frontline issue 4

Scotland, Devolution and the National Question

The fight against the poll tax laid the path to the SSP.

The article by Neil Davidson and Donny Gluckstein published in Frontline 3 has provoked some debate. We are publishing below two responses to it. The first is an article by Keef Tomkinson of the Editorial Board of Frontline. The second is a letter from London socialist Graham Cee.

One of the great strengths of the Scottish Socialist Party, and a deciding factor for many people who have joined it, is the party's commitment to and promotion of diversity. Platform rights and clear democratic structures mean that debate is encouraged throughout the party.

A prevalent topic of discussion within the SSP has been over the national question, covering the issues of devolution, independence, Scottish identity and the future of Great Britain. Since its inception in 1998 the SSP has called for an independent socialist Scotland and the ISM has consistently argued that this is the correct strategy for this period.

The recent decision of the Scottish aggregate of the Socialist Workers' Party to join the SSP represented an influx of new activists with a different attitude to the national question. Before unity discussions with the SWP began, the organisation had been opposed to any project based on Scottish independence. Since joining in May the issue has simmered on the back burner with support being given to the 'break up of the United Kingdom.'

Over the coming months the ISM will take this debate to the entire membership of the SSP. The purpose of this article is to reply to Neil Davidson and Donny Gluckstein's article, 'A Difference In Degree' from issue 3 of Frontline. Their article provides as good a starting point as any for a discussion on the national question, as it clearly represents the thinking of the leadership and much of the membership of the SWP.


I hope to point out several misinterpretations contained in their analysis of recent and present political developments in Scotland, and to show that these errors affect their conclusions on the future political landscape of Scotland and the SSP's place within that.

When it comes to analysing the Scottish political scene it is important that the differences and new possibilities brought about by devolution are examined but not exaggerated. At the beginning of their article Davidson and Gluckstein hold up certain aspects of the new parliament's work as advances. While it is true that the Scottish Executive has been impelled to make concessions on a number of questions by the different political climate in Scotland, it would be wrong to exaggerate the actual content of many of these concessions. The McCrone report into teachers' pay and conditions may have received a good press and the backing of the union leadership, but when has that ever meant a real success for workers? In reality teachers are unhappy at being offered a 35-hour week whilst receiving an increase in their tasks, meaning that these two aspects of the report are incompatible.

The scrapping of upfront student fees was also hailed as a step forward. It is true that Scottish students no longer pay fees when they enter university, but what awaits them when they leave is a graduate tax. A free education should be just that, but in Scotland parents and students still have to foot the bill. Indeed two key aspects of student poverty have been ignored by the Scottish Executive. Firstly, the extents to which student loans and part-time jobs have replaced grants as the way students support themselves at university. Secondly, the demand from universities and students to increase funding for already limited educational facilities. Under the new system, money raised from the graduate tax will be the source of extra funds. But students will have to wait another four years for that 'investment' to arrive.

No one could be against free personal care for the elderly. But the fact is that the Scottish Executive made this populist move without considering how to pay for it. It now transpires that Scotland's First Minister, Henry McLeish, has gone cap in hand to Gordon Brown to ask for the finance. The inability of the Scottish parliament to raise this money itself reveals the fundamental limitations of a devolution settlement, which left Scotland with a parliament reliant on a grant from the Westminster treasury.

The writers are correct to say that the parliament has benefited the SSP greatly. Holyrood has given Tommy Sheridan and the party a superb platform from which to promote the ideas of radical socialism. However, the parliament is still in its infancy, and as can be seen in several opinion polls, it has still to convince many Scots that it is having a direct effect on their lives. What we are seeing in Edinburgh are shards of potential: not so much the potential of the devolved parliament itself, but its limits and the opportunities an independent parliament would bring to Scotland.


The above points could be construed as a simple difference of opinion on the achievements of the new parliament. But what is really important is that the reasons for Scotland moving towards devolution and full nationhood are understood. Davidson and Gluckstein open up this side of the debate with an attack on the 'left nationalist' idea that, 'up here [in Scotland] we are comparatively more democratic and socialist than people in England and Wales.'

They dispute this theory, claiming there is no evidence for it, that it implies English and Welsh workers are happy with New Labour and that it gives the Scottish electorate 'what it wants and deserves.' I would argue that the last two implications are without foundation.

In the first place, workers in England and Wales face the same attacks from New Labour as their Scottish counterparts and are similarly fighting back. Secondly, far from the Scottish people getting what they wanted with devolution, they have not been slow to criticise the limits of the new parliament and its lack of transparency.

