Socialists support Scottish independence because it would create better conditions for short-term working-class victories and the long-term struggle for socialism. It would also herald the end of the imperialist British state. Socialists support the right of self-determination – in this case the right of the people of Scotland – to decide their own future democratically.
The left and Scottish Independence
Over time, the left’s position on Scottish independence has evolved. Originally the Labour movement in Scotland favoured Home Rule (limited self-government within the British empire), though this morphed later into a strong commitment to an exclusively British, parliamentary reformism. The source of this Labour unionism lay in a gradual integration into and acceptance of the imperial British state, as well as suspicion of an originally rural based and conservative Scottish nationalism.
Scottish Labour, fatally weakened by corrupt urban boss politics, Blair’s neoliberal turn, and the failure of Corbyn’s final iteration of the British road to socialism, seems to be entering its final stage of disintegration. Even its left flays about helplessly, claiming to respect the democratic right of self-determination while opposing another independence referendum, crouching on the shoreline while a huge progressive national independence movement flows by. Only a decisive turn to independence could have saved Scottish Labour but it is too late for that now.
Although some early revolutionary socialists, such as the legendary John Mclean, advocated independence, this was a minority position until the turn of the twenty-first century when, mainly grouped in the broad-left Scottish Socialist Party, the radical left took a strong stance in favour of independence. Today, almost all of the Scottish radical left is pro-independence, a view shared by most of the radical left in the rest of the UK.
Why Scottish Independence matters for Socialists
There is no possibility of radical reform, not to mention revolutionary transformation, within the British state. If there was any doubt about that, the defeat of the Corbyn project has shut that door decisively. The archaic mixture of feudal left-overs, undemocratic political structures, powerful security services etc., that constitute the British state, mean that a decisive break with it would open up huge possibilities for the working class in Scotland. From the start, the terrain would be different given the class structure, political culture and dominant trends in pro-independence ideology in the new Scotland.
In an independent Scotland, a struggle for democracy would be on the table from day one: with the issues of constitution, monarchy, membership of NATO and the EU all now open for real debate. The shape of the new state’s economy, the abolition of anti-trade union laws etc, would also come to the fore. And all this in the favourable context of a weak new-born capitalist class and a dominant political party, the Scottish National Party, that has thrived on signalling left but would have to face the challenge of having to live up to those signals. It would be foolish to think that independence would immediately give birth to a Scottish Socialist Republic but the struggle for that goal would be greatly strengthened in the context of the breakup of Britain.
What we are currently witnessing is the end of the long arc of the British state from its origins in medieval expansion, Tudor conquests of Ireland, and the union of Scotland and England (and later Ireland). The birth and rise of the UK, an imperial state, from the seventeenth century onwards, was intimately linked to the emergence of capitalism and imperialism. The decline and fall of British Empire has gradually opened the fault lines in the British state itself. Future historians will view the current crises of that state as heralding the end of the process: the final breakup of the UK. Scottish independence would be a severe blow to the British ruling class, the last pulses of British imperialism and, in Northern Ireland and Scotland, to the the sectarian reactionaries of loyalism.
The Irish and more recently Scottish struggle for self-determination has developed in a dialectic relationship with the fall of the British Empire and decline of the British state: the long view of history will reveal that the loss of southern Ireland and the loss of Scotland book-ended the British Empire from zenith to nadir. So central was imperial expansion to the creation and sustenance of the British state and British capitalism, that with the end of the Empire and consequent gradual loss of world power status the crisis of the core was inevitable. Socialists welcome the end to this former pillar of global capitalism and imperialism, whose demise will open up opportunities for potentially transformative social and political struggles.
A British Working Class?
Some on the left are animated by a fantasy of ‘the British working class’ but if the workers of these islands ever shared a broad identity, it certainly no longer does. The objective fact is that the only section of the working class in Scotland who now strongly identify with Britishness are a shrinking loyalist rump. In any case, internationalism does not require a certain configuration of states. Breaking up a state does not break up the links of class solidarity. It is in the interests of the working class of all of these islands to break up the British state. In this context, the myth of a large anti-English element in the Scottish independence movement must be challenged: it is simply empirically incorrect. Certainly, a tiny element of anti-English fanatics do exist but they are an embarrassment to the movement as a whole and unrepresentative in the extreme. Anti-Englishness plays no role in the main movement, even its more populist pole. In fact, the number of English people living in Scotland who support independence is significant and even finds an organised expression.
