Where now for the Scottish independence movement?

Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) campaigning on independence

6 May 2021 saw the election of a majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) committed to a second referendum on Scottish independence. Is an independent Scotland now inevitable? How will Boris Johnson and the Tories respond? Should socialists and the workers’ movement fight to lead the struggle for self-determination for Scotland?

The phrase ‘Disunited Kingdom’ is in increasing use by the ‘august’ journals of capitalism. A quick Google search will find many examples – the Times, Sunday Times, and the FT included. As the Economist magazine described, in November 2020: “The union of the United Kingdom… is unwell. For 20 years the tension between unionism and separatism has been contained by the devolution settlement, under which parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast make laws. That system will come under assault from all sides.”

The centrifugal forces pulling apart the ‘United’ Kingdom are rooted in British capitalism’s long-term decline. Devolution, designed to mitigate against this tendency, has failed. Today the capitalist elite is wrestling with a growing threat to its class interests.

Boris Johnson has hurriedly set up a ‘Cabinet Union Strategy Committee’ to counter the threat of the UK’s disintegration – an outcome that would be a nightmare scenario for the economic, strategic and geopolitical interests of the ruling class.

Support for Welsh independence has grown to record levels recently. The 100th anniversary of the creation of the Northern Ireland state, this year, comes at a time of increasing demands by nationalists for a border poll on the reunification of Ireland, amid overwhelming opposition among unionists. The 6 May election outcome in Scotland will not have calmed the nerves of British capitalism.

The widely predicted Holyrood pro-independence majority came to pass. 72 of the 129 seats are now held by Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish Green MSPs. The SNP itself won a massive 62 of the 73 first-past-the-post constituencies and the largest number of votes for any party in the 21-year history of Scottish devolution. Both parties were elected on a manifesto commitment of delivering a second independence referendum.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made clear that legislation for indyref2 will be laid before the Scottish parliament. She has challenged Boris Johnson to take the Scottish parliament to court if he wants to prevent it.

In response, the Tories have made clear that they will not allow a ‘section 30 order’ to be granted that would allow a ‘legal’ referendum. A major collision is being prepared between the Scottish working class and young people – a majority of whom support independence – and the capitalist establishment.

Kick the can 

However, this confrontation may be delayed for a while yet. Ironically, neither side – Johnson, obviously but also Sturgeon – wants an indyref any time soon.

Indeed, Scotland’s first minister made clear throughout the election campaign that there would be no question of a referendum until “after the recovery from the pandemic was secured”.

The earliest the SNP would bring a referendum bill to Holyrood, she said, would be the first half of 2022. And an actual referendum vote not before 2023.

Why kick the can down the road? Well, it’s not Covid. The Scottish elections – themselves a national plebiscite with a record turnout – took place largely during severe pandemic restrictions. The real reason is time to build support for independence to a high-enough level – often referred to by nationalist politicians as being around 60% – before being confident about winning a majority.

The SNP leadership has had its fingers burned before. In March 2017, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the SNP brought a motion to parliament asking for a section 30 to hold indyref2. This was refused by then Tory PM Theresa May. Sturgeon put the request on ice following the loss of one-third of the SNP Westminster parliamentary group in the June 2017 general election.

The Scottish elections were marked by extreme polarisation over the national question. 50% voted for the pro-independence bloc (SNP, Greens and Alba) while 50% backed the pro-union tripartite (Tories, Labour, Lib Dems). This is a direct reflection of the current polling on independence.

While a majority of the working class, and around 70% of under 30-year-olds, say they will vote ‘yes’ in a second referendum, the over-50s are largely opposed. Even among workers there is a division. Not surprisingly, the SNP’s pro-capitalist prognosis for an independent Scotland is incapable of overcoming the doubts of a layer of workers.

The 2018 SNP-initiated ‘growth commission’ – their economic case for independence – pledged the holding down of public spending for up to ten years: a recipe for savage cuts to public spending after independence.

In reality, these ‘still on the table’ proposals are to the right of the pandemic-driven emergency tax and spending measures of the current Tory government.

The SNP leaders are long-term opponents of public ownership of the profiteering, privatised energy companies. In response to the 2014 North Sea oil price collapse, they demanded tax cuts for the oil and gas multinationals which have made billions, while axing tens of thousands of oil workers’ jobs and attacking wages and conditions.

Nicola Sturgeon is also continuing to insist that an independent capitalist Scotland would use the sterling currency with interest rates set by the Bank of England and with the monarch retained as head of state. Yet, the desires of many working-class people attracted to independence are for a break with austerity and wealth inequality, not a continuation of the status quo.

Socialist Party Scotland has consistently warned that the SNP leadership is a barrier to winning a majority for independence. It cannot answer the genuine fears of workers on any of the key issues: jobs, pensions, living standards etc.

Sturgeon, the Scottish Greens, et al, also refuse to pledge that companies threatening to leave Scotland under independence would be brought into public ownership – a key response to answer the ‘Project Fear’ campaign.

The same applies to the threat of a flight of capital by the finance houses. Such blackmail can only be answered by a socialist Scottish government nationalising the banks and implementing capital controls.

