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International Socialism, Autumn 1990


Neil Davidson & Donny Gluckstein

Nationalism and the Class Struggle in Scotland

(Autumn 1990)


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 48, Autumn 1990, pp. 107–135.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Conservatives are, and always have been, British nationalists.
— Margaret Thatcher, Glasgow 1975.

Nationalism is nothing but a talking point amongst the chattering classes in Scotland.
— Neil Kinnock, Glasgow 1988.


The national question has taken hold of Scottish politics several times this century, but rarely to the extent that it has since the 1987 general election. The immediate causes are clear: the accelerated decline of Scottish industry, and the imposition of the poll tax, a year earlier than elsewhere. The anger felt in workplaces and housing estates is not only directed against the Tories, however, but at a Labour Party that had failed to resist these attacks. Out of this bitterness the Scottish National Party built the electoral support that brought victory at the Govan by-election in 1988. The nationalism underlying this is frequently misunderstood, not least by the left. One result of this is that the recent resurgence, like its predecessors, took the left unawares, and led to two equally inappropriate reactions: accommodation or dismissal.

Accommodation was the response of most of the left, both outside of the Labour Party and within it. They argued: Scotland is an oppressed nation; it is generally more radical than England; Thatcherism has intensified both of these trends; and the only way to escape from the continuation of Thatcherism is for Scotland to separate from England. The logic of this position is that Scottish workers have different, and even opposed interests to those in England. Dismissal was the response of the leadership and Labour right wing. They argued the contrary viewpoint: Scotland is not oppressed; nationalism threatens the unity of the British working class; separation would reduce the number of Labour MPs allowing the Tories to stay in office, at least in England. So the wishes of the Scots must be ignored in the interests of electoralism. Accommodation and dismissal unite when, to gain votes, all sections of the Labour Party condemn the SNP but borrow its nationalist arguments. The Tories are criticised for the decline of Scottish industry, and regional autonomy is half-heartedly endorsed. Accommodation embraces Scottish mythology, elevating support for nationalism into a principle. Dismissal abandons principle altogether. Both reinforce support for nationalism in one form or another.

In such confusion it is understandable if revolutionaries breathe a sigh of relief when the pre-eminence of the national question (and electoral support for the SNP) recede, and assume that we can now return to the class struggle without this nationalist distraction. This would be a mistake. This article argues that Scottish nationalism is not just a reaction to the defeats of the Thatcher years, nor can it be measured only by support for the SNP. Rather it runs deep within the Scottish working class. It is therefore of concern to socialists whether or not the specific issue of separation is on the agenda.

In discussing Scottish nationalism two related issues must be resolved: the existence or not of a Scottish nation, and the demand for Scottish national self-determination. The first can be dealt with briefly. Definitions of nationhood come ten-a-penny and most, including those that claim to be Marxist, are simply checklists of criteria. The procedure is to match the claims of those seeking national status against the checklist and judge whether they can be awarded the title of ‘nation’. The most influential definition has been that of Stalin which is outstanding only for its dogmatism and listing of more criteria than any other: ‘A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture ... It is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be absent and the nation ceases to be a nation.’ On Stalin’s criteria most of the 170 existing states then should cease to be. [1] Contrary to this method is that adopted by Lenin and developed further by Trotsky which stresses subjective factors: that is, when a group of people come to see themselves as constituting a nation. Trotsky wrote: ‘An abstract set of criteria is not decisive in this question: far more decisive is the historical consciousness of a group, their feelings, their historical impulses. But that too is not determined accidentally, but rather by the situation and all the attendant circumstances.’ [2]

There is no doubt that the Scots consider themselves to be a nation. But that does not determine our attitude towards our second question, the socialist attitude towards Scottish self-determination. Here we begin not with the ideas in the heads of Scottish people, but on the relations of power between nations in the world system. As Lenin put it:

The demand for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply to the question of secession in the case of every nation may seem a very ‘practical’ one. In reality it is absurd ... The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in a categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. [3]

Lenin’s point is that self-determination is a bourgeois democratic demand which revolutionaries support insofar as this is in the interests of the working class. It was never his view that revolutionaries should support every nationalism as a matter of course. The key question is the class struggle, and this connects directly with the issue of oppression. The fight against national oppression can be of direct assistance to the workers’ struggle for emancipation. A good example, and one which is particularly relevant to Scotland, given its past role, is the oppression in Northern Ireland. A defeat for British imperialism here would weaken the confidence of the British ruling class and the state’s capacity to intervene elsewhere. If British workers showed solidarity with the Irish people it would break them from national chauvinism. That in turn would demonstrate to the Irish workers that British workers had cut free of their ruling class. The way might then be open for the unity of both groups on an international class basis. These developments would of course depend on the subjective element of socialist intervention. [4]

The Marxist tradition links the formation of national consciousness, the struggle of the oppressed for self-determination against the oppressor and the interests of the working class. It is in the light of all three that Scottish nationalism must be considered. The early development of Scottish history is best understood by a comparison with Ireland and England – classic examples of oppressed and oppressor. It is to that comparative history that we now turn.

The parting of the ways: Ireland/Scotland/England

In the 1st century AD Ireland and Scotland were populated by Gaelic speaking tribes whose unit of social organisation was the clan. Both were outside the boundaries of Roman administration which ruled England. Later, when the Roman Empire fell, feudalism would develop in England from a fusion of the communal system of the invading German tribes and Roman slavery. [5] It is said that the Roman failure to conquer Ireland and Scotland, and the consequent absence of slave relations of production, provided no basis for native feudalism in either country. [6] However, the two countries were not identical. While Ireland remained a world apart, in the south east of what would become Scotland Roman settlements and slave agriculture were established later. [7] The Lothians, scene of the Roman occupation, were therefore a site of economic and social advance which, over centuries, encouraged the wider development of feudal relations and use of a dialect of English. [8] From such incomplete and localised changes Scotland began to diverge from the road it had shared with Ireland. These advances stopped short, however of the Highland line. After the Romans went, a monarchy grew up ruling a kingdom which was unified politically, but split in its social, economic and even linguistic character. In Ireland feudalism did not develop spontaneously. It was imposed by the Norman English who settled by invasion rather than invitation. They achieved some initial success. Wool production, for example, was double that of Scotland by the early 13th century. But the onset of crisis later that century showed the limits of what had been achieved. Facing land shortage and demographic collapse, Ireland regressed and the settlers were assimilated into the system they had been sent to transform. In Scotland, where feudalism was not an artificial graft onto the body of an alien mode of production, the economy, though traumatised, was not thrown backwards.

A feudal national state?

Nationalism, like religion, has an interest in tracing its past back to the dawn of recorded time. For Scottish nationalists the mystical existence of nation is first established by resistance to the English invasion of 1296 – the ‘War of Independence’. Anyone who has heard Scottish football supporters singing the national(ist) anthem Flower of Scotland will know that in the last verse the Scots are called upon to ‘be the nation again’ as they once were in the 14th century. And every year the SNP holds a march and rally near the site of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The war began when the English Crown, facing domestic difficulties, attempted territorial expansion into Scotland with the aim of expanding the area of peasant exploitation and intensifying its level. The argument that a national consciousness existed to resist this is often supported by referring to the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) in which the barons appealed to Pope John XXII to command the English cease their attacks on Scotland. Smout for example writes that: ‘... its sonorous wording expresses all the fierce nationalism of the 14th century’. [9] But what did ‘nation’ mean in this period? Prior to the 14th century, as Chris Harman nicely puts it, ‘There was no notion of the nation’. [10] By the time of Bannockburn the word ‘nation’ had come into use, but referred to a racial or ethnic group rather than a political unit. It had nothing in common with modern nationalism. As Rosalind Mitchison writes: ‘For no period in history does the anachronistic modern concept of the all-embracing national state more corrupt our judgement.’ [11] The concept of modern national consciousness is one for which people are prepared to lay down their lives, not only for their direct family, for the immediate chunk of land on which they labour, but for a higher social connection – the people or nation. It corresponds to the scale of operations undertaken by the capitalist mode of production. This concept did not shape the actions of the 14th century Scottish feudal rulers. Their leader, Robert the Bruce, like many Scottish nobles, was of recent Anglo-Norman descent, still held lands in England and owed allegiance to the English crown. Once the war began he had two options: siding with the English in the hope of gaining preferment, or fighting against them to re-establish an independent feudal monarchy. Many, again including Robert the Bruce, did both at various times.

