Scottish independence and the struggle against austerity

Excerpts from a talk given by Caleb Maupin at a Workers World Forum in New York on Sept. 19.

Until recent weeks the question of Scottish independence from the so-called United Kingdom seemed an abstract question. It was something that did not seem relevant in the ongoing struggle.

A number of communists and socialists in Britain, including trade union militant George Galloway, opposed it for that reason. They said the question of Scottish independence was a distraction.

They said that when they go to college campuses in Scotland to urge the students to protest the wars and the cutbacks, there’s always somebody who says, “Oh, what we really need is independence. That will solve everything.”

While it makes sense that some revolutionary forces would see Scottish independence as a diversion from the class struggle, you can’t ignore what happened yesterday [Sept. 18].

Nearly half the voters — about 45 percent — cast their ballot for independence. Some 97 percent of the population was registered to vote. The “yes” campaign was staffed mainly by young people — college students and unemployed youth — who have packed meeting halls on university campuses and community centers by the thousands urging people to vote “yes.”

Millions of Scottish people suddenly became extremely excited about the idea of independence, and the ruling class got very scared.

The bourgeoisie spent over a billion dollars, telling horror stories, making promises and doing everything they could to ensure a “no” vote.

On Sunday [Sept. 14], British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Britain would not decide on what military action it would take in Iraq until after the vote. Mark Carney, the head of the financial stability committee of the G20, did not attend the G20 summit in Austria, staying in Britain to coordinate work opposing independence.

All three major political parties in Britain — Labor, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats — opposed Scottish independence. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was in Scotland for almost a month, begging people to vote “no.” U.S. President Barack Obama urged people to vote “no.” British Petroleum and Shell Oil also urged people to vote “no.”

As Marxist-Leninists, we have to analyze what is happening in Scotland. The fact that there has been such an explosion of activism and that such a large number of Scottish people decided they wanted to break out of the U.K. is extremely important. It is symbolic of the current crisis facing all the capitalist countries of the world, not just the United Kingdom.

Crimes of British imperialism

Britain was once the top dog in the global system of imperialism. Not a day goes by without people in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean cursing the British Empire and its royal family for their disgusting crimes against humanity.

Britain rose to prominence as an industrial power based on its development of the textile industry. The cotton used in British textile mills was picked by slaves in the U.S. South. During the Civil War, the bankers, bosses and nobles in England, Scotland and Wales supported the slave owners, hoping to keep the Southern slave plantations going and keep cheap cotton rolling in.

British imperialism brutalized the African people. British settlers in Zimbabwe (they called it Rhodesia) or in South Africa slaughtered African people, entire villages at a time, with the earliest automatic machine guns.

The people of India suffered generations of humiliation and degradation from the British. At one point India had its own textile industry, but the British destroyed it, burning the mills and forcing the people of India to purchase cloth from Britain.

My ancestors were forced to come to this country because of a “man-made” famine in Ireland. While British landowners in Ireland continued to export other foodstuff, 2 million Irish people starved to death in the 1840s after a blight destroyed the potatoes.

The British Empire established the first Zionist settlements in Palestine. At one time the majority of Jewish people in the world were socialists and communists. But a group of wealthy British bankers worked to promote Zionism and recruit the Jewish people of the world to the hateful, racist ideology of Zionism, which has resulted in decades of horrendous crimes against the Palestinians.

The people of the Caribbean have suffered horribly. The people of various Asian countries have suffered horribly.

If we were to go over all the crimes of the British imperialists, we would be here all night.

The way the British imperialists made their oppression work was by dividing the working class at home. They let so-called skilled workers get higher wages and a more comfortable lifestyle. Meanwhile, the British government had a policy of encouraging working-class people to become settlers, sending them across the world to act as overseers, bosses and landlords for Third World peoples.

As Wall Street emerged in the 20th century, British imperialism began to decline. Wall Street is now playing the role that the British imperialists once played — as the center of the profit-making, blood-thirsty imperialist system.

After Britain suffered widespread destruction from Nazi bombs in World War II, huge measures were taken to win back the British people’s loyalty to the empire. A national healthcare service was created and a free university system. The leading political party, the Labour Party, claimed to be a party of socialism and nationalized some industries. Huge efforts were made to employ British people, and what can be described as a “welfare state” was created.

Heroic struggles of British workers

British bankers didn’t allow many a comfortable life because they felt like it. They did it because they had to.

In the 1920s and 1930s, British imperialism was in crisis. The British working class was fighting back. Britain was shut down by a general strike in 1926. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Communist Party of Great Britain had much influence.

The largest of several hunger marches occurred in 1932, when unemployed miners from Scotland walked all the way to London, demanding food and housing and waving the hammer and sickle emblem. They were met by 100,000 supporters at London’s Hyde Park.

