The preparations for the referendum on Scottish independence, leaving aside Westminster’s legal wrangles over the wording, seem to be going ahead, prompting the question: is this for real, or is it just another form of the democratic diversion?
There’s no doubt that the ‘devolution of power’ to Wales and Scotland was part of the Labour government’s package of ‘reforms’ aimed at convincing the population that it really does have a stake in the governance of the realm. And Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has given a further pinch of salt to the democratic credentials of Scottish independence. In the recent Hugo Young lecture in London he contrasted Scotland’s retention of social democratic policies like free university education and no prescription charges with the nasty ConDem coalition’s flagrant attacks on education and the NHS.
But the situation has not remained static since the 2000s. What has changed above all is the overt deepening of the world economic crisis and the accompanying signs of serious political divisions within and between the national bourgeoisies of the advanced capitalist countries. The tensions between the Republicans and Democrats over raising the debt ceiling in the USA led, for a while at least, to a near paralysis of the central administration, while differences over the same basic problem – the enormous debts crushing economies like Greece, Italy and Spain – have not only caused governments to fall but more significantly have put a major question over the future of the Eurozone and the European Union itself. The economic impasse facing capitalism is accelerating the tendency for each faction of the ruling class, each national or sub-national unit, to save what it can from the wreckage.
In this situation, the arguments of the SNP seem more in tune with reality than they did in the past. They claim that Scotland, with its potential oil wealth and other assets like the tourist industry, could become a prosperous little Norway if it could just get its hands on the whole Scottish economy without interference (and taxation) from Westminster. And with Cameron clearly marking his distance with the EU over the issue of control over the financial sector, the SNP’s pro-EU position can be used to sell the prospect of an independent Scotland waxing rich under the protection of the European Central Bank.
Of course, given the insoluble nature of the global economic crisis, there will be no real possibility for small countries, or any countries for that matter, to preserve themselves as islands of economic well-being. And in any case, there are some basic realities of the imperialist system which make it extremely unlikely that Westminster will let Scotland detach itself from the UK anytime soon: not only the need to keep the lion’s share of the oil wealth but also the delicate question of the Trident missiles currently housed in Scotland.
Add to this the fact that, despite considerable electoral gains in recent years (above all, of course, its control of the devolved Scottish executive), the SNP can by no means assume that there is a majority in Scotland in favour of outright independence. This is why Salmond has been very careful to preserve the option of ‘devo max’ – a kind of Home Rule for Scotland within a maintained UK – as part of the agenda to be discussed in the lead-up to the referendum. In all probability this is what the SNP is really hoping for.
So while there are material forces pushing towards the fragmentation of even the most well-established nation states, full Scottish independence is probably not on the cards for the foreseeable future. But this doesn’t prevent the mouthpieces of pseudo-‘revolutionary socialism’ from indulging in all kinds of ridiculous speculation coupled with a typically reformist daily practice. The Socialist Workers Party for example:
“Socialist Worker backs independence for Scotland. This might seem like a contradiction as we are internationalists.
But we don’t back independence in order to line up behind the nationalists of the Scottish National Party.
The UK is an imperialist power that pillages the world’s resources.
A yes vote in the referendum would weaken the British state.
That’s why Cameron and friends are so desperate to preserve unity”. (Socialist Worker 14 January 2012)
So, while an independent Scotland would not be socialist, it would ‘weaken imperialism’. As a matter of fact, recent experience of the break-up of states into their constituent parts, such as the events in ex-Yugoslavia, shows that such developments merely provide other imperialist powers with added opportunities to intervene and to stir up national hatreds. The gains for the working class and for internationalism are nil.
A more sophisticated approach to the question is provided by the Weekly Worker (19 Jan), who pour scorn on the SWP’s ‘it would weaken imperialism’ claim.
“The SWP - in this instance, comrade Kier McKechnie - has picked up on a frankly idiotic line beloved of Scottish left nationalists, that a Scottish breakaway would be a blow to British imperialism: ‘Britain is a major imperialist power that still wants to be able to invade and rob other countries across the globe,’ he writes. ‘A clear ‘yes’ vote for independence would weaken the British state and undermine its ability to engage in future wars.’
As a factual statement, this is questionable (as a rule, no evidence is ever offered for it). Let us be blunt: it is not the pluckiness and military prowess, however impressive, of the Scots that allows Britain to do these things, but the technological and logistical largesse of the United States”.
But the Weekly Worker soon ends up on essentially the same ground: the discredited slogan of ‘national self-determination’.
“The only appropriate response to such a referendum is a spoilt ballot - combined with serious propaganda for a democratic federal republic in Britain, in which Scotland and Wales have full national rights, up to and including the right to secession. Our job is not to provide left cover for the break-up of existing states - no matter how far up the imperial food chain they are - but to build the unity of the workers’ movement across all borders, and fight to place the workers’ movement at the vanguard of the struggle for extreme, republican democracy”.
As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in the early years of the 20th century, the idea of an abstract ‘right’ to national self-determination has nothing to do with marxism, because it obscures the reality that every nation is divided up into antagonistic social classes. And if the formation of certain independent nation states could be supported by the workers’ movement in a period when capitalism still had a progressive role to play, that period – as Luxemburg also showed – came to a definitive end with the First World War. The working class today no longer has any ‘democratic’ or ‘national’ tasks. Its sole future lies in the international class struggle not only across nation states but for their revolutionary destruction.