Scotland: One year after the electoral uprising against austerity

One year ago, the Scottish independence referendum delivered an electoral uprising against austerity and the political establishment

One year ago today, the Scottish independence referendum delivered what Socialist Party Scotland described as an “electoral uprising against austerity and the political establishment.” 1.6 million, overwhelmingly working-class, people voted Yes on September 18 2014 in the teeth of a colossal campaign of fear and intimidation.

An unprecedented turnout of 85% – the largest participation in any plebiscite or election since the introduction of universal suffrage – saw hundreds of thousands take part who had never previously voted, or had not voted since the days on Thatcher’s poll tax. It was a heroic attempt to find an escape route from unemployment and low pay, brutal poverty and cuts. No less was it a damning verdict on the political elite rightly held responsible for these crimes.

While the No side won by 55% to 45%, it was in many ways a pyrrhic, empty victory that has not “settled the question for generations” as David Cameron, Gordon Brown and co had hoped. Instead, as we explained at the time, the “winners become the losers and the losers the winners.”

In the wake of the indyref the base of support for the “pro-union” capitalist parties has been dramatically weakened. Scottish Labour, who spearheaded the Better Together campaign, suffered an electoral annihilation just 8 months after their “victory” in the referendum.

The leadership of arch-Blairite Jim Murphy in Scotland, who promised a revival, lasted barely 5 months. He lost his Westminster seat in May, along with 39 of the 40 other Scottish Labour MPs. The former “Peoples Party” was reduced to its worst election result since 1918. In contrast, a landslide of support towards the SNP saw it secure 56 of the 59 available seats. Today they currently stand at 55% support in the polls for the Scottish elections in May 2016.

The standing joke after the 2010 general election was that there were more giant pandas in Edinburgh zoo than Tory MPs. Now this political humiliation applies not only to the Tories in Scotland, but Labour and the Lib Dems as well.

Moreover, a new referendum – the Quebec scenario, where two independence referendums were held within fifteen years – is also very likely. Another five planned years of savage Tory austerity will inevitably create the conditions for further demands for more devolved powers and independence.

Mass anti-austerity mood

The 2014 referendum was an expression of the same mass anti austerity, anti-establishment mood that has particularly undermined the former social democratic parties in creating the conditions for the rise of parties like Syriza and Podemos. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign in the US and the huge support for Jeremy Corbyn are also a reflection of the widespread desire for new mass anti-austerity and working class parties.

Labour leader Harold Wilson coined the phrase “a week is a long time in politics”, pointing to the possibility of rapid political change over a short period of time. The events in the days following September 18 2014 were an acute example of this.

Rather than being cowed and defeated, tens of thousands of primarily young people poured onto the streets and squares looking for a way to continue the struggle. There was an explosion in the membership of pro-independence political parties with many searching for left and socialist ideas.

Project Fear; the combined might of the political establishment, the majority of the media and big business had unleashed an unprecedented campaign of intimidation and misinformation in the run-up to September 18. The effect of this was to drive the working class to the left. This mood, particularly from February 2014, was given an organised expression by the launch of an explicitly socialist pro-independence campaign by Tommy Sheridan – at the suggestion and with the support of Socialist Party Scotland.

The “Hope Over Fear” tour was a series of mass meetings of an energised and radicalised working class and caught the mood, which was in favour of independence but also radical socialist solutions to capitalist inspired austerity. Socialist Party Scotland helped organise huge meetings titled “the socialist case for independence” as part of this tour. The support for public ownership, taxing the rich, a living wage and an end to cuts was overwhelming and reflected the political vacuum to the left of the pro-business SNP.

New party

In the hours following the indyref we called for the launching of a new socialist party to offer a political home to young people and the working class. Tommy Sheridan and also the leadership of groups like the Radical Independence Campaign rejected such an approach. Tommy Sheridan went further and drew the conclusion that the left should call on people to vote for the SNP.

The failure to take these necessary steps, alongside the widespread outlook that the SNP leaders had been prepared to stand up against Project Fear, led to a mass influx into the party of over 80,000 people. However, as we predicted, this has not led to a significant shift to the left by the SNP under its new leader Nicola Sturgeon. Despite an unprecedented electoral mandate and securing 50% of the popular vote in May on an “anti-austerity” platform, the SNP are continuing to implement Tory cuts at council and Scottish Government level.

Indyref 2?

Today the issue is not so much whether there will be another referendum but rather its timing and the circumstances that could trigger it. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership are attempting to reconcile the demands of a large section of their new membership who want a commitment to a relatively quick referendum with her own “gradualist” approach. Sturgeon has made it clear that there wont be another vote unless “we were confident that we could win it by a large majority.”

The SNP leaders are in the process of drawing up the wording for their 2016 manifesto. In it they are likely to refer to a number of scenarios that could trigger an indyref 2. These include the possibility of Britain voting to leave the EU while Scotland vote to stay in. A failure to deliver the promised enhanced powers agreed by the Smith Commission, far less the “near federalism” promised in “the vow”, and a continuation of Tory austerity will also be included as “material changes of circumstance” that would trigger a possible second referendum.

In all likelihood there wont be a date or even a firm commitment in the SNP 2016 manifesto for another referendum. However, there will be the option to call one if the conditions of an upsurge in support for independence existed. A possible referendum in 2020 or 2021 cannot be ruled out.

