Scotland after the Election: a brief overview

On Saturday 11 January 2020 upwards of 80,000 people marched in driving rain through the streets of Glasgow in support of Scottish independence and opposition to the new hard right Tory government in Westminster, writes Craig Lewis.

Scaled up this would be equivalent to a million strong UK wide demonstration in London. It was ignored by mainstream media and generally sneered at by the largely pro-Union press in Scotland. But coming on top of the SNP winning its third Westminster election in a row with 45% of the popular vote, it reinforced the very different politics that have emerged since devolution, north of the border. Following Johnson’s formal refusal of a second independence referendum, a constitutional crisis now looms. This brief piece tries to address some aspects of this emerging crisis. It focusses on SNP strategy, Labour’s continued decline in Scotland, prospects for the wider independence movement and why a pro-independence radical left will be vital in the immediate battles to come.

SNP Strategy following the Election

The significance of the SNP victory can of course be overstated. 45% is only its second highest popular vote. It took 50% of the vote in 2015. And it certainly suffered a setback in 2017 following a misjudged attempt to launch a second independence campaign on the back of Scotland’s 2016 Remain vote. But coming after more than a decade as the dominant party in the Scottish government, it’s hard to disagree with a recent assessment, by the writer Gerry Hassan that, this time the victory “seems much deeper, considered and sustainable”. The party took 48 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, the Tories lost more than half their seats and Scottish Labour were reduced to just one MP, with the party wiped out in its west central Scotland heartlands.

During the election and subsequently the SNP has focused primarily on the demand for a second referendum rather than on making the case for independence itself. The Scottish Government emphasises the “democratic deficit” which has led to Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its wishes, and the renewed mandate provided by their election victory for a second referendum (Indyref2). SNP strategy continues to reflect the leadership’s traditional political caution, conservatism and centralised control of the Party. First minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has always asserted that only a legally endorsed referendum will confer international legitimacy on a future Yes vote. Hence the request for Westminster authorisation of a new independence referendum. Unsurprisingly, Johnson has rejected this out of hand. Although she has not yet explicitly stated it, the intention would now seem to be recourse to the courts. Sturgeon and her close associates are relying on building “moral pressure” to persuade Westminster that its refusal is untenable in the long run. Unsurprisingly there has been considerable criticism of the SNP leadership both within the party and the wider independence movement, with grassroots activists in particular demanding a “plan B” in the face of Westminster intransigence. Most activists do not in fact believe the SNP leadership’s rhetorical commitment to a 2020 referendum. There has been no serious preparation for a campaign. Nor has there been any significant improvement in polling support for independence in recent months. It is probable that Sturgeon does not envisage a referendum this side of the 2021 Scottish Elections, where she will be hoping to win yet another renewed mandate for a referendum. Such a strategy is a recipe for demoralisation and deactivation as the SNP tries to persuade activists to hold fire whilst pursuing drawn out legal proceedings through the Supreme Court. A process that most legal opinion believes will fail.

More worryingly for the independence movement, there is no evidence that SNP leaders recognise the extent to which British politics has been transformed by Johnson’s victory. Brexit was and is a project of the far right, reflecting deep concern within sections of the ruling class over the failure of neoliberalism to restore UK profit rates. As the left-wing blogger and writer Neil Faulkner puts it Johnson’s government is: “the British expression of the wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism that is sweeping the world”. This changed political situation does not just mean redoubled attacks on the welfare state, NHS, employment conditions and workers’ rights etc. Survival of the “precious union” is central to ultra-right Tory nationalism. Not for nothing has Johnson designated himself “Minister of the Union”. Some within the SNP, and even on the Scottish Left take heart in polls showing that English public opinion has shifted in favour of Scotland going its own way. This is to completely misunderstand the nature of the reactionary British nationalism driving Brexit.

The break-up of the British state would massively damage the prospects of “global Britain” and undermine its international credibility. Thus jeopardising the whole Brexit project. Indeed that is one major reason why socialists should support and fight for a radical vision of Scottish independence (see below). It is also precisely the reason why Johnson will vigorously resist Sturgeon’s demands for a “section 30 Referendum”, no matter how robust her mandate from the Scottish electorate. Not only will he continue to refuse a referendum, all the indicators suggest a future assault on the whole devolution settlement itself. The EU Withdrawal bill currently before Parliament provides for UK ministers to legislate in devolved areas without the agreement of the devolved administrations. In the first instance these powers will be used in areas repatriated from Brussels but there is no legal obstacle to them being used more extensively. Johnson has also hinted at increased direct funding for major infrastructure projects designed to by-pass Holyrood, and “love-bomb” Scottish Tory voting areas, and the “soft No” voters who Sturgeon hopes to win to independence.

