Thursday, July 15, 2021

Fotheringham, Sherry & Bryce - Breaking Up the British State: Scotland, Independence & Socialism

This is an important and timely book. Published in the aftermath of a historic success for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the May 2021 election it seeks to discuss the question of Scottish Independence in a Marxist framework and historical context. All the authors and editors are members of the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland, and it is one of the clearest arguments for a socialist strategy around Independence published so far. 

Breaking Up the British State argues that socialists must both support and actively campaign for Independence - but they must do this with clear strategic goals. The key ambition is to further the struggle for socialism through breaking up the British state and weakening capital's ability to defend itself. Thus the book critically examines the ideas of several Independence campaigners on the left, it also pushes a clear independent argument, rooted in opposition to racism, support for democracy, internationalism (particularly in terms of opposition to war and the basing of nuclear weapons at Faslane) and workers' emancipation. As Donny Gluckstein and Bob Fotheringham say in their chapter on Scotland, the National Question and Marxism, when compared to the idea of an independent capitalist Scotland,

the other side of the reformist equation suggests the movement for Scottish independence can mean more than that. Firstly, independence is an articulation of working class aspirations at a time when Labour, under Starmer, has more or less abandoned the effort... Secondly the capitalist state structure which is to be rearranged s the British state. This has an imperial history and worldwide reach and its break up would be significant.

The repeated success of the SNP is often crudely associated with left positions on many questions. There is a detailed critique of this by Iain Ferguson and Gerry Mooney who argue that in reality the SNP's reputation for left positions is superficial at best. Titled Neoliberalism with a Heart, it's a devastating critique of the role of the SNP in office - in terms of housing, education, anti-racism and environmental policies. Despite appearing better than Boris Johnson during Covid, in reality the situation in Scotland is little better - not least because of previous failings of health care policy by the Scottish government.

But understanding the current position of the SNP requires understanding three other aspects of politics in the whole UK. The first is the historic development of Scotland, second the role of the Labour Party and finally the rise and fall of workers' struggle in Scotland. The last two aspects of these are discussed in three excellent chapters. Dave Sherry's account of Red Clydeside is a brilliant summary of the struggles in the first two decades of the twentieth century on the Clyde. This includes the incredible workers' strikes during the First World War and the role of the Clyde Workers' Committee, as well as fascinating struggles over rents and housing. This culminated in the 1919 revolt when Britain was "on the brink of revolution" within which Scottish workers' played a central role. 

Charlie McKinnon's chapter on the Making of the Scottish Working Class looks at earlier periods of struggle, arguing that while these are often portrayed as nationalistic struggles this isn't strictly true. He concludes: 

working class agitation and struggle in Scotland during this period should not be seen in isolation from that of the working class in the rest of Britain. Workers north and south of the border were often engaged in common struggles, such as during the great Chartist Revolt.

That is not to say that movements north of the border did not have specific demands or contexts, but that those took place in the wider framework of the British wide class struggle. This analysis is important when looking at the issue of the Highland Clearances, which have their parallels with the enclosures movements that drove the English peasantry off the land and transformed them into wage labourers, predominantly in the cities. McKinnon explains:

The Crofters' Revolt effectively signalled the end of the Highland Clearances. Overall, they were undoubtedly a political defeat but there was clearly significant resistance to the capitalist class. [Marxist historian] Neil Davidson argues that they were unquestionably a 'historical crime' carried out by a rapacious and 'triumphant capitalist class' with a 'disregard for human life', They were not, he points out, 'inevitable' in the sense that the Highlands were peripheral to the profitability and success of capitalism across Britain. Therefore, they were not a consequence of the transition to capitalism but rather of its 'established laws of motion'.

This argument is important because, as several authors explain, Scotland is not oppressed by Britain in the way that (say) Ireland was. The Scottish ruling class merged with the English in order to develop capitalism together. 

The third part of the equation is the Labour Party. Labour in Scotland has gone from being almost the only show in town, to one that is in "steep decline and shows little chance of recovering". This decline is documented in Dave Sherry and Julie Sherry's chapter, which shows how repeated and systematic betrayals of their core voter by Labour nationally and locally created the conditions for sudden collapse. When this happened,

it happened very quickly, but in truth it was the culmination of forces that were in play since Labour's election in 1997, like Blair's Iraq war, Ed Miliband's advocating of 'austerity lite', and decades of Scottish Labour's dismal record in running major councils.

Even under Corybn Labour's position of supporting the capitalist Union, alienated even further those who saw Independence as being about a fight for a better society. The nature of Labour's betrayals, and the social movements that have taken place, means the mood for Scottish Independence is dominated by left ideals. That's not to say, as several authors in the collection emphasise, that the country is immune to the far-right or racist populists. But that one of the reasons that socialists can be positive about developments is that there is a real desire for progressive change - and very often this is manifesting itself on the streets through mass movements. 

This however poses a problem for the neo-liberal SNP, who want a capitalist Scotland able to compete on the global scale. As Gluckstein and Fotheringham note, once you understand this contradiction,

a number of perplexing questions can be answered. For example, why is the SNP, which clearly craves an independent Scotland, so hesitant in going about winning it? Why, when All Under One Banner mobilises hundreds of thousands in marches for independence, does the SNP keep them at arms length, or grudgingly send the odd speaker but little more?

The authors highlight a parallel with Marx's comments on the passivity of the German bourgeoise during the 1848 revolution when they were wary of over-throwing the old feudal order. The reason was that if they "confronted feudalism and absolutism, it saw [also] pitted against itself the proletariat". Engels continued elsewhere, that the German bourgeoisie "attempted an impossible arrangement aimed at postponing the decisive struggle." While the Scottish working class is in no way in a revolutionary mood at the moment, the fear of radical ideas and action clearly haunts the SNP leadership.

Basing itself on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, the authors in this volume put a powerful case for a Marxist position on Scottish Independence. It should be added though that this is not a crude regurgitation of what Marx and Engels said. Rather these are nuanced attempts to learn and apply lessons from the past to the current situation. It is worth finishing this review with Gluckstein and Fotheringham's conclusion. They argue that the Scottish capitalist class wants independence, not because they are nationally oppressed by the British state, but because 

the social system is one in which individual units... of capital compete with each other... For the Scottish bourgeoisie, full sovereignty at Holyrood is a path to greater competitiveness. On its own this would not garner any widespread support. So independence is framed in terms of expanding democracy.

Thus the demand for Independence sees the coming together of two different class interests, but both sides have different desired outcomes. So Gluckstein and Fotheringham continue:

The fight for [independence] has the potential to 'grow over' into something even more ambitious. For the true essence of permanent revolution is about how a socialist challenge to the existing order cannot be achieved in just one country. It needs internationalism rather than nationalism.

This nuanced approach characterises all the essays in this book. Debates around Scottish Independence are going to be a key political issue north and south of the border in the coming years. Socialists of all stripes will stand to learn a lot from this excellent book, that places the question of Independence in a wider context - the struggle for socialism.

Related Reviews

Devine - The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances
Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye
Sherry - John Maclean
Berresford Ellis & Mac A'Ghobhainn - The Radical Rising of 1820

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