As we reach the first anniversary of the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014 it is important to reflect on the events of the referendum itself, what has happened over the past year and how we can move forward.
The referendum was undoubtedly a political earthquake in Scotland and more broadly Britain. With an 85% turnout the referendum saw the biggest participation at any vote in Britain since the introduction of universal suffrage; and this turnout was reflective of the thousands of people brought into politics for the first time. Particularly in the summer just weeks prior to the vote itself “Yes” stalls were to be seen on streets across towns in Scotland. Just days before Scotland went to the polls Glasgow city centre was filled with “Yes” rallies made up of thousands of workers and youth looking to fundamentally change society.
For the first time many people felt they were taking part in a politics that actually mattered, something that could actually make a difference to their lives. This was reflected in voting patterns which saw the youngest group – 16 and 17 year olds who were allowed to vote for the first time – having by far the largest percentage of “Yes” voters at 71%. The four council areas that had a majority “Yes” vote – Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire and Dundee – are also traditionally industrialised areas that have since suffered from de-industrialisation and accompanying levels of high unemployment and poverty. It should also be noted that all of these areas were at one time Labour strongholds, and this was the case up until very recently for all apart from Dundee.
Overall 45% of people voted in favour of independence. The sigh of relief from the British establishment was audible as their worst fears failed to materialise. Whilst 45%-55% may sound like a fairly large margin, it is important to analyse the context of the referendum. Up until the summer months of 2014 the “No” vote was comfortably ahead, in the vast majority of polls “Yes” failed to get above 37% until August 2014. It is therefore in some ways unsurprising that up until summer 2014 the Better Together campaign seemed to be doing relatively little; only upon “Yes” creeping up in the polls – and particularly after the YouGov poll showing “Yes” ahead in early September – did (mostly) Labour MPs begin to descend upon Scotland.
In addition to “No” being ahead for such a long time, we should also consider the power of the British establishment and the fear mongering it carried out. Whilst Better Together seemed fairly thin on the ground, the activity it did engage in seemed to be purely based around negativity and playing on anxieties around an independent Scotland. Primary points included scares around pensions, job cuts, increasing prices, currency and the finite supply of North Sea oil. This fear mongering was continually churned out by the majority of the bourgeois press, which backed the Better Together campaign.
How then did the “Yes” vote pull ahead, especially against this backdrop? Fundamentally the impact of the 2008 economic crisis and the resulting austerity cannot be underestimated. Since 2008 internationally the working class has experienced capitalism at the sharp end with growing unemployment, poverty and inequality. This has only been compounded with the bankers, who played the leading role in the crisis, having been rewarded with growing bonuses whilst the working class have been expected to shoulder the crisis with huge cuts to public services and have experienced the longest fall in real wages since the 19th century. In response to this there has been seething frustration and anger amongst workers and young people that for a long time failed to fully show itself in Britain. Through the referendum this frustration found an avenue to express itself. The “Yes” campaign, as opposed to Better Together, put emphasis on change and a fairer more social democratic society with slogans such as “Bairns not Bombs” and “NHYes”. The difference can particularly be seen in the second debate between Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling on 25th August 2014 (after which the spike for “Yes” in the polls began). Whereas Darling continued the standard Better Together fear mongering, Salmond placed his emphasis on an independent Scotland being opposed to the austerity and foodbanks of ConDem Britain.
In 2015 this of course all changed. The huge popularity of the SNP was obvious after the referendum as they climbed to over 100,000 members in a country with a population 5,000,000. Meanwhile Labour were more reviled than ever before for the part they had played in the Better Together campaign. Whilst the ever popular Nicola Sturgeon took over the SNP leadership the Labour Party turned to arch Blairite Jim Murphy to solve their woes. Going into the election Sturgeon chose not to emphasise independence but put her party forward as the anti-austerity option – this proved very popular, to the extent that after the first televised leaders’ debate “can I vote SNP in England” became one of the top google searches. As opposed to this Labour carried a mish-mash of policies with progressive ideas such as a non-dom tax and opposing zero hour contracts being accompanied by stern warnings that the party would continue the austerity proposed by the Tories as this was the only option.
