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Scottish Independence and the Struggle for Socialism

Alan McCombes

This article was written as a discussion document for Scottish Militant Labour (SML), and a shortened version was published in the 6 February 1998 issue of SML’s paper Scottish Socialist Voice. Since then, as the article predicts, the political importance of the national question in Scotland has not declined but rather intensified, with the result that the Scottish National Party has overhauled Labour in the opinion polls and threatens to emerge as the largest party in the forthcoming Scottish Parliament. In the meantime, the demand for an independent socialist Scotland has been adopted as official policy both by SML and by the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) in which SML is the leading force. SML has also decided to merge itself into a new Scottish Socialist Party, based on the SSA – an action which has been strongly opposed by the leadership of the Socialist Party (formerly Militant/Militant Labour), SML’s sister organisation in England and Wales. "Scottish Independence and the Struggle for Socialism" presents a cogently-argued case for SML’s position on the national question, and we are grateful to comrade McCombes for permission to reproduce it in What Next?

FOR SOCIALISTS, internationalism is a sacred principle. "The working man has no country", declared the founder of scientific socialism.

Today, in the age of transnational capitalism and instantaneous world-wide communication via telephone, satellite TV and the Internet, the existence of 184 separate nation states, each with its own national economy and state apparatus, is a relic from an earlier technological stage. Even sections of the capitalist class have now been forced to face up to the historical obsolescence of the nation state by, for example, attempting to move towards European Monetary Union (EMU) as a step to pan-European political union. Tory ex-Chancellor Kenneth Clarke even committed the heresy of suggesting that, as a consequence of European federal union, Westminster would eventually become the equivalent of "a county council" – a statement which he later retracted for political reasons.

The brand of nationalism which preaches solidarity on the basis of race, language, culture, geography is incompatible with socialism – which promotes solidarity on the basis of class, irrespective of nationality, religion or ethnic origin. These are elementary principles. But just as a child will never learn to read and write simply by reciting by rote the letters of the alphabet, socialists will never build a movement capable of overthrowing capitalism without going beyond the ABCs of scientific socialism.

Karl Marx himself, who in words and deeds strove to unite the working class across national borders, nonetheless supported the struggles of the Irish people and the Polish people for independent nationhood. The victory of the Irish people and the Polish people would strike a twin blow against British imperialism and against the Tsarist empire, which in turn would open the floodgates of revolution across Europe.

Later, in the early part of the twentieth century, Lenin was accused by members of his own party of "nationalist-socialism" precisely because he developed a programme on the national question which went beyond the repetition of basic internationalist slogans.

It may appear out of place for a democratic socialist party operating in Scotland in the 1990s to invoke the writings of Lenin in support of our arguments. Following the disintegration of the totalitarian Stalinist states of Eastern Europe, it has become fashionable to disparage Lenin as a despot who introduced totalitarian rule into Russia. However, we reject the ill-informed demonology of Lenin that passes for factual history in certain quarters. As opposed to the authoritarian tyrant of academic mythology, Lenin led an essentially peaceful revolution whose central aim was to bring about social, economic and political democracy. His writings and speeches – before, during and after the Russian Revolution – are saturated with the spirit of democracy, not least of all on the national question.

Within a few years of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the centralised, repressive and autocratic Tsarist state had been dismantled and replaced by a highly decentralised structure. A genuinely democratic federation had begun to take shape, within which, irrespective of their size, the various republics that made up the federation were granted equal representation in the government. Small nations which wished to secede were set free; new democratic republics were established in territories which had known only vicious persecution; smaller territories were granted varying degrees of autonomy. New nations were created; new alphabets were even invented in order to facilitate the development of national languages.

It was precisely over the national question that Lenin’s opposition to the bureaucratic methods of Stalin finally erupted into open conflict. From his deathbed, Lenin lambasted Stalin for his Great Russian chauvinism in his dealings with the smaller nationalities and for his reckless and ill-informed accusations of "nationalist-socialist" against the Georgian Bolsheviks. Stalin in turn accused Lenin of "national liberalism".

Unfortunately, the death of Lenin paved the way for the rise to power of this "Great Russian bully", as Lenin described him (notwithstanding Stalin’s Georgian origins). This in turn led to the eventual suppression of democracy and national rights in the USSR in violation of every principle of elementary socialism.

Although we live in a completely different society today from that which confronted Lenin in the early part of this century, the basic method by which Lenin approached the national question retains its validity today.

Long before the Russian Revolution, Lenin had recognised that the national question presented an opportunity as well as a danger to the socialist movement: "We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat’s great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilise every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings". Writing in 1916 about the Easter Rising in Dublin, Lenin said: "To imagine that a social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe ... is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says ’We are for socialism’ and another, somewhere else and says ’We are for imperialism’, and that will be a social revolution! ... Whoever expects a ’pure’ social revolution will never live to see it.... The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements." And while pointing out that, as a general rule, socialists favour bigger, broader multi-national states, Lenin carefully added the qualification: "other conditions being equal". (All italics are as in the original text.)

As a general rule, Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood for "the right of nations to self-determination". The leaders of the Polish Marxist movement, including Karl Radek and the heroic revolutionary fighter Rosa Luxemburg, opposed this formula as a "national-reformist" slogan. Fired with revolutionary internationalist zeal and contemptuous of the narrow parochialism of the Polish upper and middle classes, Rosa Luxemburg and her co-leaders of the Polish Marxist movement went overboard in the opposite direction. In concentrating purely on the class issues, they denied even the possibility of national liberation. This in turn meant abandoning big sections of the working class to the Polish Socialist party – in reality a nationalist party, socialist in name only – whose leader Joseph Pilsudski went on to become fascist dictator of Poland.

Replying to the criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg that his policy in favour of the "right of nations to self-determination" would foment national divisions, Lenin drew an analogy with human relationships and the right to divorce. Supporting the right to divorce did not mean advocating that every marriage should be dissolved, he argued.

However, Lenin’s argument has been interpreted in a one-sided manner, particularly by some small pseudo-internationalist sects, who seem to believe that the task of socialists is simply to counterpose international socialism to demands for national independence irrespective of the circumstances. "Standing for the right to divorce does not mean advocating divorce.... We are in favour of a loving, voluntary union", declared one polemicist in a recent pamphlet devoted to attacking Scottish Militant Labour on the national question. Of course, we are in favour of "a loving, voluntary union". But when a marriage has ceased to be "a loving, voluntary union" even the most optimistic marriage guidance counsellor is sometimes forced to recommend divorce.

Indeed, Lenin illustrated his analogy by citing the example of the secession of Norway from Sweden following an overwhelming referendum vote in favour of independence by the Norwegian people. Rather than weakening links between the working classes of the two nations, by removing the national resentment of Norway towards its larger and more powerful neighbour, relations between the two actually improved, Lenin argued.

