Issue 282 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

Letters

 

A tartan gloss on Empire

Jamie Rankin didn't appreciate Neil Davidson's critique of Scottish nationalism, arguing, 'It is as legitimate to feel that Scotland has been oppressed by England since 1296 as it is to believe that Ireland has been oppressed by England since Cromwell' (Letters, January SR). Yet there is no historical evidence for equating Scotland with Ireland in the way that Jamie does.

At the start of the 18th century, Britain and France were locked in global combat--'the divine right of kings versus the divine right of property'. Until 1707 it was not 'Britain' but capitalist England that fought feudal reaction. England sought union with Scotland to end Stuart intrigue and block any French invasion.

In the 1690s Scotland experienced famine while half its national capital was squandered in a vain attempt to establish a Scottish Empire in Central America. The key section of the ruling class knew things must change. The union of 1707 did not represent their suppression by the English. It was an agreement between them to exploit empire.

Jacobitism was based among the declining lairds and magnates who could not modernise. They wanted to turn the clock back, restore a feudal monarchy and link Britain with France. The majority of the Scottish population opposed them.

When Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of the deposed James II, sailed from France in 1745 to launch the counter-revolution he had never seen Scotland and scarcely spoke English, never mind Gaelic. The Highland peasants raised to fight for him had no choice in the matter. Under the clan system they were pressed into feudal military service by their clan chiefs. Those who refused faced eviction or roof burning.

More Scots took up arms against the rebellion than joined it. It was not a national war but the endgame of the civil war. The two armies that confronted each other across Culloden Moor represented not two different nations, but what Marx later called two different modes of production. That's why the slaughter lasted less than 30 minutes.

Thereafter Scots landowners and capitalists--including some of the former clan chiefs--were able to use the military power of the united British state to extend their control from the Lowlands to the Highlands and complete its brutal conquest for their own benefit. Highlanders suffered terrible oppression, but they no more suffered from national oppression than did the English peasantry during the earlier enclosures of the common land. Between 1750 and 1780 Scotland compressed into 30 years of development the economic growth that had spread over two centuries in England.

Scots pioneered Britain's empire and British overseas investment. Glasgow, a beneficiary of the slave trade, became the 'Second City of Empire'. By contrast Ireland was driven to abject poverty. The Irish bourgeoisie could never fully develop, but its struggle to do so led to repeated conflicts with Britain and a deep-rooted revolutionary nationalism that lasted 200 years.

The Scots bourgeoisie led no struggle against the British Empire. Scottish nationalism hardly existed during the heyday of empire. There was no Scottish Michael Collins.

While Irish national consciousness led thousands to fight British imperialism, elements of the Scottish national tradition were used to persuade thousands of young Scotsmen to kill and die for it. Scottish nationalism became a component part of British nationalism--a tartan gloss on empire.

Of course if a real struggle develops for independence from the UK then we support it regardless of our disagreements with its political leadership. But we are not for conning the workers. The only force that can break the power of British capital is united working class action in Scotland, England and beyond. It cannot be developed by stressing a national consciousness that distinguishes Scottish workers from their allies south of the border or across the sea. That's why the best elements in the Scottish working class movement have always refused to cut themselves off from the movement in England and Wales. Scottish socialists cannot be Scottish nationalists.
Dave Sherry
Glasgow


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OFFSHORE STRATEGIES

The Walrus's column (December SR) on union strategies for combating offshoring was interesting on a number of levels. It is certainly true that there are numbers of differing views within the trade union movement as to how we approach this issue, and that there is a real danger of opening up arguments which can be misconstrued as arguing for 'British jobs for British workers' and give credibility to the far right or racist agendas. A number of unions have unfortunately given room in their propaganda for these arguments to come to the fore, but crucially these have been challenged by activists on the ground.

At the same time, however, trade unions need to ensure that they have strategies for defending jobs. My own union's starting point for the agreement which the Walrus commends was that we needed to take an internationalist approach which put the globalisation of resistance centrally as part of our response to the globalisation of capitalism.

The key element of the agreement we reached was the demand to sign up to International Labour Organisation standards (as part of any commercial contract), and crucially within this was the right of local trade unions to organise the offshore workers--strong unions in the 'receiving countries' are a defence of jobs in Britain. This, together with a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies and retraining for Britain-based workers on long term 'high value' work and union negotiation surrounding any work that was planned to leave, were the interdependent strands of the agreement.

The crucial point is to ensure that our agreement sticks until such time as one of the alternative strategies is shown to offer better protection. Keith Flett (Letters, January SR) is, of course, right that we would support any strike action against offshoring and challenge any 'little Englander' arguments.

Unifi has recently announced an agreement with Barclays Bank that offers some protection and, like Connect, is working with Union Network International to assist Indian unions in organising in their new industries. Amicus has talked about strike action to protect jobs. The one guarantee is that 'offshoring' will not go away and that this will remain a central issue for unions that organise in the IT and call centre industries.
Tom Machell
Connect BT committee (personal capacity)


UNITED IN BASILDON

A short postscript to your article on political developments in south and west Essex (January SR). Since it was written the launch of Unite Against Fascism as a national campaign has been a very important advance. It is proving to be the vehicle through which trade unionists and campaigners can be brought together to combat the threat of the BNP. Locally it has stimulated a dynamic in which quite disparate forces, which under other circumstances would find themselves in opposition, have been able to come together for the simple purpose of stopping the growth of Nazism. The backing of the TUC and many leading labour movement figures has been the key to this.

