Unravelling Scottish history

Submitted by Newcastle on 24 September, 2009 - 9:30 Author: Elaine Jones

This pamphlet explains how Scottish nationalism came into being, how it was shaped by economic and political developments and how it has, unfortunately, shaped the workers movement.

Most of the left in Scotland present a distorted view of Scottish history tailored to support arguments in favour of independence.

“The pro-independence Scottish left has gutted the history of post-Union Scotland of its real historical content and replaced it with a mixture of recycled leftovers of Jacobite anti-Union propaganda and contemporary ‘anti-imperialist’ verbiage.” It serves as an ideological justification for incorporating the demand for Scottish independence into the socialist programme.

Stan Crooke looks at the arguments the left uses with an overview of the articles on Scottish history found in the pages of the Scottish Socialist Voice (SSV), the paper of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Examples:

“The vote (by the Scottish Parliament in favour of the Treaty of Union) was won through epic bribery, military threat and the pursuit of venal self-interest. (SSV 292)

“The 1707 Union created a democratic deficit that gave us a Thatcher government when we voted for a Labour one, crushed our industries, ruined our health, impoverished our citizens and saw our children slaughtered in one pointless unforgivable war after another.” (SSV, 292).

Stan argues, “It is not class struggle — whether it be the consolidation of bourgeois rule in the eighteenth century, or the later rise of a mass workers’ movement — but Scotland’s subjugation into the Union which appears as the defining factor in post-1707 Scottish history [here].” Similarly, it is not working-class struggle but ”a people-led transformation of our society” which is given the role of bringing about the future socialist republic. Socialists who base themselves on class-struggle Marxism need to confront this version of Scottish history.

The pamphlet reviews the actual history, starting with the 1707 Act of Union and the impact of slavery and Empire on the economy and politics of Scotland. It also outlines the development of the labour movement in Scotland.

Stan expands on this 1925 quote from Trotsky: “The most radical elements in the modern British labour movement are most often natives of Ireland or Scotland. … Scotland entered on the capitalist path later than England: a sharper turn in the life of the masses of the people gave rise to a sharper political reaction,” He explains how Scotland “entered on the capitalist path” not only later than England, but also much more rapidly. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards Scotland underwent in a matter of decades an economic transformation which, in England, had stretched over nearly two centuries.

Around the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries the rate of capitalist development in Scotland intensified still further. But by around 1850 Scotland had become more industrialised than the rest of Britain: over 43% of the Scottish workforce was employed in manufacturing, compared with 41% of the workforce in England.

Stan tracks the development of the Scottish trade union movement from the strikes by coalminers in 1824-26 right through to the period of the “great unrest” in 1910-12.

He tries to give the whole picture, rather than selecting episodes in order to “prove” that the Scottish working class is more radical than the working class in the rest of the UK. An honest assessment has to take account of the ideological weakness of most of the leadership of both the Scottish TUC and Labour Party. That is all here.

Stan shows that the ILP “combined the political baggage which it had inherited second-hand from the Liberals, through the intermediary of the Scottish Labout Party, with the values of the respectable working class,” and how that shaped the formation of the Labour Party.

He discusses several important themes.

• The ideas of Keir Hardie. For Hardie, socialism was “not a system of economics” but a system of moral values. And those values had to be exemplified by the elected representatives of labour: as long as Hardie was leader, no Labour MP was allowed to enter the bar in the House of Commons.

• The influence of Marxism. ILPers criticised Marx for “emphasising the necessity of class war”. Their conception of socialism as a moral crusade — the vanguard of which was not the organised working class but the respectable working man — was fundamentally at odds with the politics of class-struggle socialism.

As fellow-ILPer Bruce Glasier wrote of Hardie: ”I doubt if he ever read Marx or any scientific exposition of socialist theory… So far as he was influenced towards socialism by the writings of others, it was, as he himself stated, by the Bible, the songs of Burns, the writings of Carlyle, Ruskin and Mill, and the democratic traditions in working-class homes in Scotland in his early days.”

• The collapse of the Scottish TUC into the pro war camp in 1914 and the role of John Maclean, the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) and the anti-parliamentarian Socialist Labout Party.

The CWC attracted delegates from around 30 Clydeside engineering works. It defined its relationship to the union bureaucracy as: “We will support the officials just so long as they represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” The shop stewards who had been involved in the CWC also took the lead in the “40 Hours Strike” of January 1919. After police attacked a crowd of 35,000 in Glasgow’s George Square on “Bloody Friday” (31 January), 10,000 troops arrived in Glasgow the following day to ensure that any further unrest could be physically crushed.

