Rejecting nationalism and muscular unionism

Liam Payne reviews Scotland United: The fight for a radical Scottish Parliament 1971-2021

The Red Paper Collective (RPC) has been an important intellectual vector for left wing politics in Scotland since its inception in the mid-70s. Dealing with material and ideological issues affecting the body politic of the nation since that time, the RPC has published three editions of its Red Paper on Scotland (1975, 2005 and 2013).

First edited by the much-travelled Gordon Brown, each of these editions has sought to ground the political currents of their time in solid, socialist analysis and praxis. As Pauline Bryan and Tommy Kane stated in the 2013 iteration of the Red Paper:

“The Red Paper argues that any constitutional change must be measured against its potential to challenge the power of capitalism and bring the economy under democratic control.”

This has always been a central focus of the RPC, and remains so to this day. The Red Paper Collective’s recently published Scotland United (SU) report finds the group once again tackling the constitutional situation that has come to dominate Scottish politics over the past decade. Taking its title from the old radical devolution movement of the same name, this latest report can be seen as an updated addendum to the collective’s 2013 offering, Class, Nation and Socialism, published to offer a socialist perspective on that year’s independence referendum.

The current RPC offering again takes the position of offering a radical outline for a future enhanced devolution settlement, as a left wing alternative to the domineering themes of nationalism and unionism. Subtitled ‘The Fight for a Radical Scottish Parliament’, the introduction to SU, written by RPC mainstay Pauline Bryan,  places this contemporary contribution in the historical context of the 1968 proclamation of prominent labour movement leader Mick McGahey – that Scotland needed its own parliament: specifically, a workers’ parliament. McGahey, it notes, was:

“Concerned about the increasing external control of the Scottish economy and the undemocratic imposition of investment decisions and industrial policy; he believed that a Scottish parliament could stem rising unemployment and deliver economic sovereignty.”

Despite the achievement in 1999 of a version of such a parliament, although one rather far from McGahey’s initial vision, the RPC rightly feels that there is much to do to realise the promise of a radical form of devolution in Scotland.

A sketch for a 3rd option

In the first two articles of the report, Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University and Labour MSP Neil Findlay lay out proposals for what an alternative enhanced devolution settlement could look like, both on the ballot paper, and in practice. In the opening contribution, James Mitchell looks at the relevant issue of whether a third option has any credence in a future independence referendum ballot, and then proceeds to map out prospective forms it could take if included.

Building on his excellent 2020 pamphlet for the Jimmy Reid Foundation, The ‘Scottish Question’ Revisited, Mitchell takes stock of the arguments against a third option, and critiques them one at a time. Firstly, the idea that the third option has ‘had its chance’ gets short shrift from Mitchell. If this is a cogent argument, then surely it really applies to the independence option. This was on the 2014 ballot, and lost. A choice of enhanced devolution has yet to be put to the Scottish electorate.

Next, Mitchell deals with the idea that a multi-option ballot, instead of the 2014 binary option, would only ‘muddy the waters’. Looking at why a binary choice was enforced in 2014, Mitchell forwards the argument that this was due to the understanding on both the nationalist and unionist sides that this option would in fact prove the most popular. He goes on to argue that, in reality, a binary choice referendum is more in danger of causing obfuscation.

Faced with only two choices, voters who don’t feel strongly for either are forced to opt for the least-worse option in terms of their views, causing a serious democratic deficit. Indeed, prominent Yes supporter and historian Tom Devine revealed in the introduction to his 2016 book Independence or Union, that his overarching preference in 2014 was for some form of enhanced devolution, and that he ended up supporting independence as this third option wasn’t available (p.xii). There have been over 100 examples of multi-option referenda across the world, with a recent one occurring in Chile, and these contain many lessons for the Scottish situation.

Finally, Mitchell agrees that criticism is warranted for the lack of any concrete idea of what a third option would entail in terms of the final enhanced devolutionary settlement that could be offered to voters. He points out that the independence option suffers from this in many instances as well, but feels that its inclusion in 2014 gives it an advantage in this realm: enhanced devolution is still too amorphous a concept at present to get away with vague sentiments. He concludes by sketching out how a third question could be worded and included in any future referendum. This is an eminently practical and useful endeavour, and overdue.

