Elections for the Scottish Parliament take place next May. Recent opinion polls suggest that 51 percent of Scots support independence and that 36 percent of them would vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP) against 29 percent for Labour.
It is tempting for socialists to uncritically welcome these figures as a blow against the Empire—given that “Britishness” is currently being used as an ideological weapon against Muslims, and Britain is currently using actual weapons against Afghans and Iraqis.
But more analysis is needed. Socialists support Scots being able to choose whether or not they want to be part of Britain (the “right of self-determination”). There is, however, only one serious reason why socialists should support, or at any rate not oppose, independence being that choice.
Britain is an imperialist state at war, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
A referendum in these circumstances would effectively be a judgement on Britain’s role in the New World Order, and New Labour’s record more generally.
In this context, there would be a strong case for refusing to vote for the continued existence of the British state. But note that this is quite different from actively supporting the dissolution of Britain on a nationalist basis.
In the intoxicated rhetoric of much of the Scottish left, secession is seen as inherently progressive, but a degree of sobriety would be helpful here.
When Gordon Brown extols the joys of Britishness, he is not expressing the economic needs of the British ruling class so much as the electoral needs of the Labour Party, whose re-election at Westminster depends on its Scottish MPs.
The British bourgeoisie (capitalist class) is by no means as obsessed with the constitutional form of the existing nation state as the pro-independence wing of the Scottish left. The former are interested in maintaining their class power—the national context through which they do so is less important to them.
And they might be prepared to accept independence. Why?
First, independence might contribute to stability. The prospect of the debate on the Scottish national question becoming a permanently destabilising feature of British politics might make independence attractive to settle the issue.
Second, it would not constitute a major problem for them. Claims that globalisation is reducing the autonomy of states are undoubtedly exaggerated, but not completely false.
And in this respect globalisation simply intensifies the pressures that world markets have always exercised over even moderate reforming regimes.
Third, some bourgeois ideologues see advantages in independence. The Economist has been repeating for years that, in capitalist terms, “standing on its own two feet” would be an exemplary experience for Scotland.
The ex-Tory, now SNP-supporting, historian Michael Fry has recently restated the case in Prospect magazine.
Scottish independence is something that the British capitalist class could easily live with. Which small country is Scotland supposed to emulate?
The Scandinavian states where social democracy is in meltdown and racism on the rise? Ireland with an economy built on luxuriant tax breaks for the corporations and crippling indirect taxation for the working class?
But, the argument goes, if Scotland seceded on a left wing basis, say with a majority of Solidarity, Scottish Socialist Party, Green and Labour left MSPs in the government, would this not pose a challenge to capital? Here we reach the crux of the argument.
For some socialists the demand for independence reflects an absolute pessimism—of the sort that became quite common during the 1980s—about the possibility of the working class movement reviving across Britain.
But if we effectively write off the English working class, then grand sounding declarations about the “destruction of the British state” lead, at the very least, to encouraging dangerous illusions in a Scottish reformist road to socialism.
Even if a majority of MSPs were socialists, an independent Scottish Parliament will no more be able to introduce socialism than the Westminster parliament—and it has had over a hundred years of failure behind it.
I suspect that what is involved here is the belief that Scottish secession will leave us with a new “socialist” state apparatus. It will not. The state would not be destroyed simply by transferring its functions from London to Edinburgh, any more than it was destroyed after these functions transferred from London to Dublin in 1922.
Grandiose comparisons with Latin America are irrelevant. The point about Venezuela and Bolivia is not that they are “independent”, but that the level of class struggle there is rather higher than is currently the case in Scotland and that this has been expressed electorally.
Consequently, to even raise the scenario of a left wing breakaway is to reveal its unreality. It would only happen in conditions of massively heightened class struggle, but in what possible circumstances would this take place in Scotland and not the rest of Britain?
And if the main reason why Scots are attracted to independence is precisely because it promises a road to socialism supposedly blocked in England and Wales, why would they embrace it at the very point when this appeared to be happening across Britain as a whole?
The only conditions under which the scenario is possible are the same ones that would render it irrelevant.
Neil Davidson is a member of Solidarity: Scotland’s Socialist Movement, and the SWP. He writes in a personal capacity.