Where now for Scottish independence?

Scottish independence rally 2018

The recent, and unfinished, crisis in the Scottish National Party raises questions about the future prospects for Scottish independence. PHILIP STOTT from Socialist Party Scotland (CWI Scotland) analyses current events and looks at where the independence movement is going.

Almost a decade after the working-class uprising that was the 2014 Scottish independence referendum – an event that shook the British capitalist class to the core – the prospects for a second ‘indyref’ seem very remote.

Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the crisis that has engulfed the party has given an enormous boost to the strategists of capitalism desperately seeking to avoid the break-up of the UK. Falling poll ratings for the SNP have quickly followed, also reflecting how their record on cuts to public services and pro-capitalist policies generally have undermined support among their core working-class base.

Scotland’s leading historian Tom Devine, who voted Yes in 2014, said recently: “Given recent events, I would honestly have to say that the cause of independence is virtually dead for at least a generation”. SNP president Mike Russell has described the catastrophe as the worst crisis the party has faced in 50 years. While SNP MP Pete Wishart bluntly stated: “The referendum route to independence is now dead”. Wishart’s comment reflects the long-standing disorientation and confusion among leading nationalists over how to overcome the resistance of British capitalism to Scottish independence.

Not surprisingly, given this backdrop, the independence movement in Scotland has been at a relatively low ebb recently. The All Under One Banner (AUOB) marches have not been anything like the size of the pre-Covid mobilisations. For example, 80,000 marched in Glasgow in January 2020, just a month after Boris Johnson’s general election win. The AUOB demo on the day of the King’s coronation in May 2023 was only around 7,000.

Class anger has, however, not dissipated. Quite the opposite. The recent wave of action by workers has seen more days lost through strikes than any year since 1989. There is huge public support for the trade unions, with many strikes seeing workers pitted against SNP politicians. This working-class fightback has the same roots of class anger as the 2014 indyref itself. Blocked, temporarily, on the national question, not least because of the misleadership of the SNP, workers have continued to fight on the cost-of-living issue. By using the strike weapon the class struggle has been taken to a higher level.

Support for independence

Yet support for Scottish independence has remained undiminished by the SNP crisis. As political scientist, John Curtice, explained: “The truth is that we are looking at a situation where a political institution [the SNP] is in trouble, even though the cause for which it is in favour of isn’t. Whereas in the middle of January, 76% of those people who voted for Yes in 2014 were saying they’d vote for the SNP, that figure is now down to slightly below two-thirds… The SNP are losing the support of those who still believe in independence”.

Some former SNP voters are switching to Labour, in particular for the forthcoming Westminster election. But pro-independence parties other than the SNP – in particular, the Scottish Greens and Alex Salmond’s Alba party – are gaining in the polls. It is very likely now that there will be multiple pro-independence parties represented at Holyrood after the next election, with Scotland becoming more like Catalonia in that respect. The relatively monolithic grip of the SNP on the independence movement is over.

The SNP’s semi-collapse also comes in the wake of the undemocratic ruling by the UK Supreme Court in November 2022 that the Scottish parliament could not hold a legitimate independence referendum. The ongoing refusal of the Tories at Westminster to allow for the transfer of powers to Holyrood for a ‘legal’ referendum continues. Keir Starmer has also made clear that there would be no change from a Labour government he leads either.

Adding to these complications, falling support for the SNP to below 40% has made redundant their previous policy that a 50% share for pro-independence parties in Scotland at a Westminster election would be a mandate to “open negotiations on independence with the UK government”. Against this backdrop, the SNP leadership has dropped entirely the demand for a transfer of powers for an immediate legal indyref2. Now, according to SNP leader Humza Yousaf, there has to be a “consistent majority for independence” before a referendum takes place.

