National Sections of the L5I:

Britain: Separation for Scotland and Wales?

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Elected on a wave of unprecedented popular enthusiasm, Tony Blair’s New Labour government has lost little time in shelving most of its promises of democratic and constitutional reform.

On the firm recommendation of the party’s “spin doctors”, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, plans for a Freedom of Information Act to open up the workings of one of the most secretive states of the Western democracies to greater public scrutiny have been swiftly dropped. Another measure making no appearance in the government’s legislative timetable is the plan to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected second chamber.

Electoral reform, which had figured as a vague commitment in Labour’s pre-election propaganda, is to be referred to a government commission, where it is conceded that New Labour is unlikely to threaten its own vast majority by making changes to the undemocratic first-past-the-post system which suddenly, to Blair’s surprise, worked in Labour’s favour.

The sole exception so far to this programme of constitutional backtracking is devolution of power to Scotland and Wales. In the timetable of Bills to be brought before the first parliament of the new regime, is a law for the holding of referendums in Scotland and Wales on the establishment of new national parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Scotland

There is every reason for New Labour to believe that the democratic aspirations of the Scottish people need a relatively quick response. Whereas each of the other proposals for constitutional reform mentioned so far have roused few passions, feelings north of the border in favour of a Scottish parliament have been running high.

In 1979, the Labour government of James Callaghan held a referendum on devolution which resulted in a majority in favour of a parliament. The built-in safeguard by which this result was ignored in Westminster was the requirement for the “yes” votes to exceed the combined total of “no” votes and abstentions, a hurdle that was narrowly missed.

Since then, 18 years of Tory government in London proceeded without the support of the majority of Scottish voters, who consistently returned huge majorities of Scottish Labour MPs to Westminster. The consequent sense of illegitimacy felt towards the government by Scottish voters fuelled the mood for greater devolution of power and a parliament that reflected their political choices.

As Blair is well aware, the subsequent total wipe-out of Tory MPs in Scotland and Wales in the “May Day Massacre” of 1997 makes the demand for the wishes of the Scottish people finally to be met all the more urgent if Scottish Labour is not to lose ground to the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

Buoyed by the progress of greater economic and political integration in the EU, the SNP has embraced the call for a “Europe of the Regions” by reformulating its central slogan as “Independence in Europe”, thereby aiming to allay fears of economic isolation after separation.

Though the SNP is rightly feared by Labour as its most serious electoral challenge north of the border, it is not so much its present strength as its potential to capitalise on mounting opposition to Labour over the coming years that is haunting Labour strategists at Millbank.

Last, but by no means least, Blair has to move quickly because of strong feeling within the Scottish Labour Party itself. Long the main bourgeois party in Scotland, it has until now been under the firm control of a well-rooted local party bureaucracy, exemplified by its foremost product, the late Labour leader John Smith: right wing but relatively untouched by the “modernisation” that has brought the rest of the party under the unrivalled control of the Blair/Mandelson tendency.

Blair has already severely antagonised the Scottish party, and has met with an unmatched level of opposition. Last year Blair provoked a storm of opposition by revising Labour’s previous commitment to legislate in favour of a Scottish Parliament. He replaced this firm policy with a promise of a referendum. Shadow Scottish spokesman George Robertson was then left in an unsustainable position when Blair retreated still further.

Smarting from a Tory campaign to present the devolution proposal as meaning higher taxes in Scotland, and determined to satisfy major capitalists and the petit-bourgeoisie of his “reliability” in rejecting more progressive taxation, Blair declared that the referendum would contain two questions: the first is whether there should be a Parliament in Edinburgh; the second whether the Scottish Parliament should have the power to raise income tax, by up to only 3%.

The SNP predictably seized on Blair’s equivocation, and might well have felt poised to make serious inroads into Labour’s support when Blair revealed his tactlessness and big-nation chauvinism by attempting to reassure unionist opinion by comparing the new parliament to a “parish council” (the lowest and most toothless level of local authority).

What attitude should working class organisations take towards the proposed referendum in Scotland? A principled answer to this question can only flow from a correct application of a Marxist approach to the national question in general.

