In 2021 the Independence Movement must build a revolutionary party

2020 saw support for independence reach its longest consistent majority in history, according to 20 consecutive opinion polls. 2021 could well be a turning point in the independence movement. Socialists have an opportunity to seize and a duty to prepare.

Many things have changed since 2014. For starters, the ideological rift between Westminster and Holyrood has grown more stubborn. In 2014, the Tory Party was led by the likes of Cameron, Osbourne and other faithful representatives of the British capitalist class. Their priority was long-term stability and protecting profits; they supported the EU Single Market and cared deeply about maintaining the Union between Scotland and England.

Half a decade later, the 2019 election marked a transformation of the party which is now in the hands of a clique who are much more in tune with the party’s frenzied patriotic membership than they are with those in the boardrooms of banks and businesses. Pursuing the ideological fever-dream of a glorious Brexit Britain has been their priority, and their chauvinist provocations give the pro-independence argument endless ammunition, seriously worrying the ruling class. The Labour leader Keir Starmer even described Johnstone as being the single biggest threat to the UK.

Whilst the Tories have become less reliable to big business, the SNP leadership have been reaching out more and more to the boardroom. This can be seen by their increased focus on remaining within the Single Market, as well as the Growth Commission Report which outlined an “independent” Scotland which would in fact still have its currency and borrowing rates controlled by the guardians of British capital at the Bank of England.

SNP stalwarts will tell us this tactic has been successful and simply point to the opinion polls. They credit the party with the Savanta-ComRes poll in December which showed 58% in favour of independence and was the 17th poll in a row to show a majority for Yes. On top of this, the poll showed 55% intending to vote SNP in this year’s Holyrood elections in their constituency, with 42% also on the regional ballot.

SNP party crisis

If we look below the surface however, we see that this party is far from the stable happy family its stalwarts like to portray it as. The party is big, contradictory and it has significant divisions in it which over time will widen.

Last year saw the public escalation of the conflict between ex-leader Alex Salmond and current leader Nicola Sturgeon. This was ignited by a calculated and cynical bid from Salmond and his lawyers to fight off multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment whilst also taking aim at the civil service and the current SNP leadership who he has historical grievances with.

This gradually magnified tensions that already existed in the party. For example, high profile SNP figures such as Kenny MacAskill and Alex Neil publicly backed Salmond’s claims of innocence. Notably, both have also been critical of the SNP leadership’s policy on the EU and overly legalistic approach to a second referendum.

Then there was the rift between Joanna Cherry (prominent Sturgeon critic and MP) and Angus Robertson (ex-Westminster parliamentary leader and Sturgeon ally) in the Edinburgh Central seat Holyrood candidate selection. The leadership responded to this by changing the rules of candidate eligibility, a move which provoked condemnation from 13 MPs and many local members.

This year already, Peter Murrell, the Chief Executive of the SNP (and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband) is rumoured to be on the brink of losing his position due to suspicion and bad feeling among the party. At the same time Sturgeon is facing more pressure over allegations that she broke the ministerial code during Salmond’s investigation.

These tensions are likely to grow and affect the wider party and consequently the independence movement. It is important to understand that these divisions are not simply the result of conflicting personalities, loyalties and cliques. Every party and organisation has its internal conflicts but when times are good they can be quelled or at least hidden from the public. For much of the 2010s this was the situation for the SNP. However, they’re getting closer to a situation that they do not know how to navigate and more of their senior figures are feeling out of their depth.

For starters, they’re likely to win the Holyrood elections in a year which will see a new and huge recession as a result of the pandemic. Without breaking from capitalism, it would be impossible to govern Scotland for the next five years without making extremely unpopular moves including the implementation of austerity.  An even scarier prospect is how they would govern an independent Scotland without potentially carrying out even more unpopular choices than in a devolved government. In such uncertain times, with no answers, politicians will often turn on each other and we’re seeing this more and more.

What’s more telling but less public is the widening class contradictions within the party. As George Kerevan reported in detail, in an article for Conter, left-wingers were successful at the 2020 conference. The Common Weal Group got 44% of National Committee ordinary places, 45% of the Policy Development Committee places, and 50% of the Membership Conduct Committee. On top of this, the moves by the party bureaucracy to prevent potentially challenging motions from being discussed caused many members to tune into an ‘Alternative Conference’ organised by left-winger Tim Rideout, to discuss these motions.

Class contradictions

The SNP leaders are feeling pressure from their overwhelmingly left-leaning membership but also from the working class as a whole, who make up the majority of their voters and supporters. For years the party has tried to cultivate a good relationship with the trade unions. The SNP Trade Union group grew after the 2014 referendum, Sturgeon often addresses STUC rallies and leading trade unionists have addressed SNP parliamentarians. They are more likely to bend to pressure from unions than the Tory party as was seen in previous disputes with the teachers and local authority workers.

