It was never meant to be as close-run as it was. Scottish independence had historically been a marginal cause, and the Scottish National party a fringe – even mocked – nationalist party. Even as David Cameron in 2012 signed the Edinburgh Agreement, which cemented a legally binding referendum for 2014, support for independence was hovering around the mid-20s in polls.
The official Yes campaign could not have imagined the eruption of grassroots activity that was about to take the referendum by storm. Indeed, the notion of a mass independence movement is itself a modern development. But independence became a lightning conductor for opposition to austerity, Tory rule and the failures of New Labour. Joining a wave of anti-establishment protest that had swept parts of Europe, and that was later to come to the fore in England through Jeremy Corbyn, independence channelled post-2008 discontent in Scotland.
Since then much has changed. Scottish citizens have endured a long-running democratic deficit, having been on the receiving end of what feels like continuous Tory government despite never having elected more than a smattering of Tory MPs. But Brexit has stretched that deficit to breaking point – Scotland voted Remain by 62% – and re-animated the national question.
Meanwhile, the emergence of Corbynism posed a further question: could reform come through Westminster after all? The excitement of the 2017 election and a left-wing Labour leadership was in the end suffocated by a combination of – among other things – the Labour right, disorientation on the need to uphold the Brexit referendum result, a permanent campaign of demonisation against Corbyn himself, and 40 years of neoliberal consensus. Now that Labour is back in the hands of the establishment – and Corbyn no longer even a Labour MP thanks to Keir Starmer’s purge of the left – the idea of radical change coming through Westminster seems as distant as it has ever been.
But it would be a mistake to look back towards Scotland and the breakup of the British state as if there are easy answers to be found here. Of course independence can precipitate new possibilities for the left in the rest of the UK as it could in Scotland. But we need to go beyond understanding the prospects for independence as simply a “lifeboat” to escape Boris Johnson, which might be useful surface-level propaganda for what is, in reality, a hesitant SNP leadership – but not for those seriously engaged in a project for the socialist transformation of society. Even more importantly, we need to be honest about the real character of the SNP, whose dominance over the independence movement has only grown since the referendum.
The many contradictions of the SNP.
While the mass independence movement of 2014 was dominated by working-class demands, since then the SNP prospectus for independence has evolved under the influence of very different class interests. For some, the battle for the schemes had been won – it was time to win the boardrooms. Despite recent alliance-building with the Scottish Greens, no one should be under any illusions about the nature of the ‘independence’ that will be on offer from the SNP unless there is a sharp change in direction.
The current prospectus has been drawn up by Scotland’s premier corporate lobbyists, Charlotte Street Partners. Produced under the firm’s guidance prior to the pandemic, the Sustainable Growth Commission report was written as if the 2008 financial crisis didn’t happen. Among a litany of proposals such as “flexi-work” and an approach to deficit reduction borrowed from former Conservative chancellor George Osborne, it advocated Sterlingisation as a “solution” to the currency question – meaning Scotland would continue to use the British pound without an effective central bank.
This would mean an independent Scotland in name only, without economic control. It would put Scotland at the whim of the UK financial institutions. Indeed, as economist Laurie Macfarlane has written, Scots would have less sovereignty than they do now. Forget any strategic reorientation of the economy based on investment and the likes of a Green New Deal without a central bank; wealth would instead be extracted from Scotland and re-concentrated in the City of London.
This general approach is reflective of the neoliberal orthodoxies to which the SNP leadership remains attached, which are designed to minimise any and all conflict with the system and with the financial oligarchy (save for the odd jibe at pantomime villains like Jacob Rees-Mogg). Maintaining a neoliberal ethos in what should be a post-neoliberal age is not appealing – and will not have a good outcome for working-class people in Scotland.
To take one example, had Scotland been independent under the framework proposed by the Growth Commission during the pandemic, the Scottish government would have had no ability to furlough workers. It would instead have been reliant on the UK or the International Monetary Fund, to which it would have been going cap-in-hand with any number of strings attached to loans.
Since the pandemic, the claim is made that work is going on to find a new prospectus. But Andrew Wilson, chair of the Commission and architect of the Sterlingisation policy, remains the key spokesperson and continues to advocate for it. There is some veneer to it all – talk of a ‘transition period’ to an independent currency once various ‘tests’ have been met. But the truth is it would be the UK institutions in charge. The tests are not designed to be met, but to placate.
