UK Supreme Court rules Scottish parliament cannot hold independence referendum

Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) members at an independence demo in Edinburgh

The UK Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish parliament does not have the right to organise an independence referendum. The ruling will surprise virtually no one. However, it will cause anger and defiance across Scotland and will do nothing but spur on demands for a referendum among many tens of thousands of pro-independence campaigners.

Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) stands full square in defence of the right to indyref2 and for self-determination. It’s not up to the unelected judges of the Supreme Court or the Westminster capitalist parties; it’s the people of Scotland who should decide.

The Scottish government had already announced plans for a referendum on October 19 2023 and sought a ruling that this would be legal. The undemocratic ruling by the Supreme Court should be met with demonstrations, protests and serious preparation for the building of a mass campaign of struggle to win the right to have a referendum, which is currently blocked by the refusal of the Westminster government to agree to a second referendum.

Demands for the Scottish parliament to organise a referendum regardless of the ruling can also grow. Socialist Party Scotland continues to demand that the Scottish government call indyref2. The independence movement should also support this.

In Catalonia, in 2017, it was the mass movement that forced the pro-capitalist nationalist parties into calling the referendum. The lessons for us in Scotland are that mass struggle can force politicians to act, but that we also must build our own independent organisations of struggle, including a new mass working-class party.

In Catalonia, the ruling class in Spain acted to try to crush the movement. Therefore we need to draw the conclusion that not only are we fighting for the right to self-determination, but we are also fighting the system of capitalism that is denying our democratic rights. That’s why we need to build a mass movement and link up with the working class in other parts of Britain to overthrow the Tories and the system they represent.

A fighting socialist majority in the parliament linked to the building of mass working-class organisations of struggle outside of parliament is essential to challenge the capitalist wall of opposition to democratic rights.

Undemocratic

The undemocratic legislation that formed the basis of the devolution settlement and the creation of the parliament in the late 1990s was carefully drawn up to ensure that a referendum could not be held without Westminster agreeing to the temporary transfer of the powers to Holyrood.

And as the multitude of Tory prime ministers since the 2014 independence referendum have made clear, as has Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, such an agreement – a section 30 order – will not be forthcoming.

As Socialist Party Scotland has consistently argued, this reflects the entrenched and overwhelming opposition of British capitalism and its political representatives to the possible break up of the UK.

Moreover, the Supreme Court is part of the same capitalist establishment. It is stuffed full of unelected judges – Law Lords – who are in place precisely to, in the last analysis, defend the interests of capitalism.

Indeed the President of the Supreme Court who announced the ruling was Baron Reed of Allermuir – a member of the House of Lords. Reed went to a private school in Edinburgh and also Oxford university. Like the overwhelming majority of the UK’s top judges, Reed reflects the political outlook and class background of the capitalist establishment, including in Scotland.

Judges regularly rule against trade unions for example when employers seek court interventions to prevent strikes under anti-union laws.

SNP passivity

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) leadership have made clear they have no criticisms of the judges who made the decision. Such silence and passivity on their behalf is also no surprise. It reflects the pro-business outlook of the SNP who have no intention of doing anything other than maintaining the rule of capitalism and all its undemocratic institutions, including the monarchy and the judiciary, in a future independent Scotland.

Alongside the refusal of the main parties at Westminster to allow for a ‘legal’ referendum, this ruling makes it clear that only a mass movement on the streets, workplaces and communities of Scotland will deliver self-determination.

Sturgeon’s proposal is that the next UK general election should be a referendum on the right to indyref2. But the SNP won in 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021. Most of these with a manifesto commitment for another referendum. What difference would an SNP majority in Scotland actually make in the next election? A general election is not a referendum. And the SNP’s role in making cuts and denying workers pay rises to match inflation is making them increasingly unpopular.

For the capitalist establishment, there is too much at stake to simply accept formal democracy. They have profits, international prestige, seats in international institutions like the UN and the impact of Scottish independence would have in Wales and Northern Ireland to consider. The break up of the UK would be a huge blow for the capitalist class and they will fight tooth and nail to try to avoid it.

Mass struggle needed

The very last thing on the mind of the SNP leaders is to build a mass extra-parliamentary struggle to win democratic rights in Scotland.

In contrast, the strike wave that we have seen over the last few months points to the type of methods of struggle that the independence movement in Scotland should turn to. Strike action in support of demands for wage increases by workers has proven to have won significant concessions. Tens of thousands of workers, from council workers, teachers, NHS staff and rail workers have won more pay by taking or threatening strike action.

Almost all these strikes have seen workers up against SNP politicians in one form or another. Mass coordination of strikes has the power to win major gains for the working class on pay, but they can also force governments to retreat and alter course. They can even force governments out of office. The mass non-payment poll tax campaign of 1989 – 1991 is a case in point. It not only melted the ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher, and removed her from power, but it also ended the poll tax itself. And it was a movement not organised by the SNP or Labour leadership but by socialists and Marxists in the shape of Militant – the forerunner of the Socialist Party in Scotland, England and Wales.

Many trade unions, and the STUC, have policies in support of indyref2. It’s clear that the workers’ movement has a critical and powerful role to play in building a mass movement for the right to a referendum.

Capitalist policies an obstacle

This points to a reality that Socialist Party Scotland has emphasised again and again: that the SNP’s pro-big business policies are an obstacle to winning a majority in Scotland for independence. As the latest offering from the Scottish government on its economic plans post-independence makes clear, austerity and wage restraint would continue in a capitalist Scotland under their rule. “We would set fiscal rules designed to put public finances on a sustainable path. The rules would ensure that day-to-day spending was kept within fiscally sustainable limits”. What else is this other than an acceptance of further cuts? Look at what the SNP and Scottish Green government have just done by axing £1.2 billion of the parliament budget.

Nor is there any commitment to nationalisation or public ownership under independence. With hundreds of thousands being thrown into fuel poverty and facing falling incomes, how can these policies inspire workers or young people to vote for or campaign for independence?

A mass movement for independence could be built if it offered an end to poverty and inequality. A £15 an hour minimum wage for all. Massive investment in public housing, the NHS and free education. Public ownership of energy, transport, supermarkets, banks etc. under working-class control and management.

Instead of these policies, the SNP can only offer the same failing system of the rule of the 1% – the capitalist elite – while the working-class majority pay the price.

For all these reasons, the ruling by the UK Supreme Court underlines the need to build a mass working-class struggle for the right to indyref2. It means building a movement for independence with socialist policies at its core.

It means mobilising the 600,000-strong trade union movement in Scotland that has begun to show its power. It also means the unions founding a new working-class party to fight for these policies now. It means linking up with workers in the rest of Britain fighting the cost of living crisis and for the removal of this rotten Tory government

Socialist Party Scotland says

  • DEFY the Tories and the capitalist judges! Demand the Scottish government organise indyref2
  • Build a mass working-class movement for the right to indyref2, including committees of struggle involving workers and young people, communities and workplaces
  • For a new mass working-class party to fight for self-determination and for socialist change. 
  • For an independent socialist Scotland and a voluntary, democratic socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland as part of the struggle for socialism internationally
  • End the capitalist crisis. Renationalise all the privatised utilities under workers’ control. Bring into public ownership the banks, the profiteering energy companies and the major monopolies that dominate the economy under workers’ control and management. 
  • Unite the strikes for pay rises that fully match inflation and the rising cost of living. For a £15 an hour minimum wage with no age exemptions. 
  • Fight for a socialist plan of production to replace capitalism and the profiteering billionaires that are destroying the lives of the working class globally. 

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