by Gordon Gibson2
This paper was prepared as an introduction on the ‘national question’ for Swansea Labour Left, affiliate of Welsh Labour Grassroots. The indented text was not part of the initial verbal presentation.
Nation shall sing unto nation
Until nations cease to be
From ‘Unison in Harmony’, a song by Coope Boyes and Simpson,
These words are a fine encapsulation of ‘the national question’.
The ‘national question’ is a subject comfortably side-stepped by many socialists and Labour Party members, in both Wales and Scotland, often in the name of a supposed internationalism but more likely, although perhaps unconsciously, via promotion of a greater British chauvinism, favouring British nationalism. Meanwhile, rivals in Plaid or the SNP are brushed off as nationalists, who put patriotism above class unity.
With the electoral successes of the SNP in Scotland, the 2014 referendum, and reverberations here in Wales, not least Plaid Cymru’s new leadership revitalising their ‘independence’ profile, with a voice more publicly socialist than most of the voices we hear representing Labour, we are being asked again, ‘should socialists support calls for independent nations?’.
In one sense, the political decision appears even easier these days. Is not the main cause to build unity in the fight against austerity, the protection of jobs, pensions, the NHS, the welfare state? ‘Nationalism’ is a dangerous diversion.
For some, this necessary unity excludes Plaid Cymru. For others, it excludes the Labour Party.
Austerity, we should be clear, is, of course, necessary to protect British ‘big nation’ nationalism and its capitalism.
We are not nationalists. I doubt if anyone here describes themselves as nationalist. I am an internationalist and a socialist. That is why I support self-determination. Workers of the world unite! In fact it was, ‘Workers of all countries unite’, perhaps a closer articulation of what follows.
But let’s get things into perspective. First, Europe. The British left has traditionally had an anti-EU position, falling very closely towards the ‘sovereignty’, British nationalist, camp, albeit with lots of riders, most of which few people hear and fewer find meaningful. Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with the anti-EU argument for that very reason. At the level of ideas, I prefer that we promote unity with the workers of Europe, join with them in struggle against the rotten political cabal that is the EU, break the rules like the Greek Syriza left stood for yet, like the Greeks in opposition, be quite clear that we want to stay united with them. We are internationalists. We have no truck with petty nationalism. So there is a significant strand of a very British, perhaps English, nationalism in the anti-EU line.
And yet we are ‘patriotic’, are we not?
Even I, still with plenty Scottishness in me, find myself, after 40 years here, very ‘Welsh’ in the sense that ‘national fervour’, a national pride, passion and loyalty for one’s homeland impacts on us. What is that about? That rugby trip to Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris or Rome has a joy about it, amongst kindred spirits. ‘Patriotism’ is a mixed bag though, much exploited by bourgeois ideology, not least via Unionism in the north of Ireland. Scottish rugby has Princess Anne as its patron. The ever-popular song, ‘Scottish Soldier’, by stereotypical Scottish entertainer, Andy Stewart, lauds a soldier’s return home to die in the homeland after a lifetime in military defence of the empire.
The rugby ‘patriotism’ we enjoy with kindred spirits in Edinburgh, Dublin and even Paris and Rome is not matched by any fraternalism with the English. Twickenham has a different character about it. We unite in our – some even seriously overstate on these occasions – ‘hatred’ of the English. Why is that?
There is a strong element of ‘class’ about our disaffection with that perception of ‘Englishness’. It is not English workers of course. We welcomed them into Wales, first from the copper mines of Cornwall and then to mine Welsh coal.
We happily give money and get out on the streets to support dock-workers, Grunwicks, miners, Stop the War, the occupy movement, all-sorts with whom we see common-cause. There will be a very large contingent of Welsh workers on the October 20th cuts and pensions demo in London. Do you think that we would protest less against the London financiers and their government if we were more independent that we are?
We get pained by the English toffs and their media, the aloofness, superiority, their ignorance and disrespect of the Welsh, Scots or Irish; the lack of recognition of our history, our different (more ‘British’) history; the oppression or abuse of our culture and languages.