In general, Marxists favour the development of the largest possible states, in order to overcome archaic barriers to the most efficient production and distribution, concentrate the forces of the working class, break down parochialism and provide the best material basis for the construction of socialism.1

Yet the historical development of nation states does not proceed smoothly, according to ideal norms or a predetermined plan. Where a nation is prevented by another from determining its own future, a fundamental bourgeois democratic right is violated. To prevent or oppose the exercise of this right to self-determination, whether the people of the nation in question desire some form of autonomy or full independence and a separate state, can only exacerbate national antagonisms and undermine the Marxists’ programme for the most radical extension of democratic rights possible under capitalism.

For this reason revolutionary socialists must insist that the wishes of the majority of the nation be met. Only in this way can nationalists be prevented from using the reality of national oppression to mask the more fundamental reality of exploitation and class division. We do not, however, positively advocate separation or devolution where the majority of the people have not themselves taken this path.

How should this method be applied to the referendum in Scotland? If the first question asks simply whether there should be an elected parliament in Edinburgh, socialists should call for a ‘yes’ vote. The feeling in Scotland is already firmly in favour: this has been shown in 1979 and in countless opinion polls since, the last in 1997 recording over 75% in favour.

Scotland may not be disproportionately economically disadvantaged compared to other regions in England and Wales, and is not a colony of England (its bourgeoisie is highly integrated within the UK ruling class as a whole). Yet the absence of a parliament clearly desired by the majority of its population constitutes a form of national oppression which must be ended as quickly as possible.

Blair should not even be putting this to a referendum. But to boycott Blair’s referendum would play into his hands, particularly if it led to the result appearing artificially lukewarm. The largest possible ‘yes’ vote would make convocation of the parliament even less postponable.

As to the second question, the very fact that it is being put is an affront to the democratic rights of the Scottish people. A parliament without the right to raise revenue through taxation would be a mere talking shop, Blair’s “parish council” made reality. Socialists should demand that any such parliament should have unlimited powers, including the right to raise taxes, and even to separate from Britain should it wish. Without tax raising powers, there is no way that it could be used to carry out simple reforms to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of Scotland’s cities and housing schemes or to tackle unemployment.

Certainly there is a possibility that the framing of the second question will present voters with an unfair choice: e.g. “Do you agree that the Parliament should have powers to raise taxes limited to 3%?” The option of choosing a sovereign parliament will certainly not be on the ballot paper. In such circumstances, socialists should advocate a ‘yes’ vote for the choice which would leave the parliament with the least limited powers, whilst campaigning against all Westminster-imposed restrictions on its authority.

To abstain, boycott or even vote “no” would spare the bourgeoisie from additional taxation, give additional support to Blair’s plans to restrict public spending, and would result in an even more toothless assembly.

Further, socialists should back the SNP’s demand for independence to be included as a third question. The people should have the right to decide on secession. But here socialists should campaign for the biggest possible “no” vote.

Of course, if a majority were to vote for independence, then socialists would immediately uphold the right to separate and struggle alongside nationalists to achieve it, whilst fighting independently for a Socialist Republic.

But today only a minority of the population support national independence and a separate state. There is no reason why socialists should strive to turn that minority into a majority. The Scottish proletariat has nothing to gain from separation: indeed its ties to the English working class movement could well be weakened by taking this step.

The SNP

Although the SNP doubled its representation at Westminster in 1997, gaining a total of 6 seats, its overall share of the Scottish vote rose by only 0.4% to 21.9%. This very substantial support is not adequately reflected in Parliament due to the electoral system, but it is impossible to ignore and is certain to grow should Blair appear to be procrastinating on devolution.

What is more, should the eventual Scottish elections take place by proportional representation, as has been widely mooted, the SNP will be a large and vocal opposition to Labour in the Edinburgh Parliament.

The Scottish National Party was founded 63 years ago on a programme of full independence for Scotland, as a result of a fusion between a party of traditional patriotism and gentry (the Scottish Party), and the more radical petit-bourgeois National Party of Scotland.

