By Bob Fotheringham
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Break with Sturgeon’s strategy to break up British state

Sturgeon has a plan for a new Scottish independence referendum but her strategy will not deliver
Issue 2816
A person holding a Scottish flag that has the word YES outline in the centre in reference to scottish independance

Only a mass movement can break up the British state (Picture: Garry Knight)

The next Tory prime minister should face the prospect of revolt over independence in Scotland—on top of the resurgence in class struggle. And working class fights against the Tories, bosses and bigots could run through the fight for Scottish independence, seeing it as an opportunity to break with all their rotten policies.   

But, to make this a reality, requires going beyond first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s vision. Her plan rests on asking the UK Supreme Court to rule whether the Scottish government can hold an independence referendum in October 2023 without permission from Westminster.

Sturgeon’s legal team argue that, although the 2014 referendum took place with the British government’s say so, it could have happened anyway. That’s because, their legal argument goes, the power to hold one is not in fact what’s known as a “reserved matter” under the Scotland Act.

Despite calls from the Tory government to have the request rejected, the Supreme Court is set to hear the case on 11 and 12 October.

Will Sturgeon’s plan work? It’s an incredibly flimsy legal case, so she has a back-up. The Scottish National Party (SNP) will fight the next general election on the single issue of independence, making it a “de facto referendum”.

However, the SNP winning 50 percent of the vote will be difficult. People vote in a general election on a range of issues. And what about Labour and working class voters who want rid of the Tories but support independence?

Any vote for the SNP of over 50 percent may well provide them with the moral high ground. But what next? How will the SNP move forward to independence while the British government says no?

This week Tory leadership candidate Liz Truss said she would simply “ignore” the “attention-seeking” Sturgeon. It is not just the Tories who oppose this process. Keir Starmer and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar have said there will be no discussions or pacts with the SNP which involve independence. Starmer has said he too would not support holding a referendum, and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy ruled one out in the next ten years.

A mass movement from below could make it impossible for a Tory prime minister to “ignore” independence. Thousands of people already regularly campaign, take to the streets and spend a large amount of time persuading people about the advantages of an independent Scotland.

However, the SNPs plans leave the base of the indy movement without any role to play. The process of winning independence rests completely in the hands of the SNP politicians. So does the nature of a future independent Scotland, in the extremely unlikely event that Sturgeon’s strategy proves successful.

So, what is Sturgeon and the SNP’s vision for the future? She’s launched papers on Independence in the Modern World and Renewing Democracy Through Independence. Others will cover currency, public finances and the economy, social security and pensions, defence, and a range of other issues

Sturgeon’s paper on Independence in The Modern World and her plans to hold a second referendum received widespread coverage. However, her presentation on Renewing Democracy Through Independence received a lot less attention in the British press. But this is perhaps the strongest of her arguments for Scottish Independence.

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Since then, apart from the Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Scotland has been governed by a Tory party it did not vote for. And, even then, the Labour government proved to be a major disappointment for most working class people in Scotland.

The current Tory party leadership contest is another case in point. Barely 0.3 percent of the adult British population—made up of mainly white, well-off people living in the south of England—will determine who is the next prime minister.

It is Scotland’s right to hold a second referendum. The fact that this is being denied by both the Tories and Labour politicians is a democratic outrage. Look at the system used to elect the British parliament, which can see a Tory government take power with a “majority” of 42.4 percent of the vote in 2017 and a “landslide” 43.6 percent in 2019. On this basis, there is more than enough evidence to believe that the SNP has a mandate to push forward for a second vote.

Socialists both inside and outside the Labour Party should support Scotland’s democratic right to hold a vote on independence. Some people on the left argue that Scottish independence would break the unity of the British working class. But one of the best ways of ensuring working class unity across Britain is for socialist and trade union activists to support Scotland’s right to vote for independence. Winning this position would help break people from the Tories’ British nationalism, which seeks to bind working class people to a fake “national interest”.

Independence in the Modern World

The SNP’s vision is one where Scotland is “competitive” within global capitalism, joins the neoliberal European Union (EU), becomes a member of the Nato warmongers’ alliance, keeps the pound, and has the queen as head of state. There has always been a direct connection between its limited plans for a future Scotland, and how independence is brought about.

Sturgeon’s Independence in the Modern World document, which mixes aspirations for independence with hard-headed neoliberal realism, is a case in point. Much of the paper tries to take on the arguments raised by the Better Together campaign’s “Project Fear” during the 2014 referendum debate.