And that is reflected in our humour.
Did you hear about the Englishman with an inferiority complex? He thought he was the same as everyone else.
This humour is founded in the concept of oppressor versus oppressed nations; in the case of the English state and capitalist class, still founded on its feudal class trappings, via the monarchy, which absorbed Wales, Scotland and Ireland to form ‘The Union’ – an English led, fundamentally British Union, albeit with a Scottish king, brought down to consolidate the anti-catholic current that has since given a regressive religious structure to the British establishment and which, through the monarchy, still provides the constitutional and ‘philosophical’ underpinning of the British state, later to pull in European royals to maintain that primitive illusion of social superiority. [What an extraordinary hypocrisy that is in light of English xenophobia.] This oppressive, class history goes no small way to explaining why ‘independence’ and ‘republicanism’ have a significant resonance in Wales and Scotland.
Anti-Englishness scales up in proportion to the brutality of the oppression the British nation meted out. First, the Irish, whose brutal repression is reflected in the way British culture still makes them the brunt of ‘thick people’ humour. You beat them, impoverish them, starve them, then pillory them for being poor uneducated labourers. The Irish hate them the most but get them back with some subtlety.
Did you hear about the Irish, Evel Kneivel? [EK was an American motor-bike stunt-rider of the 60s and 70s.] He tried to jump over 50 Englishmen with a steam-road-roller!
The Scots still have the great battles in their collective memory and culture: Bannockburn, resisting the English in 1314, and Culloden Moor, 1746 – the last battle for independence, perhaps better described as a last gasp for control of the then British nation, when Charles Stuart led the French backed Jacobites against the House of Hanover, the British House of Hanover!
Scotland’s historic existence as a political state prior to 1707 provided ‘national’ institutional structures that do not exist in Wales. Wales has never existed as an independent political entity. Scotland has its own banking system and currency, it’s separate legal system with its own laws, it’s own education system and, re-established more recently, a rich, alternative and distinctive cultural life.
Scotland has won and uses a much greater degree of independence than Wales. And, as in Wales, more than in Wales, Scottish people will not go to the independence vote on some hypothetical prospect, like the EU was, or even the recent PR/AV referendum, both loaded with establishment propaganda. Scots will go to the referendum with a good taste of what ‘independence’ is offering.
Last year’s referendum on extending the powers of the Welsh government gave us a taste of the extent to which the people of Wales have recognised the value that increased independence has brought to Wales, with many, particularly social, benefits from children and childcare to student fees, bus and rail travel and prescriptions.
Welsh history and oppression are buried more deeply (by the English). We have the ancients in Owen Glyndwr and Hywyl Dda and, more relevant, a rich series of workers struggles like the Rebecca Riots, the Merthyr Rising, the Chartists in Newport, ‘The Miners’ Next Step’ not to mention Keir Hardie and the early Communist Party; all struggles against the English bourgeoisie of course.
Whilst our nations were oppressed, we have also been beneficiaries of the British Union. Despite some overt ‘oppressions’, such as of the language in Wales (an oppression much exaggerated by the way), Wales and Scotland were assimilated into the British state and our workers have benefited enormously from the riches of the imperialist British Empire. So even the concept of ‘oppressed nation’ can cause difficulty.
The oppression of assimilation is exemplified in numerous ways. To take one example, the ‘traditional’ Scottish kilt was popularised not via William Wallace, Robert the Bruce or Mel Gibson. That whole culture was fostered during the creation, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of Scottish regiments to send Scots workers to give their lives for the imperialist empire. It’s the same with the Welsh regiments, one of which was the first ‘nationalist’ regiment to be formed by the Westminster government. Similar arguments have been propounded about the emergence of the Eisteddfod and the druidic tradition.
The right to self-determination.
Self-determination is an inalienable right. But self-determination is not a synonym for independence or separation or national liberation. It is the right to form an independent state. That right arises only within an oppressor state that denies it.
