Brexit, Independence and The Battle for Socialism

By Ross Walker

On Friday the 24th of June, the results for the EU referendum were declared and the establishment was sent into a state of disarray. The value of the pound fell dramatically, Cameron was forced to resign and both Britain’s major political parties were pushed into civil wars. Since then events have continued to move very fast. Marx said 20 uneventful years can seem more like a single day, though these may be succeeded by days into which 20 years seem compressed. It’s clear we’ve entered one of the most eventful periods in British history, though this has expressed itself differently either side of the border.

Whilst the vast majority of councils in England and Wales, outside London voted to leave, every single council in Scotland got a Remain majority. Sturgeon said the vote had made clear “that the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union”. Since then, the issue of a second independence referendum has been very much on the agenda.

The day after the vote two demonstrations of hundreds of people were organized in Edinburgh and Glasgow in solidarity with migrants affected by the Brexit vote. There was a unique mix of worried sombreness and warm solidarity. Migrants from Poland, Spain and elsewhere spoke, some thanking Scotland for voting Remain. EU flags and saltires were waved whilst speakers spoke of a new Independence referendum to cheers and applause. On the Wednesday afterwards a much bigger demonstration of thousands was held outside Holyrood of a similar character.

By Sunday polls were showing support for independence had increased to 59% (65% when excluding don’t knows) and the SNP had gained another 2,000 members, taking them to over 116,000 members. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon increased her already high popularity further by travelling to Brussels demanding that Scotland stay in the EU, and was greeted warmly by some of the EU leaders. Putting the likelihood, practicalities and benefits of such a plan to one side, many were impressed her performance which stood out from the bumbling idiocy of Tory leaders. People who had previously been adamantly against independence were declaring they would vote YES in another referendum.

An outside observer may look at Scotland and forgivably come to the conclusion that all this is just reactionary nationalism. However, this mood is instead one of repulsion from UKIP, the Tories, austerity, scandals, chauvinism and xenophobia: in short, everything that’s associated with Westminster and the British establishment. This explains how this apparently ‘parochial nationalism’ can be combined with solidarity for vulnerable migrant workers who are the scapegoats of what is in reality the British or English nationalism of Brexit.

With more than 2% of Scots carrying an SNP party card they are enjoying a phenomenal popularity with their positive vision of an independent Scotland free from austerity, warmongering and Tories. Notwithstanding the reactionary qualities of the Remain campaign overall, Scotland voted to REMAIN for progressive reasons albeit with tendencies of lesser evilism. Contrast this to the Cameron led campaign in the rest of Britain which was successful in repelling people towards the seemingly anti-establishment OUT campaign thanks to its fearmongering negativity.

However the EU referendum itself was no repeat of the Independence referendum. REMAIN voters did so by and large, not out of any particular enthusiasm for the EU, but through disgust of the openly racist and chauvinistic OUT campaign. EU flags were barely seen before the referendum and although there were stalls and canvassers there were no big demonstrations in support of staying in the EU. This was all seen after the vote.

Many in Scotland feel they have been taken out of the EU against their own will and are angry at this. The fact that it was a handful of bumbling repulsive xenophobes that led the Leave campaign has and will only increase this anger. South of the border, the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn has grown and attracted even more radicalised workers and youth. 60,000 joined the Labour Party in the week after the referendum mostly to support him against the MPs’ coup whilst rallies of thousands were organized in his defence all over the country. However the Labour Party in Scotland is a different story. Scottish labour leader Kezia Dugdale declared that she opposed another Independence referendum and also called for Corbyn to go, as if she was trying to make the party as irrelevant as possible and continuing its disastrous course in Scotland.

Whilst Sturgeon’s support in the population is currently at around 50%, Dugdale’s is at 18% (less than the Tories) and some polls predict Labour would lose their only remaining seat if a General election was called in September. Many in Scotland, particularly in the ranks of the SNP and the wider independence movement, sympathise with and admire Corbyn; however his movement is not accessible to the more radicalised workers and youth in Scotland. There’s only one Labour MP in Scotland and he’s a right winger who opposes Corbyn. In contrast the SNP are in a strong position to continue voting against austerity – whereas Harriet Harman led Labour to abstain on the Welfare bill, the SNP were the only party in Parliament to vote against it en masse. Hence the energy and momentum of the left youth in Scotland will push into the SNP and the Independence movement.

