Gordon McLennan’s Report to the EC (Executive committee)
Devolution has become a major issue in British politics.
The Labour government’s handling of it, expressed most recently in its White Paper, will not satisfy the people of Scotland and Wales. Further, it threatens grave damage to the labour movement and weakens the democratic unity of the British people as a whole in their struggle against the big monopolies.
The purpose of this report is to again present our position on devolution for Scotland and Wales; consider the consequential question of devolution for England; and present our views on some of the detailed proposals contained in the government’s recent White Paper.
The White Paper, Our Changing Democracy: Devolution to Scotland and Wales epitomises the government’s disastrous approach on this great issue. It is urgent that the labour movement brings about major changes in government policy on it to fully meet the just national demands of the people of Scotland and Wales, take into account the consequential situation for England, safeguard the interests of the labour movement, and give new strength to the struggle for socialism in Britain.
This can and must be achieved while maintaining the political and economic unity of Britain.
Devolution within the political and economic unity of Britain, and its corollary, a single labour movement, is the best political and economic structure for the class struggle and the political struggle, for democratic change, national rights and socialism.
Our recognition of the central and indispensable role of a single united labour movement on a British scale, leading the overall struggle against the monopolies for political change in Britain as a whole, determines our estimate of the steps taken to form a Scottish Labour Party.
This is a serious error on the part of those involved.
Those who want to change and strengthen the White Paper proposals, along similar lines to us, should fight to win support for these changes within the existing organizations of the labour movement and not go down the blind alley of setting up new parties which can only divide and confuse the struggle.
The. Devolution Bill is to be published in the Spring, but not to be introduced until the 1976/77 Pailiamentary Session. One of the reasons advanced for this dangerous and unjustifiable dely is to allow a national debate on devolution for which the government is producing a shortened version of the White Paper. This national debate is being opened by four days of parliamentary debate this week. Debate will be useful. If it results in a strengthening of the government’s proposals, better still. But it is not a reason for postponement of the date for the Bill coming before Parliament, The original timetable for the introduction of the Bill (The 1975/76 Parliamentary Session) and settingup of Assemblies in 1977 should be held to, as the Scottish TUC has demanded.
The White Paper states that “The constitutional changes proposed are the most fundamental of their kind in Great Britain for centuries, and raise complex and far-reaching problems”.
This is broadly true. One of the consequences of the crisis of British monopoly capitalism is the crisis in British constitutional arrangements. This is seen at its sharpest in Northern Ireland where the 50-year-old constitutional “settlement” has collapsed. It is now also seen in relation to Scotland and Wales and as a consequence, in England.
In recent years the issue of devolution has been consistently mishandled by the Labour government. As a result, the nationalist parties have benefited electorally. Unless the situation is reversed it could have serious effects in relation to the possibility of maintaining Labour governments in the years immediately ahead.
Yet for many years devolution for Scotland and Wales was the declared position of the Labour Party. The 1945 Scottish Labour Party Conference expressed this tradition when it called for the establishment of a Scottish Legislative Assembly. This prinsipled position was not supported by the right wing leaders nationally, and their position was made clear in a Labour government White Paper published in 1948 which rejected any substantial change in legislative and administrative arrangements for Scotland.
Since then there has been hesitation, muddle, confusion, and finally the present completely inadequate proposals, produced largely to stave off the nationalist electoral challenge. Political opportunism has replaced principle with disastrous consequences.
All this is in sharp contrast to the position of the Communist Party. Since the 1920s we have consistently supported the position of devolved governments for Scotland and Wales. Our position was set out in some detail and with great clarity in John Gollan’s book Scottish Prospect published in 1948. More recently important reso-
lutions of National Congresses have reaffirmed our basic position and elaborated it in the light of new developments.
Our stand on this issue is based on three interconnected grounds: First, as a vital extension of democracy. In modern capitalist society government has become increasingly remote from the people, and more and more bureaucratic.
Whilst recognizing that with the crisis of capitalism, class and socialist policies must dominate solutions to political and social problems of the people, extension of democracy is a vital part of the solution of today’s acute problems.
Second, on national grounds. The Marxist view has always been that socialists stand for the guarantee of national rights, including the rights of nations to self-determination.
National consciousness in Scotland and Wales has grown along with the growth of resistance to the economic and social exploitation imposed by the deepening crisis of British imperialism.
The solution to the national and democratic needs of the peoples of Scotland and Wales, as of England, is bound up with the fight for a fundamental change in society, to win socialism.
Of course it is the right of the peoples of England, Scotland and Wales to decide their own future and what form of relationship they feel will best serve their interests.
This is one of the major reason why democratically elected Assemblies are needed, through which the will of the people of each country can be expressed.
Given that, we are confident that the Scottish and Welsh people would decide that their best interests lie in securing not separation, but adequate measures of self government within the framework of continued representative government for Britain as a whole.
The best forms of relationship in the interests of all three peoples will need to be democratically worked out and reviewed in the light of experience.
It is this voluntary unity on the basis of self-determination which is the real way forward and the only effective answer to the dangers of division and separatism. Adequate and effective devolution now is the first essential for this unity tobe achieved.
Third, devolution could provide the best grounds to enable the people to tackle the distinctive problems of each country.
While imperialist crisis has resulted in deep social, economic and political problems for Britain as a whole, these are particularly acute in Scotland and Wales. Both are officially designated by the government as “deprived areas” and have suffered from years of neglect by successive governments, whether Labour or Tory. Unemployment has been consistently higher. Traditional industries declined. Insufficient new industry was developed. Special problems — the Highlands and islands, Central Wales, transport, extensive urban decay, were only tinkered with or largely neglected. Social conditions, particularly housing and healthy were usually worse
than in most of England. Many youth emigrated, the age structure became older. The consequent decline in many communities has also meant the undermining of much traditional culture and of Gaelic arid the Welsh language.
The combination of all those factors has been the main reason for the emergence in recent years of heightened national consciousness in both countries.
All this has been thrown into sharper relief in Scotland by the discovery of oil off the Scottish coast, and the handling of this issue by the government.
It is especially important in view of all this to state clearly that devolution in itself will not solve the problems of Scotland anti Wales. What are primarily needed are left policies to solve capitalism’s crisis, as we and the left advocate. But devolution is correct in principle and is the best means to tackle some existing problems from a national and democratic point of view. A correct and clear position now on devolution is vital to the fight to win left majorities and policies in the Assemblies when they are set up, and in the Westminster Parliament too.
(Comment, January, 1976)