Once More on The Breakup of Britain

Putney Debates

Len Arthur and Craig Lewis write: At Left Unity’s June National Council, L U Wales tabled a motion entitled: “Policy on democratic control, socialism and constitutional change”. The motion was narrowly rejected with some comrades criticising our inclusion of “liberal” democratic/republican demands, and others raising concerns about possible concessions to a nationalist agenda. Subsequently Len Arthur and I wrote a discussion piece to outline the politics behind our motion. David Landau and Doug Thorpe have both responded with some important contributions to this debate. Hopefully this piece takes the discussion further and clarifies our original argument.

Socialism from Below: The Relevance of Republican Socialism

David agrees that there is an intimate connection between democracy and socialism. Quite rightly he says we must support the “creation of new instruments and forms of democratic control created by the people themselves”. However, he goes on to suggest that: “we need to remind ourselves of this when we make demands on the capitalist state, as we often must, or when we stand in elections or become councillors or whatever”. This seems to imply that the demand for a deeper and more radical democracy is just a peripheral aspect of our practice.

Fighting for enhanced working-class democracy is not just a question of electoral tactics. It is an integral part of a “transitional strategy” linking the struggle around immediate working-class concerns with future challenges to the power of capital. This means collectively developing actions and demands that address immediate concerns. Secondly, democratically deciding on how those demands and actions can best be pursued. Thirdly, openly and democratically agreeing compromises only when the balance of forces necessitates this, and preferably in a manner which permits further advances when the balance of forces shifts back in our favour. None of these three aspects are feasible unless we complement our eco-socialist agenda with a democratic political agenda aimed at both deepening and extending workers self-determination at every level (State, community, workplace, political organisation, or party). This is essentially what we mean by republican socialism from below. David objects to the term but unfortunately does not explain his concerns in detail.

To be clear the republican socialist tradition has a long pedigree stretching back to the early development of socialist thought, as we explained in the first part of our article. It forms a thread throughout the writings of Marx and Engels and is not confined to their early period as some socialists argue. It has certainly been an important influence on revolutionary socialist thought in Britain and Ireland (McLean, Connelly). It emphasises republican principles of popular sovereignty and democracy and the rights of citizens and workers to participate directly in democratic processes; as well as for representatives to be regularly elected, accountable, subject to immediate recall and paid the average national wage. In the British context Republican socialism highlights the fact that the UK has never been a fully-fledged democracy. Its constitutional settlement is built round the notion of the “Crown in parliament” and parliamentary rather than citizen sovereignty. It incorporates semi-feudal rights and privileges such as The House of Lords, Queen’s consent and Crown powers vested in ministers with no fundamental rights for ordinary citizens guaranteed by a written constitution. Combined with a semi-democratic electoral system this gives the UK elites enormous powers to use and shape the political structures of the UK state to meet their own class interests. Shifting the “frontier of control” permanently in favour of working-class people requires a radical democratisation of Westminster’s archaic political system.

Moreover, fighting for and exercising deeper democratic self-determination over civic and economic life is itself a learning process for workers. It is hard to overstate the importance of this aspect of a republicanism from below approach. It stands in direct contrast to the top-down approach of Stalinism and social democracy.

Independence and democracy

David cannot see the thread that links this fight for enhanced democracy and socialism from below with support for independence. He argues that working class support for nationalism is based on a perceived lack of power, which independence offers to address, but that could equally be accommodated within a UK context.

It is certainly true that in Scotland and Wales marginalisation and powerlessness to effect change, or what has come to be called a “democratic deficit”, is central to working class support for independence. “End Tory rule forever” became a key slogan in RIC’s campaign during the 2014 referendum. But it is hard to see how democratic reform can be achieved without first dismantling the powers and privileges that the ruling class derive from the constitutional structures of Britain’s quasi-democratic “social monarchy” as outlined above. We support independence precisely because the break-up of the British state will pose a profound challenge to those archaic and undemocratic structures and open possibilities for the creation of a deeper and more participatory form of democracy. This of course is not socialism, but it would be a step towards the democratic dispersal of power in such a way as to involve working class people in the determination of their own political futures. It would also be a profound challenge to the exceptionalist British nationalism that has been the glue holding together Britain’s Empire state (Hassan); something we discuss below.

Class and Nation

We would agree totally with David when he argues that nationalism is always “dangerous”. In our initial contribution, we tried to explain why this must always be the case by referring to Tom Nairn’s analysis of nationalism. Nairn’s idea of the “Modern Janus”, to which David alludes, precisely warns of this danger. In his introduction to the new edition of Nairn’s book, Anthony Barnett outlines the essence of his view that nationalism: “Must draw on particularistic and exclusivist elements from the past as it seeks meaning for all in the future. Furthermore, this dual character originates with the force that generates nationalism: the impossibility of any escape from the uneven development of capitalism.”