There are a multitude of potential outcomes in terms of Scotland and the EU. The passionate speech in Brussels of SNP MEP Alan Smyth received a standing ovation and Sturgeon appears to have gone down well with some of the European leaders. But at the same time her interests also clash with those of the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, who stated he will veto any move for Scotland to join the EU for fear of the example it may create for Catalonian, Basque and Galician separatists. However there are many more factors at play here including the instability of the Spanish Government and the EU as whole which is in a social and economic crisis. It is rapidly losing credibility in many other countries, including at its heart in France. EU leaders may lean on Scotland’s pro EU sentiment and be obliged to entertain Sturgeon to some extent. Short term or limited deals may be struck, the SNP’s popularity may be extended temporarily, but regardless of what happens, none of the problems of the working class in Scotland will be solved and eventually this will have its impact on the SNP.

The class character of the SNP is very contradictory. There are clear left-right divisions in the party on issues such as Fracking, NATO and land reform. Whilst sections of big business back the SNP, also, more and more, the trade unions are moving towards the party and away from the Labour Party. With the SNP’s opposition to the TU bill and them having the vast majority of MSPs and MPs from Scotland, we have a situation where the STUC has leant on the SNP and at times addressed the parliamentary group. They also addressed the SNP conference last year and last week the STUC youth conference voted to support independence. The SNP Trade Union group has over 16,000 subscribers.

If Scotland were to re-join the EU, it would inevitably be with reactionary implications. The SNP will need to prove that Scotland is profitable and by this it will mean a cutting of the public sector, workers’ rights, wages and welfare. The SNP leadership cannot maintain their current popularity and serious left-right divisions in the SNP and YES movement are on the cards.

There is no doubt that this is a worrying time for the working classes. Financial insecurity looms and for migrant workers they are faced with further residential insecurity and increased likelihood of facing discrimination and abuse. Marxists will fight in the day to day battles against such hardships and suffering but we also put forward a positive vision for the future.

On the left in Scotland, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) looks like it may resurrect and emergency meetings have been called. RIC was a successful focus point for the more class conscious layers of the YES campaign around the 2014 referendum. The Scottish Socialist Party also attracted 2,500 membership applications due to the role it played in the campaign. However this movement clearly went through an ebb as the months after the referendum dragged on. This can be seen with RIC’s political party, the RISE alliance, getting less than 11,000 votes nationally in the Holyrood elections.

Mainly this was due to unavoidable objective conditions such as the dominance of the SNP and the general ebb in the level of mass political activity after the referendum. However there were also subjective problems and lessons to be learned. Amongst the RISE/RIC/SSP Scottish left there are dedicated and self-sacrificing socialists who can potentially play a crucial role. However RISE also experienced demoralization and infighting. It has attempted quick-fix solutions such as the over emphasis on a second referendum to win SNP voters when the emphasis needed to be on standing out with distinctly socialist politics. Such problems come from frustration at being a small organisation and the resulting urge to dilute our politics and ideas in order gain popularity.

The only antidote for such frustration is to break out of short sighted impatience by studying the history of class struggle and discussing political ideas in order to avoid such problems. We must raise our sights out of the temporary defeats and lulls in the movement and prepare for when the class moves again. Such difficulties can and must be overcome in order to take advantage of the upcoming events.

Socialists, left-wingers etc. differ from regular working class people, not in that they are smarter, more holy, more principled, braver or anything like that, but only in that they are more class conscious and more aware of the true nature of political parties, the state, the economy etc. We must be enthusiastically involved in mass movements, but within them maintain our own banner and tell the truth. The truth is that independence on a capitalist basis, and a re-joining of the EU, will not solve our problems.

In fact economic and social problems including those which breed xenophobia and racism are likely to get worse. Socialists have the revolutionary ideas which can change the world. The only way to combat racism is to end the conditions which give rise to it, that is, with socialist policies that end unemployment, lack of housing and poverty.

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