The kingdom which emerged from war in 1320 saw the peasantry subjected to an even harsher feudal regime than before. The reason for this outcome can be found in the relative lack of economic development, which was to retard all social change in Scotland until the 17th century. Peasants have been able to play a significant role where they are in a position of economic strength and confidence, and, crucially, where there are economically developed urban areas to act as a focus for the struggle. These were lacking in Scotland. [12] The instability of the realm and the parasitic and divided nature of the ruling class meant that conditions for a nascent bourgeoisie were extremely limited. Scotland’s economic position would have been difficult under the best of conditions. The inhospitability of its native environment and geographical isolation from the expanding markets of Europe were natural disadvantages. But lawlessness and the constant drain of resources in wars with England exacerbated the problem. So Scotland continued to fill a position halfway between Ireland and England in terms of economic, social and political development. Feudal Scotland was too poor, too small and too weak to maintain itself against England without outside assistance. That came from France. The turning point in Scottish history would come when the ally and enemy were reversed.

Bourgeois revolution from above

Scotland’s bourgeois revolution did not follow the path of the classic bourgeois revolutions in England and France. It was very thorough and yet occurred in a country which appeared to lack the necessary bourgeois social basis for it in the first place. How could it happen at all? Firstly, the revolution was not led by the bourgeoisie but initiated by the nobility; and secondly, it was aided and finally imposed by another state – England. Its role as a factor in Scotland’s social progress at this time is therefore the exact opposite of that portrayed in nationalist demonology. Reliance on England had an important effect on the character of Scottish nationalism. The usual outcome of successful bourgeois revolution is the consolidation of independent nation states and a mass national consciousness to match. In Scotland however, the victory of the revolution included the abolition of the independent nation state and incorporation into the United Kingdom, first for a temporary period (1651–60) and finally on a permanent basis.

Bourgeois revolution is a process, not a single event. In Scotland its first manifestation goes back to the Reformation. Unlike England this was not carried through by the monarchy, whose weakness made it rely on the Catholic Church at home and its Catholic French ally abroad. Instead it was the nobility who accomplished the break. They were the only class that could have done so. Although the Calvinism that was carried to Scotland by zealots like John Knox found an audience among the merchants, guilds and urban poor of the burghs, none were in a position to challenge the existing Church. That came from a group of the most prominent nobles who signed the first Covenant declaring their adherence to Protestantism in 1557. Their sincerity is not the issue. They had more pressing reasons for their action.

The nobility was a heterogeneous and numerous class. The population was less than a fifth of England’s, but the number of nobles was roughly the same. Many were relatively poor (the ‘hedge knights’) and their only claim to noble status was their name. Reasons for adopting Protestantism therefore differed widely. The poorest resented paying tithes to a wealthy and corrupt Church that they did not control. The richest, on the other hand, benefited from the exploitation of Church offices and used its pulpits to propound submission to the existing order. However, these were under threat from an internal reform movement. All sections of the nobility were therefore attracted to the idea of abolishing the old Church, seizing its wealth and establishing a new Church which they could shape from the start. There was also a more direct reason arising from the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise. She wanted to strengthen the link with France, perhaps even to unify the two states into one kingdom. This seemed to be foreshadowed by her using Frenchmen to fill the various offices of state. Such an outcome would leave France dominant, and the nobles’ power greatly reduced. The price of continuing the link with France was therefore the very domination it had been intended to avoid. So the nobles then began to turn towards Protestantism and England.

The Scottish Reformation was very thorough because it suited the designs of the majority of the ruling class and had effective external support from England. Events were precipitated by civil war in 1559. Although Protestant ministers mobilised the urban poor to support the Covenant, the Queen Regent had the advantage with a French army at her disposal. The Lords of the Faithful Congregation, as the reforming nobles were known, were only saved from defeat by the intervention of an English fleet at Leith in 1560. English assistance guaranteed victory for the Reformation and set the pattern for the next 200 years, just as its opposition and defeat at Bannockburn had done for the previous 200. The Reformed Church was the single most important creation of Scotland’s bourgeois revolution and as such was to survive the Act of Union in 1707, contributing to this day, along with law and education, as an important element in specifically Scottish national consciousness. Its importance in society underlined the relatively backward development of bourgeois relations. It was a state within the state, being responsible for education, poor relief and the trial and punishment of non-capital crimes. Intolerant and repressive though it was, the Church Presbyteries, from which it took its name, were the most democratic institutions then in existence. This system of elected lay elders controlling the Church contrasted strongly with the previous system of bishops appointed by the monarch or the royal Church in England.

From 1560 to 1637 the Church was one of the main areas of struggle between the contending classes. In 1603 the crowns of England and Scotland were united under James VI. He began to build what had previously been unknown in Scotland – a strong, absolutist regime. Lacking a standing army or strong bureaucracy, he wanted the Church as an instrument of social control, particularly after his departure to rule from England. The nobles for their part wished to retain overall control of the Church within their local domains. In 1610 they compromised. More funding would be made available to local parishes in exchange for the return of bishops to administer the national Church apparatus. This balance of forces was upset by the accession of Charles I. One of his first acts was the Revocation, which gave him the power to confiscate church lands expropriated by nobles in the Reformation. If carried out, it would have affected both the great nobles and small landowners (the lairds).

The second major phase in the bourgeois revolution began in 1637, when Charles resolved to bring the Scottish church into complete uniformity with that of England and bypass the elected kirk bodies. In reaction the clergy and burgesses, led by the nobility, signed the National Covenant. Although written in religious terms it contained three political demands: a reduction in royal power; consolidation of the nobles’ position in the Scottish parliament; and return of the Church into their hands. As such it was neither necessarily anti-royalist nor anti-episcopalian. It was comparable to the revolt of the nobles in France in 1787. But when Charles prepared for war with the bishops’ support the nobles were forced to deepen their opposition. The General Assembly abolished episcopy, and, as in 1559, this was accomplished with the aid of rioting in the towns. However, this was the limit of the Covenanters’ radicalism. Their subsequent invasion of England took place because they realised that in order to preserve the revolution it would have to be spread. Militarily the English proved no obstacle against Scottish armies composed of men who had been the leading mercenaries in Europe – the one advantage which Scotland had derived from its military-feudal backwardness. [13] The cost of this fighting eventually provoked civil war between Charles and the English Parliament, and the Covenanters entered on the Parliamentary side. Their price was that Westminster sign the Solemn League and Covenant which aimed at extending the Presbyterian system to England, but the alliance soon cracked.

England’s revolution more and more took the form of a full blooded bourgeois revolution from below, driven as it was by a mass of small gentry. But lacking such internal forces Scotland’s noble led revolt was never radicalised in this way. This divergence between the Covenanters and their temporary English allies was shown in 1648, when Cromwell decided to try Charles for his life. The vast majority of the Scottish Presbyterian movement switched sides to supporting his son, who was crowned in Scotland as Charles II in 1650. The subsequent war against English Parliament’s forces, led first by the nobles and then by the Presbyterian ministers, ended in ignominious defeat. [14]

The Cromwellian Protectorate which followed enforced the union of Scotland and England in 1651. This period in Scotland was decisive for the bourgeois revolution. The English were clear as to what they were doing. One of Cromwell’s officers wrote: ‘It is the interest of the Commonwealth of England to break the interest of the great men in Scotland, and to settle the interest of the common people upon a different fact from the interests of their lords and masters.’ [15] Those who had supported the war were heavily fined. Heritable jurisdictions, feudal and baronial courts were all abolished. After this the nobility were to become an agrarian capitalist class, and servants of a centralised state which they no longer controlled directly. The bourgeoisie proper, the lairds and urban merchants, now had a space in which to develop and rapid economic progress was made. The bourgeois revolution had accomplished its task, but in a most unusual way.

Sources of counter-revolution

Despite the success of the bourgeois revolution, both Ireland and the Scottish Highlands remained outside its influence and posed a threat to the new bourgeois order. But the two cases were different, as shown by reactions to the 1688 Glorious Revolution which brought William of Orange to power. Colonisation of Ireland had proceeded since the reign of James VI, when Scottish Presbyterian settlers had been planted in the north east to suppress the native Catholic population. As Tom Gallagher notes, ‘Ulster was almost a Scottish colony in the seventeenth century.’ [16] Elsewhere colonial oppression meant there was no religious reformation or native capitalist development. Like feudalism before, capitalism was grafted onto Ireland by colonial settlers, only this time the graft would hold. The majority of the population opposed William’s regime and were prepared to support James VII’s attempts at Restoration in the mistaken belief that he, as a Catholic, would end oppression. These hopes ended after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and colonial rule was savagely re-imposed.

