frontline issue 3

A difference of degree

The following article by Neil Davidson and Donny Gluckstein appeared in the June 2001 issue of Socialist Review, monthly journal of the Socialist Workers' Party. Frontline would not agree with some of the opinions expressed in this article but we are reprinting it as a contribution to the debate on the relationship between Scotland and the rest of Britain since devolution and on its consequences for socialists.

When the Scottish parliament opened on July 1, 1999 there was much reference to history. This was the first Scottish parliament since the feudal Estates were dissolved at the Union of 1707, and the first democratic parliament ever. The anthem of the opening ceremony was Robert Burns's radical verse 'A Man's a Man For a' That'.

During the referendum campaign Blair suggested the parliament would be no more than a glorified 'parish council'. But during the last two years the Scottish parliament and its executive have taken steps which have excited great interest elsewhere in Britain. There is the Scottish teachers' pay deal - an enquiry backed a 23 per cent pay rise over three years and fewer class contact hours. English and Welsh unions are now demanding the same. Another example is in the civil service. A recent three-year deal for their members in the Scottish executive, worth 25 percent overall with a '2,000 increase in starting salary, is held up by PCS union officials as a model for the rest of the country. At the recent NUS conference delegates were fascinated to hear how a scheme brought in following the Cubie report has abolished upfront tuition fees for Scottish students. Pensioners south of the border can cast envious glances northwards now their Scottish counterparts have been promised that the cost of their personal care in homes will be met.

Opponents of Section 28 wonder why it has been abolished in Scotland, despite a far more serious campaign for retention than in England and Wales. Supporters of the Socialist Alliance, outraged at the failure of New Labour, look forward to the day when they will have a representative at Westminster like Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan. He has been able to introduce a bill in the Scottish parliament for the abolition of poindings and warrant sales, the hated system under which the goods of working-class people in debt are sold off to pay their creditors. Sheridan himself provided the most enduring image of the Scottish parliament by giving the clenched fist salute at his inauguration. A recent opinion poll found him to be the best known Scottish politician with the highest recognition rating.

So what is going on? One possible answer would be that the voice of the Scottish people has been heard and these changes are the result. Of course they are popular. But it would be wrong to think, on left nationalist lines, that up here we are comparatively more democratic and socialist than people in England and Wales. This is mistaken on three counts. Firstly, there is no evidence for it. Take the poll tax. Although it was both introduced and opposed first in Scotland, it was beaten in England by a more united, not to say riotous, campaign. Today it would be hard to sustain an argument that the Scottish teachers' union, the EIS, is in any way more militant than the NUT, or that the Scottish NUS or PCS are more active than further south. Scottish pensioners have organised, but they do not stand out in the general movement across Britain. Secondly, the left nationalist view implies that English and Welsh voters must be happy with unadulterated Blairism, teacher shortages, tuition fees and pensioner poverty. Finally, it suggests that the Scottish political system gives the electorate what it wants and what it deserves.

General strikes

Parliamentary democracy was never introduced or extended without a struggle. A series of general strikes between 1886 and 1913 won the vote for the Belgian working class. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s secured it for black people in the American South. But even so, the electoral system (at Westminster and Holyrood) is specifically designed to minimise the influence of working people, not meet their wishes. Many of the most important decisions are not taken by governments, but by corporations and financial institutions, and are therefore not subject to voting. As Lenin put it. 'The more highly democracy is developed, the more the bourgeois parliaments are subjected by the stock exchange and the bankers.' The key functions of the capitalist state (the judiciary, police, army and civil service) are outside the democratic process. Moreover, as the Whig historian Lord Macaulay put it, the best policy for the capitalist ruling class is to 'reform that you may preserve'. The ruling class can best legitimate and justify its authority, and so maintain its existence, by giving the impression of popular democracy. Legitimacy for the system comes from letting people vote freely. This has real consequences, and what is going on in Scotland is an example. It is the product of two processes - the strengthening of Scottish national consciousness during the 1980s and 1990s, and the contradictions of turning New Labour ideology into practice in the Scottish context.

In most material respects Scotland is not significantly different from England. The Scots have a high degree of national consciousness, but for the majority this has never been transformed into support for Scottish nationalism as a political movement. The reason for this, which also makes the situation still more complex, is the fact that the Scottish identity was largely shaped after the Act of Union - that is, within the context of the British state. It was only after 1707, in reality after 1746, that the divisions between the Highlands and the Lowlands were overcome, and a unified Scottish nation could emerge. But because it did so as part of another nation ' Britain - the Scots inherited a dual national identity. The political implications of this are twofold.

On the one hand, most Scots have tended to see politics in a British context, not simply because the existence of the British state made this inevitable, but because in this respect the British side of their dual identity has been dominant. The British aspect of Scottish national identity has no fixed political content - it has embraced both support for British imperialism and united British working class action. On the other hand, the strength of Scottish national identity proper means that events which would be seen as straightforward class issues elsewhere in Britain, such as factory closures, are almost always treated as 'national'. Again, the implications of this are deeply contradictory. During the 1980s and 1990s, as a result of the perceived illegitimacy of Tory rule (after 1987 they only had 10 out of 72 Scottish seats at Westminster, but continued to rule Scotland), national consciousness became associated with opposition to Thatcherism, and with social democratic attitudes more generally. At the same time, this often expressed itself in deeply divisive campaigns to save 'Scottish' steel, coal and textiles instead of a united British campaign.

