Fears of “losing Scotland” once again haunt the British establishment. We’re socialists—not Scottish nationalists—but it’s right to make their nightmares a reality and support the breakup of the British state.
A combination of Brexit and the coronavirus crisis means things aren’t looking good for “UK plc”. British capital has only begun the process of disentangling itself from its largest trading partner, the neoliberal European Union (EU). And this process hasn’t spelt crisis just for some sections of British banking or big business, but the British state itself. Rather than unleashing the Tory fantasy of a new “global Britain”, it raises the possibility of no Britain.
By igniting imperialist rivalry between Britain and the EU over the border that divides Ireland, Irish unification has moved up the agenda. In Scotland hatred of Boris Johnson, Tory Brexit and Westminster’s disastrous handling of the pandemic compared to Holyrood, has fuelled support for another referendum. Far from the 2014 referendum result killing off Scottish independence, an editorial in the Tory-supporting Sunday Telegraph newspaper lamented that it enjoyed majority support during most of 2020. More than 20 recent opinion polls have shown support for Scottish independence has been steadily creeping up to about 58 percent of the population.
However, Ireland and Scotland are very different cases. It’s clear what position British socialists should take on Ireland, a country that was conquered, subjugated and partitioned by Britain. There’s a long tradition of socialists supporting oppressed peoples’ fight against empire, with Karl Marx, for instance, an early champion of Irish freedom throughout the 19th century.
The revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued socialists had to support the right of national self-determination for oppressed people for two reasons. Firstly winning working class people in the imperialist country to standing with the oppressed, he argued, was key to breaking the hold of chauvinist ideas. These ideas—patriotism, racism, support for empire and so on—demobilise the working class struggle and made ordinary people think they had a common interest with those at the top of society. As Marx complained in 1870, anti-Irish racism was the “secret of the impotence of the English working class”. Secondly, oppressed peoples winning national independence would be a huge blow to imperialism and weaken the ruling class. When part of Ireland managed to break away in 1921, it sent shockwaves through the British ruling class and was an inspiration to people fighting back across the empire. Today, Northern Ireland remains the last outpost of empire. And we unambiguously call for the British state to get out of the remaining six countries it maintains under its control.
However, Scotland has never faced “national oppression” like Ireland. The Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland was based on the marriage of the two ruling classes, partly fuelled by Scottish colonists’ abysmal failures to set up their own overseas empire. From then on Scottish capitalists were partners in the British plunder of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America and other parts of the world. Its public schools and playing fields, like England’s, were the training grounds for boot boys of British Empire.
With all that in mind, why should socialists across Britain fight for Scottish independence? First, while Scotland has never faced national oppression, independence would still strike a blow to imperialism. Britain has been in decline ever since the end of the Second World War. Whatever the fantasies of Tory and right wing Labour politicians, Britain isn’t even a 5th rate power anymore. But it still plays an important role in support of the US—the greatest menace in the world—and its web of alliances. We only have to look at the killing fields of Iraq and how Tony Blair’s Labour government behaved as the poodle of American imperialism. Another key part of Britain’s “special relationship” with the US is its nuclear arsenal. All this means that Scotland breaking away would severely weaken Britain and its ability to play an active part in US-led interventions. It would also raise the question of dumping Trident nuclear weapons, which are based at the Faslane Naval base on the western coast of Scotland.
However, there’s a difference between being for the break up of the British imperialist state and Scots “right to self-determination” if they choose it, and actively fighting for independence. The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) has taken a strong line in favour of independence and been part of that struggle alongside a broad array of forces. As socialists, we approach Scottish independence from the standpoint of the working class. How can we build working class unity and a bigger struggle against the bosses’ system and for a socialist society? In Scotland the majority of the working class support Scottish Independence and see it as an alternative to decades of Tory austerity and neoliberalism. It is not a narrow, nationalistic movement.
This shapes how we approach fighting for independence. It means socialists have to put working class demands at the centre of the struggle. The fights against austerity and racist scapegoating or for radical Green New Deal cannot be subordinated or deferred until after we win independence.
