Economic development, progressive values and Scotland as a nation

John Foster

The nationalist Left, such as Tom Nairn and Chris Harvie, argue for independence as a progressive project by combining two arguments.  One is that people in Scotland are generally more social democratic and egalitarian than people in England.  The second is that in the era of globalisation small nations provide the best vehicle for economic mobilisation and development.  An independent Scotland would therefore be both politically more progressive and economically more dynamic.

Neither argument is entirely wrong.  But taken together, and in the context of the type of independence advocated by the SNP, they are.  They do not consider what has made people in Scotland progressive and egalitarian and how this can be maintained.  Nor do they distinguish between the type of economic nationalism that might have been a mobilising force a century ago from what is feasible now within the limits set by the SNP.  Still more surprisingly, given their claim to be on the Left, their arguments tend to ignore issues of class and class power.

Every nation has its history. Unlike Ireland, Scotland was not a colony. It had its own feudal monarchy and its own pro-capitalist Protestant revolution. Its capitalist landlords, merchant princes and employers continued to use the separate Scottish systems of law, religion and education to exploit their own people. Their Union with England was indeed a subordinate one.  But its object was to secure the profits of colonial empire including those of their own quasi-colony in the north of Ireland.  As a class, they continued to dominate Scotland’s economy and its politics well into the later twentieth century. They still do today, though more indirectly, through the hedge funds and financial institutions of the City of London and its satellite centre in Edinburgh.

Scotland’s workers quickly developed trade unions in their own defence – generally in combination with workers in England. Yet the periods of general working class mobilisation, when working people openly rejected the politics and culture of their rulers have, in Scotland as elsewhere, been relatively short-lived. In terms of generations whose values were transformed in this way, such mobilisation occurred only in the early decades of the 19th century, in the 1910s and 20s and in the 1970s and 80s.  The circumstances were quite special.

They occurred when trade union struggles against Scottish employers merged with wider British struggles – and brought the trade movement as a whole into collision with the class power of the employers organised politically at British level. The 1820s and 30s saw the culmination of the first great struggle for democracy. The 1910s and 20s saw the second – and that of the 1970s and 80s took forward the demand for economic democracy. For each of these generations the mutual reinforcement of struggles across Scotland, England and Wales exposed the nature of class power. In the 1970s it was the joint victories of the miners, London dockers and UCS shipbuilders that together defeated the Conservative assault.

Today’s egalitarian values, as held up by the Left nationalists, are a reflection of these struggles.  But they are not guaranteed. They depended for their vigour on levels of class solidarity and mobilisation.  They are already weaker than they were a generation ago and combined with the objectives set by the SNP, these values would weaken further. For current SNP policies are not about contesting class power exercised jointly by the super-rich in Scotland and England. Instead, they attribute Scotland’s ills to the constitutional link to England. The SNP alternative, ‘Independence in Europe’, would hide this exercise of economic power and would trap policy within the neo-liberal terms set by Scotland’s own super rich. Their perspective for securing economic growth by cutting taxes on external big business is the direct opposite of the battle for economic democracy which launched the demand for a Scottish parliament in the 1970s.

So the first leg of the argument put forward by the nationalist Left is not so much wrong in itself: people in Scotland may still be somewhat more Left-wing.  But the nationalist Left fails to understand how those values were won. And such values, when exposed to the objectives currently set by the SNP, would be weakened not strengthened.

So what of the second leg: that, in the era of globalisation, small nations are the best vehicles for economic mobilisation?  The previous section has highlighted the dangerously dependent state of the Scottish economy and the urgent need for active developmental policies.

In the past the achievement of national statehood has been closely linked to economic development. In Europe in the nineteenth century national movements were associated with the rise of a nascent capitalist class and the winning of state institutions to support industry and trade.  In many cases, these movements themselves served as instruments of national mobilisation – with previously suppressed national languages and cultures central to the new levels of popular commitment.1 But can this be the case today, in the twenty-first century, with the type of independence proposed by the SNP ?