Since then, the various independent countries of Scandinavia have evolved a quasi-confederal relationship. There has been a long history of close co-operation among the Scandinavian countries: for example, the labour movements of the various countries campaign for common standards of welfare, wages, and conditions. The workers’ parties and trade unions have regular joint conferences. There is also throughout Scandinavia co-ordination of railway timetables, roads, telecommunications, airlines and postal services – even though the individual states remain politically independent of one another.

Ultimately, Lenin’s skilful and sympathetic policy on the national question proved an unqualified success; in the smaller nations of the Tsarist empire, tens of millions were inspired to support the Russian Revolution, seeing in the Bolsheviks the most resolute defenders of the rights of national minorities.

There are sections of the British left today who simplistically equate support for national independence with "nationalism". In fact, whether or not a demand for national independence can be dismissed as "nationalist" depends upon the answers to some crucial questions: "Who is raising the demand?" "Why are they raising the demand?" "What will be the consequences?"

In 1934, when Spain was spiralling towards civil war, the exiled Russian revolutionary leader and socialist internationalist Leon Trotsky called for the working class in Catalonia to take power and declare an independent republic: "Our comrades ... must agitate – through their own organisations and through the Workers Alliance – for the proclamation of the independent republic of Catalonia.... The proletariat must prove to the Catalan masses that it has a sincere interest in the defence of Catalan independence." Trotsky anticipated that if the working class of Catalonia took power, the reverberations would echo throughout every corner of the Iberian Peninsula and pave the way for the victory of socialism throughout Spain as a whole.

Later, in 1939, he called for "an independent Soviet Ukraine" – a breakaway from the Stalinised USSR. "In order to draw together more closely and honestly, it is sometimes necessary first to separate", he argued. "The national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution." He went on to argue that "the triumph of the socialist revolution on a world scale is the end-product of multiple movements, campaigns and battles, and not at all a ready-made precondition for solving all questions automatically". In Ireland, James Connolly played a leading role in the Easter Rising, and declared that "the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour".

In Scotland, John Maclean called for a Scottish Workers’ Republic in 1920 – yet continued to call for one all-Britain industrial trade union, as opposed to the plethora of small unions, including sixty purely Scottish trade unions. While fighting for an independent socialist Scotland, Maclean even expressed the conviction that over generations "inter-marriage will wipe out all national differences and the world will become one."

Maclean raised his demand for an independent Scottish Workers’ Republic because he believed that a war between Britain and the US was imminent – a view shared at that time by many mainstream capitalist commentators based on the growing trade war between the two imperialist powers. Although the revolutionary struggles that had convulsed Clydeside in 1919 were matched by similar struggles in Belfast and Liverpool, they had failed to ignite a general movement across Britain as a whole. Maclean concluded that "Scotland was more ready for socialism than England" and that it was possible to establish a Scottish Workers’ Republic sooner rather than later – thus averting the horror of a new world war.

On various counts, Maclean was to prove mistaken. War with America failed to materialise. The idea of a Scottish Workers’ Republic fell largely on stony ground. In contrast to Ireland, which had suffered centuries of oppression and where national discontent had been a mighty revolutionary force, Scotland had benefited from its involvement as a partner in the British empire, then still one of the major powers in world capitalism. Maclean himself was left isolated from the mainstream of the Scottish labour movement and without influence in the emerging British Communist Party. There barely existed in Scotland at that stage any significant support for national independence. Finally, the outbreak of a revolutionary British-wide general strike within a few years of Maclean’s early death revealed that the political gap between Scotland and England was narrower than Maclean had estimated.

Nonetheless these were honest mistakes of a genuine revolutionary. The position adopted by John Maclean on Scottish independence should neither be opposed on principle – nor defended uncritically. A slogan or a policy may be correct at one stage – but becomes redundant when conditions themselves change.

In one sense, Maclean was far in advance of his time: in the final years of the twentieth century, the idea of an independent socialist Scotland has become a much more attractive prospect for whole swathes of workers and youth. More than ever before there is doubt over the future of the 300 year old Union between Scotland and England. Just as decaying Stalinism proved incapable of holding together the multi-national states of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, it is becoming more and more questionable whether decaying capitalism can hold together the multi-national state that is the United Kingdom.

Scotland has a distinctive history which sets it apart from Ireland and Wales – both of which were conquered and subjugated by England in the middle ages. The history of Ireland is a prolonged and bloodstained tale of national resistance and murderous oppression. Wales, mainly as a result of its geographical proximity to England, evolved in the opposite direction: migration in both directions, intermarriage and the development of the Welsh economy by English capital led to partial integration of the two countries; although there remains in Wales a powerful sense of national injustice which is likely to grow rather than diminish in the future.

Scotland, in contrast, successfully resisted English colonisation. The Wars of Independence of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries succeeded in driving out England and paved the way for the emergence of a Scottish national state with its own indigenous ruling class and a separate national economy which survived independently for more than 400 years.

The Scottish ruling class – which had brought Scotland to the verge of financial ruination – surrendered political independence in 1707 in order to gain access to English markets. For the English ruling class, a federal union or partnership on a free and equal basis was unacceptable. While a degree of independence was preserved in the spheres of law, education and religion, Scotland was effectively turned into a dependent nation, stripped of political or economic autonomy.

Like the treaty accepting the partition of Ireland signed by Michael Collins in 1921, the Act of Union provoked widescale opposition. Eventually, with the rise of the British empire, Scottish opposition to the Union began to dissolve. For the Scottish ruling classes, the Union became synonymous with progress and enlightenment. Throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, those elements who opposed the Union were regarded in much the same way as today’s Euro-sceptics are regarded by those sections of the ruling class who look to Europe for salvation. With the upper classes and middle classes prospering immensely from the plunder and pillage of the British empire, the very concept of Scotland began to be regarded as a relic of a bygone age; for a period, the Scottish establishment even began to drop the word "Scotland", replacing it with the term "North Britain".

However, within radical circles and within the emerging labour movement there remained a yearning for Home Rule, which in turn reflected the existence of an anti-imperialist sentiment and an affinity with Ireland and the oppressed nations of the empire. Thus the 1820 Weavers’ Insurrection – a forerunner of the Chartist movement – demanded Scottish independence. Later the emerging labour movement inscribed on its banner the demand for Home Rule. Keir Hardie’s Scottish Labour Party, formed in 1888, included the demand for Home Rule as the fifth point in an 18-point programme. The Scottish TUC, formed as a radical breakaway from the British TUC in 1897, adopted a pro-Home Rule policy in 1914. Later, the first act of the ten ILP MPs – the "Red Clydesiders" – who were elected from the West of Scotland to Westminster in 1922 was to present a bill to the House of Commons calling for Scottish Home Rule. At the same time, John Maclean was agitating for a Scottish Workers’ Republic.

