The problem of independence

The mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic by Boris Johnson’s Westminster government has provided a spur to the Scottish independence movement. Marcus Docherty argues that the influence of right-wing leaders is not the only problem for socialists’ relationship to independence.

This is an individual member’s opinion on the independence question. Many members of rs21’s Scotland branch are active in the Scottish independence movement. The rs21 website encourages debate and discussion within the organisation, and would be happy to publish responses and alternative views.

View over Leith and the Firth of Forth.

In Scotland, Scottish independence has played an overdetermining role in most factors of political life. Parties are defined by their relation to the independence question, and it has managed to seep into many other forms of political organisation, whether extra-parliamentary or not.  

The left is no exception to this and has found itself largely organising around the pro-independence side of the argument. Because of the SNP styling itself as a ‘left’ party and the presence of the broader left within pro-independence spaces, in contrast to reactionary British unionism, independence has come to be seen as having an inherently ‘progressive’ character. The idea of an independent Scottish state is concordant with the idea of a state that is more democratic, more equal and overall better than the current British one.  

Like all movements, the Scottish independence movement has experienced periods of high and low ebb. Since 2014, the idea of an independent Scotland has been at a relative low ebb, despite large marches and flag waving, and it was not revitalised until the horrible mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic by Boris Johnson and the Conservative government, and Holyrood’s ability to do just slightly better. However, as we move further into the vaccine rollout, this revitalisation is dwindling following the British government’s seemingly successful vaccination and re-opening plans.  

However, through high and low periods of the independence movement, the left has clung to it as its own. Even so, it can be said that the left in Scotland has been running out of ideas and hitting a bit of a brick wall when it comes to organising around independence. Nevertheless, the left’s place within the independence movement has once again become important with the emergence of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party and the results of the recent Scottish election.  

The Alba Party has managed to polarise the left, with varied reactions to its newfound existence. Some see the Alba Party as an embryonic left break from the SNP because of its seemingly slightly less neoliberal economic policies. Others see it as a bigoted party, a place for the right wing of the independence movement to congregate.  

Over the past few weeks, it seems that the latter side has been vindicated after just about every form of bigotry has been represented by the high-ranking membership of Alba and its recent equalities policy, which revealed them to be a transphobic party beyond any doubt (see rs21 Scotland’s statement on this here). It seems impossible now to give Alba left cover, and any socialist who remains within or tries to cover for them should have their commitment to the liberation of the oppressed called into question.  

The development towards more and more reactionary politics within Alba and the ensuing debate around these things on the left have given rise to the question of what it is we should be doing about independence. In the shadow of the dissolution of the Radical Independence Campaign’s national organisation and now the pro-independence majority in Holyrood, talks of renewed attempts at creating a radical alternative to the SNP’s version of independence that will be capable of challenging their hegemony have been taking place across the left.  

It is often taken for granted that being on the left in Scotland defaults you to a pro-independence position, largely because what is the alternative? For most people, the only alternative is seen as British unionism. The communist left in Scotland has failed to search for its own alternative. We have latched onto independence and attempted to make it radical. However, the limit of this radicalism is often to win more social democratic welfare policies with vague appeals to worker’s power—it is a left populism. Now is a better time than ever to ask a new question, a question for communists, not the left in general. Instead of what can we do for independence, we should be asking what can independence do for us? 

First let us deal with an important question for communists, the right of nations to self-determination. For a state that has within it many existing nations, the right to secede is fundamental for their equality. Currently this is only superficially granted in the United Kingdom, as shown by Westminster denying the possibility of an independence referendum in the foreseeable future. The struggle for this equality is not a struggle to forgo. But it cannot be confused with the struggle for secession. On the topic, Lenin writes:  

The class-conscious workers do not advocate secession. They know the advantages of large states and the amalgamation of larges masses of workers.  – V.I. Lenin, More About “Nationalism” 

It is useful to view the independence question through this lens. We should support a nation’s right to self-determination, but this does not mean we should advocate and struggle for its secession. We do not wish to put up border walls between the oppressed of one nation and another. We can see the disadvantages in Scotland already with devolution: that there is a separation between the struggles of the oppressed in Scotland and the oppressed in the rest of the British state.  

This is not to say we must oppose devolution as well; this is simply a downside of it. But it is something that would be exacerbated by taking the further step of establishing an independent Scottish state. Not only would it separate the oppressed of Scotland from the oppressed in the rest of the UK, but it would also increase our separation from communists internationally. When the workers’ movement is in a fragmented, weak form and the communist movement is embryonic, separation via borders is not in the interests of either movement or something we should be lending our support to. We should be attempting bring our struggles closer together, not pushing them further apart. 

