The British far left and Scottish devolution in 1979

As the referendum on Scottish independence draws ever closer, Phil BC over at ‘All That is Solid’ (formerly A Very Public Sociologist) has done an excellent job of summarising the positions of the main Trotskyist groups in Britain on Scottish independence. Furthermore, someone on the Leftist Trainspotters mailing list summarised the three possible positions taken by nearly all the far left groups in the UK on the topic:

YES: Counterfire, ISG (Scotland), SWP, SPEW, rs21 (inc. IS Scotland), SSP, RCPB-ML, Socialist Resistance, Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, Class War, Solidarity, RCG, A World to Win

NO: Workers Power, Socialist Action, CPGB-ML, AWL, Socialist Appeal, CPB-ML, Socialist Fight, CPB, Spartacist League, International Communist Current, SEP, WRP (Newsline), Communist Workers Organisation (Aurora), International Socialist League, Respect

ABSTAIN / NO LINE / OTHERS: IS Network (no line but majority for Yes), CPGB(PCC) (abstain), SLP (no position but will respect outcome of vote), SPGB (abstain), Plan C, Left Unity (no position nationally but Republican Socialist Tendency pushing for Yes), Anarchist Federation (vote yes or abstain), Spartacist League (“The referendum does not pose an issue of principle and we are not taking a stand for or against independence”)

In my discussions about this with Phil, I suggested that it would be interesting to compare the positions of the far left groups with their position on Scottish devolution back in 1979. Without going to the library to get the physical copies of the various left-wing journals from the time, I have had a quick scan of the internet and found some material on the positions of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Workers Party. Material relating to Militant and the late 1970s International Marxist Group are hard to find on the internet!

MarxismToday-1977dec

The UNZ archive of the CPGB’s Marxism Today shows that the Communist Party did support Scottish (and Welsh) devolution and devolved parliamentary bodies, but were divided over the prospect of future Scottish independence. Firstly, like many in the radical ‘Yes’ campaign today, Willie Thompson, editor of the CP’s Scottish journal Scottish Marxist, argued in 1977 that devolution offered the possibility of breaking away from centralising influence of monopoly capitalism in Britain (emanating from London) and the possibility of establishing a socialist foothold through the proposed devolved assemblies. Bert Pearce, the CPGB’s Welsh Secretary, argued that devolution was important for the advance of socialism in Britain, but warned against Scottish or Welsh independence, writing:

To recognise the right of self-determination does not at all mean that it is always and everywhere essential or progressive to opt for the separation of each nation into its own national state. The struggle for national rights, and for progress and socialism, can effectively combine and reinforce each other within a multi-national state. In Britain it is clearly in our best interests for the rapid achievement for socialism and for the quality of society when we get it, to maintain and strengthen our unity. 

Scottish Morning Star journalist, Martin Gostwick, challenged Pearce in a 1978 issue of Marxism Today, saying that he equated ‘advancing the unity of the peoples with the continued existence of the Union of Great Britain’. Gostwick’s position was that Scottish (and Welsh) devolved governments might eventually want to assert their independence and, like Thompson, Gostwick believed that this might be the starting point for a socialist alternative to the current ‘monopoly-dominated state’. However Gostwick warned that independence could not be an immediate goal and suggested the slogan ‘independence – if, and not yet’.

Glasgow Area Secretary for the CPGB, Douglas Bain, wrote in August 1978 that the Communist Party supported devolution and acknowledged that the devolution of power might lead to a longer term push for self-government (and possible independence), but highlighted that in the forthcoming referendum, the Scottish National Party might subvert the devolution debate towards nationalist ends and stifle any attempts to implement a more socialist agenda. After the failure of the 1979 referendum, Jack Ashton, the CPGB’s Scottish Secretary, stated that the prominence of the SNP in the campaign for devolution had driven many trade unionists to vote ‘no’ or abstain from voting. Ashton also blamed Scottish Labour for isolating itself on the ‘yes’ campaign and its refusal to work with others, such as the CPGB.