However, throughout this period there was never any serious mass movement in favour of independence. Historically, the Union had been cemented by the rise of the British empire. It was then galvanised by the sense of British identity forged during two world wars. It was further reinforced by the post-war upswing and the development of a Britain-wide welfare state and National Health Service; and by the existence of a Britain-wide mass workers’ party proclaiming the goal of a socialist Britain.

In more recent times, all of these factors have been turned upside down. Britain, from being among the world’s super-powers, was long ago relegated from the Premier League of world capitalism and continues to slide down the table. For twenty years, the welfare state, the NHS and other public services have been under attack. The Labour Party, once the mass party of the British working class, is now openly aligned with big business. All of these ingredients have contributed to a weakening of British identity and the search for a Scottish solution to the social and economic problems of Scotland. This in turn has been underpinned by the existence of North Sea oil, which from the late 1960s onwards transformed the idea of Scottish independence from a romantic dream into a practical economic possibility.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has existed for just over sixty years. For most of that time, it was regarded as a fringe party pursuing an impossible fantasy. Only in 1964, exactly 30 years after the party was formed, did it break through the 1% barrier to achieve 2% of the vote in Scotland. That year marked the beginnings of the emergence of nationalism as a significant force for the first time since the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

It coincided with the coming to power of a Labour government – the first for thirteen years. Within two years, support for the SNP had more than doubled to 5% across Scotland. Four years later, in 1970, it had more than doubled again to 11%. Then four years later, in the general election of October 1974, the party won a sensational 30% of the total vote in Scotland. Gripped by panic, the Labour Party came out in favour of limited Scottish Home Rule – a policy which it had jettisoned 25 years earlier.

For a combination of subjective and objective reasons the SNP failed to maintain this momentum. One key factor was the political weakness of the SNP leadership itself. Both in parliament and especially within local councils, the party’s opportunistic wheelings and dealings with the Tory Party caused massive damage to the standing of the SNP in the eyes of the working class. In Glasgow and other parts of the West of Scotland, the right-of-centre, middle class, Presbyterian image of the SNP ensured that its appeal would remain limited; although when popular support for the Labour government began to plummet in 1976-7 the nationalists began to make massive inroads to the Labour vote even in Glasgow.

However, even with a more capable leadership and a more radical image, the SNP could not have led Scotland to independence at that stage for one simple reason: there was no serious mood in favour of the break-up of the United Kingdom. Throughout the 1970s, support for the SNP far outstripped support for independence. In the years before Thatcher, support for independence barely reached 15%; even many SNP supporters saw the party as a lever by which to exert pressure on the Westminster parties for a better deal for Scotland.

Nonetheless, although the movement towards independence was still at an early stage in the 1970s, the rise of the SNP did reflect a growing sense of Scottish national identity. Twenty years on, that mood has hardened immeasurably. Support for independence now significantly outstrips support for the SNP. Prior to the general election a detailed opinion survey suggested that among DE voters (i.e. the unskilled, semi-skilled and unwaged) independence was the most popular of the three constitutional options then on offer (i.e. independence, devolution or the status quo). Among 18-24 year olds, the independence option was more popular than the other two combined. And among 18-24 year olds in the DE category, there was a remarkable 32-point gap between support for independence and its closest rival, devolution.

In the immediate aftermath of the general election, some political commentators suggested that the growing political divergence between Scotland and England had now been reversed. In contrast to the previous four general elections, when Scotland had voted one way and England another, there was now a political symmetry in voting patterns both sides of the border. The victory of Blair in Scotland and in England signified a new political convergence and a reversal of the trend towards independence. This analysis was shared by some sections of the left, particularly by the Socialist Workers Party, who welcomed an end to "the distraction of nationalism".

This analysis was entirely superficial and one-sided. In fact, the outcome of the last general election has ensured that the national question will remain on the boil for the foreseeable period. The complete wipe-out of the Tories in Scotland; the marginalisation of the Liberal Democrats; the increased share of the vote and number of seats won by the SNP: all of these factors combined mean that electoral politics in Scotland has turned into a straight fight between Labour and the SNP.

In England the Tories, albeit seriously weakened, remain the principle opposition party with 150 MPs. While in some local areas of England a future backlash against Labour can be channelled to the left including the Socialist Party, the massed ranks of the middle classes are more likely to return to the Tories – although a section will look to the Liberal Democrats as a slightly more radical alternative to New Labour.

In contrast, the SNP has now replaced the Tory Party as the main rival to Labour in Scotland. Even now, the party stands poised in second place in the vast majority of Scotland’s 71 constituencies. In some areas, disillusionment with New Labour can be partly channelled towards our organisation and to the Scottish Socialist Alliance. But for the broad mass of the population, Scottish politics will be viewed largely as a battle for supremacy between Labour and the SNP. This fact alone is sufficient to ensure that the next four to five years will see a growing gulf between Scottish and English politics. But the existence of a Scottish Parliament, which will be elected within eighteen months and fully operational within two years, adds an explosive new ingredient.

Other things being equal, the national Labour leadership would have preferred to have buried the whole idea of a Scottish Parliament. Those ultra-left grouplets who called for boycotts and No votes in the referendum are hopelessly wide of the mark when they echo the claim of Blair and his spin doctors that the setting up of a Scottish Parliament is all part of a New Labour masterplan to reform and modernise the Union. In fact New Labour has drawn back from the wide-ranging constitutional reform which the party was promoting before Blair took over in 1994. Plans for regional assemblies in England have now been jettisoned – even though in the Northern Region especially, which includes the parliamentary constituencies of Blair and Mandelson, there appears to be a growing demand for some form of regional assembly.

The real driving force for a Scottish Parliament has been the rising national discontent in Scotland against centralised Westminster rule. For the New Labour leadership, failure to deliver a Scottish Parliament would have spelled catastrophe for the party in Scotland. The Scottish labour and trade union movement would have split down the middle with a large breakaway grouping opting for independence and perhaps even merging with the SNP.

It is clear that prior to the general election, sections of the national Labour leadership had begun to explore the possibility of avoiding or at least diluting the party’s decades-long commitment to an elected Scottish Parliament. The decision to call a double-question referendum was an expression of Labour’s weakening commitment to devolution. Clearly, if the outcome of the general election had been different, with, for example, the Tories remaining Scotland’s second party, the Labour leadership would have had more room to manoeuvre. At the very least, it is likely that sections of the Labour leadership, including individuals like Jack Straw, would have been encouraged to express open scepticism towards the idea of a Scottish Parliament in order to muddy the waters. But the replacement of the Tories as Scotland’s second party by the SNP ensured that the heat was turned on Labour to deliver its full election pledge. In that sense, the New Labour leadership has acted like an employer who awards a wage increase to his workforce to avert a strike – while trying to dress it up as an act of generosity.