From this extends a deep confusion in the heart of the SNP case. Since Brexit, the EU has been held aloft and imbued with saintly qualities. The EU’s privatisation programmes, austerity, crushing of Greek democracy, deadly external border in the Mediterranean and even the suppression of Catalan independentists all go unchallenged. But there is a deeper problem. To rejoin the EU, Scotland would require its own independent central bank. The idea that it could Sterlingise with the UK, a non-EU member, at the same time as harmonising with EU economic rules is simply impossible.
Even if the transition to an independent currency was made at some undefined point in the future, EU membership would entail a hard border between Scotland and England – and given 60% of Scottish trade is with England, you can imagine how this might be weaponised. The SNP leadership appears to want it all: investment without a central bank, EU membership without a hard border with England, and Sterlingisation with Brexit Britain while ascending to Brussels without a problem.
It is a kind of paint by numbers approach to politics. To avoid dealing concretely with these and many other issues, they resort to delaying and deferring the actuality of a referendum and present a range of holding positions that are concocted by special advisors as public relations matters. This is preferable to causing any real conflict or disruption – to which the SNP leadership is allergic.
What kind of transformation?
In the meantime, Johnson continues to be a real help to the SNP under devolution. Even moderate proposals can be cast as radical in contrast to the Tories. But beneath the soundbites, it is the same old establishment in charge. The first minister has spoken glowingly about the “well-being economy” and delivered the usual pandemic lines around building back “better, fairer, greener” ad nauseum. Yet the Economic Recovery Group formed after the first few months of the pandemic was led by the chair of Buccleuch Estates, the feudal landowner, and far from “transformational”.
It is a useful word though. So, true to form, that particular grouping appears to have been dumped in the search for a fresh headline. Now we have the Economic Advisory Council, which has been tasked to come up with a ten-year plan to “transform” Scotland’s economy. This includes Sir Nick Macpherson, a former Treasury permanent secretary who advised George Osborne to reject a currency union during the 2014 referendum campaign.
Tight alignment to orthodoxy and the establishment doesn’t stop with the economy – it overlaps to foreign policy too. Nicola Sturgeon has not been shy to quote-tweet Tony Blair’s latest musings on Brexit or pose for a promotional selfie with his former spin doctor, Alistair Campbell. Not only does the SNP want to sign an independent Scotland up to Nato, the first minister sanitises Nato’s role in Afghanistan and backs an indefinite presence in the country. Leading MP Alyn Smith and SNP defence spokesperson Stuart McDonald have made it clear that Scotland would be a more-than-reliable Nato partner, promising “no surprises” from an independent Scotland.
Joining Nato while removing Trident from Scotland is also made out to be a simple process – but it is far from it. Trident remains central to Nato’s global strategy. Already there are murmurings of how much money might be drawn from leasing Faslane to the British state, and a softening of the party’s longstanding commitment to unilateral disarmament to instead stress support for a multilateral strategy.
IndyRef2 won’t be a re-run.
Yet independence remains the key link in the chain in Scotland and there is a cast-iron mandate for a referendum. It is still seen as the optimal vehicle for resisting the Tories. And, especially after the defeat of Corbyn, breaking up the British state must be part of socialist strategy in England and Wales too. It can still provide a shock to the system, and socialists should force out the contradictions of the present SNP prospectus on class lines to open a broader debate – and struggle – about the meaning, form and outcome of independence.
With that in mind, the point here is not to feed into a council of despair. But the loss of the 2014 referendum, just like the collapse of Syriza, Podemos and Corbynism have to be registered as defeats and their consequences seriously dealt with. There can be no simple re-run of the last referendum and the left in Scotland cannot merely hope for a re-run of 2014 with the same arguments, strategy and tactics. Nor can the left in England watch passively, or worse, revere the SNP leadership after the experience of defeat.
This time the politics has to be far sharper and about more than mobilisation and sloganeering. It has to be about preparing an argument based on national sovereignty that challenges corporate globalisation in the long term and puts democratic control of the economy at the core. It has to be about breaking with failed foreign policy as well as a firm commitment to a referendum on EU membership about which rose-tinted views should be challenged. It has to be more prepared to criticise the SNP programme in advance of a potential Yes vote so that the ensuing debate might shape the political atmosphere during and after. And above all it has to be internationalist – actively building links with movements in England, Wales, Ireland and across Europe.
Jonathon Shafi is a socialist, anti-war and independence campaigner based in Glasgow.
Breaking Britain is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).