Breaking Up The British State: Scotland, Independence and Socialism
“Do we want the break-up of the British state to leave us with two nationalisms and two competing capitalist blocs on the island of Britain?” asks Bob Fotheringham, one of the editors and authors of this book of essays about the future of the independence movement in Scotland. An answer to this fundamental question concerning Scotland’s future is contained in ten lengthy critiques in this 400-page manifesto from Scottish members of the Socialist Workers Party.
The central argument of the book is that the radical mass movement of 2014 is still very much alive today, fuelled by the post-Brexit ‘democratic deficit’ and the Tory power grab of policy areas previously devolved to Holyrood. The British and Scottish Labour parties are on a politically suicidal path of opposing independence and even denying the Scottish people a further referendum to decide the issue for themselves. At the same time the SNP, in its Sustainable Growth Commission report of 2018, is committed to ‘a decade of austerity in order to meet the criteria for rejoining the EU. To avoid this means preparing a far more radical assault on wealth and power than the SNP is willing to countenance.’ The existing policy would ‘lock a future independent Scotland into a neoliberal straitjacket, at the mercy of finance capital and the Bank of England, especially if it retains the pound as its currency.’
The present political climate is seen as a historic opportunity for radical change, which requires a powerful united front in organisations such as All Under One Banner and Now Scotland. But they have to be prepared, not just to demonstrate, but also to engage in civil disobedience. Even to achieve a new referendum will require ‘something much more powerful than constitutional or legal arguments’.
The seismic electoral shift away from Labour to the SNP is dealt with in great depth, charting the decline in the Tory vote, in particular during and after the Thatcher years, and opening up the race between Labour and SNP. The need to challenge the dominance of Labour in west and central Scotland was behind Alex Salmond’s ‘social democratic turn’ of the early 2000s. The tipping point came in the 2007 Holyrood election when SNP took 33% of the vote to Labour’s 32%, followed by the earthquake of 2015 when Labour in Scotland collapsed from 41 Westminster seats to just one.
There are many threads leading from Labour’s dominance to its sidelining. One important strand is the outcome of industrial disputes from the 1970s onwards, as shop-floor trade unionists had to overcome the hesitancy of Labour-leaning trade union officials to secure even minor advances. The chapter examining Labour’s decline analyses many of these disputes in detail. It is a near comprehensive history of modern industrial relations in Scotland.
Labour in government is also dissected, from the wage freezes and welfare cuts of the Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79, which led to the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979 and ushered in the government of Margaret Thatcher. The country was a guinea pig for her Poll Tax, introduced in 1989. A Scottish Labour Party conference in 1988 refused to back a non-payment campaign and the biggest councils, which were controlled by Labour, all implemented the tax. But local opposition was overwhelming, leading to the creation of the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, led by Tommy Sheridan. Labour leader Neil Kinnock called them ‘toytown revolutionaries’. The former Labour MP Jim Sillars won a spectacular ‘no poll tax’ by-election victory for the SNP in Govan with a 33% swing from Labour.
The New Labour government of 1997, led Tony Blair, overturned the long-standing policy of nationalisation and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, declared, ‘The Labour Party is now the party of modern business and industry. For the first time it has set down its commitment to a market economy, to living with the rigours of competition’. He introduced the Private Finance Initiative, which was taken up by Labour-controlled councils, affecting the finance of schools, hospitals and housing. The government also failed to reverse Thatcher’s ‘reforms’, including anti-trade union legislation. It did, however, introduce devolution, which had been mooted Tory prime minister Ted Heath in 1974 to counter a growing SNP. The 1997 referendum saw 74% vote yes to a parliament in Edinburgh.
The Tory years from 2010, which began with Labour winning 42% of the vote in Scotland and 41 Westminster seats, saw utter defeat in 2015. Even Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum movement made little impact in the Blairite Scottish Labour Party. ‘The weakness of Labour’s opposition to austerity at both national and local level, and the absence of a lead from the union leaders … its role in outsourcing and privatising council services, and its attacks on workers’ conditions and pay, all of these factors combined to weaken Labour’s fifty-year hold on Scottish politics. The final straw was its rush to wrap itself in the Union Jack alongside David Cameron in the 2014 referendum.’ The SNP and the wider independence movement came to be seen as the only way to resist Tory attacks.