The years following the 1979 debacle saw the party locked in internal strife, with the exclusion of a small proto-fascist tendency and subsequently the suspension of the party’s vocal “left-wing”, including its present leader, Alex Salmond.

It was the surge in radicalism and class struggle in Scotland in the late 1980s that provided the spur to a further change in 1990. After years of mass opposition to and organised non-payment of the hated Poll Tax, which was introduced a year earlier in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain, Salmond and the left wing sensed their chance, and took control of the party.

Faced with a mass movement of civil disobedience, which it had done nothing to organise, the SNP supported the tactic of non-payment (though its councillors were still prepared to prosecute working class non-payers) and began to attempt to position itself to the left of the Labour Party, a process made easier by Labour’s ever more frantic charge to the right.

Thus, in 1997, the SNP stood on a platform that would have made conservative former party leader Margaret Ewing’s hair stand on end – to say nothing of Tony Blair’s. Nevertheless, the party’s left-wing and social-democratic policies should not be taken as evidence that the SNP is a working class party, let alone a socialist one.

Each of its policy pledges is hedged with guarantees to big business. As its 1997 manifesto boasted: “The SNP is the only party in a generation to enter a General Election fully committed to a reduction in business taxation.” The SNP promises to cut corporation tax and to prevent business rate rises for large companies. Its minimum wage would be “with consensus” (of the employers presumably?). This “consensual” approach contrasts with their attitude to trade union rights, a code for which would be combined with “ensuring that their responsibilities are enforceable at law” – a threat which is revealingly absent from stipulations on a minimum wage.

Beyond the sphere of policy, the SNP derives its organisation, active membership and support not primarily from the working class or its organisations. It has no formal connections to the trade unions, merely a trade union department like any other bourgeois party. In May 1997, each of its 3 gains was won from the Tories, not from the Labour Party – indeed, the SNP took votes from Labour in only 2 constituencies.

This is because Scottish voters backed Labour for class reasons: the class identification with the Labour Party is as strong north of the Border as elsewhere in Britain. The vote for Labour’s devolution plans – despite Blair’s “parish” gaffe – represented the Scottish working class’ desire for an Assembly as a means of meeting their class demands, not as a means of achieving national independence or separate statehood.

Unlike the Labour Party, the SNP’s natural constituency is not the working class. Rather it derives its base of support for independence from those strata of the bourgeois intelligentsia that work in specifically Scottish institutions and are striving for more direct control over their own budgets: in Scotland’s separate legal system, its education service, its administration, sporting and arts funding bodies and press.

The Left and Scottish nationalism

Some sections of the far left – notably Scottish Militant Labour – have been engaging in a systematic adaptation to Scottish nationalism. Their perspective received little succour at the polls in May. The Scottish Socialist Alliance, of which SML is the major component, did very badly, losing their deposits in 15 of the 16 seats in which they stood.

The sole exception was Glasgow Pollock, where SML’s popular leader Tommy Sheridan continued to win votes as a result of his firm stance during the Poll Tax rebellion, which resulted in his imprisonment, and his continuing activity against water privatisation and most recently against savage spending cuts being carried out by Glasgow’s Labour council. Sheridan won 3,639 votes.

But elsewhere, SSA candidates scored derisory results. Alan McCombes did least badly in Govan (a seat once held by Jim Sillars of the SNP) with 755 votes. Former Labour leader of Dundee council, Mary Ward, standing for the SSA, won only 428 votes, and results elsewhere were similarly low.

In the run up to the referendum, the SML’s adaptation to nationalism is set to deepen. Alan McCombes of SML has written in an internal document of 10 February 1997 (printed by the Weekly Worker 10 April 1997) that the party should vote yes to independence alongside the SNP should the opportunity arise. He claims that to:

“line up with Labour against independence” would allow the SNP

“a completely free hand to influence and lead the most radicalised sections of the working class.”

