[Marxism] Scotland - reply to Phil Ferguson, Donal

James Daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Wed Jun 23 10:12:52 MDT 2004

Forwarded from Michael Keaney

PF: What I wrote on Scotland on the 7-Stars group was in response to
people who, in my view, vastly overplayed the idea of Scotland being
oppressed by England, rather than being an integral part of British
imperialism. Peter Urban, who I would generally regard as a political
co-thinker, reached absurd levels of trying to prove how much more
oppressed Scotland was and how much more radical than the English
working class the Scottish working class is.  His method was purely
economistic - Scottish workers are more radical on bread and butter
issues.  As I argued, that is not serious class consciousness.  A real
measure of class consciousness in Scotland would be the attitude of
Scottish workers, as part of the British working class, to the freedom
struggle in Ireland and Scottish workers are every bit as backward as
English workers on that issue, not least because of the role of Scots
historically in the British oppression of Ireland.  And the oppression
of Ireland is *not* (or *not simply*) by England; it is by *Britain*.
I see no reason for pretending otherwise and/or letting Scotland off
the hook.

MK: Who is letting "Scotland" off the hook? There is a difference to
be drawn between "the role of Scots" (i.e., some Scots) and the role
of Scotland. I agree with you totally about the facile nature of
arguments that portray Scotland as the victim of *England*. Their
relevance can be argued to have ceased around 1800. Not only is it
poor history, it is also very bad politics, because it completely
ignores the fact of British state oppression of the English working
class, and thereby alienates what ought to be a key ally in the
struggle. By presuming that the English working class shares its
interests with those of the British state because the latter is
irredeemably English anyway, this sort of nationalism more or less
invites the English working class to stand in the way of independence,
and the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nevertheless, if Scottish workers are every bit as backward as English
workers on the Ireland issue, this is hardly a disqualification of the
national question -- it is a question of education. How knowledgeable
are New Zealand workers about Maori rights? Would chauvinistic
arrogance on the part of NZ labour disqualify their otherwise
legitimate claims?

The backwardness of Scottish workers on Ireland is a sad legacy of
British imperialism that has accomplished what ought to have been an
impossible feat of getting people to identify Scottishness with
Britishness as opposed to Scottishness. Religion has been a key
instrument, as has anti-Irish racism and a more generous (which is not
to say generous) share of the spoils of imperialism. The whole issue
of pro-English bias within British institutions
(most trivially but endlessly disputed, the issue of tv football
commentaries) works in favour of British nationalism because the
grounds for complaint are that Scotland, as a constituent part of
Britain, is not getting due recognition. But imperialism works largely
because it succeeds in convincing people that what is not in their
interests really is in their interests. If large numbers of people
swallow it, it still does not invalidate those people's objective
interests. The backwardness of Scottish workers on Scotland and
Britain more generally could be remarked upon, but instead of denying
the claims of Scottish (or any other) workers on the basis of their
backwardness, we ought to be arguing our case and helping them
identify their objective interests for themselves.

PF: My *overall* position is basically the same as the CPGB/Weekly
Worker people.  This is that if most people in Scotland (and/or Wales)
wanted independence, that should be respected but that this does not
mean that Marxists *advocate* it themselves, let alone try to take a
lead campaigning for it. I think the CPGB/Weekly Worker position on
Scotland is a solid Marxist one.

MK: Any party that calls itself the Communist Party of Great Britain
is unlikely to appreciate or even acknowledge the existence of
something termed the "British state question", so I don't think that
the CPGB is really in a position to comment on this. The solidity of
its Marxist case depends on the kind of Marxism that is being
espoused. I am certainly in agreement that, as ends in themselves,
Scottish and Welsh independence are romantic, mythical ideals that
serve only to divide an already fractured working class and should
therefore be junked. But I am not advocating that at all. Instead I am
trying to focus attention on the main source of imperialist oppression
as that is experienced within the borders of the British state, and
using the political means available to weaken that oppression as much
as is possible. It is not a purely instrumentalist line -- I am not
denying the legitimacy of Scottish and Welsh claims regarding the
national question, but I would question the wisdom of mere reliance on
these alone, not least because a simplistic treatment of these
immediately alienates what should be an ally in the common struggle:
the English working class. But thanks to the contradictions inherent
within the British state we have mechanisms available to us to
accomplish a relatively clean fragmentation along lines that are
instantly recognisable to all inhabitants of the UK. Like it or not
but there are important historical, cultural, linguistic and
institutional continuities that have perpetuated the separateness of
the constituent parts of Great Britain, and while I would argue that
these are necessary but not sufficient grounds for embarking upon the
political course I advocate, they are still legitimate. What adds
potency is their practical attainability within an international
context that I sketched out earlier. This is not the national question
as we know it -- this is an entirely new conjuncture in which a
formative Europe (of which "Britain" and Ireland are parts) is
struggling both within (class struggle) and without (inter-imperialist
rivalry), but which is still years away from even approximating the st
rength of the global hegemon. The British state is one of the key
instruments of that hegemon's effort to keep Europe weak politically
and economically servile to US financial interests. Our struggle is in
fact part of a much wider, pan-European struggle, which is itself part
of the global struggle. But the immediate context of our efforts is
where we find ourselves and therefore we must work with what we have
got. And what we have got is the ridiculous situation of a state
apparatus engaged in selling itself wholeheartedly to the US for
peanuts whilst vowing to defend "British sovereignty" against a
European superstate. That a large number of "backward" working class
people buy into this does not for a second prove its correctness. It
merely underlines the scale of the task ahead. And that task involves
exposing, in no uncertain terms, the realities of British state
oppression past and present, and using the means available to oppose

