David Jamieson and Jonathon Shafi raise some of the biggest, yet little discussed, challenges that lie ahead for the independence movement and confront the difficult realities that must be addressed if a successful strategy is to be developed.
The movement for Scottish independence which so drastically reorganised politics in this country was a social movement which emerged in the context of the crisis of the British state.
It was a movement some decades in the making, which drew on both the accumulated injustices of economic inequality and war and the strategic nous of a hardened leadership of Scottish nationalists.
This movement has found itself at a major impasse, with no agreed road forward. Why has this happened, and what are tactical and strategic realities we now face.
There’s been an atmosphere of suspicion whenever the concrete problems the independence movement faces are raised. This kind of discourse is not reducible to the independence movement, it effects all social movements which experience a set-back. As such, there is a responsibility on the movement to mature politically.
This is a question of leadership. For some this boils down to an immediate analysis of the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, but we think there are deeper issues.
Scottish nationalism was for most of its history a marginal force. The mass independence movement that burst onto the scene in 2014 is a very modern development. But that is not to say that it wasn’t made possible in part by a dedicated cadre of nationalist leaders and thinkers over a period of at least three decades leading up to the referendum.
Such ‘vanguards’ are developed in a political struggle that starts at the fringes. This is where movement leaders are steeled – in the heat of political combat aimed at forcing their way in to the mainstream. This is what breeds their tenacity, dynamism and willingness to take risks.
When Alex Salmond won the leadership of the SNP in he came with a strategy and a body of activists prepared to make the question of Scottish independence relevant to working class Scotland. Their plan was to break into Labour heartlands in the central belt. This was an era defining approach for the SNP.
They had a road map that took them through devolution, coming to power in the Scottish Parliament right up to the Edinburgh agreement. At the same time, Westminster was bleeding authority and legitimacy. But in particular, Tony Blair’s New Labour project intensified a severing of ties with their once entrenched Labour base in Scotland.
Scottish nationalism developed as a disciplined counter current against a backdrop of economic liberalisation, growing inequality, war, austerity and a profound democratic deficit that saw increasingly large sections of the UK public carved out of any influence over the political system.
In the years since the referendum, the core leadership of these last three decades has become fragmented and displaced. At the same time, instead of one relatively coherent path to a referendum, there are vying strategies across the movement.
The general election of 2017, in this context, has not been fully accounted for. It further removed Salmond, the historical driving force in the fight for independence. It un-moored him not only from elected office, but it also undermined his influence within the party operation.
Veteran SNP members will understand the gravity of this development.
Angus Robertson, who spearheaded the SNP’s Westminster intervention after 2015, also represented more than the loss of an MP. He was pivotal to party strategy in the years before and after 2014, and was, of course, deputy leader. He has now stood down from this position – a vacancy which big hitters in the SNP are not rushing to fill. This is in large part due to the lack of a strategy on the founding priniple of the SNP: independence.
They join a host of other old hands who are now out of position. The general election also saw Sturgeon lose the momentum on the question of another referendum. The nationalist road map is at a crossroads.
In addition, the new SNP, far from battling from the sidelines, now faces an altogether different problem – ten years of having been the Scottish Governement. Even amongst the most ardent SNP supporters there is not overwhelming confidence that there will be a pro-independence majority after the next Holyrood elections in 2021.
The roots of our present difficulties are manifold. The independence movement never absorbed September 2014 as a strategic defeat. Many assumed that the energy of 2014 would carry us quickly through to another referendum, and a successful one at that.
Instead of treating 2014 as a setback, it understood the vote as a tactical parlay, immediately moving its attention to the 2015 General Election, and to the wider constitutional crisis fomented by the hard won 45% vote.
A near future referendum was the subject of widespread speculation on both sides. What no one was willing to acknowledge early on – particualralry Scottish unionism – was that a second referendum depended on Westminster sanction.
This is one of the most curious items of the post referendum environment. Westminster’s position as the central instrument of British state power exercises an authoritarian pull on all of the subordinate and devolved institutions. It is a clear marker of the democratic deficit that was part of the motivation for the independence movement. And yet this particularly arrogant aspect of its power, its ability to accept or refuse Scottish Independence referenda, was never directly confronted by the SNP, who had no interest in admitting to its new restive base that it lacked the power to call another referendum. That said, the SNP is also able to use this to its advantage – with a the ability to leave a call for a new referendum as a permanent backdrop.