There would seem to be a clear mismatch between this kind of national building and SNP proposals for economic policy after independence.  Its prescription for economic growth relies very largely on outside investment – in a way that can only increase external dependence and accelerate the takeover of Scotland’s remaining productive assets. The commitment to the EU and its neo-liberal framework would preclude any expanded role for the public sector. And its business backers do not resemble a nascent capitalist class. The key figures are generally people who have secured their current positions by acting as financial intermediaries for external banks and businesses, often in facilitating local projects for privatisation.  They bear far more resemblance to those elsewhere who have acted as internal agents for neo-colonial power.

The SNP’s current social agenda is indeed different. Particularly under the leadership of Alex Salmon, the SNP has sought to occupy the social democratic territory vacated by New Labour. On a range of issues, such as higher education fees, school meals, maintaining free social care and limiting PFI, the SNP has positioned itself to the Left of New Labour. The SNP has also spoken out considerably more consistently against the austerity policies being imposed by the ConDem coalition.  But even here there are inconsistencies. The SNP has continued to fund certain high profile socially progressive projects but at the cost of cuts elsewhere, particularly in local government finance, that are socially even more damaging.  Its own tax policy, in terms of business and council tax, has been socially regressive.

It is therefore difficult to see how independence on these terms could mobilise working people in a developmental way.  The SNP would be committed to EU policies that are deflationary and neo-liberal, to attracting investment on terms set by external big business and having to cope with no more resources than at present – very probably less.

This leads to a more fundamental issue. It is that of time and stages. We live in the twenty-first century.  The era of nascent capitalism is long gone. In our era popular mobilisation is associated with the type of left-wing projects for national development as witnessed in South Africa, Bolivia and Venezuela.  In Scotland during the 1970s and 80s prospects for constitutional change did indeed embody the hopes of working people for wider economic and political transformation – based on the belief that a Scottish parliament would enhance democratic control of the economy and thereby strengthen wider demands for social ownership at British level. These hopes were themselves the product of a period of very major class mobilisation.

Today this issue of class mobilisation and economic development is even clearer. Only if the strongest and most stable alliance is built around the trade union movement in favour of the productive economy can British (and Scottish) finance capital be politically contained and its international operations progressively dismantled. Without this, and publicly-directed investment to redevelop dynamic national and regional economies, there is little prospect of arresting the pace of industrial decline at Scottish or British level.  The politics of class mobilisation are therefore now central – both in terms of challenging the state power of finance capital and securing economic redevelopment.

So if we are at the stage where developmental potential rests on the class mobilisation of working people, not capital, how are such class values to be redeveloped and sustained?

As stressed earlier, such values cannot be taken for granted. The generation that won them in the 1970s and 80s did so in the course of the sharp economic and political struggle.  The SNP itself is not an organisation that can maintain or regenerate such values.  It does not see itself as a class party.  The process of negotiating independence would itself tend to shift attitudes away from those of class solidarity. There would be immediate conflicts over the allocation of oil and gas resources and government debt. Subsequent economic policy, as set out by the SNP, is based on attracting investment away from other parts of Britain. Given the virtually complete control of Scotland’s press and media by external big business, the potential for the further erosion of progressive and socialist class values would be considerable.

Attitudes can change very quickly. Go back just fifty years and a majority of Scots voted Conservative and sectarian prejudice still divided many working class communities.  Go back a further fifty years, when Hardie and Connolly, Wheatley and Maxton created the Independent Labour Party, we find that Hardie had to move to London to get elected. The victories of the 1920s were then followed by defeats in the 1930s. In Scotland as elsewhere, progressive values did not come easily. They had to be fought for – and were reversible.

Periods of generation-wide class radicalisation were exceptional and, as already noted, occurred when Scottish employers as a class drew on the support of the British State and did so jointly with employers in England and Wales. Each of these periods left a legacy – principally of organisation and to a lesser extent general assumptions. But they were not cumulative in any simple sense.  Periods of demobilisation followed in which the ideas of the existing order again became dominant.  What made them exceptional was both the depth of mass engagement and its scope. They involved very large numbers of working people committing themselves to significant levels of sacrifice in order to defend their trade unions, their communities and often their political rights. It was, critically, a commitment that moved beyond immediate trade union loyalty to the perception of belonging to a movement. Workers understood themselves to be part of a class challenging state power as organised at British level.

