Thursday November 08 2012

Socialist Party: Joining the nationalist bandwagon

Sarah McDonald reports on SPEW's commitment to socialism in one country

Independence will be a vote for Scottish regiments in Nato and Scottish capitalism

One of the more interesting sessions at this year’s Socialism was ‘Should Scotland become independent?’, introduced by comrade Philip Stott. His talk was reasonably comprehensive, giving a detailed account of the political situation in Scotland with regard to support for independence, outlining where it stems from and which sections of Scottish society tend to identify with the Scottish nationalist position. A comprehensive opening, but one which drew fundamentally wrong conclusions.

The Committee for a Workers’ International has maintained ostensibly the same position on the national question in Scotland since the late 90s: it just chooses to give it more or less prominence depending on the given political situation. Back in the era of the Scottish Socialist Alliance and the early days of the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party, CWI comrades (then including SSP leaders such as Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan) noticed a rise in support for Scottish independence (in part reflected in the Scottish National Party’s vote) among sections of the working class and youth. This is still the case and, as the comrade mentioned, the reasons for this are to do with political disenfranchisement and disillusionment with the Scottish Labour Party.

Opportunistically, in the late 90s, the CWI decided to tail this movement, adopting the left-nationalist call for an “independent socialist Scotland”. As the SSP developed, its leadership took up an ever more reformist and ever more nationalist stance, eventually splitting from the CWI to form the Frontline leadership faction. The position on the national question became theorised and difficult to overturn or even debate. Comrade McCombes’s writing justifying this position is now echoed in the Socialist Workers Party’s pamphlet Yes to independence, no to nationalism. Meanwhile the comrades who stayed loyal to the CWI maintained the position they had assumed in the late 90s - for an independent Scotland, yes, but not an independent capitalist Scotland, which would not be beneficial to the working class; rather, for an independent socialist Scotland. This is the line that comrade Stott reiterated.

One must then pose the ironic question to our CWI comrades: would socialism in one country not be a bad idea, in your view? To which the reply is always, well, we would see an independent socialist Scotland as part of an alliance with a socialist England and Wales. One has to beg the question then: in that case, why separate? And by putting the word ‘socialist’ before Scotland, England or Wales the comrades are still implying that socialism can be achieved within the confines of national boundaries (a view that, mercifully, they do not formally hold). So why raise it? Apparently in order to engage with nationalist sentiment and raise socialist demands through campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote.

In order to counter CPGB comrades’ arguments against adopting a pro-independence position, CWI comrades made the point throughout the discussion that the alternative was unthinkable. Correctly, they pointed out that if you line up with the ‘no’ camp - or Better Together, as the campaign is known - then you are aligning yourselves with the British state, the monarchy, etc, etc. This is, of course, true, but it is not our position. We will most likely advocate an active boycott as the only principled position. That would ensure we would not become an ally either of the British state or of Scottish nationalism.

Comrade Stott, knowing our politics fairly well, had anticipated that we would be for a boycott and countered this position in his summing up. He suggested that the boycott campaign would not engage with the debate in Scotland, as there is no-one actually raising that demand. This is a view that I have some (albeit limited) sympathy with. It is true to say that in the political circumstances in Scotland at the moment such a call would not register easily in people’s consciousness. But there will be no alternative to the call for a boycott - not because we have nothing to say, but because nothing on offer is in the interests of our class. It will be the only principled stance to take.

As comrade Stott correctly pointed out, support for independence is disproportionately higher among the working class and the youth (arguably support for capital punishment might also be higher among those sections, but that would not lead us to adopt a pro-hanging line, in order to ‘have the conversation’).

The left for many decades did not seriously engage with the national question in Scotland and, when it finally did, got it profoundly wrong. The appalling theoretical weakness on this question was evidenced by the contributions from the floor in this session, which confused the principle of the right of nations to self-determination with the tactic of advocating secession in a small minority of cases. A common idea is that by voting ‘yes’ we will be sticking two fingers up at the imperialism.

The point, of course, that we have repeated ad nauseum, is that Marxists must support the democratic right to self-determination, while promoting the greatest voluntary unity of the working class. Workers in England should support that right for the peoples of Scotland and Wales, while workers in Scotland and Wales should advocate unity - not the division of our historically constituted working class along national lines. The key to resolving national antagonisms in the present situation in Britain is the call for a federal republic of Scotland, Wales and England.

That way, we refuse to align ourselves either with the British constitutional monarchy state or with petty bourgeois nationalism.

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