Will Scotland vote for independence?

November 13, 2013

With discussion beginning about the referendum next year on whether Scotland should break from Britain, Shaun Harkin looks at the questions that need to be answered.

SHOULD SCOTLAND abandon Great Britain and the Union Jack for independence? Capitalist globalization boosters have declared the sovereign nation-state irrelevant, so what difference would it make? Would Scottish independence weaken the British state and imperialism, or the potential for working class unity?

Voters in Scotland will have the opportunity in September 2014 to cast a ballot to determine whether they become an independent state or remain part of Great Britain.

The question emerged amid the industrial and urban decay of the 1980s, with a majority of Scots favoring some form of "home rule." But British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party was contemptuous of the idea.

In the lead-up to the 1997 general election that finally ended 18 years of Tories in power, the Labour Party under Tony Blair's leadership pledged support for "devolved" governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A 1997 referendum in Scotland showed majority support for the restoration of a parliament. Consequently, a new Scottish parliament was established in 1999, with limited decision-making powers--the first Scottish parliament since 1707.

A rally in Edinburgh in favor of independence for Scotland
A rally in Edinburgh in favor of independence for Scotland (Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill)

Polling today indicates that 25 to 30 percent of Scots favor leaving Britain, while those saying that they're "undecided" has increased from 15 percent to almost 30 percent. There is majority support what's referred to as "devolution max"--a middle position between complete independence and continuance of the union with Britain on current terms.

"Devo max" would put the Scottish parliament in charge of all state functions except those controlled by the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defense and Bank of England. However, this option won't be on the ballot in 2014 because of maneuvering between the British government and Scottish nationalists. If the status quo wins in the referendum as a result, the Scottish Parliament will likely see its legislative powers increase toward something approximating "devo max."

A campaign called "Better Together" opposing independence has been organized by the Scottish Conservative Party, Scottish Labour Party and Liberal Democrats. The campaign's biggest donor is Ian Taylor, chief executive of the oil company Vitol. In 2007, a U.S. court found Vitol guilty of grand larceny for paying $13 million in kickbacks to Iraqi officials of Saddam Hussein's regime in order to obtain oil contracts.

Better Together supporters argue, among other things, that Scotland's financial center in Edinburgh, the third-largest in Europe, would leave for England because of the threat of instability. Scotland could become Greece if it chooses independence, they claim, because it is so reliant on British funding.

The Scottish Unionists argue that participation in Britain allows for financial risks to be "pooled" together so as to better protect pension benefits and social and public services. But the British government is cutting precisely these benefits and services right now. Meanwhile, the main beneficiaries of "pooling" were the Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland--two separate institutions that were bailed out by the British government during the 2008 world financial crisis at a cost of tens of billion pounds. So it's quite understandable why the rich and elites are in favor of the Unionist camp.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), Scottish Green Party, Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, and Labour for Independence have formed the Scottish Independence Convention, a cross-party alliance to campaign for a "yes" vote in 2014. A network called the Radical Independence Campaign, involving socialists, feminists, trade unionists and other radicals, argues that a more democratic and equal Scotland can only begin with independence.

INEQUALITY HAS grown tremendously in Scotland. A study by Oxfam Scotland in 2013 found that:

Scotland is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. The wealthiest households are 273 times richer than the poorest households. This looks likely to widen in future years.

In 2012, Scotland's 100 richest men and women increased their fortunes to £21 billion, up from a combined wealth of £18 billion in 2011. These deepening inequalities are accentuated by the declining progressivity of the UK tax and benefits system--which should address rather than exacerbate inequality.

Britain's Labour Party has historically had very strong support in Scotland, but Blair's so-called "modernization" that led to its embrace of neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism has cut deeply into the party's authority. The Conservative Party, now the dominant British governing coalition partner, is toxic north of the border and faces complete disintegration there.

This has left the SNP, currently led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, to gain from the massive renaissance of national consciousness. Once a marginal party with support from only a fraction of the population, the SNP has dominated the devolved Scottish Parliament since 2007. In 2011, the party solidified its dominance by winning 65 of the 129 available seats and formed the first majority government since the parliament was reconvened.

The SNP insists that independence can mean more democracy, more equality and more control for the people of Scotland, because decisions will be made "here," and not "down there." In its statement "The New Scotland," the party argues:

[I]ndependence will mean a strong, new relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK. It will create a partnership of equals--a social union to replace the current political union. Independence means Scotland will always get the governments we elect, and the Queen will be our Head of State, the pound will be our currency, and you will still be watching your favorite programs on TV. As members of the EU, there will be open borders, shared rights, free trade and extensive cooperation.