Davidson and Gluckstein's critique of the left nationalist discourse hints that it is used by sections of the Scottish political world. The reality is that it is a fundamentally flawed and largely discredited argument. It is not accepted by the SSP, SNP, Scottish trade unions or academia in Scotland. While of course in principle all political arguments must be examined, in reality why spend energy challenging ideas which hold absolutely no credibility? This reflects a problem from which the British Left has suffered for many years - a dogmatic need to attack any ideas smelling of nationalism, even if the reality of those ideas is questionable. This says more about those criticising the ideas than it does about the ideas themselves.

Even though I agree with them that the left nationalist approach is mistaken, their critique reveals further errors of analysis. A problem arises when the anti poll tax campaign is mentioned. The writers initially infer that the poll tax was only beaten due to the English campaign and riots. However, the poll tax was defeated due to a mass working class campaign, which began in Scotland and spread south when the tax was introduced there. That campaign crippled Margaret Thatcher's government and led directly to the defeat of the tax and the resignation of Thatcher. It could be argued that the riots hastened the victory, but without the huge non-payment campaign it is unlikely that the tax would have so convincingly defeated.

The fact that this British-wide campaign is used to show the weaknesses of a Scottish way forward is a second mistake. What that period also reflected was the undemocratic and unitary nature of the British state. The poll tax began a year earlier in Scotland and therefore, as mentioned above, the campaign to defeat it began north of the border. One million Scottish people refused to pay the tax and mass protests were held. With the exception of the Tories, all of Scotland's political groups opposed the tax (although only Militant and the SNP supported non-payment).

Yet the demands of the Scottish people were ignored and the poll tax was only abolished when the all-British campaign swept it away. Yes, that represented a great victory for people all over Britain. But at the same time it represented another crack in the Union. The undemocratic centralised power structure of Britain was once again starkly revealed at a time when the legitimacy of Tory rule in Scotland was already being seriously questioned.


A more significant problem with the writers' criticisms is over the idea that Scots are more socialist than people in the rest of Britain. It would be wrong to portray Scottish workers as qualitatively different from their English counterparts. However, it is hard to deny that there are major differences between the two countries, in terms of the structure and consciousness of the working class.

In Scotland four-fifths of the population live in the central belt. This concentration is due to the migration of workers from rural areas of Scotland and from Ireland who sought employment at the turn of the 19th century. Rapid industrialisation brought together a population that was overwhelmingly working-class and became unionised and strongly influenced by the ideas of socialism. Indeed John MacLean, the first Scottish political leader to demand a Scottish Workers' Republic, was the son of poor Highland immigrants who came to seek work in Glasgow, where MacLean's political development took place.

An environment was created where workers' struggles were closely linked and experiences shared. In recent times the central belt has experienced major job losses and an increase in poverty and deprivation. However, working-class identity is still strong and support for socialist ideas remains firm.

The class composition of Scottish society makes it more open to socialist ideas than England. Furthermore, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, historically, Scotland as a whole has a more radical tradition than England. This tradition exists even in areas that are not especially working-class, such as the Highlands, and helps to explain the progress of the SSP outside the central belt.


When the development of Scotland's socialist forces is taken together with these demographic, geographic and historical factors it is possible to trace the advances which have led to Scotland having one united socialist party, the SSP. The joint work and relationships that were built during the battle against the poll tax set the Scottish Left on a course which would eventually enable the creation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1996 and then of the SSP in 1998. In that period the Scottish Left showed itself to have a higher understanding of the need for unity than its southern counterparts and more importantly, the confidence to follow that understanding through to its logical conclusion.

Developments in Scotland can be compared to the experience of the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales, which have reached a key point in their history. It has been claimed that the Socialist Alliances are merely two years behind the SSP in terms of organisation. However, especially looking at the attitudes of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers' Party, it would appear that the unity of the General Election campaign was seen as an advanced election pact rather than a step towards further integration. Many Socialist Alliance branches have slowed to a halt as many members regress back into their own parties. To understand the present and future role of the SSP in Scotland it is vital to appreciate the various forces, which have made the development of the Left so different in Scotland and England.


How do Gluckstein and Davidson account for devolution? They point to the strengthening of Scottish national consciousness over the last twenty years and the contradictions of New Labour's responses to it. It would be fair to say that the writers have great difficulty dealing with the idea of Scottish national identity. Scotland's national consciousness is portrayed as anything but progressive. It is anti-British, anti-Tory and anti-New Labour. Those notions are reflected in their article.