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In contrast to the CPGB, the Socialist Workers Party came out in favour of a possible Scottish socialist republic, offering a critical ‘yes’ vote at the referendum because the break-up of the present unionist state was necessary to challenge the capitalist status quo led from London. Taken from the Socialist Review archive, I was able to find an article on Scottish devolution and the SWP’s attitude towards the SNP. I have reproduced it below because it is difficult to link to the specific article within the archive (hopefully it is readable).

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This position was different from the one put forward the Central Committee of the SWP in September 1977, where they argued in the journal International Socialism for an abstention from voting in any forthcoming referendum. The statement said:

This means that if a referendum is eventually held in Scotland and Wales we abstain. This is not a position that means ducking the arguments. Far from it. Most of the time our members in Scotland will be arguing with people who are in the ‘Yes’ camp. We will be saying to them:

‘We do not mind if you get your devolved (or independent) parliament. But don’t believe that it will improve your condition one iota. Only class struggle can do that.’

Our abstention will mark us off from the rest of the Labour movement, retreating in fear before the new reformism, without aligning us with the Unionist, British nationalist camp.

Our position will be somewhat analogous to that of our American comrades faced with a choice between Democrats and Republicans. They know that most of their workmates will vote for the bourgeois reformism of the Democrats, and have to say to them, ‘OK, vote Democrat then – and see what good it does you!’

It’s not as nice as being able to earn the applause of one side or the other – but it is a distinctive revolutionary position that will enable us to put our politics across.

I have been unable to find anything from Militant from 1979, but found a 1992 piece from Ted Grant on Scottish nationalism. The piece is interesting because it was written amidst the schism within Militant over whether the group should become a formal political organisation or remain an entrist one inside the Labour Party, with Scottish Militant Labour being the first foray by Militant into open politics. Grant opposed this move and used this piece to attack SML.

While searching the depths of the internet, I found two interesting pieces on the Encyclopaedia of Anti-Revisionism Online regarding the positions of Britain’s Maoist parties on devolution. The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), started by ex-CPGB member Reg Birch, opposed devolution as seen in this article. The CPB (M-L) saw devolution as part of a counter-revolutionary plot to split the working class in Britain, writing:

The British working class whether in Scotland, Wales or any other part of Britain should declare a resounding NO to devolution, or any other policies which will come in the future, aimed at dividing and weakening our class. We as Marxist-Leninists are totally opposed to divide and rule. -We have to make the ruling class’s divide and rule inoperable by our unite and liberate…

Working class unity makes it impossible for the capitalists to go on in the old way of divide and rule. Working class unity enables us to combine our tactics for defending our class with the strategy of liberating our class. Working class unity is revolutionary.

Chwyldroad nid Trosglwyddiad.

We are for REVOLUTION not DEVOLUTION.

On the other hand, the small Communist Workers Movement, a breakaway group from the CPB (M-L), supported devolution if desired, but also proposed that Scottish and Welsh workers might be better served if they remained within the UK and co-operated with the English working class. In their journal, New Age, the CWM wrote:

English communists should take on the work of convincing English working people that Wales and Scotland should have the right to leave Britain if they choose. Welsh and Scottish communists should mainly work to persuade the working people of their nations that, although they should have the right to decide whether or not to remain within the British state, they should use that right in favour of staying with the English working class in the same state.

The question of devolution back in 1979 might seem more straight forward than the referendum on Scottish independence to be held next Thursday and the disarray that the British far left has found itself in over the prospect of an independent Scotland. But looking back at these documents from the late 1970s, the British far left was far from united on the question of devolution for Scotland and Wales.To paraphrase Karl Marx, ‘once as tragedy, twice as farce’…

 

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4 comments

  1. You forgot to mention the NCP. This editorial from the New Worker explains the NCP position. “The New Communist Party has long recognised the rights of the Scottish nation to full national self-determination. We support Scottish demands for the right to preserve and develop their culture and national identity. We support the Scottish people’s right to possess and control all the physical and other resources present on their land and territorial waters. The New Communist Party calls on all its Scottish supporters to vote Yes in the Scottish referendum”

    http://www.newworker.org/archive2014/nw20140829/scotlands_choice.html

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