By Bob Fotheringham
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Is the Scottish independence movement in crisis?

Scottish socialist Bob Fotheringham looks at what's behind impasse facing the independence movement

A march for Scottish independence in Glasgow in 2018 (Pic: Christine McIntosh/Flickr)

Is the Scottish independence movement in crisis? On the surface, this might seem a ridiculous question. The Scottish National Party (SNP) remains the dominant political force in Scottish politics, with none of the other mainstream parties coming close in votes or popularity. At the Scottish parliamentary elections in May, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 64 seats, just one short of a majority. With the Greens also winning eight seats, this gives pro-independence parties an overall majority. 

Support for independence continues to be strong, with the latest figure showing 48 percent in favour. While this is a drop from the heights of 58 percent in December 2020, it’s high in historic terms. And the Tories continue to be deeply unpopular in Scotland. A recent YouGov poll found 58 percent of people across Britain think Boris Johnson is doing a bad job—a figure that rises to a whopping 74 percent in Scotland. 

So, there is sufficient evidence to believe that a united movement can make a concerted move to push for independence or at least achieve a second referendum. Yet it is divided by a number of bad tempered debates from the failure of the SNP to robustly pursue a second referendum to reforming the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which would make it easier for trans people self-identify. The SNP’s failures over independence and trans rights have created a vacuum and allowed divisions to fester.

These are not trivial issues and go to the heart of how Scotland can achieve independence—and the type of society Scotland can become.

It is doubtful whether the recently announced pact between the SNP and the Greens is likely to improve matters. Their agreement says there will be an independence referendum within the next five years, with no real strategic vision on how this will be carried through. And the Scottish government’s unwillingness to take on the Tories over the Cambo oil field project calls into question is promises over confronting climate change. The pledge to introduce Scottish legislation for gender self-identification within the next year is to be welcomed. 

So, in this regard, the formation and continuing existence of the Alba Party has been particularly unhelpful. Formed around the discredited former SNP leader Alex Salmond it did badly in May, failing to win a single seat. It has attracted a number of people who oppose the SNP support for positive GRA reforms, claiming it would set back women’s rights. The same people overlook that the party is headed by a man who has faced multiple accusations from women in a court case where he was found not guilty. But he did admit to “inappropriate behaviour”. 

Despite its electoral failure, Alba is not about to disappear any time soon.  A number of activists highly critical of the SNP’s cautious approach to independence have joined. It will be looking to make some inroads in the next council elections in Scotland in May 2022. 

There is a desperate need in Scotland for a radical, left alternative to the SNP, which can challenge it both through mass action and in elections. But the Alba party is not it. Despite the rhetoric there is little substantive difference politically between Alba and mainstream SNP thinking. Yet it has shown there is a thirst for such an alternative to develop. 

The formation of the Now Scotland campaign group is an attempt to provide space for grassroots independence activists to come together and discuss questions. And this could provide the basis to campaign on a range of issues around the central theme of independence. 

Initially, it attracted a number of prominent personalities who were elected to its first national committee. These have all but disappeared from the scene. A negative side of the frustration among independence supporters is a tendency to assume that the SNP can just be ignored. This is a problem because the SNP remains the biggest and most influential independence party. If Now Scotland is to achieve greater influence, then it needs to engage more effectively with grassroots SNP members.

Other indications of ongoing problems are Radical Independence Conference’s (Ric) vote to wind itself up and The Common Weal think tank to close down its online publication, Source. Ric was an important part of the 2014 independence referendum campaign, offering an alternative vision of independence from mainstream SNP policy. The removal of Source as a forum for political debate and discussion is in many ways a more serious issue. The fact that Common Weal cannot continue to finance its existence is a major worry and may well lose the organisation influence in the long term.

What’s behind the crisis? 

The coronavirus crisis has had a major impact on the independence movement, limiting the capacity for activity on the streets. Before the pandemic, the All Under One Banner (AUOB) campaign was central to a series of mass mobilisations. In September 2019, 200,000 people demonstrated in Edinburgh, demanding independence and indyref2. In January 2020, 80,000 marched through the streets of Glasgow in the pouring rain to support independence and, just as importantly, demonstrate their opposition to the Tory government. 

AUOB has organised a number of static rallies as restrictions eased. These have never attracted more than 200 to 300 people, far short of thousands who marched prior to the crisis. The protests have come under sustained attack from a section of independence supporters even though there is little evidence that they have had any impact in spreading the virus.

In part these attacks have come from a conservative section of the movement. Which have always criticised AUOB for taking to the streets when “they should be campaigning on the doorstep for the SNP and independence”. However, they also represent a genuine fear from many ordinary activities that participating, even in a socially-distanced static rally, would be foolhardy.

Without the focus of mass events organised by AUOB, it is doubtful whether independence would have continued to remain popular among the mass of working class supporters. The absence of these has undoubtedly contributed to the negative introspection of the movement.

The focus on electoral politics has been just as important in undermining the campaign. Prior to the May election there was talk of the need to achieve a “super majority” in the Scottish parliament. This would would be achieved by urging voters to use their second vote—within Scotland’s electoral system—for parties other than the SNP which support independence. 

But it did not materialise. People vote on a range of issues during an election. And to expect voters to simply follow directions from parties, no matter how logical it seems to those campaigning, is naive and patronising.

What about a unilateral declaration of independence? 