This is sheer nonsense. What evidence is there that the “most radicalised” workers support independence? There was a massive swing to Labour in the working class areas, not to the SNP. The most radicalised workers are engaged in direct action against cuts in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and are among those putting pressure on the Scottish TUC, which has demanded of the Labour government that it bring in a minimum wage of half male median earnings and abandon the Tories’ miserly limits on public spending. They are not in the main among those calling for independence.

The former Militant Tendency has decided to abandon its years of adaptation to Labourism, but not the idea of political adaptation itself. The parasite has merely switched host, from reformism to nationalism. SML will suffer further disorientation and crises as a result.

Instead, revolutionary socialists in Scotland should remain part of an all-British organisation. They should oppose the reactionary utopia of bourgeois independence whilst upholding the right to self-determination. But above all, they should focus not on blurring the distinction between nationalism and socialism, but on a fight for direct class action against Labour’s plans for Scotland, and to mobilise Labour’s working class voters in a fight to put demands on the new government that go well beyond what capitalism can afford and begin to pose the question of which class rules in Britain as a whole.

In response to Labour local authority cuts in Scotland’s main cities, revolutionaries should fight for local committees of delegates from workplaces and estates to co-ordinate direct action – such as the occupations of council chambers earlier this year and workplaces like Glacier last year. An inventory of necessary spending should be compiled by these committees to identify the scale of work that needs to be done to repair what the Tories have done to Scottish workers’ lives.

Strikes and occupations should demand that central government underwrite this spending by taxing the rich and confiscating the profits of the privatised utilities. They should demand that the incoming Scottish Parliament impose a swingeing tax on unearned wealth and businesses.

In the years to come, New Labour will fail the Scottish working class. Left reformism and Scottish nationalism are both poised to grow. Only by refusing to adapt its programme to either false path can revolutionary socialism also take advantage of the impending crisis of expectations and rally the Scottish working class for socialist revolution and a Socialist Republic of Britain.

Wales

In Scotland the call for independence has always been louder than in Wales. But this does not obscure the reality of the Welsh National Question, a reality reflected in the 10% of the popular vote won by Plaid Cymru (PC) in the 1997 British general election. The new Labour government has pledged that there will be a referendum in Wales on proposals for “the establishment of a Welsh Assembly”.

Despite the PC’s vote, however, nationalism is weak in Wales outside of a few areas of the country. The Labour Party was the real victor in the general election, taking a record 34 seats in Wales out of a total of 40. Its closest rival was the Liberal Democrat Party not PC.

While Wales is clearly a nation, it is one that has developed as part of the multi-national British state. It was never a sovereign state. This feature of Wales’ historical development explains the weakness of nationalism. The aspiration to gain sovereign control of its territory has never been strong or generalised amongst any of the classes – bourgeois, petit bourgeois or working class – in Wales.

From the departure of the Romans until the Norman conquest, Wales was divided into clan-based societies which slowly evolved towards feudalism. The Normans established a series of semi-independent Marcher lords along the border to protect their western flank. Faced with an increasing number of raids from the Marches and from England the Welsh did unite, briefly, under Llywelyn, the first Prince of Wales. This rebellion was quickly suppressed and Llywelyn lost all his lands to the English in 1282.

Welsh nationalists cite this defeated rebellion as the beginning of the oppression of the Welsh nation by the English. It was not. It was part of the evolution of the British feudal state in a period when nations and nationhood, in the modern sense of the words, did not exist. It was feudal aggrandisement by the monarch not national oppression of the Welsh.

The ruling class was as “foreign” to the English peasantry and lower gentry as it was to the Welsh. Norman French was the language of the court and the various languages and dialects of English and Celtic throughout England and Wales were largely unintelligible to each other as well as to their feudal lords and masters.

The nationalists often cite the later rebellion of Owain Glyndwr from 1400 to 1412 as another major example of how Wales was oppressed by England. But this was no nationalist uprising either. Although Owain did manage to unite most of the Welsh aristocracy behind him, and even establish a parliament in Machynlleth, his aim was to forge a feudal realm based on personal allegiance to himself. It was not to create a Welsh nation. His military campaign demonstrated this. The defence of Wales itself took second place to the accumulation of territory for Owain, including in England.

