The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader for a second time, along with the emergence of Momentum, marks a victory of principles and vision over the anti-ideological technocrats that challenged him. This turn of events should be welcomed by the radical independence movement in Scotland, which will require all the allies it can muster as it strives to build a better society. At times in recent years, the left has ploughed what has seemed like a very lonely furrow in a field of neoliberalism.
The emergence of Momentum brings welcome relief, and suggests a major realignment of social forces is underway. It also presents the potential for building an effective, inclusive movement which offers positive solutions to the problems faced by working class people. In this sense it has much in common with the radical independence movement in Scotland, which has attempted to construct a better vision of the future based on equality, democracy, wealth redistribution, environmental values, and international solidarity.
An important step in this journey will be the creation of a discourse which imagines the possibility of an alternative to the current system of accumulation; a system where a minority benefit at the expense of the majority and their environment. This cannot be achieved in isolation either at a Scottish level or a British level. The problems facing working class people are global in scale and so require movements of the left to coordinate and work together across borders. This applies to the radical independence movement in Scotland as well as Momentum, which will both face challenges in their efforts to make progress.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) deputy leader Angus Robertson recently asked us to forget ideology in the quest for independence. This reveals a desire by some to suspend class politics and cryogenically freeze society until independence is achieved. But as much as we would all like to stop the world from time to time, it is just not possible. The struggle to build a more equitable society cannot simply be put on hold until Scotland achieves independence.
The nature of any future society will be shaped and determined by the ideological and everyday struggles of the present. As the narrator in the popular Scottish play, The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil says: “Nationalism is not enough. The enemy of the Scottish people is Scottish capital, as much as the foreign exploiter.” Nothing will be achieved by simply changing the flag, we must also seek to change the system.
In this sense radicals in Scotland have more in common with those in emerging movements around Europe — such as Syriza, Podemos and Momentum — than they do with the likes of Scottish businessman and independence campaign donor Brian Soutar. Representatives from such radical movements were invited to speak at the recent radical independence conference in Glasgow. An event which can hopefully help develop closer working relationships between the independence movement and these other groups.
Momentum have the potential to play a major role; however, the influx of people it has experienced in England has not been replicated North of the border. For various reasons politically radicalised people in Scotland have joined organisations other than Labour. This is illustrated by the lack of support Jeremy Corbyn received in the leadership election there, suggesting Momentum should reassess its approach to Scotland.
A starting point could be an appreciation of how independence became such an important issue, and why the Scottish left has come to operate independently of the Labour Party. In Scotland the Labour Party for decades has been seen as the establishment party, infamously sending sheriff officers into working class housing schemes in the 1990s to enforce Thatcher’s hated poll tax. This was seen a break with socialist values and led to the establishment of an independent left wing electoral challenge to Labour: firstly as the Scottish Socialist Alliance, then as the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).
The SSP launched in 1998 and provided a home for those disillusioned with the rightward direction of New Labour. The election of 6 SSP Members of the Scottish Parliament on a socialist manifesto illustrated that electoral success could be achieved against New Labour. This encouraged the SNP to adopt many of the SSP’s policies, a shift to the left which has gained them votes in working class communities.
Since the 1990s the socialist movement in Scotland has seen the question of independence as a key democratic demand. This mainly developed from people’s experience of Thatcherism, and the fact that Scotland consistently ended up with a government it didn’t vote for. To many this democratic deficit limited their ability to bring about positive change in their lives and hold those in power to account. The Labour party’s failure to support independence, coupled with the decision to share a platform with the tories, led to a catastrophic decline in support amongst their working class base, culminating in the loss of all but one of their MPs to the SNP in the last general election.
Independence is therefore seen as indispensable, in this there is a consensus among most on the Scottish left, a consensus which alienates many from the Labour party and Momentum. However the left in Scotland have more in common with the type of society Momentum want to build than they do with some in the nationalist movement. The radical independence movement and Momentum can only benefit by developing a closer relationship based on mutual respect, support, and understanding. The radical independence movement needs to be prepared to work with others at an international level, and Momentum can only benefit from reassessing their approach to the national question. Above all else it is imperative they don’t allow the national question to become a barrier that prevents them working together in the struggle to construct the world they both want to see.