Some within the independence movement argue that the Scottish government should simply declare independence. Many of those presenting this argument openly oppose a second vote. 

SNP MP Angus MacNeil is arguing a slightly more sophisticated version. He does not rule out a constitutional referendum, but believes a “plan B” should be considered if the British government refuses. He argues an election to the Scottish Parliament, based simply around the issue of independence should take place. This would then allow the Scottish government, if a pro-independence majority was elected, to begin the process of Scotland breaking from the British state. It is unclear from Angus’s writings how this will actually be carried through.

How would the British government respond and how would it be viewed internationally in the unlikely event the leadership of the SNP go down this route? None of the proponents of Scotland declaring itself independent without a referendum envisage a radical break from the existing economic order. They believe, once Scotland becomes independent, then it will continue to be another capitalist country, competing for business in the international market. 

Unfortunately, a simple declaration of independence by a Scottish government is likely to be highly contested. 

Westminster will oppose it. During the 2014 referendum the Labour Party and the Tories used every negative argument, valid or not, to undermine the case for Scotland breaking with Britain. And former Tory chancellor George Osborne, in an article in The Evening Standard published, raised the spectre of the jailed Catalan leaders and the repression of the Spanish State after the Catalan unilateral independence referendum. He suggested it could be a way of responding if it holds its own vote. 

While sounding radical, a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) is another example of “manoeuvres from above”.A strategy based on achieving an independence referendum, agreed by Westminster, builds its case on “trust the leadership, leave it to them, they will take us to independence”. A UDI is exactly the same. There’s no space for mass action in this route. It is all about those with the levers of power implementing UDI.

A central argument for many in the independence movement is the “democratic deficit” case. Scotland votes one way yet ends up with a different government in Westminster. To respond to this with what is essentially an undemocratic move would be strategically and tactically a disaster. Imagine for a moment that a Tory government had decided to take Britain out of the EU without a vote? The response across the political spectrum would have been one of furious opposition.

For most people in Scotland, one of the most positive political experiences of their lives was the 2014 independence referendum. In the end the vote was lost, but the momentum was all with the Yes side of the argument. The vote shifted from 29 percent for Yes in 2013 to 44.73 percent in the actual vote.

Given that support for independence starts at a much higher level now, the likelihood is that it will only increase as the debate about the future of Scotland takes place. This is why those who run the British State are frightened by a second vote. They are scared they will lose. The active involvement of thousands of people across Scotland should be celebrated. To deny ordinary people the chance to participate in this process again would be a huge mistake. 

Also, for socialists, independence is a means not an end. Confronting the British state and winning independence could raise the confidence of working class people to fight over many other issues. If independent working class action happens, it will shape what kind of Scotland we can achieve.

Support for a second independence referendum is growing in the trade union movement. The Scottish TUC union federation has come out in favour of a second vote. Many union leaders support Scotland’s right to decide its own future. A majority of Labour members across Britain also back  Scotland’s right to have an Indyref2. 

The important point about the trade unions is that they have the potential social weigh to force a second vote. Many of the individuals would not support outright independence, though many would, as potentially would the majority of actual trade union members in Scotland. The central argument for most of them is about the right of Scotland to determine its own future. UDI would be a nonstarter for the unions. 

Angus MacNeil’s option of using a Scottish election as a way of settling Scotland’s future also has significant problems. For a start it is another version of the “super majority” for independence idea. People during an election tend to vote for political parties. At least a third of Labour voters support independence. Not all supporters of the SNP voted for independence. In any case, to break with the British state we need the strength of a serious mass movement. 

What’s the way forward? 

While it is essential to understand the real difficulties facing the movement, it is also important to recognise that there is room for optimism. Support for independence remains strong particularly among working class communities. It is at its strongest among young people with 72 percent of under 35s in favour. 

Unfortunately, marches for independence tend to be dominated by older sections of the movement with some, but few, under 35’s participating. Yet the same young people have been prepared to take to the streets in large numbers in support of Black Lives Matter and to confront the horrors of climate change. 

They fail to connect with the surface nationalism of the independence demonstrations. The movement needs to understand this. And it need to get beyond the narrow focus of “independence first, then we can talk about change” if it is to attract a younger generation of activists. During the protests COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November, there will be an independence bloc. This is a major opportunity for supporters of independence to make links with those sections of society looking for radical change. 

Now Scotland remains, despite setbacks, an important component of the independence movement. The failure of big names to stand for the national committee means that there is more space for committed activists to take up the reigns. The organisation has also become an important focus for active campaigning. It organised buses from Glasgow and Edinburgh to an AUOB demonstration at the Faslane nuclear base at the end of August, and a “use the mandate” protest at the Scottish Parliament a few days later. 

The movement should not be tied to the constitutional route proposed by the SNP leadership. Scotland has the democratic right to decide its own future. If this means conflict with the British State, then so be it. However, it needs to engage with the social forces in society, such as the trade union movement, which are capable of making a real and effective challenge. 

Strengthening organisations, such as Now Scotland, and building rallies, like at Faslane, is essential. So is pushing for those involved in those organisations to embrace socialist politics and building other mass movements that put the SNP under pressure. 

In the process we need to develop a stronger revolutionary voice in Scottish politics. A voice that can fill the vacuum and go beyond the SNP’s limitations not just around indyref2, but also their capitalist vision for a independent Scotland. 

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