Moreover, when an employer makes concessions to his workforce under pressure, that does not provide a permanent resolution of class conflict; it serves invariably to strengthen the confidence of the workers and encourages them to come back for more in the future. Similarly, the granting of a limited Scottish Parliament will fuel the national question rather than extinguish it.

It is instructive to compare the No campaign in the recent referendum with the anti-devolution campaign conducted in 1979. Then, there were two distinct strands to the campaign.

On the one hand, there was a vein of class opposition to a Scottish assembly based on the proposition that such a reform would be a distraction from the central mission of bringing about a socialist Britain. Although it was a mistaken position, it nonetheless found an echo – particularly among some of the more class conscious socialist-leaning workers. The complete absence of this argument this time round reflects the weakening of the broad socialist movement on an all-Britain scale since 1979; today, even the most politically conscious workers and youth regard the idea of a socialist Britain as a remote prospect and are more inclined to look for a Scottish road to socialism.

The second strand of the No campaign in 1979 consisted mainly of businessmen and Tory activists who argued that a Scottish assembly would be a useless and expensive additional tier of bureaucracy – the same type of arguments which dominated this year’s referendum campaign in Wales. In 1979 the Tories deliberately conveyed the impression that they stood for something stronger than the assembly on offer from Labour. There was no serious suggestion in 1979 that a Yes vote would be the first step towards the break-up of the Union. Indeed in 1979 the ultra-unionist Orange Order backed Labour’s devolution proposals – which at that stage was in line with their support for the restoration of a Stormont-type parliament in Northern Ireland. In contrast, in the recent referendum, the Orange Order vehemently supported a No, No vote on the grounds that a Scottish Parliament would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom – which of course would have potentially serious repercussions for Northern Ireland.

Nor was the Orange Order a voice crying out in the wilderness: the central theme of the entire No, No campaign was defence of the Union. "As sure a chrysalis turns into a butterfly, a parliament in Edinburgh will lead to a Scotland that is separate from the rest of the UK", warned Labour’s Tam Dalyell. In one televised debate, Scots-born Bruce Anderson, editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine, poured scorn on Labour government minister George Robertson, when he compared a devolved Scotland with a US state or a German Land: "Scotland is neither an American state nor a German Land; it is a nation with its own history and identity. As soon as you put a parliament in a nation such as Scotland, it becomes a focal point." In other words, for the forces of conservative reaction, it would be more acceptable to site a parliament in Newcastle or Birmingham – because this would represent less of a threat to the United Kingdom.

Other Labour politicians have pointed to the example of Catalonia as an example of a stable, devolved parliament within a multi-national state. Unlike the German Länder, which were artificial creations imposed from the outside by the major powers after the Second World War to prevent the re-emergence of a strong centralised German state, Catalonia is clearly a distinct nation within the Spanish state.

Of course, there are important differences between Catalonia and Scotland – including the history of cultural and national oppression suffered by Catalonia under Franco. But in other respects, the national question in Catalonia is less developed than in Scotland. In terms of its history, geography and population mix, the national question in Catalonia bears closer comparison to Wales than to Scotland. As in Wales, the Catalan language has played a significant role in the development of national consciousness. However, while the language question can help to fuel national sentiment, it can also be a source of division. In Scotland the weakness of the Gaelic language means that national consciousness does not have the same cultural or ethnic dimension – which paradoxically has helped broaden the appeal of nationalism and independence.

It is also the case that Catalonia is the major economic powerhouse of the Iberian Peninsula. Barcelona is the biggest and busiest port on the Mediterranean. Whereas Scotland has traditionally exported its population to the more prosperous south east of England, Catalonia acts as a magnet attracting labour from the poverty-stricken regions of southern Spain. The Basque Country is also among the most prosperous regions of Spain, with a third of its population made up of incoming migrants from Andalusia, Extramadura and other economically backward regions. Although there are huge economic disparities within Scotland, with cities like Edinburgh and Aberdeen enjoying relative prosperity, the West of Scotland especially bears closer comparison to the impoverished peripheral regions of southern and western Spain.

It is also clear that in neither Catalonia nor the Basque Country has the establishment of an autonomous parliament undermined nationalism. In 1977, in the first elections to the Basque parliament, support for the Basque nationalist parties surged from 35% in the previous general election to 65%. The mainstream nationalist party, the PNV, is at this stage content to control an autonomous parliament which retains 93% of all taxes within the country, sending just 7% of its revenues to Madrid as its contribution to defence and foreign affairs. Even then, there is substantial support in the Basque Country for complete independence – although the methods of individual terrorism employed by ETA, the military wing of the main pro-independence party, Herri Batasuna, have repelled many Basques. Meanwhile in Catalonia, the nationalist Catalan Convergencia has become far and away the most powerful political force.

In neither Catalonia nor the Basque Country are the major nationalist parties demanding full independence at this stage. That is partly a consequence of the relative prosperity of both areas as compared with the rest of Spain. However, as the crisis of European capitalism deepens, other nationalist parties – including the main Catalan and Basque parties and Plaid Cymru in Wales – could follow in the footsteps of the SNP and demand full national independence within the European Union.

Until the recent referendum, public opinion in Scotland was broadly divided three ways. Even then, the issues were blurred. Many people supported the general principle of Home Rule with an open-minded attitude on whether it should take the form of devolution or independence. In fact, prior to the referendum, opinion polls showed that a clear majority of Scots expected that devolution would eventually lead to independence. During the referendum campaign both the Tories and the SNP, from diametrically opposing standpoints, maintained that a devolved parliament in Edinburgh would be the first step on the road to independence. For the majority of the population, the claim by the Labour leadership that devolution would strengthen the Union cut little ice. In the aftermath of the referendum, the temperature on the national question has almost visibly risen. Flagmakers, for example, report that they have been working flat out to cope with the demand since 11 September – and the demand is not for Union Jacks.

With devolution about to become the status quo, the constitutional battle in Scotland will begin to focus much more clearly on what form Home Rule should take – devolution or independence? The SNP is already brimful of optimism. Even though they were disappointed by their failure to win the Paisley South by-election, the nationalists have drawn comfort from the fact that if the swing from Labour to the SNP in Paisley were to be repeated on a national scale, the SNP would come within one percentage point of Labour in a Scottish-wide election. With Labour just six months into government at the time of the Paisley by-election – albeit shaken locally by sleaze and corruption scandals – the nationalists are now licking their lips in anticipation of a huge groundswell of disaffection flooding in their direction over the next two to three years.

