The grief and anger is extraordinary. In my political life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a strong outcry from left-leaning people in the UK, such a strong sense of horror and despair: not at the announcement of the ConDem coalition, not at the election of UKIP MEPs and Councillors, not at the result of the Scottish independence referendum. Part of that grief and anger is a necessary period of anger and lashing out: nasty jokes on Twitter about old people, vindictive newspaper coverage of regretful working class Leave voters made to sound thicker than they are, sweary rants on Facebook, recriminations against various factions of the left. And, in Scotland, fierce calls for a second independence referendum. But, while I still support an independent Scotland, I think there are tremendous dangers in this reactive response: an independence borne out of the desire to escape a terrifying England, an independence built on rage against others imagined as stupid, poor and uniquely racist, and an independence won through crisis with a centrist party in charge – these will not be progressive visions of independence.
Nicola Sturgeon’s political response to the EU referendum response has been impressive: while Patrick Harvie of the Greens was first out of the gate with a strong message and a Party petition calling for continued EU membership for Scotland, this effort was steamrollered by Sturgeon’s confident, dramatic and well-planned response. By unilaterally and with gravitas declaring a Scottish foreign policy through the trumpeted phonecalls to Sadiq Khan and EU leaders, by enticing 45ers with the possibility of a second independence referendum without risking definite commitment, and by pleasing the liberal left with a necessary and welcome message of support for migrants, Sturgeon was by far the most impressive political leader on the day of the result, and perhaps the only one whose press conference was met with support rather than mockery. Just as the SNP played the post-indyref game perfectly, outmaneuvering both left- and right-wing organisations to seize the narrative (and the Party membership), they have planned and played the post-Brexit moment to make the maximum political gains and taken Scotland much further on the road to independence.
But there are tremendous dangers in bringing indyref2 about too quickly. One reason that the SNP isn’t immediately declaring such a move is that they don’t yet know if they actually have strong enough popular support, but another, perhaps more important reason is that both the Party leadership and the Scottish civil service absolutely did not want independence to come about this way. The UK is in political and economic turmoil. The Scottish civil service has not had time to catch up with events and prepare properly for the consequences of Brexit. The future of the EU and of the Eurozone is in doubt, as is the future of the pound. All of this makes it harder than ever to make the economic case for Scottish independence, even as the political case has become stronger: an independent Scotland will find it harder to thrive in a period of UK-wide (if not Europe- or world-wide) recession.
Moreover, a reactive independence in times of economic deprivation risks also being reactionary: no matter how “civic” the SNP’s vision of nationalism, all such politics contains within it the seeds of the kind of enthno-nationalism which has now brought England so low. Anti-English sentiment on social media is just the smallest and most innocuous sign of this; the frequently willingness to blame Scotland’s social and economic problems primarily on “Westminster” or the English outsider more generally is another element. Just as England will soon no longer have the EU to blame for economic woes, an independent Scotland will no longer have England to react against – and who will be next?
Over a third of the SNP voters voted for Brexit, which implies that a significant portion of the Party’s electorate, if it has not outright bought into anti-migrant sentiment, is at least willing to put migrants’ interests and safety aside – which, given the rise in actual street fascism post-referendum, amounts to throwing migrants under the bus for Scottish independence.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that anti-migrant sentiment in the Scottish population differs little from that in England, even if it dominates the news cycle less north of the border. When centrist economic policies fail to bring better lives for the working class in Scotland – not just the narrowly-imagined white traditional labour working class but the diverse, multi-ethnic and precaritised working class – we may see exactly the same reactionary backlash which led to Brexit in the first place.
And it is those economic policies which are the most important of all. In the last Scottish election, the SNP had the least redistributive taxation policy of any political party bar the Tories, and given a unique opportunity and mandate to reform Council Tax to something more progressive, the Party’s Commission made the most timid possible proposals. Pete Wishart has already made it clear that he sees Scotland as a possible home for multinationals deserting a disintegrating England, and the SNP manifesto continues a commitment to very low corporation tax. Economically, these approaches are indistinguishable from Blair’s Labour (or for that matter Davidson’s Scottish Tories) – that is, they’re exactly the same neoliberal economics which have inflicted such suffering on the working class in recent decades. Where will people turn after they are inevitably betrayed by a future SNP Government in a future independent Scotland?
