The making of the UK state

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The article in WR 351 on Scottish nationalism prompted some interesting responses on the ICC online forum. There was clear agreement with the article that, despite growing divisions in the ruling class, the period when the working class could support demands for the independence of certain states came to a definitive end with the First World War. But the thread discussed the question of whether there is a ‘rational’ basis for Scottish independence today, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of the UK state.

In order to develop our understanding of these and other related issues, we want to take up some of these questions at a deeper historical level, by examining the formation of the modern British state in the 17th and 18th centuries. This article, written by a close sympathiser, shows how and why the Scottish bourgeoisie’s attempt to form an independent capitalist state failed, and also some of the reasons why Scottish nationalism persists and still finds fertile ground today. It first looks at developments in the English state after the revolution of 1649 .

Restoring the monarchy to restore order

Faced with the common threat from below the whole ruling class had rallied behind Cromwell and the army to crush the Leveller revolt, but once the threat was removed this united front splintered. The short-lived English republic (1649-1660) was constantly plagued by political instability that prevented the consolidation of the bourgeoisie’s victory; the army was actively pressing for more radical reforms and any remaining stability increasingly depended on Cromwell, who in turn depended on the continuing support of the City of London’s powerful financial interests. When Cromwell’s death provoked an attempted army coup and a return of the spectre of widespread social disorder, the English bourgeoisie, led by the City of London, concluded that the only way to preserve the hard-won gains of its revolution was to make a deal with the defeated section of the landowning aristocracy to restore the Stuart monarchy to power.

The Restoration was thus a compromise by the capitalist class in the interests of re-imposing order and discipline on the exploited masses: the army was purged and trusted units kept to garrison key towns; radical elements were expelled from the state and political dissent was suppressed; the mobility of landless labourers was restricted and tenants robbed of any security. The new regime was dominated by the landowning aristocracy, but the fundamental gains of the bourgeoisie’s political revolution remained intact, at least in England. For the English bourgeoisie, the success of the Restoration proved an early and valuable lesson about the usefulness of the monarchy as a source of mystification to disguise the reality of its class dictatorship.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 - a coup d’état to ensure bourgeois supremacy

The ‘Restoration’ provided order and stability for the bourgeoisie but at the price of having to share power with the same semi-feudal, pro-absolutist elements who had been ousted by the revolution of 1649. Before long it was forced to wage a renewed political struggle around the same central issue: the subordination of the monarchy to the interests of capital. Eventually, faced with the threat of a Catholic Stuart dynasty allied to feudal absolutist France, the bourgeoisie, together with a section of the landowning aristocracy, staged what was in effect a coup d’état, inviting an armed invasion by Willem van Oranje, military commander of the Dutch republic and husband of the Protestant Mary Stuart. The bourgeoisie carefully prepared this so-called ‘bloodless revolution’ by manipulating events and exaggerating or falsifying the threat of ‘popish plots’ to whip up anti-Catholic hysteria.

The Dutch-led invasion in 1688 led to anti-Catholic riots and significant clashes in England, as well as serious fighting in Scotland and full-scale war in Ireland. The outcome was a definitive political victory for the English bourgeoisie, confirming the supremacy of its interests in the state and settling the respective roles of parliament and the monarchy. Just as importantly it led to the creation of new state structures to finance English wars and commercial expansion, including the Bank of England and the National Debt. The road was now open for the unprecedented growth of English capitalism without further invasions or major changes in the structure of the state for over a hundred years.

Having thus assured its supremacy by violence, lies and political manipulation, the English bourgeoisie carefully constructed a self-justifying mythology of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ as a natural, ‘evolutionary’ development of parliamentary democracy. Re-writing the story of its ruthless struggle for power, it still prefers to commemorate the ‘revolution’ of 1688 and quietly forget about the time when, in Cromwell’s words, it “cut off [the king’s] head with the crown upon it”. The state institutions that emerged from this time bear the aristocratic features of the landowning interests that played such a key role in their formation (along with the City of London financial interests). Above all the British state reflects the pragmatism and flexibility of this faction of the ruling class.