Elsewhere, we have explained in detail the woeful shortcomings of Labour’s devolution scheme. One figure alone provides a glimpse of the storms and stresses that lie ahead for Labour in Scotland: as part of the government’s overall attack on public expenditure throughout the UK, the Scottish Office budget will have been reduced by £1.2 billion a year by the year 2000, the first year of operation of the new parliament. In other words there will be £240 less spent per head of the population in 1999 than is currently spent. Moreover this figure is based on an relatively (and unjustifiably) optimistic economic forecast for the next three years.

If the British economy slides into a deep recession or slump within the next three years, with mounting unemployment, plummeting tax revenues and an escalating social security bill, even this figure will prove wildly optimistic. Nor does the figure take into account future attacks on the Barnett formula which provides Scotland with an extra £871 per head public expenditure compared with England, to take account of geography, climate, worse health, lower levels of home ownership, lower levels of private education and higher levels of poverty. Even now, there are reports of English Labour MPs furiously demanding that Scotland be brought into line with England – a campaign which is possibly being orchestrated from behind the scenes by Labour spin doctors as part of a softening up exercise to pave the way for a future assault on Scottish public expenditure. All of this will provide meat and drink for the SNP to feast itself upon. The party is now single-mindedly focused on the first elections for the new Scottish Parliament in the spring of 1999. For the SNP, the road to independence now appears less cluttered than ever before.

In the past the SNP’s stated aim was to win a majority of Scottish seats in a general election to the Westminster Parliament – which the party would then interpret as a mandate to call a referendum on independence. However, the combination of the first-past-the-post electoral system, the uniform geographical distribution of SNP votes, and the inevitable public focus on British issues during Westminster elections rendered the SNP’s task extremely difficult. In contrast, the prospect of an SNP majority in elections to a Scottish Parliament appears much more viable. Already, even before the honeymoon has turned sour, opinion polls indicate that the gap between Labour and the SNP in the first elections to the new parliament will be significantly narrower than in the general election. With these elections just eighteen months away, and almost certain to be conducted under the Additional Member System, it is unlikely that the SNP – or any other single party – will gain an outright majority. But it is clear that the SNP are looking further ahead towards the year 2003.

That is, of course, only one possible perspective. Indeed, events rarely unfold in such a linear fashion. Real life is invariably less straightforward; unforeseen circumstances usually intervene to complicate matters. Nonetheless, that prognosis – the mirror opposite of New Labour’s dream of a modernised, prosperous United Kingdom in which national antagonisms will wither away – is likely to prove a more accurate projection of the future.

What processes could intervene to cut across the rise of the SNP and the momentum towards independence?

In the past, the strength of the labour and socialist movement on an all-Britain scale acted as a powerful counterweight to separatist tendencies. So too did the existence of mighty trade unions waging Britain-wide battles for better living standards and working conditions. On the other hand, it would be wrong to have an exaggerated or one-sided conception of the relationship between socialism, industrial struggle and the national question. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period of dramatic class conflict across Britain, the SNP itself experienced a phenomenal growth in membership and electoral support. Certainly, the strength of the Labour left and simultaneous Britain-wide movements against the Tories, notably the miners’ strike of 1984-5, helped to reduce the appeal of the SNP for workers and youth during the early to mid-1980s. This in turn helped reinforce the serious financial and membership crisis which gripped the SNP during these years. However, there were also subjective reasons for the marginalisation of the SNP in this period. The demoralisation of the rank and file following the failure of the 1979 referendum, the bitter internal conflict which engulfed the party, and the crass stupidity of the party’s then leadership all contributed to the SNP’s banishment to the wilderness.

Today, the political terrain is markedly different from the period 1979-87. In the first place, the balance of forces between socialism and nationalism has been dramatically reversed. The ideological impact of the collapse of Stalinism, the repeated defeats inflicted on the trade union movement by Thatcher, the withering away of reformism and social democracy internationally in the harsh economic environment of the late twentieth century, and the cowardly desertion to the camp of free market capitalism by a whole generation of labour and trade union leaders, have together led to the severe weakening of the active forces of socialism in Scotland and throughout Britain. In contrast, the SNP with 200 councillors, five MPs and a multi-million budget is in far healthier shape than in the mid-1980s. However, it should be noted that the influence of the SNP is not yet reflected in the existence of a mass active base; in many areas, especially in the more run down working class areas, SNP activists remain thin on the ground.

It is likely that the active base of the SNP will tend to expand in the period running up to the Scottish parliamentary elections in 1999. The forces of socialism, including our own organisation and the Scottish Socialist Alliance, can also grow in this period. However, without a major realignment of the left, involving substantial sections of the labour and trade union movement affiliating to – or uniting with – the Alliance, the SNP will continue to provide the main opposition to New Labour across Scotland as a whole.

Is it possible that a bigger, broader socialist force could emerge in Scotland in the next three to four years as opposition to the government begins to mount? Or for that matter, is there any likelihood of a substantial socialist opposition emerging from or within the SNP? And what effect will future trade union struggles in Scotland and across Britain have upon Scottish politics?

It would of course be an impossible task to chart out in detail the future course of events in Scotland. In the mid-1980s it appeared on the face of it that Scottish nationalism was a spent force. Yet by the late ’80s the SNP had made a spectacular comeback. The Govan by-election in 1988 marked a turning point; even though there have been – and will continue to be – ebbs and flows, the tide has generally flowed towards independence ever since. By the same token, socialism itself will also experience a dramatic revival in the next period. But whereas in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the broad movement for socialism in Scotland stood in direct opposition to national independence, that is unlikely to be the case in the future. It is more likely that trade union and socialist struggle will unfold as part and parcel of a wider struggle for national independence.

With the break-up of the big nationalised industries, which provided the framework for most of the united Britain-wide trade union struggles of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it is likely that industrial conflict will tend to take a more fragmented form in the next period.

For a whole generation of workers, class consciousness was forged in the heat of big national industrial battles. Miners, power-workers, dockers, firefighters, railworkers, health workers, local authority workers, steel workers and postal workers were all involved at different stages in simultaneous mass strikes across Britain. In contrast, struggles in the private sector tended to be more localised: car workers in the West Midlands, shipyard workers on Clydeside and Tyneside, print workers in London, etc. That is not to say there was no national industrial action in the private sector; nor does it preclude national action in the future in the private and public sectors. In the 1920s, the trade union movement was if anything even more fragmented than today; yet in 1926 the General Strike drew together a movement of millions across Britain in defence of the miners. However, in the pre-war period national industrial movements tended to be the exception rather than the rule. It was in the post-war era, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, with the growth of public services and nationalised industries, that the pattern of industrial conflict began to shift towards British-wide movements. But today, after fifteen years of privatisation combined in some cases with the virtual destruction of entire national industries, that pattern is likely to change.

