Neil Davidson on the evolution of the Scottish independence question

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Historian and socialist activist Neil Davidson’s recent Radical Philosophy article “Yes: a non-nationalist argument for Scottish independence” has prompted questions about how his (and the SWP’s) position on this question developed. He responded on Facebook to the SSP’s Eddie Truman. An edited version of the reply appears below (the “questions” are interpolated to break up the text).

read Neil’s Radical Philosophy article as a PDF

Eddie: Neil’s journey from militant hostility to Scottish independence to a supporter has been quite remarkable but I’ve never seen any explanation of how he came to make it, what was it that so fundamentally changed his mind. Here’s a recording of a debate between Neil and Alan McCombes in 2003 (Neil starts at 25:57).

Neil: People occasionally ask me about my supposed change of position on Scottish independence, so I’ll take the opportunity of Eddie’s comments to say what was involved.

The SWP actually adopted a position of supporting independence in the event of a referendum as far back as 1987, at Chris Bambery’s prompting. I think it’s fair to say, however, that this was treated by most Scottish comrades (not least in Glasgow) as a position which might, regrettably, have to be pursued in certain circumstances, rather than something to be actively advocated as part of a strategy for Scotland.

This was still our position when we joined the SSP as a Platform in the early 2000s. I tended to be put up to debate with those comrades in the SSP who were, shall we say, more enthusiastic about independence than the SW Platform – mainly because I’d written virtually all of our historical work on Scotland and much of the contemporary analysis too.

Why was my hostility so “militant”? I was genuinely concerned with some of the arguments used to support independence in the SSP, and on the wider left, since in many cases they seemed to involve a capitulation to left nationalism.

Q: Can you give examples of arguments you found problematic?

Many of the arguments were based on what I regarded as extremely dubious historical claims: that the Scottish nation had existed since the time of Wallace or – in extreme cases, Calgucus; that Scotland had been and still was oppressed within the UK in the technical Marxist sense; that Scots had been and still were more radical, democratic or socialist than the English.

I regarded all this, and still do, as a load of utter tripe. The attempts to minimise Scottish participation in the British Empire and to transform every political struggle from the Jacobite Risings to the Poll Tax as “national” in character regardless of its class basis are no basis for understanding how Scottish society and politics developed.

But more troubling were some of the contemporary positions adopted by some independentistas (and I’m not accusing Eddie of this) – above all the lack of interest in actual struggles which linked Scottish workers with others in the UK.

There was a barely concealed contempt for Scottish workers who voted for Unionist parties (“the Brits”), even though they were in the majority. There was a reformist assumption that independence itself would deliver a change for the better in working class conditions.

The main reason for supporting independence was the anti-imperialist one. This remained my emphasis down to 2007, and still shaped the ISJ article I wrote in that year.

Q: What shifted your position post 2007?

Three things happened that made me begin to emphasise independence as a strategy which the SWP should more actively pursue, rather than passively contemplate as an unlikely future scenario. One was the simple fact of an SNP government in Edinburgh – particularly once the party gained a majority in 2011.

It was obvious to me that once this had happened, “the actuality of the referendum” could not be long delayed. This meant independence was no longer simply an abstract possibility, but a reality in which our formal position would have to be put into practice.

The second was the way in which, over the decade, British politics became dominated by the imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, together with the attendant Islamophobia and increasingly right wing conceptions of Britishness.

(On reflection, I think I was too slow in working through what the practical implications of removing nuclear weapons from Scotland would mean – not just in the damage to NATO’s geopolitical strategy, but in the removal of the rest of the UK from the UN security council etc.)

The third, and I think my most original reason, derived from my work on neoliberalism, particularly in the 2010 book I coedited, Neoliberal Scotland. Devolution is now a neoliberal strategy of delegation (“of the axe”), and therefore independence offered at least the possibility of greater control over the state against austerity (“without illusions”).

I still think independence is a tactical issue, rather than one of principle, but I can’t see any circumstances in the short-to-medium term in which it would not be one which socialist should support. And once achieved, of course, the defence of Scottish independence (of a majority Yes vote) would of course become a matter of principle.

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