With support for Scottish independence on the rise, the breakup of the British state could happen very soon. Will independence be an opportunity for serious progressive change, or simply a neoliberal reshuffle? Members of International Socialism Scotland examine the politics and prospects of the SNP and independence campaigns.
It’s more than likely that the British state will fracture in the coming decade. In Scotland support for independence is at its highest ever level. Yes and No are finely balanced with the momentum on the Yes side. Since the early part of 2020, Yes has maintained a consistent lead in the polls. Support is highest among younger voters with a summer 2020 poll indicating that 72% of under 35’s would vote for independence in a new referendum. Support for Welsh independence grew rapidly in 2020. The 32% in favour in August was the highest ever recorded; and here too support is skewed towards younger people. And one outcome of Johnson’s Brexit deal is a customs border between the UK and Northern Ireland in order to facilitate cross border trade on the island of Ireland.
The breakup of the British state poses important questions for socialists across the UK and in Ireland. In this article we focus on Scotland. We look at what has changed since the 2014 referendum and argue that in a time of pandemic and recession, and in the face of the existential environmental crisis, developing socialist politics that engages with the material reality of Scotland in 2021 is vital. A radical agenda is not simply desirable, it’s necessary as part of a campaign that can win, and essential for constructing a sustainable economy capable of meeting the needs of the working class.
The political situation in Scotland has changed in a number of important ways since the heady days of September 2014 and indyref 1. The final three or four months of the 2014 referendum campaign were characterised by a surge of optimism, high levels of mobilisation and mass registration of new voters. On the left, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) united a diverse group of activists around five broad socialist and environmental demands, but the radicalism and activism went well beyond RIC into local Yes groups in every part of Scotland. After the referendum, attempts to build a new left party from the ranks of RIC foundered. Large numbers of RIC activists and Yes group campaigners flooded into the Scottish National Party (SNP), transforming it into a party with a mass working class base. SNP membership peaked at around 125,000 and seven years on, membership remains high.
The rise of the SNP paralleled the steep decline of Scottish Labour – indeed the map of SNP Holyrood and Westminster seats covers the areas that were once Labour strongholds. At local level the SNP took control of local authorities in the larger towns and cities where Labour had held sway for decades. Many Yes voters were already unhappy with Labour’s dismal role in administering austerity at a local level, Blair, support for Trident and military interventions in the Middle East. The alliance with the Tories in the referendum was the last straw. This alienation from Labour meant that the Corbyn phenomenon in Scotland was a pale shadow of elsewhere, and, with the exception of a small minority of mainly younger Labour members, there is no evidence that Scottish Labour have learnt the lessons of the last decade. As a result, they stand at around 12% in the opinion polls and have been replaced as the main opposition to the SNP by the Tories.
However, it’s no longer just Labour that has internal divisions. Until recently the SNP presented itself to the world as united and confident with a leadership that was sure footed and popular with the electorate. While still retaining much of that popularity, it is now deeply divided. There are two factions, one around the current leadership under Sturgeon and the other around former leader Alex Salmond. The Sturgeon camp presents itself as socially progressive; however, with the exception of a small number of low-cost initiatives (for example introducing free sanitary products), there is a big gap between progressive rhetoric and policy implementation. On the economy they are risk averse and market oriented. And on independence the strategy announced this month rests on the assumption that if pressuring Westminster to grant another referendum fails, recourse to the courts will save the day. Salmond’s camp has attracted some of those impatient with Sturgeon’s approach to independence, but many of its leading supporters assert that the numerous women civil servants and party members who accuse him of sexual violence and harassment are simply part of a plot. Defence of Salmond often takes the form of misogynistic abuse of the women that dared to expose his behaviour.
Gender recognition reform (GRA) is also a focus of division. The Scottish Government has stalled the GRA bill because of the pandemic and Sturgeon is seen by some as sitting on the fence. But many of Salmond’s supporters are prominent in opposition to any reform. This reactionary social politics is prominent on social media but is not generally characteristic of the SNP’s mass membership. The 2020 SNP conference, held in November, saw the SNP leadership lose its dominant grip on several of the key party committees to candidates from, or supported by, the grass roots Common Weal Group. This represents a real gain for the left in the party, although one that is complicated by the range of positions among CWG members which don’t simply align with the two leadership factions. In truth, the factional split represents a struggle for power in a highly centralised organisation with a mass base that is often to the left of the leadership.
What of the independence movement more broadly? The RIC activist base declined rapidly after the referendum, with only a handful of local groups surviving to the present day. An attempted relaunch in October 2019 attracted seven hundred activists but failed to reboot the campaign or develop a new strategy for building a left pole of attraction in the independence movement. In contrast, ‘All Under One Banner’, formed in October 2014, developed a mass working class following during 2018 and into 2019, with tens of thousands joining marches in towns and cities around Scotland. Covid put a stop to the marches. Following a conference at the end of 2020, All Under One Banner have relaunched as a membership organisation, ‘Yes Alba’, and plans to resume the programme of marches from April 2021.
The rapid growth in support for independence during the 2014 referendum campaign reflected a sense of hope and optimism. The renewed rise in support stems from the failure of Corbynism and Scottish Labour, a consensus that the SNP are more competent managers than the Tories in London, from Sturgeon drawing greater support from business, and a widespread loathing of Boris Johnson that has been reinforced by his handling of the pandemic. However, while support for independence has risen, the SNP have become more conservative in their approach. Despite opposition in the party, they have doubled down on the economic plan for independence laid out in the Growth Commission report. Headed ‘a strategy for inter-generational economic renaissance,’ the report argues for a highly orthodox neo-liberal strategy, reducing debt through a decade of austerity and retaining Sterling. Keeping the pound as the currency would mean that an independent Scotland would have no fiscal autonomy, with the Bank of England being guarantor and adjudicator for any reforms. Sterlingisation is also a barrier to the SNP leadership’s desire to join the EU. An independent currency is a prerequisite for membership, so the proposal which predates Brexit is muddle headed in its own terms.