For reasons of immediate tactical advance, no one in official politics openly admitted the real nature of the British State. The SNP’s prestige as the party of independence carried the 2015 General Election, and held more or less until the 2016 Scottish Election.
But the crisis of the British state is multifaceted and not limited to the national question. It is dealing with a legacy of social and economic failure, often underwritten by a vicious campaign of scapegoating and demonisation. When the Brexit vote took place in June 2016, it confirmed how deep the crisis had become. The Prime Minister who gambled on Scotland in 2014 resigned and the British polity was thrown immediately into turmoil.
Nicola Sturgeon made a bold gamble of her own, she stated that another referendum was “highly likely” on the early morning scramble of the Brexit vote. It is worth bearing in mind that she had also said prior to this that an independence referendum would be called when there was sufficient polling evidence to assure victory.
The Scottish Parliament voted for another referendum, and its bluff was duly called, by the hapless new Tory PM – Theresa May. She ruled out another referendum. In the snap election months later, May lost her parliamentary majority and all credibility. But at the same time, the SNP was forced to distance itself from the call for another referendum after a tranche of MPs including key leading figures lost seats. The opponents of independence called for the SNP to ‘get on with the day job.’ This has now effectively been taken up.
But the basic impasse remains intact. May stated that she would grant no future referendum while Brexit negotiations were ongoing.
Brexit has plunged the British state into a fresh crisis just 2 years on from almost losing Scotland. This has been seen as a gateway not only a new referendum, but a new post-2014 frame for Scottish nationalism itself.
But from the start this issue was never clear cut. While it is true that 62% of Scots voted to remain, and that this weaponised the democratic deficit, hundreds of thousands of Yes voters also voted to leave the European Union. In addition, despite the quagmire the British state had got itself into, this did not lead to an upsurge of support for independence.
The present claim of those who see an inevitability to the crisis sprouting a new referendum, is that people have not yet felt the full effect of Brexit. They also claim that Brexit can secure a breakthrough in the EU supporting middle class and organisations like the CBI.
Here there are some problems that we need to untangle.
Under the pressure of the general election result – and a lack of movement in the polls – the SNP has presented its immediate objectives in the vein of keeping the UK in the EU, rather that taking Scotland out of the UK.
This strategy is based on the idea that the Scottish Government has to be seen to do all it can within the framework of the UK to defend Scotland’s interests, and to protect the democratic will of the people of Scotland in relation to the EU.
But in doing so, the SNP are not making a focused argument for dismantling the British state all together. Unlike Catalonia, they are not backed by a mass movement of people willing to engage in extra-parliamentary civil disobedience that would provide the government with leverage to act more boldly. Again it is worth repeating that while of course Nicola Sturgeon is in a powerful position, the problems facing independence supporters cannot be reduced to her choice of very limited options.
These tactical questions are part of a strategic dilemma. That dilemma is the new framing of Scottish independence which is now enmeshed with the question of membership of the EU. It is said that working class Scotland is committed to independence and that therefore the British rupture with the EU represents an opportunity to hardwire Scottish independence into transnational corporate interests. This recasts independence as a continuity project, rather than one of rebellion and rupture. It integrates the idea of Scottish independence into the mainstream thinking of European capitalism.
But this in itself is an ailing social and economic order. Independence, if it is to gain sustained popular traction, must be transformative in its agenda. It must be the tip of the spear in a struggle that is playing itself out across the continent against austerity, privatisation and authoritarianism.
We also have to understand that the EU is far more interested in a longer term strategy which involves the re-entry of the UK as a whole into the EU, far more than it is motivated by welcoming an independent Scotland into its structures. This is particularly relevant, and yet under discussed given the situation in Catalonia, and the EU’s orientation on it.
In addition, the very same people that the SNP are building alliances with on the question of keeping the UK in the EU, will be inveterate opponents of independence should there be another referendum. This will further dilute the new case for independence.
This new framing also suffers from twin assumptions. The first is that there will be a ‘hard Brexit’. The second, that this automatically leads to a majority for independence. This mechanical reading profoundly misunderstands both the present conjuncture and political psychology. The British state and the majority of the Tory party are suing for soft Brexit, something the EU also has an obvious interest in.