By contrast, in Scotland there was an indigenous capitalist class which, like their English counterparts, welcomed William’s rule. But this applied to the Lowlands only. The Highlands, in contrast, tended to support the restoration of the Stuart dynasty. This was doubly dangerous because the Stuart’s were backed by absolutist France – the most important rival of the unified British monarchy. There were additional reasons why the Highlands were intolerable to bourgeois order. Though of minor significance in terms of population and economic weight, the Highlands formed a third of Scotland’s land mass, in which there were still vast areas where the writ of state did not run and the decaying clan system still represented a mode of production incompatible with the extension of capitalism. When James’s supporters, the Jacobites, rose shortly after William was crowned in Scotland, they were crushed, largely by Scottish forces loyal to William. The division now lay not between the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland, but between the Highlands and the rest of Scotland and England. [17]

Towards union with England

Up to now we have described the relationship of England and Scotland not as oppressor and oppressed (as in the case of England and Ireland) so much as symbiotic – two independent but mutually interacting states. The rise of capitalist competition made a continuation of this pattern difficult. The years after 1692 were years of famine throughout Europe, but were particularly harsh in Scotland due to poor harvests. The economic situation looked set to get worse. Excluded from selling in the expanding English empire, the Scots bourgeoisie were also losing many of their European markets. For Scotland to survive, let alone expand, as an independent centre of capital would require it to take a desperate gamble. This was the attempt to establish a colony at Darien in the Panamanian Isthmus, from where the bourgeoisie hoped to force an entry onto the protected markets of Spanish America. Launched in 1698 the scheme emptied the Scottish exchequer and tied up most available capital, but the dream of an independent Scottish empire floundered in the Darien swamp, through ill-preparedness, Spanish hostility and English indifference. Darien was the final, conclusive proof to the bourgeoisie that Scotland lacked the economic resources to compete with its southern neighbour.

The English bourgeoisie were now in a position to force their bankrupt Scottish counterparts to abandon their role as an independent rival. But the Scottish ruling class was split. The Jacobites wished the Stuart monarchy restored in England, Scotland and Ireland. The Country Party of Lowland magnates wanted an independent Scottish monarchy, not necessarily of the Stuart line, but which would continue to disburse patronage from the royal exchequer. Finally the Squadrone Volente, a section of the nobility and the landowning and merchant bourgeoisie, favoured union with England because it offered economic opportunity and a Protestant succession. Despite these divisions the Act of Union was accepted by the Scottish Parliament in 1707. This was partly the result of English bribery. But contrary to myth, this was not decisive, as the arguments for the Union were compelling. There were four inducements: first, abolition of tariff barriers and a share of the exploitation of the English colonies; second, the national debt incurred by the Darien fiasco would be met by the English; third, money for investment in some Scottish industries; finally, the Scottish legal system, education and the Church would be preserved.

The act was passed amid scenes of outraged popular national feeling. Many on the left feel that it should have been rejected for this reason. But what was at stake? The four major cities – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen – opposed the act, because much of their trade was orientated on the continent and they feared their products would suffer in competition with those of England. But this was bourgeois sectionalism. The key sector of the Scottish economy was still agriculture – the population of Glasgow, the largest town in 1707, numbered only 12,500. Scottish separatism could only have been utilised for reactionary purposes, as the example of Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, the only member of the Scots Parliament to oppose the Union on a nominally republican basis, shows. He was prepared to accept an alliance with France and the reintroduction of serfdom in order to preserve Scotland’s independence. The interests of the bourgeoisie lay with a stable Union with England and this outweighed the claims of national self-determination. [18]

The last stand of the counter-revolution

A succession of Jacobite risings which looked for support from foreign absolutist powers showed that the need for bourgeois stability was now pressing. The majority of the Scottish population had no reason to hope for a Jacobite victory. No longer excluded by the Navigation Acts, Scottish cloth was being exported to the British Empire and the prospect of tobacco imports from the slave plantations promised major expansion in Glasgow. The long heralded benefits of the Union were becoming apparent, even to the sections of the Scottish ruling class which had initially opposed it.

In 1745 the final Jacobite rising under Charles Edward Stuart was routed by a British army consisting of more Scottish soldiers than his own. On Culloden Moor the Duke of Cumberland ended the attempt at absolutist restoration. It took 25 minutes. As Cole and Postgate say, ‘No other battle that ended a civilisation was so brief.’ [19] The aftermath was slaughter, forfeiture of the rebels’ estates, and the banning of the right to carry arms. There is no need to share Engels’ denunciations of the Highlanders as ‘non-historic’ or ‘human refuse’ [20], to see that the defeat of the Stuarts and the smashing of the clans represented the final act of the British bourgeois revolution. It is putting the case too strongly to argue that without Culloden there would have been no Scottish enlightenment or industrial revolution. After all, Hume had written his Treatise on Human Nature in 1736, and industry had begun to develop before the rebellion. But the threat of disruption would have remained. If the Duke of Cumberland was no Cromwell, Washington or Robespierre, he was certainly more typical of the bearers of the bourgeois revolution than they.

The fate of the Highlands

The main consequence of Culloden for the Highlands was incorporation into the British capitalist economy which they had resisted for so long. The old Highland way of life was no ideal. The mass of the population eked out a bare existence through subsistence farming. They were, however, guaranteed tenure and a certain protection by clan chiefs whose stature had been measured not by cash but the number of tenants they could raise to fight in wartime. This was no longer the case after the ’45. In 1747 the run-rig system, whereby a number of tenants farmed the land collectively, was replaced by renting the land to single tenants. As a result, when in 1815 the market for Highland agricultural produce fell away, leaving a mass of crofters unable to pay their rents, an alternative was use of the land was sought. The population explosion to the south created a market for livestock and an expanding textile industry required wool. Sheep yielded both.

The clearing of the land had begun in 1724 in Galloway and the Lowlands but from 1792 was systematically imposed in the Highlands. Large sheep farms replaced crofts, the peasants driven off and their homes burned. These Scottish peasants were coerced by Scottish soldiers at the behest of Scottish landlords. [21] The peasants had expected protection from their clan chiefs. But as landlords the necessities of primitive capital accumulation overrode those of clan fellowship or solidarity with their fellow Scots. Their Jacobitism reduced to pure decoration, they emerged as the full blooded Tories they had potentially always been.

Highland society was supposedly preserved in those symbols of what is most Scottish – the kilt and tartan. Yet nothing could be more phoney. [22] Tartan was introduced into the Highlands in the 16th century from Flanders via the Lowlands and there were no specific clan patterns. Jacobites invading Edinburgh in 1745 were greeted with ‘the latest designs in tartans’. The kilt was invented in the 1720s by a Lancashire Quaker, Thomas Rawlinson. As manager of an iron ore smelting works he wanted a garment allowing workers to fell trees and tend furnaces more easily than with the traditional long shirt and plaid. If the kilt was (literally) the creation of industrial capitalism, then its wider use was the result of British colonialism. It was adopted by Highland regiments raised by the clan chiefs on receipt of state money after the ’45 rebellion. The regiments began the differentiation of tartans into clan types. As regiments multiplied they were assigned specific tartans randomly to distinguish them. This garment was, in the words of Trevor-Roper, ‘invented by an English Quaker industrialist and saved from extinction by an English imperialist statesman.’ [23]

This story has its tragic aspects. It was the kilt clad soldiers, often displaced Highlanders, who carried British colonialism to Africa, Asia and Ireland. If there is one image which captures the difference between Scotland and Ireland, it is the display of the kilt, tartan and lion rampant by Scottish troops smashing the symbols of Irish national liberation, the tricolour and the starry plough.

New classes and new struggles

The clearances saw the effective end of the peculiarities of Scotland’s development. [24] What was the balance sheet for nationalism now that the nation state itself had been fully incorporated into a larger unit? Part of the original structure remained, as Christopher Harvie writes:

In Scotland education, religion and the law have functions that are political as well as social. They both legitimate Scottish distinctiveness and require the systematic adaptation of British legislation. Moreover, in the absence of a Scottish legislature they have a political life of their own ... [25]

In the all-important economic sphere the Scottish bourgeoisie had no separate interests from those of their English counterparts. Mitchison notes that: ‘Scotland packed into about thirty years of crowded development between 1750 and 1780, the economic growth that in England had spread itself over two centuries.’ [26] By the end of that period it is no longer possible to discern a distinctive Scottish economy. It is therefore incorrect to describe the Scottish bourgeoisie as being ‘England’s junior partner’, as this implies that they still retained a separate existence. [27] What nationalism remained survived as a component part of an all-inclusive British nationalism. National consciousness was split between Scottish and British identities, in which the Scottish element remained cultural rather than political. What this represented was, in Smout’s words:

... a kind of dual consciousness, compounded partly of loyalty to the actuality and opportunity of modern Britain, and partly of loyalty to the memory and tradition of Scotland. It was a consciousness that working class radicals shared with the other parts of society. [28]

This brings us to an entirely new phase of development. So far our discussion has concentrated on the varying national trajectories of Ireland, Scotland and England. With the Act of Union and incorporation of the Highlands into the capitalist system Scotland moved from straddling the space between Ireland and England. It had made the leap to join England at its end of the spectrum of development. This means that while the relations between countries – the national question – have claimed our attention till now, the relations between classes – the social question-must now claim this position. Of course nationalism remains important, but mainly insofar as it impinges on the working class struggle against capitalism.

