I’ve been wondering for a while whether modern Scottish Labour Unionists are right when they invoke the struggle for home rule by the founders of Labour in Scotland as an argument in favour of devolution and against independence, so I read George Kerevan’s article about Gordon Brown and James Maxton in The Scotsman with great interest:
Here is the authentic James Maxton speaking at a rally in Glasgow in support of the 1924 Scottish Home Rule Bill. Maxton declared that he asked “for no greater task in life than to make the English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landowner-ridden Scotland into a free Scottish Socialist Commonwealth”. He went on to say that “with Scottish brains and courage … we could do more in five years in a Scottish parliament than would be produced by 25 or 30 years heartbreaking working in the British House of Commons”.
Just try referring to “English-ridden” Scotland today and you will be rightly ticked off. But James Maxton was an angry man. […] His anger was understandable to everyone in Glasgow. It expressed not an anti-Englishness, but a hatred of a class system run from London.
The Home Rule espoused by Maxton has nothing in common with the drip-feed of powers by London Labour. […] The Red Clydesiders […] wanted Home Rule in the sense of the full, de facto autonomy already enjoyed by Australia and New Zealand.
At the time, it made good sense to aspire to home rule like in Canada, Australia or New Zealand. These places had been running their own affairs for a while already. For instance, the modern-day Parliament of Canada came into existence in 1867 (and full legislative autonomy would be granted in 1931), and Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament was opened in 1901.
To a large extent, the British Empire consisted of countries that had a lot of independence (notable exceptions being foreign affairs, defence and international shipping). In other words, they had significantly more independence than Scotland has at the moment.
One could argue that the British Empire was the equivalent of EU and NATO of that era, maintaining an internal market with free movement of goods and people while providing a reciprocal security guarantee.
It made sense to want independence within the Empire. It wasn’t easy being a fully independent small country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To take but one example, Denmark got her capital bombarded and the fleet confiscated in 1807, went bankrupt in 1813, lost Norway in 1814, lost Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 and was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1945 without being able to liberate herself. If Scotland had remained an independent country instead of forming a political union with England in 1707, it’s quite possible similar national disasters would have occurred.
To return to the present, it’s still the case that most Scots want the Scottish Parliament to handle everything with the possible exception of defence and foreign affairs. (According to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that “the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else”, and another 31% want all decisions to be made in Scotland.)
The various devolution plans put forward by the three main Unionist parties don’t go nearly far enough. They’re mainly concerned with letting the Scottish Parliament collect a few more taxes, but they’re not even close to offering Devo Max along the lines outlined by the SSAS.
To be honest, I’m not sure many Scots really want Westminster to make decisions about defence and foreign affairs (gauging from the Scottish reaction to the Iraq War and all that). What people want is to make sure Scotland won’t get attacked by foreign countries and that we can continue to trade and travel freely.
In fact, a large majority of the Scottish population agrees with Keir Hardie, James Maxton and other early Scottish Labour politicians. We want real home rule, meaning independence with free international trade, the ability to travel and work abroad and a security guarantee. That’s what we’ll get by voting Yes.