Sturgeon Quits: Where next for the independence movement?

— Shaun Morris, Glasgow

Yesterday, in a bombshell speech, Nicola Sturgeon announced that she will be stepping down as SNP leader and Scottish First Minister.

Sturgeon’s resignation comes at a time when her party and government are looking increasingly rudderless: battered by a litany of failures and false starts, and now facing a stormy period of strikes, austerity, and crisis.

Many are now asking ‘where next?’ for Scotland’s governing party and the leadership of the independence cause. This has been left as an open question, to be resolved in only a matter of weeks at the SNP’s special March conference.

End of the road

The First Minister had telegraphed her intentions to retire for months previous to Wednesday’s news. On several occasions, she has publicly pondered her legacy and potential for a life after Scottish politics. Some have even rumoured that she has her eyes on a job at the United Nations.

Nevertheless, the suddenness of the announcement still came as a shock. Many expected Sturgeon to lead the party into the next Holyrood election.

In her speech, Sturgeon rejected speculation that her decision was made off the back of controversy surrounding the Scottish parliament’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill. A ‘culture war’ has been whipped up by the right-wing press over this issue in recent months, much of which has been directed at her personally.

This, and other “short-term” issues were not the reason for her resignation, Sturgeon said. Rather, she had come to believe that her tenure as SNP leader had naturally come to an end.

Nicola Sturgeon offered some personal ‘reflections’ on her time leading the Scottish Government, lamenting the polarised “fixed” opinions people have of her. Typical of liberal politicians, she pines for gentle parlour-politics divorced from people’s real feelings and legitimate anger against the system.

She apologised to her supporters for such a dramatic exit, and lamented about the “brutality” and polarisation of politics (one senses that a dreadful self-indulgent memoir may be in the works already).

Notably, the First Minister confessed frankly how she felt personally defeated over the independence question and her mixed record as head of the Scottish government.

Stalled strategy

By her own admission, Nicola Sturgeon is not the person to lead the indy movement forward. All the bold pronouncements about ‘Scottish democracy’ and the possibility of a second independence referendum have come to nought.

Throughout her eight years at the top, Sturgeon has presided over several stalled attempts to move the independence campaign forwards.

She has deployed combative language to fire up the troops, and even announced dates for referenda, only to then order a return to the barracks and postpone the decisive battle – which never comes.

This has demobilised, disorientated, and demoralised many in the rank and file of the independence movement, who feel they have been led up and down the hill too many times.

Last year saw defeat for Sturgeon in the UK Supreme Court, with judges denying Holyrood the authority to call a new referendum without approval from Westminster. This was never a serious strategy.

This setback has been followed by yet another disorderly retreat over the plan to use the next UK general election as a de facto indyref.

Sturgeon says that she stands by this proposal, which will be the central issue at the special conference in March. But it is clear that doubts over this ploy are solidifying within the upper ranks of the SNP.

Sturgeon will defend the idea of a de facto referendum it seems, but only from the Holyrood backbenches. Meanwhile, the SNP national executive has opened the door to this plan being scrapped altogether.

Capitalism’s straightjacket

Between now and then, the carefully-concealed divisions within the SNP’s leadership clique could come to light as a new leader is chosen. Leaving no obvious successor, speculation has already begun over who will be the next First Minister. And importantly, will they have any new ideas about how to advance the independence movement?

Whoever follows Sturgeon will inherit a worsening situation for the Scottish government. The outgoing SNP leader is personally popular. And she has keenly defended the reforms achieved in her time: expansion of free childcare; greater access to higher education for pupils from deprived backgrounds; baby boxes; newly-devolved powers, etc. Scotland now, according to her, is “fairer”, at the very least.

All of this has been achieved by working within the narrow margins of devolution, and by emphasising the contrasts between the Scottish government’s priorities and those of the Tories in Westminster.

This approach has produced eight election victories for the SNP since 2014, which has helped to keep the independence question high on the agenda.

For most of the past ten years the SNP have been unbeatable – muddling their way through Brexit, the pandemic, political scandals, and other controversies with broad support from the electorate.

The foundations of this regime now face a dramatic collapse, however. With the whole of the UK going through a deep crisis of rampant inflation and looming recession, worse than the rest of Europe and the G7, the room for Holyrood to manoeuvre on economic issues is getting tighter and tighter.

The Scottish government is already locked in battle with striking workers, who are fighting to defend their living standards. Furthermore, Holyrood is preparing to impose eye-watering austerity on public services that are already stretched to the brink.

Acting finance secretary John Swinney, one of Sturgeon’s closest allies, has made no bones about it: Scotland faces “four very difficult years” of austerity ahead, with cuts to public sector spending and jobs on the cards.

John Swinney has announced there will be billions in austerity cuts falling on Scottish workers this year.