This is the terrain we are on in Wales; the issue of ‘self-government’ has been raised. In talking of ‘independence’, this is really what we (socialists) mean – self-government. Some in Plaid will agree, others won’t but that is their contradiction, not ours.
Self-government is prominent in the current political climate in Britain. The existence of national sentiments, of the Senedd and of the Scottish Parliament, the distance, clear red water, that Welsh and Scots seek to establish between themselves and the Tories (not to mention Blair’s Labour) in Westminster all reflect, at least in part, the essence of the right of nations to self-determination.
The principle of ‘complete freedom of action’ for Welsh and Scots is being posed now. We want more powers to decide on an ability to determine for ourselves, of our own free will, questions of our inter-relations with other states.
Self determination is a right, a right to form a separate state. That and only that. It is not the right to ‘do what you want’; it is the right to form an independent state.
Does this apply to oppressor states like Britain, France, USA? No, they are already states. Self-determination does not arise.
When workers stand up, as they did in Ireland (or let’s say Wales) and say, ‘we are for socialism, we are breaking from our oppressor state’, it is false internationalism to reply ‘No, not independence. Workers of the World Unite’. In effect, this is to say, ‘We are for imperialism!’.
Self-determination is about the oppressed and the oppressor. Two principles apply – the inalienable right of the oppressed to self-determination, and the recognition of that right by the workers of the oppressor nation. It is the oppressed peoples that are to decide how these rights are to be exercised; that is self-government. And, until oppressor nations recognise these rights, they will never themselves be free. This is not an easy matter for British workers, let alone where we Welsh and Scots stand.
Finally on this, from Lenin, who maintained and developed the importance of the national question and the need to struggle against all national inequality and national superiority right through to his death in 1923: nations may need to separate politically in order to grow closer at a later date. As the song says, ‘nation shall sing unto nation until nations cease to be’.
Nations, being capitalist creations, following land grabs by monarchs and feudal barons, or states created and peoples divided by borders drawn by imperialist invaders, are rather amorphous phenomena, difficult, nay impossible, to define objectively. Language, culture, territory, economics are often used to inform a national consciousness but ‘nations’ cannot be reduced to such criteria. In real politics, they exist only in the minds of nationalist theoreticians, of course, but also in the consciousness of ordinary people.
Nations don’t really exist at all as objective entities; national consciousness does.
In the capitalist world, hugely international, global capitalism, the function of nations is to protect the narrow interests of national capitalists, one of the nearby examples being the Scottish bourgeoisie, with its own socio-economic infrastructure nonetheless deeply embedded in global capitalism as the RBS banking collapse demonstrates. That nation serves only to divide workers on a British and then a global scale. Socialism seeks to end capitalist domination and its political and democratic differentiation of people, to end their separation in a myriad of states.
Will national oppressions be relieved and national liberation be ensured? We don’t know; we’ll see. We believe that national oppression is political oppression that can only, and increasingly ‘only’, be resolved by the establishment of regional, international, global equalities, by significant social changes, by socialism.
Many socialists and Marxists attempt to define nations by calling up language, culture, economy, and certain rights available only to citizens of dominant nations. But the denial of such rights and characteristics are only symptoms of national oppression. National oppression is the denial by one nation over another of the right to form an independent state.
Even for Wales, we get into serious trouble. The language is not universal (and probably never was), within boundaries that are largely arbitrary or of little substantive significance, under cultures that draw from very different traditions, in an economy that has never independently existed.
So is Wales a nation? Yes, of course it is. Back to Lenin, still the most authoritative voice on the national question: the ‘nation’ pertains ‘wholly and solely to the sphere of political democracy’. What is the historical consciousness of a people, their feelings, their impulses? What determines these sentiments is the current situation – attendant circumstances. And the history that led there.
People who think of themselves as Welsh think of Wales as a nation. That is the nearest we can get to an objective definition: that consciousness arises because of historical circumstances and it’s that consciousness that counts. Little else.