The Acts of Incorporation (1536 and 1543) were actually welcomed by the Welsh ruling elite since for the previous two centuries Welsh and English societies had grown increasingly alike. Inter-marriage, trade, the assimilation of customs and mutual politico-military interests, were all pointers to further assimilation. Active participation in Parliament and in administrative office were lucrative gains for the Welsh and Anglo-Welsh gentry.

Despite their under-representation in Parliament and their relative lack of wealth, compared to their English counterparts, they gained financially and politically from assimilation into the thriving and more affluent English economy.

Generations of Welsh officials and capitalists worked, served in the armed forces and socialised with their English and Scottish counterparts throughout Britain and the British empire. The British nation state and the British empire were gateways for the Welsh ruling class to amass wealth, not barriers as they were for the Irish, the Indians and the other nations oppressed by British imperialism.

The Industrial Revolution dealt the final blow to what was left of the old Welsh society. The capital which built the mighty empires of coal, iron, tin, copper, flint and steel originated primarily from England. In Wales itself, there was a scarcity of surplus capital for such giant enterprises. But this English capital was an instrument of economic growth in Wales not an instrument of national oppression. It paved the way towards the total assimilation of the Welsh working class into the British working class movement. This working class was militant, resourceful and increasingly cosmopolitan.

Although it was primarily Welsh speaking until World War One, it looked towards the British workers’ movement as a whole. It saw in the English and Scots, allies, not foes. In the Chartist movement, the trade unions, the Labour and the Communist Parties, the Welsh working class provided key leaders and always sought to promote cross-Britain unity.

This historical development demonstrates that Wales is not an oppressed nation. The question is, then, why has there been any sort of nationalist revival given this development? Academics and nationalists often cite the Nonconformist movement of the nineteenth century as the starting point of modern Welsh nationalism. Although Nonconformism attracted 80% of the population of Wales to its ranks, this was largely due to its ability to preach in the Welsh language and thereby penetrate the new communities while the Church of Wales was hampered by its use of English.

The political aspirations of Nonconformism were the disestablishment of the Church, the abolition of church tithes and the widening of the political franchise. These were the concerns of the tenant farmers and the professional petit bourgeoisie, rather than the demands of a nationally oppressed people.

Cymru Fydd was the first modern Welsh nationalist movement, but it was largely the invention of the Liberal Party. It was never a mass movement inside Wales and its Welsh Home Rule Bill was a half-hearted manoeuvre based on party political considerations rather than the embodiment of a nationalist sentiment among the masses.

Nevertheless, the lasting monuments of Cymru Fydd’s “official” nationalism – the National Museum and Library, the National Eisteddfod, state provision of education in Welsh (the Welsh Not policy had, by then, broken the hegemony of the Welsh language) and the University of Wales – provided the basis for the more populist oriented nationalism of Plaid Cymru when it was set up in 1925.

For the first time since the collapse of the Council of Wales at Ludlow Castle in the sixteenth century, there was a centre for Welsh academics and administrators to meet and exchange ideas. Based on the Welsh speaking farmers of the North and West and the intelligentsia in the University, Plaid developed the first truly national ideology and movement in Wales.

The strongest appeal of this ideology was, and remains, the defence of the Welsh language. But even today this has mainly been viewed as the defence of the legitimacy of the Welsh language for conducting the economic and legal affairs of the petit bourgeoisie rather than as a struggle against oppression.

Indeed, a sign of the weakness of Welsh nationalism is its over-reliance on the Welsh language to define Wales and its culture. This contrasts with Scotland where nationalism is much stronger despite the Celtic language having virtually disappeared. Today, Welsh is spoken by less than a quarter of the population, though this is growing due to the growth of Welsh teaching in schools and of a Welsh language media.

Of course, we defend the right to speak Welsh at work and call for bilingual literature where relevant. We are for the elementary democratic defence of the use of the Welsh language. But we do not treat the language as the defining feature of the Welsh nation and the proof of its oppression by England. Nor do the vast majority of the working class who have chosen not to speak Welsh and on whom the spread of the language in the media has had minimum impact.