David seems to misunderstand Nairn’s “Modern Janus”. It functions as a warning that all nationalisms must contain both progressive and reactionary elements simultaneously. It is not a way of explaining that some nationalisms are progressive and some reactionary to help socialists choose sides. The Janus face looks both forward and backwards simultaneously. It is therefore a warning that socialists should never take nationalism’s claims at face value. Even Nicola Sturgeon’s modern and socially progressive civic nationalism contains within it the “demons of Scottish history” (Nairn). David correctly evidences the danger of post-independence ethnic conflicts, including India and Pakistan following partition. He could include many other examples in post-colonial Africa and the bloody ethnic conflicts in the Balkan states, which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

His mistake however is to conclude from these histories that “The true face of nationalism is firmly reactionary”. It leads him to pose alternatives, which he believes will maintain class unity, such as building the fight against racism and xenophobia across the UK. But at the same time, his all-Britain approach would of necessity preserve the anti-working-class structures of the British state. Ironically therefore David is in danger of conflating class unity with national unity.

David ignores the fact that nationalism and its dual character have real material roots within the uneven development of capitalism. Consequently, nationalism is an inescapable terrain of struggle for socialists. As we argued in our original discussion article, real material factors are pulling the constituent nations of the UK apart (economic and political decline, neoliberalism, and the current multifaceted crises of the post-neoliberal era). The “glue” of British nationalism based on imperial nostalgia and “exceptionalism” that sustained the UK during much of the post war period has weakened dramatically in the era of globalised capital. Socialists cannot wish these circumstances away. We cannot simply argue against the breakup of Britain on the grounds of abstract class politics. We need to engage concretely with nationalism and independence across the UK, because effectively class politics is refracted through nationalism in the current period. This is why we must include the republican socialist demands outlined above in our support for independence movements. The danger of socialists not engaging with the democratising potential of the break-up of Britain is plain to see in the consolidation of xenophobic Anglo/British nationalism post-Brexit. A nationalism that has been weaponised by an ultra-right-wing tory regime expressly to develop an “explanatory narrative for popular heartland resentment at decline and loss” (Burnett). A regime that is increasingly transforming the UK into an “Orbanised” authoritarian state.

Whither England?

In his response David recognises that the breakup of Britain would pose problems for how socialists relate to questions of English identity and English nationalism. It is an issue which ex-Labour MP Thelma Walker has taken up in her recent Red Pepper article: “With the possibility of Scottish independence, followed by the Welsh, and the unification of Ireland, England could be left clinging to the relics of Empire in splendid isolation”.

David recognises that this is only one possibility. He points to another England reflected in Marcus Rashford’s outspoken attacks on child poverty, Southgate’s England football team, and the multi-cultural GB Olympic squad. In doing so he demonstrates the contested nature of English identity and English nationalism, illustrating that it is no different to other nationalisms in its class blurring complexity and its inter-related reactionary and progressive aspects (its Janus Face). Unfortunately, David’s belief that nationalism is always reactionary prevents him developing this analysis further. Instead, he avoids the need to discuss how socialists should engage with the problem by conflating English and British nationalism and counterposing abstract class politics to both. It is beyond the scope of this article to start a serious debate on the “English question”. But it is a debate which Left Unity must address urgently.

Independence and Internationalism

Commenting on David’s latest contribution to this debate, Doug Thorpe points out that:

One of the things missing from this discussion at the moment is its situation in a wider international context”. Doug is correct to highlight this omission, we should have addressed it explicitly in our original contribution. Tom Nairn always stressed that a concrete internationalist perspective was essential to avert the reactionary possibilities of nationalism. Unlike most of the radical left at the time (mid 1970s), he insisted that an independent Scotland must join and help shape an integrated and collaborative Europe. Membership of what became the EU was not an end in itself, but a recognition that Europe would increasingly be an important terrain of struggle for socialists. To remain outside or break from it would be a major factor driving reactionary nationalism not just in Scotland but throughout the UK. A prescient argument given where we find ourselves today! Left Unity has an excellent track record in opposing Brexit, and developing an international socialist critique of the destructive Lexit fantasy that has disoriented sections of the traditional revolutionary left. Moreover, as a member of the European Left we are well placed to develop concrete forms of international solidarity with others in Europe resisting EU neoliberalism and austerity politics.


At our forthcoming Conference in December Left Unity will be discussing how we might bring the radical Left together across the UK in the post-Corbyn era. There is a real possibility of a breakup of the British state in the foreseeable future, and this needs to be addressed in the context of that discussion. This piece has argued that achieving an eco-socialist transformation requires a radical re-democratisation of the British state and building grass roots working class democracy across these islands and beyond. As a first step this must mean supporting independence for Scotland and Wales and the reunification of Ireland. It means also tackling the democratic deficit in the governance of England.

Additional References:

  • Tom Nairn: The Break-up of Britain, 2021 edition, Verso Books
  • James Connolly: Labour in Irish History, 1987 edition, Bookmarks
  • Nan Milton: John MacLean in the Rapids of Revolution (essays, articles, and letters 1902- 23), Alison & Busby 1978
  • Thelma Walker: England after the break-up of Britain: Red Pepper 223, Autumn 2021
  • Gerry Hassan: The Twilight of the Empire State, The National 22 August 2021.

To submit an article for the 'Discussion & Debate' section of our website please email it to info@leftunity.org

1 comment

One response to “Once More on The Breakup of Britain”

  1. Larry Hyett says:

    Well received, the article prompted me to register.

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