10. The national question in Scotland and Wales



The national question, particularly affecting Scotland but also Wales, came back onto the agenda of the labour movement in the 1990s. Next to Liverpool, Scotland was a very important base for Militant and then Militant Labour. Since the 1980s we had built up a formidable position not just on Clydeside but in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland. The national question appeared to have been pushed into the background by the development of the British Empire – which allowed the Scottish upper and middle classes an outlet for their energies – together with the rise of the labour movement. However, Scotland had never been fully reconciled to incorporation into Britain by the Act of Union in 1707. Lenin, with great foresight indicated, in his brilliant book State and Revolution, almost in passing, that the national question in Scotland had not been finally ‘settled’. It could come back, particularly if the position of British capitalism was severely undermined. Moreover, the Labour Party in Scotland, at its inception, inscribed ‘home rule’ on its banner. The rapid decline of British imperialism – which once ruled an empire ‘on which the sun never set’ – together with the massive deindustrialisation effected by Thatcher, particularly impacting the industrial belt of Scotland, helped to create some of the conditions which Lenin had envisaged. However, in previous decades the issue had waxed and waned, partly depending upon who was in power at Westminster at the time. As outlined in The Rise of Militant, we consistently took the clearest position on the national question, particularly compared to any other organisation on the left. Unfortunately today even Jeremy Corbyn does not appear to recognise the importance of the national question in Scotland. He believes that anti-austerity policies will be sufficient to win Scotland back from the Scottish National Party (SNP). It will not! We recognise the national feelings of the Scottish people and defend their right to realise their national aspirations, up to and including the right to secede from the Union. However, we were not apostles of separation. We would prefer a democratic socialist confederation involving England, Scotland and Wales, and ultimately drawing in Ireland. But we would defend the wishes of the Scottish people, something which the Labour Party later, under Ed Miliband, was not prepared to do.

In the period before the mid-1990s support for independence was a minority voice. Most Scots wished some form of autonomy which would allow them to have a more direct say over how they were governed – through, for instance, the setting up of a Scottish assembly or parliament. Militant – in England, Wales and Scotland

– supported the idea of an assembly but one with the teeth to intervene in the Scottish economy through extensive powers such as the nationalisation of failing industries. At the same time and in the best traditions of Marxism we opposed all forms of bourgeois nationalism, which seek to divide workers. We particularly countered any manifestation of this within the labour movement, which should always seek to integrate workers into one common organisation – of course, with autonomous powers for Scotland and Wales, in this instance. But some of the leaders of Militant Labour in Scotland did not always adhere to these general principles, very often slipping into a form of left nationalism. However, in the mid-1990s, despite the arguments which took place between the leadership in England and Wales and some Scottish leaders, there was general public agreement on the issues. Nonetheless, the tensions continued and would break out in a clash between the national leadership of Militant Labour and the Scottish organisation later in the decade.

The Tories were on the ropes in Scotland and elsewhere in early 1995. Major was attacking Labour’s devolution proposals: “Teenage madness… One of the most dangerous propositions ever put to the nation.”1 In Scotland the Tories were reduced to a rump, down to 12% in the opinion polls. On these figures they were destined to lose every Scottish seat. In the event of a general election Major’s ploy was to appeal to English national sentiment as a means of undermining Labour. Alan McCombes, who later broke from us and succumbed to Scottish nationalism, correctly argued the programme of our Scottish organisation in the Militant: “Socialists within a Scottish Parliament would advocate the nationalisation of the major companies, not only within Scotland, but throughout Britain, and the allocation of their resources, under the democratic control and management of the working class, to the needs of society. A Scottish Parliament that does not have effective control over the economy will inevitably fail to solve Scotland’s crushing economic and social problems.”2

Support for a programme of nationalisation, within Scotland initially – outlined by Alan in that article – was not adhered to by him later. Alan McCombes would put forward arguments to the effect that it would be difficult for a Scottish Parliament to take over industries which were just one arm of the multinationals. This was bogus as, in the age of globalisation with huge cross-border investments, there is hardly a country in the world which does not have some kind of foreign investment from multinationals. According to his reasoning, this would preclude any kind of effective action involving public ownership. In Argentina even the bourgeois President Cristina Kirchner did not hesitate to take over the Spanish-owned energy giant YPF, provoking outrage from Spanish capitalism.

This was just one indication of the political backsliding of the Scottish Militant Labour (SML) leadership which, later on, produced an open schism and their decision to leave the ranks of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). However, even some of those who departed from our ranks did so only temporarily, while Tommy Sheridan later formed an alliance with us for a period. The same cannot be said about those like Alan McCombes or Frances Curran, both of whom had previously played an important, even substantial, role in the building of Militant but who shamefully supported Rupert Murdoch in his pernicious court cases against Tommy Sheridan.