Neil Findlay follows on from this with an article attempting to flesh out the practicalities of a third option. Basing his contribution on Tony Benn’s famous five questions of democracy, Findlay asks:

  1. What type of country do we want to create?
  2. What powers do we need to create it?
  3. Where should those powers lie?
  4. How do we deliver them?

Findlay rightly notes that the current democratic settlement in Britain is a veritable mess, with local councils, parish councils, metro mayors, police commissioners etc., all being part of a “shambolic” elected patchwork. This is a factor in a larger national feeling which Findlay identifies, namely, that democratic accountability is slipping ever further away from the people. He sees a radical third option in any future constitutional referendum in Scotland as therefore vital.

Answering his first question, Findlay posits that he wishes to create – or recreate – a country of full employment, non-existent poverty, fully-funded and expanded public services, and a real commitment to fighting climate change. To achieve this in conjunction with a democratic revival, Findlay returns to the old democratic socialist idea of ‘subsidiarity’. This proposes that: “all powers be devolved to the lowest possible level unless there is a logical and overwhelming reason not to do so.”

Findlay has been publicly championing this for a while now, and it has gained traction on the left across the UK – permutations of it can be seen in the current promotion of community wealth building. Findlay proceeds to give practical examples of how such a policy of subsidiarity could be enacted and prove beneficial in a Scottish context. In the first of these, he acknowledges that Scotland has the shameful distinction of being the developed country with the highest rate of drug deaths in the world.

Logic would then suggest that the powers over drug policy should urgently be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Findlay correctly highlights that this principle of ‘subsidiarity’ is applicable to the UK as a whole, not simply Scotland. Powers should be devolved to their natural level across the nations and regions of the UK, and this should form a core part of any left wing argument on the Scottish question. Subsidiarity and solidarity can be seen to go hand in hand.

The economic case

In keeping with the overarching ethos of the RPC as stated in the introduction, namely to offer a socialist analysis of the material and ideological conditions in contemporary Scotland, there is accordingly a large part of this latest report devoted to the economic and political realities of the current devolution settlement in Scotland – with a longer view as to what these augur for the state of a future independent nation. Several articles in SU take a broader lens to the Scottish question, and the role of a radical enhanced devolution within it.

Tommy Kane grounds his analysis on the very appreciable feelings of hopelessness that blight communities across Scotland, and indeed the rest of the UK. He suggest debates about Scotland’s constitutional arrangement too often don’t address what powers – and what political and economic approaches – are needed to address Scotland’s pervasive socio-economic problems.

He centres his contribution mainly around the socio-economic context of contemporary Scotland, justly pointing out that the current economic status-quo has been badly broken for a long time, and is on course to get worse due to the Covid pandemic. Kane points to recent figures showing that nearly one million of Scotland’s inhabitants are living in poverty, including a quarter of all children. These shocking statistics manifest themselves in various ways: from poor health and a lack of educational attainment to the inability to obtain basic rights such as food and shelter. All of this feeds into the endemic hopelessness that Kane chronicles at the start of his contribution.

John Foster continues this economic focus in his later contribution to SU. A long-term stalwart of the RPC, Foster challenges the prevailing orthodoxy for centralising economic control, in favour of “a radical economic strategy” of devolved, democratic and socially-orientated economic power. This process, Foster hopes, will directly challenge the overarching corporate power behind centralisation, in both the UK and Scottish dimensions. Foster begins by analysing the SNP’s trenchant policy of an independent Scotland re-joining the EU, whilst using sterling as an interim currency.

Through this twin political and fiscal proposal, the infamous Growth Commission envisions a corporate flight from the cut-adrift rUK, into the warm embrace of a close-by EU member state. Foster uncovers the underlying economic facts that this agenda would enforce.

To qualify for renewed EU membership, Scotland would need to slash its annual budget deficit from 7.5% of GDP to just 3%, and national debt would need to fall from 80% to 60% of GDP. These figures are all pre-2019, so don’t account for the fiscal shock of the current pandemic. Interestingly, the reason for Scotland’s ability to maintain such figures currently is the relatively generous terms of the Barnett formula toward Scotland, which is part of the current UK constitutional settlement.

Foster raises the advances made by community wealth building and prominent examples of this approach being tried in Preston, North Ayrshire and Salford. It sees local authorities using their fiscal and physical levers, such as procurement and remaining council property, to engender insourcing of public services,  the establishment of community and cooperative ownership structures, trade union-approved employment practices, and so on.

