SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 219 June 2018

Pressure on for Scotland indyref2

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and Scottish National Party leader, ‘reset’ the issue of a second independence referendum in June 2017, in reality putting the brakes on. This was a major retreat just three months after the Scottish parliament voted to request from Westminster the powers to hold indyref2. The trigger for the u-turn was the electoral shock suffered by the SNP in the general election when it lost a third of its MPs and half a million votes.

Sturgeon admitted last year that "there was no widespread support in Scotland for a second vote on independence before the UK leaves the EU". Current polls show support for an immediate indyref has fallen as low as 20%. Sturgeon added: "At the end of this period of negotiation with the EU… when the terms of Brexit will be clearer, we will come back to parliament to set out our judgment on the best way forward at that time, including our view on the precise timescale for offering people a choice over the country’s future".

The window to do so is limited, however. Any Scottish parliament decision would most likely be late 2018 or the first half of 2019. The UK is due to leave the EU in March 2019. The next elections to the Scottish parliament are due in May 2021. SNP strategists fear that if they lost even half-a-dozen MSPs there would no longer be a pro-independence majority at Holyrood.

As it is the current SNP minority administration needs support from the Greens to pass a budget – or a second referendum motion. It is possible, therefore, that the Scottish government could re-table indyref2 later this year or early in 2019. The crisis in the Tory party over Brexit, the ongoing one-sided civil war in the Labour Party against Jeremy Corbyn, and the fear of losing a pro-independence majority in 2021, could prove to be a tipping point.

Timing is important. An early Westminster general election could be a nightmare for the SNP. A further loss of MPs, especially to Corbyn, could weaken Sturgeon’s leadership significantly. For this reason there has been a deafening silence from leading SNP figures on demanding that May resigns and a general election is called!

Ironically, Labour’s mistaken policy on Scotland and the national question can still provide a get-out-of-jail-free card for the SNP leadership. Sturgeon will use Labour’s current policy of outright opposition to independence and indyref2 as a stick to beat it with. This approach must be urgently changed by Corbyn, the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, and the Labour left.

As a minimum, Corbyn and Leonard must make clear that they defend the right of the Scottish people to self-determination, and will instruct their MPs and MSPs not to oppose the calling of an independence referendum. A conference of the trade union, labour and socialist movement should also be organised to work out a class and socialist policy towards any new referendum.

It is likely that a new referendum would be refused by the May government. With support for independence holding firm at 45% it would be a huge gamble for a weak Tory government to allow it to go ahead. Westminster still holds a veto over whether a ‘binding’ referendum can take place.

While Sturgeon et al would use this to their advantage there would also be demands on the SNP to ‘do a Catalonia’: organise a referendum in defiance of Westminster. This is something that Sturgeon wants to avoid. Socialist Party Scotland would call for mass protests, school and college walkouts, workplace strikes and a mass mobilisation of the workers’ movement to fight for the right to a referendum and for an independent socialist Scotland.

Among many SNP activists and grassroots pro-independence campaigners there is an increasing urgency to push Sturgeon into naming a referendum date. The large demonstration of around 50,000 in Glasgow on 5 May – neither supported nor promoted by the SNP leaders – reflected a growing demand on Sturgeon to act.

The current SNP deputy leadership contest, with the winner announced on 8 June, has become focused almost entirely on this issue. Two of the three candidates demand a referendum prior to the next Holyrood election. Scottish minister, Keith Brown, has adopted a more cautious approach, refusing to outline a timetable, reflecting the view of Sturgeon and the SNP leadership.

The SNP has seen its electoral base eroded, in particular as its pro-capitalist policies have become more glaring. The growing crisis in local government and the NHS, rampant inequality and falling working-class living standards, are consequences of SNP politicians – and right-wing Labour councillors – implementing Tory austerity.

Sturgeon and co have also had to try and counter the loss (still limited) of electoral support to a Corbyn-led Labour Party among working-class supporters. At the same time, the Tories have made gains at the expense of the SNP in rural and middle-class areas where opposition to independence and a second referendum is highest.

The dilemma for the SNP is that the Brexit referendum has not resulted in any overall increase in support for independence, despite the 62% to 38% majority in Scotland to stay in the EU. In part, this is because an estimated 400,000 people who voted for independence in 2014 voted for Brexit in 2016. The SNP’s support for the bosses’ EU was also reflected in its refusal to recognise an independent Catalonia following the referendum of 1 October 2017 – and its craven approach to the European arrest warrant against Clara Ponsati, the former Catalan education minister now living in Scotland.

Opposition to austerity in words but not deeds has led to many workers and young people becoming more critical of the SNP. A space has opened to the left of a party that was, at least after the 2014 referendum, seen as a radical, anti-austerity alternative. As predicted, the actions of the SNP in power, of working within the limits of what capitalism can afford, are exposing them.

With an eye on the ticking clock towards 2021, SNP leaders are increasingly attempting to use the national question to shore up their weakening support. In part, this is reflected in the issues around the EU withdrawal bill being debated at Westminster. The Scottish government has correctly demanded that the competences (powers) for devolved areas being returned from the EU go to Holyrood after Brexit. The Tories, however, want to retain 24 areas – mainly agriculture, fisheries and the environment – at Westminster for at least seven years.

Sturgeon denounced it as a Westminster "power grab". She added, "I don’t think any first minister worth their salt should agree to that". In reality, SNP ministers are prepared to go along with it as long as the Scottish parliament can give or withhold consent to UK legislation in these areas. Nor have they complained about anti-working-class and pro-privatisation powers being exercised by the EU for decades. Sturgeon’s bellicose stance contrasts markedly with the Scottish government’s meek implementation of Westminster austerity.

Nonetheless, fear of opening the floodgates to a mass movement that challenges the interests of capitalism and gets out of the control of the SNP leadership could stay its hand on indyref2. In addition, the mood in favour of independence has cooled as the SNP has failed to live up to its self-promoted ‘anti-austerity’ image.

Its pro-capitalist policies cannot answer the doubts and hesitations of many workers who are unconvinced by Sturgeon’s vision of an independent capitalist Scotland. Increasingly, workers are taking action against cuts-making SNP politicians, as the struggles by council workers in Dundee, West Dunbartonshire, and the teachers’ pay battle underline.

We live in volatile times. If the SNP leadership fires the starting gun on indyref2 an explosive situation could open up. The need for a mass trade union and socialist-led campaign to fight for an independent socialist Scotland that ends all cuts, and for public ownership and democratic working-class control of the economy would be vital. This would need to be linked to the call for a voluntary, democratic socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland, and a socialist Europe to end the misery of capitalism for good.

Philip Stott

Socialist Party Scotland

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