Even in the event of hard Brexit, the middle class element Sturgeon is betting so highly on, would likely be driven in a more conservative direction. Stunned by their dislocation from one major institution, they would be unlikely to challenge yet another, creating even more profound instability. This is particularly true when there is no guaranteed, let alone uncomplicated, road back into EU for an independent Scotland.
The reason why there is such heated debate about the timing of a referendum and the context in which it is nested, is because there is no natural majority for independence. What drove the 2014 surge to Yes was the opportunity to end Tory rule and austerity. It was a movement fed up with the betrayals of New Labour, and it contained an anti-militarist component due to the popular opposition to both Trident and the Iraq War. 2014 became a lightning conductor for these issues. The movement proved that roughly half of the population opposed neoliberalism and war. The best kept secret of decades of stifling political conformity was out.
This is what broke the Labour heartlands for Yes. Since then, Labour itself has undergone its own poltical revolution.
Under the weight of the wider UK crisis another front has opened. Jeremy Corbyn’s relative success in the 2017 elections has solidified his position as the UK leader of the same political sentiments that rocked Scotland in 2014. Indeed, many of the activists that are part of this movement, looked on at the Scottish referendum and saw the openings created by a popular grassroots campaign. His ascendancy is the product of the anti-war movement, his opposition to corporate elites and of widespread disaffection with the status quo.
That said, the Corbyn phenomenon is not the same in Scotland. Here, much of the would-be Corbynite element was already mobilised for the independence referendum. But the strategic question posed to independence supporters is more than electoral. It is about what the existence of the Corbyn phenomenon does to the texture of the arguments in a future referendum.
In 2014 we were able to say that independence was ‘the only game in town’. Today Corbyn’s success has discredited the more doctrinaire pronouncements on the inability of the UK political sphere to become and arena of serious dissent.
In 2014 the prospects of confronting austerity at home and war abroad seemed remote in the extreme at a Westminster level. We do not say this to paper over the severe dysfunction of the British state, or massive institutional barriers faced by Corbyn. It is rather to note that a concrete political fact has developed at Westminster that complicates independence strategy in numerous ways. To cite just one example, in 2014 Yes has a massive hearing inside the trade union movement. Could we be sure of the same today? At the very least, the nature of the debate has altered.
The SNP claim they have already implemented Corbyn’s policies at a Scottish level. But the fundamental point is that every week Corbyn is taking on the vested interests in the media, the power of the bankers and neoliberal dogma. Conversely, these are some of the people the SNP is trying to court in its drive to normalise independence in the corporate world.
For a genuinely radical approach to independence, we must also be in the business of forging alliances with the burgeoning left in England. Again, for many these words will be viewed with disdain. But if we are seriously looking ahead to the balance of forces in a future referendum this approach is vital.
These existential questions are answered by some in the independence movement with the assertion that independence on its own merits, instantly overcomes all of these pressing problems. But this was not the argument made by the historic vanguard of Scottish nationalism, who pitched independence as a return to Scotland’s social democratic values. Even less was it the ethos of the 2014 movement, which understood independence as a rupture with the UK social order.
The animating force of UK politics is the decline of the British state. Scotland is only one of an increasing number of fronts in that escalating process. To be strategically serious about Scottish independence, we must learn to ride the tiger of British decline. This means forming alliances with social movements across the UK, linking fronts to accentuate the crisis and organise a progressive response. In short: unite the movements, divide the state.
At present the SNP is doing the opposite of this, pitting movements against each other in a bid to form alliances with portions of the establishment it wrongly believes it can use as leverage. This is the inevitable consequence of re-framing Scottish independence as a continuity project, and it only breeds complications and sets traps for the future. Underlying this is the sense that the SNP does not have a theory of the political crisis, and simply responds to events.
The defense of establishment institutions needs to be abandoned. Independence has to be re-framed as a popular movement, not a negotiation between elites. Independence is a deepening of the British crisis, and it should be embraced on those terms – it is not a lifeboat. T he crisis gripping the UK can be resolved in our favour if we position ourselves as active participants in its outcome. But that means facing up to difficult realities.