• And the rise of the influence of the Communist Party in the Scottish trade unions.

There is a tradition of militant working-class struggles in Scotland, and there were heroic battles. But they weren’t unique to Scotland.

home rule

The pamphlet looks at the origins of the demand for Home Rule, showing how its popularity has been influenced by the class struggle.

Home Rule for Scotland was first advocated by the Liberal Party leader Gladstone in the 1870s. The history of the demand for Home Rule is a complicated one and definitely does not represent a demand made by an oppressed nation to free itself from English rule.

In the early 1900s No-Home Rule campaigning was conducted by the various bodies set up to promote the cause of labour representation — the Scottish United Trades Councils’ Labour Party, the Scottish Workers Parliamentary Elections Committee, or the Scottish Workers Representation Committee. The Scottish TUC’s adoption of a Home Rule motion by the STUC congress of 1914 marked the beginning of a decade-long upsurge of support for Home Rule in the labour movement in Scotland.

This wave of support for Home Rule reflected a continuing adherence by the labour movement in Scotland to political values inherited from Liberalism, and from the radical Liberals in particular.

Home Rule involved “matters of temperance, matters of religious equality, and the great principles of moral and social advance.”

But an upsurge in working class militancy in the 1920s saw support for Home Rule wane in the labour movement in Scotland. A sustained employers’ offensive and a consequent collapse in trade union membership resulted in calls for a more integrated all-British labour movement. In the slump conditions of the 1920s it was employers, not the unions, who favoured devolved pay bargaining.

By the end of the1920s nationalist sentiments were seen by the labour movement as a hostile force. They were no longer seen as expressions of the right of peoples to self determination. Instead, they were seek as parallelling the rise to power of extreme right-wing and fascist movements in continental Europe. Thereafter, Home Rule fell off the STUC agenda until the early 1930s.

The next growth in support for the demand came from the Communist Party. In the early 1930s Scottish CP leaders had talked of “the fascist demagogy of the Scottish Nationalists” and “the potential basis of a fascist movement” which was provided by the Scottish nationalists. But once the CP had made the Kremlin-ordered turn to popular frontism (i.e. allying with non-working-class political forces), it backed Home Rule as a way of carrying out its 1937 congress decision to “get contact and influence among the middle classes.”

The 1980s showed us another example of how political and industrial struggle have affected the use of the demand. For the first half of the 1980s the question of devolution was largely off the political agenda, pushed aside by the pro-democracy campaign in the Labour Party, the Falklands War, campaigns against Tory attacks on local government, and the miners’ strike.

But in the latter half of the 1980s, particularly after the Tories’ third election victory in 1987, the demand for legislative devolution rapidly resurfaced as a major issue in Scottish politics. The Tories lacked “a Scottish mandate”, their policies took no account of Scotland’s needs, and only a devolved assembly with legislative powers — argued pro-devolution enthusiasts — could provide protection from the Tories’ “elective dictatorship”.

But by this time a form of popular frontism had become an established way of life for the STUC.

For the Labour Party leadership, in Scotland as much as in Britain, the added attraction of demanding devolution was that it functioned as an alternative to organised defiance of the Tories, and as a supposed surrogate for a working-class mobilisation against not just Tory policies but also against the existence of the Tory government itself.

Home Rule for Scotland was not brought about by a self-confident labour movement. A Scottish Parliament was finally brought about by a labour movement in ideological and political disarray.

In conclusion, this pamphlet outlines the approach Marxists should take when understanding the development of ideas and class struggle. It also explains what we should say about nationalism.

“As a standard, Marxists strive to counter the diversion of plebeian discontent into nationalist narrowness by advocating consistent democracy, by fighting for full national rights, by working to clear all genuine grievances of a ‘national’ character out of the way so that workers can unite without rancour across national lines to combat the common capitalist enemy.

“In the case of Scotland, this means upholding the right of the Scottish people to self-determination and to separation if they wish it. But to uphold the right to separation is not necessarily to advocate it. In Scotland, Marxists can make themselves positive advocates of separation only by painting up the SNP’s ‘more competitive place to do business’ model with supposed socialistic virtues, or by subscribing to the SSP’s scheme that independence must mean, or will probably mean, independence in a crisis as a European fantasy-Cuba. In other words, they can do it only by feeding nationalist illusions.”

Our aim is to unite the working class and the labour movement across national lines.

In order for that to happen the movement needs to know the truth.

• The past, we inherit, the future we build, £4 or £2 from PO Box 823, London, SE15 4NA.
Or www.workersliberty.org/pamphlets#scot

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.