In the wake of the council and parliamentary elections in Scotland on May 3, which saw an historic defeat of the Labour Party, I briefly consider the political representation of the working class and the West-Lothian question. (As of today, the negotiations for a coalition in the Scottish parliament are ongoing. It is expected that the SNP’s Alex Salmond will be First Minister, though his party only has one more MSP than Labour who will contest the results of at least one seat.)
The elections were marred by over a hundred thousand ballots being discounted, effectively disenfranchising a significant number of Scots, and preventing the re-election of Tommy Sheridan, the country’s most famous socialist politician. The success of the Scottish National Party wiped out the SSP, who now have only one MSP, as did the messy split resulting from Tommy Sheridan’s libel case with the News of the World.
The revolutionary left in Scotland effectively formed the Scottish Socialist Party, which is not a typical Leninist party, and though it has hotchpotch of ideas and demands in place of a Marxist grand narrative, the scattergun approach led to initial successes in the Scottish parliamentary elections. The absence of a militant working class party allowed the SSP to pick up support that might have previously have gone to Labour, were it not for their current policies.
The events surrounding the trial of Tommy Sheridan, the leader of the party, and his departure and subsequent establishment of Solidarity – the Scottish Socialist Movement, thus splitting the SSP and its support, are too complicated to relate here. It is enough to say that there are now two left-wing parties in Scottish politics and the difference is in personality.
The SSP project has not faltered because of its ideological ambiguity, its reformist programme, or a split over the party line. Sheridan would argue that the leadership did not back him in his court case with The Sun, and had sold themselves to its owner, the notorious anti-socialist Robert Murdoch. The leadership would argue that Sheridan put his ego before his politics.
Whatever the truth of the matter – and the extent to which it reflects on those involved – the split could not have come at a worse time. A broad left-wing bloc in the Scottish parliament could have worked to ensure that workers’ rights were restored, and otherwise worked with extra-parliamentary forces to strengthen the working class from a legal standpoint. The repeal of Thatcher’s trade union laws would be a massive boost to the workers’ movement in Scotland, and an inspiration to working people in England and Wales.
Without doubt, the fear of another Tory government in Westminster, the wars in the Middle East, and the failure of the Lib-Lab coalition in the Scottish parliament to make any reforms to capitalism will have helped the SNP take votes that previously went to the SSP. But if there had been just one socialist party that was committed to Scottish independence, it would have allowed the revolutionary left to rub shoulders with each other and with reformists. This had been going on in the SSP, which had a democratic culture despite concerns that the MSPs were trying to moderate the extra-parliamentary movement.
The revolutionary groups have divided themselves between the SSP and Solidarity, as have the voters who did not opt for the SNP. Though the voting system for council elections ensures that smaller parties can continue to operate, the left in Scotland must question the existence of organisational division brought about by the SSP split, which has not helped anyone, and means that there is little pressure to the left of the SNP in the Scottish Parliament.
Assuming that the Labour Party in Scotland is going to be emptied of its working class base in future years – with the disaffiliation of the trades unions and a further decline in support and membership – there is an opportunity to construct a campaigning electoral party of the working class.
The national question
The Marxist position on the national question is that nations should have the right to self-determination, but that this principle should not bring about automatic support for secession. Resistance to colonial oppression and imperial occupation aside, we must be thorough in our analysis before we give support to an independence cause. Marxists are partisans of the working class; there can be no mechanical backing of movements for national self-determination. It should be needless to say that nations must themselves decide their fate democratically, whether full separation takes place or system of federation or devolution is instituted.
The fact that we will always hold to the right of nations to self-determination, but do not always campaign for this right to be used, appears to imply an inherent opportunism in the Marxist approach. The question inevitably arises, what else could be dropped to appease public opinion – commitment to the rights of women or of gay people? The answer is no, this should never happen.
For Marxists, the national question is unlike other political issues: on matters of politics and economics the consensus view cannot be adopted because the dominant ideas are those of the dominant class and our principles cannot be abandoned to appease a low level of consciousness or political backwardness. The adoption of bourgeois ideas in the hope of winning support is ultimately self-defeating – more respect is gained by being honest.
Scottish people in the twenty-first century do not constitute an oppressed minority in the traditional sense; there is not intense racism or discrimination on grounds of nationality. However, the union of England and Scotland was not voluntary and has not been equal. Like Wales, Scotland has been a Labour stronghold for much of the twentieth century, yet both nations have been ruled by Tory governments from Westminster; surely a case of taxation without representation…
The introduction of devolution has weakened support for the Union; though notably, Scottish independence is more popular in England than Scotland, largely because Scottish MPs can vote on matters that only concern England and Wales. There is strong support in Scotland for a referendum on the question, but opinion polls suggest that more powers for the Scottish Parliament could kill independence as a political issue.
Arguments for and against Scotland leaving the Union are usually based on economic grounds, the question being would Scotland be a successful capitalist country. The dominant view of the ruling class in the UK is that the Union is still needed; separation would be a blow to Anglo-American imperialism and would split the capitalist class. It would be mistaken to adopt the opposite view to our enemies merely because they are our enemies, but in this case it is clear to see how the haute bourgeoisie would be significantly weakened by the break-up of Britain.
Some groupuscules have developed a ‘national line’ against the dissolution of the United Kingdom; this appears to be a concession to the reactionary nationalism of the oppressor countries. The arguments against separation have merit, but it is a poor understanding of imperialism that leads sections of the left to favour the Union.
The break-up of Britain, one of the oldest imperialist powers, would exacerbate the divisions in the bourgeoisie. Just as salami tactics were used against the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia to restore capitalism, we should try to break up the two most active imperialist powers, the UK and the USA, if it will weaken the rule of the capitalist class.