Westminster still has the powers over whether a “legal” referendum can take place in Scotland – not the Scottish parliament. It’s not ruled out that a Tory government could refuse another indyref, particularly if support for independence had risen markedly in the meantime. Under this scenario an “illegal” referendum could be organised by the Scottish government, creating a new flashpoint that would ratchet up the national question still further.

What the SNP leadership certainly will do is continue to use the issue of a second referendum to push for more concessions from the Tories on the one hand, and to try and placate the tens of thousands of new members of the party on the other.

In addition, they will also increasingly use the national question to try to divert attention away from their own role in the implementation of Tory austerity in Scotland. The scale of the cuts will be ratcheted up significantly over the next two or three years. Primarily it will be SNP MSPs and councillors, alongside Labour, who will be carrying through these cuts, leading to an increasing exposing of the pro-business SNP leadership.

Achilles heel

A key factor in the defeat of the referendum was the SNP’s pro-capitalist economic model for an independent Scotland. The SNP’s white paper – the so-called blueprint for independence – outlined support for tax cuts for the major corporations, a pledge to keep the monarchy and proposed a currency union with the Bank of England as the central bank – a single currency arrangement that the pro-union parties in Better Together ruled out.

Alex Salmond and co held out the promise, more like the chimera, of a thriving capitalist economy under independence in which “all boats would float”. Today, with a new recession only a matter of timing and the north sea oil price fallen by over half since last September, the idea of an independent capitalist Scotland offering an escape route from austerity is increasingly the Achilles heel of the SNP leadership.

By refusing to go beyond the limits of what capitalism could afford they were unable to combat the onslaught from big business and the bosses’ media. To answer the fears of a layer of the working class on pensions, public services, savings etc would have required a developed socialist programme, including support for massive wealth redistribution underpinned by the nationalisation under democratic control of the banks and big business in an independent socialist Scotland.

The Corbyn factor

An added potential complication for the SNP today has been the insurgent campaign of Jeremy Corbyn who has just won the UK Labour leadership contest. Corbyn stands significantly to the left of the SNP on public ownership, tax rises on the rich, his unflinching support for trade union struggles and workers rights etc.

While the carnage inflicted on Scottish Labour as a result of their collaboration with the Tories in Project Fear has been seismic, a new left, anti-austerity party could seriously undermine SNP support in Scotland. Whether this arises through an influx of new radicalised trade unionists and young people into Scottish Labour to try and transform it, and there are major obstacles to this, or whether a new party is ultimately created, remains to be seen.

As with the rest of the UK party, the balance of forces in Scottish Labour is stacked against Corbyn and his policies. Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale openly opposed him during the election. There are no left figures in Labour’s leadership team in Scotland. At council level, for example, only two Glasgow Labour councillors out of 43 supported Corbyn. The right-wing majority in the Labour Party will oppose tooth-and-nail any attempts to drive the party to the left and democratise its structures. A determined campaign will be needed to change this balance of forces.

Our appeal to Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in Scotland, as it is across Britain, is to organise an open conference and invite all his supporters, the trade unions who have backed him and socialist organisations to participate. Out of such a conference could develop a major anti-austerity and socialist campaigning organisation to provide a base of support for these ideas. It’s vital that an anti-austerity movement around Corbyn is built outside of the formal structures of Scottish Labour if this opportunity is not to be wasted.

In addition we would appeal to Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in Scotland to reassess their position on the national question. No to independence, the position currently held by Jeremy, will be a barrier to reaching some of the most radicalised sections of the working class in Scotland. The numbers applying to join Labour in Scotland to support Corbyn have not been on the same scale as in England, partly this is a reflection of the still toxic brand that Labour is seen as in Scotland.

It is possible to stand for the unity of the working class across Britain at the same time as defending the democratic rights of the Scottish people. Socialist Party Scotland did precisely this during the referendum. We supported a Yes vote but also stood for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland.

No cuts

As a starting point Jeremy should call on all Labour candidates, MSPs and councillors to refuse to vote for a single penny in cuts. This means a pledge to refuse to vote through Tory cuts in Scotland by using the powers of the councils and the Scottish parliament, including use of under spends and borrowing powers etc to set no cuts budget. Backed up by the mass involvement of the trade unions, community and anti-austerity campaigns, a mass movement could be built to demand a return of the billions stolen by the Tories from public services.

The Socialist Party and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) has pioneered this approach and will continue to advocate such a stand. We’ll be writing to Labour and SNP candidates calling on them to support a no cuts policy. Where they do we will seek to make common cause with them. However, it is very likely that they will be tiny in number. Therefore Scottish TUSC is preparing to stand widely in the Scottish parliament elections next year to offer that alternative.

The referendum on September 18, 2014 was an expression of a mass anti-austerity mood in society and the hatred of the pro-big business political elite. The spectacular electoral success of the SNP, as well its spiralling membership following the indyref, was also a distorted reflection of the same mood. The SNP leadership by their actions so far have betrayed those who looked to them seeking a fighting opposition to cuts and austerity.

It is therefore vital that a clear socialist and campaigning anti-cuts political force is created. It is possible, and we hope it is the case, that Jeremy Corby’s victory will open the door to such a development.

Basing itself on defiant opposition to austerity and mass trade union and community struggles against the accelerating cuts, the anti-trade union bill etc, such a political alternative could become a mass party within weeks and months, It would represent a big step forward in the necessary task of arming the working class with a clear socialist programme to lead the struggle against capitalism.

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September 2015