The Scottish National Party (SNP)-led government’s latest ‘road map’ towards a second independence referendum for Scotland has been unveiled. Boris Johnson’s Westminster government has also launched a five-step plan to save the union. Battle lines are being drawn for an explosive collision on the national question in the coming months.
The SNP’s road map illustrates two things. Firstly, the enormous pressure that is building on the SNP leadership as a result of the growing mood among the working class and young people in favour of an independent Scotland.
Sunday 24 January was the 20th consecutive poll in Scotland showing majority support for the break-up of the UK. Among those aged 34 and under, a colossal 71% back independence.
Moreover, the last few years have seen very large demonstrations organised by the likes of All Under One Banner demanding a second indyref. These have been outwith the control and influence of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership.
Opposition to what has been largely viewed as the cautious and timid approach of Sturgeon has also been reflected inside the SNP itself.
A number of dissident voices were elected in ballots last year to leading internal SNP committees. Growing demands for a Plan B should, as seems inevitable, the Tories refuse a section 30 order for a ‘legal’ referendum have piled further pressure on the pro-capitalist leadership of the SNP.
In addition, the likely overwhelming majority for parties who support a second indyref in the May 2021 Scottish parliamentary election will detonate an explosive confrontation between the Scottish working class and the capitalist establishment. This will put the pro-capitalist SNP leadership in a very difficult position.
The roadmap is an attempt to head off demands from the independence movement for extra-parliamentary struggle and an ‘illegal’ referendum.
This pressure has, in part, been reflected in the new roadmap. The document restates the preferred position of the SNP, that they will request and receive a section 30 order from Johnson after the election.
As they go on to state: “there could be no moral or democratic justification for denying that request. If the UK Government were to adopt such a position its position would be unsustainable both at home and abroad.” So far so much the same.
The tweak this time is that they say they intend to go ahead with a “legal referendum” if one is refused by Westminster. This would leave the Johnson government with the option of delivering a section 30 agreement or much more likely refusing and going to the courts to block a referendum if necessary.
Secondly, the roadmap reveals that little has changed in the SNP’s own strategic thinking. To be clear, nowhere in the roadmap do the SNP say they will hold a ‘wildcat’ or an ‘illegal’ referendum if a section 30 order is not forthcoming.
The capitalist courts, which routinely are used by the bosses against trade union ballots, will be very unlikely to rule in favour of an independence referendum being legal if Westminster has not given its agreement.
If the courts and/or the Westminster government were to rule that the SNP can’t organise a binding independence referendum, Sturgeon may seek a ‘legal’ option, for example, a referendum that could be ‘advisory’ or worded to ask for the opening up of negotiations on the possible terms of independence with Westminster but falling short of declaring an independent state.
It is likely that such a referendum would be met with a boycott campaign by the pro-union side as it was in the Catalonia referendum.
That is not to rule out that under pressure from a mass movement the SNP could be forced, against its instincts, into sanctioning a referendum that was technically illegal. This is particularly the case if they were in danger of losing large sections of their base of support among the working class to, for example, a new workers’ party with fighting socialist policies.
They will seek to avoid this at all costs, however. Either way, the response from the Tories et al will be to resist all options that could result in an independent Scotland.
As Socialist Party Scotland has consistently explained this is not 2014. Tory PM David Cameron agreed to a section 30 order because he was confident they would win a majority for Scotland remaining in the union. Today, in the context of an economic crisis, the pandemic and majority support for independence in Scotland, that confidence has evaporated.
The break-up of the UK, and it’s Scotland that is currently the weakest link in that chain, would be a catastrophe for the ruling class and their economic, strategic and geopolitical interests. The knock-on impact on Northern Ireland and Wales would be dramatic.
For these reasons,. the capitalist class, including the Labour leadership under Keir Starmer, will oppose tooth and nail conceding an indyref2, probably while offering to concede more powers to Scotland as a trade-off. But the SNP leadership’s entire strategy is to rely only on their electoral mandate in May 2021 to use as a lever backed up by the bosses’ courts,. if necessary.
The SNP’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, underlined the Scottish government’s real position by stating: “What the proposals that we have set out do is define exactly how, on a legal basis, we can have a referendum on independence – that is the Government’s preferred option and that’s the strategy that we will pursue should we be successful in securing a majority in favour of that proposition in the elections in May.”
As the BBC’s Scottish political reporter, Philip Sim, put it: She [Nicola Sturgeon] wants any new vote to be unimpeachable in its legitimacy, to have international recognition – particularly from the EU, which she would like to see Scotland rejoin some day.”
The pro-big business EU’s refusal to recognise the ‘illegal’ Catalonia independence referendum in 2017 looms large in this equation.
Ultimately the main European powers, even with Britain out of the EU, will provide hostile opposition to Scottish independence. They fear such a development would also add further to secessionist movements in Spain, Belgium, Italy and across the continent.
The only power capable of overcoming the entrenched opposition of British and international capitalism to self-determination for Scotland is the mobilisation of the working class in a mass movement for democratic rights.
That would involve not only mass demonstrations for the right to indyref2 but also widespread and coordinated strike action by trade unions and occupations of workplaces, schools and colleges by workers and young people.
Moreover, such a movement would have to appeal to workers in England, Wales and Ireland for their support for the right to decide Scotland’s constitutional future.
To do that effectively – and to cut across the concerted attempts to divide the working class through, for example, using English nationalism and religious sectarianism by sections of the ruling class – a socialist approach is essential.
If the mass movement in Scotland was to adopt the idea of fighting for an independent socialist Scotland based on public ownership, an end to all forms of austerity and massive investment in housing, jobs and public services, this would find fertile ground among tens of millions of workers in the rest of Britain who have suffered through more than a decade of austerity.
By making clear that the struggle in Scotland is one not just for democracy but also for the social and economic emancipation of the oppressed working class from capitalism, a united movement for a voluntary socialist confederation of an independent Scotland with England, Wales and Ireland would take root.
The building of a new mass workers’ party based on the trade unions and the independence movement is a vital step in ensuring the struggle for self-determination and socialism go hand in hand.
The Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, supported by Socialist Party Scotland, will be standing on that programme in the May elections.
Our candidates will stand on a pledge of living on a workers’ wage, for public ownership and socialist planning of the economy, for a real recovery for the working-class majority from the Covid crisis and for a mass working-class struggle for indyref2.