Socialists and the struggle for Scottish Independence
Socialists do not advocate independence for Scotland on the basis of subsuming their struggle under the leadership of the SNP nor on the basis of an independence first, socialism later. These arguments are made, not by socialists but by those nationalists who berate socialists for daring to raise radical demands or stand in elections or work independently during the independence struggle. Socialists are well aware of the balance needed to advance within the broad movement while maintaining distinctive socialist positions. This is not rocket science: socialists in different contexts have always grappled with this challenge in national and democratic struggles, that of supporting all those fighting oppression while developing socialist tactics to bring the movement forward.
The united front is the classic formula that applies here: in the broader independence movement there are thousands of working class activists who see themselves as socialist (even within the SNP) who revolutionary socialists can work with to advance independence and also our own radical agenda. The facts speak for themselves: during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum this interaction between socialists and independence for Scotland was managed very successfully through the Radical Independence Campaign, which caught the SNP and official Yes campaign off-guard by focussing on radical democratic and socialist demands and which mobilised thousands of activists.
The Radical Independence Campaign moved the whole discourse of the pro-independence campaign to the left and was instrumental in the massive shift in urban working class opinion towards Yes through its targeted voter registration and canvassing in the large urban working class areas. Far from being won over by atavistic nationalism, a gradual shift of working-class opinion arose out of the arguments that the left made linking the struggle for equality and social justice to the opening that independence would provide. It is no coincidence that the only regions that voted for independence in 2014 were the great working-class heartlands of the greater Glasgow region and Dundee.
Like any movement for national independence there are number of overlapping tendencies in the Scottish independence movement, reflecting its broad social base. At its centre are the bourgeois nationalists of the SNP leadership and its allies. In ideological terms these people are social liberals and they represent the interests of the incipient independent Scottish ruling class: a potential national capitalist class composed mainly of medium and small business in addition to elements of the devolved state bureaucracy etc. Increasingly strident are the nationalist populists, a disparate grouping that includes in its ranks followers of former SNP leader Alex Salmond and disgraced former socialist leader Tommy Sheridan, as well as right-wingers associated with the Wings Over Scotland blog: heavy of Braveheart style symbolism veering towards simplistic romantic nationalism.
The populist Scottish nationalists have played a key role in mobilising the huge pro-independence demonstrations of recent years, which, while demonstrating the growing popularity of independence, have no real strategic or tactical goals. To the left is an influential, though disparate, wing of the movement ranging from Marxists to social democrats. This left, numbering in thousands, include many new SNP members who identify as socialists, the Scottish Greens, ex-Labour activists, those involved in activist websites such as Bella Caledonia, as well as the radical left grouped around the Radical Independence Campaign and in the small revolutionary socialist organisations.
Scottish Independence as a Stage on the road to socialism?
Stages theory, with its origins in Stalinist strategies for national liberation, theorises that socialists should confine their demands and actions to winning the immediate goal of national independence, then proceed with a national democratic revolution, until moving on to the final goal of socialism. In practice, the application of this approach has often had disastrous consequences as socialists subordinate themselves to bourgeois nationalist movements and often end up as mere left-mudguards to corrupt, neo-liberal formations, as has happened to orthodox communist parties in South Africa and various Middle Eastern states. But the alternative to this discredited theory is not to withdraw from democratic struggles but to engage in the struggle for self-determination without subordinating to bourgeois nationalism and without ceasing to engage in class struggle: all the while pushing revolutionary demands.
No radical group in Scotland has called a truce with the forces of bourgeois nationalism, none have suspended their activism on all the other issues that affect working class. In fact, the pro-independence left is to the forefront of all the major social struggles in Scotland today: whether it be the organisation of low-paid workers, land reform or renters rights. No one on the radical left is arguing that we suspend our criticisms or activities until independence is achieved, we know full well that if we did this socialists would have no credibility when we belatedly raised our red flag on the day after independence.