Even in the public sector, the existence of a Scottish Parliament which will set wages and conditions in the NHS, in local authorities, in the fire service, in public transport, etc, means that the focus of future trade union action in Scotland will be on Edinburgh rather than London. The exceptions are the Post Office and national departments of the civil service, including the Benefits Agency and the Employment Services. Other public sector workers will be brought more closely into line with teachers – who, because of Scotland’s separate educational system, have always negotiated wages and conditions separately. That is the main reason why the Educational Institute of Scotland remained as one of the few completely separate Scottish trade unions. Despite these changes, socialists have a responsibility to resist any attempts to split the trade unions along national lines. With the growing trend towards some kind of European super-state – which may, or may not, come unstuck – we have to promote the case for wider pan-European structures to co-ordinate international trade union action in defence of living standards, working conditions and public services. We also have to defend the existence of British-wide trade union structures.

At the same time, we should stand for greater autonomy of the trade union movement within Scotland – a demand which is likely to arise within individual trade unions as a means of breaking the bureaucratic stranglehold of the national trade union leadership. In 1988, when the demand for mass non-payment of the Poll Tax was being debated in the Labour Party, a number of trade unions in Scotland supported the call – but were bludgeoned into line by the leadership, who invoked conference and national committee decisions to prevent their Scottish regions supporting radical action. Similar attempts by the national trade union bureaucracy in the future to block industrial action in Scotland would almost inevitably provoke a backlash among Scottish members. Our organisation should not oppose demands that may arise in the future for greater autonomy. While defending the unity of the trade union movement and resisting any future nationalist attempts to divide trade unions along national lines, we should also oppose the existing bureaucratic centralised structures and support moves for greater democracy and local control.

Current battles being fought out in the Labour Party between Blairite centralisers and Scottish autonomists could foreshadow similar battles in the future within the trade union movement. Within the Scottish Labour Party, traditional left-right divisions are increasingly spilling over into the national question. Although there are individual exceptions to the general rule, the supporters of Blair and the party leadership are also the most fervently unionist and centralist in their approach to the national question. Conversely, the opponents of Blairism within the labour and trade union movement in Scotland are generally those who favour an autonomous Scottish Labour Party and, in some cases, closer links with the SNP.

In his recent document, Scottish Labour’s former deputy general secretary, Tommy Sheppard, offers a taste of the divisions to come. He calls for a separate Scottish Labour Party, with its own constitution and policies. "In time, the Scottish people will want their parties home grown, and Labour will have to change or leave the political stage to others", he warns. Such talk is tantamount to mutiny in the new Stalinised Labour Party.

It is clear that any future split within the Scottish labour and trade union movement will encompass the national question as well as division over economic and social policy. Given the inevitable conflict that will erupt between Scotland and London under Labour’s new devolved parliament, it is highly likely that any Scottish breakaway would either immediately embrace the cause of independence, or rapidly evolve in that direction.

Any sizeable breakaway is likely to be preceded by a series of smaller schisms, some of which may move towards the SNP, others perhaps gravitating towards the Scottish Socialist Alliance. Further down the road, within a three to five year period, the entire political map of Scotland could be completely redrawn – with for example the creation of a new mass left formation embracing sections of the existing SNP and Labour left, sections of the trade union movement and the Scottish Socialist Alliance, with new nationalist and unionist realignments on the right.

In the wake of the referendum, a section of the Tory right – backed by the Scotsman and its editor-in-chief Andrew Neil – has shifted from an uncompromising unionist stance to a quasi-federalist position. They call for the Scottish Parliament to be provided with the same type of fiscal powers as the Basque Parliament, which controls most of its own revenues and sends a small portion to Madrid to pay for its share of expenditure on defence, foreign affairs, etc.

Meanwhile the SNP has come out strongly in favour of EMU. Although the party is still positioned to the left of Labour on many social issues, including tuition fees, benefits to 16 and 17 year olds and Trident, it has nonetheless gradually dropped some of the socialist rhetoric of the recent past. Former deputy leader Jim Sillars has even attacked Alex Salmond as a Blairite-type figure lacking "depth or political philosophy ... a man who could don the mantle of socialism while advancing his political career then shed it as soon as it became inconvenient".

Although Sillars himself has turned into a bitter nationalist fundamentalist, there is truth in his criticisms. Salmond is a political opportunist who will zig-zag in different directions depending upon which way the wind appears to be blowing. During the economic recession of the early 1990s, Salmond repeatedly described himself as a "socialist" and conveyed the impression that the SNP stood far to the left of Labour. In the future, as a new and probably deeper recession engulfs the economy, paralleled by a new and stronger surge to socialism, Salmond could steer the SNP even further to the left than before.

But, at this stage, the SNP has drawn closer to the Liberal Democrats. The SNP’s policy of wholehearted support for EMU is in line with this new strategy of a rapprochement with the Liberal Democrats. For the SNP, a single European currency would undermine many of the arguments against an independent Scotland. The fact that the bulk of Scottish trade is with England; the importance of the Scottish financial sector which again is heavily involved in English markets; even the threat that independence will mean visitors to and from England having to change currency at the border: all of these arguments have been deployed against independence.

The idea of an independent Scotland within a federal or quasi-federal Europe marks a further departure by the SNP from the ideal of pure independence. Under EMU, national governments will lose all powers over monetary and exchange rate policy; even fiscal powers are likely to be severely restricted. However, the Liberal Democrats would be much more open to this version of independence. The formal position of the Lib Dems is for a federal Britain and a federal Europe. But if EMU is established and the British government maintains its policy of delaying entry into EMU until after the next general election, the Scottish Liberal Democrats could swing towards the SNP’s policy of a Scottish state within a much more integrated European Union.

All of these shifts and turns illustrate the big changes that are now underway in Scottish politics. For decades, the lines of division on the national question appeared clear cut: the Tories stood for the status quo, the SNP for independence, Labour and the Liberal Democrats for devolution. But the shattering of the Scottish Tory Party in the general election and the subsequent referendum rout of what was left of the hard-line unionist rump has launched Scottish politics into previously uncharted waters.

For socialists the struggle for national rights can never be elevated over and above the struggle for workers’ power and socialism. During the 1970s and 1980s our organisation opposed the demand for Scottish independence; although we supported the right of the Scottish people to self-determination, and actively promoted the demand for an autonomous parliament within an all-Britain framework. That policy flowed from a perspective – justified at that stage – that the struggle for socialism in Scotland would be inextricably linked with the struggle for socialism throughout Britain as a whole.

A series of changes from the late 1980s onwards forced us to revise that policy. In early 1995, in recognition of these changes, we adopted the policy of a voluntary socialist federation of Britain on a free and equal basis. However, we did not specify the exact route by which such a formation was likely to be achieved. We left open several possibilities: either the working class taking power in Britain and creating a decentralised federal structure; or, alternatively, the existing British state being broken up along national lines with Scotland moving at a separate pace towards socialism – leading in turn to a new socialist realignment in the future.