Similarly, despite facing the worst crisis in its history, the Scottish NHS is set to see attacks on nurses, hospitals, and patients. And schools will be hard-pressed to deliver even the legally required minimum standards of education, as resources are cut back and teachers are pushed to breaking point.

Far from offering a contrast, the same austerity policies approved by the Tories in Westminster are also being prepared by the Scottish government. There is nowhere for them to hide.

They will throw up their hands and say that there is nothing that can be done. But all this does is underline the pro-capitalist character of the SNP leaders – proving that the working class cannot rely on them to genuinely fight against the Tories.

Not even crumbs

While the axe looms overhead, the reality of the past period – of the SNP’s reformist agenda, with rhetoric about “social justice” and a “fairer Scotland” – is now coming into plain view.

Speaking at Bute House, Sturgeon could not avoid questions over the “regrets” and outright failures of the past decade.

This includes her government’s failure to close the educational attainment gap between rich and poor students. This landmark reform was once Sturgeon’s absolute priority. But it was later quietly abandoned after making little headway.

There is a similar story for reducing child poverty, which now stands at its highest level ever (24%); reducing deaths from drug and alcohol addiction (the highest in the EU); fuel poverty (affecting over 600,000 households); or homelessness and housing insecurity (the highest since 2002), etc.

Child poverty in Scotland is the worst it has ever been. Despite saying children and young people are close to her heart, this is the legacy the First Minister leaves behind.

Councils have lost £2 billion in funds through council tax freezes and falling budgets from Holyrood. This has created a black hole for local services and workers. The largest share of this burden falls on just one council: Glasgow, with a deficit of £500 million.

Even targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions have been consistently missed, despite the growth in renewable energy supplies.

It is increasingly clear that, behind the warm liberal façade, the SNP governs in the interests of the capitalist class, with crumbs thrown to the rest of us. Now, we will not even get the crumbs.

Crisis of reformism

This is the real situation facing our class. And no doubt it is the reason Sturgeon has decided to throw in the towel at this time.

The Scottish government faces intractable problems. Holyrood is unable to deliver any meaningful reforms. In fact, Swinney has pronounced that they are now considering counter-reforms aimed at boosting the ‘efficiency’ of public services – a direct result of the limits of capitalism closing in around them.

The SNP leadership also cannot point a way forward for the independence movement, since they are unwilling to challenge the ruling class’ denial of Scottish self-determination with anything but hollow words.

The formula of SNP dominance in Scotland has always been based around these variables. But now they are trending towards zero, and the SNP machine is threatened with a catastrophic breakdown.

All else remaining equal, the majority of the working class in Scotland will continue to lend their support to the SNP. But they will do so less enthusiastically, holding their noses.

This is similar to the position that the Labour Party found itself in after generations of betrayal. And it only took one opportunity – the 2014 referendum – for the anger against Scottish Labour to be expressed; for workers and youth to move in the direction of independence; and for the party’s support to crumble overnight.

At root, this reflects the crisis of reformism; the inability to solve the problems facing the working class within the confines of capitalism.

For a Scottish Workers’ Republic!

On announcing her resignation, Nicola Sturgeon offered many “reflections” on her time as First Minister. No doubt there will be many others writing glowing or critical political obituaries of her. As an individual politician, she accumulated enormous personal authority and responsibility. Both her supporters and her detractors labelled her the ‘Queen of Scotland’. But the forces that shape society are much bigger than her, or her party.

Capitalism – in Britain and globally – is in a deep crisis. The class struggle is in full swing. This is pushing the working class and the bourgeois SNP leaders into direct conflict with one another. 

This conflict sat below the surface for many years. And for a while, appeals to national unity in the cause of independence helped to paper over the cracks and class contradictions within the SNP. But now this is becoming untenable, as many in the wider movement are rapidly realising.

“As the immediacy of a referendum moves further away, people are more inclined to focus on what is up close and personal,” writes Jim Cassidy in the National, on behalf of Airdrie for Independence.

“Jobs, pay, working conditions, energy prices, fuel and food costs are all uppermost in peoples minds right now,” Cassidy continues, “and we run the very real danger of losing support as people grasp for the quickest solution over the best solution.”

The mass independence movement must base itself on this struggle of the working class. This means establishing a fighting programme to secure self-determination for Scotland.

Our goal is not to achieve the capitalist independence proposed by the SNP tops, which will change nothing, but to establish working-class power and socialism.

Only by relying on the collective strength of our own class, and preparing for a determined revolutionary struggle of workers and youth, can we overcome the current impasse, and push aside those forces who stand in our way.

Such a programme must be based on the call for a Scottish Workers’ Republic and world socialist revolution. This is the slogan that we, the Marxists, will raise in the battles ahead: on the picket lines, in our neighbourhoods, and in the independence movement.

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