U.S & World Politics

Brexit, Scottish Nationalism and Socialism

By John Blackburn

Nationalism is one of the most powerful political forces in history and remains so today. It has dictated the patterns of voting in the recent British general election which is the product of the three years of chaos that have followed the EU referendum of 2016.

In that referendum the percent of the vote for leaving was:

England as a whole, 54.2; Wales, 52.5; Scotland, 38.0; Northern Ireland, 44.2.

The leave campaign is fundamentally an English nationalist movement while the Conservative and Unionist Party (Tories) has transformed into the “English national party” with Brexit representing the longing to return to the glory days of the English empire. The population of England is 80 percent of the UK, greater than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland taken together, so this skewed the whole UK result of the vote towards leave. When seen in this light England is imposing Brexit on Scotland and Northern Ireland against their will.

The general election results have given Johnson’s Conservatives an unassailable 78 majority in Parliament. This is due to large numbers of former Labour supporters in the devastated industrial and mining communities of England voting for Conservative and Brexit Party candidates. The utopian Tory campaign of “Get Brexit Done!” with little else of substance but a subtext that immigration is the real problem, together with an unrelenting campaign of vilification of Jeremy Corbyn by the right-wing media has successfully attracted the votes of many working-class people.

In Scotland the vast majority of the working class which has also suffered the consequences of the deindustrialization, austerity and social deprivation that their English counterparts have did not fall for the Brexiteers’ reactionary propaganda. The Scottish National Party (SNP) campaigned to “Stop Johnson,” remain in the EU and for Scottish independence, together with a left-wing reformist program. They took 48 of the 59 Scottish Parliamentary seats. The Tories have only six (having lost seven) and Scotland where the British Labour Party began has now only one Labour MP. The SNP has taken on the radical mantle in Scotland. The Scottish people have overwhelmingly rejected Johnson’s Tories and their Brexit program. Johnson has said that he will not countenance Scottish independence so the imposition of the will of the English Tories on the Scots will be a major political issue for the whole term of this government.

UK background

“United Kingdom” is the creation of the English ruling class. Wales was conquered, Ireland was colonized and after six centuries of conflict Scotland was finally subdued in 1746. The Union Flag is meant to symbolize the union of these equal partners (though Wales is left out.) The history of all four countries is characterized by ebb and flow in the popularity of nationalist movements with armed conflict featuring frequently between rebels and the British state.

Attempts to crush Scotland began with Edward I, known as the “Hammer of the Scots” for his unbridled brutality. With the defeat of his son, Edward II, by a Scottish part-time army, led by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314, independence was secured for a time. The first defeats of the English invaders were by Scots led by the then commoner William Wallace and that egalitarianism was to be consolidated in the Declaration of Arbroath (1320):

“As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors, that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

The Magna Carta was about equal rights for barons while the Declaration of Arbroath is about freedom for all Scots. (Most Scottish people know of the Magna Carta but few English people know of the Declaration of Arbroath, which is just as important.)

The Reformation occurred in Scotland in 1560 nearly 30 years after England. However, the forms that the respective Protestant religions took were fundamentally different. In 1534 Henry VIII basically substituted himself for the Pope and, provided the clergy came to heal, they were relatively safe. As head of the Church of England, Henry would appoint the bishops and they, with the local aristocracy, would select the local clergy. The religious and political conflicts triggered by Henry would not be settled in England for nearly two centuries with hundreds-of-thousands of lives destroyed on and off the battlefield.

In Scotland, the leader of the reformation was a Calvinist protestant John Knox. The Church of Scotland would be Presbyterian, have no bishops and each congregation would elect its own minister. Knox vowed a school in every parish (so that everyone could learn to read the bible for themselves) and a college in every town. French educated and Catholic, Mary Queen of Scots, returned to a protestant country in 1561 but her stay was short and after defeat in battle she was forced to abdicate and flee to England for sanctuary in 1567. Her protestant cousin Elizabeth would eventually have her executed on February 8, 1587. James, Mary’s son, who was raised as a Protestant, would inherit the English throne on Elizabeth’s death.

