As the SNP begin their fourth term in Government, the stage is set for the next phase of the COVID-19 crisis and the ongoing conflict between Holyrood and Westminster over a promised Independence referendum.
Independence supporters looked to the May elections in the hope that the arithmetic of Holyrood would change decisively, with an SNP or pro-Independence majority piling pressure on the Tories.
Post-election, however, the deadlock over Section 30 and the constitutional process remains. Boris Johnson continues to refuse the idea of a referendum, the Tory Government attempts to evade the question, and clearly wishes to bury the issue of Scottish Independence under the post-pandemic economic recovery.
The pro-Independence majority in the Scottish Parliament may have grown, but the Tories find this just as easy to ignore. In the wake of the election results there was a fairly united front of the Tories, Labour and the LibDems in denying the mandate for self-determination.
The key material change resulting from the election is that the SNP now stand on a promise of a referendum before 2025, and have broached the idea of legislating for a referendum without a Section 30 order. This raises the prospect of a legal battle over Holyrood’s devolved powers, though both Nicola Sturgeon and Tory Ministers have said they want to avoid it.
The SNP has been moved to this position of constitutional confrontation not by the election, however, but by internal pressure from the party membership. The SNP’s current strategy for independence was formulated in January of this year, in the wake of the December 2020 SNP conference.
Divisions in the SNP
The election of left-wing members and critics of the Sturgeon-Robertson leadership to key party positions was reported by many as an oppositional current growing within the party. While this was a politically heterogenous trend, much of its support came from frustrated members who wanted the leadership to propose a ‘Plan B’ for Independence that couldn’t be blocked by an intransigently Unionist Tory government in Westminster.
The result was the ’11-Point Plan’ presented by then-Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution Michael Russell, and the appointment of former MSP Marco Biagi to the Independence ‘task force’.
The announcement of the task force was met with much scepticism, viewed as an attempt to placate the Independence movement and SNP rank-and-file without being a serious commitment. The 11-point plan was also seen as a compromise between ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’, given the announcement’s preference for a Section 30 referendum.
The credibility of the Independence task force was dealt a serious blow at the end of May, however, with the resignation of Biagi, who described the role as the “worst job I’ve ever had”. This was alongside numerous other resignations from the SNP NEC, including Joanna Cherry MP, who complained of a lack of transparency on the party’s ruling bodies.
Biagi quitting the task force is rumoured to be in connection with the improper use of funds set aside for Independence campaigning, something Deputy First Minister John Swinney has denied.
The SNP’s internal crisis has clearly not been resolved, either by the election or the Alba split. Alex Salmond’s party performed dismally at the polls, and though it has drawn many malcontents out of the party’s membership, Alba won over few SNP voters. Many of Alba’s public figures still like to comment on the SNP’s internal affairs, feeling vindicated by the numerous protests against the undemocratic style of the leadership.
The majority of SNP supporters still trust Sturgeon and her allies to lead the party and the Independence cause, however. Sturgeon’s promise that the referendum will happen ‘after the pandemic’ (an uncertain timescale) is accepted at the moment, but leaves plenty of room for backsliding or postponement.
Unless preparations for a referendum begin this summer, it is unlikely a vote could be held in 2022. With the vote in 2023 or beyond, the future is very uncertain.
Bourgeois Nationalism and Unionism
The tension and crisis within the SNP over Independence is pushing the leadership more and more on to uncertain ground. Sturgeon is a bourgeois nationalist and has been clear countless times that she wants to avoid any kind of radical rupture with the British constitution, but find a process within it that allows Scotland to become independent.
There is no such process or right of self-determination in UK law, however. Neither is Scotland bound to the UK by the Act of Union or any other constitutional law per se, but by the interests of the British capitalist class. There is no written, formal constitution of the UK, but a series of precedents and conventions which allow the ruling class to ‘muddle through’ according to their interests.
As a result, it can only be broken with their agreement. This is what Sturgeon is seeking, with the cooperation of the international capitalist class – primarily in the form of the EU – to act as guarantor. The SNP’s strategy for Independence is based on trying to win the confidence of the European and Scottish/British bourgeoisie, hence the cautious legal approach to a referendum and the capitalist economic prospectus presented by the Growth Commission.
While Scottish bourgeois nationalism is clear in its appeal, Unionism is in disarray. Some voices in the ruling class call for a crackdown emulating the Spanish state’s anti-democratic brutality against Catalan independence campaigners. George Osbourne has implored Boris Johnson to ‘just say no’ to the SNP’s demands and ‘let them try’ an ‘illegal’ referendum before cracking down. The arrest of Scottish Government Ministers, suspension of devolution, etc, has all been discussed rather publicly.
Other, perhaps cooler heads within the British bourgeoisie see this sort of talk as kicking a hornets’ nest. The pages of the Financial Times are full of warnings that the Union is on its last legs, and an offer of constitutional reform is needed to save it. Boris Johnson enjoys very little confidence in this matter, lamented for his chauvinistic attitude and unpopularity in Scotland.