The SNP puts forward contradictory political and economic proposals. For example, it points toward the now defunct "Celtic Tiger"--the booming economy in Ireland during the late 1990s through to 2008--as a model for Scotland's economic expansion. According to the SNP, Scotland, with lower corporate tax rates, light regulation and business friendly legislators, could become the "Tartan Tiger" by attracting U.S. and global corporate investment. Like Ireland, Scotland would provide U.S. easy access to the coveted European Union consumer market.

The SNP also points to oil and gas drilling in the North Sea off the Scottish coast. This produces more revenue than the rest of the British economy, but Scots receive less of it.

Yet while the SNP has embraced this neoliberal economic vision, it has also gained support by claiming that it represents the values of "Old Labour," from before the party was transformed by Blair. The SNP describes itself as "social democratic" and is referred to as left-of-center. It promises to undo the cuts in state spending and social programs carried out by successive British governments.

Now that the campaign toward the 2014 referendum has started, the SNP has become even more vocal in its pledge to protect the National Health Service, public education, pension benefits and other widely supported services. The party also promises to roll back privatization of the Royal Mail.

In office, the SNP does have a record of opposing the imposition of cuts legislated by the British government in London. But it also celebrates its success in helping employers by reducing taxes on businesses. Salmond himself is a former economist for the Bank of Scotland--his and the party's reputations were tarnished with media revelations about his close relationship with global media baron Rupert Murdoch.

THE TREATY of 1707 between Scotland and England led to the formation of Great Britain. The Scottish Parliament was then incorporated into England's Westminster Parliament. Following the United Irishmen uprising in 1798, Great Britain was expanded to include Ireland through the 1801 Act of Union Treaty.

Resistance to English colonialism in Scotland existed from the 13th century onward. Scotland's feudal barons fought incorporation into the English state. In 1707, a majority of Scots opposed the treaty with England, including active resistance in the form of rioting in Scottish towns and cities. But the treaty was overwhelmingly supported by landowners, bankers, merchants and the political class.

Scottish Marxist Neil Davidson argues that no modern Scottish nation existed in 1707. In The Origins of Scottish Nationhood, he wrote: "The Scottish nation was formed in the late 18th century, so too was the British national, and these two processes were not simply chronologically coincident, but structurally intertwined."

Davidson rejects the idea of a rudimentary Scottish nation-state surviving from the 13th century on, but instead argues that the basis for Scottish nationhood was created between 1746 and 1820, with "identifiable components" existing prior to this.

The Scottish elite was able to enter the 1707 treaty on very favorable terms. Scotland was able to remain semi-independent. For example, the feudal nobility remained in power within Scotland, along with separate church, legal and educational institutions. There was little interference by England in Scotland, and no restrictions on capital accumulation, investment and economic development. The opposite was true for Ireland--union with Britain caused the suspension of the Irish parliament and the destruction of Irish industry and economic and social development.

Unlike Ireland, no laws were created in Britain that were specifically designed to oppress and discriminate against Scotland or Scots. Nevertheless, some argue that Scotland became a historically dependent nation because its economic, political and social policy was determined not in Scotland, but in London.

Yet far from becoming a peripheral economic backwater, Scotland went on to technologically outstrip its southern neighbor, becoming a center of Enlightenment thought in the 18th century, and a commercial and industrial powerhouse. Edinburgh was the city of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, and Glasgow became one of the world's leading industrial cities.

As the British Empire developed and expanded, opposition faded to the treaty and union with England, which came instead to represent progress and prosperity. Scotland was fully integrated into the British state and integral to the building of the British Empire and capital accumulation in the United Kingdom.

The Scottish ruling class, as part of the British elite, benefited immensely from empire and the oppression of peoples across the globe. There were no barriers to the Scottish ruling classes' participation in the upper echelons of the British state. Indeed, "Rule, Britannia!" was written by a Scot. Scotland, therefore, was a component part of an imperial nation.

Because of Scotland's relationship with the development of the British state, a form of "dual national consciousness" developed there. As a result, Davidson wrote, "Scottishness and Britishness interpenetrate one another because they emerged at the same time."

The spread of trade unions and Labour Party across all of Britain acted as a counterweight to separatism much of the time. Nevertheless, following a massive working-class upsurge centered on the "Red Clydeside"--factories and enterprises along the River Clyde that ran through Glasgow--the revolutionary socialist John Maclean called for the creation of a Scottish Workers Republic. The Scottish Labour Party campaigned for home rule, and the Scottish Trade Union Congress was formed as a breakaway from the British Trade Union Congress.