Later it was the refusal of the Scots protestants to accept bishops and the “Book of Common Prayer,” both of which they considered “papist,” (relating to or associated with the Roman Catholic Church) that indirectly precipitated the English civil war and the eventual execution of Charles I on January 30, 1649.

Although one of the poorest countries in Europe, by the late 18th century, Knox’s legacy was that Scotland was one of the most literate, and home to some of the most famous names in publishing—e.g., Collins, Macmillan, Chambers.

Scotland’s Renaissance

The late 18th century is one of the most exciting in Scotland’s and the world’s cultural history and is known as the Scottish Renaissance. During this time Scotland was one of the intellectual world. The names of Hume, Adam Smith, Hutton, Watt, Telford, Napier and many others are legendary in the history of science, engineering, medicine, philosophy and the arts, and all are Scots.

The mass of Scotland’s people were never party to the processes which absorbed their country into the “United Kingdom.”

On April 4, 1603, at the news of the death of Elizabeth of England, the opportunist James the VI of Scotland rode to London to be crowned James I of England. British monarchs in the 17th century ruled over two separate countries, so James was the VI of Scotland and I of England. In his 22-year reign James returned only once, showing how much he and his English government cared for Scotland.

That changed with the Union of the Crowns—1707, which was forced upon the Scots. In part it is as a consequence of the “Darien Disaster” in the Caribbean1, which bankrupted many aristocrats and the emerging Scottish bourgeoisie.

Scotland’s bourgeois democratic revolution was stopped in its track and subject to England’s control.

The Act to dissolve the Scottish Parliament and in effect the Scottish nation was achieved through a combination bribery, subterfuge, kidnapping and even murder. In the end the future of Scotland was decided by the Act of Union. Described as a “Shabby and underhand deal” which fewer than 200 had voted for, it resulted in the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament and in effect the Scottish nation, though many laws and legal practices remain Scottish.

It was the legacy to Scotland by the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne.

As Burns put it:

“They’re bought and sold for English gold,

Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.”

The tri-centenary in 2007 of this momentous event in the forming of the United Kingdom in 2007 passed without ceremony, pomp or pageantry and hardly a mention from official sources. It meant nothing to the English establishment and there was nothing for Scots to celebrate.

The final futile Jacobite rebellion2 was crushed in 1746 and the decades that followed were characterized by English military occupation, brutal oppression, famine, eviction and starvation. Then came the “Clearances,” when the people of highland Scotland were valued less than sheep, were treated like beasts and sold as slaves. It was never a union of equals—Scotland was a very junior partner but by and large of no real importance to the national government though a source of cannon fodder for the growing number of British imperialist military campaigns.

(Wellington, who would later be Prime Minister, described the Scottish soldiers who had just helped to win the Battle of Waterloo as “The scum of the Earth.”)

All of this has remained part of the general Scottish culture and is deeply embedded in most Scot’s people’s consciousness. Robert Burns, born only 12 years after Culloden3, wrote poems and songs that expressed the anger and bitterness felt by Scots at that time and persists to this day.

“The Sark runs o’er the Salway Sands,

The Tweed runs to the ocean,

To mark where England’s province stands,

Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.”

Or the powerful “Scot’s Wha Hae,” and other nationalistic anthems.

Burns, a poor but educated farmer, is Scotland’s national poet because he reflected and honored the lives of ordinary Scots people, their world, culture and their politics in the late 18th century. In great art the particular becomes also universal and Burns is still relevant today for Scotland and the world. His poem to a friend “Auld Lang Syne” is sung the world over, an anthem to our common humanity. Burns actively supported the French Revolution. A radical, a non-conformist, a libertarian (and libertine) and an internationalist, Burn’s supported Irish, American and Scottish independence movements and left a political outlook in his poetry that still influences the outlook of virtually every Scottish person.

Of course, there was always significant support for the Union from those who have benefited from it. This was mostly the Scots aristocracy who received honors, military and diplomatic positions and lands in the newly acquired colonies. Daniel Defoe and Walter Scott were among the most prominent unionists.

Defeated in war, the Scottish identity was never obliterated and even the most ardent unionists now honor the Scottish past and its heroes. Walter Scott immortalized and glorified Scottish rebels and anti-establishment folk heroes such as Rob Roy MacGregor, Redgauntlet, Lochinvar and Ivanhoe.