The Prime Minister could not even show his face on the campaign trail, and has been labelled by many as Unionism’s own worst enemy. Despite appointing himself as ‘Minister for the Union’ and creating a ‘Union Unit’ headed by luminaries like Michael Gove, support for Independence still rises.
The Union does not even have much apparent support in England, with polls showing only around a third of voters opposed to Scottish Independence and another third not interested in the matter. This fits with the trend throughout the Brexit negotiations, in which Tory voters were not concerned with Scotland if it meant securing a hard Brexit.
What the poll did show was most were opposed to increased Government spending in Scotland in order to keep Scotland in the Union – ie, opposed to Boris Johnson’s single policy for combatting the SNP.
The Tory Government are hoping that the so-called ‘recovery’ from the pandemic, and increased public investment north of the border will sufficiently erode support for Independence, or at least give the Union some breathing space.
The billionaire class that the Tory Government serves has already had their recovery, however. The capitalists added trillions to their fortunes through 2020, including in Scotland: only five of the top fourteen richest people in Scotland didn’t increase their wealth. Compare that with the decline in workers’ incomes and increases in poverty.
There will inevitably be a minor economic upturn as the world’s economy emerges from lockdown, but this will be a temporary phenomenon. The capitalist system has been thrown a lifeline in the form of enormous state interventions, at the cost of ballooning public debt. Those debts, as well as the long-term damage to the economy caused by COVID-19, will inevitably be paid for by attacks on the working class’ living standards.
Already workers are facing dismal pay and bold assaults on their rights, chiefly in the form of ‘fire and re-hire’ practices. Hundreds of thousands across Britain potentially face homelessness due to billions in rent arrears sparking a wave of evictions. Poverty and job insecurity has only gotten worse, despite the furlough scheme and everything else.
The fundamental crisis of capitalism will just be refreshed after the end of this pandemic. Austerity will be back on the agenda as a result. In this economic climate, the SNP – like most ruling Governments in the world – are promising some kind of renewal, to ‘Build Back Better’. For the reasons already outlined, this will not be possible.
Indeed the SNP campaign in May was typical fare: coupled with the new bold promises on Independence was an offer of some meagre reforms. Some ideas, such as the National Infrastructure Bank, made a reappearance from the 2016 election.
The Scottish Government will be more of the same, with budget tweaks here and there to cover certain election pledges, and austerity passed on to local government or some other department. Interestingly, while the SNP have chosen to remain in a minority government, they have drawn the Greens closer to them than ever before.
Both parties delightedly announced that they had begun serious negotiations for SNP-Green cooperation. They have colluded previously, of course, with the Greens propping up the SNP minority in important Holyrood business. In fact, the Greens largely stood on what practically amounts to a shared record in Government during the May election.
Leading Greens Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie were very clear before the vote that they were looking for a coalition offer from the SNP, desiring to become a party of government. A coalition looks unlikely, but Sturgeon has said she’s open to the idea of Green ministerial jobs.
Though they may have gained a lot in the May elections, the Scottish Greens will probably continue to play second-fiddle to the SNP and thus have little impact on Scottish Government policy from the left.
Struggle for Socialism and democracy
The class struggle has already started to intensify as a consequence of the COVID crisis. It will intensify as the ‘recovery’ rapidly loses steam. In this context, the national question continues to fester. It was austerity that pushed Scottish workers into the arms of the Independence cause, and will continue to be a driver for the class content inherent in the mass movement.
This pressure pushes the SNP one way, while the bourgeois class standpoint of its leadership will pull in another. The situation is full of contradictions that must come to a head sooner or later. Rises and falls in the polls for Yes and No will come, Nicola Sturgeon may see her fourth Tory PM, and the ruling class will try to postpone any day of reckoning far into the future.
What matters most to us as Marxists is the overall objective situation, which is one of historic crisis in the capitalist mode of production, and the standpoint of the working class, which grows in class consciousness after each subsequent stage of this crisis.
Decisive moments of struggle are being prepared, with the prospect of a battle with the British state over a democratic referendum in the next five years. The pro-independence left – whether that be in the Radical Independence Campaign, SSP or the lefts of the Greens and SNP – must also understand that winning independence on the basis of capitalism will not only be difficult, but will not solve any of the problems that are driving workers to support independence..
It has been proven countless times that only the working class can fight for its own liberation, for socialism and genuine democratic rights, when it is rallied to this cause by a bold and revolutionary leadership.
This underlines the need for a Marxist tendency to be built in Scotland, based on a revolutionary and internationalist programme. Behind the crisis in the Union lies the deep crisis of capitalism in general, and British capitalism in particular. The Scottish working class needs a clear, bold socialist programme to resolve this crisis. Join us in the struggle to build the Marxist tendency that can provide this programme!