In response, Sturgeon wants to prove that an independent capitalist Scotland is viable, hollowing out any prospects for social transformation. The document compares Britain to ten other European countries similar in size to Scotland. But is seeking to emulate their economies a good idea?

Norwegian “success” has largely come through North Sea oil—which we need to keep in the ground. Ireland has a private health care system, low business taxes and high rates of inequality, with 25 percent of the population experiencing ongoing deprivation. This in a country that, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is the fourth richest in the world based on per capita GDP.

Sweden is another of the comparator countries in the document. It is the third biggest arms exporter in the world based on per capita exports. Only the US and Israel are greater. Its lax restrictions during the pandemic have led to it having death rates rivalling the US. Support for the far right Sweden Democrats has grown, and it now has 60 seats in the Swedish parliament.

Meanwhile, the context of the current debate on independence is different to 2014. It involves the cost of living crisis, the existential threat of climate catastrophe, the war in Ukraine and the impact of eight more years of Tory rule and the pandemic. To deal with all these issues requires radical solutions way beyond the capacity of the SNP hierarchy.

To put forward the case for an independent Scotland, Sturgeon skilfully harnesses Boris Johnson and the Tories’ incompetence, corruption and contempt for ordinary people. She places the economic and social problems, which blight the lives of millions of people, firmly at the door of the Westminster government.

There is an element of truth to this. But it’s not the full story. The NHS, education and policing are all under the control of the Scottish Parliament. While the Scottish Budget is set by the UK Treasury, the Scottish government does have money-raising powers. It has control over income tax rates and bands as well as limited borrowing powers. These have never been used to any great extent.

The SNP’s determination for Scotland to rejoin the EU highlights its economic thinking. Membership would mean EU fiscal constraints on public spending and borrowing, designed to lock in neoliberal economics.

Meanwhile, the NHS in Scotland is in crisis, with record waiting times in A&E and for scheduled operations. This is only one aspect of the crisis facing ordinary people in Scotland. While the SNP is not mainly to blame for this, it certainly must share the responsibility.

The SNP’s priorities can also be gleaned from its warmongering. At the start of the Ukraine war, Sturgeon said that Nato should not rule out a no-fly zone. This would have risked a direct confrontation between the US and Russia, two nuclear-armed powers. The Scottish government has just donated £64 million to the Ukraine war effort rather than spend the money on public services.

The SNP are committed to Scotland joining and strengthening Nato, with increased spending on conventional weapons. While it has pledged to remove Trident nuclear weapons from Scotland, it now says that it’s opposed to the “non-proliferation of nuclear weapons”. Which is not the same as their complete removal. Stewart McDonald, the SNP spokesperson on defence at Westminster, recently said that nuclear weapons would not be immediately removed from Scotland after independence. He said an SNP government would not rule out “a short-term arrangement”. 

How is the independence movement responding? There is anecdotal evidence that Sturgeon’s initiative has raised expectations among some independence activists. Inactive Yes groups are starting to hit the streets again. However, this is a long way from the enthusiasm and optimism of 2014 or the huge All Under One banner protests. Some 200,000 marched in Edinburgh during October 2019 and 90,000 marched through Glasgow in the pouring rain after the election of 2019.

The impact of SNP inaction has led to infighting in the movement and to a strong degree of cynicism about its intentions. This, along with the pandemic, means that the activist base of the movement is no longer what it once was. At a recent Now Scotland online meeting, very few present believed Sturgeon’s initiative is likely to succeed.

Support for independence grew out of the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1980s and after. The Labour Party proved to be pathetic in its response, and people in Scotland found an alternative to support in the form of independence and the SNP. The question is, for how much longer?

There is also a serious question mark over whether Sturgeon through legal and constitutional means will succeed. The bottom line is, she simply does not have a plan to effectively confront the British State when it says no to another referendum.

Socialists in Scotland should remain committed to independence and support the fight to break up the British state. However, sections of the working class are involved in much more radical arenas of struggle. These are both separate from and part of the independence movement. They include the anti-racist struggle, the climate change movement, and crucially the increased wave of strikes across Britain brought about by the cost of living crisis.

They open up the possibility of a real confrontation with the Tories and the bosses’ profit system. The current Tory chaos provides a serious opportunity for resistance, which should be utilised by the whole trade union movement. The current wave of strikes across Britain, if nurtured, developed and spread, provides the possibility of bringing about real change, way beyond the limited vision of Sturgeon and the SNP. 

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