The neoliberal wing of the SNP has been strengthened, not weakened, by the Brexit vote. The Party is trumpeting the conversion and membership of former No voters, and if this is true then it represents an influx of members with a tendency towards centre-right economics. The SNP has already shown its willingness to triangulate to the right in the last Scottish election, and despite the electoral failure of this approach it is now likely to be facing increased pressure to do so, both from its new centre-right members, and from the prevailing misguided narrative that only such triangulation wins elections or could win independence. The left-leaning membership of the SNP has done a decent job so far of pressuring the Party leadership, rebelling on land reform and fracking and forcing their hand on tenants rights. That membership will face new challenges to steer the direction of Scotland’s dominant Party back to a progressive course.
Scottish independence seems increasingly likely. It’s not yet a done deal, but with commentators treating it that way, it might yet become one. The question then shifts from if to how. Just our population mostly voting to remain does not mean we’re sorted; just our First Minister showing basic political competence does not mean we’re sorted; just because we have the option of independence does not mean we’re sorted. So what kind of independence do you want? Do you want a reactive independence, brought about with a centrist Party in charge of defining the constitutional convention and with neoliberal economists at the helm? Or do you want a progressive independence, brought about through a well-developed consensus, with greater stability, a diverse Parliament and a strong left-wing grassroots movement?
I want the latter. I don’t want independence immediately or at any cost, but rather a Scottish independence the guarantees a better life for the most disenfranchised people. I think this is best brought about by left-wing people engaging immediately and energetically in the kind of grassroots political organising that can put the right kind of pressure on the Scottish Government. This will take a great deal of work, and a commitment from left-wing campaigners and progressive-minded people to agitate not just for a second referendum but for the kind of society that will make the result of that referendum truly progressive. With that in mind, for those who seek not any independence but radical independence, I have some practical suggestions:
(1) Show solidarity with migrants. As long as Scotland remains in the UK, migrants in Scotland will suffer at the hands of vindictive ethno-nationalist politics, both through reactionary legislation and through a buoyed-up street fascist movement across Europe. This means that migrants urgently need solidarity and support across the UK. And if migrants are not to become a new scapegoat for an independent Scotland, we need to work now to make the positive case for migration. This means organising with migrants to defend their rights, providing material support to the most vulnerable (particularly asylum-seekers), and creating organisations and events which bring different ethnic communities into contact with each other in collaboration. A good place to start is the Unity Centre in Glasgow, which advises and defends asylum-seekers, campaigns for migrant rights and supports community projects.
(2) Join a trade union. Alongside fighting for migrant lives, we have to fight for the lives of the rest of the working class as well – a working class which has been taught to blame low wages and job shortages on unskilled migration. This means arguing for higher wages, shorter working weeks, and better welfare protections: it means making lives better for working class people, not through an imagined future Scotland or a trickle-down economy but through winning new rights here and now. Ethno-nationalism promises the ethnically dominant section of the working class economic gains at the expense of the rest, and so is enticing when there’s nothing else to protect workers’ rights. Historically, only the trade union movement has achieved this across the working class: we have trade unions to thank for weekends, minimum wages, safer working conditions, maternity pay, and much else we take for granted. But trade unions now are weak, and poorly-adapted to a changing and precaritised labour market. That means they need to members more than ever, to strengthen their bargaining power, bring new ideas, and win better lives for us all. Find a union to join with the STUC and . I’m also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a 100-year-old radical union instrumental in early labour rights struggles which still provides everyday grassroots solidarity to the most vulnerable of workers.