At present, support for independence sits at around 47% – and has not really moved since the 45% Yes vote achieved in 2014. The candidate who narrowly lost to Yousaf, Kate Forbes, also agrees that the SNP now has to play the long game. None of the leading figures in Scottish nationalism are calling for an immediate referendum. Events have moved a long way from the summer of 2022 when Nicola Sturgeon announced in the Scottish parliament that October 19, 2023, would be referendum day.

Redundant strategy

The policy of the nationalists has now dramatically shifted to demanding that a Starmer-led Labour government pass the powers permanently to the Scottish government to conduct a future indyref. This, they say, would be their ask for SNP support for a minority Labour government at Westminster. Predictably, this has been dismissed by the Labour leadership, who say there will never be any deals with the SNP. Starmer is moulding Labour into an electoral machine placed entirely at the service of the interests of British capitalism. Jeremy Corbyn’s left policies have been eviscerated. The former Labour leader himself has been barred from standing as a Labour candidate as part of a purge of the left. There is little prospect that a government led by Starmer would be prepared to open the door to the possible break-up of the UK by facilitating SNP demands.

David Cameron agreeing a Section 30 order in October 2012 – the Edinburgh agreement – which allowed Holyrood to hold a referendum when support for independence was at 28% was one thing. But the ‘near-death’ experience of the 2014 referendum is not something to be repeated as far the pro-capitalist Labour or Tory leaderships are concerned. Not with support for Scottish independence currently hovering close to 50%.

The log jam that has been erected to block a route to Scottish independence by the representatives of British capitalism was a key factor in Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. Wedded to seeking a voluntary agreement for the break-up of the UK from a Westminster government, and in reality the capitalist class it ultimately represents, is entirely utopian. Sturgeon’s appeal to the Tories that democracy and the will of the Scottish people had to be listened to and could not be denied was naïve in the extreme. 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 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. The ruling of the UK Supreme Court reflected those class interests.

The only way to overcome these obstacles to self-determination and the right to a second referendum is to build a mass working-class movement for the right to decide. That would inevitably mean mobilising class power in the form of mass protests, trade union struggles and coordinated strike action for democratic rights. In turn, that is only possible if independence is seen as being linked to resolving issues like the cost-of-living catastrophe, low pay, housing and health, and an end to all cuts and austerity. In other words, the fight for socialist change and an end to crisis-ridden capitalism.

Pro-independence parties

Yet none of the major pro-independence parties are advocating such a strategy. The Scottish Greens have a coalition deal with the SNP at Holyrood and have signed off on Sturgeon’s approach of seeking a ‘legal’ route to independence. Alex Salmond’s Alba party is a bit more combative, at least rhetorically, sometimes referring to civil disobedience in pursuit of independence. But that concept has much more in common with the parliamentarianism of the Irish home rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell in the late 19th century, than the insistence on the mass revolutionary struggle against capitalism to secure the right to self-determination, the successful policy of the Bolshevik Party in its defeat of Tsarist Russia, the ‘prison house of nations’. Alba’s rather paltry aim is to mobilise the active participation of “at least 3.5% of the Scottish population” to achieve independence.

Alba also says that, in effect, a plebiscite vote organised by Holyrood seeking a mandate to negotiate the terms of independence with Westminster would be the route to independence. Without a doubt, such a vote would be boycotted by the pro-union side in Scotland and would not be recognised by Westminster. Alba is also calling for the convening of what it calls an independence convention. It says: “The Convention would consist of most of Scotland’s MPs and MSPs, in alliance with interest groups from civic Scotland, the business community, trade unions and beyond. This convention will act as the steering group of the independence movement”.

Colin Fox, co-leader of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), has fallen into the same trap when he commented in April in a press release following the election of Humza Yousaf: “The new SNP leader must, in my view, see it as a priority to convene a new Scottish Independence Convention with a representative, collective leadership/board. Among its priorities must be setting out an unambiguous left-of-centre economic case that can secure majority support for a programme designed to redistribute Scotland’s wealth and create much more of it”. What exactly a left-of-centre programme is, is unclear. It’s certainly not socialist.

