Between Westminster and Edinburgh: Whither the Scottish Proletariat?


As the SNP calls for another referendum on Scottish Independence, the entire island of Britain is experiencing a collective flashback to the media circus of the first: Scottish elements excitedly plot a glorious new Scottish future, while Westminster repeats its fevered pleas for “British” unity, a unity built by imperialist collaboration and conquest.

It is an almost emotional position for those of us dedicated to the destruction of the imperialist Westminster State that Scotland should secede. What’s more, there is good theoretical basis for this position: Scotland as an “independent” state would not have the economic power abroad which Westminster has, and which is the basis of the latter’s status as an imperialist power. Like the South of Ireland, an “independent” Scotland would be a type of dependent country, not so dominated by foreign capital as semi-colonial countries such as the North of Ireland, but unable to play a significant role in the division of the world on its own.

In short, an “independent” Scotland does not set back our struggle outside Scotland’s borders, like the continued existence of Westminster imperialism does. On the contrary, the desire of the Scottish bourgeoisie to dominate its “own” market in post-crisis Britain poses a significant threat to the economic base of Westminster imperialism “at home”. From the perspective of the class-conscious proletariat in England or Wales, the point is not simply that the Scots have a right to self-determination. It is in the interest of our fight against Westminster imperialism that they exercise that right through the formation of an independent state. Dividing the Scottish bourgeoisie from the English bourgeoisie as much as possible is in our interests.

There are those who speak of the danger of “dividing” the proletariat through Scottish secession. But the proletariat of Scotland is already divided from that of England by their separate cultural, historical, economic, linguistic, and geographic formations. The Westminster state imposes on the Scottish proletariat a “unity” with their more numerous southern neighbours. The English proletariat, particularly in the South of the country, is generally less revolutionary. Lenin noted this in Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, and it still holds true today. It follows that this artificial unity of the English and Scottish proletariat holds back the revolutionary potential of the latter. Further, there is as much proletarian as bourgeois impetus for the rise of the SNP: Figures from the left wing of the SNP, like Mhairi Black, explicitly describe the rise of their party as the manifestation of the Scottish proletariat’s discontent with the domination of Scottish Labour by the Labour Right.

But we must have no illusions: The SNP are no saviours of the Scottish proletariat, and the Scottish bourgeoisie has real limitations in its progressive potential. Even if the Scottish were a colonised people in need of national liberation of the type seen in semi-colonial countries, this liberation would not guarantee a “progressive state”. Their relatively progressive position within the sphere of British politics is not preordained, but a result of very specific and concrete conditions. The advance of progressive forces in an “independent” Scotland is entirely dependent on the internal development and dynamics of struggle by the Scottish people themselves, and the proletariat in particular.

One can easily imagine that following a “YES” vote for secession, the new Scottish state could become a repeat of the “Free State” experience of the South of Ireland. The right wing of the SNP, or a newly ascendant reactionary Scottish nationalist party, could become hegemonic. Concealed behind the Saltire, will the progressive hopes and dreams of so many patriotic Scottish youth today be stamped out in the name of national unity? This decision lies entirely in the hands of the Scottish people themselves.

As the crisis deepens, it seems increasingly likely that the Scottish people will succeed in declaring their formal independence, that their country belongs to them and not to Westminster. But many Scottish people, as can be seen from Sturgeon’s rhetoric, feel that the EU – an entity which is predicated specifically upon neoliberal economic policies and imperialist cooperation – would be a suitable replacement. Internationally Scottish secession is unambiguously desirable and therefore a “YES” vote must be defended within and without Scotland. Locally in Scotland, however, the ascendency of the Scottish bourgeoisie may simply reproduce a particular form of the universal problems of capitalism. It is naive, politically irresponsible, and undialectical to assume the eternal and unqualified progressive character of “Scottishness” counterposed with “Britishness”.

As the Scottish people struggle against the imperialist Westminster state, they take the first step towards challenging the capitalist-imperialist world order. The struggle against capitalism is the struggle against a world founded on the exploitation of our labour, where nothing is sacred, and everything is for sale. If the Scottish people desire to preserve their rich linguistic and cultural heritage, international capital will not spare it simply because the Union Jack no longer flies above Edinburgh. If Scottish women want control of their own bodies, there are Scottish reactionaries who will fight against that right just as there are English ones.

Secession is an important step for Scotland, and Scottish people are right to reject unity with the Westminster state. Standing together with progressive forces among the English people (and all peoples), not only does not require, but is diametrically opposed to unity with their exploiting classes. But progressive forces must not merely tail the SNP. We must understand that the SNP came to represent the most progressive values in Scotland based on the historical-material conditions. The campaign for Scottish secession from the UK is a prime opportunity to raise the Scottish proletariat’s consciousness of their own worth and own potential. It is the Scottish people who will decide Scotland’s future, not Westminster imperialism. All people must decide their own future, which neither begins nor ends with the drawing of borders. Every part of Scottish life is a field for struggle against alienating, exploiting, oppressive forces as large and as powerful as the state, and as small and seemingly insignificant as an abusive husband.



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