SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 229 June 2019

Scottish independence: announce and delay

Scotland’s first minister and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has, for the second time in two years, picked up the starting gun on a second independence referendum. Addressing the Scottish parliament at the end of April she said opaquely: "I can confirm that the Scottish government will act to ensure that the option of giving people a choice on independence later in this term of parliament is progressed".

However, this does not mean a referendum is imminent. In her speech, Sturgeon emphasised that the Scottish government would delay asking Westminster for a Section 30 order – necessary for a legally-binding referendum. Theresa May’s Tory government has already said such a demand "will be blocked".

The SNP leadership insist they will not request a Section 30 order until the Tories are out of office. Moreover, that they will not proceed without that consent, firmly rejecting any possibility of a Catalonia-style ‘illegal’ referendum. Sturgeon also kicked the can further down the road by heavily hinting that they would not proceed if Brexit was avoided. To "rush into an immediate decision before a Brexit path has been determined would not allow for an informed choice to be made", she commented.

To add further elements of delay, Sturgeon also offered a route away from indyref2 and towards more devolved powers to "seek to open up space for us to come together and find areas of agreement as mature politicians should". An Ireland-style ‘citizens’ assembly’ would be established to "consider Scotland’s future", and "what further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country".

In summary, three factors need to be in place in the SNP leadership’s schema before an actual referendum takes place: Brexit to happen; the Tories removed at Westminster and replaced by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government that could be more susceptible to pressure to give the go-ahead; and for indyref2 to be delayed long enough for opinion polls to change more clearly in favour of independence. At the moment, support is similar to the level it was during the first referendum in 2014, around 45%. Former SNP justice minister Kenny MacAskill, writing in the Scotsman newspaper in April, neatly summed up the dilemma: "Holding another referendum is problematic and those expecting an immediate poll are delusional".

This is in stark contrast to when Sturgeon initially triggered plans for a second independence referendum. In March 2017, a vote was taken in the Scottish parliament within a week of the announcement. This set a deadline for the referendum of early 2019, at the latest. By June 2017, however, following the loss of 21 SNP Westminster MPs in the snap general election, indyref2 was taken off the table. With only around 20% in polls favouring a rapid referendum, the SNP’s delaying tactics may continue for a while yet.

Informing this announce-and-delay approach are competing pressures. Firstly, there is the drive from the SNP membership and the pro-independence movement generally for a quick second referendum. There were very large marches across Scotland in 2018 demanding that Sturgeon act – and an indyref2 march of up to 100,000 took place in Glasgow on 4 May 2019. The significance of the announcement by Sturgeon three days before the SNP conference, which would have been dominated by the issue, should also be factored in.

Another pressure comes from the pro-EU Scottish Greens. They act as a prop for the minority SNP government at Holyrood but have been calling for a more rapid indyref2 timetable in response to the Brexit crisis.

The SNP leadership are attempting to shore up their base ahead of the EU elections in May and the 2021 Scottish parliament elections, as well as a general election which could come at any time. After the loss of a third of their MPs in 2017, the SNP feels increasingly vulnerable as its working-class support has been weakened by its austerity policies. In addition, stagnating support for independence means that a delay is required in the hope there will be a surge if Brexit is implemented. Time is required for this, hence Sturgeon’s use of the Abraham Lincoln quote: "With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed".

In the meantime, workers and trade unionists are increasingly taking to the road of struggle. The history-making equal pay strikes in Glasgow, which led to a cash transfer of over £500 million to thousands of low-paid, mainly women workers, was a seminal victory – one that Socialist Party Scotland members played a key role in. Scottish teachers have just won a pay-cap-smashing 13.5% pay increase, too.

Strikes by bin workers in Angus forced management to abandon draconian changes to shift patterns. Oil worker strikes in the North Sea also reflect a new combative mood. Strike ballots are pending among council workers in Dundee and West Dunbartonshire, and by Edinburgh bus drivers. The civil servants’ national ballot on pay just failed to reach the 50% threshold, although a huge majority voted in favour of strike action. Many of these disputes are taking place against SNP-led council and Scottish government policies. The shrinking base of support for the SNP among workers is adding to its difficulties, including the prospects of winning an indyref2.

A fighting socialist alternative to the SNP and its role in implementing austerity can and must be built, but Scottish Labour’s implementation of cuts in the councils it controls is blocking the possibility of building that political alternative.

Jeremy Corbyn’s concessions to the Blairites, including over Brexit, are a huge mistake. The continued opposition to any second independence referendum by Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard is also a major barrier for many working-class people. Leonard recently compared leaving the EU with Scotland becoming independent: "The turmoil of coming out of an economic relationship which has been in place for 40 years would be nothing compared with the economic turmoil of coming out of a relationship which has lasted 300 years".

Nor can Labour mount a recovery solely by focusing on cuts and inequality, and simply ignore the self-inflicted damage done by opposing independence in the 2014 referendum. If Labour does not change tack on fighting austerity and on the right to self-determination for Scotland, the conclusion must be that the route to building a new mass working-class party may well not come through Scottish Labour. A new workers’ party based on the trade unions and all those who want to fight back against cuts and capitalism is a vital necessity.

Socialist Party Scotland demands that SNP and Labour councillors and MSPs refuse to carry out Tory austerity and set no-cuts budgets. This would be the springboard for a mass campaign among the working class to win back the billions stolen from public services.

We also fight to defend the democratic rights of the people of Scotland to self-determination, including a second referendum. If such a democratic demand was refused by Westminster and mass support existed for a referendum – not the case at the moment – it would be necessary to build a campaign of civil disobedience, strikes and mass protests. This would need to include demands on the Scottish government to ‘do a Catalonia’ and organise its own referendum.

The SNP leadership, wedded to big-business interests, are incapable of leading a struggle for real independence. Independence from poverty, cuts, low pay and climate catastrophe requires socialist change in Scotland and internationally. We fight for an independent socialist Scotland. For an end to capitalism, and for public ownership and democratic working-class control of the major sectors of the Scottish economy. We advocate that there should be a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland, as part of a socialist Europe.

Philip Stott

Socialist Party Scotland

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