Foster points to the continued importance of the 2017 and 2019 Corbyn Labour Party election manifestos. These still provide important blueprints for the British left in general, and also macro solutions to centralised state and corporate control of the nation’s economy, similar to the micro initiatives of community wealth building.

Professor David Byrne takes a panoramic look at possible futures for Scotland, specifically in the economic sphere. Like Foster before him, Byrne’s contribution to SU places Scotland’s current economic paradigm in historical context, namely the shift from industrial economies to what has come to be described as the post-industrial epoch in developed countries.

Byrne points out the portion of the current Scottish economy dedicated to the provision of various ‘services’ is now at a staggering 90%. Of this, the majority of gross value added and employment is still in the public sector (health, education etc.), but the finance and real estate sectors dominate manufacturing in the private sphere (18% to 10%). While dismissing the recent Advisory Group on Economic Recovery report to the Scottish government as merely “a mixture of the pious and the aspirational without any sense of the problems of a post-industrial capitalist system dominated by financial and real estate capital”, Byrne sketches out the seed of a compelling alternative left wing path, based on the currently unfashionable concept of state-wide economic planning.

A democratic deficit

Somewhat outside the general remit of the SU publication is the included article by Welsh Labour MP Beth Winter. This is a useful contribution as it directly engages with the RPC’s commitment to a UK-wide class solidarity, in place of a purely nationalist or unionist discourse. In it, Winter begins by listing some of the progressive achievements of the devolved Labour administration in Wales to date.

Commenting on the serious threats of the new post-Brexit Tory governments UK Internal Market legislation (more on this below), which the Welsh parliament withheld consent from, Winter then issues a call for the British labour movement to build on its devolution successes and spread this power of subsidiarity even further. She welcomes the recent reengagement of the Labour Party in the debate over the UK constitutional settlement, and clearly states that:

“Political and spending decisions should be made as close to the people they affect as possible. This is a fundamental principle of devolution, and it’s unacceptable that the Tories are trying to stealthily roll this back.”

Although the Starmer-led British Labour Party has recently moved to set up a party commission on the constitutional settlement in Scotland, it has gone quiet and concerns persist about its ultimate intention. It is therefore imperative that the left labour movement across the UK continues to step into this void, in the manner that the RPC and MPs such as Winter are advocating.

A telling contribution to SU comes from the External Governance Officer of the Labour Party, Seán Griffin. Griffin has recently authored a large report commissioned by the Labour leaderships of Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard on the UK constitution, titled Remaking the British State.

This weighty contribution was designed to be a left wing vision of a newly fashioned United Kingdom, with enhanced devolution and subsidiarity at its heart. With Corbyn no longer in charge of UK Labour, and Leonard recently shamefully ousted by internal right wing recalcitrants and unelected mega-rich donors, it remains to be seen if the report’s recommendations will receive the consideration they so richly deserve.

In his SU article, Griffin begins by asserting that the current UK constitution can be construed as an “elective dictatorship”. Griffin applies this historically loaded term to the reality that the British state is one of the most centralised in the developed world. Ultimate state power rests in the sovereignty of Parliament’:

“Like a democratic black hole, all power, control, and checks and balances in the body politic are swallowed up by the Crown-in-Parliament. Nothing can escape its authority, and no one can challenge it.”

The major trouble with this hyper-centralised state, as Griffin sees it, is that whatever government – and more worryingly, whatever Prime Minister – is in power at a given time “has in effect untrammelled constitutional power.” This is an argument well-rehearsed on the British left, with it forming a backbone to Tony Benn’s influential book Arguments for Democracy. With this being the true nature of the current British state, “major surgery is required,” states Griffin.

Moving through the infamous prorogation of Parliament by the Johnson government in the autumn of 2019, Griffin turns to the recent UK Internal Market Bill. An attempt to replace the now defunct (in the UK context) EU single market, senior Tories bizarrely admitted that it would in fact break international law, but “only in a specific and limited way”. Griffin quips: “Apparently it’s acceptable to break the law so long as you do it in a way that is limited and specific. I’ll remember that one.”

Griffin elucidates how this fresh legislation will primarily give the government new powers to control customs and state aid regulations between the North of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, in direct contradiction to Article 4 of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. In a Scottish context, Griffin illustrates how the fallout from Brexit has had a negative effect on the devolution settlement. The Sewel Convention, which formed part of this original settlement, was created to allow agreement between Edinburgh and London on when and where the UK government could legislate in Scotland, on issues that were formally devolved (Devine, 2016, p.211).

