The National Problem in Britain

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The National Problem in Britain
Discussion Contributions by C. Desmond Greaves, Marxism Today, October 1968

I SHOULD like to comment on some of the points made by previous contributors to this discussion and to add some further points. Barbara Ruhemann did a notable service by restoring the original text of Stalin’s definition of a nation. Had this been available earlier James Reid would not have said “By whatever definition one cares to use Scotland is a nation.” He would have said the Scots. And Idris Cox, after replying that Scotland and Wales (geographical entities) are not nations might not have confused nations and States. There is even a practical point here. The present territory of Scotland and Wales may not be coterminous with the respective nations. There is a case (whether good or bad I cannot say) for the agitation in Maelor (Flint) for transfer to Cheshire. And there may be other adjustments I have heard Welsh nationalists speak of, where the transfer might be to Wales.

Idris Cox, in his valuable, thought-provoking article, considers that if the Scots and the Welsh were nations, the Communist demand should be for “complete independence,” by which I take it he meant secession. But this is not the classical demand. The classical demand is self-determination, which includes the right of secession, but not the obligation to secede.
Perhaps it is because his mind recoils from the labyrinthine complexities involved in secession, that he first denies the Scots and Welsh the right of nationality by definition, and then proceeds to draw a blue-print for a federal Britain.

Right of Self-Determination

In my opinion the Welsh and the Scots are nations for the purpose of the right of self-determination, and they must be accorded that right, including the right of secession. I am of course not venturing to advise them to secede. I merely assert that they have the right to do so if they wish.

First as regards the definition by Stalin. It is known that in 1925 Stalin criticised his theses of 1913, explaining (to Comrade Semich of Yugoslavia) that the identification of the struggle for national self-determination with the bourgeois-democratic revolution was now out of date. “It has become a constituent part of the general proletarian socialist revolution.” He did not of course criticise the definition, but it is worthy of note that it was drawn up mainly to refute “national cultural autonomy” the basic feature of which was that while members of the nations composing the Austro-Hungarian monarchy were to be recognised for cultural purposes, the Austro-Hungarian State was not to be touched. Stalin’s purpose was not to institute public examinations at which nations could establish their credentials, but to guarantee their right of self determination no matter what time-honoured empire had to lose ground.

When, thanks to the crisis of World War One, the self-determination of nations on a world scale (in conjunction with the proletarian revolution) had been placed on the agenda of history Lenin approached the matter differently. Who were to be permitted self-determination? Practical common sense answered “those who wanted it,” in Lenin’s words any “alien people” by which he meant “a people that has preserved its peculiarities and its will for independent existence.” And he defined self-determination as the right “freely to determine whether they wish to live as a separate state or in union with whomsoever they choose.”

The Scots and the Welsh might very well choose to live in union with the English in a federal state, as suggested by Idris Cox. I am aware that the Scottish nationalists demand what they call “Dominion Status,” for some reason preserving an affection for the Crown. But as Idris Cox rightly observes, it is not absolutely clear yet what they mean by this. If in fact they may well end up accepting federation, what am I jibbing about? Precisely this: if the Communists of Wales and Scotland appear to offer the Welsh and the Scots a ha’porth less than self-determination, then they are at the mercy of the nationalist parties of these two countries. Far better to stick to the demand for Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. Let these Parliaments express the selfdetermination of the peoples. If the result is a demand for secession, then draw up a treaty for questions of common concern, and take it in good part as Sweden did in 1905. If, as in my opinion is more probable, but of course not certain, the decision is some form of association with England closer than would be provided by a treaty, then once again the terms require discussion with the representatives of the Welsh and Scottish people. The question of an English national assembly should present no difficulty in either case. What objection can there be to it?

I would now like to turn to the question of the cement that binds the present United Kingdom together. Idris Cox speaks of Scotland and Wales as “integral parts of the British imperial system.” But apparently, they differ from other integral parts of the imperial system, such as Mayfair or Gibraltar, in that though “part and parcel of the exploiting and oppressive machinery of imperialism” they are “at the same time being exploited from the standpoint of their national rights.” How does this affect the status of their peoples as nations? It merely attempts to define their relations with other nations. One is tempted to suggest that Idris Cox uses the word British before he has justified it, and thus creates a tautology.

A Multinational State

The national question must above all be treated historically. The introduction of the Norman feudal system into England was followed by efforts to extend it to Wales, the starting point for Ireland, and Scotland. It is hardly in dispute that the Irish responded to the invasion with a national resistance movement. And I recall reading that when Henry II returned from Ireland, Welsh people came from miles around in the hope of seeing the fulfilment of the prophecy that an English king would slip on llech llafar and break his neck.

It is not usually argued that Wallace did not lead a national liberation movement, or for that matter Glyndwr or, to stretch a point even Lliwelyn. The aggressive character of Norman feudalism (to which the English were still an alien people) strengthened the will to remain independent, and created much of the character of these peoples. Feudal Union preceded legislative Union by a considerable period. But even in the case of Wales, the judiciary union was not completed until the 18th century.

A few words will illustrate the problems involved using Scotland as the example. The Union took place in the year 1707. It was preceded by a long bitter struggle. The English Parliament fought the Scottish merchants by manipulating the Navigations Acts. It met their attempts at separate development with an Aliens Act. Scotland was already a colonial power of a sort. Her last attempt to break the English stranglehold was the Darien adventure, the ruin of which was assisted by English policy. It was the crippling losses incurred by almost every merchant in central Scotland that undermined the capacity, if not the will, of the Scots to resist incorporation in the United Kingdom. On the English side the Union involved allowing Scottish merchants such access as they could get to England’s ill-gotten gains. In return England secured Scottish consent to the Hanoverian succession and support against France. But the Act of Union did not pass without wholesale bribery. Aristocrats like Atholl and Tweedale received £1,000 apiece. Lesser fry got proportionate considerations.

