall UK decline after the First World War hit hard an economy based on coal, steel, engineering and shipbuilding. The Scottish car industry, which seemed to have a bright future pre-First World War simply disappeared.
But after a brief blip around the Second World War, the UK’s decline continued and Scotland’s too on an even greater scale if measured by emigration.
The issue of independence came alive in the late 1960’s in reaction to a Labour government unable to deliver on its promise to turn the UK economy around and driven to impose austerity. In 1974 the SNP won several Westminster seats under the slogan “It's Scotland’s oil.”
The electoral decline of the SNP post-Thatcher’s election in 1979 seemed too many to herald the end of Scottish nationalism. It did not.
The demand for a Scottish Parliament became popular after the Tories inflicted defeats on the working class because it seemed to offer a shield against the worst of free-market policies. Its popularity was such that Tony Blair had to deliver it after his 1997 landslide election win, despite his misgivings.
It was the experience of the Blair years that drove many working people to move further and back independence from a Westminster addicted to war, finance and neo-liberalism. That was so evident during the 2014 referendum.
So class and support for independence cannot be separated by some wall. And it’s also why support for independence will rise again in response to the failure of the UK state to arrests economic and social decline.
Now we could project what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn was putting in place a 1945 for the 21stCentury, or, if we were to really get excited, we were swept up in the rapids of revolution. Even then the national question would not simply disappear – it didn’t in Russia in 1917 or in Spain in 1936. In the former case, the Bolsheviks brilliantly applied the right of self-determination. In the latter, the Republican government had, at the outset, to defend the rights and autonomy of the Basque and Catalan governments but in the case of the latter worked to subordinate it to themselves. This was part of the Communist-led attack on workers control in Catalonia so brilliantly described in Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.”
Now Scotland is not an oppressed country in the way both the Basque Country and Catalonia were under Franco, let alone Ireland under British colonial rule. But even the staid and cautious SNP led Scottish government has to oppose things like austerity and Trident and put forward modest social democratic policies (accompanied by bizarre and stupid ones like chopping off the tails of dogs!).
It still remains the case that the British ruling class do not want the break-up of Britain because it will weaken them further on the world and domestic change. The panic that gripped the British elite and its outriders when they suddenly grasped they could lose the 2014 referendum is evidence of that, as was the way President Obama, the EU and so on all intervened to oppose independence.
Because there is no wall between support for independence and class politics things can see-saw between the two but that does not mean one of the two will disappear.
The radical left has to take on both issues. It is easier to do that if you support independence based on a radical blueprint for Scotland.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Defending the Indefensible: the British Army in Northern Ireland, 1969
- Labour Country: Political Radicalism and Social Democracy in South Wales 1831-1985, and Stories of Solidarity - book review
- How we should remember D-Day
- Spanish election: the left win but society polarises
- A Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank merger spells trouble
- Bloody Sunday: one prosecution is not justice
- Eurozone blues