The question of Scotland’s future has come to dominate international news and rightly so. For the British establishment, this was meant to be a year evoking the “shared sacrifice” of the United Kingdom’s Scots, English, Welsh, and Irish a century after the imperial slaughter of 1914. Instead, it has become a living nightmare as the loss of empire and industrial decline appears to be culminating in the dismantling of the three-centuries-old British state.
When Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to the Scottish independence referendum in 2012, there was little alarm. Now polls indicate the vote is too close to call. A full 97 percent of eligible Scottish voters, around 4.3 million, are registered to participate. Momentum is with the Yes to independence movement, and caricatured notions of apathy have been overturned by the voices of those announcing the arrival of a new Scotland.
This has produced panic and an all-out carrot-and-stick campaign to encourage opposition to independence. Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, and Labour leader Ed Miliband abandoned their normal duties in London’s Westminster to campaign frantically for Scottish hearts and minds.
Scots have endured the sticks of extensive job losses, imperiled pensions and savings, and the erosion of the National Health Service (NHS). Major players in the Scottish financial industry, centrally clustered around Edinburgh and responsible for 140,000 jobs, have warned of social and economic disaster if independence comes to pass.
Everything seems uncertain. Even the bid to host the 2020 UEFA Championship games in Scotland might be reassessed if Scots dare excise themselves from Great Britain. Joining the establishment “no” chorus are footballing legends Alex Ferguson and David Beckham, among other celebrities.
15,000 members of the ultra-sectarian and anti-Catholic Orange Order, first formed in Ireland to uphold Protestant supremacy and assist the British military in drowning rebellion in blood, stalked through Edinburgh to declare their allegiance to No Thanks, Britishness, and Christianity.
NATO leaders have raised worries that Scotland’s vote will lead to the “balkanization of Europe.” From across the Atlantic, the Obama White House declared how important a partner the much diminished Great Britain still is. Former President Bill Clinton has told Scotland they should stay in the UK. Leading liberal economist Paul Krugman has done the math and decided to tell the Scots independence would be a fiscal bust.
For the carrot, “Better Together” has become truly Orwellian; a “no” vote, they profess, is actually a vote for reform and change. Indeed, in a last ditch effort to ward off defeat, establishment guardians are promising Scotland everything short of full independence, but only if they vote “no.”
Ed Miliband, touting Labour’s working-class origins and cynically abusing notions of solidarity, has argued against voting “yes” because we are “internationalists” and not narrow nationalists.
Niall Ferguson, Harvard’s Glasgow-born apologist for four centuries of Anglo-American empire, claims in his recent New York Times op-ed to be “baffled” at what he deems Scotland’s embrace of “petty nationalism.”
Scots are threatened with dire consequences for seceding, but many living there already feel their present and future have become unbearable. Consecutive Westminster governments, whether Tory or Labour, have failed to protect British workers from the ravages of neoliberalism over the last four decades. Work has grown more precarious, and inequality, poverty, and the cost of education have all risen.
It makes sense many Scots see through the lies of bankers, finance bosses, and politicians culpable for the 2008 global economic catastrophe and whose appeals to internationalism would appear more genuine if not for their support for things like the invasion of Iraq or the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Scots are admonished for looking to backward nationalism in an interdependent and globalized economy to solve their problems; shouldn’t “we” stay together and solve our problems together? Scottish voters are told they will be responsible for setting off a chain of atavistic nationalist initiatives across Europe and beyond.
Yet patriotism for the imperial British state, historically responsible for murder, carnage, and mayhem on a colossal global scale, is to be applauded and maintained.
Marx, Nation and Class
Sure, Marxists are internationalists, never nationalists. We argue class, not nation, is the key identity and division in society.
However, Marxists, beginning with Marx himself, have never been indifferent to questions of national self-determination. Marx supported Ireland’s struggle against British domination, believing Irish independence could strike a blow against empire and stir radicalism within Great Britain itself.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks, building on Marx, backed struggles against colonial powers and for self-determination. Colonial rebellion could weaken imperial powers and create openings for anti-capitalist working class revolts in both the heart of empire and the periphery.
Scotland, unlike Ireland, was never colonized by Britain. They benefited, specifically its ruling elite, from being an integral part of the British empire. This vote, then, is not about Scotland throwing off the yoke of imperial Britain. Nevertheless, Scottish people have a basic democratic right to determine their own future.