One of the main reasons for supporting independence suggested by communists is that it facilitates the breakup of the British state. Whilst it is true that it would break up the British state, in that Scotland would break off from it and others may follow, what benefit is this for communists? It is said that this strikes a blow to British imperialism by weakening its state or even destroying its state. However, simply leaving the British state and forming a new nation state does not destroy the British state, nor necessarily weaken it. It would still exist—just shrink in territory and retreat into England. Any damage this does to the British state and its imperialism would only be temporary. A recent historical example of a state breaking up is that of Russia. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia remained an imperialist power and oppressor to all nations which broke from it. Much like Russia, England, the inheritor of the British state, would recover from any setbacks and remain just as imperialist as it was before and continue to facilitate capital for the oppression of imperialised nations and the extraction of super profits. Russia was able to do this during the chaotic post-Soviet years. A Scottish breakaway, or a whole UK break up, would be more seamless.  James Connolly said that a nation without a red flag flying over it would still be dominated by the capital of a stronger imperialist power. In the case of a broken-up Britain, England would remain the dominant imperialist power on the island able to dominate the nations on the island and other nations globally through powerful financial institutions. The separation of the British nations, and thus of their oppressed, would make it much more difficult to create united movements of resistance to the imperialist endeavours of England, or united cross-border movements for anything. What benefit is this for the oppressed people of the nations, the infant communist movements, and internationally for oppressed peoples of the world? 

Imperialism will continue unless there are real blows made to capital and the state. The violent destruction of both these things will not come from a movement for an independent Scottish state but from a movement of all the oppressed infused with the communist idea.  

The popularity of Scottish independence comes off the back of popular discontent with austerity policies. To further contrast itself to the Tories, the SNP has also positioned itself as having a monopoly on progressive politics on issues such as trans rights. Some see these policies, and the pushback they receive from the British ruling class and other ruling classes around the world, as enough to make us put communist support behind independence. But this is opportunism. We must intervene in the independence movement as communists, not simply join the independence movement and fetter our politics to it. 

The task of the communist movement is not to integrate itself into the workers movement and subject itself to it, but to intervene within in it and attempt to push it beyond the bounds of bourgeois ideology – that is parliamentarism, reformism and so on – by posing a real alternative which is able to effectively articulate the problems that the oppressed deal with and provide genuine solutions which no other movement can give.  

Only through making grassroots connections with all oppressed peoples in Britain, to learn their needs and wants and transform those needs and wants into meaningful, revolutionary demands which can be articulated concurrently within all struggles can the communist movement contribute effectively to the liberation of the oppressed. We need to develop a revolutionary theory that is flexible for application in countless situations, and that is based on practice, the source of all genuine knowledge. This theory cannot simply be dragged from the past into the present in the form of studying “the classics”, but must take what they did leave us, a form of analysis, and use it to understand our current conjuncture and react accordingly. The growth and maturation of activists and organisers into a reliable and dedicated cadre through practical and theoretical education which enables the carrying out of any task on either the theoretical, ideological, economic and political plane, should focus on quality not quantity. Having a certain number of members or votes should not be the measure of our success as a movement. The real measure is our ability to carry out our objectives regardless of our quantitative size at any given moment. This is the communist alternative to the independence movement. This is what deserves our time over anything else. Some want to build a new Radical Independence movement in the wake of the supposed popular mandate for independence, which has its limit point at populist social democracy, as an alternative to both SNP and Alba’s forms of independence. This would be a time-consuming task, time that would be better spent trying to build a communist movement that is not only an alternative to one form of capitalist exploitation in favour of another, but a real alternative to exploitation in its totality. The question is where our priorities lie.  

A lot of this is easier said than done. To build a movement, especially one that must be so militant in its opposition to the totalising capitalist system and every form of oppression it produces is undeniably a hard task. Communists however are no strangers to hardship. There was a time when there was no communist movement at all; it had to be built from scratch by those dedicated to liberation of oppressed peoples. Although the results of the 20th century have set us back to a time of rebuilding from almost nothing, we are not alone like those before us were. We have the entire history of the communist movement now as a guide for both what to do and what not to do. Within our own history we have not only many answers to our current problems, but also the tools for finding out the answers to questions which are new. Regardless of how hard it is, the movement must be built, and it must be built now. It should have been built yesterday. An independence movement cannot replace a communist movement, and the focus we dedicate to building an independence movement is just continuing to put off our primary task. 

In a warming world, there is more on the table than just a Scottish republic. There is a whole world to win. The vindication of all those who have trodden the same path before us, whose blood stains the path crimson, from whom we draw our greatest strength, is what lies before us as our historical task. Those who have not dared to struggle have not dared to win.  


  1. Just an observation. Which could/will come quicker, Scottish Independence and the hope (at least)of better governance and a fairer society or effective growth of communism across the whole of England/UK?
    The argument against self-determination for the people who live in Scotland because creating a border with England, stops International communication is difficult to accept.

  2. The Radical Independence Campaign was not dissolved, despite a shameful packing exercise by those who decided to destroy what they could no longer dominate. Since then RIC has been revived and is set to hold a broad based conference in June:

    Radical socialists, including members of RS21, are now involved in the Republican Socialist Platform, which is playing a decisive role in reviving RIC as a democratic grassroots movement.


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