Nevertheless, the sML leadership at this stage successfully collaborated with us in the building of the organisation. The picture that emerged was that the Tories were in headlong retreat in Scotland. In the first elections to Scotland’s new ‘Tory-mandered’ councils, out of a total of 1,179 seats they won only 79. The election campaign had been, in effect, a referendum on the government yet nine out of ten Scots voters effectively voted for an end to Tory rule. SML had established an important presence in local councils in Scotland.3 In this election 10,000 Scots voted for SML, although both the SNP and SML lost seats. This was because the anti-Tory mood was manifested in support for Labour with the proximity of an all-Britain general election. In Glasgow three SML councillors lost their seats, although in Pollock, where Labour and sections of the media had predicted “the end of Tommy Sheridan”, he held the seat, according to the Glasgow Herald, “with an impressive 1,019 votes”.4

Other organisations on the left took one sided approaches towards the national question in Scotland. The SWP initially saw it as ‘a diversion from the class struggle’. Militant, however, for over 20 years – in the face of criticism from other sections of the left – supported autonomy for Scotland, with extensive economic and social powers. Now, some on the Labour left like ex-Militant and one-time leader of Edinburgh Council, Alex Wood, criticised SML for allegedly playing down the strength of national feelings in Scotland. Yet he had broken with Militant in the 1970s after vehemently opposing our supposedly unacceptable concessions to nationalism.

Others objected to our warnings against the danger of fragmentation of the trade unions along national lines. Counterposed to this was their declaration of ‘internationalism’. Alan McCombes answered this very effectively when he pointed out that the left critics of SML “may be unaware of the fact that Scottish Militant Labour is part of an international socialist movement, the Committee for a Workers’ International, which is organised in dozens of countries on every continent across the globe”.5 He and his supporters, however, did not stick to this concrete expression of real internationalism when they decided to end their membership of the CWI, instead of continuing the discussion and dialogue on the differences that had arisen within our ranks.

The ‘Scottish question’ continued to generate heated controversy in Scotland. Philip Stott, who remained with the CWI when others split away, wrote a telling piece in the Militant following a big tv debate on the monarchy, ‘The Nation Decides’. He pointed out that over half of those from Scotland voted for abolition, even though all four of its main political parties were pro-monarchy. Moreover, in polls taken after the programme, 56% backed an independent republic for Scotland. This would have come as a surprise, to say the least, to the Labour leadership. The Tories seized on this, and Scottish Tory MP and Cabinet minister Michael Forsyth, who had had the ear of Thatcher on the poll tax and many other issues, warned that Labour’s devolution proposals would eventually turn Scotland into “a socialist republic”!6

But SML did not concentrate exclusively on the national question. The aftermath of the anti-poll tax struggle continued with vengeful councils seeking to use bailiffs to collect unpaid tax, even though it had been officially buried by mass opposition. In August 1995, £452 million unpaid poll tax was still being pursued by Strathclyde Council. Therefore, SML leaders were compelled to defend those usually very poor people who were being pursued by bailiffs and councils. As a consequence Tommy Sheridan and Keith Baldassara were jailed for 30 days for defending a family threatened with bailiffs seizing goods for non-payment of the poll tax, four years after it had been forced off the statute book. The sentence after the campaign was reduced to a £150 fine.

Meanwhile a steering group including trade unionists and trades councils, as well as the Scottish Socialist Movement, Scottish Militant Labour, the Communist Party of Scotland and a raft of other organisations, was elected in preparation for the launch of the Scottish Socialist Alliance. This differed entirely from Arthur Scargill’s rigid bureaucratic conception which he applied to the SLP (see earlier). Small attempts at creating socialist alliances – initiated by Militant Labour – had begun earlier in England, in London and then in Coventry. On 5 February 1996, 125 local activists turned out in Coventry to discuss the need to form a new socialist party to challenge New Labour. The meeting was called by the Coventry Socialist Alliance and Militant Labour. It was open, democratic and welcoming. A number of other initiatives throughout the country to set up socialist alliances were also under way. But the most successful was undoubtedly in Scotland where the press were forced to recognise its potential: “For the first time in living memory the Scottish left has had an idea. It isn’t a complicated idea, but it is, in its quiet way, only a little short of brilliant. They call it ‘open affiliation’. That means no one is obliged to surrender their loyalties to join the Alliance. It proposes an end to traditional fratricide… It says politics is as much about extra-parliamentary action as it is about elections.”7

The same process was under way in Wales where the political landscape, according to Dave Reid in Militant, had “changed beyond recognition in the 16 years of Tory rule. One third of Welsh industry has been wiped out and the Tories have savaged the coal and steel industries – almost obliterating the coal industry… In a recent opinion poll for HTV television, 62% of Welsh people were in favour of the establishment of an assembly in Wales, with just 28% opposed.” As in Scotland, working class people expressed support for devolution because they felt the Welsh Assembly, with a built-in Labour majority, would address the problems of poor housing, unemployment, health and begin to reverse the Tory attacks.

In effect, the masses were pushing to the back of their minds the declared intentions of the Labour leadership to stick rigidly to the ‘tax proposals’ and cuts of the Tory government. Their expectations were to be cruelly dashed when Blair and Brown took power.

Nevertheless, Wales Militant Labour critically supported the Labour Party’s plans to establish a Welsh Assembly, but demanded one in which real powers could be used to benefit working people. We declared: “Wales Militant Labour supports the right for Wales to split from the rest of Britain if the Welsh people voted for it. But we oppose complete separation [at this stage] because socialists, in general, favour the maintenance of the widest possible organisation of the productive forces – science, labour and technique – where this does not violate the legitimate national rights of different peoples. It also facilitates the unity of the working class across national boundaries. We point out that a separate Wales would not be independent, but would be ruled by the major companies that already dominate our lives.”8 While there was support for greater powers for the Welsh Assembly, independence did not have great resonance amongst the Welsh people at this stage.