Nationalism, independence and the break up of Britain: an interview with Neil Davidson

James Foley speaks to author Neil Davidson about Scotland, the British state and the meaning of Scottish independence.

Neil Davidson is the author of numerous books including The Origins of Scottish Nationhood and the Deutscher Memorial Prize winning Discovering the Scottish Revolution. He is the co-editor of Neoliberal Scotland and is a member of the editorial board of International Socialism.

JF:  Tom Nairn, arguably Scotland’s most influential public intellectual and the author of The Break Up of Britain, once famously claimed that the theory of nationalism is Marxism’s greatest failure. What do you think of this?

ND: I’ve always regarded this claim as Tom Nairn’s greatest theoretical failure.  It’s actually a very unfair criticism.  I think what he means by it is that Marxists haven’t correctly identified the strength of nationalism as an ideology; the way in which people are bound, as it were, to the state by nationalism, and through the state to capitalism.  I don’t think that is something Marxists underestimate.  For instance, Lenin is very clear on this, the entire Classical tradition is clear about this.

The problem with Nairn’s position is that he is effectively a nationalist and therefore he sees positive things in nationalism that the Classical Marxist tradition doesn’t see.  We need to separate out the question of supporting nationalism with what nationalism is.  Whether we oppose a particular nationalism or support it is dictated by particular movements at particular times, but it is a political decision.

In terms of what nationalism is, as an ideology and a form of consciousness, the real source of any discussion on this has to be Marxist theory of ideology.  I think the failure to see nationalism as a capitalist ideology is Nairn’s main blind spot.  Of course, there are problems.  I don’t think there’s been a thorough Marxist theory of nationalism as a form of consciousness, although this is something I consider in ‘The Origins of Scottish Nationhood’.  I think it has to be worked on, but it can be done within Marxism – although there are also some ideas to draw on from classical Sociology – Gellner, for instance, is quite sensible about this.  The real thing, though, is not to have any illusions about what nationalism is, and that’s been a big problem on the Left as you know.

JF: New forms of hybrid nationalism have often been associated with the breakdown of old empires.  Would you say that the currency of Scottish independence and the crisis of British citizenship can be connected with a broader power shift away from the Anglo-American heartland towards Asia and other emerging economies?

ND: I think the sources of capitalist power are obviously moving away from the European and North American heartlands, although I think it’s important not to exaggerate this.  China in many ways is the exception in this regard, the other BRICS – Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa, whoever you want to include – haven’t got anything like the manufacturing and financial capacity of the Chinese, so they are a very distinct case.  I don’t think this as such is the problem in terms of Scotland – I think it’s more simply about the decline of British capitalism.

The lack of cohesion in the state has been reflected in the decline of British identity.  Scottish national consciousness, something that lurked below the surface and used to only express itself in cultural ways, is starting to express itself in political ways – there is, in other words, a shift from national consciousness to nationalism.  However, the extent of this nationalism is often exaggerated as well.  People are quite able to believe that the British state is no longer viable without being nationalists in the strict sense, and socialists need to insist that supporting independence does not have to involve accepting the absurdities of nationalist ideology.

The things that used to create a sense of British national identity, the War, the Empire, the NHS, and so on, these are all part of a state that is beginning to fragment.  But a lot of the things connected to the current rise of independence are also much more short term – in terms of the actions of the Con-Dem coalition and the failings of New Labour.

JF: In your book, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood, you argue that one of the ways socialists should judge the case for Scottish independence is the impact of the decision on world politics.  What would be the global ideological impact of a Scottish yes vote in 2014?

ND: I don’t necessarily buy the argument that this will be a crushing blow to global imperialism and capitalism.  This massively exaggerates the real standing that Britain now has within the world system.  Insofar as Britain has any, it has largely been as America’s faithful ally and lapdog.  Put it this way, there aren’t going to be people jumping up and down in delight in Africa that Scotland has voted yes.  Also, I don’t think most capitalists are bothered one way or another.  As long as the successor state provides transport infrastructure, services, security, tax breaks, and so on, they’re not bothered.

However, there is an issue of the imperialism of Britain itself, and the broader British-American axis. Independence would make certain things more difficult, practically, in terms of Trident, for example, and Britain’s position in the United Nations, and the number of regiments, given that Scotland is massively over-represented in British military recruitment.  And certainly, there would be some ideological impact of the split, given that Britain is the founding capitalist state and so on.  Lastly, there is the Irish issue.  The split would massively strengthen the case for Irish unification.

JF: What about the argument that much of what Britain has left in the world, take for instance the UN Security Council seat, is a lingering effect of its post-colonial prestige.  That could also be said for its financial sector in the City of London, much of it connected to deferential behaviours connected to our imperial legacy, the persistence of the English language, the Anglo American heartlands, etc.  Wouldn’t there be a blow in terms of the economic and political effect of this post-colonial British identity?

