Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Independence and Socialism

By John McAllion

THE class struggle in Scotland has always been both nationalist and socialist.

The 1787 massacre of striking Calton weavers by British soldiers near what was then Glasgow is generally recognised as marking the beginning of an organised, effective Scottish labour movement.

The weavers’ banner on that day, and subsequently on many other days up to its seizure by Tory magistrates in 1819, showed Scotland’s national hero William Wallace striking down the beast of tyranny.

Scots Wha Hae, Scotland’s unofficial national anthem penned by Robert Burns in 1793, deliberately sided with early working class struggles against the reactionary Pitt government in London and its despotic manager in Scotland
Henry Dundas.

The Scottish radical uprising and general strike of 1820 united behind the slogan “Scotland Free or a Desert”. So, from the very beginnings of the labour movement in Scotland, there has existed a radical tradition that consistently connected the struggles for workers’ rights with the demand for Scottish independence.

That tradition was carried into the 20th century by the likes of Keir Hardie who throughout a parliamentary career in which he represented only English constituencies remained a passionate believer in the cause of Scottish home rule.

Most notably, of course, it was upheld by the great internationalist John Maclean who was calling for an independent Scottish Socialist Workers’ Republic at a time when Ramsay MacDonald was priming the British Labour Party for its historic role as a safe and respectable alternative to Tory government trapped within a capitalist, imperialist and constitutional monarchy.

Today Scottish socialists like Jimmy Reid, one of the leaders of the 1970’s UCS workers’ struggle, continue to campaign for socialist change from within the SNP, while the bulk of the Scottish nationalist Left carry on the fight for Maclean’s socialist republic as part of the SSP.

They represent a continuing tradition of libertarian and democratic struggle from below that stands in stark contrast to the Westminster model of a parliamentary elite making change happen from above.

Breaking free from the stranglehold of that Westminster model remains one of the key challenges facing the Left across Britain today.

Genuine popular control over state institutions and the economic levers of power cannot happen in a British state in which the people are designated as subjects and political sovereignty rests with the Crown-in-Parliament.

The radical participatory politics that characterise revolutions in Venezuela and other Latin American countries are ruled out here by a British two-party electoral system that effectively blocks radical change and restricts political choice to voting for either of the two big pro-business parties committed to defending the neo-liberal status quo.

A democratic revolution cannot happen in a Britain in which an hereditary monarchy and an unelected House of Lords keep a tight political rein on a Commons majority elected last time with the support of less than a quarter of those entitled to vote.

It cannot happen either in a Britain without a Bill of Rights and where citizens can be arrested and held without hard evidence or charge for up to 6 weeks.

It is time to recognise that the breakup of the authoritarian British state is now a precondition of securing progressive socialist change for the peoples of this island.

The national struggles that will follow the break-up of Britain open up opportunities for the Left to force a radical political agenda that otherwise remains excluded from mainstream politics and forever stymied under the ancient regime of the British constitution.

The ending of the British warfare state, constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, republican citizenship, participatory democracy, genuinely popular control of public services, an economy run for the people rather than for profit - these and many other important areas of policy will be thrown into the melting pot from which people’s republics in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland will emerge.

The alternative is to remain ensnared within the carefully contrived limits of a constitution that for more than 300 years has been successfully blocking all threats of radical change in order to preserve the stability of the oldest capitalist state form in the world. Socialists owe no kind of loyalty to that Britain.
We do have a responsibility to help its peoples escape from the chains of British history.


  1. John,

    On the subject of participatory politics, British sociologist Hilary Wainwright has just published a book on the subject:
    Reclaim the State? Experiments in Popular Democracy (Seagull, 2009)

    It's not only Latin America, it seems, that has experimented with an alternative to representative democracy. Apart from the Porto Alegre case (where participatory budgeting has been in practice for some time now), the book includes a few inspiring case studies from Newcastle, Luton, a Norwegian town, etc.