The need for a change in emphasis is illustrated by the way the Great French Revolution was received – 1789 signalled a new phase of bourgeois revolutions which, unlike their precursors, would be conducted in the name of ‘the people’, who were in turn identified with ‘nation’. Popular democracy was harnessed to win the bourgeois revolution through a feeling of national unity of all classes. However, where the bourgeois revolution had already taken place democracy and nationalism did not necessarily coincide. In Ireland they did. Here native capitalist development had been retarded by Britain – 1789 gave focus to a republican national movement to establish a capitalist state free from Britain. In stark contrast, English nationalism was not a vehicle for democratic agitation. It was already the ideology of the ruling class and was now systematically built up on the reactionary foundation of opposition to the revolution in France. How did Scotland fit into this pattern? It followed the English trend.

Tom Nairn finds the absence of a Scottish national movement at a time when these were springing up all over Europe one of the great mysteries of history. But the explanation is not difficult. The Scottish bourgeoisie no longer had an incentive to promote nationalism and had no wish to follow the road of the Irish liberation struggle. [29] For their part, the radical leaders of the emerging working class movement found the French Revolution important above all because of its democratic aspects. [30] Scotland’s Society of the Friends of the People therefore did not stress separatism, but sought co-operation with fellow suffrage campaigners in England. Even though a mixed class movement under middle class influence, it was repressed by 1794. The reform movement which re-emerged in 1797 was more working class, encompassing in particular the handloom weavers, then at the beginning of their long decline. The new organisation – the United Scotsmen – concentrated on the radical demands of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. They sought a republicanism appropriate for Britain as a whole. It is true the organisation was modelled on the United Irishmen, but its brand of radical nationalism did not fit the situation in Scotland. This is borne out by the fact that the United Irishmen numbered thousands and launched an insurrection of major proportions, while the United Scotsmen numbered only hundreds. The United Englishmen could be counted in tens. [31]

In close parallel with events in England, a new reform movement arose during the crisis years following the Napoleonic Wars. Some modern left nationalists have argued that the nationalist content of this movement has been deliberately and unfairly ignored by socialists. The ‘Radical War’ of 1820 is cited as an example. [32] During April that year a group of less than 100 radicals attempted to seize the Carron Ironworks, but were defeated before the attempt could be made, after a skirmish at Bonnymuir. Subsequently three of the leaders were judicially murdered. Although the Bonnymuir rising was motivated by nationalism, this does not seem to have been the major influence on the majority of Scottish workers. The most important event during this period was the strike wave across the central belt involving up to 60,000 which accompanied the proclamation of the rising. The manifesto which began it contained no reference to Scottish nationalism, but utilised the imagery of the English radical tradition such as Magna Carta. [33] Such English imagery was not seen in a nationalist context. It was used in Scotland as a symbol in the fight for liberty. In England Burns’s Scots Wha’hae performed the same role at that time. [34]

The next workers’ agitation, Chartism, saw Scottish workers fully integrated into the British labour movement, though there were local differences. By the 1820s the most radical section of the Scottish working class, the weavers, had been smashed, and a new factory proletariat was yet to fill the gap. Consequently supporters of the Charter were less likely to identify their problems with industrial capitalism than in Northern England, where factories were more developed. [35] Therefore the movement in Scotland was aligned to the moral force wing which emphasised political reform as opposed to social change. The sole major Scottish leader of the physical force wing, Peter McDouall, only came to political activity, let alone leadership, after moving to England. [36]

Imperialism and home rule

As working class struggle developed in Scotland during the industrial revolution, the national question had been increasingly eclipsed by class issues in a British context. With the defeat of Chartism in 1848 class politics were eclipsed in their turn, while the national issue disappeared from sight. Solid material factors reinforced the trend. The British state was far ahead of its competitors as an industrial and colonial power. Scotland not only provided the troops that helped make this possible, but its capitalists prospered directly, playing a role which was arguably greater, in comparison with their size, than England: ‘It was a commonplace of late Victorian comment, that Scotland invested abroad on a scale per head with no parallel among the other nations of the United Kingdom.’ [37]

From early in the industrial revolution, Scotland was pre-eminent in major exporting trades. Successes in tobacco, cotton and jute were supplemented by heavy industrial goods. Until the First World War Glasgow was the biggest exporter of steam locomotives in the world. In the 1850s Scotland accounted for 90 percent of British pig iron exports. In 1885, when steel was replacing iron, Scotland turned out 42 percent of all Siemens steel. The Clyde alone produced 70 percent of all iron tonnage launched in Britain between 1851 and 1870, and in that final year employed 20,000 out of a UK workforce of 47,500. Thus at the end of the century the proportion of Scots employed in primary industry was one third higher than in England and Wales, and 11 percent higher in heavy industry. [38] This was accompanied by a relative weakness in Scottish trade unionism. Mid-century British trade unionism largely depended on the bargaining strength of skilled workers. Therefore it was strongest in those sectors with skilled workers as yet untouched by the eroding effects of industrialisation (such as the building trades) or in newer trades where skills could be imported and maintained (such as engineering). In Scotland the narrow base of pre-industrial manufacture and tremendous pace of growth meant there were few skilled workers in the first category, while coal, steel and the heavy end of engineering did not provide many openings for the second.

This situation began to change when Britain suffered the ‘Great Depression’ of the last quarter of the 19th century, which saw new departures in terms of nationalism and direct class struggle. The starting point for modern Scottish nationalism was the founding of the Scottish Home Rule Association, by a group of radical Liberals in 1886. [39] The Liberal Party dominated Scottish politics from the 1832 Reform Act until the First World War, a position which corresponded to the dominance of the country’s industrial bourgeoisie. But the party also contained a radical wing which became stronger when male workers were enfranchised in 1867 and 1884. [40] The radicals were concerned with four main issues – disestablishment of the Church of Scotland, promotion of the temperance movement, land reform and the extension of the franchise. Home Rule was the means of achieving these ends.

Although quite different in nature from the issue of Home Rule in Ireland, the Scottish question could not avoid becoming associated with it. The Liberal leader Gladstone had opted for Irish Home Rule in 1886 and subsequently for Scottish Home Rule also. He calculated that Ireland’s position within the Union and the empire could best be maintained by slackening the imperialist leash. Other sections of Gladstone’s party disagreed, seeing Home Rule as a threat to the integrity of empire. Not surprisingly this was the attitude of the industrial bourgeoisie, for whom Belfast was a major link in the productive chain of British capital. As a result support for Home Rule amongst the working class became associated not merely with opposition to the Tories, but also with opposition to the Liberal industrial bourgeoisie. So it was that as the labour movement woke up from its mid-Victorian slumbers it sided with the radical wing of the Liberal Party and Home Rule. In some cases there was a direct link in terms of membership between the radical Liberals and the freelance socialist journalists, land reformers and trade union bureaucrats like Keir Hardie who led the movement. [41] However, Home Rule was not the key issue for leaders of the Scottish labour movement for long. They had more serious problems on their hands. In the 1880s Scottish trade union leaders suffered a succession of defeats which put their organisations in a precarious position. Hardie, their leader, came to insist on the need for independent labour representation in parliament as a means of assisting the workers’ movement. He therefore stood as an independent at the 1888 Mid-Lanark by-election, the first working class candidate to do so since Chartism. Though he lost, his stand put him in advance of England, where trade unionism was stable and self-satisfied and so felt no need to break from the Liberals. The subsequent formation of the Scottish Labour Party was a step forward from slavish following of the Liberals and showed a level of political generalisation largely absent in England at this time. Even his support for Scottish Home Rule distinguished him from the cruder great British chauvinists. However, independent reformist politics were the unlooked for result of the weakness of the Scottish trade union movement. David Howell has described one SLP by-election campaign as follows:

[The candidate] was committed unequivocally to the standard radical demands, and to Home Rule. But his central appeal was a labour one. He drew attention to the constant experience of trade union defeats as a justification for a political intervention. Here was one motif of the SLP experience. Industrial weakness generated an attachment to political initiatives [of a reformist character – ND/DG] but the impact of these was damaged by that same lack of industrial organisation. [42]

So it was that Hardie only got into parliament through winning the English seat of West Ham in London’s docklands. This area had witnessed many of the great new unionist struggles in 1889, a militant movement which largely passed Scotland by.