ND: Possibly in terms of identity.  London, and the financial markets that operate around it, are essentially a quasi-independent state operating within Britain anyway, and I don’t think they depend much on Scotland or the peripheral bits of the UK.  The thing about London is – as Andrew Fletcher predicted during the Union debates 300 years ago – it now operates like a quasi-nation state in and of itself, which is a massive problem in terms of the overall dynamics of the UK economy.  I don’t think British capitalism, in the sense of production and money and so on, would be affected by independence particularly.  I think it is far more to do with the state structures and imperialism.

Now, that might have a mediated effect eventually.  The notion of British power, in the Middle East and wherever else we’ve intervened, might be affected by that.  But that would depend on how much the Americans continued to see the remaining bits of Britain as an effective partner, someone that could continue to play a leading role in their imperial adventures.  The British ruling class, of course, endlessly exaggerates the degree to which the special relationship still exists.  I think, if we put aside nuclear weapons, Britain would become a second rate military power.  But that wouldn’t, of course, immediately affect the financial sector – or it would only do so in the much longer term.

Take The Economist as an example of one strand of ruling class ideology.  They used to constantly run articles, usually titled something like “Scots Awa’”, in which they said, let the Scots leave, in a globalised world it doesn’t much matter anyway and they’ll have to grow up, lower public spending, privatise public services and so on.  Now, they are talking about “Skintland” and saying if the Scots leave it will be a disaster.  I think what we can take from this is that the ruling class themselves understand that the weakening of the British state by Scottish independence would eventually prove a major problem for them.

JF: Although Britain has been at the centre of providing ideological and diplomatic cover for the Americans.  For instance, Britain is second to America in terms of Security Council vetoes, much of this is essentially cover for the business of American global empire.  Britain has specialised in doing a lot of America’s dirty work, making the case for Kosovo, for Iraq…This has been part of how the British ruling class has tried to revive its sense of national purpose and destiny, “humanitarian intervention” being the defining ideology…

ND: Yes.  There was a claim on the Marxist Left in the 1920s that the next big war would be between Britain and America – both Maclean and Trotsky made similar statements about this.  And, in effect, that’s what ended up happening.  If you look at the Second World War, America was very clever in terms of how they played this, waiting until Britain was already overstretched before supplying loans at very high interest, and so on.  Effectively, they were able to demand the disbandment of the British Empire, Suez being a pivotal moment.  Most people are aware of how the US used the IMF to screw the British in 1956, but fewer are aware of what a crucial role the American naval fleet played in harassing the British expeditionary force.

Since then, as you’re suggesting, the British ruling class has seen their interests as entirely subordinate to America’s.  So I would agree with you – if Britain began to fragment, then it would be very difficult for Britain to remain on the UN Security Council, to retain the pre-eminent position it has, simply because it’s a state that is beginning to fall to bits.  Then the bigger players in the global South would have to say, “Well, wait a minute, why are you on here as this collapsing country, and not India”, for instance.

The other impact it would have, I guess, would be on other states in Europe and in Canada, where there are stateless nation issues.  If Scotland was to split, then the Catalonians and the Quebecois might begin to revive their debates about independence.  However, this brings me back to one of my more recent arguments, which is about the extent to which those movements really want independence, compared to a negotiated, extended form of devolution.  My view is that this is what the SNP is angling for, and what they believe they can get – Devo-max. In a way their attitude to independence is a bit like the Second International’s attitude to socialism before the First World War: a distant ultimate goal.

JF: Social democratic theorists like Andrew Gamble, for instance in his book Between Europe and America, have argued that although Blairism was a social failure, New Labour was able to force through a “constitutional or citizenship revolution” that profoundly reshaped the British state.   The apparently unassailable hegemony of Scottish Labour ten years ago seemed to be an aspect of this.  What hope is there for a return to the “normality” of devolution and the New Labour-type modernisation within a strong British state?

ND: I think it’s frankly almost impossible for that to happen.  I can’t see any way of retreating back to an earlier constitutional settlement.  Having said that, although I think Gamble is an intelligent writer, I don’t agree with him about the coherence of the New Labour project.   It seems to me that what Blair did was perfectly in tune with what every ruling group in Britain has done for three hundred years, which is to improvise ad hoc responses to immediate crises, and adjust to meet them, whether it’s Ireland or Scotland or Europe.  This is typically how the British state develops, by responding to crises within the existing structure without ever attempting a thoroughgoing transformation.