Under this banner we are gathering the numbers, the finance and the social roots to stop the BNP in its tracks. The fightback against the heirs of Hitler is growing apace.
Paul Topley
Chair, Basildon Natfhe


HELP NEEDED

This is an appeal by the Marxist Internet Archive. Our most urgent political need at the moment is for someone to help run our Arabic site--they must be literate in both Arabic and computers--and also Arabic speakers who are prepared to put Marx, Engels and Lenin in digital form, using the already existing translations from the Moscow Languages Publishing House. We have made progress on the Farsi site, which is starting to grow, but the comrades there would always appreciate more Farsi texts--again, already existing ones by Marx, Engels and Lenin. Translations are much more of an effort, but we would like those too. The Farsi comrades tell me that, right now, we need Trotsky and Luxemburg material more than anything. So if you know anyone who would like to transcribe or, even better, translate articles, then it would be a great help to the site. Contact farsi@marxists.org and send e-mail(s) with attachments of the articles.

As an example of the sort of thing that can be done with non-English material, have a look at the excellent French site, largely due to the very hard work of a Lambertist, an ex-Lambertist and a member of Lutte Ouvrière. Though they disagree violently among themselves, this is a splendid example of cooperation in the interests of the French-speaking working class as a whole. I believe many non English speakers from the Communist Party and pro Chinese Marxist traditions would be prepared to help us make the work of Marx, Engels and Lenin available to all in their own languages. The Iraqi Communist Party is very short of such educational material, and in Iran and Iraq many leftists destroyed their Marxist collections during the repression and now urgently want them again. And there are no cheap editions now.

I can hardly emphasise enough the significance of this, with ongoing events in Iraq and Iran. Any queries or, more important, offers of help, please contact me at tcrawford@ revhist.datanet.co.uk or if in Farsi contact farsi@marxists.org.
Ted Crawford
Marxist Internet Archive


LIES AND STATISTICS

How is it possible to reduce inflation overnight? Simple--switch to a new method of measuring it that consistently records a lower figure. This is the statistical sleight of hand which Gordon Brown performed in his recent pre-budget report.

CPI v RPIX

As the graph shows, the new official measure of inflation, the CPI (Consumer Price Index), is almost always lower than the previous measure used (the RPIX, or the Retail Price Index excluding mortgage interest payments).

Does this matter? Well, apart from noting the amusing change to CPI from the old name HICP (Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices), presumably because an acronym pronounced 'hiccup' might prove embarrassing when associated with the ups and downs of the British economy, the inflation figures concern most of us because they are linked to pay.

A 'cost of living' wage rise is usually regarded as one which at least keeps pace with inflation, although even the old inflation measure didn't count mortgage interest payments, and so failed to register how much more workers had to pay banks and building societies when the rates increase. The new measure, the CPI, is lower because it excludes all 'owner-occupier housing costs' such as house puchase costs, council tax and housing insurance. The obvious point is that by taking these costs out of the equation the Treasury is failing to record key expenditures that millions of workers have to meet every month. This is further emphasised by some of the things the new rate does now account for, such as unit trust and stockbroker fees--hardly costs that most workers have to worry about.

Inflation statistics can hide the extent to which rising prices actually impact on ordinary people. For example, if prices are rising slowly for some items like electrical goods (as they have done recently), then this can hold the average inflation figure down, even if the price of basic items like food and housing costs are rising quickly.

Given that in some parts of the country house prices have been rising very rapidly in recent years, as have council tax bills, excluding these from the inflation calculation means that it is even further removed from everyday life. This is especially so in London, where rising house prices has been one of the reasons behind workers' demands to increase London weighting payments.

The connection to wage demands is not accidental. Brown stressed in his statement that the old RPI index would still be used to increase benefit payments, yet he made no mention of pay. The TUC has already voiced concern that the new measure of inflation will be used to restrict public sector pay deals even further. Put this together with the recent statement by the Bank of England that workers have too high an expectation of decent wage rises to cover debts, and it isn't difficult to see that an attack on workers' living standards could be lurking behind this seemingly cosmetic change to the way in which the government records its statistics.

The bottom line is that inflation by itself has never been an ideal way to judge how much workers need to demand in wages in order to make ends meet. The new government measure makes it even less so. It doesn't, for example, take into account the massive levels of personal debt that many workers are now saddled with, and last year's firefighters' dispute highlighted how wages in the public sector have been eroded over a long period of time.

Workers and trade unionists need to be vigilant in order to ensure that the new inflation target is not used by employers to hold pay down. One way of doing this would be to broaden the arguments for wage claims to take account of rising housing costs and increasing levels of debt as well.
Joe Hartney
Edinburgh


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