It was into this mess of national contradictions, from which the Tories had been electorally obliterated, that New Labour took office on May 2, 1997. Part of Blair's modernisation project applied to the apparently safe and 'classless' process of changing constitutional arrangements, such as House of Lords reform, a mayor and assembly for London, and devolution for Scotland and Wales.

A strong Scottish parliament

Scottish devolution was slightly different from the rest, however. A second question was added to the referendum asking voters to say whether the parliament should have 'tax varying' - which effectively meant tax raising - powers. Blair apparently expected the hogs to vote with their wallets and against the second part, but a 61.5 percent poll produced 74 percent for the parliament and 63 percent for 'tax varying' powers. Most Scots voters seem to have treated the referendum as a continuation of the general election - a means of punishing the Tories, who campaigned for a no vote. For some it was also an opportunity to show their suspicion of New Labour - a strong Scottish parliament, they reasoned, might act as a defence against more than one political party.

Stuck with a parliament more powerful than he would have wished, Blair imposed an electoral system which supplemented the usual 'first past the post' system with 'list MSPs' elected on a proportional representation basis, albeit on the most undemocratic model available. Although this made it possible for Tommy Sheridan to be elected, it favoured the larger parties and was specifically designed to make a coalition with the Liberal Democrats virtually inevitable, thus weakening Labour's trade union and working class links (and providing a ready scapegoat for policy failures). It also allowed the electoral resurrection of several Scottish Tory MSPs after their extinction in the 1997 general election.

Following the May 1999 elections the SNP became the official opposition to the Labour/Liberal Democrat government within the parliament. This, more than any other factor, has driven New Labour policy in Scotland. In order to outmanoeuvre the SNP, to make devolution rather than independence the last stage of constitutional change, the parliament and executive must be seen to pursue their own policies. In order to defeat Scottish nationalism New Labour panders to Scottish national consciousness.

This, then, is the core reason for the Scottish difference. It has produced a series of discrete token gestures rather than the beginning of a golden age of reformism. Moreover, they also contain an inbuilt contradiction, which both the Tories and the SNP have been only too pleased to point out. For devolution to work, the Scottish parliament must show that it is independent of Blair and Westminster. But the more it demonstrates this independence, the more pressure there will be for it to go further.

Holyrood offers us a number of opportunities. Its existence provides a target for demonstrations and lobbying which is considerably easier to get to than Westminster! (And, unlike Westminster, you can actually demonstrate directly outside the parliament building.) It has already proved useful to campaigning organisations to draw on the support of locally based left wing MSPs in the Labour Party and the SNP. The form of proportional representation used in elections makes it easier for minority parties like the SSP to get candidates elected than it is for the Socialist Alliance, and the coalitions which it tends to produce means that left Labour MSPs can exercise a greater influence than they could in Westminster. On the other hand, there are reasons why a concentration on Holyrood alone is dangerous. Westminster retains final authority over a number of so-called 'reserved areas' of policy on which Holyrood can comment but not intervene. Education apart, these are areas central to the operation of the state, like defence. So one of the most important campaigns currently being waged in Scotland, over the closure of the nuclear submarine base at Faslane, is not an issue over which the executive has any say.

The anti-capitalist movements which crystallised around Seattle quite consciously reject parochial concerns for the international approach embodied in the slogan 'Globalise resistance'. Socialists in Scotland cannot ignore this. We are opposed to Son of Star Wars regardless of whether Scottish bases are involved or not. It is absolutely certain that the limits of how far the Scottish Labour Party is prepared to diverge from the Blair leadership will be very quickly reached. At that point, the outcome will depend on the response of the working class in Scotland - a response whose militancy and ideological clarity will be at least partly determined by how successful the Scottish Socialist Party has been in building roots in the working class.


* In a recent report from Incomes Data Services, of a list of 19 high unemployment spots, Scotland, with 10 percent of Britain's population, had nine compared to four in Wales, four in England and two in Northern Ireland

* Of the 54 low unemployment areas listed only two are in Scotland

* As for pay rates, Scottish local government workers fare significantly worse than their southern counterparts. School cleaners, cooks, gardeners and road sweepers are on a minimum of '4.37 per hour compared to '4.60 in England and Wales. And this was before the jobs massacre at Motorola in Scotland's Silicon Glen

Bad health

* Scotland ranks as one of the most unhealthy developed countries in the world, with serious heart disease, Aids and other problems

* In a Scottish Office Study (1998) for premature deaths from coronary heart disease Scotland ranks bottom out of 13 countries

* For life expectancy at birth it is last out of 12 countries and just ahead of Lithuania and Estonia for premature deaths from lung cancer

* Survival rates for cancer are also particularly low