What I suspect will happen is that there will be further devolution, because devolution is now the most convenient way of organising neoliberalism, by shifting decision making and accountability lower down.  So each local council has the responsibility for making cuts and imposing neoliberal, privatisation policies, for instance, relying on the self-interested mobilisation of the new middle class to demand lower council taxes and services for themselves.  I’ve argued in ‘Neoliberal Scotland’, as has David Harvey in his new book Rebel Cities, that devolution isn’t this fabulously democratic thing, it is a neoliberal strategy.  It means imposing the neoliberal regime deeper, further down.  And that is the real transformation in the British state, is the deeper entrenchment of neoliberal norms.  In that sense the “Big Society” thing isn’t just a joke, it’s actually a means of “devolving the axe”.

So I don’t think there is any going back.  One way or the other, there will be more attempts to push neoliberalism further down, to the level of local governance.  All that will remain of the central state, increasingly, will be the military-diplomatic regime of the police and the army.  The SNP’s attempt to create a national police force in Scotland is actually a reflection of that.

So there was no real modernisation of citizenship under Blair, I think it’s a complete fantasy.  Insofar as citizenship was of any interest to Blair, it was purely for instrumental purposes, to dissolve issues of “class” into issues of citizenship, rights and responsibilities, and so on.  There was no fundamental transformation of the state along these lines, other than the ones he was forced to make, like Devolution.  This is what I mean by ad hoc responses, this is what the ruling class has always done.

JF: One argument that’s made, both by mainstream sociologists like Lindsay Paterson and by Alex Law, is that devolution was essentially a devil’s pact amongst Scotland’s elitist professional class, a way to entrench occupational closure.  “Welfare nationalism” is thus an instrumental tool of a paternalist, centralising elite.  Why has the professional class been so prominent to Scottish politics?  Is it possible to have devolution from below?

ND: This is usually bracketed under the euphemism “Scottish civil society”, which essentially is just a term for Scottish professionals and the new middle class more broadly.  I think they’ve certainly ideologically dominated the process of Devolution, to all intents and purposes. Although the labour movement’s involvement has been important, it’s been mostly important at the level of the trade union officialdom, the STUC and so on, rather than the actual membership of various unions.

I think most people in Scotland wanted Devolution, that’s obvious, but the actual political forms and processes were driven by the new middle class, who are divided of course between the public sector professionals, the herbivore liberals, if you like, on the one hand, and the carnivore neoliberals on the other hand, who tend to work in the private sector, banking and so on.  Its important to understand that for actual members of the Scottish capitalist class like Brian Souter there are no terrors in devolution. So it suits a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.

If we’re going to talk about devolution from below, we need to remind ourselves about what devolution really is.  My position has been for some time that if there’s a ballot for independence we should support it, because of what I said about Devo Max- I think it’s a neoliberal strategy.  I don’t think Devo Max is just a less good alternative to independence, I think you need to consciously argue for setting up a state, where we would have some sort of levers over policy and so on, rather than a situation where the imperatives of neoliberalism were imposed with no restraints whatsoever, as with Devo Max.  Without wishing to create any illusions in what states can and cannot do under capitalism, it is nonetheless better to set a state and have some influence, with the eventual possibility of fighting for more advanced positions, than have none at all.  So we need to be quite clear in arguing hard against “more devolution” and for full independence in the labour movement.

JF: How long can the trade union officials continue to provide financial and diplomatic support to Scottish Labour when it is, to all and intents and purposes, to the right of the governing party?

ND: Their answer, I suppose, would be that as long as they fund the Labour Party and maintain a degree of control over the process of policy formation, the Labour Party can never become exactly like the openly capitalist parties, no matter how much sections of the leadership may wish to turn it into something like the US Democrats. On the other hand, while the SNP’s reforms may be welcome, and most officials will concede this, they have no structural way of ensuring that these reforms are continued. Now at one level, this is true, although you would have to say that a list of what the Labour Party has actually done for the trade unions – other than the minimum wage and Brown’s covert funding of public sector jobs – has been pretty minimal for decades now.

To digress slightly, I think that part of the problem with the revolutionary left’s critique of the Labour Party – and I include my own party in this – is a refusal or at least reluctance to acknowledge that it has any achievements to its name: it’s all just one long history of betrayal. I think in some respects we have been too uncritical of Miliband the Father in this respect, since his Parliamentary Socialism set the tone for most of the critiques which followed. The point is that one of the reasons why trade union leaders can continue to argue for funding the Labour Party is that, historically, it did actually deliver reforms – some, at a local level, even during the Depression of the 1930s: it has ceased, or is ceasing to do so and this will of course cause people to raise the question you’ve just asked.

Unfortunately, until the Scottish radical left gets its collective act together and provides an actual organisation or alliance which can plausibly ask for support from the trade unions, the officials will be able to argue for continuing to fund the Labour Party in the absence of any alternative.

