“A new poll has suggested that 58% now say that they would vote Yes in another independence referendum” in Scotland, noted the elections analyst professor John Curtice, writing for the BBC website on October 14. “No previous poll has put ever support for independence so high. More importantly this is the ninth poll in a row since June to put Yes ahead”, he went on. “It is the first time in Scottish polling history that support for independence has consistently outstripped backing for staying in the Union”.
The Scottish parliamentary elections, Covid permitting, are due to take place in May 2021. All the current indications point to a landslide win for the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) who are riding high at 58% support.
With the SNP, Greens and other pro-independence members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) likely to form an overall majority, an unprecedented confrontation with the UK Johnson-led Tory government seems inevitable. The Tories have made clear that there will be no second independence referendum, no matter the result in May. A ‘legal’ referendum requires the transfer of powers from Westminster to Holyrood.
Yet 64% of people in Scotland now support an indyref2. A colossal 79% of 16-24 year-olds now support independence while 60% of women do, in contrast to the 43% of women who voted Yes in 2014.
For the SNP leadership May 2021 is being framed as the independence election, another mandate to sit alongside the numerous SNP election wins over the last few years. According to SNP deputy leader Keith Brown, “if there is a clear majority for pro-independence, pro-referendum parties in next year’s election – as this poll shows there would be by some considerable margin – then no Tory or any UK government has the right to stand in the way. Quite simply, in those circumstances, the Tories would lack any moral or democratic authority whatsoever to try and block the will of the people, and it would not stand”.
But the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership are massively underestimating the determination of the ruling class to block Scottish independence. Mass working-class struggle and a revolutionary threat to the billionaire class can force concessions. Appeals by the SNP to the Tories to listen to reason and accept the ‘democratic will of the people’ will fail.
Sturgeon’s insistence, therefore, that the only route to independence is a legally agreed referendum is an exercise in delusion. This is not 2014. Then, David Cameron and the Tories were confident they would comfortably win a referendum and in the process end for decades demands for separation. They were rocked by an insurgent mood among the working class in favour of independence. Not for nothing did one commentator, Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times the day after the referendum, describe it as a “near-death experience” for the UK.
There is no possibility of British capitalism revisiting that strategy. The only way to win democratic rights and self-determination is to build a campaign, rooted in the working class and the trade unions, that confronts the opposition and the capitalist interests that lie behind them. To be able to mobilise such a movement requires socialist and anti-austerity policies at its core.
For this reason alone, not to mention the SNP’s pro-capitalist policies and their implementation of austerity, the building of a socialist political challenge is essential. Socialist Party Scotland is playing a leading role in the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), along with the RMT trade union, in preparing such a challenge for the elections next year. Unfortunately, many on the pro-independence socialist left in Scotland, in the face of growing support for independence and rising SNP support, have abandoned this necessary task.
The former socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan and the party he leads, Solidarity, have formally joined the Action For Independence (AFI) electoral platform. AFI will be calling for a vote for the SNP in the first-past-the-post seats, while appealing for SNP and pro-independence voters to back AFI on the regional list vote. This ‘second vote’ is where smaller parties can be elected. In all likelihood, given their probable domination in the constituency section, the SNP won’t win many if any MSPs on the regional lists.
AFI sees itself as a one-issue campaign, which aims to maximise the number of Yes supporting MSPs in the parliament. But what then? What kind of movement will be needed to win independence? Does AFI back a capitalist or a socialist future under independence? How will its MSPs vote in the parliament on cuts budgets? Will they stand alongside workers fighting on jobs, pay and living standards in the face of the Covid-triggered economic crisis?
In a recent column Tommy Sheridan described Dave Thompson, the former SNP MSP who leads AFI, as “a man who has experience, credibility and political respect on his side”. Tommy is silent about the fact that between 2007 and 2016 when Thompson was in the Scottish parliament he voted consistently for SNP budgets that meant major cuts to local government, the NHS and public services generally. Thompson also opposed the same-sex marriage legislation in 2014, one of six SNP MSPs to do so.
Why socialists should give ‘political respect’ to someone with this political track record is not explained – other than appealing to the age old idea of suspending all class and socialist perspective until after the election and indeed until after independence. This two stages approach – first independence and then at some time in the future, socialism – is the opposite of what is necessary and can only bolster support for the SNP leadership. The same SNP leadership who are opposed to building the type of mass struggle that will be needed to break the opposition of British capitalism to the right to self-determination for Scotland.