(3) Campaign for tenants rights and land reform. Living wages are useless without living rents: as house ownership becomes more inaccessible, social housing dwindles and rents increase, rent swallows too much of our pay to make life liveable, and exploitative landlords prey on the most precarious. Meanwhile, Scotland’s economy is still underpinned by the most unequal land ownership in Europe, which restricts land use possibilities, protects resources for the wealthiest in society, and underpins a tenancy-based approach to ownership and taxation. Housing is largely absent from traditional marxist analysis and so often forgotten by left-wing campaigns, but Scotland has a proud history of working-class-led radical movements for rent control and housing protection. Part of improving Scotland now is supporting a resurgence of such movements. One place to start is with the Living Rent Tenants Union, grown out of a campaign which has already won impressive concessions from the Scottish Government.
(4) Defend welfare claimants. Attacks on the welfare state – the NHS, the dole, housing and disability benefits, and other vital resources – will only increase in the coming years across the UK, as the economic costs of Brexit kick in and an ever more right-wing Government further seeks to scapegoat and divide working class people against each other. Scotland too will be suffering budget constraints and will be able to offer limited protections, especially if the SNP remains reluctant to introduce genuinely redistributive taxation. This means we need to be campaigning to protect and extend welfare, and providing practical support to welfare claimants: advice surgeries, food and shelter programmes, emotional solidarity in the face of media attacks. One place to start is the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty which works tirelessly on all these fronts
(5) Support party political plurality. In the second Scottish Parliament, alongside a spread from Labour, the SNP, the Tories and the Lib Dems, there were 7 Greens and 6 Socialist MSPs. Since then, Holyrood has seen greater and greater consolidation, with Parties aiming for the outright majorities which characterise the hated Westminster system. But if Scotland is Europhile, then our Parliament can have a more European character, with coalitionary politics becoming a new norm. With a more diverse and plural left, only electoral pacts and coalitions can succeed in defeating the right, even as the right-wing itself splits over Brexit, and a plural left will also put leftward pressure on SNP policy. This means pro-independence activists ending the kind of electoral nonsense which led to the miserably failed #bothvotesSNP campaign in the Scottish elections, ending talk of “splitting the indy vote”, and working together towards shared and contested ideas of what Scotland can be. As Jeremy Gilbert has pointed out, economic concerns are not the only issue for disillusioned voters: a monolithic Holyrood replicating the failures of Westminster will lead to the same crisis of democracy that Scotland has so far skirted.
(6) Agitate leftwards within your Party. Both the SNP and Labour have centrist economic policies, and both of them will shift further to the right if only the still-minor Greens are applying pressure from the left. Unless there is an electoral threat, a chance of losing left-wing voters to the Greens or another socialist coalition, and without rebellions at party conferences, the rhetoric of triangulating to the right will dominate. So if you are a member of a Party, use that power to pull your Party on a leftward course: the SNP members have already had some successes in this area, and this needs to be strengthened.
(7) Organise locally. I too am full of grief and rage, and am writing in the languages and ideas that feel most comfortable to me. I want to keep writing in different ways for different audiences, but I’ll never have all the answers, and nor will anyone else. What I do have is faith in diverse grassroots movements to organise independently and collectively for better worlds. So here’s the main thing: if you don’t understand what’s happened, and if you’re scared of what’s coming, and if you believe in a better world and don’t know what to do, then set up a meeting locally to talk it through with people who are thinking the same way. Ask questions together, argue together, work it out together. Our political parties and our media institutions have utterly failed us, leading to a wrecked economy, a divided country and a frightened people. This can only be made better through networks of local campaigns working together, defending a school or a library, or providing food and shelter to people who need it, or fighting an eviction, or taking over a local council. People like you will make up those campaigns and networks. You’ve got this. Get in touch with some friends and arrange a meeting in the back room of a pub to figure out what you can do now.
These are strange and frightening times for Scotland and for the rest of the UK, but Scottish people are already talking about our possibilities for hope: independence, or continued EU membership, or both. But our future is uncertain, and constitutional solutions alone will only ever be partial. We must not be complacent, and we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into false security by the promised land of independence: we must work now and throughout the coming years from a more progressive Scotland in a more just world.