The SLP kept clear of any specific socialist demands and its programme was distinguishable from the radical Liberals mainly in its greater stress on the land question. The SLP won the support of radical MPs like Cunninghame-Grahame who campaigned for crofters against the Scottish capitalists intent on liquidating the last vestiges of pre-capitalist farming. Under the impact of the new unionism of 1889 England caught up with and overtook Scotland in terms of political generalisation, and the SLP merged into the openly socialist Independent Labour Party in 1895. As the influence of Liberalism declined, so did the emphasis of Hardie and his colleagues on Home Rule recede. As MP for Merthyr Tydfil he used his origins in his electioneering, declaring in 1910, ‘I, like yourselves, am a Celt, with all the love of the home country, its language and its literature which every true Celt feels.’ [43] But in reality the Scottish dimension was just decoration. Hardie’s 1913 pamphlet All about the ILP does not mention Scotland once. [44]

In a curious parallel with the interaction of Scotland and England during the bourgeois revolution, the weakness of the Scottish trade unions had led to an accelerated political development which in turn reflected back on England. Though three of the ILP ‘Big Four’ (Glasier, MacDonald and Hardie) were Scots and the latter two led the Labour Party for its first 32 years, all of them worked on an all British scale. The weaker hold of trade unionism in Scotland also made it more dependent on trades councils than in England and led it to form the Scottish TUC after the British TUC excluded trades councils in 1895. The STUC took its place alongside other specifically Scottish institutions in maintaining a sense of separate Scottish identity, in this case specifically amongst the working class.

Industrial decline and the rise of reformism

Writing in 1925 Trotsky used his theory of combined and uneven development to show that the very factors which had led to Britain’s pre-eminence caused it to be superceded by its modernising competitors – Germany and the USA. [45] The First World War had dramatically accelerated this decline, its share of world trade falling by one third between the wars. [46] However, combined and uneven development occurs within nation states as well as between them. This was the case with Scotland, which, as an export area, suffered a disproportionate decline. Its commitment to the basic sectors of the industrial revolution, such as iron, steel and coal mining deepened the problems. For example, between 1913 and 1980 the UK’s share of world shipping output, much of which had come from Scotland, fell from 60 percent to 1.8 percent. [47] Scotland led the first industrial boom because of its advantages in power sources (water/coal) and key raw materials (iron ore). But with the arrival of new power sources (electricity/petrol) and different raw materials, these advantages were lost. Since the First World War Britain’s new industries have often focused on mass consumer demand like cars and electrical goods which grew up near concentrations of population such as the south east. All these factors combined meant that, while average unemployment before the First World War was lower in Scotland than in England, ever since that war, in both good years and bad, Scottish unemployment levels have always been higher. [48] In terms of unemployment, Northern England as a region has fared worse than Scotland, but of course it does not have a national consciousness to act as the focus for discontent.

Industrial decline can generate different reactions among workers – either towards nationalism, straightforward reformism or a combination of both. The trend in Scotland would at first be towards the latter, but this did not happen overnight or in one single leap. In 1914 the prospects for mass reformism in Scotland were poor. Just as it saw little of the new unionism of 1889, it largely missed out on the ‘labour unrest’ of 1910–14. [49] Political reformism also remained weak. In the December 1910 election, the last before the First World War, Labour took 3.6 percent of the Scottish vote and returned three MPs, while gaining 7 percent and 42 MPs in Britain as a whole. Factors which had made Scotland a backwater for militancy disappeared during the First World War and new ones emerged. But far from leading directly to reformism they led beyond it to revolutionary politics. Demand for heavy engineering products and ships gave workers in such industries bargaining strength which they used to create independent rank and file organisations. The strongest of these was the Clyde Workers’ Committee, which was also more politically advanced than similar bodies in England. [50] Credit for this latter feature belongs chiefly to John Maclean.

Maclean was undoubtedly the outstanding British Marxist of his day and recognised as such by Lenin and the Communist International. His major contribution was to denounce the First World War as an imperialist conflict. Maclean’s historical importance lies in the fact that he connected his internationalism with the Clydeside mass movement. However in 1919 the Clyde Workers’ Committee collapsed once the 40 hours strike to defend engineering jobs was lost. As the militants became unemployed, so Maclean’s base crumbled. By 1920 he was searching for ways to overcome the retreat. One possible choice was the patient building up of an organised revolutionary party on Bolshevik lines, the Communist Party of Great Britain which was founded that year. However Maclean, who was individually of greater stature than other Scottish revolutionaries like Gallacher, and who could have contributed so much to the Communist Party of Great Britain, refused to join the new party. Instead he searched for short cuts to surmount the difficulties. Contrary to what is argued by those claiming his mantle today, Scottish nationalism was but one of several programmes which he put forward in his final years. Others included campaigns on unemployment and British repression in Ireland. Maclean’s final conversion to a brand of revolutionary Scottish republicanism was therefore the product of frustration on the part of a great revolutionary. The Scottish Workers’ Republican Party (SWRP), which he founded in the last summer of his life to fight for this, had little success. At its height the new organisation stood in 12 seats in municipal elections during November 1923 and polled just 2.5 percent of the vote in Maclean’s native Glasgow. [51]

The defeat of the shop stewards’ movement and the impasse which Maclean had faced indicated the decline of revolutionary politics as a major pole of attraction. In contrast to the poor showing of Maclean’s SWRP in 1923, tens of thousands of workers had attended a Labour Home Rule rally at Glasgow Green three months previously. Mass reformism was now dominant. The working class supported Home Rule as part of Labour’s programme, but this did not involve separatist aspirations. The attitude of workers was demonstrated in a speech to Scottish Home Rule Association (SHRA) supporters during 1925, when Duncan Graham of the STUC said, ‘We are only asking for Scottish Home Rule to deal with Scottish domestic affairs. I am a Scotsman, but I am a British trade unionist. We are not fighting in sections but as a whole.’ [52]

Industrial decline and the origins of political nationalism

The origins of party political nationalism in the inter-war period are to be found in the same process of decline that produced mass reformism. SHRA supporters hoped Labour would carry through Home Rule legislation following the collapse of the Liberal Party. This belief was encouraged by Scottish Labour MPs like Maxton and Johnston, who sponsored unsuccessful Home Rule Bills. However, the Labour leadership never intended these to pass, despite protestations of sympathy. Its attitude was hardened by events in Ireland since 1913 which gave Home Rule dangerous implications for the future of the British state, anathema to a party which wanted to become its government. [53]

Frustration with Labour and continuing relative economic decline encouraged the formation of the National Party of Scotland (NPS) in 1928 to ‘secure self-government for Scotland with independent national status within the British groups of nations.’ [54] The class basis of the organisation was the small town petty bourgeoisie – local worthies, doctors and ministers. Around this core gathered figures from the Literary Renaissance such as MacDiarmid and ex-socialists like Cunninghame-Grahame, who now declared, ‘England can sink beneath the sea for all I care. Indeed I wish it would ...’ [55] The enemy was not the English ruling class, but simply the English. This position gathered little support and in the 1930s membership was only a few thousand. In 1934 the NPS became the SNP with the adhesion of the Scottish Party consisting of dissident Tories. The merger was secured by the expulsion of the left. At this point the appellation ‘Tartan Tories’ is at its most appropriate in describing the SNP.

The emergence of modern nationalism in the 30s was also aided by the Communist Party of Great Britain’s influence in Scotland’s labour movement. After having denounced nationalism as akin to fascism in the ‘third period’ of 1928–34, it was embraced during the popular front phase: ‘On the May Day march [1938] the Communists wore tartan sashes and carried banners showing Calgacus, Wallace and Bruce.’ [56] From 1937 it also engaged in discussions with the SNP with a view to setting up a Scottish Convention to promote Home Rule. [57] Such attitudes have been present in the STUC and wider labour movement ever since.

Failing to secure a real footing in either of the main contending classes the SNP was largely irrelevant. Most workers stayed with Labour, while for the industrial bourgeoisie it was still more important to remain within Britain. [58] The position changed little until the 1960s. In 1965 a book was published entitled The British Political Fringe, which bracketed the Scottish National Party in this category alongside the International Socialists and the National Front. [59] But by the time this book went on sale the SNP had left this company and was entering the mainstream of electoral politics. What led to this transformation?

The nationalist challenge to Labour

In 1961 the SNP polled 22 percent at a by-election and the following year came second to Labour with 23 percent. Between 1960 and 1968 SNP membership grew from 2,000 to 100,000 and in 1967 it won its first by-election victory, overturning a 10,000 Labour majority in Hamilton. Several factors led to this growth.

The most fundamental reason was the faltering of the post-war boom. Economic unevenness meant that Scotland never shared in the full benefits of the boom even at its height, and the long term decline of heavy industry continued to bring unemployment and emigration. This phenomenon was not unique. In 1968 Michael Kidron noted a nationalist resurgence throughout the developed world: ‘From Quebec in Canada to Wallonia in Belgium, from Scotland in Britain to Viscaya in Spain – dormant and dead nationalisms, regional and linguistic movements, are clambering out of the vortex, demanding the impossible from capitalism – an even distribution of wealth and power.’ [60]

Yet nationalism was not the inevitable response to quickening decline. That was determined by the alternatives on offer. As we have seen, the beginning of decline stimulated a reformist class consciousness and its organised expression in the Labour Party. That had been consolidated in the decades following the Second World War. By the 1960s Labour was the local political establishment in industrial centres. But complacency meant its party organisation was moribund and generally right wing. What added to disillusion with Labour was its conduct in power after 1964.