Plaid’s ideology is reactionary and utopian. It looks backward to a non-existent Welsh golden age and forward to a reactionary goal of a small nation in retreat from the modern world that capitalism has created in Wales. Such a nation would be a recipe for economic misery for the Welsh working class.

Mindful of the overwhelming advantages for both the bourgeoisie and the working class of the British multi-national state, Plaid has always couched its nationalism in pro-imperialist terms and even dodges the question of separatism and the monarchy in its programme. PC’s emergence in the twentieth century is not such a surprise given the growth of nationalism generally. Its timidity and lack of support is more of a surprise.

Welsh nationalism entered a new stage in the 1960s. Cymdeithas was formed in 1962 and soon grew into a large, petit bourgeois, but urban based, movement. Gwynfor Evans was elected as MP for Camarthen in 1966. In 1970, Plaid won 12.5% of the vote and in 1976 won control of Merthyr council, a working class stronghold. The development of the European Union (EU) and the collapse of Stalinism – spawning as it did many nations – sustained this growth of Welsh nationalism. Nationalism was further strengthened by the concessions made to it by the labour movement and sections of the left culminating in the call by the unions, Labour Party and many left parties and groups for a Welsh Assembly.

However, the 1997 election demonstrates that nationalism’s base in Wales remains weak, stalled at the 10% mark and unable to seriously challenge the hold of Labour despite the occasional protest swings towards it among the working class in the aftermath of Labour betrayals. This remains the case despite the growing number of Welsh speaking bureaucrats and professionals brought into existence by the labour movement’s concessions to nationalism.

Welsh nationalism is a trap for the Welsh working class. Its policy for small scale industrial development (within the EU) cannot eradicate the low pay and unemployment that the Welsh workers suffer from. It will make such conditions many times worse. Plaid’s commitment to the welfare state is confined to election time promises for workers.

It has no policy for the progressive development of Wales because it remains tamely tied to capitalism’s priorities. As such nationalism, if it seriously infected the working class, would tie it to those priorities and take it backwards from class independence and unity with its English and Scottish brothers and sisters. An independent Wales would see workers encouraged to hold back on the fight for their own interests and make sacrifices “in the interests of the nation”, despite the fact that such a nation would not be “theirs” in any real sense.

We support, unconditionally, the right of the Welsh to self determination, up to and including separation. The “up to”, in this case, could be an assembly short of separation. If, as in Scotland, this was the clearly expressed will of the majority of people in Wales, we would support the immediate establishment of such an assembly.

Yet the call for an assembly is weak. Devolution was overwhelmingly rejected when the last Labour government (1974 – 1979) put it to a referendum. All the evidence suggests that since, even today, this is not the demand of the majority there can be no justification for supporting a “yes” vote and we will argue for a “no” vote in the coming referendum on the Welsh assembly.

The task in Wales is to build on the class hostility to the Tories expressed in the recent election, taking it forward towards a revolutionary break with reformist Labourism, not diverting into the fight for an assembly that would, at best, be a nationalist detour, at worst a centre from which nationalist ideas could spread and become strengthened in Wales.

There is no need to make concessions to Welsh nationalism. Its emergence in small sections of the Welsh working class is a symptom of the crisis of leadership in the British labour movement. Nationalist sentiment can best be defeated if the working class movement upholds the right of the Welsh people to self-determination, up to and including the right to a separate independent state or to lesser reforms such as an assembly if they so decide.

But before making that decision the task is to combine a fight for democratic demands over language rights and against any attempts to delay or restrict the questions, or introduce undemocratic quotas in the promised referendum, with a campaign for a “no” vote in the referendum itself.

The answer is not a Welsh assembly, it is a programme of revolutionary class struggle for a workers’ republic of Britain and for a British revolutionary party as part of a revolutionary communist International, to lead that struggle.

1 See D. Stockton, “The Bolsheviks and the National Question” in Trotskyist International 13/14 , and LRCI “Marxism and the National Question”, Trotskyist Bulletin 6.