Scotland: Yes to independence - No to British imperialism

On 18 September the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, will be put to the Scottish electorate, estimated at around four million, when newly franchised 16-year-old voters are taken into account. A ‘Yes’ vote will begin a process of negotiation between the governments of Scotland and the United Kingdom on future constitutional arrangements. Michael MacGregor argues that this opportunity should be used to advance the interests of the working class and to undermine imperialism.

Scotland is an overwhelmingly working class country which has some of the worst features of poverty in western Europe. This is barely mentioned in the recently released Scottish government White Paper on ‘Scotland’s Future’. The Joseph Rowntree Trust Report on poverty in Scotland, January 2013, makes the point: ‘Poverty is currently far from central to the independence debate as it stands but it is vital that it becomes so.’ The report shows that since 2008, the number of under-25s who are unemployed has almost doubled to 90,000. Underemployment is rising dramatically as the total number of people in part-time work rose by 60,000, whereas the number of people in full-time work fell by 120,000. Men in the most deprived areas of the country die 11 years earlier than those in the most affluent, with the life expectancy age gap 7.5 years for women. Not only do working class people die earlier, they live longer in poor health. Men and women in the poorest areas live 22.7 years and 26.1 years respectively in ‘not good’ health. This compares to just 11.9 years and 12 years for men and women in the most affluent parts of Scotland.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which is the governing party in the Scottish parliament, has stated its case – and it is thoroughly reactionary. Its White Paper argues that the economy of an independent Scotland will be part of a ‘fully integrated’ financial market with the rest of the UK. Sterling will remain the currency, EU and NATO memberships will continue and the Head of State will be the Queen. The Governor of the Bank of England recently stated that the price of any currency union would be the ceding of elements of Scottish national rights. So, for us Scots, absolutely democratic principles of self-determination and national sovereignty are bought and sold for subservience to the pound and to the crown. This is not independence. This is merely a constitutional re-arrangement between ruling classes and groups as to the form the United Kingdom may now take.

The Conservative Party, Liberal Democrats and Labour are in unanimous agreement that Scottish people should vote ‘No’ to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom. The left version of this is argued by the Communist Party of Britain, which is concerned about the ‘unity’ of the labour movement and therefore opposes Scottish independence. There are, however, tensions and differences here in Scotland, as some sections in the unions and Labour Party are advocating a ‘Yes’ vote. Outside these organisations the left in Scotland – Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Party-Scotland, Socialist Workers Party, International Socialist Group, Solidarity – are all united in calling for a ‘Yes’ vote.

These groups and others gathered in a conference of 1,200 delegates as the Radical Independence Campaign in Glasgow in November 2013. Former Labour MP Denis Canavan addressed the event, with a political skill sharpened through years on the Labour Party left. He verbally conjured as he sold the vision: ‘There are a huge amount of ideas bubbling away. This is the generation that can ask: “What kind of Scotland do we want it to be?” It goes beyond yes and no, it becomes about transforming our political landscape.’ Following this vacuous political rhetoric came his advice that the central political and economic issues, such as a future currency, the monarchy and membership of NATO, should wait to be debated until after independence.

The nature of the Union

The Act of Union of 1707 represented the formal constitutional alliance of England and Scotland as primary and secondary partners in British colonialism and imperialism. It is from this historical union that British imperialism draws its formidable organisation, strength and character. The ruling classes, feudal, aristocratic and capitalist, of Scotland and England were integrated at a very deep level over a whole historical period. Adam Smith, who wrote the bible of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, was a Scottish economist. The Banks of England and Scotland were set up by the Scot William Patterson in 1694 and 1695 respectively. These institutions ensured that colonial plunder was secured and organised as start-up cash and credit for the first capitalist economy in history. The majority of the clauses in the 1707 Act were about economic matters. Money was the imperative. Half the national capital of Scotland had been lost in a 1695 banking and investment scandal in Panama, but fortunes were restored through a bribe of £398,085 and 10 shillings paid to the Scottish Exchequer by England. This covered those losses precisely and paid for a majority of votes in the Scottish Parliament to accept the Union. As Robert Burns later rhymed: ‘We’re bought and sold for English gold, such a parcel of rogues in a nation’. The original monster of capitalist greed and morality was being born.

Lenin, in advancing the right of nations to self-determination, des cri bed imperialism as the negation of democracy. The British Empire which straddled the globe supreme for a hundred years – and had occupied, colonised and plundered for hundreds of years before – has never willingly recognised the democratic right to self-determination of a single nation. In Ireland in December 1918, the people voted peacefully and overwhelmingly for an independent Irish Republic. The British response was to declare the Irish parliament, Dail Eireann, illegal, disperse the assembly and arrest its deputies and ministers. Britain then waged bloody war to prevent the full independence of Ireland. Scotland is clearly being offered independence along the lines of the Free State ‘Dominion within the Empire’ status which Britain and its lackeys imposed on Ireland from 1922.

Building a socialist Scotland

Scotland produced the towering revolutionary figures of James Connolly and John Maclean. As Marxists they unashamedly advocated socialism and unswerving opposition to British imperialism. 100 years ago, economic competition between imperialist countries to re-divide the world brought about the destruction and horror of the First World War of 1914-18. Connolly and Maclean, in Ireland and Scotland, organised and fought this. They were clear that oppressed peoples and the working class have no interest in imperialist slaughter and should take economic and political power for themselves.

Socialism and the defeat of imperialism was the openly stated aim of these men. This would require clear analyses based on Marxist ideas and conscious revolutionary organisation, action and class struggle. Connolly, who led the heroic Easter Rising of 1916 against British rule in Ireland, had declared: ‘If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.’1 Maclean, at his 1918 trial for anti-war agitation, thundered: ‘I want to expose the trickery of the British government and their police and their lawyers … I am not here then as the accused but as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot! ... I am a socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all.’2 Nevertheless it is absolutely necessary to make a clear distinction between Ireland’s legitimate struggle against British imperialism and Scotland’s abject historical role as part of an alliance with England which advanced and secured the interests of British imperialism.

Today such principled, progressive, anti-imperialist and socialist demands and campaigning need urgently to be organised and built on the ground, in the streets, workplaces and communities. That the interests of the poorest sections of the working class in Scotland barely figure in the White Paper is a measure of the SNP’s reactionary political stance. For example, the SNP government has refused to remove Atos – which has consistently attack ed disabled and ill claimants by arbitrarily withdrawing Employment Support Allowance – from sponsorship of the Commonwealth Games. It has also refused to take a stand on the nationalisation of oil.

The way forward is to defeat the imperialists in both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps and set the interests of the poorest sections of the Scottish people – the working class – at the centre of campaigning against capitalist austerity, for the democratic right to genuine national sovereignty and for socialism. We stand in the tradition of James Connolly and John Maclean in opposing British imperialism and using all its difficulties to advance the interests of the working people of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Today we say that the working class and people of Scotland should use this opportunity to vote ‘Yes’ for an independent socialist Scotland and in doing so repudiate and challenge the foul imperialist alliance which is the United Kingdom.      

1. Shan Van Vocht (socialist newspaper) January 1897. Reprinted in P Berresford Ellis (ed), James Connolly – Selected Writings, p124.

2. Nan Milton, John Maclean, Pluto Press 1973, p168.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014


Our site uses cookies to improve your browsing experience. By using the site you consent to the use of cookies.
More information Ok