Scotland’s radical and working class history is a major theme in the book, which might seem a little too long for those wishing to get to the meat of the manifesto. But the discussions of the national question, the formation of Scotland, the making of the Scottish working class, and Red Clydeside are intelligent, informed, and impeccably sourced. They deserve a book to themselves.
There is also a very welcome essay on racism and anti-racism, which deals frankly with the key role of Scots in slavery and empire. It compares Westminster’s ‘hostile environment’ to Holyrood’s pro-immigration stance which, however, embraces immigration that is good for business and stands with ‘Fortress Europe’. The acceptance of migrants and refugees is applauded but it has been hampered by ‘a lack of resources, a lack of political will at the top and a failure to engage with local people’. It is that engagement that is crucial. The 2001 murder of an asylum seeker, Firsat Dag, for example, in 2001 could have been used to stoke racism in the Sighthill area of Glasgow, but community activists and anti-racists turned it into something inspiring by galvanising the neighbourhood around a campaign for social improvement, countering myths about refugees being given preferential treatment, and promoting a festival of ‘local talent, food and culture’.
The SNP and the wider independence movement are given an equally rigorous analysis in the three concluding chapters of the book. Support for the SNP flourished as support for independence increased, ‘though the two are not synonymous’. The movement has had a long and varied history, from the Scottish Home Rule Association of 1886 and the adoption of home rule policy by the early Labour party and the ILP, to the lonely battle of John Maclean for a Scottish workers’ republic throughout the years of the 1914-18 war and the Russian revolutions.
The minor reforms of the Lib-Lab coalition at Holyrood from 1999 to 2007 are compared with the more radical ones of the SNP governments since then. Even so, recent figures show that premature deaths in the most deprived parts of the country are now four times as likely as 20 years ago, and that Scotland’s drug-related deaths are three times that of England and Wales. Around one in five people, and one in four children live in poverty. Free personal social care for older people has been compromised by means testing as local authority budgets have been cut, and many publicly owned or not-for-profit care homes have closed or transferred to the private sector.
SNP policy is for an independent Scotland in which very little structural change would take place. The Holyrood government’s 2020 Report of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery following the Covid crisis, for example, recommends ‘a top-level Council of Business Advisers’ to determine economic priorities. So, independence is not the end goal of this manifesto, ‘Rather, independence would provide the opportunity to reject Tory policies of austerity, privatisation and racism and to build a different kind of society, free from poverty, inequality and oppression’.
How to get there? The contributions of various leftist writers and activists are scrutinised, including Stephen Maxwell, who in the 1970s formulated the case for ‘left-wing nationalism’, Tom Nairn and his many contributions including his book The Break-up of Britain, Kenny MacAskill and Lesley Riddoch, who both look to the Nordic model, Robin McAlpine of Common Weal and its impressive range of policy papers, and George Kerevan, with his policy of a new leadership elected by a national convention and a post-independence workers party ‘embracing the trades unions, Labour supporters, and the left of the SNP, and a broader left sentiment released from its old constitutional commitments’ (his words). It also discusses John Foster’s contribution for the Scottish Communist Party on ‘Radical Federalism’. The main conclusion from the examination of all of these contributions is that ‘we cannot leave the argument for socialism and workers’ self-emancipation out of the case for Scottish independence. To do so would condemn Scottish workers to the continued exploitation by the bosses, with all the consequences of poverty, exploitation and racism which we are subject to under the British state’.
So what may lie beyond the limits of nationalism? There is no credit-card sized list of demands in this manifesto, although industry nationalisation and government intervention appear throughout. Building unity amongst independence supporters, climate change activists, anti-racist campaigners and the labour movement is the main message. Looking at the lessons of Catalonia, it states, ‘The parallels with Scotland are obvious. The role of the EU, the failure of much of the left across the UK to support Scottish independence, the lack of clarity by the official independence movement on how to bring together class demands over austerity, poverty, cuts and racism into the central core of the movement, and a complete lack of understanding on how to confront a strong national state are there in both movements.’
Murray Armstrong is author of Scotland’s Fight for Democracy: Rebellion and Reform in 1820 (Pluto Books 2020).