But now, for reasons charted out in this document, it is clear that the national question will be central to the struggle for socialism and workers’ power in Scotland. That is not to argue for a stages theory of socialism: first fight for Scottish independence, then after achieving independence the struggle for socialism can commence. It is to argue that national independence should now be explicitly incorporated into our overall socialist programme. In place of the open-ended slogan "For a socialist Scotland", we should now state clearly that we are in favour of an independent socialist Scotland, as a step towards a wider socialist federation or confederation of European states. Whether or not we should retain the slogan of a socialist federation of Britain requires further discussion for several reasons.

First, because this formula excludes Ireland. If anything, family, social, historical and cultural links between Scotland and Ireland, North and South, are stronger than between Scotland and England, or between Scotland and Wales. If anything, the slogan of a socialist federation of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales would be more appropriate. And secondly, the formula of "an independent socialist Scotland within a socialist federation of Britain" is guaranteed to cause confusion. The meaning of the term "federation" is itself unclear to most people. The Liberal Democrats say they are in favour of a federal Britain; Germany describes itself as a "Federal Democratic Republic"; the USA also proclaims itself a federation. Consequently, most people’s conception of a federation is not of an alliance or association of independent states, but of a more highly developed form of devolution. Instead of clarifying our policy on the national question, the demand for a socialist federation of Britain will be seen as contradictory and confused and would provide the SNP with a stick with which to beat us.

The other dimension that we now have to take into account is Europe. Surveys show that younger people regard themselves as "Scottish" first and "European" second – with "British" trailing a poor third. This is in contrast to the attitude of the generation which grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, when Britain appeared as a bulwark of civilisation and democracy against the dark and dangerous continent of Europe which had fallen under the jackboot of fascism and sided with Hitler in World War II. But for a new generation of Scots, being part of Europe appears a more attractive proposition than being part of Britain.

Paradoxically, the European dimension is undoubtedly a major ingredient in the recent wave of support for independence. On the surface at least, Europe has appeared more progressive on issues such as social policy and workers’ rights than Britain, with its increasing drift towards US-style politics, economics and social policy. At the same time, with moves towards closer European union, the United Kingdom itself has begun to appear more and more superfluous – an additional tier of government which acts as a political barrier separating Scotland from the wider European formation.

The SNP have seized upon the European dimension as a means of counteracting the narrow, separatist image that bedevilled the party in the past. But for most people – especially younger people – that changing attitude towards Europe flows in essence from a healthy internationalist instinct. The imperialist jingoism of the Tory right wing has acted as a further stimulus to the growth of pro-European sentiment among some of the most progressive and radicalised sections of the working class, the middle class and the youth.

On the other hand, if the project of European Union begins to unravel, and that political breakdown is accompanied by a resurgence of right-wing nationalism and neo-Nazism in Germany, Italy, France and other parts of Europe, there could be a recoil back in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, we have to explore more carefully the European dimension and whether to lay greater emphasis on the idea of a socialist Scotland within a socialist Europe, with additional Scandinavian-style co-operation between Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales through a formal alliance.

An additional issue we may have to address more seriously in the future is anti-English nationalism. At this stage, it is mainly a problem in certain rural communities in the Highlands and in the South of Scotland. In the cities, anti-English sentiment is much more muted and tends to be channelled into banter or into sporting rivalry. Consequently it may appear relatively harmless compared with the problems of racism and especially of sectarianism which are more serious divisive at this stage.

Nonetheless, there could easily emerge in the future much stronger, organised currents of right-wing anti-English nationalism. There are sections of the SNP who could move in that direction under the impact of severe economic recession and growing social and national tensions. It should also be acknowledged that there are other sections of the SNP who have no truck with anti-English sentiment: for example, SNP trade unionists who have built solidarity links with the Liverpool dockers and would tend to regard themselves as internationalists who support independence rather than as nationalists.

As part of any move towards a more overtly pro-independence policy, it is essential that socialists simultaneously adopt a more hard-line stand in opposition to anti-English sentiment. Although it may appear like harmless rivalry at this stage, this form of national chauvinism could in the future assume a much uglier character if it is not combated by the socialist left.

At the same time we have to recognise that anti-English sentiment is not straightforward racism. Its roots lie in the unequal relationship between the two countries, and the existence of Scotland as a historically dependent nation whose economic, political and social policy is determined elsewhere. The emergence of a devolved parliament is likely to aggravate anti-English nationalism by heightening tensions between Edinburgh and London over the question of powers, funding, etc. Paradoxically, a fully independent Scotland would have the opposite effect: Scotland’s problems could no longer be simplistically blamed on England, or the English.

Why is it now necessary to make this programmatic change? Would it not be preferable to retain a more open-ended policy on the national question? And would we not be left high and dry if the momentum for independence were to run out of steam and perhaps become submerged under a new tidal wave of socialist struggle at an all-Britain level? These are legitimate doubts that will inevitably be raised as part of this policy debate. But first we have to recognise that whatever policy we arrive at will not be set in stone. For socialists, the national question is essentially a strategical question.

British unionists and Scottish nationalists are mirror images of one another; their central mission is respectively to defend or to dissolve the union. But for socialists, the national question is less clear cut.

For example, for a period during the 1970s, Britain appeared to be lurching towards social revolution. The Tory government under Edward Heath was broken by the National Union of Mineworkers – a victory for the working class and the left which marked the climax of a dramatic and turbulent chapter in British industrial history. The new Labour government which took power declared its intention to "bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families". The ruling class secretly hatched plots involving sections of the security services and the media. Private armies were constructed to act as a bulwark against the threat of social revolution. In the eyes of some sections of the ruling class, capitalism was doomed.

Against that background a section of the ruling class in Scotland, including the brewing magnate Colin Tennant, the retail millionaire Hugh Fraser and the merchant banker Angus Noble, swung behind the SNP. For a period, the idea of an independent capitalist Scotland, awash with revenues from North Sea oil, appeared to offer an escape route: an oasis of prosperity and stability in contrast to the social battlefield that was Britain in the early and mid-1970s. Even then, there were some voices calling for an independent socialist Scotland. But for most socialists and trade unionists, the battle for a new society was being waged at an all-Britain level and the idea of an independent socialist Scotland appeared an irrelevant diversion.

An exact re-run of the type of industrial movement that unfolded across Britain in the early 1970s is not immediately on the horizon. Social processes never repeat themselves in exactly the same form. Constantly changing conditions dictate that there will always be mutations and variations in the form through which class struggle is expressed. In Scotland today – in contrast to the 1970s – the demand for national independence is strongest amongst those sections of society who are more sympathetic to the cause of socialism. Empirical evidence suggests that a majority of those who have backed Scottish Militant Labour and the Scottish Socialist Alliance in elections are generally pro-independence. In a confused and inchoate way, many young people especially see an independent Scotland as the shortest and most obvious route to a new, fairer society. Support for independence has become a touchstone of radicalism; it is seen as a more revolutionary solution that anything on offer from the labour movement.