The ebb and flow of history has nurtured and flooded Wales with a social and cultural richness that some, but not all, of Wales welcomes and celebrates with open arms and hearts. The miners, many of them immigrants to Wales from other parts of British and Irish lands, not to mention Spanish, Italian and East European, are now part of the proud national heritage.
The only objective criteria we have are either from established nation-states, in which case there is no need for a right to self-determination, or from national movements, in which case we have to tread very carefully and respect that inalienable right.
In Scotland, where there has long been a sense of national identity, across classes, the present circumstances, not least since Thatcher’s Poll Tax, reinforce that national fervour to the point that independence, whatever it might mean, is seriously on the agenda.
And, by the way, Labour’s decision to use Alasdair Darling as a front man in unity with the Tories and LibDems to defend The Union and call for a NO vote in the referendum can only consolidate national consciousness and independence, and serve to further politically undermine Labour in Scotland. Labour, in the No campaign, has got just about everything wrong. Setting aside the execrable, and high public profile, alliance with the hated Tories and treacherous Liberals, the essential reason for the popular trend towards Scottish independence is to distance Scots from austerity, to follow or be tempted by the populist SNP’s optimistic, although not entirely unfounded, claims of economic viability. Scots have repeatedly made very clear that they want no part of Tory politics. As they say, there are more pandas in Edinburgh zoo (2) than there are Scottish Tory MPs in Westminster (1).
This is political ground onto which those who wish to oppose independence should be wary about treading. Aside from independence, we should wholly support the Scots in their stance against the Tories, not to mention their disaffection with such a Labour Party. Consider yourselves lucky to have had Rhodri and ‘Clear Red Water’.
Like workers in a factory, the first demand is to be recognised as a legitimate collective with identifiable common interests. We form unions and we fight for our rights. How the richness of these rights is achieved may well be best served by united struggle with other workers, even on a world scale. First we self-organise and make our own decisions.
Such debate is certainly extant for Wales and Scotland right now, under pressure to justify the feasibility of independent social and economic existence as if such an insular approach was being mooted by anyone other than die-hard nationalists, with whom we have no truck. Comrades may be reminded of the debate around the theme of ‘Socialism in one country’. The years gone by have only served to further justify and reinforce internationalist solutions.3
National self-determination is a chance to re-invigorate the class struggle against the British state. As the then Cardiff councillor, Sue Essex, said at the Welsh Labour Conference in 1996, ‘the Assembly that we offer must be something genuinely new, which wakens and enlivens Welsh politics.’
[This does invoke discussion of how representative democratic structures work, of democratic organisation and accountability. Hence, even now, referenda on the nature of the voting system, the recall of AMs, the local democratic structures, the call for votes at 16 (recently adopted by the Welsh Government, although barely publicised), salaries, accountability, recallability, frequency of elections and many such issues are very relevant to the democracy that one would wish to foster in a properly representative structure.]
How nations might function as independent states is a matter for their citizens to resolve when they have gained the right to make such decisions. As James Kelman puts it, “A people cannot be asked to settle in advance of independence how they shall act in hypothetical situations. We are being asked to provide a priori evidence of our fitness to determine our own existence before the freedom to do so is allowed.” 4
Autonomy – how close to Independence?
It is difficult to resist the call for independence in these circumstances, although the use of the term , ‘self-government’, provides a better, more instructive and less nationalist agitational slogan. The problem is that when put on the scales with the substantive issues in the fight against austerity here in Wales, they tip heavily away from independence. In Scotland, this is not so clear and independence is that much more seductive, not least as a tactic in the austerity battle.
In the current British context, it is not helpful to pursue the theoretical correctness of abstract positions on the national question or independence; the issue is entirely determined by our relationship with the British state and the demands and actions that will both strengthen the position and social-condition of Welsh workers and, in tandem, weaken, undermine, and directly challenge the hegemony of the class that dominates The Union. Right now, the determining issue is ‘austerity’ and we should do all in our power to resist, to unite with British and European workers to refute the fiscal parameters that deprive millions, the 99%, of their own earned rights and services in order to reimburse the rotten corrupt casino financiers who tell us what is best for us. Self-government assists us in this; it is neither an obstacle nor a diversion.