This in turn transformed national values. We have only to remember the virtual rebirth of Scottish culture in the 1970s.  Inspired by the immediate experience of working class mobilisation – in workplace occupations, the miners strikes and the one day general strikes against the industrial relations act – song, theatre, novels and poetry took on a new, non-elitist character. Progressive trends deriving from similar periods of class mobilisation in Scotland’s past were given new meaning and resonance – most eloquently in Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye, an anthem which notably contrasts progressive and reactionary trends in Scottish culture.

This linkage between class and national identity was, of course, central to the thought of the great Scottish-born socialist, James Connolly.  For him each nation’s identity and culture was uniquely determined by its particular experience of class rule – pre-feudal, feudal, and capitalist – and its relationships with other nations as oppressed or oppressor. National cultures, including Ireland’s, could be reactionary as well as progressive depending which class dominated and how organised labour intervened. It was therefore the duty of the working class to analyse these class processes in specific national circumstances and to act accordingly.

A major weakness of Left nationalist writers is that they do not understand these processes and take Scotland’s radicalism for granted. The main standard bearer of Left nationalism, Tom Nairn, argued in the 1970s that the ‘break up of Britain’ would have inevitably progressive consequences because of Scotland’s radical values. 2 He still does. But in his most recent writings he bases this simply on the superior vitality of small nations in an age of globalisation. He explicitly writes off the working class as a force for radical change.3  Yet his belief in small nations as engines of (capitalist) growth is a good century out of date.  Worse still, his thesis on the ‘break up of Britain’ fatally confuses territory with state power. Territorial separation, under the terms currently set, would certainly not weaken finance capital and its state institutions at Scottish, British and EU level.

The real issues for today are quite different.  The first is the current government’s unprecedented assault on the rights of working people. Its defeat requires joint class mobilisation across the nations of Britain – and if Scotland’s progressive and egalitarian values are to be regenerated, this struggle cannot be avoided. The second lesson is linked.  We also face a profound economic crisis. It threatens the very basis of our productive economy and its resolution has to be political.  New policies, and new political alliances, are required to challenge the centralised power of big finance.  As in the 1970s new institutions of democratic economic control are needed at Scottish, English and Welsh levels.

The central question for the Left is therefore how to frame constitutional demands in a way that will enhance and develop this potential.  Scotland’s past working class leaders understood only too well the close interdependence of Scottish, English and Welsh movements. Keir Hardie and the early socialists supported not separation but home rule – a democratic parliament that could challenge the power of Scottish capital and develop social ownership.  So did the Clydesiders of the 1920s and those who raised the demand for a Scottish Parliament in the 1970s. The 1970s also marked a key moment is posing the developmental potential of Scotland’s working people.  The Scottish parliament called for by the Scottish Assembly of 1972 was one which would represent the productive nation against the power of big business and the bankers. And it was a potential that was never abstracted from its wider class context. A Scottish Parliament would enhance the democratic power of its working people to control and develop their own economy.  It was to strengthen, not sunder, the bonds of a wider working class movement.



1.The two main theorists of this type of nationalism are Ernst Gellner (Nations and Nationalism, 1983) and John Breuilly (Nationalism and the State, 1982).  Both follow Max Weber in arguing that nationalism and the formation of nation states is linked to the development of modern industrial society.  This approach is unlike that of Marx and the Marxist tradition which sees ethnicity and nationality as developing over a much longer time period but, crucially, its values being defined by the needs of the dominant class of each era – though ultimately co­­­­ming under challenge from those of oppressed and contending classes: Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question, 1913. This approach requires a concrete historical analysis of the development of class forces in particular countries. James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History, 1911, is an outstanding example.

2. Tom Nairn, The Break up of Britain, 1974

3. Paul James and Tom Nairn, ‘Introduction’ to Globalisation and Violence,2006, p. xliv (vol. I) for the dismissal of the working class; Tom Nairn, After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland, 2000 on Scotland’s inherently social democratic character.

2 thoughts on “Economic development, progressive values and Scotland as a nation

  1. James Connolly was of course instrumental in the creation of the Socialist Labour Party in 1903 that rejected labourism and was part of the Impossiblist revolt from the SDF.

    “For our demands most moderate are,
    We only want the earth.”

  2. Pingback: There are better things to be doing than playing the patriot game | Left Futures

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