In addition to these political processes there were changes in the Scottish working class structure. A long term increase in white collar employment meant that a growing proportion of the workforce had not yet become unionised or identified with Labour’s reformism. These trends were exacerbated by the disappearance of inner city working class communities and the transfer of population to new towns like Livingston and peripheral housing estates around Edinburgh and Glasgow. In parallel to this, the SNP’s base began to shift from the traditional petty bourgeoisie towards the ‘new middle class’ of managers, middle range civil servants, media personnel and so on. These groups were frustrated by the fact that career opportunities were centralised in London and wished to have them available on a local basis. However, the dominance of Labour in Scottish politics meant that the SNP had to slant its arguments towards working class people. The result was a curious amalgam of nationalist and reformist politics. [61]

As ever Scottish nationalism was not confined to the ballot box. By this time it was having a significant impact on industrial struggle. In 1971 UCS signalled the beginning of the upturn in Britain. Unlike many of the struggles which followed it, the sit in was defeated. Part of the explanation for this is to be found in the way the STUC conducted the campaign, stressing the importance of the shipyard to the Scottish economy, and raising the largely irrelevant demand for a Scottish assembly instead of trying to gather support from other groups of workers in Scotland and England. This approach has been taken consistently by the STUC ever since.

In this period the SNP’s nationalist argument was assisted by the discovery of North Sea oil. This gave grounds for believing a Scottish state could be economically viable, and perhaps even more successful than in partnership with England. The SNP began to attract individuals from the big bourgeoisie, like Sir Hugh Fraser. [62]

When Labour was returned in 1974 its small majority made it seriously consider the electoral threat which Scottish nationalism posed. The outcome would be the Kilbrandon Report on devolution. Further to the left Tom Nairn argued that Britain’s national movements were the only force that could destroy the archaic and undemocratic state. [63] Nairn was an early convert to the Scottish Labour Party which Jim Sillars, Ayrshire’s Labour MP, formed in 1976 to take electoral advantage of nationalist sentiment. Sillars did not to seek support from the trade union movement and the SLP had no links with the organised working class as did Labour. The SLP at its peak had only 743 members. After some initial media interest, much of it generated by its journalist members, the SLP eventually disintegrated, with Sillars and other leading members joining the SNP in 1980. [64]

The 1974 Labour government was soon faced by economic crisis and a minority position in the Commons. It only survived by leaning on support successively from the Liberals, Ulster Unionists and finally the SNP. The Scotland and Wales Bill was introduced largely to placate the SNP. On 1 March 1979 the electorates of Scotland and Wales voted in a referendum over the setting up of elected devolved assemblies. But matters were not simple. A group of Labour MPs had amended the original bill so that it was only binding if 40 percent of both electorates voted yes, rather than a simple majority. Labour supporters of the amendment included left and right. Amongst those who campaigned for a no vote were then stalwarts of the Tribune Group Robin Cook and Neil Kinnock. The right tended to argue for the unity of the British state per se, while the left stressed that the unity of the labour movement required the unity of that state. [65] In Scotland, although 51.6 percent voted yes, this amounted to only 32.9 percent of the electorate, so the bill dropped. In revenge the SNP abandoned its abstentionist position in Parliament and voted with the Tories to bring Callaghan’s government down. [66]

One striking fact about the 1979 referendum in Scotland was that the majority did not vote at all. Ten years later the position has radically changed. The national question is now more urgent an issue in Scottish politics than before with the one clearly Unionist party – the Tories – suffering electoral humiliation in Scotland.

The national question under Thatcher

In the years of Tory government since the referendum Scottish nationalism has fed off the swing to ‘new realism’ not only in the Labour Party, but in the STUC and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Take the industrial front. Continuing the pattern established at UCS in 1971, there were a series of defensive disputes in declining industries, from the Lee Jeans occupation in 1981 through the miners’ strike to campaigns around Gartcosh steel works and Ravenscraig. In each union officials have stressed the need to win public support among all classes of Scots at the expense of building effective working class resistance.

This approach has not simply harmed Scottish workers. The first major confrontation of the miners’ strike was outside the Ravenscraig steel works, but Mick McGahey scaled down picketing on the grounds that the continued existence of the Scottish steel industry was threatened. Here Scottish nationalism did serve to undermine the unity of British workers as a whole. It is a brand of reformism, which like others expresses resistance to capitalist ideas, but also capitulation to them. Insofar as it expresses the unity of all Scots in counterposition to the unity of British workers it is a direct impediment to workers’ struggle.

At the 1987 election the Labour Party won 50 MPs and 42.4 percent of the vote in Scotland. The election result created an expectation that Labour with its massive majority would act to defend the Scottish people against the Tory attacks. The need became more urgent with the introduction of the poll tax during 1988, a year earlier than elsewhere. Despite considerable opposition from within its ranks, Labour soon made clear its intention to abide by the law. Labour controls the Scottish regions and these have implemented the tax with hardly a murmur. As a result the SNP was to christen its MPs ‘the feeble fifty’, because they could do nothing to stop a government which had no mandate in Scotland. As James Naughtie pointed out, this argument ‘was bound to have increasing resonance in a Scottish population perhaps tired of voting Labour ... and ignoring the Conservatives in large numbers, but getting nothing from it.’ [67] This prediction was confirmed by the SNP’s by-election victory at Govan in November 1988. From the same town hall that the Labour Party had broadcast its refusal to fight the poll tax two months previously, the result declared was that Jim Sillars had overturned a Labour majority of 19,500 with an astounding swing of 33.1 percent.

What did the SNP victory in Govan signify? Workers who voted SNP thought they were voting for a fighting alternative to Labour. However voting SNP does not have more radical implications than voting Labour. Both Labour and the SNP offer varieties of reformism from above. Of course revolutionaries prefer reformism from below. By involving workers in the experience of struggle they can more easily go beyond the original reformist demand to a general challenge to capitalism. Reformism from above is less favourable to this because it leaves workers as passive bystanders. But the SNP and Labour types of reformism from above differ from each other. The SNP, despite working class membership, is essentially a petty bourgeois organisation lacking direct labour movement links. Nor does it seek them. The Labour Party, however minimally, is linked through the union bureaucracy to the organised working class, and at least claims to be a party for workers’ interests. Therefore, in terms of class consciousness, for a worker class to vote for the SNP is to step back from voting with their class. It is in this sense that a vote for Labour Party is important.

The nationalist revival in Scotland was a late and specific regional manifestation of new realism. For the left in the 1970s nationalism had appeared as a substitute for the revolutionary destruction of the British state. Now it appeared, after years of downturn, as a substitute for reformist change during the 1980s. But the Govan victory has not been repeated. The SNP’s argument that Labour is electorally doomed because of Thatcher’s supposedly inbuilt majority in England has been undermined by a run of opinion polls favourable to Labour. Nevertheless the receding nationalist tide left behind far more clearly defined traces within the labour movement. The STUC and Labour Party argue for a Scottish Convention and stress that such a parliament would in itself be of benefit to Scottish workers. [68] The SNP has abandoned this because it advocates devolution not separation, but the former at the moment is clearly the more popular, even among SNP supporters. What will be the trends in nationalism in the future?


In political practice one must distinguish between matters of principle and of tactics. The right of the Scottish people to self-determination is a principle for socialists. But do we wish to see this right exercised to the point of secession? Formally the solution is simple. Scotland, as pointed out, is neither oppressed nor an oppressor. There is therefore no principle involved in either supporting or opposing secession.

The tactical question can only be answered by considering the concrete circumstances under which it is posed and the implications for the international class struggle. Take Ireland as a comparison. It is a principle for us that we support the abolition of the border, reunification and the expulsion of the British Army, even if this results in a united capitalist Ireland. Only the destruction of the Orange State will bring lasting unity between Protestant and Catholic workers. But no such materially based ideological divisions exist between Scottish, English and Welsh workers. Historically, workers in Scotland have advanced hand in hand with those south of the border, and it is in the interests of both groups to continue to struggle as part of the same movement. This is not the same as arguing for the unity of the British state.

First, the continued forcible incorporation of Northern Ireland in the ‘United Kingdom’ means that its very form is imperialist. If the Scottish people wish to break up this ancient oppressive apparatus, that would help the disintegration of the British state and encourage the oppressed of the world. However, the ‘break up of Britain’ scenario as advocated by Tom Nairn and others is not something we would actively campaign for. Nationalist movements are not a substitute for the working class.