In reality, it is most unlikely that a truly independent state of Wales can have much meaning. Whilst the Welsh economy certainly needs to be re-generated and developed, following the demise of our traditional industries, future well-being is ineluctably and inextricably tied to the British and world economies. The M4 ‘corridor’ and the A55. ‘North Wales Expressway’ are built to service trade in England, only, at best, to throw crumbs at the Welsh economy. A true Welsh transport strategy would establish east and west-side movement connections with north Wales, comparable with the rail and motorway connections between Glasgow and Edinburgh
The internationalisation of capital, global capitalism, clearly demands an international response. But this is pure rhetoric for day-to-day politics, frankly inconceivable in the present conditions. So this begs the ‘national question’. When we get to ‘context’, there is a reality in the air.
The alternative is to remain ensnared within the carefully contrived limits of a constitution that for more than 300 years has successfully blocked all threats of radical change in order to preserve the stability of the oldest capitalist state form in the world. Socialists owe no kind of loyalty to that Britain.
The ending of the British warfare state, constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, republican citizenship, participatory democracy, genuinely popular control of public services, an economy run for the people rather than for profit – these and many other important areas of policy will be thrown into the melting pot from which people’s republics in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland will emerge.
Genuine popular control over state institutions and the economic levers of power cannot happen in a British state in which the people are designated as subjects of a political sovereignty resting with the Crown-in-Parliament.
Social change in Britain is much depressed by a hereditary monarchy and an unelected House of Lords keeping tight political rein on a Commons majority elected with less and less of a popular vote. The breakup of the authoritarian British state is now a significant element in securing progressive socialist change for the peoples of this island.
Many who argue against independence are still in favour of increasing powers for the Welsh government. Where might that stop? It goes to the point of independence from the centralist, anti-democratic, banker-run, British state. For self-government!
We are in favour of our independent right to reject Westminster austerity, to stand alongside Scots and other Europeans and to seek alliance with English workers under a unified banner to reject austerity. Nor is it just British austerity, it is global, unregulated, free-market neo-liberal capitalism and we are in favour of the Welsh Assembly coming out clearly against it. And against Trident! Are we really to abstain on Trident because such decisions are to be made in Westminster?5
We are for autonomy, for self-government, for decisions affecting Welsh workers to be made in Wales. This is not to argue for separation or independence. But it is to argue for our rights.
The national question is exactly that.
We are not in favour of isolation. We have no illusions about the Welsh economy but the Welsh economy does need to be regenerated.
This is the paradox with which we have to grapple. Independence may not be a helpful concept, yet we are in favour of what I have been calling ‘degrees of independence’ – more powers to the Assembly. Let the Assembly decide its own powers with no right of veto from London or Brussels. We are in favour of autonomous rights to Welsh people, rights to demur. This is what clear red water means. An autonomous nation within a British federation, a European federation of states – the united states of Europe.
And Plaid? Many Labour socialists are against the rival political party that is Plaid, and so are against independence. It was easy when the ‘language nationalists’ were in the driving seat. Serious political debate about the national question could be avoided under the veil of party tribalism.
Now, to keep it simple, given the rich socialist programme that Leanne Wood is espousing in Plaid, a platform, remember, that won majority support in her party, the only real difference is her promotion of independence, Raymond Williams’ ‘real independence’ as she puts it.
In my opinion, her emphasis on independence is too strong vis-a-vis building unity against the Tory onslaught, but she does have her party history and a strong ‘disaffected-with-Labour-in-Westminster cohort’ to contend with. If she brings Plaid into unity against austerity, they should be welcomed. They should be welcomed at face value and also because that is the real foundation of self-government, an interpretation of ‘independence’ to be supported.