This is an alternative vision and strategy to the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) one. As the main party supporting independence, the SNP has established a virtual monopoly over Scottish politics. At every level, council, Holyrood, and Westminster the SNP has trashed its challengers. In Westminster elections, voters in Scotland have consistently voted for a party supporting independence and yet they have the Tories imposed upon them. First minister Nicola Sturgeon has put herself at the centre of the Scottish government’s handling of the pandemic. Compared to Boris Johnson, she has appeared competent and empathic. This has strengthened the image of Scotland as its own nation capable of running its own affairs, much to the annoyance of the Tories. The SNP’s membership grew spectacularly in recent years.
However, all is not well with the SNP. The leadership has stuck rigidly to neoliberal economics while doing nothing to further the cause of independence. That’s because nationalism—whether dressed in left wing or right wing garbs—seeks to paper over class divisions. It says the golf course owner and poor high rise tenant have the same interests in a “better Scotland” even though their class interests are diametrically opposed. This means the SNP leadership looks both ways—presenting social democratic policies and promising a business-friendly Scotland. It’s no wonder the SNP has been courting and pandering to big business forces such as Jim McColl (Clyde Blowers) and Brian Souter (Stagecoach) who celebrate an independent Scottish capitalism, where profits would continue to flow in a low-wage, low-tax and neoliberal economy.
This also limits its strategy to legal and constitutional methods and sees it shy away from militancy. There was lots of solidarity for Catalonia’s independence fight in 2017, not just from the Scottish left but from the SNP leadership. The fight pitted the Catalan government, which unilaterally organised a referendum, against the armed might of the Spanish state and its backers in the EU. Ordinary people put up impressive resistance, with huge demonstrations and workers’ strikes. But the mainstream Catalan politicians still vacillated and focused on legal and administrative routes for a break with the Spanish state, rather than the power of the mass movement from below. Our lesson from Catalonia is about the need for more struggle from below and for the left to put forward a clear alternative to timid, legal manoeuvres. Sturgeon’s lesson is to stick all the more to “legality” and “constitutionalism”. For example, on 15 October 2019 Sturgeon told SNP members that any new independence bid must have the “recognition of the international community”. She ruled out talk of going down a Catalan route and suggestions from within her own party that the SNP should hold an election on the promise of declaring independence. Her comments came just after opposition leaders in Catalonia were jailed for their role in organising the illegal referendum.
Sturgeon has repeatedly vacillated over calling another independence vote. After the 2014 defeat, she said that a “material change in circumstances” would trigger a new referendum. That change took place when Scotland voted against Brexit and again when the Tories were elected with a big majority and Scotland returned 47 SNP MP’s out of 58 Scottish seats. No plan for a referendum was forthcoming. Not surprisingly, SNP members and voters became restless. Prior to the pandemic, organisations like All Under One Banner and Yes groups took up the challenge to mobilise the grassroots, culminating in some of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Scotland. This was because the SNP gave no leadership to the movement and did not even allow debate within its own ranks.
With the “material circumstances” changed, the movement wanted to see the SNP declare that the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021 would be seen as an effective referendum on independence. If a majority of the MSPs elected supported independence, the SNP would apply to Westminster for a new Section 30 order—effectively permission to hold a referendum. And if this Plan A was denied, as it surely will be, they would organise their own advisory referendum. The growing clamour among members of the SNP for a debate on this issue resulted in Sturgeon accepting that the election would be seen as a mandate for a referendum. However, there is no plan for the likely eventuality of Johnson saying no to a Section 30 order. Sturgeon has stuck relying on the British state to grant it. This is a fanciful strategy and many independence supporters, inside and outside the SNP, know it.
The movement needs to be prepared to confront the British state with more than a constitutional or legalistic approach. It will require a persistent effort to build a mass social movement, through mass civil disobedience, demonstrations and workers’ strikes to make Scotland ungovernable for the British state. Building mass grassroots organisations, such as NowScotland, is imperative. It can help create a social force capable of moving beyond the limits of parliamentary and electoral politics and the SNP’s narrow vision and strategy.
We are fighting for more than a Scottish capitalist state. We have a crucial role to ensure that working class interests remain central and are not relegated to adapting to the bosses’ interests, whether they lie in the City of London, the finance houses of Edinburgh or the European banks. It will take building working class struggles now—and preparing for fights after independence—to make sure that’s the case. In Scotland, there is a palpable sense that change must come—and that the opportunity for that change is now, not later.
When lockdown restrictions are lifted, this movement needs to hit the streets in full force. And until then, we need to be organising online and physically in every way possible. The challenges we face are enormous, but the prize of delivering a blow to the British ruling class is firmly within our grasp.