And Marxists are under no obligation to uphold the sanctity of a state that has brought and continues to be responsible for so much misery in the world. Working-class unity cannot be effected through the preservation of a reactionary state formation.
If the Labour Party, for example, had opposed neoliberalism and war on a Great Britain-wide class basis rather than embracing them, the question of independence might not have galvanized so many people. Scottish, English, Welsh, and Irish workers have been battered and weakened by Thatcherite and Blairite neoliberalism. The modern Labour Party failed to speak and fight for its multinational working-class constituency, and chickens are coming home to roost in Scotland.
Through the local Scottish parliament, Scots have resisted privatization, commodification, and austerity pursued by the rotting and corrupt political, financial, and military institutions of the British state. Therefore, it’s completely logical for Scots to conclude, in their relative context, that the best way to extend their conflict with marketization is to push Scotland toward full independence.
The Return of the National Question
Whether or not Scotland votes for independence its repercussions have already been felt politically across the globe. It has already galvanized the Catalonian movement for full political autonomy from the Spanish state.
Across the Irish Sea in the North of Ireland, unionism and loyalism is stunned at the possibility of a Scottish departure. Protestants in the increasingly destitute working-class estates of Belfast and Coleraine are daily fed a sectarian diet of Catholic and nationalist advancement as the cause of their political, social, and economic demise. Sinn Fein, the commanding party of Irish republicanism, having abandoned the armed struggle against British rule for constitutionalism, will now see further resistance to austerity as the means to champion a version of Irish unity.
The European Union (EU) has become increasingly fractious and polarized. The question of breaking out of the EU in order to break free from German austerity has already been posed.
Yet even if Scotland does vote for independence, there is no historically inevitable outcome waiting on the other side.
The 1919–21 war for independence left Ireland partially liberated from its forced incorporation into the United Kingdom in 1800, but severed by partition with pro-capitalist and religiously conservative new states on either side of the border. The new Irish Free State was a grotesque parody of the goals and ideals James Connolly and his comrades organized, fought, and died for.
The mass revolutionary upheavals against Stalinism freed Russia and Eastern European states to take a different path. However, independence from Stalinism and the Russian empire instead led to the impoverishment of millions who dreamed of a better future — strengthening the stranglehold of global capitalism.
Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste
If Scotland does secede, it will certainly be a blow to the prestige of the United Kingdom political and ruling elite, many of whom are still raised with a born-to-rule sense of superiority.
The British establishment, with Labour at its core, is going all out to stop independence, but not because they’re concerned about working class unity or the conservation of the NHS. Their sole concern is the potential for British political, diplomatic, and economic power to be weakened vis-a-vis their allies and rivals. Their concern, and it’s shared by NATO and the US establishment, is the possibility for Scotland’s independence to impact the present world order. Behind the concern of the British state stands the interests of the UK ruling class and all those whose power and wealth is dependent.
Nothing is inevitable. However, those with wealth and power have been extremely successful in shaping the outcome of crises. For the guardians of the Great British state and the status quo, this is a crisis; and they will seek to fashion the crisis, whether they win or lose, towards their needs.
Even with a “yes” vote, the remaining United Kingdom ruling class, in concert with its American and European allies and, of course, its Scottish counterparts, can work towards creating the kind of stability that generates the best possible environment for further accumulation. Scotland may become independent, but the economic machinery of neoliberal economic integration, rationalization, and discipline can quietly go to work to turn a defeat for the ruling class into victory.
The absolute key lies in the capacity of those who are at the forefront of agitating for an independent and radically different kind of Scotland, a socialist one, to continue to seize the initiative after the vote. These individuals, groups, and organizations see independence not as an end but as a beginning.
The Scottish independence movement is already politically divided along class and material lines. In post-referendum Scotland, those fissures can only become more acute as class comes to the fore.
The Scottish National Party is in a contradictory place. It has replaced Labour as the embodiment of social democracy, yet it also imagines Scotland successfully competing in a cutthroat neoliberal world market. In a fully independent Scotland, or one moving inexorably in that direction, the SNP center cannot hold. The market and equality cannot coexist.
Protecting the NHS, free prescriptions, free university education, strengthening trade unions, and more can be the foundation to mobilize for even greater redistribution of wealth and increased participation for the great majority in shaping Scotland’s future. That kind of outcome will be inspirational not only south of the border in England and Wales, but also in Ireland, across Europe, and internationally.