Following George IV’s visit in 1822, which Scott had choreographed, all things Scottish including tartan, became legal and fashionable again. Descendants of Norman barons now had their own tartans while the clan chiefs (the lairds) who had thrown their people off their lands were all now parading in tartans as way of claiming some fictitious ancient heritage.


The 19th century saw the rapid industrialization of central Scotland with coal mining, steel making, engineering and shipbuilding. As a result of Glasgow’s easy access to the trade routes to North America, the Caribbean and beyond, it became the second largest trading city of the British Empire. Immigrants moved from all over the UK, including England but especially the Highlands and Ireland for the lowest skilled work. This also meant rapid expansion of appalling living conditions—the notorious Glasgow tenements. One result was that the working class of central Scotland became highly politicized and organized in trades unions.

No matter where people had come from originally within a generation, they consider themselves Scottish. (My grandparents were—English, Highland Scots and Irish but my parents considered themselves Scottish, as do all of their grandchildren. There is also a significant Italian-Scots community most of whom had never planned to settle in Scotland but pride themselves now in being Scottish.)

There was a massive growth of trades unionism and interest in socialist ideas throughout the industrial belt of Scotland in the late 19th century. Prominent socialists such as William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and other national figures did regular speaking tours of Scottish industrial towns. In the early 20th century John Maclean was giving weekly classes in Marxist economics and philosophy to hundreds of working-class people in Glasgow.

Keir Hardy the first “Labour” MP, grew up in Bellshill, Lanarkshire and had worked in the coal mines from the age of ten. Originally, he was elected as a Liberal MP. Later he became a founder of the Scottish Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Representation Committee, which became the Labour Party we know today.

All of these parties had in their founding program “Home Rule for Scotland” which was the term used at that time for independence. Cunningham Graham was the first declared socialist elected to parliament as the Liberal MP for North West Lanarkshire in 1922 and his platform included nationalization of the land and “Home Rule for Scotland.” (A bye-election in 1929 in the same constituency was to elect Jenny Lee a coal miner’s daughter as the first woman Labour MP—my maternal grandfather was her election agent.) Cunningham Graham would later be a founder, and the first president, of the Scottish Labour Party; he became a founder of the National Party of Scotland in 1928; and the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934.

UK-wide Labour Party

When the UK-wide Labour Party was founded “Home Rule for Scotland” was in the original program and was only dropped when it was clear to the career Labour politicians that there would never be a Labour Government without the large number of Labour MPs elected in Scotland. In the 1920s almost all parliamentary seats in Glasgow were won by socialists and trades union militants including Maxton, Shinwell, Wheatley collectively known as the “Red Clydesiders” their program was “For socialism and home rule.”

The Communist Party of Great Britain from the beginning also supported Scottish independence and took its position from Lenin’s pamphlet “The Right of Small Nations to Self-Determination” which supported to right of subject nations to independence and mandated communists to support those struggles.

John Newbolt, a Communist, was elected as Labour MP in 1922 for Motherwell when membership of both parties was still allowed. Willie Gallacher a “Red Clydesider” and one of the Communist Party founders was MP for West Fife from 1935 to 1950. (Gallacher is referred to in Lenin’s Left Wing Communism. …The same parliamentary seat was held later by Gordon Brown.)

John Maclean who Lenin appointed as the Soviet’s first representative in Britain was a Marxist teacher and again one of the leaders of “Red Clydeside” who advocated an independent Scottish socialist republic and founded the Scottish Workers Republican Party.

Scottish socialists and communists such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Hugh MacDairmid were leaders of the Scottish cultural revival of the 1920s and ’30s, which contributed to the founding of the Scottish National Party in 1932. From its inception the SNP has had a range of political influences including Marxism, socialism and petit bourgeois nationalism. Frequently, however the SNP has been more radical than the Labour Party. While the Prime Minister David Cameron was referring to refugees as an “invading hoard” Nicola Sturgeon leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister was saying that refugees were welcome in Scotland.

The folk music revival in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s was a left-wing phenomenon associated with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Communist Party.