However, this is also untenable and inevitably will make it harder for a party so hellbent on appeasing big business. On several occasions they have come into conflict with unions, most notably with the Glasgow equal pay strike in 2018. In December, Sturgeon received a petition signed by various groups including unions calling for the railways to be taken into public control. As the capitalist crisis propelled by the pandemic demands more cuts to services and jobs, the SNP leaders, wedded to capitalism, will be pushed into further conflict with the unions.

In 2014, there was a significant left wing of the movement, separate from the SNP. For example, in the days after the referendum result the Scottish Socialist Party and the Green Party both had big rises in their membership and the Radical Independence Campaign held a rally of over 3000.

However, since then the SNP leaders have dominated and suffocated much of the independence movement with its pro-capitalist politics and bureaucratic methods. The SSP, RIC, the electoral alliance RISE live on due to a core of dedicated activists but are currently unable to have much influence.

There have been moves to set up a new grassroots movement. “All Under One Banner”, who’ve staged a series of mass demonstrations over the last three years held a conference of over 500, with the aim of setting up a new grassroots organization, autonomous from the SNP. Whilst this got off to a shaky start (With a row over the name with the Gaelic speaking group Yes Alba) it shows that there clearly is a thirst for something new within the movement. Left wingers can have a very powerful influence in the future movement but in order to do this there must be a firm and confident theoretical grounding. 

To start with we must wage a bold ideological battle against the Growth Commission. The faults of the Growth Commission are not difficult to point out. Economics commentator Laurie Macfarlane said astutely “In 2019, GDP growth in Scotland was 0.7 per cent. Under the Growth Commission rules, this would mean that public expenditure would have shrunk by 0.3 per cent. In reality, public spending increased by 3 per cent – under a fiscal framework overseen by a Tory treasury. Applying the same assumptions going forward would see public spending as a proportion of GDP fall by around 4 per cent over a decade. To put it another way: the Commission’s plan would see the size of the state in Scotland shrink at a faster pace than when George Osborne was chancellor. At a time when the world is turning its back on austerity, the Growth Commission seemed determined to bring it back to life.”

He continues “Were a sterlingised Scotland to attempt to borrow from financial markets on anything like this scale, it would most likely lead to a vicious cycle of rising borrowing costs and deteriorating budget deficits, as higher interest payments led to a worsening budget position, which in turn led to credit rating downgrades and higher borrowing costs, eventually requiring steep cuts to public expenditure and asset sales,”

It is clear to almost everyone that it would lead to more austerity. Despite this, it is being undemocratically pursued by SNP leaders. Its architect, ex financier, Andrew Wilson recently wrote a piece in the spectator defending it and Sturgeon happily tweeted it. Much of the SNP’s members and supporters could be won over by a bold socialist alternative.

However, we must be clear, the Keynesian and reformist policies are not an alternative. The left must be absolutely clear at every point that a new independent Scottish Workers’ Republic would need to expropriate the assets and capital from the big tourism, servicing, manufacturing and energy companies, whether they be local or foreign owned. On top of this all the crown estate and land owned by big landowners bust be taken into public control, all without compensation.

The Scottish National Investment bank must be monopolised to include all banking, financial and insurance services in the country. Nothing more of this must remain in private hands. The Scottish National Infrastructure company must be formed and subsume all building and repair companies above a certain size.

Internationalism is also key and has a certain tradition in the independence movement. The movement is almost entirely pro-immigration which for most rank-and-file independence supporters is about solidarity with migrant workers and shows a healthy class instinct. On top of this the independence movement has a significant anti-imperialist tradition, with the opposition to Trident and more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However this must be extended. No credence can be given to the ideas of Scottish exceptionalism or that Scottish people are “inherently more progressive”. We must see the formation of an independent Scottish Workers Republic not as an end in itself but simply as a stepping stone towards a world socialist revolution. Any implications that English working class are backward and racists must be tackled with the bold faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class throughout these islands, Europe and the world over.

A new independent state would come under severe pressure from the IMF, NATO, the EU and all other representatives of international capital. A workers’ Republic would need to loudly and at every step make a call to organised working class all over the world to support the new republic and to overthrow their own ruling classes.

We must instil within our ranks that an independence which is legally sanctioned by the British state and the courts is not an independence worth fighting for. If we seriously want to take on the British bourgeois state, the banks, the royalty and all the other pillars of the establishment which perpetuate this class system then we will make ourselves a lot of powerful enemies. A bold revolutionary party is needed to lead this.

Much debate is taking place around Plan A v Plan B. Left wingers often talk about the need for “civil disobedience” by which presumably means street protests and strikes. These will of course be necessary tactics. However in order to win over rank and file trade unionists, the working class in general, a bold socialist programme is necessary. 

Marxists will be involved in the future movements for independence but we will continue to do so on the basis of  revolutionary socialism and internationalism. We firmly believe that if movement were carried out on this basis it would be successful. This is why we are determined to build a disciplined organisation of professional revolutionaries, steeled in Marxist theory, in every town, city, union and campus in Scotland who can lead the working class to a Scottish workers’ Republic as a stepping tone to a world Socialist Federation. We call on all class conscious workers and youth to join us in this mission.

by Ross Walker, Edinburgh