The Scottish Labour Catastrophe

Whilst the SNP victory can be overstated, the catastrophe for Scottish Labour cannot. The results in Scotland were an unmitigated disaster for Labour. They lost all their seats bar one. The right-winger, Ian Murray, in Edinburgh is now Scotland’s sole Labour MP. Scottish Labour’s share of the popular vote fell to just 19% (behind the Tories on 25%), confirming its status as the third party in Scotland. There has been much analysis of the secular decline of Labour in Scotland (See here and here). Many reasons have been advanced and this is not the place to review them. Suffice to say that Scottish Labour’s woes pre-date the 2014 referendum and are linked among other things to the Thatcher and Blair years of neglect and industrial decline; to the lack of political autonomy of the Scottish party that has prevented it articulating a distinctive Scottish Labour agenda since devolution; to the sense of self entitlement based on its years of dominance in Scottish politics; and of course to its disastrous alliance with the Tories in the 2014 “Better Together”campagn, and the resulting loss of a significant layer of activists and supporters to the SNP. This latter point along with the unreconstructed right-wing party machine probably lies behind the inability of the Corbyn project and Momentum to become established in Scotland. It also meant that in an election fought over the future of the Union as well as Brexit, Scottish Labour was perceived to oppose the right of people in Scotland to determine their own future.

There have been some hopeful glimmers of change in Scottish Labour since the disaster on Dec 12. Defeated Labour MP Paul Sweeny and MSPs Neil Findlay and Monica Lennon have argued that Labour should drop its opposition to a second independence referendum. 200 Labour members have signed an open letter calling for “radical self-determination”. Whether such stirrings will come to anything remains to be seen. The Party’s right-wing executive met recently and rejected a proposal from leader, Richard Leonard, to call a special conference to discuss dropping opposition to a second referendum. The long death of Labour Scotland may sadly be set to continue. This is one reason why those on the left who have recently urged independence activists to enter the Scottish Labour Party are making a profound error of judgement. Given the condition of the current party and its dominance by the right-wing, diverting energy from the growing independence movement into internal Labour battles would be a total distraction.

The Scottish Radical Left, Independence and Self-determination

There has already been considerable debate in Scotland about what next for the radical left. Some SNP left-wingers like ex MP George Kerevan, and MSP Kenny MacAskill argue that the campaign for a second referendum cannot be left to the SNP alone. Kerevan explicitly states that the Tory ultra-right: “are out to destroy the SNP and undermine the devolution settlement” and that Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy of “polite conversation” will get Scotland nowhere in these changed political circumstances. There have been calls for a broad social movement to build pressure on the Westminster government over a second referendum. Some on the left see this incorporating wide sections of civil society, including the STUC and the large trade unions which have recently shown signs of dropping their traditional agnosticism on constitutional issues. (Grahame Smith: Scottish Left Review Jan/Feb 2020). Kerevan in particular sees such a movement going further to involve a long term campaign of “civil disobedience”. Whilst MacAskill argues the need for further mass street mobilisations such as those that have been building across Scotland under the auspices of All Under One Banner (AUOB). Increasingly these demonstrations have attracted more working class and radical left support, linking campaigns against Tory polices with the independence movement. The recent Glasgow march saw a significant number of banners and slogans demanding an “end to Tory rule”, “Scrapping Trident” and opposition to austerity and war.

If such a broad movement were to emerge, the pro-independence left should engage with it positively. As socialists we must support the right of Scotland to determine its own future and condemn Johnson’s anti-democratic rejection of the SNP case for Indyref2. The SNP does not advocate the blood and soil nationalism caricatured by the liberal unionist press, or by some on the UK left who regard all forms of nationalism as axiomatically anti-working class and divisive. We should welcome the open and internationalist aspects of its nationalism especially its opposition to Trident, its support for freedom of movement and its welcoming approach to migrant workers and refugees. But Left supporters of independence are socialists not nationalists, and we must retain our independence to criticise both the SNP’s limited approach to building an indyref2 campaign and its generally pro-business case for independence. This targets middle class wavering voters and the business community who the SNP believe can be won to independence following a Brexit that is likely to be highly disruptive for Scottish businesses. It ignores working class concerns and seeks minimum disruption to the economic and political status quo; envisaging the continuation of austerity for some years after independence whilst uncritically supporting an independent Scotland re-joining the EU, retaining the monarchy and its NATO membership. Socialists cannot divorce the fight for self-determination or for a fairer, more equal country from the on-going struggles against austerity, war, racism and climate inaction. Already there are hundreds of local and national campaigns throughout Scotland operating within communities and workplaces reflecting the fact that people are angry and ready to resist further Tory attacks. Some are already experimenting with imaginative collective forms of organisation and social ownership. In a sense these are already “prefiguring the future in the present” (Arthur 2017). Building such grass roots resistance and imagination into the wider fight to transform Scottish society must be central to radical left involvement in the independence movement.

Finally we must be clear that support for Scottish independence is not just about articulating a vision for a fairer and more equal Scotland. An independent Scotland would mean the break-up of the British state and a devastating blow to the global pretensions of the Tory ultra-right. It would represent a significant defeat for the reactionary nationalism, imperialism and militarism on which Johnson’s Brexit project is founded. As such it would be a significant step towards creating the conditions through which a radical socialist agenda could re-emerge in England and Wales following Corbyn’s defeat. Socialists are never any kind of patriot, “progressive” or otherwise.

Additional references:

Arthur L: Where We Are and Where We Could Be: transitional demands and actions, Transform 2017/2,

MacAskill K: Where and what now for the Scottish Left, Scottish Left Review, Issue 115 Jan/Feb 2020

Smith G: Independence, yes, but for whom and for what, Scottish Left Review, Issue 115 Jan/Feb 2020


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