Disillusionment with the Labour Government also lead to a resurgence of Scottish nationalism and the rapid growth of the SNP and recruitment of young people in the ’60s. This was also reflected in the folk music community where some of Scotland’s most prominent folk musicians were outspoken socialists and nationalists. One particular favorite song was “The Scottish Breakaway” written by the communist, Hamish Imlach, to the tune of the loyalist anthem “The Sash.” (An album, “The Scottish Breakaway,” which contains several songs in this republican vein was released in 1968 by Alex Campbell, father of the UB40 brothers. Billy Connolly was in the backing band of Matt McGinn another communist/nationalist folksinger who actively supported our Vietnam Solidarity Campaign group in Glasgow.) In Scotland, Hamish Henderson, a communist, CND activist and poet was among the leaders of this movement while his protege, Roy Williamson (of the Corries), another socialist, was to write “Flower of Scotland” which was adopted spontaneously by the Scots people as their national anthem:

“But we can still rise now,

and be a nation again.”

Socialism, internationalism and independence are intertwined in the minds of most left-wing Scots.

When Winnie Ewing won the working-class Hamilton constituency for the SNP in November 1967 it was a shock to the Labour Party, which had held the seat for 50 years. She received 46 percent of the vote in a seat that the SNP had never contested previously and was viewed by most on the left as a reaction to the betrayals of the Wilson Government and the stagnation and corruption of the Labour Party in Scotland.

A monumental betrayal of the Scottish people by the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson has come to light recently. When oil fields were discovered off the coast of Scotland in the early 1970s the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath commissioned a secret enquiry conducted by a Professor Gavin McCrone into the economic feasibility of an independent Scotland. This report concluded in 1975 that Scots could have a standard of living on par with that of Switzerland. First the Tory Heath then Wilson and since then every government suppressed the McClone report until the SNP forced its publication in 2005.

Interwoven struggles

This brief history shows that the struggles of socialism and national independence are interwoven into the political consciousness of the Scottish working class. Scotland is a subject nation. But the Scots have always resisted submerging their national identity in the UK but have always been at the forefront of the labour movement in Britain. For the Scottish communist the fight for socialism and independence are facets of the same struggle—it follows therefore for its own liberation the English working-class organizations should be in solidarity with the struggle for Scottish independence.

The result of this election is that reactionary nationalism in the disguise of the Brexit utopia, has triumphed in England. Johnson and his contemptuous cohort have paraded as patriots of the “Great British Empire” type when in fact they are the representatives of 21st century multinational financial capitalist interests. The working class will be repaid in the time-honored fashion that Johnson’s predecessors always have.

In the class war we must hit capitalism at its weakest points and at this time in the UK it is the right of the Scots to independence. The English working class, its organizations including the Labour Party and its leaders, now must see Scottish self-determination not as a threat or a rejection but as part of the process in its own and the world’s liberation. The Labour Party in Scotland and in England (and socialist parties around the world) must rally to the cause of Scottish self-determination and unite in the struggle with the SNP for independence.

The English electorate have chosen a reactionary, racist, sexist, liar as their Prime Minister who will be imposed on the Scottish people against their will. “Not Our Prime Minister” is already a popular chant around Scotland.

For England the road to socialism more than ever involves supporting the struggle of the Scots for their independence.

1 The Gulf of Darién “…was the site of the Darien scheme, autonomous Scotland’s one major attempt at colonialism. The first expedition of five ships (Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour) set sail from Leith on July 14, 1698, with around 1,200 people on board. Their orders were ‘to proceed to the Bay of Darien, and make the Isle called the Golden Island...some few leagues to the leeward of the mouth of the great River of Darien...and there make a settlement on the mainland.’ After calling at Madeira and the West Indies, the fleet made landfall off the coast of Darien on November 2. The settlers christened their new home “New Caledonia.”én

2 The Jacobite risings, also known as the Jacobite rebellions or the War of the British Succession, were a series of uprisings, rebellions, and wars in Great Britain and Ireland occurring between 1688 and 1746. The uprisings had the aim of returning James II of England and VII of Scotland, the last Catholic British monarch, and later his descendants of the House of Stuart, to the throne of Great Britain after they had been deposed by Parliament during the Glorious Revolution. The series of conflicts takes its name Jacobitism, from Jacobus, the Latin form of James.

3 The Battle of Culloden was the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745.