In 2017, the UK Supreme Court ruled that this integral convention was in fact “a rule of political practice, not a rule of law, all this despite the convention being enshrined in the Scotland Act 2016.” Griffin continues: “This means that the UK parliament is able to legislate even where the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament is withheld.” This creates the conditions where UK acts of parliament can be deemed unconstitutional, but still lawful. This clearly manifested itself in the sidelining of devolved administrations during the Brexit withdrawal talks between the UK and the EU.

Griffin suggests that this re-centralisation of power has the very real possibility of being “a sure-fire route to further constitutional collisions.” It’s not difficult to also see the potential for huge problems that this legislation will pose for any argument for enhanced devolution in Scotland.

The Paradox View

In the final contribution, Labour Party member and college lecturer Mike Cowley examines the current position of the independence-supporting left in Scotland. He begins with the excellent and very pertinent insight:

“There is a model of politics, identifiable across the spectrum of belief, which relegates all immediate concerns, however pressing, to a distant, imagined future where every injustice is resolved on the basis of a single catalysing event.”

Historically couching this phenomenon correctly in the world of ‘ultra-left’ politics, Cowley now believes it can also be clearly discerned in the champions of Scottish nationalism, which he describes as a “single-issue perspective”. For Cowley, this perspective is apt to dismiss any injustice or issue as merely being a product of the decaying British state, and its current constitutional settlement. So much for the overarching and mainstream Yes movement, but what of the left-wing of the nationalist cause?

How do they square the circle of seemingly subordinating class issues and struggle for nationalist alternatives, while maintaining left wing perspectives and aims? Cowley notes that activists of this hue try to “differentiate themselves from prevailing Nationalist orthodoxy.”

Taking a panoramic (perhaps partial) view of various left-wing and largely nationalist thought, Cowley attempts to track the intellectual trajectory of this alternative heterodoxy. He posits that these intellectual vectors predominately propose Scottish independence as a potential “circuit-breaking opportunity”:

“As a means of disrupting an ossified British state, thereby establishing ground on which class politics can once again take root in Scotland, and by extension, across what would remain of the UK.”

This ‘vanguard’ of an independent, and somehow socialist, Scotland would, it’s said, act as an example and a catalyst for the overdue counter-counter-revolution to neoliberal hegemony in Britain, and maybe beyond. Cowley continues this intellectual examination by asserting that this ideological tenet of left wing nationalism will “presumably, alchemise nationalist sentiment and the politics of identities defined by borders into a revolutionary class consciousness.”

This hope, Cowley avers, ignores the very real chance that this attempt to utilise nationalism for socialist ends might result in the strengthening of class structures and inequality. Cowley readily acknowledges the role that the British state has played in the battle against any advances of socialism in the UK, but struggles to discern the left wing Yes camp’s promotion of independence as the: “non-negotiable catalyst in the rebirth of class-based politics.”


The slow drift of the Scottish political reality away from the conditions that engendered Mick McGahey’s call-to-arms in 1968 has been largely akin to a vivid and painful fever-dream for the labour movement left in this country. The seeming regression from the ethical concerns of solidarity and internationalism, the relegation of the aim to “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry” and their replacement by vapid PR and focus-group hocus-pocus, and, in Scotland in particular, the politics of nationalism and identity has been era-defining. This latter development, whether in the guise of a Union Jack (suit) or a Saltire, has too often been marginalised and mocked by the labour movement in general. But this is the political terrain we find ourselves in, whether we want to or not.

The RPC has been a constant intellectual vehicle for left-wing constructive thinking on this issue, and it still remains a vital conduit for a socialist alternative. Taking a bird’s eye sweep of the Scottish nation in the broad-sense categories of politics, economics and social issues, SU is yet another cogent attempt to prod the larger labour movement into serious engagement, and it should be roundly welcomed.

Recently, Anas Sarwar has been elected as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Winning by a comfortable margin, albeit on a depressingly low and unenthusiastic turnout, this latest victory for the remnants of New Labour signals that the measures and analysis implied in Scotland United are increasingly imperative and relevant, particularly so given the imminent Scottish Parliamentary election. If it is to recover in this election and beyond, Scottish Labour and the Sarwar leadership must now avail itself to the thinking of the RPC and reject the political dead-end that muscular unionism represents.

Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.

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