Second, British nationalism poisons the working class with racism, and a spurious belief in the common interests of opposed classes. It, rather than Scottish nationalism, is the main enemy of the working class. To that extent self-determination for Scotland can undermine Great British national chauvinism.

Finally, ever since the birth of Labourism it has had an almost superstitious reverence for the institutions of the British state. This leads to an insistence that the unity of the working class depends on the unity of that state. Against this we say the unity of our class can only be maintained on a voluntary basis. For this to be the case, the option of separation must be available for Scottish workers. [69]

Since it became an important political issue in the 1960s, support for Scottish nationalism has ebbed and flowed. At the moment, when there is an increase in the level both of industrial struggle and of electoral support for the Labour Party, it is tempting to conclude that Scottish nationalism will become irrelevant in the face of a return to class politics. [70] But this sees the role of class struggle in immediately transforming workers’ consciousness too mechanically. The roots of Scottish nationalism lie deep – in relative economic decline, Labour Party failure and the remnants of a passive cultural identity. If Labour loses the next election, the SNP may seem to be the more serious threat to Tory rule. If, on the other hand, Labour wins, the condition of British capitalism will lead it to attack the working class and this may again revive SNP fortunes. The character of these developments will be conditioned by the class struggle.

Class struggle increases the possibility of developing class consciousness, but does not even lead inevitably to voting for working class parties. Under capitalism politics and economics are often divided in workers’ minds. This has been clearest in the case of white collar

trade unionism, which has often had to fight against Labour governments and Labour local councils. [71] The same argument applies to workers in Scotland generally, where Labour has been dominant in the major urban centres for decades, and they have the option of supporting the SNP which can pose as a radical alternative. Thus during the industrial upturn of 1969–74 the working class vote for the SNP increased dramatically, particularly amongst white collar workers like teachers amongst whom the political tradition of voting Labour has not developed. [72] This is why the active building of a genuine socialist leadership is so necessary.

The crisis of British capitalism continues and there is only one real solution to it. It is not found in the withdrawal of Scottish workers into some all class union with their bosses, or in the phoney unity of workers’ representatives in the British parliament, but in the united struggle of workers north and south.


1. J.V. Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, in Marxism and the National and Colonial Question, London, p. 8.

2. L.D. Trotsky, The Negro Question in America, Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, ed. G Breitman, New York 1978, p. 28. Interestingly, this was also the position taken by the Austro-Marxists, Karl Renner and Otto Bauer, although their political conclusions were quite different. See E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge 1990, pp. 7–8.

3. V.I. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, in Selected Works, Volume 1, Moscow 1975, pp. 579–580.

4. Even where there is oppression there is no question of supporting nationalist politics as such, only the strategic aim of liberation. It is still necessary to carry an argument about the class nature of the nation state, and the need for socialist methods of achieving and going beyond it.

5. P. Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, London 1974, pp. 128–142.

6. See for example, T.C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People, 1560–1830, Glasgow 1972, pp. 22–44.

7. This occurred when the military border extended from Hadrian’s Wall north to the Antonine Wall between the Forth and the Clyde. The archaeological evidence is discussed in G.S. Maxwell, The Romans in Scotland, Edinburgh 1989.

8. See J. Foster et al., Scottish Nationality and the Origins of Capitalism, in T. Dickson (ed.), Scottish Capitalism, London 1980, pp. 24–5, 31–7.

9. T.C. Smout, op. cit., p 27.

10. C. Harman, From Feudalism to Capitalism, International Socialism 2 : 45, Winter 1989, p. 37.

11. R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland, London 1970, p. 44.

12. For the importance of towns in these revolts, see M. Mollat and P. Wolff, The Popular Revolutions of the Late Middle Ages, London 1973, pp. 292–5 and Harman, op. cit., pp. 46–9.

13. V.G. Kiernan, Foreign Mercenaries and Absolute Monarchy, in T. Aston (ed.), Crisis in Europe, London 1965, p. 119 and P. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, London 1974, p. 142.

14. One example will show why. Before the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 the Presbyterians were entrenched in an absolutely impregnable position on the Doone Hill, but chose to throw away their advantage and advance down to the waiting English in the belief that God would ensure their victory. Cromwell, whose relationship with God was presumably closer, exclaimed that the Lord had delivered them into his hands. The Scots army was annihilated. See R. Mitchison, op. cit., pp. 230–1.

15. Col. John Jones quoted in C. Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, Harmondsworth 1969, p. 166.

16. T. Gallagher, Glasgow: The Uneasy Peace, Manchester 1987, p2.

17. The US before its civil war provides a parallel here. Like the Highlands, the Confederate States contained a backward mode of production linked to a foreign power, Britain, which threatened the more advanced North. See M. Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, London 1986, p. 12.

18. This argument was still relevant during the revolutions of 1848, when Marx argued that the struggle against absolutism took priority over the claims of particular nationalities, where their self-determination would have the effect of strengthening reaction, e.g. the Slovaks and the Gaels, as Marx called the Highlanders. What has caused confusion on this issue is Engels’ use of the term ‘non-historic nations’ to justify this position. This approach is unnecessary to the argument and has been rightly criticised by Roman Rosdolsky in Engels and the ‘Non-Historic’ Peoples: The National Question and the Revolutions of 1848, Glasgow 1986.

19. G.D.H. Cole and R. Postgate, The Common People, 1746–1946, London 1946, p. 5.

20. F. Engels, The Magyar Struggle, in K. Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Harmondsworth 1973, pp. 221–2.

21. Not all the peasants were physically evicted. Some were driven by hunger to join the growing industrial labour force of the Lowland towns. Many more crowded into boats for Canada and Australia. As James Hunter has made clear, some of the crofters did fight back, and it is one of the great lies of bourgeois historiography that they did not. But as Hunter also demonstrates, resistance was fragmented and the methods of riot or passive obstruction uncoordinated and ultimately doomed. J. Hunter, The Making of the Crofting Community, Edinburgh 1976, pp. 89–94.

22. What follows is largely taken from H.R. Trevor-Roper, The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition in Scotland’, in E.J. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983. But for Scotland’s place within the invention of tradition at a wider European level see D. Home, The Great Museum: The Re-presentation of History, London 1984, especially Section 3.

23. H.R. Trevor-Roper, op. cit., p26.

24. Ian Carter has noted that the most influential socialist histories which deal with this subject – Johnston’s The History of the Working Classes in Scotland and Hobsbawm’s Industry and Empire – account for this process by superimposing Marx’s account in Capital of the destruction of the English peasantry onto the situation in Scotland. In fact, his comments on the Duchess of Sutherland apart, Marx did not base his analysis of the primitive accumulation of capital on Scottish sources. These are drawn from the south east of England and the Midlands. Even if we exclude the Highlands from consideration because of their distinctive nature (see, J. Hunter, op. cit.), then it is clear that numerically significant numbers of peasant farmers continued until the end of the First World War, mainly in the north east. They were useful to the large capitalist farmers and landlords as a source of hired labour, for land reclamation, and to breed the high quality lean cattle that the farmers then sold to the larger capitalists – the former thereby bearing the cost of producing one of the latter’s main means of production. The end of this peasantry ‘as a class’ came after 1918 with the completion of land reclamation and mass importation of cheap cattle from abroad. Proletarianisation was the result. The process is captured in literary form in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s masterpiece, A Scots Quair. See I. Carter, The Scottish Peasantry, in R. Samuel (ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory, London 1981, pp. 85–91 and his major work Farm Life in North East Scotland, 1840–1914, Edinburgh 1979.

25. C. Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland 1914–1980, London 1981, p. 64.

26. R. Mitchison, op. cit., p. 345.

27. As Smout notes: ‘Most historians would regard the take-off to growth and continuous expansion in Scotland and in England as part of the same phenomenon, beginning around 1780 ... Why the 1780s? The question of the origins of the industrial revolution is one for British economic history, not for Scottish alone.’ T.C. Smout, op. cit., pp. 224, 230.

28. T.C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People, 1830–1950, Glasgow 1987, p. 237.

29. Their chief ideologists, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, were aware of the backwardness that links with an advanced capitalism helped them escape from. The Scottish enlightenment was therefore a conscious rejection of parochialism and a narrow Scottish viewpoint in favour of cosmopolitan thinking. It was at the pinnacle of the entire European enlightenment, because its leaders, such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, were trying to theorise their own historical and economic break from backwardness in a materialist way.

30. Some attempt was made to argue that the ruling class in England were descended from the Normans who invaded in 1066, and that they consequently represented a foreign oppressor over the native Saxon, but this was only an undercurrent in contemporary radical thought. See C. Hill, The Norman Yoke, in Puritanism and Revolution, Harmondsworth 1985.