We also have to face up to the fact that there are powerful illusions in the idea that an independent Scotland in and of itself would be more prosperous – or at least would be more egalitarian, with a more progressive taxation system, with more resources ploughed into public services, welfare, etc.

Certainly there is a growing contradiction between the social programme and the economic programme of the SNP. The party’s social programme promises substantial reforms, including the restoration of benefits to 16 and 17 year olds, a £4.50 minimum wage, higher pensions, higher social welfare benefits, the restoration of free education and large scale investment in housing and public services.

Yet the economic programme of the SNP is for a free market capitalist Scotland modelled on the Republic of Ireland complete with low rates of corporation tax to attract inward investment. In practice, the economic programme and the social programme of the SNP are incompatible. Like the Labour government of 1974-79, an SNP government in the future would inevitably be forced to abandon its programme of social reforms. Although North Sea oil would act as a cushion, it is likely that an independent Scotland under a free market capitalist SNP government would immediately run into serious economic problems.

It is extremely unlikely, however, that any political recoil against the economic failure of an independent capitalist Scotland would lead to any serious movement in favour of reconstituting the Union. It is more likely that such a backlash against an SNP government would develop in a leftward direction and lead to a massive strengthening of the forces of genuine socialism. In that sense, even a capitalist independent Scotland would mark a step forward in the overall movement towards socialism; at the very least it would help dispel any illusions that Scotland’s problems could be solved simply by swapping a British capitalist government for a Scottish capitalist government. It would help to clear the path for the victory of genuine socialism in Scotland, which would immediately have tremendous repercussions in England, Wales, Ireland and across Europe.

With New Labour in power in Westminster, the trend towards independence is likely to continue and deepen. However, socialist should never rule anything out. If at some stage in the future, the idea of national independence is superseded by a bigger move towards the idea of a socialist Britain, it would be necessary to further revise our policy on the national question to take into account changed circumstances. But at the same time, it is necessary to attempt to point out the most likely course of future events and take these perspectives into account when we are formulating our programme.

Why is it necessary now to put forward a more precise policy on independence? Why does an open-ended policy no longer suffice? In politics timing can be decisive. Sometimes it is necessary to check that there is water in the pool before diving in. On the other hand, if you’re involved in a race, it’s fatal to stand shivering at the side wondering how shallow the water is.

For several years, we have maintained in effect a neutral position towards independence, neither for nor against. For a temporary period, that is an acceptable position, particularly when the issue is merely bubbling below the surface rather than boiling over. But we cannot maintain such a position indefinitely. Even now, our policy on independence can appear like an evasion. And, as debate on the issue begins to heat up, we will be seriously handicapped unless we produce a much more clear-cut policy on independence.

Some sections of the left will hide behind demagogic arguments about the "real issues facing the working class" in order to avoid taking a position. But they will be seriously mistaken. It is true that most working class people are more interested in the bread and butter issues of unemployment, the state of the NHS, tuition fees, damp housing, etc, than about more abstract constitutional questions. That is borne out by opinion polls which ask people which issues most concern them. However, it is important to differentiate between problems and solutions. When asked what issues concern them, people will naturally catalogue their problems and grievances. But if the question is posed in a different way – for example, "What do you see as the solution to these problems?" – the importance of the national question becomes more clearly apparent. Faced with such a question, a minority may be prepared to talk about socialism or a more equal society. A much greater number, however, would advocate independence as a solution to their problems.

In common with the Tories, some sections of the left subscribed to the illusion that only the so-called "chattering classes" were concerned with Scotland’s constitutional future. The outcome of the referendum – and the higher than expected turnout – should serve as a warning to socialists never to underestimate the national question.

The SNP has carefully drawn up a strategy to expose the inadequacies of Labour’s devolved parliament by specifically zooming in on those powers that it does not possess – and exploiting these limitations to heighten the demand for independence. Three issues that are likely to be used by the SNP to demonstrate the superiority of independence over devolution are Trident, benefits and the minimum wage. On all three issues, the SNP will denounce the Labour government for trampling on Scottish public opinion. And they will hammer home the message that only an independent parliament would have the power to remove Trident from the Clyde, or to reverse welfare cuts and restore benefits to 16 and 17 year olds, or to implement a £4.50 minimum wage. The message that only an independent parliament would have the powers to tackle the real problems facing Scotland will find a powerful echo among working class people – and especially among young people. In that situation, clarity is essential. If we are to make maximum impact, it is essential to avoid equivocation on the issue of independence; or an over-elaborate programme which cannot easily be grasped; or clumsy slogans which are not expressed in the everyday language of working class people.

That is not to say that we ignore the Scottish Parliament or simply denounce it as a feeble talking shop. As we have outlined elsewhere, the parliament is likely to have some important powers – including, for example, the power to restore free education, to cancel the housing debt and to introduce a range of progressive measures which would signify a direct challenge to the New Labour government in Westminster. Along with others in the Scottish Socialist Alliance, we are working on a detailed policy statement which we would then develop into a socialist manifesto for the first elections to the parliament.

But is also necessary to formulate a more rounded-out socialist programme for Scotland which would include demands for democratic ownership and control of finance, industry, land and energy; opposition to nuclear weapons; defence of the environment; opposition to globalisation, EMU and multi-national capitalism; and a huge shift in wealth from the rich to the working class and the poor. Clearly, in the age of globalisation and multi-national capitalism, such a programme is unsustainable for any length of time within the borders of a small country. Consequently, our demand for socialist independence has to be raised in a bold, internationalist form; we should seek to popularise the message that an independent Scotland should take the lead in an international battle against multi-national capitalism.

Superficially, there may appear to be advantages in preserving our existing ambiguous policy for a further period. But we do not have unlimited time. The first elections to a Scottish Parliament will take place, according to the White Paper, "in the first half of 1999". If we fail to take a decision at our forthcoming conference, that could mean delaying any change until some time in 1999 – in other words, slap bang in the middle of elections to a Scottish Parliament.

Moreover, because we will be standing on these elections as part of the wider Scottish Socialist Alliance, it is not only a matter of discussing our politics and slogans on the national question within our own ranks; it will be necessary to continue the discussion through the structures of the Alliance itself, with the aim of arriving at an agreed policy well before the 1999 Scottish parliamentary elections. For these reasons, it is imperative that we act sooner than later.

Clearly, it would be dishonest to pretend that this change does not represent a significant new departure for our organisation. On the other hand, it is almost a natural progression; a policy that has evolved over a decade or longer in line with changing political conditions in Scotland.