Talk given by Allan Armstrong (RCN) to the Republican Socialist Alliance meeting on July 6th in London
The development of the Republican Socialist Alliance is to be welcomed. Unlike so many on the Left, the RSA appreciates the importance of the constitutional monarchist nature of the UK state, and the formidable anti-democratic nature of the Crown Powers. These powers cloak the operations of the British ruling class’s ‘hidden state’ and the activities of the City of London. For republicans, opposition to these Crown Powers is of greater significance than opposition to the monarchy, which merely fronts them.
There are two other significant features of the UK state. It retains an established church, the Church of England, with its 26 bishops in the House of Lords. Although this is a specifically English ‘privilege’, along with the constitutional necessity for a Protestant monarch, it is still significant in maintaining British rule over Northern Ireland. A socialist response to this must be based on upholding a consistent secularism, which breaks the link between the state and religion.
However, republicans must also recognise the third feature of the UK, and that is its unionist nature. The UK consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and the whole of Ireland before 1922). The UK came about as a result of the English conquest of Wales, the joint English and Scottish conquest of Ireland, and an English and Scottish ruling class deal to create a British state in which they could benefit from imperial exploitation.
Thus, if republicanism and secularism are the socialist responses to the UK’s Crown Powers and state-backed Protestantism, then upholding the right of self-determination for Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and yes, for England too, is the socialist response to the unionism of the UK state.
Ironically, the Union actually recognises national self-determination, but on a limited class basis. For example, under the 1707 Act of Union, the Scottish section of the new British ruling class retained control of those aspects of the state that enabled it to maintain its rule in Scotland – the Church of Scotland (including then, its control over education) and the Scottish legal system.
In the nineteenth century, with the rise of industrial capitalism, a new rising wannabe ruling class force emerged in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Many of them demanded an extension of national self-determination to protect and advance their own interests on a national basis. Thus Home Rule (or Devolution as it is now called) would provide protected careers within the nation, whilst also maintaining openings at an all-UK and British Empire levels.
Today, the SNP’s ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals (or ‘Independence within the Union of the Crowns’), which accept the Union and the Crown Powers, the Bank of England and participation in the British High Command and NATO, represents the self-determination of a wannabe Scottish ruling class. ‘Independence-Lite’ is a continuation of the old Home Rule tradition, but for a world dominated by the global corporations and US imperialism.
For socialists, self-determination in Scotland must reflect working class interests. This means a complete break with the Crown Powers, with the Bank of England and with NATO. During the nineteenth century Marx and Engels saw Tsarist Russia and its Hapsburg Austrian ally, as the two principal upholders of reaction against democracy in Europe. Today the UK plays the role of ‘Hapsburg Austria’ to the US’s ‘Tsarist Russia’ in upholding the current global corporate order. The struggle for genuine self-determination is thus directed at the US/UK imperial alliance.
However, this also raises the issue of what sort of republicanism we need to take-on this unionist and imperialist alliance. One tradition, which has some purchase on the British Left, needs to be questioned. This is the ‘Cromwellian republic’. It developed out of the ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’, after the Levellers were suppressed in 1649. Cromwell was no universalist and supported a Greater English republic and empire.
Although, the Cromwellian regime was ousted in 1660, this particularist form of republicanism was realised in the new American US republican constitution in 1787. In the White American Republic, the Crown Powers were, in effect, transferred to the imperial presidency. Cromwell may have failed in his attempt to drive all the native Irish beyond the Shannon, but President Jackson was able to remove the Five Civilised Tribes to ‘Indian territory’ beyond the Mississippi on his ‘Trail of Tears’.
In the UK, imperial republicanism fed into British Radicalism, and then the British Left. It could be seen in William Linton, the Radical Chartist, who first designed an English republican flag. He believed that this was synonymous with an all-islands (Great Britain and Ireland) flag. The Radical and republican MP, Joseph Cowen supported British imperial wars. The Radical Liberal and republican MP, Charles Dilke, was a rampant racist and promoter of British imperialism. What united these people was a strong belief in a ‘British road to progress’. They bought into the Whig version of history. Furthermore, from the days of Hyndman’s SDF to the ‘Brit Left’ of today, this Whig tradition has morphed into support for various ‘British roads to socialism’.
There is alternative socialist republican tradition to this. It is based on the recognition of national self-determination and ‘internationalism from below’. Its very first shoots can be seen in the refusal of those English republican Levellers to be sent by Cromwell to Ireland. They thought they shared more in common with the native Irish fighting to hold on to their lands. In the 1790s, an alliance of United Irishmen, United Scotsmen and the London Corresponding Society built up an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance to challenge the UK state, the principal backer of the counter-revolution in Europe and beyond.
The Radical wing of the Chartists supported Young Ireland in its desire to break the Union. From 1879-95, Michael Davitt and others attempted to build a land and labour alliance on ‘internationalism from below' lines in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Indeed many of its proponents played a leading part in the ‘New (trade) Unionism, which emerged after 1889.
Both James Connolly in Ireland and later John Maclean in Scotland developed ‘a breakup of the UK state and British Empire’ strategy. This emerged as the most revolutionary challenge in these islands in the context of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave. This is the socialist republican tradition that the Republican Communist Network is raising in today’s struggle for Scottish self-determination.