SOME SCOTTISH socialists who in the 1980s looked to a "British road to socialism"--the program put forward by the Communist Party which proposed that a "democratic anti-monopoly alliance" could take power through parliament--now place their hopes in a more specifically Scottish radicalism. Some on the left argue that an independent Scotland would make it easier to struggle for socialism--they point to the fact that a majority of Scots have consistently chosen to vote for parties that oppose austerity, war, the basing of the Trident nuclear weapons system in a British naval base in Scotland and so on.

However, if a majority in Scotland voted in favor of independence next year, this will not guarantee a reduction of inequality, the restoration of trade union rights and the protection and expansion of social services. Despite the SNP's pledges to undo cuts legislated by the British government, the party can't be trusted to make good on its promises. It will need to feel pressure from the working-class voters they're directing their campaign at.

A victory for independence could embolden those who want to challenge inequality and corporate power in Scotland, but the elite's arguments about the fragility of the new state could also be advanced to contain radicalism and reduce expectations.

Scotland's capitalists, even if a majority of them oppose independence today, would pressure a new state to become more competitive. Indeed, some conservatives claim that independence could "save" Scotland from socialism--because there would be less funding available for public services.

The recent struggle at the Grangemouth oil refinery--located near Edinburgh and Scotland's largest--demonstrates the challenges that the left, unions and workers in general face now--and will continue to face no matter the outcome of the referendum. Ineos, the refinery owner, threatened to permanently close down the facility and lay off more than 1,300 workers if they refused to accept pension and wage cuts. UNITE, the union representing Grangemouth workers, called for a strike, but its leadership ultimately encouraged workers to accept the cuts to keep their jobs.

Another question arising from the referendum is Scotland's future relationship to the European Union (EU) if the vote is for independence. An independent Scotland attempting to win membership in the EU would be under tremendous pressure to adopt neoliberal policies pursued across the continent. Since its inception, the European project has been designed to create the best possible conditions for capital--and this means weakening the "welfare state," dismantling labor rights and protections, and rationalizing production to make European capitalism more competitive.

Neoliberal anti-working class policies are hardwired into the structures of the EU. Scotland would be forced to compete even more aggressively with Ireland and other nation-states for corporate investment. This, of course, means doing whatever it takes to create the most attractive business climate.

THE ISSUE of Scotland's political union with England has grown in importance over the last 40 years, and it has a dynamic of its own. Still, though, the advance of Scottish nationalism needs to be placed in the context of nationalist impulses arising from the global crisis. Far-right and center-right parties across Europe are employing nationalist rhetoric to win support among those bearing the brunt of the economic crisis and anxious about the future.

The constitutional struggle in Scotland will impact these discussions--and also have a direct impact on prominent self-determination and secession movements in Catalonia and the North of Ireland. The neoliberal era marked, we were told, the twilight of the nation-state, but the ongoing reverberations of the 2008 financial crisis have sharpened its appeal.

The break-up of Great Britain would be a welcome development. The British Empire was built on pillage, plunder and murder across the globe. For the most part, the sun has set on "Cruel Britannia" as the colonized and occupied rebelled for self-determination. We should continue to celebrate every one of the blows against empire, delivered in Ireland, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Britain is still a world power today. If Scotland's secession could weaken Britain's ability to project neoliberalism and imperialism around the globe, it should be welcomed. But there is no certainty that it would.

There is certainly no case to defend the integrity of "Great Britain." The establishment parties and corporate sponsors are campaigning for the status quo on the basis of a shared history of the British Empire's contribution to the world--but that includes its role in two imperial world wars, support for the parasitic monarchy, a reactionary heritage as a "Christian nation," and the continued efforts of Britain to defend "civilization" against the threat of global challenges such as immigration, terror and Islam.

It's already fully clear that neither an independent Scotland nor participation in the European Union can be the solution to poverty, impoverishment and further attacks on the Scottish working-class majority. The fate of Scottish workers is tied to English, Irish, Welsh and European working-class resistance.

As the British government of Prime Minister David Cameron forges ahead with austerity, coordinated resistance is desperately needed across Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Resentment towards austerity, the banks and the political establishment has grown, not just in Scotland, but across the region.

The 2014 referendum opens up a space to discuss the condition of the Scottish working class, who its allies are, and how a different future can be won. In Scotland and across the United Kingdom, this is an opportunity to expose the history and role of the imperial and neoliberal British state championed by the Better Together alliance.

Challenging the SNP's present political hegemony through the creation of a radical alternative based on class struggle is an absolutely crucial task for the left in Scotland.

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