The making of an English empire

The political struggle of the English bourgeoisie in the 17th century was not only to ensure the supremacy of its interests in the English state but also to extend the domination of English capital to the rest of the British Isles. This struggle led to the formation of the British nation state and the birth of British imperialism as a global power, but also to wars and military conquests, massacres and the destruction of whole populations, leaving a legacy of resentments and hatreds, nationalist divisions and conflicts that helped shape the UK state, and which still influence UK politics today.

The foundation for understanding this issue is the uneven development of capitalism in the British Isles. For a myriad reasons capital was concentrated in the south and east of England (and to a lesser extent in the Lowlands of Scotland). Religious differences, which played such a significant role in the early bourgeois revolutions, broadly reflected this pattern, with the most enthusiastic support for the Protestant Reformation coming from the economically advanced regions, and reactions against it coming from the more backward north and west of England, the Scottish Highlands and Ireland.[1]

This pattern of uneven development had a strategic significance: the greatest external threat to English capital’s survival in the 17th century was the feudal absolutist empire of Louis XIV, whose aims were to destroy England as a rival power, seize its commercially vital North American colonies and re-impose a Catholic absolutist monarchy. Within the British Isles, the main threat of counter-revolution was from an alliance of French absolutism with surviving military-feudal Catholic factions in the Scottish Highlands and Ireland. A strategic priority for the English bourgeoisie was therefore to destroy the power of these factions and impose regimes totally subordinate to its own interests, at the same time breaking down barriers to the penetration of English capital and eliminating any potential economic rivals.

As a result of all these factors, in Wales, Scotland and Ireland the bourgeois revolution was experienced to differing degrees as an invasion from the outside.[2]

The foundations of an English empire in the British Isles were laid in the last stage of feudalism when the centralising Tudor monarchy tried to concentrate power in its own hands at the expense of the weakened nobility by:

• asserting central control over the north and west of England;

• absorbing Wales into the English state;

• imposing direct rule on Ireland, and

• extending English influence over Lowland Scotland.

The resistance of the nobility to these attempts to further weaken its power helped to precipitate the bourgeois revolution in England by fuelling the political confrontation between the absolutist monarchy and the rising bourgeoisie. Ultimately, by further weakening the nobility’s power, the monarchy undermined its principal ally against the bourgeoisie and thus helped to ensure its own downfall, while its centralising efforts helped to create the necessary foundations of a modern capitalist nation state.

The abortive Scottish revolution and the prolonged resistance of the nobility

A small mercantile and agrarian capitalist class emerged in Lowland Scotland but the power of the military-feudal nobility remained firmly entrenched in the Scottish state. In the absence of a bourgeoisie strong enough to assert its own interests, the class struggle in Scotland remained dominated by violent struggles between religious factions that threatened to undermine the conditions for the creation of a stable capitalist regime.

In the Reformation the Lowland nobility adopted a form of Calvinism (Presbyterianism), which served it as an ideological weapon against the absolutist monarchy and enabled it to successfully mobilise other classes in Scottish society against attempts to impose state control on the church. The coalition of interests in the Presbyterian ‘Covenanter’ movement directly helped to precipitate the English revolution by defeating the army of Charles I in 1639-1640 and forging a military alliance with the English parliamentary forces. But, deeply fearful of the popular discontent unleashed by the civil war, the majority of nobles changed sides, invading England with a Scottish army in return for religious and economic concessions. This split the Covenanter movement and led to civil war in Scotland itself. Following the defeat of the Scottish royalists by Cromwell’s army in 1648, the radical Covenanter wing, led by small farmers and supported by anti-royalist nobles, launched a successful insurrection and seized power in Edinburgh.

This was to be the high point of the Scottish bourgeois revolution from within. The new regime – a coalition of anti-royalist nobles, clergy and smaller landowners – purged royalist nobles from the state and took anti-feudal measures. But the ‘Kirk Party’ was dominated by extreme Presbyterian elements and lacked a wider base of support in Scottish society; at this crucial moment the bourgeoisie was not strong enough to assume state power, and there was no equivalent of the English Independents or radical democratic Levellers to push the revolution to the left.