JF: What do you think of the argument that an independence referendum will inevitably be used by the ruling class to divide resistance to the Tories?

ND: I don’t take this seriously. If we were in a revolutionary situation then it might have some validity, since the ruling class will certainly use any tactic, including separatism, rather than lose power – think of the right-wing demand for regional autonomy in eastern Bolivia now, for example. But we’re not exactly in a pre-revolutionary situation, alas. And even if – or should I say, when – the class struggle picks up again, even if we start to win victories, it’s quite possible that Scottish workers also might still want to put as much constitutional distance between themselves and the coalition as possible, You would have to be a quite extraordinarily vulgar economic reductionist to imagine that the national question will simply vanish under the impact of the class struggle – that wasn’t the experience in 1968-74, for example.

The key point, I think, is that working class unity is not based on the constitutional form of the state or its organisational reflection in the structures of the trade unions: it’s based on solidarity in action, across borders if necessary. The biggest obstacle to intra-national unity is the union bureaucracy – think of the arguments about “Scottish steel” during the Miner’s Strike, for example.

The question I suppose is why people make this argument about the divided working class. On the sectarian left it tends to be an expression of an abstract internationalism which is hyper-sensitive to what they regard as any capitulation to Scottish nationalism while remaining completely insensitive to the far greater ideological problem of British nationalism. Can you imagine the guff about the wonders of Britishness, about our glorious civilising role across the world that will be pumped out during a referendum? We can be fairly sure that the Chartists and the Suffragettes won’t feature heavily in the “no” camp’s propaganda.

For reformists the reason is different. Labour Party members on the other hand fear that without Scotland the party will never win an election again – they’re quite wrong about this, actually: Labour would have won in 1945, 1966 and 1997 even without Scotland or Wales – and of course for at least some of them it is also really a disguised defence of the British state.

JF: There’s a persistent argument made by the Labour party that an independent Scotland would inevitably fall prey to global financial vultures.  Whereas we now have the protection of the Leviathan-like City of London, independence would be a slippery slope to a Greece-style situation.  What do you make of this argument?

ND: It’s not a serious argument.

Obviously, any small capitalist state is going to suffer problems from financial markets, but then so do big states.  And to say that we can’t have independence for this reason is to say we can basically never make any serious change, because it will always fall prey to the financial markets.  It’s an argument for taking no action whatsoever.  It’s like the old opposition to permanent revolution in its international form – you can’t start, because you’re too small, capitalism will inevitably win…and so nobody starts.

JF: What do you think socialists should argue for in terms of financial markets in an independent Scotland?

ND: I think we have to properly nationalise the banks for a start – and I emphasise, properly nationalise them, where the state tells them what to do, not this thing where we give them loads of money and they carry on doing whatever they were doing before.  That is a bottom line demand – that the banks should be brought under the control of an independent Scottish state, which could then take investment decisions directly in terms of infrastructure projects and so on.  That would also involve an end to things like PPP [public private partnerships] and PFI [private finance initiatives], tearing up of any contracts that already exist, that kind of stuff.

Of course, we don’t want to create illusions that this is an easy matter.  If you go down any road of reformist change then you’re going to encounter problems.  That was even the case for France in 1981, for Britain in the 1970s, and so on, and these are bigger states.  So I don’t think you can create illusions in people that having more control over finance etc will automatically remove you from the world economy – it won’t.  But it’s possible, these things can happen.  The nationalisations of YPF oil in Argentina is a case in point.  The sky is not going to fall in if these things go ahead.

JF: Often when we talk about an Independence campaign, Trotskyists assume the role of the Left is merely to morally constrain the capitalist excesses of the official SNP, winning some of their supporters through propaganda about big business links and so on.  But do you think the Left – in its broadest sense -  could play an effective role in winning the Yes vote?

ND: Yes I do and I think we should, that should be the role of the radical Left – by which I mean people to the left of Labour who may not necessarily be revolutionaries.  We have to take winning the referendum seriously, and see our role not simply as “commenting” on it or urging people not to have illusions, and so on, but also to fight for a position.  If we’re serious about this, we need to avoid a benign abstention sort of position.  We need to say, okay, for all the difficulties, why are we for this, how do we get this, and how do we jostle for the best position in terms of defending the gains we have and so on.

It’ll be difficult, of course, we’ll come under enormous international pressure.  But we need to have something positive to say, which means engaging in a critique of the SNP’s position while supporting thedemand for independence.  We need to push the SNP to make sure that their promises on public services, on Trident and war and so on, are followed through.

So yes, it is a serious task.  If this is what the Left is arriving at, in terms of non-nationalist support for independence, then we have to carry it through seriously and strategically.


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