It is now almost five years since the first independence referendum. What have those years meant in terms of the strategy and what are the perspectives of the movement?
By Shaun Morris, Glasgow Marxists
Though Yes may have lost in September 2014, the last-minute surge in pro-independence polling and the enormous enthusiasm for change that the campaign aroused in millions of working class people forever changed the national question in Scotland. Though the idea of independence was nothing new, a lasting movement was born out of the 2014 referendum that shook the apparently solid foundations of politics in Scotland.
Turns in the situation
In 2014 Scottish workers found themselves in a UK context of a Tory-led coalition Government implementing a disastrous policy of deep austerity cuts and counter-reforms. Working class voters put their faith in the SNP as the major party of independence and opposition to austerity in Scotland because the SNP were the only party willing to protest the fundamental flaws of the British state and the viciousness of austerity.
Shortly after the 2015 General Election which saw the SNP win all but three Scottish seats, working class SNP MPs like Mhairi Black earned enormous popularity for calling out and exposing the failures of Westminster and the decades of promised – but undelivered – reform by a right-wing led Labour party. It appeared as though the SNP were shaping up to be a party of opposition to the British ruling class, and the wider independence movement were in full support.
In the surge of politicisation that followed the indyref, the SNP ranks swelled to well over 100,000 in a matter of months. In spite of the party’s pro capitalist leadership it was becoming a party with under mass pressure from the working class. Few had seen anything like it in British political history, until the revolution within the Labour party following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015.
Though Corbyn may have transformed the hopes of the Labour party in the rest of the UK, he has left only a minor mark on Scotland. The main dividing line in Scottish politics remains the national question, and Corbyn continues to find himself at odds with the wishes of many Scottish workers on that issue. Many in the independence camp have correctly been critical of Labour’s hostility to independence, while recognising that Corbyn’s policies are fundamentally what they would want to see implemented in Scotland.
Some may simplistically condemn him as a “unionist”, but fairer minds see his leadership of Labour as a good thing, albeit not enough to weaken their support for Scottish independence. Marxists have long argued that Corbyn should be seen as an ally of the Scottish working class and that left-wing supporters of independence ought to defend him against right-wing attacks. Revolution upholds this view, while recognising that Scottish Labour – or what remains of it – offers no solution to the national question.
Though Corbynism is weak in Scotland, things are not the same as they were in 2014. Since 2016 a major challenge facing the independence movement – and dominating the wider British political situation – is Brexit.
When Scotland voted to Remain in the EU despite the rest of Britain voting to Leave, many commentators were quick to equate support for independence with support for the EU. This has become a widely held view within the movement, despite many pointing out that up to a third of 2014 Yes voters may have voted to Leave.
The fact that Scotland will leave the EU despite its referendum vote has been added to the list of reasons Scotland should be an independent country in the minds of many. While it is certainly true that the EU referendum showed Scotland being out-voted by parts of England and Wales, further exacerbating the national question in Britain, it would be a mistake to tie independence to EU membership.
Many are rightly bitter that one of the promises made by the Better Together campaign was that the only way to stay in the EU was to stay in the UK. It is incorrect to say that independence can be won on the basis of promising re-admittance to the EU, however. Last time, the case for independence was built on a vision of a more progressive Scotland, where the interests of the Scottish working class would not be so easily ignored. As the campaign moves forward, it must be even bolder in its vision of a socialist Scotland to win support, and strip away all illusions in the EU or independent Scottish capitalism.
Brexit has split the British ruling class wide open, plunging it into a seemingly intractable crisis. The independence movement must not seek to heal those wounds and return to the EU status quo, but use this opportunity to fight for revolutionary change.
Will there be Indyref2?
For the past four years, Nicola Sturgeon has persistently claimed the mandate for independence but drawn out speculation over a second indyref. How many times have we heard that a “timescale” is planned, that “details” will follow or that an “announcement” will be made? How many times has a “material change in circumstances” been sought, only for the moment to pass us by? How many times have the SNP leaders promised to re-launch the campaign for independence, only for it to end in a damp squib as with the “National Survey”, “mobilise.scot” or the Growth Commission report?
It would be foolish to deny that the SNP leaders want independence, but the patience with them that the wider independence movement has shown since 2014 shows signs of wearing thin. The enormous All Under One Banner marches of the past few years represent the desire for action felt in the grassroots.
Many ideas have been brought up in the movement, from demands for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) to calls for an “illegal” referendum without Westminster’s permission. The Scottish Greens have lent some support to this latter idea, with Patrick Harvie arguing that in order to have a referendum before the scheduled 2021 General Election legislation must be laid before the Scottish Parliament before the end of the year. Maggie Chapman, co-leader of the Greens, even indicated support for a consultative referendum to win a democratic mandate that the Scottish Government could use to negotiate the way to independence.
As Chapman also recognised, such a referendum would likely be condemned as “illegal” by Westminster and ignored, echoing the experience of the 2017 Catalan independence referendum. Ignoring a mandate for independence won in such a way may be a “democratic outrage”, but that is unlikely to persuade the Tories. Alex Salmond partially entertained the idea before 2014, if David Cameron had not assented to a referendum in the Edinburgh Agreement, but to much of the SNP leadership such a radical break is unthinkable.
As the Growth Commission report showed, the SNP leaders are wedded to the capitalist status quo, and only a clean separation from the UK abiding by bourgeois legality is on their agenda. Only a legally binding referendum is the legitimate path to independence, in their view.
The independence marches, and many other smaller campaign events by local Yes groups, certainly keep the spirit of 2014 alive, but do they offer a way forward? We must recognise that if we focus our hopes on a second referendum being held, then we will just be biding our time and waiting on the SNP leaders to act.
Educate, agitate, organise
The way forward cannot be to simply fly the saltire and wait for our chance to go to the ballot box. The rank-and-file need to take control of the agenda, building the case for radical transformation in Scotland. Many have begun to recognise this in the wake of the Growth Commission and the SNP’s lacklustre solutions to vital questions such as the future currency, oil revenues etc. If independence is truly to be a democratic process it cannot be left to think tanks and Scottish Government reports but must be opened up to the masses.
In the aftermath of the repression of the 1-O Catalan independence referendum, the movement kept its vitality through continued organisation of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) and the opening up of a “constituent process” that draws on the creativity of the broad masses. The referendum itself showed that only the revolutionary action of the people themselves could guarantee democracy. Now, there is evidence that support for independence has grown in Catalonia.
The political situation in the UK is moving at a rapid pace. Britain could leave the EU in a matter of weeks or continue to be delayed for another year. There could be a snap general election, which would again mean a dramatic turn in the situation. In any case, the mass movement for independence must be prepared to put forward its own ideas a programme, and not lag behind events or politicians.
Revolution stands for a revolutionary programme within the movement, building the Marxist cadres and providing the analysis needed to fight for a Scottish Workers’ Republic. Join us in this struggle if you wish to see a free, socialist Scotland and a better world.