My fundamental position is that the British state, per se, is
irredeemably imperialist. But what is "Britain"? It is a nationalist
ideology reproduced by and in the service of the British state.
Despite centuries of oppression, and political unity, there remain in
Britain three autonomous and identifiably separate nations whose
interests and aspirations have not been extinguished but have recently
even been revived thanks to the stresses and strains imposed by global
capitalism. Instead of denying the existence of these we ought to be
formulating policies that take advantage of the opportunities that
these provide as part of the wider struggle. And in the "British"
context, that means ridding us all of British state oppression. By
framing the question in these terms, we provide the means by which the
working class of Wales, England and Scotland can readily identify with
the interests of their Irish counterparts.

While I've been writing this Donal has responded to the debate so I'll
make a quick reply to him.

DOC:  I have to say I totally agree with all what Michael Keaney said
in his definitive take on the tasks ahead of us all in Europe (and in
particular in the Islands of the North Atlantic). Breaking the British
state is a primary objective. To do this it is encumbant upon us all
to find a common unity in the face of the dominance of the British
State hegemony ...  we must be able to counter the cultural impact of
the British Empire at home - and it is much more difficult given the
length and depth of English occupation of our common homelands.

MK: The last sentence invalidates the first (as indeed does your
chosen subject heading), in that to define British state oppression as
"English occupation of our common homelands" totally misses the point
I have been trying to make. "The English" are not occupying "our
common homelands". The British state claims sovereignty over them,
including England. And the British state is as happy to use Scots,
Welsh and Irish to achieve the task. Thus if it is incumbent upon us
to find a common unity, that includes England as well as the Celtic
fringe. I'm sorry if what I wrote earlier is insufficiently clear, but
I want to state categorically that the issue is NOT *English*
occupation, oppression, subjugation, or imperialism. It is
*British*. England is as affected as the rest of the islands off the
north west coast of continental Europe.

DOC:  The people who need to be disempowered are the twenty million or
so, Home County'ers who live in the Southern areas around London and
consistently vote Tory or else UKIP.

MK: The large vote for the UKIP I view as illustrative of the crying
need for a plausible left alternative that is able to expose, with the
utmost clarity, how the British state works to disempower those who
are otherwise led to believe that the cause of all their troubles lies
in Brussels. The UKIP is merely the analogue of the SDP in the 1980s,
in that it is being used by the state party to divide and conquer the
most credible political opposition. The inconsequentiality of the
European parliament will come as a great disappointment to Robert
Kilroy-Silk, who imagines that, out of 732 similarly anonymous MEPs,
he can "wreck" proceedings. But it allows the use of a safety valve by
the British state in which the punk Thatcherite Conservatives are
further marginalised by a dissatisfied electorate without seriously
threatening to tip the balance against New Labour hegemony. Come the
next Westminster election and the UKIP will be lucky to get a single
seat. It will in fact be used to help boost the number of LibDem seats
by splitting the Conservative vote and so assist in the political
realignment that the Blair "revolution" was supposed to have
accomplished in 1997. New Labour can expect to lose a lot of seats
next time around, but with a compensatory number of LibDem gains, a
progressive bourgeois coalition of the sort originally envisaged by
Blair and Ashdown in 1997 can be forged and so Blair (or his
successor) will get to play at being Gladstone and so further
marginalise what remains of the Labour left whilst locking out the
Conservatives. And Peter Hain, the former Young Liberal, is well
placed to effect such a transformation.

But I digress. The Home County'ers do not need to be disempowered as
much as they need exposure to persuasive analysis and argument
concerning the political options available. The Labour Party is no
less committed to British state sovereignty and, to its eternal shame,
has hardly proved otherwise with respect to Northern Ireland, despite
certain policies to the contrary. There is even a movement within New
Labour now to lift the ban on Labour Party organisation in Northern
Ireland, thereby removing the last obstacle to fully-fledged unionism
within that party (especially if the PUP were to voluntarily disband
and join a similarly "socialist" party). It makes no difference
whether you get Labour or Conservative -- "Britain" goes on in
undisturbed continuity. It is "Britain" that needs to be disempowered,

Michael Keaney

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