The Common Weal think (and do) tank has done good work on a future Scottish economy including important reports on housing, transport and ‘Our Common Home’ – the case for a Scottish Green New Deal. Undoubtedly a reforming Scottish government could implement these proposals post-independence. However, the SNP is on an entirely different trajectory. The Growth Commission is a manifesto for the neo-liberal status quo. And from that perspective, its prescription for the Scottish economy rests on hard-nosed analysis of where Scotland sits in the world. The Scottish economy shares many of the weaknesses of the UK economy as a whole. Services represent 75% of GDP, production 18%, construction 6% and agriculture 1%. These are crude divisions and require sub-division down to a greater level of detail. For instance, ‘production’ covers everything including North Sea oil and gas extraction, textiles, engineering manufacture, pharmaceuticals, aerospace etc. Also, ‘services’ includes financial services as well as the full range of public services, hotels and leisure and education. Financial services and North Sea oil and gas extraction, both perceived to be the cornerstones of a future booming Scots economy, are now in steep decline. Finance is now rapidly out-migrating to Leeds, North Sea oil and gas are caught in the merciless pincers of a global crashing oil price, or at least stabilising at around a price of $40 per barrel; a global economic recession; a Covid-19 led decline in demand; and a rapidly growing recognition that tackling the climate crisis means leaving the oil in the ground. In addition, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the tourism sector, which has been seen by the Scottish Government and many local authorities as one of the most dynamic parts of the Scottish economy.
Nevertheless, in principle Scotland is well placed to make a rapid transition to a more sustainable economy. There is an abundance of sustainable energy sources, and a relatively large pool of workers with skills that could be applied to building the infrastructure and new productive capacity that is required. However, Scottish government policy is predicated on the idea that the transition can be driven by market forces. The record is abysmal. Employment in renewables has shrunk. Major manufacturing facilities like BiFab have gone to the wall, and continued operation at the world leading bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis is under threat. The latest iteration of Holyrood’s climate action plan makes almost no mention of oil and gas. A continuing commitment to maximum economic recovery of hydrocarbons from the North Sea means that the interests of the industry are put first – witness a refusal to act on the highly polluting Mossmorran gas plant and continuing subsidies to INEOS.
While support for independence rises, the Tories are taking a hard line that there will be no more referendums for a generation. So, it’s clear that there will be no simple rerun of 2014. Circumstances have shifted in a radical way, and we’d argue that there needs to be a correspondingly radical shift in campaigning. In 2014 socialists argued that the national question intersected with the long-term decline of British Imperialism and the more recent ravages of neo-liberalism. This remains the case, but the context of the struggle for independence is now also shaped by the current pandemic, recession, mass unemployment, a rapidly deepening climate crisis, and an economy that is weak when viewed in orthodox competitive capitalist terms. We would argue that this makes a radical shift not just desirable, but necessary, if independence is to deliver for the mass of working people in Scotland. However, the SNP leadership are currently moving in the opposite direction, which makes the need for developing and winning the case for a radical alternative even greater.
The argument that these issues can be dealt with once independence is achieved is a dangerous one. It makes it harder to win the hearts and minds of working-class people who are either unconvinced or not fully convinced of the case for independence. It fails to reach out to the large number of young people who are pro-independence and also most involved in climate activism, Black Lives Matter and campaigns like Living Rent. And it hands the political direction of the campaign to those like the authors of the Growth Commission report who want to preserve existing relations of power and privilege in an independent Scotland.
Across the UK socialists face the urgent task of rebuilding working class political organisation that is able to push and ultimately break the power of the bosses. The task is not new, the conjunction of circumstances is. In Scotland right now that means learning to organise, agitate and educate across the multiple crises of the British State, pandemic, climate, poverty and unemployment, and understanding that building working class power and unity requires consistent opposition to all forms of oppression. Making this happen will require a flourishing of debate and discussion.
Debate needs to be informed by practice. It’s vitally necessary that socialists engage seriously with existing campaigns. ‘Yes Alba’ is important in this regard. Its newly elected steering group reflects some of the deep divisions on the pro-independence left, but it inherits the momentum of a mass movement on the streets. Whether it can transcend the divisions and develop a strategy that builds on its mass base to exert pressure through mobilisation and direct action is an open question – but socialists should not stand aside.
However, a serious perspective for socialists needs to go beyond reacting to what exists. We need to think seriously about what a radical left current in the independence movement that carries real political weight should look like. There are positive lessons from Catalonia, where the involvement of new layers of young people, school strike activists and other new activists has been significant. In the same way in Scotland, a new pro-independence left that has the power to influence events will need to actively involve many of the huge majority of young people that are pro-independence and include the climate activists and BLM organisers who have been so inspirational in 2019 and 2020. At the same time, we have to rebuild working class organisation at a unique moment in our history. High levels of homeworking, mass unemployment and significant levels of long-term ill health make the need for action imperative. However, they also pose barriers to many old models of organisation. We can learn from history; for example, from the struggles of the unemployed for outdoor relief in Belfast in 1932. Against the odds, in the face of sectarianism and mass unemployment, socialists built a dynamic and united movement that was able to win reforms. We can also learn from contemporary local and international struggles. To be effective will require an open and non-sectarian approach to organisation, and rethinking the relationships between party, class and movement. Given how much has changed, just recharging the Radical Independence Campaign as it was in 2014 is not an option; however, finding an organisational form for a united radical left voice on independence, and working through the basis on which such a RIC2.0 could be built should be a priority.