Again there was huge media fear mongering around the SNP and their attempt to break up the union. Miliband was repeatedly questioned over whether he would consider coalition with the nationalists. Eventually he made the scandalous move of saying that he would rather let the Tories govern than go into coalition with the SNP due to the importance he placed on the union.
It is fair to say that everyone (except Jim Murphy who said he would not lose a single seat to the SNP) expected Labour to lose and the SNP to gain, but the scale of defeat was hard to imagine. Labour were left with just 1 seat, equal with the Tories and Lib Dems, whilst the SNP won 56. Key party figures including Murphy himself and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander lost their seats. Swings from Labour to SNP of over 20% were the norm whilst the largest was 39.3% in Glasgow North East. For the first time since 1906 Glasgow was left with no Labour MPs. This can be seen as a rejection of the Labour Party that had gotten into bed with the Tories for the Better Together campaign and for years taken Scottish votes for granted whilst giving little back to the electorate.
Since the election there have been yet more events in Scotland. Mhairi Black’s maiden speech with its references to Tony Benn, rejection of Tory austerity and understanding of why people have turned towards the SNP as an alternative has been viewed online over 10 million times. The SNP have voted against the Tory budget whilst the majority of Labour MPs only abstained. The Scottish Labour Party have had another leadership election with Jim Murphy eventually being forced to go despite his best efforts. Kezia Dugdale as new leader does not particularly suggest a new direction – she was Murphy’s deputy and has been firmly to the centre of the party – however the direction of the UK Labour Party and the possible election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader may impact.
Internationally the success of PODEMOS and other left parties at Spanish local elections has shown the frustration of workers and youth to be of a global nature. This was also reflected in the election of Syriza in Greece back in January. Elected on an anti-austerity programme Tsipras and co quickly stepped back from their programme and continued with major elements of the austerity demanded by the troika of lenders – the IMF, European Central Bank and the EU. However in the summer Greek exit from the Euro threatened as Syriza appeared to be unwilling to accept the austerity measures demanded from the Troika. In early July they were given a mandate to reject these measures by the Greek people through a referendum. In something of an incredible move, just days after the referendum took place, Tsipras signed virtually the same deal – a worse one, in fact. Since then he has stood down as Prime Minister, the left section of SYRIZA has split and new elections will take place this month.
The situation in Britain and internationally shows that the sentiments, frustrations and desire for change in Scotland are in line with those being expressed internationally. However, the situation in Greece is also cause for warning. Despite being elected on a left programme Syriza continued to carry out austerity and became stooges to the Troika. This is precisely because they were unwilling to break with capitalism and austerity is what is demanded by the bourgeoisie and its crisis. Capitalism is a system built on exploitation and convulsed by crises, the current one being the biggest since the 1930s.
You cannot control what you don’t own. Unlike the exceptional period of the post-war boom this is not one in which serious reforms can be won from the capitalists. In order for the change that was demanded in the referendum to be carried out we cannot rely on the SNP. The SNP is a party of contradiction. Whilst claiming to be anti-austerity at the general election it was carrying out austerity at local authority level, with a notable case being cuts to schools and hospitals in Dundee, and cuts to colleges have also been carried out by the Scottish Government. Along with expressions of fairness and social democracy, the SNP independence plan also included a cut in corporation tax.
For true change we need socialism – a fundamental break with capitalism and a taking of the major parts of the economy into the hands of workers. This way instead of being ran for profit they could be run for the good of society – there is plenty of money in the system, the problem is one of exploitation and distribution. As we have seen the sentiments in Scotland are reflective of the global working class and a socialist Scotland would be too isolated to work on its own. Therefore we must look to international solidarity with the global working class and towards a socialist world.