The amazing case of invisible British nationalism
There are two nationalisms operating in Scotland: the reactionary but dominant one seems strangely invisible to many commentators. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for liberals and even some on the left, to see all the flaws of small-nation nationalism but to be oblivious for the monstrous elephant in the room, imperial nationalism. While modern Scottish nationalism cleaves to a decidedly non-ethnic civic version of what defines a country, British nationalism is racist and reactionary to its core. It is no coincidence that the far-right are the most virulent opponents of independence, embedded in the sectarian loyalist sub-culture of west of Scotland, allied, of course, to the Conservative Party and their rear-guard of alt-right fan-boys spewing the usual trail of vitriol, much of it aimed at the SNPs government’s tame pro-LGBT/anti-racist policies.
The ‘celebration’ in Glasgow’s Georges Square, by far-right loyalist thugs the night after the referendum in 2014 graphically displayed the real nature of British nationalism in Scotland. Ironically right-wingers and their new ally, the former Labour MP George Galloway, are now demanding that all Scots, regardless of their place of residence in the UK, should have a vote in any future referendum, therefore wielding ethnic definitions of Scottishness in the cause of the preservation of the imperial state, in contrast to the demand of the pro-independence movement that all those living in Scotland regardless of origin or nationality have a vote.
Of course, central state nationalism usually reflects the interests of the ruling class of that state. Any socialists in doubt about the progressive nature of the struggle for independence only have to look at the positions taken by the British ruling class which is firmly opposed to independence. This is the class that pulled out all the stops to oppose independence during the 2014 referendum, explicitly threatening a flow of capital out of the country, in a classic move that ruling classes deploy when faced with a major threat to their interests. The monarchy, security services, banks, big business, have all lined up clearly to oppose independence. Why such a clear and open position? Because their interests are intimately linked to the structures of the British state and independence would destabilise that state decisively. Of course, there is also control of Scotland’s oil and gas and the ownership of vast swathes of the Scottish countryside, but the key here is the threat to the central state. The British ruling class had no direct economic interest in Northern Ireland yet they engaged in a bloody thirty year conflict because of the kick-back that would ensue if they ‘lost’ that territory to a united Ireland. And now, they correctly perceive that the loss of Scotland would herald the end of the United Kingdom destabilising their rule even in the metropolitan core.
Eyes on the Prize of Socialism and Scottish Independence
Since the surprisingly narrow victory of the ‘No’ vote in the 2014 referendum, the demand for independence has grown rather than faded. The question of when exactly a new referendum should be held is one of tactics: optimising the chances of winning and wrong-footing any attempt of the state repression. But as support for independence soars (especially amongst the working class and youth) in the face of the most right-wing government in decades, whose disastrous response to the Covid pandemic and desire to reshape the British state radically in the mould of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy, the democratic demand for the right of all the people of Scotland to decide their future now rises with renewed urgency.
Some socialists daydream of fantasy battles where they lead the massed ranks of the working class against forces of capitalism in an apocalyptic final conflict. Marxists eschew such millenarian thinking; instead they plunge into the messy battles that confront us in real life. In fact, here, Marx’s position on the democratic struggles of his time are instructive. Imagine Marx instructing socialists not to engage in the great democratic struggles of 1848, because these primarily entailed the immediate demand for democratic republics? Imagine Marx opposing the struggle foor Irish freedom on the grounds that it would disunite the working class of the UK? Marx analysed conflicts carefully, identified the most progressive outcome and advocated socialist engagement without proposing subordination to bourgeois forces. Hence, he saw the victory of the capitalist North in the American Civil War as a progressive outcome but he did not confine his demands to a simple support for the North: he, along with many other socialists and trade unionists, galvanised English industrial workers to support the North on the basis of the most daring positions: solidarity with ‘labour in a black skin’! In the same way, socialists in Scotland today have thrown themselves into the battle for independence with their eyes wide open, refusing to lower, even temporarily, the banner of socialism, putting the demands for working class interests at the centre of that struggle. As that struggle speeds towards a decisive vote for Scottish independence, socialists are keeping their eyes on the prize.
Independence for Scotland may be the end of the struggle for nationalists, but it is only the beginning for socialists.
Do Socialists support Scottish Independence?
Yes, almost all radical socialists, greens, feminists, LGBTQ, anti-racists etc. support Scottish Independence while all of the far-right and centre-right oppose it.
Why do Scottish Socialists support Independence?
Because it will end the imperial British state and advance the struggle for socialism in Scotland.
Who would gain the most from Scottish Independence?
The Scottish working class: strengthening its ability to win short term gains, while decisively tilting the position of class forces in Scotland in its favour.