In 1936, when a British Nazi named Sir Oswald Mosley held a parade in London, English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Jewish, Southeast Asian and African workers all joined arms to stop it, shouting, “They shall not pass” at the famous Battle of Cable Street.

Before and during World War II, a clear majority of British people held a favorable opinion of the Soviet Union and of socialism. British workers saw that the English monarch, King Edward VIII, had been forced to step down because he had been coddling the Nazis. [See National Geographic’s “Britain’s Nazi King?: Abdicating the Throne.”] Many British workers knew that the Nazi bombs falling on their heads had been paid for with loans from British bankers.

One of the most amazing things the British Communist Party did was to occupy the subways. When Britain was being bombed, the government refused to provide shelter for people, so the Communist Party mobilized the people to take over the subway tunnels and use them as bomb shelters. The police tried to arrest people for doing this, but the Communists mobilized low-income workers in London’s East End to fight the police and demand the right to shelter.

The “welfare state” was created to win British people back to supporting the empire, as British imperialism was in a state of decline and the working class was on the move.

In the last 60 years, British people in England, Scotland and Wales have become accustomed to a more comfortable lifestyle, with relatively high wages, social programs, free healthcare and other benefits.

But that is changing.

Now, just as in the 1930s, the Western capitalist world is facing an economic crisis. Because of “austerity,” British university students now have to pay for their education in many parts of the country. Government workers are being laid off or having their pensions slashed. A “bedroom tax” has been created, which in some cases cuts the income of low-paid workers in half.

In Britain, unemployment among the youth is huge. Youth who are employed get very low wages and have far less protection on the job.

Does any of this sound familiar?

In 2011, youth in Britain rebelled, breaking into stores and causing a huge episode of social unrest. There have been massive protests by the unions and on college campuses.

The movement for Scottish independence is very much part of the working-class resistance to austerity.

What is Scotland?

Scotland is definitely a nation. It has a national territory. It has a national language, which was suppressed. It has distinct religious groups that developed independently. It has its own unique culture and history.

Scotland is a nation, but it is also a nation within the British imperialist homeland. Scottish bankers make super profits, exploiting people around the world, just as English ones do. Scotland is not part of the so-called Third World, and it is not a colony of England.

The struggle for Scottish independence is not a classic “national liberation” struggle. It’s not like Ireland or Puerto Rico or other countries in the oppressed world attempting to break free.

The overwhelming majority of Scottish billionaires and bankers are opposed to Scottish independence, but not all of them. There are some Scottish capitalists who think they could get a better deal under independence.

One of the big issues is Scotland’s natural gas and oil resources. Independence would have put control of these resources, and the billions of dollars in profits from them, up for grabs. It would have meant that a lot of billionaires in the London Stock Exchange and on Wall Street would potentially lose out, and another group of capitalists would get a chance.

However, for the millions of Scottish youth who campaigned for independence, it wasn’t about oil or even really about the national question.

Scotland is a stronghold for the unions and the Labour Party. In the last 51 years, the Scottish people have never supported the Conservative Party. Scotland is a part of Britain where workers have lower income, on average, and tend to be more liberal, especially on economic issues.

University education is no longer free for the majority of British students, but Scotland has refused to take that away.

The millions of people who voted for independence were not really voting for independence from the United Kingdom. They were voting for independence from the Conservative Party. They were voting to stop the cuts in public education, the cuts in the national health service, the cuts in child care programs. They were voting to preserve the jobs of government workers. They were voting, and rallying their friends to vote, to stop austerity.

The Scottish National Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, which dominate local governments in Scotland, called for immediate nationalization of certain industries if the country voted for independence.

Many activists pointed out that the referendum didn’t call for true independence. Scotland would still have been part of the British Commonwealth and recognized the Queen of England. Scotland’s military would have remained united with Britain’s. The British pound would still have been the currency.

One of the big grievances of the Scottish people is that Britain’s nuclear weapons are being stored in Scotland. Even though the overwhelming majority of Scottish people don’t want nuclear weapons on their territory, each time a proposal to remove them goes before the British Parliament, it is voted down.

Until a few weeks ago, no one believed that Scottish independence was a real possibility. However, yesterday it almost happened. The sudden, huge upsurge for Scottish independence is an indicator of the period we are currently living in.

The working class around the world, which has endured so many horrific defeats and setbacks, is struggling to assert itself. The only answer is for the working class to assert itself independently. It’s got to break free of supporting any capitalists and begin to fight for workers’ power.

The huge explosion in Ferguson, Mo.; the Occupy Wall Street protests; the response to the killing of Trayvon Martin; and now the upsurge and outpouring for Scottish independence all point toward the potential for the working class to awaken.