scotland – the ruling class division over defending the british union

by Allan Armstrong

The latest talk amongst Scotland’s ‘chattering classes’ is that the SNP Scottish Government’s proposed bill for a referendum on Scottish independence, announced on September 3rd, is doomed. Why? – because a closed-door debate held by the Lib-Dems, last weekend in Dunfermline, finally agreed to uphold their former UK leader, Menzies Campbell’s and current Scottish leader, Tavish Scott’s earlier decision to oppose any such referendum.


There had been considerable opposition amongst the ranks of the federalist Lib-Dems to this stance. The party is committed to constitutional referenda on European Union and on electoral reform in the UK, so opposition to a referendum in Scotland seems somewhat hypocritical to many party members. Furthermore, back in 2007, immediately after the Holyrood election, there had been every likelihood that the Lib-Dems could have joined a coalition government with the SNP. They could have made the inclusion of their favoured federal option for the UK, in any future referendum, a condition of their support. However, as with Labour and the Conservatives, commitment to the Union is far more important for Lib-Dem leaders than any notion of democracy.

The rise of the SNP and the threat of an independence referendum have led to a split amongst the British ruling class over how to deal with the possible threat to the UK. At the moment there is a definite majority shared consensus, held by the leaderships of all three main Unionist parties, that the best way to derail any threat to the Union is to unite to prevent any referendum. The very idea of genuine democratic debate, as opposed to elite manipulation of ‘public opinion’, is alien to Establishment Unionism.

When the SNP announced its ‘National Conversation’ public consultation exercise on their proposed referendum, Gordon Brown set up the alternative Unionist alliance’s Calman Commission to look into devolution. It surprised nobody when it came up with minimal further devolutionary proposals. Armed with somewhat shallow promises of constitutional change in the future, the current Unionist alliance has concentrated its fire on using all the bureaucratic methods at the disposal of the UK state to stymie any meaningful democratic reform and prevent a referendum from being held.

Whilst the official SNP proposal to return to pre-1707 United Kingdom (they remain silent on the later Irish/Northern Irish ‘addition’), with its shared monarchy, is hardly very radical in intention, for the British ruling class now is not the time to rock the Unionist boat. They need to show a united face whilst fighting imperial wars, particularly in Afghanistan. For, whether or not the SNP leadership like it or not, the conduct of British military policy will enter any independence debate; and not just opposition to a new generation of Trident missiles stationed on the Clyde; but also Scotland’s continued participation in NATO.

However, there is a minority view held by some Unionists that a different strategy should be used to see off not just the SNP, but any meaningful threat to the Union for the foreseeable future. The disgraced former Scottish Labour leader, Wendy Alexander, famously said of the SNP’s proposed referendum – “Bring it on!” The former hard line Tory Scottish Secretary of State, Michael Forsyth (now Baron of Dunlean) is also a strong advocate of holding a referendum.

You can rest assured that their stance comes from no deep-seated commitment to democracy, but from a British strategic view, that sees the management of any referendum campaign as a subordinate part of wider mobilisation of the anti-democratic forces of the UK state – the secret service, the military (even if only with hinted threats to begin with), the judiciary – along with the Right wing press and fawning academics. Manipulated referenda and elections have a long pedigree, as part of the ruling class armoury of control, from the Ulster Unionists’ Northern Ireland Sovereignty Referendum of 1973, to the decorative elections recently held under US/British imperial auspices in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Nick Griffin visited Scotland on October 28th, he said he supported a referendum on Scottish independence, but made it quite clear that the BNP would oppose any ‘Yes’ vote. In effect, he was signalling to the hardline Unionists that the services of the BNP were available if needed to defend the Union. You only have to look ‘over the water’ to ‘the Six Counties’ to see that British governments are quite prepared to provide financial life-support to paramilitary loyalist organisations, who can be called upon by the ‘secret state’ when it is found necessary.

However, even the hard Right is still unsure as the best way to proceed. Ian Wilson, Grand Master of the Orange Order in Scotland, has said that the Order is prepared to back Labour in all those constituencies where it is best placed (i.e. the majority) to see off any SNP electoral challenges. The Conservatives’ new alliance with the sectarian Official Unionists Party in ‘the Six Counties’ has yet to demonstrate its viability in the west of Scotland. Meanwhile, the fascist English/Scottish Defence League has threatened an anti-Islamic provocation in Glasgow on November 14th. Charlie Baillie, the BNP’s Glasgow North East candidate, is also campaigning to ‘Stop Islamic Colonisation: No More Mosques’ under a Union Jack and BNP flag.

At present though, the very moderation of the SNP renders the need for the alternative harder British ruling class option less necessary. Having given their wholehearted support to the monarchy means the SNP leaders are prepared to play the political game by Westminster rules. These are designed to uphold the Union at all costs. The SNP Defence Spokesperson, Angus Robertson, recently announced that an independent Scottish government would accept English bases. He supports the war in Afghanistan, as long as it is conducted under UN auspices.

The SNP has long been committed to the global corporate order, seeking a favoured Scottish business niche market within this. Their illusions of a ‘Scottish Tiger’ ‘neo-liberalism with a human face’ were blown out of the water by the Credit Crunch – the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland were at the core of the problem, and certainly no part of any solution. Whether attacking the jobs and conditions of street cleaners in Edinburgh, or suspending SSP councilor, Jim Bollan, in West Dumbartonshire, the SNP in office have now become part of the general ruling class offensive to make workers pay for the crisis.

The SNP wants to give a good lick of tartan paint to the institutions of the Union in Scotland, and to come to a new deal with US/British imperialism. Socialists in Scotland support the break-up of the UK and British Empire, along with its alliance with US imperialism. To do this we need to build an alliance based on ‘internationalism from below’ throughout these islands.