The Price Paid

What had happened? The aristocracy and the most substantial merchants had betrayed the nation to England. These and their successors shared the colonial loot as it accumulated. But they were a minority. Unless one identifies a nation with its aristocrats and bourgeoisie, then there was not even accommodation, let alone amalgamation or fusion. And the smaller sort of capitalists, who adapted themselves to English hegemony by instituting a regime of exploitation and reaction seldom parallelled in these islands, remained as Scottish as their descendants are today. Periodically they have shown their heads—the most notable period being that of the French revolution.

One should not therefore speak of the creation of a British super-nation. Certain classes in Scotland accepted a multi-national state dominated by the English. They were reconciled to this unpleasant situation by the opportunities it afforded for robbing third parties, inside and outside Scotland. The workers and colonial peoples provided the sugar for the pill. But the Scottish people paid in the distortion of Scotland’s economic life, the preservation of feudal elements, and such appalling consequences as the devastation of the Highlands.

These areas were reduced to a state of destruction which is surely unique in Europe. A few years ago I met Ordnance Survey men who told me that they had been forbidden to record the names of the ruins that strew the landscape, even when these were well known. The people were cleared to the sea-board, the lowlands, Canada and the crack regiments of imperialism. The defoliants used were four-legged ones “integrated” (as is the fashionable word) with the Bradford rag trade. I met the grandson of a Highlander in Birmingham whose face was suffused with passion when he spoke of the clearances and the Gaelic language and culture he had been deprived of. The remaining crofters will point out those of their animals which are descended from the stock of the farms their forefathers were driven from. It is amazing that English tourists can drive through the Highlands without a flicker of shame. But they do. But why labour this? Because such traumatic experiences in the life of a people can only be resolved by democratic action of the people themselves. This is one of the strongest arguments for selfdetermination, freedom to solve national problems.

The Present Crisis

So much for the Union and its effects. What is happening today is that the old relationship between London-based and Scottish capital is breaking down. The reasons are not far to seek. One is the development of state-monopoly finance capital. Here of course is a real fusion. The old comfortable role of the smaller capitalists disappears. A section of them sally forth to do battle for rights they seemed to have forgotten all about. They demand the right to limit the scope of monopoly capitalism in Scotland. As well as small issues such as the “tapering” of transport costs, are important ones. They suspect that international cartel agreements, accepted by Westminster for reasons of imperial policy, are stifling Scottish production. They demand the right to appoint consuls throughout the world to promote Scottish trade. There is a conflict between sections of the Scottish bourgeoisie and London based finance capital. This is an excellent thing. We should support the Scottish bourgeoisie.

But their movement arises from the extreme crisis of imperialism and neo-colonialism. This crisis naturally affects other classes. The Scottish National Party programme does not envisage the overthrow of the dominion of finance capital. It is therefore reformist. But the right-wing Labour programme lacks even that modest qualification. Workers disillusioned with right-wing labour therefore turn to Scottish nationalism, as a part of the swing to the left which naturally follows the transfer of imperialist burdens to the people of the island of finance-capital, formerly more favoured than they are now.

Of course, to support this new bourgeois party to the detriment of the working class, or to regard its objectives as adequate for the working class, would be a different matter altogether. To the working class the crisis of imperialism and neo-colonialism provides the opportunity to solve problems of the widest scope, including the agrarian question in the Highlands, and the reform of semi-feudal laws, on the basis of making Scottish wealth, Scottish justice, Scottish culture the property of the people of Scotland as a whole. But the class structure of Scotland, the inevitable class composition even of a bourgeois national party, and the realities of the crisis of imperialism, make inevitable a class struggle within that party, and the possibility of an alliance where the objectives of the working class will permeate the entire movement.

Marxist Policy

It seems to me therefore that a Marxist policy has two prongs. First, the recognition of the right of the Scottish people to make themselves, in their own way, whatever changes are required in the economic, political, legal and cultural life of their country. Second the presentation in this context of lines of solution possible to a united working class at the present time, without waiting for constitutional changes. In this dual approach there is the basis for unity with all that is best in nationalism.

I hope I am clearly understood not to be attempting to make policy for the Scots, but to be speaking by way of illustration of principles. It is conceivable that sections in nationalist parties may at some time attempt an accommodation with monopoly capitalism. Should that happen it may be that the Scottish working class, like the Irish, will prove the “only incorruptible inheritor” of the struggle for national freedom. I suggest that this positive approach to the Scottish national question gains favour by contrast with the black and sneering opposition to the “Scots nats” expressed in the organs of Fabian opportunism. If in order to get democracy and socialism in this island the United Kingdom must be geographically broken up, why flinch from it ? But it may not be so. The solution is self-determination which provides for either possibility on a democratic basis.

I have illustrated with Scotland. I believe the same principles apply to Wales, but their mode of application is necessarily distinct. Finally I would be strongly opposed to dividing the existing Communist Party as long as the multinational state survives. A single centralised organ to face the paramount State is necessary for the process of solving the national problem, quite apart from the fight against the fused monopoly-capitalism of this island. And as Idris Cox points out, the attitude of the English workers is of vital importance. The struggle for self-determination for the Scottish and Welsh nations is a part of the general struggle against imperialism. But we must always remember that it is only a part.