And so we come to the problem for Labour. Wood is castigated for ‘opportunist’ approaches to the unions for the fight against austerity, for her disrespect for the queen, for her to go to church and shake the queen’s hand like Martin McGuinness, for her failure to support ‘self-determination in the Malvinas’ (if ever there was a demonstration of a weak position on the national question, that’s it!), for her small-scale economic solutions, for her jumping on Carwyn’s blunder of weapons of mass destruction in Milford, for her opposition to the ‘job creation’ of a new Wylfa nuclear power station. This is not to mention some of her entirely justified attacks on Labour local authorities in the valleys. The problem is that party tribalism triumphs over political reason. That tribalism oft-times disguises a ‘greater British chauvinism’ that deters a political dialogue with socialists like Leanne Wood and others. The detritus only serves to weaken unified Welsh resistance to the Tories.
The ‘national question’ and ‘Independence’ are almost words in a game of semantics – independence versus ‘autonomous self-government’ – not unlike the ‘autonomous women’s movement’ that proved so difficult for many socialists. (Where would we be without the strength of the Women’s Movement in the 60s, 70s and 80s?)
Our aim is to unify round our collective interests, perhaps independently at first but always with a view to unity with others, nearby, in other countries, and in other continents.
The aim of self-government is greater unity, on an equal basis and on a clearer platform, between the working people of all countries. Boundaries are to be broken, but only on an equal basis. If ‘the national question’ serves that aim then we should be very careful about saying ‘No’. Indeed, why should we say ‘No’ when it relies on the defence of almost everything we oppose? In fact, what has ‘The Union’ ever done for us?
- With acknowledgement to the highly recommended satirical posting on YouTube called ‘What have the unions ever done for us?’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=184NTV2CE_c The heading here is not satirical.
- This paper has drawn heavily on the writings two left-wing socialists, the late Ceri Evans, and Ed George. Ed has been most helpful in the preparation of this paper, for which much thanks, although this version is for me only to answer for.
- In fact we should be sympathetic to small nation nationalism, (1) because they’re oppressed; and (2) their struggle has a progressive logic. It was Trotsky who said, with regard to black nationalism in discussion with CLR James that, although we’re not nationalists, the most consistent fighters for black nationalism will join the fight for socialism because of who and what they’re fighting against. The dialectic of that is seen in feminism, trade unionism, the whole raft of ‘partial’ struggles: if you’re oppressed and you fight consistently against your oppression you generalise. We saw that in the miners strike, with Ireland, LGBT struggles. This was Lenin’s mature position, that you can’t talk about nations in the abstract.
- James Kelman (2012) On self-determination is reproduced in Celyn at https://celynwales.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/on-self-determination/
- Mark Drakeford (2012) No to Trident. A speech to the Welsh Assembly Government, reprinted in Celyn at https://celynwales.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/no-to-trident/
Other notes and references
Lenin (1916): The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination in Lenin Selected Works Lawrence and Wishart 1969
Writings of Ceri Evans and Ed George can be found in Ceri’s archive at http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/ in both sections ‘Ceri’s writings’ and ‘Other material’. Ed George keeps his writings at http://www.oocities.org/edgeorge2001es/, his ‘Close reading of Marx’s Capital’ at http://readingmarx.wordpress.com/, and earlier writing on http://search.gmane.org/?query=&author=Ed+George&group=&sort=relevance&DEFAULTOP=and&query=
A relevant selection of these writings is
Evans (1994). Nationalism, Marxism and the Irish Question, http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/writings/ireland.htm
Evans (1995) Ten draft points on the national question http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/writings/ten_draft_points.htm
Author? (1981) Notes on Welsh Nationalism and Plaid Cymru http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/other_material/notes_welsh_nationalism.htm
George (1999) On Marx, Engels and the national Question [Section IV is particularly relevant here.] http://www.oocities.org/edgeorge2001es/mywritings/menat.html
George (2001) The Secret of the Forest is the Trees http://www.oocities.org/edgeorge2001es/mywritings/Forest.html
George (2002) A Note on Welsh History and Politics http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/other_material/note_history_politics.htm
George (2002) Re Scottish independence and the SSP http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.politics.marxism.marxmail/3172