Furthermore it is claimed that the high level of national consciousness has never developed into political support for independence. That is only correct if the definition of political support for independence is extremely narrow. The SNP has never won a majority of votes in any national election, although devolution has seen its electoral support rise. However, support for the idea of an independent Scotland has always been higher than support for the SNP. It is well known that many New Labour and Liberal voters are not opposed to independence. What has hindered the growth of full support for independence is the limited vision of an independent Scotland on offer from the SNP. Many people do not think the SNP can deliver the Scotland they wish to see. This has implications for the SSP. We have to respond to the development of Scotland's national consciousness by giving it a clear class dimension. Since the late 1980s large sectors of the Scottish working class have come to the conclusion that Britain, as a political entity cannot start to solve the social and economic problems of Scotland. The ideas of devolution and independence have taken on a new meaning and offered a way for decisions to be made in Scotland by the Scottish people. This process has been reflected in working-class support for Scottish Militant Labour, the SSA and the SSP. The huge growth in the strength and popularity of the SSP could not have occurred without that change in working-class opinion.

However, for Davidson and Gluckstein the idea that Scottish consciousness may be pro-democracy or even pro-socialist, is not even considered. Their analysis of the 1997 referendum on devolution reflects this. Their view is that the Scottish electorate voted 'Yes, Yes' as an anti-Tory vote and a defence against domination from New Labour in London. Anybody who spent time campaigning for a 'Yes' vote will know that such a view only accounts for a minority of the voters. Since the establishment of the Constitutional Convention in 1988, which brought together most forces in favour of change, Scottish voters had become well versed in the arguments for devolution. The majority voted to gain decision-making powers and take control of aspects of their lives, which were previously decided in committees in London. The 'Yes, Yes' vote was a positive vote and not a negative one as implied by Davidson and Gluckstein.

Similarly they accuse New Labour of pandering to Scottish national consciousness through devolution. 'Pandering' is a negative word and seems to indicate that the Scots are being indulged like a spoilt child. The reality is that New Labour realised that they could no longer defend the British state, as it existed. So as not to be acting against working-class opinion they jumped ship and 'led' the campaign for a devolved parliament. It was a reactive measure and one which has since caused them difficulties.

Davidson and Gluckstein close their article with two warnings. One reminds the reader that Westminster still controls areas like defence, drugs classification and general taxation. The other warns of the dangers of becoming parochial by concentrating on national affairs and points to the anti-globalisation movement for inspiration. The first warning is formally correct, but misses the point. The SSP should not passively accept that situation. Without demands for autonomy from Westminster, Scotland would not have a parliament today. In line with its pro-independence position, the SSP must demand that all powers are transferred to Scotland.

As for the second warning, again their understanding contains errors. The anti-globalisation movement is international in character but its components do not fundamentally reject local issues. In Glasgow activists who went to Prague and Genoa were also active in the now famous campaign to save a local swimming pool from closure. In Denmark activists who protested in Gothenburg also campaign to get cars out their city centres.

As Murray Smith said in his article on internationalism in Frontline 2, 'the process [of building socialism] will begin by the working class coming into power within the framework of national states' the revolution may be international in content but it will be national in form.' Socialists would of course be wrong to concentrate solely on national issues. But it would be a form of inverted parochialism to ignore struggles of the working class, which exist within a national dimension. It is too abstract and dogmatic to simply see workers as members of a global working class. Paradoxically, that can only lead to the further atomisation of the individual. The reality is that we all bring unique national and cultural experiences to the international class struggle. This view is in line with the need to build future international links and organisations based on respecting national differences rather than on promoting a kind of chauvinist international purity.

The 'slippery-slope' idea that devolution would make independence inevitable is correct in a sense. It is hard to imagine any situation where the working class of Scotland would demand the rebuilding of a unitary British state. The next ten years offer a prospect of New Labour hegemony at Westminster whilst the Scottish parliament is likely to be controlled by a Lib-Lab alliance or by the SNP. The ISM should continue to show political leadership on this issue and make sure that the SSP maintains its demand for an independent socialist Scotland that rejects narrow nationalism and promotes a vision of working class empowerment and progress to the rest of the globe.

I believe that Davidson and Gluckstein's article represents a form of analysis, which has changed little for many years and fails to understand the forces at work within the Scottish working class. Their examination of Scottish national consciousness, socialist organisation and the development of Scottish politics in recent years, is driven by the need to combat ideas which do not fit in with their present perspectives on socialism in Britain, Europe and the world.