Marxists, in contrast, reject the idea that such a body dominated by pro-capitalist forces would offer the required leadership to win the right to decide and a majority for independence. In the context of a mass movement, we would argue instead for the creation of a body more akin to a revolutionary constituent assembly. One is made up primarily of elected representatives of mass workers’ and community-based organisations, including a new workers’ party, as well as trade unions, youth bodies, political organisations and so on. Such an assembly would be democratically elected from the mass movement, with its representatives subject to recall at any time and with no material privileges. Its task would be to discuss and debate how to prosecute a struggle for independence, linked to the drawing up of a programme for the economic transformation of Scotland in which socialist measures like public ownership and democratic planning of the economy would be essential.

The Alba leadership’s concept of an independence convention has nothing in common with such an approach. It is based on, above all, a continuation of capitalism in an independent Scotland. This, to a greater or lesser extent, is the same vision as that advocated by the SNP and the Scottish Greens. At best, they argue for a redesigned capitalist market based on a ‘well-being economy’. But the ‘well-being’ of the capitalist class always comes at the expense of workers whose labour produces profits for the bosses. That’s why socialists fight for the dominant sectors of the economy to be taken out of the hands of big business through public ownership and workers’ control and planned on a socialist basis to create a sustainable way forward for society.

Stages theory

In contrast, the in-vogue ideas from some in the independence movement are just reheated capitalism. Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, for example, who is the managing director of Scotianomics and the founder of Business for Scotland, says: “There is clearly a hunger for a new economic approach but all we are offered is rebranded versions of last century’s ideas of socialism and capitalism… Many nations, especially Scandinavian countries, are already making moves towards wellbeing-led policies, so nothing we are suggesting is radical, new or even untested”. Try telling that to workers in Norway, whose main trade union federation (LO) called a general strike in April 2023 against pay erosion. “This general strike puts the workers and workers’ struggle back on the agenda”, said the leader of the LO, Peggy Hessen Følsvik. “LO demanded increased purchasing power for all its members and a boost for the low-paid… [The employers’ representative] has chosen to reject our demands, and thus sends the country into a strike”.

The dominant ideas on the pro-independence socialist left are variations on the theory of stages: first independence and then social and economic progress – sometimes referred to as socialism – later. Yet how can a stable and decisive majority for independence be achieved unless a solution to the social and economic oppression faced by the working class, and increasingly the middle class, is answered? How can a pro-capitalist party like the SNP, responsible for devastating cuts to public services and increasingly clashing with the trade unions, possibly win a majority for independence?

As we have pointed out consistently, the SNP’s commitment to capitalism is an obstacle to achieving its core policy. If inequality, poverty and the rule of the capitalist elite is to continue post-independence, why should the working class support independence? That’s why Socialist Party Scotland links the fight for democratic rights to the struggle for socialism. They are inimitably bound up together. As the 2014 indyref underlined, a mass movement for independence erupted precisely because it was seen by hundreds of thousands of people as opening the door to a solution to poverty and inequality.

It is these questions that both the independence movement and the workers’ movement in Scotland need to grapple with. The strike wave over the past year has underlined the potential power of the working class. Local government workers, teachers, rail workers, NHS workers and many more have taken action or returned massive strike majorities in ballots. The SNP-Green Party coalition Scottish government has been forced to retreat in the face of militant workers’ action on pay. The SNP crisis itself is a reflection of the growing opposition among the working class to its policies.

Left alternative

In 2014-2015, the SNP gained spectacular advances in membership and electoral support. It was widely seen to have stood up against the onslaught of the capitalist establishment during the Project Fear campaign, utilised to defeat the Yes vote in 2014. Within weeks, however, the losers had become the winners and the winners the losers. The 2015 Westminster election saw the SNP secure 56 of the 59 Scottish MPs. With the entire ‘Better Together’ triumvirate of Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems were reduced to a single MP each.