Sturgeon et al are desperate to avoid a Catalonia-style confrontation that saw a mass movement erupt onto the streets, workplaces and communities in 2017. Not least because of their fear, justified in this case, that the capitalist class internationally would treat an independent Scotland created through a mass movement with ferocious hostility. Not a single capitalist government internationally recognised an independent Catalonia in October 2017 – and nor did the Scottish government – including both the institutions of the European Union (EU) and its individual member states. The SNP leadership predicate their desire for an independent capitalist Scotland on rejoining the bosses’ EU. They will resist as far as possible being forced into ‘illegal’ actions like organising a referendum against the wishes of Westminster.
The role of socialists is to strive to build a trade union and working class movement for independence while exposing the limitations of the SNP, not to call for a vote for them. It is essential to give not one iota of political support to parties or individuals who have acted against the interests of the working class. That includes voting for cuts – as the SNP have consistently done. Why not support a pro-independence, pro-socialist challenge in the elections? One that backs the right to indyref2, a mass working class movement to deliver it and an independent socialist Scotland, while opposing any and all actions that damage the overall interests of the working class?
Nicola Sturgeon is widely seen as having had a ‘good pandemic’ when compared to the catastrophic handling of Covid-19 by Boris Johnson. However, that is not a high comparative bar. In truth the SNP government have maintained largely the same approach as that emanating from Westminster.
Late to respond as the pandemic hit, a dismal absence of testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) was no different in Scotland. Hundreds of elderly patients were transferred from hospitals into largely privatised care homes without testing, leading to disastrous death rates. It was the Scottish government that insisted that schools had to go back in August with no social distancing, and then universities in September. These two decisions have been key factors in the rising second wave of infection rates this autumn.
A recent international study by Imperial College London into excess death rates across 21 nations found Scotland was among the highest, along with England, Wales and Spain. Low levels of investment into healthcare was found to be a key factor. Years of NHS cuts – with the SNP passing on Tory austerity – left the health service extremely vulnerable to the pandemic.
Despite these realities, the Scottish government have been quite adept at portraying themselves simultaneously as being in power but also in opposition. Sturgeon is without doubt a skilled communicator compared to bumbling Boris. She also consistently emphasises how much worse things are in England and how much more could be done to deal with Covid if only Scotland had a full range of powers.
The SNP has emerged over the past decade or so as the largest electoral force in Scotland – including among the working class and young people. As we have consistently explained this transformation reflects, in a distorted way, the enormous political vacuum that exists for a new workers’ party following Labour’s transformation from the 1990s into a pro-capitalist entity under the Blairites.
The fact that the SNP led the 2014 referendum campaign for independence – against the onslaught of the capitalist class – means that Sturgeon et al still hold political capital. The SNP are not a traditional bourgeois party; rather their leadership is drawn from the Scottish middle class – the capitalist class in Scotland are still in the main opposed to independence.
They have been to the left of a rightward-moving Labour Party since the late 1980s – with a brief interregnum under Corbyn when they were outflanked to the left. Strategically, their aim was to win over the Scottish working class by adopting what were seen as more progressive policies on social and to an extent economic issues. For example opposing the Iraq war; calling for the removal of Trident nuclear weapons; introducing free prescriptions; refusing to implement NHS privatisation; keeping the Educational Maintenance Allowance for school pupils when it was abolished in England; defending the right to asylum; opposing, at least verbally, austerity, the bedroom tax and universal credit. At the same time they have passed on more than £2 billion in cuts over the last decade, seeking to shift the blame onto Westminster.
Their susceptibility to pressure from the working class has also been shown by a series of retreats when faced with a movement – for example being forced into full mitigation of the bedroom tax in 2014; conceding to the 2018 Glasgow equal pay strike; on teachers’ pay in 2019; as well as being forced into a U-turn in August this year on the school exams downgrading fiasco. They want as much as possible to avoid a collision with the working class in Scotland that could be catastrophic for their plans to win a majority for independence as well as their electoral position.
Attempts have also been made to win over the trade union leadership, or at least some of them, to the orbit of the SNP. Certainly the Scottish TUC tops have been open to these overtures and the plea for partnership arrangements with the Scottish government such as the ‘fair work’ agreement. At the same time SNP-led councils across Scotland have been attacking workers’ jobs and terms and conditions.
The SNP is nevertheless an avowedly pro-capitalist party. The burgeoning growth in SNP membership after the 2014 referendum to over 120,000 has not led to any significant shift to the left. If anything the party is today devoid of activists. Above all, there has been no change to SNP politicians’ imposition of Tory austerity in Scotland.
For all of these reasons the building of a mass workers’ party in Scotland is a vital task for the trade unions and the socialist left. As a step towards this Socialist Party Scotland and Scottish TUSC are calling for as wide a socialist electoral challenge as possible for May 2021.
We’ll be standing on a clear policy of opposition to all cuts, for public ownership and democratic socialist planning of the economy, for the building of a mass working class-led campaign for second referendum, and for an independent socialist Scotland.
Philip Stott, Socialist Party Scotland