It is precisely the building of a new mass workers’ party in Scotland that is a vital task to help lead a mass working-class movement for self-determination. A vision of an independent socialist Scotland that would reverse all austerity, increase the minimum wage to £15 an hour, end all anti-union legislation and implement a programme of public ownership would gain mass support.

Project Fear

The pro-big business policies of the SNP are its Achilles heel. A return to Project Fear and attempts to divide the working class will be ruthlessly used by the Tories, right-wing Labour and the capitalist class.

To that end, the British ruling class and the capitalist media, etc, can, and will, use British and English nationalism to undercut support for independence. The ‘plight’ of English people living in Scotland – the largest minority – and other non-Scottish minorities can be used.

Sectarianism will also play a role in Scotland. Elements of the loyalist community in Scotland have already been involved in mobilisations against independence, flowing from fears of what the break-up of the UK would mean for Northern Ireland.

It is essential that the workers’ movement puts forward a policy of overcoming attempts to divide the working class. A programme for class unity and opposition to sectarianism and racism, including the call for a voluntary socialist confederation of Scotland with England, Wales and Ireland, is vital in that regard.

Left to the SNP leaders – and many on the Scottish left who tail-end them – there are dangers that divisions will open up among the working class in Scotland.

While the sticks of economic blackmail and ‘divide and rule’ will be used relentlessly by the capitalist class, they are also flexible enough to use other methods as well. The powers to allow for a legal referendum lie with Westminster, and at present Johnson is still saying no.

However, the fact that Sturgeon has kicked the can of indyref2 down the road for a year or so gives space for the Tories to implement new tactics to try to undercut backing for independence. Primary among those is to highlight the success of the vaccine roll-out as an example of what can be done on an all-UK basis. This may now be quickly followed by announcements of UK government investment into Scotland for major projects, possibly including road, rail, construction of freeports, and so forth.

The repatriation of powers from the EU back to Westminster following Brexit can allow Johnson to bypass Scottish local authorities and the Scottish government to do this. Also possible is the offer of more powers for Scotland, over tax and spending for example.

At some point, however, Holyrood will vote for legislation requesting a section 30 order. If Westminster refuses, the Scottish government has pledged to go ahead anyway. At that point it’s possible that legal action will be pursued by one side or another, all the way to the Supreme Court.

One possible scenario is that the UK government simply refuses a section 30 order and allows the Scottish government to go ahead with an ‘advisory’ referendum. Such a referendum would almost certainly be boycotted by the pro-union side in an effort to delegitimise it and ignore its outcome.

Even now, pressure for the Scottish government to organise a referendum and, should there be a majority, then demand negotiations on the terms of independence is growing. Sturgeon has refused point-blank to support the idea of a ‘wildcat’ referendum.

For her, only the ‘gold standard’ example of 2014 – an agreed referendum between the two governments – can lead to independence.

For the SNP leadership readmittance of Scotland into the bosses’ EU is critically important. And only an ‘internationally recognised’ referendum process can open the door to that.

The SNP leaders naively believe that the class interests of capitalism in Britain, Spain, Belgium, Italy, etc, can be reconciled with the break-up of the UK and the inevitable impact that would have on secessionist movements throughout Europe.

However, among the pro-independence movement in Scotland, the demands for a mass movement to defy Westminster will only grow. While an indyref2 is still some way off, the street demonstrations will return following lockdown and they are likely to be large events.

Former SNP leader Alex Salmond’s launch of Alba just before the Scottish elections reflected that layer of the indy movement which wants to move faster than the extremely cautious SNP leadership.

After failing to win a seat in the election on 6 May, it’s an open question whether Alba can develop. What is not in question is that a new pro-independence party will emerge at some point, reflecting these splits in the independence movement over how to overcome the opposition of capitalism to Scottish self-determination.

Workers’ movement

For the workers’ movement, the national question is a critical issue. The trade unions have two key tasks. Firstly, fight to lead a mass movement for democratic rights and a second indyref.

This should be done separately from the SNP leadership. Demands like ‘march, strike and occupy for indyref2’, and ‘for an end to austerity, jobs losses and in defence of workers’ rights’ should be championed. By putting the class issues to the fore while defending the right to self-determination, the workers’ movement can cut across attempts by reactionary forces to divide the working class.

Secondly, the trade unions must urgently organise a conference to discuss building a new mass workers’ party in Scotland to help organise mass struggle for democratic rights and for socialism – and to fight for a voluntary socialist federation of Scotland with England, Wales and Ireland.

The SNP has been nothing but a conveyor belt for Tory austerity over the past decade. In an independent Scotland, it would rule for big business and the billionaires.

For a big majority of young people and growing sections of the working class, independence is linked to a struggle to change the way they live. They will increasingly reject the SNP leadership’s refusal to build a mass movement that they fear getting out of their control.

Socialist Party Scotland and the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, in contrast, are fighting to mobilise the largest possible movement of the working class to win the right to decide.

We understand that the struggle for democratic rights under capitalism is linked to the fight to end the profit-driven system itself. Mass struggle for indyref2 and for an independent socialist Scotland is the way forward.

Scotland and the National Question – A Marxist Approach (150 pages, £8 sterling).
To order, go to: socialistpartyscotland.org.uk

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May 2021