Fearful of social disorder after the execution of Charles I, the nobles at the head of the Kirk Party proclaimed their support for the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the British Isles. Faced with this clear danger of counter-revolution from the north, Cromwell’s army invaded Scotland in 1650 and forcibly incorporated it into the English republican state. What followed was in effect a bourgeois revolution from the barrel of a musket, with the nobility removed from power and further anti-feudal measures taken by the English rather than the indigenous bourgeoisie, which inevitably provoked resentment among all classes in Scottish society.

Unlike in England, in Scotland the restoration of the monarchy was accompanied by a full-blown counter-revolution that swept away all anti-feudal measures and handed power back to the nobles, who proceeded to entrench their position and unleash state terror against any sign of dissent. Opposition to this restored feudal state was again led by small farmers and artisans in the radical wing of the Covenanter movement and took the form of an intensified sectarian struggle involving armed uprisings, peasants’ revolts and guerrilla warfare.

The deposition of the Stuart dynasty in the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ provoked a political crisis in Scotland, posing the ruling class with a stark choice. The majority of the Scottish nobility decided to accept the new constitutional monarchy, but a sizeable ‘Jacobites’ minority (largely but not exclusively in the Catholic Highlands) actively opposed it, continuing, with French backing, to fight for the restoration of Stuart absolutism in the British Isles as the only way to preserve its waning power and privileges.

In order to neutralise this threat the English bourgeoisie now put the Scottish ruling class under increasing pressure to give up its political and economic independence. A last ditch attempt to establish Scotland as an independent colonial and commercial power failed disastrously in the 1690s, due in part to English sabotage. The Scottish bourgeoisie’s interests were still best served by building up a home market protected by its own state, but the nobility, as large landowners, needed access to English markets, and in 1707, despite opposition from a wide range of interests, the Scottish ruling class agreed to accept its incorporation into the new British state.

The Act of Union did not in itself represent an advance for the bourgeois revolution in the British Isles; in a compromise due to its overriding strategic concerns, the English bourgeoisie left the Scottish military-feudal nobility’s rights and privileges intact, including those of the Jacobites who proceeded to launch a series of insurrections. It was only after the military defeat of this surviving feudal faction in 1746, by combined English and Lowland Scottish forces, that the road was finally clear for the transformation of Scotland into a modern capitalist regime.

The destruction of Highland feudal clan society was an inevitable consequence as the military-feudal clan chiefs, newly transformed into capitalist landowners, proceeded to expropriate their own former clansmen in their quest for profit; these brutal ‘Highland Clearances’ completed the destruction of the peasantry in mainland Britain, a process that had begun four centuries earlier in England, as vividly described by Marx in Capital.[3]

This marked the end of Scotland’s strategic importance as a potential source of counter-revolution and completed a crucial phase of the bourgeois revolution in mainland Britain. The Scottish bourgeoisie was reluctantly forced to give up its attempt to build a rival commercial power and as consolation took the role of junior partner in British imperialism, benefiting from the unfettered expansion of agrarian capitalism that followed the dismantling of feudalism, that in turn enabled all the scientific and intellectual achievements of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ (David Hume, Adam Smith, James Watt...).

Unlike in Ireland therefore, in Scotland the ‘national question’ was largely settled through the creation of an English-dominated British state and capitalist power while capitalism was still in its progressive, ascendant phase. But the one-sided terms of the union forced on Scotland by its historic enemy, together with the survival of some distinctive Scottish institutions, encouraged the persistence of anti-English and nationalist ideologies within the UK state.

MH 14/2/12

[1]. The most important uprisings against the Reformation in England were the Pilgrimage of Grace in York (1536), the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion in Cornwall, and the Rising of the Northern Earls (1569). Ireland also saw a series of revolts. In contrast, Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk (1549) was provoked by frustration at the slowness of change.


[2]. Even before its annexation Wales had been drawn into a colonial relationship with English capitalism as a supplier of agricultural products, but the formerly powerful Welsh military-feudal nobility was gradually transformed into a capitalist landowning class without further violent resistance, and the new class of small capitalist landowners or gentry that arose to meet the needs of the English market tended to integrate itself individually into the English aristocracy.


[3]. See “The Lessons of the English revolution” part 1, in WR 323.