That image of the SNP as a combative and anti-establishment alternative has been decisively undermined by its record in government and its implementation of anti-working class policies. SNP membership has dropped by over 30,000 since 2021, and this is linked to the sense of disappointment felt by large numbers of its working-class supporters. It also speaks to a key factor behind the financial problems facing the SNP as well.

Yet the SNP is not the only party losing members and in financial difficulties. In the wake of the defeat of Corbynism in the Labour Party, total membership has dropped from 480,000 in 2019 to 380,000 in 2023 – a collapse of 100,000. That fall has also impacted dramatically Labour’s finances. The party now has a deficit of nearly £5 million compared to a surplus in 2019.

The movement for Scottish independence reached its peak during and immediately after the 2014 referendum campaign. To a great extent that movement was channelled into electoral support and a surge in membership for the SNP. The opportunity to create a fighting left the party immediately after the referendum, to draw in the huge numbers of working-class people who had been energised by it, was squandered.

Many of those on the left who had played a leading role in campaigns like Hope Over Fear – The Socialist Case for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign avoided the issue of a new party. Former convenor of Solidarity, Tommy Sheridan, called for a vote for the SNP and is currently a member of Alba. The delay in launching a new left party gave the SNP a clear run to hoover up support, without any significant opposition from the left. In the 2015 general election only the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, with Socialist Party Scotland playing a leading role, was prepared to stand in the election, laying down an important marker for the future.

In the run-up to the 2015 election, the SSP even went as far as calling for an electoral pact – a so-called Yes alliance – with the SNP and the Greens, which, in effect, would mean just one pro-independence candidate in each constituency.

Today, former SNP leader Alex Salmond and his party Alba have returned to this proposal. Speaking at a recent All Under One Banner demo in Glasgow, Salmond demanded, “this movement should instruct all of the independence parties to stand for the Westminster election next year all under one banner – to field one single candidate in each constituency, and pledge as the first line in each manifesto that we seek a mandate to negotiate independence for Scotland”.

We reject this approach. While supporting an independent socialist Scotland we can have no faith, never mind an electoral agreement, with the leaderships of the likes of the SNP, and indeed Alba and the Greens, who have a record of making cuts and attacking workers. Salmond’s strategy is not fundamentally different from that of the SNP leadership. Given what is at stake for the British ruling class, even a majority of MPs committed to independence being elected in Scotland would not necessarily change the views of the capitalist establishment. They would almost certainly simply seek to dismiss the vote, pointing out that a majority of indy-supporting MPs were elected in Scotland in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

Mass movement

Unless a mass movement is built in the housing estates, workplaces, schools and colleges across Scotland, with an appeal to workers in the rest of Britain to support them, why would the ruling class bow to the demand for Scottish independence? A far better strategy would be for the mass workers’ organisations – the trade unions – to launch a new workers’ party and help lead a struggle for democratic rights and socialism.

Understandably, many working-class people seeking a way out of the nightmare of capitalist rule feel no party represents them. Yet support for the strikes during the current wave has always, in Scotland, exceeded 60%. Backing for public ownership of the energy giants, Royal Mail etc, is supported by well-over 70% – almost double that of current polling for the SNP. Were there to be a mass workers’ party that championed these ideas it would very quickly draw the support of the majority of workers and young people. It could also play a decisive role in uniting the working class in the struggle for self-determination and for an independent socialist Scotland. By linking up with the working class in the rest of Britain, a united movement could cut across the inevitable attempts by capitalist forces to divide the movement using the politics of identity and bourgeois nationalism.

A free and voluntary socialist confederation of Scotland with England, Wales, and Ireland, as a step toward a socialist Europe, would put an end to the rule of the profiteers and the exploiters. It would lay the basis, for the first time, for a genuine collaboration of the peoples of the world in the construction of a planned socialist economy to end poverty and oppression permanently.

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May 2023