31. According to Francis Place, the latter had 12 members! The exact figures are disputed, but internal evidence would suggest these relative proportions. See H.W. Meikle, Scotland and the French Revolution, Glasgow 1912, p. 192.

32. See P. Beresford Ellis and S. MacA’Ghobhainn, The Scottish Insurrection of 1820, London 1970, p. 292.

33. The proclamation itself may have been a government provocation, but the response it evoked was genuine enough.

34. See T.C. Smout, Century, op. cit., pp. 136–7. Edward Thompson also reports a ‘monster’ procession in Sheffield following Peterloo, during which the bands played Scots Wha’hae. The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth 1968, p. 760.

35. In a study of the movement in Paisley, which had been one of the radical centres, Clarke and Dickson point out that: ‘Although capitalist crisis manifested itself in the local economy with increasing severity, the absence of a large factory proletariat and the underlying fragility of the labour movement attendant on the survival of the handloom weavers into the 1840s, disarmed the more radical Chartist leaders at this key juncture in the development of working class political activity.’ T. Clarke, and T. Dickson, Class and Class Consciousness in Early Industrial Capitalism: Paisley 1770–1850, in T. Dickson (ed.), Capital and Class in Scotland, Edinburgh 1982, p. 53.

36. See R. Challinor, Peter Murray McDouall and ‘Physical Force’ Chartism, International Socialism 2 : 12, Spring 1981.

37. B. Lenman, An Economic History of Modern Scotland, London 1977, p. 192.

38. Ibid., pp. 173, 280, see also J.G. Kellas, Modern Scotland, London 1968, p. 244.

39. It has been argued that the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights founded in 1853 deserves credit for this. Donaldson writes that since then ‘... there has been a series of waves of unrest in which the Union has been attacked and challenged.’ G. Donaldson and others, Scottish Devolution: the historical background, in J.N. Wolfe (ed.), Government and Nationalism in Scotland, Edinburgh 1969, p. 4. But the NAVSR was dominated by the Tory literary establishment of Edinburgh, who were not interested in attacking or challenging anything, but were rather concerned to revive the supposed glories of Scotland’s past in the manner of their mentor, Sir Walter Scott. Scott himself was considerably more realistic in his assessment of Scottish history, as his great novel about the revolution, Old Mortality, demonstrates.

40. See M. Keating and D. Bleiman, Labour and Scottish Nationalism, London and Basingstoke 1979, p. 27.

41. See F. Reid, Keir Hardie, the Making of a Socialist, London 1978, p. 78.

42. D. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, Manchester 1983, p. 155.

43. Merthyr Tydfil Election Bulletin, 18 January 1910.

44. Our emphasis.

45. L.D. Trotsky, Where is Britain Going? in Collected Writings and Speeches on Britain, Volume 2, London 1974, Ch. 1, pp. 39–40.

46. S. Pollard, The Development of the British Economy, 1914–1980, London 1983, p. 351.

47. R. Saville (ed.), The Economic Development of Modern Scotland, Edinburgh 1985, p. 80.

48. See for example Kellas, op. cit., p. 273.

49. In 1911 John Maclean vented his impatience with the lack of progress in Scotland during a visit to striking Welsh miners: ‘To the disgust of the strikers they had learnt that the Scottish delegates to the last conference of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain had been their worst enemies, and this after the Welsh men offered to strike about two years ago to help their Scottish comrades. Now, as a Scot, I have felt the disgrace here in Wales as keenly as if I were a miner ... It is my fervent wish that at least Scotland will not distinguish itself as a blackleg country.’ Justice, 29 July 1911.

50. Over the last decade a revisionist school has emerged which argues that the importance of ‘Red Clydeside’ is largely mythical, and that the main achievement was the election of a number of Clydeside Labour MPs in 1922 and Wheatley’s Housing Act of 1924. This underestimates the real potential that the rank and file movement showed previously, but which was broken in the post-war period. See Harvie, op. cit., pp. 15–23 and in particular, I. McLean, The Legend of Red Clydeside, Edinburgh 1983.

51. Glasgow Herald, 7 November 1923.

52. Quoted in B.A. Abrams, Scottish Nationalism and the British response: a critical analysis of the devolution debate, PhD thesis, Ann Arbor 1987, p. 75. Our emphasis.

53. In fact a commitment to Home Rule remained an official part of Labour’s programme until 1958, but it was merely a token commitment.

54. Quoted in A. Marwick, Scottish Nationalism since 1918, in K. Miller (ed.), Memoirs of a Modern Scotland, London 1970, p. 16.

55. Quoted in Abrams, op. cit., p. 90.

56. J. Brand, The National Movement in Scotland, London 1979, p. 229.

57. For a discussion of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s attitude to nationalism in the 1930s see H. McShane and J. Smith, No Mean Fighter, London 1978, pp. 224–7.

58. A brief success towards the end of the Second World War was mostly an expression of dissatisfaction with Labour and the coalition government. In England, where there was no nationalist alternative, the Commonwealth Party, a left wing protest group, attracted a similar level of support. In 1945 the nationalists took two seats. But the end of the decade saw the swan song of Home Rule in the Scottish Convenant movement. Despite two million signatures it had no lasting impact.

59. G. Thayler, The British Political Fringe, London 1965.

60. M. Kidron, Western Capitalism since the War, Harmondsworth 1970, pp. 164–5.

61. Because they were a nationalist party they could do this in a way that the SDP, which was also based on the new middle class, found impossible.

62. Welcomed by the left at the time as proving the ‘Tartan Tory’ nature of the SNP, such defections by members of the capitalist class were actually rare and short lived. Although the SNP in power would certainly act in the interests of capital, it does not appeal to capital directly, and it is not members from that class who constitute its membership.

63. See in particular, The Twilight of the British State in The Break-Up of Britain, London 1977. Nairn’s views on Scottish nationalism began by being extremely hostile (see Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism, in Miller (ed.), op. cit.). His support for it is in some ways simply another substitute for the working class, which is a characteristic trait of New Left Review. This may have been partly due to the retreat of the working class after 1974, but is probably more the result of his obsession with the supposedly unfulfilled nature of the British bourgeois revolution which eventually led him to the absurdities of The Enchanted Glass.

64. See H.M. Drucker, Breakaway: The Scottish Labour Party, Edinburgh 1978.

65. In Wales the results were: ‘Yes’ – 12 percent; ‘No’ – 47 percent; Abstentions – 41 percent.

66. The majority of the left were favourable to devolution. The Communist Party of Great Britain intermittently supported devolution since the Popular Front in 1935, adopting ‘national self-determination’ in 1964. The IMG supported devolution. Militant Tendency switched from abstention to support in 1979, largely because defeat would threaten the survival of the Labour government. The 1978 SWP annual conference adopted abstention, contrary to the advice of the Central Committee, on the grounds that it was irrelevant and a distraction from the class struggle. In fact, it was the SWP which made itself irrelevant to workers.

67. J. Naughtie, Labour, 1979–1988, in I. Donnachie, C. Harvie and I.S. Wood, Forward! Labour Politics in Scotland, 1888–1988, Edinburgh 1989, p. 167.

68. A recent STUC document argues that the parliament would ‘not be one which is “independent” and rule a separate Scotland ... whilst the powers proposed for the Parliament are considerable, the UK Parliament will continue to be sovereign in a number of areas ...’ S. Boyle et al., Scotland’s Economy. Claiming the Future, London 1989, pp. 51–2.

69. It is possible to conceive of scenarios where our position would have to change. In a situation where the working class in Scotland struggled to achieve independence, the ruling class might exercise a sufficient degree of repression (military occupation etc.) which would transform Scotland into an oppressed nation. Under such circumstances we would have to argue for secession as a principle. At the other extreme, if faced with an all British rise in the level of class struggle, sections of the ruling class might themselves propose some form of separation in order to divide and contain the struggle. In such a case it would be madness for revolutionaries to call for secession. We find neither of these scenarios likely, but we mention them to show the parameters between which our current position is placed.

70. For example, writing in 1968, Nigel Harris said: ‘There are, of course, some kinds of regional conflicts still. Welsh and Scottish nationalisms are currently embodying certain regional demands. But these are only possible on the margins when social and class conflict is relatively mild. When class conflict rises it tends to eliminate much of the significance of regional clash in modern developed countries. Rather than Welsh employers and workers combining to fight London, Welsh, Yorkshire, Scottish and other miners combine to fight the National Coal Board, part of an employing class which includes Welsh, Scottish and so on employers.’ N. Harris, China: Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, or a Host of Dragons without a Leader, International Socialism 1 : 35, Winter 1968/9, p. 12.

71. C. Harman, The Working Class after the Recession, in A. Callinicos and C. Harman, The Changing Working Class, London 1987, pp. 69–73.

72. J. Brand, op. cit., pp. 146–7.

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