From independence to Corbyn and back again to independence

Stella Rooney explains her changing perspective on her campaigning priorities

In 2014, I was inspired to take political action for the first time. Aged fifteen, I was full of hope about what the future could look like and what role young people like myself could have in shaping it. To myself and many other young people, the referendum was our chance to prevent a large black cloud from forming over our futures. A once in a generation opportunity to end Trident missiles, the monarchy and create a country run ‘for the millions, not the millionaires.’

Bourgeoise parliamentary politics does not give working class people many opportunities to feel like our voices are significant. Perhaps, I should feel privileged to have experienced this more than once, first in 2014 and again on two occasions when voting for Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. While each had their limitations, both the cases for independence and a democratic socialist Britain presented contrasting routes to a common goal – establishing a way of ordering a country which doesn’t punish the poor.

For all their differences and attendant disagreements, I’d argue these two moments shared much in common; for many they represented a break from politics as usual. Both independence in 2014 and the election of Corbyn as leader, were in their own way responses to a crisis of faith in the conventional tools of governance. Indyref saw thousands register and vote for the very first time. I spoke to many people on doorsteps, deeply disenfranchised from politics yet voting for independence because it signified a rare opportunity for change. Corbyn’s leadership also saw many of those who had been similarly disenfranchised join Labour in their hundreds of thousands.

Speaking frankly, marking a ballot box rarely has much of an effect on our wages, our bills or quality of life. Independence and a Corbyn government offered something different – the chance to vote for something which is not devoid of meaning.

In 2014, many of us felt that Scotland had changed forever, yet we have seen very little material improvement to the lives of working-class people since the referendum. The SNP has even become a barrier to change, with recent cases of its opposition to sectoral collective bargaining in the care sector and legal protections for tenants illustrating this starkly. Since the referendum, many attempts have been made to sanitise the independence proposition or to make it more attractive to Scottish capital. We must be clear that any independence worth having must center upon the people of Scotland, not the SNP’s corporate donors.

Reflecting on recent losses for the left is a depressing task, but after allowing a little time to lick our wounds, it is important for us to view the struggles to come with a critical but not cynical eye. The goal of the left, for working class people and our communities to be able to shape the world in our class interest, remains our most significant political task.

We must remember that voting is not the only way the working class can resist. Our primary means of self-defence is in the workplace and in the community, territories in which trade and tenant unions have made serious headway over the past few years. For the third year running, trade and tenant union membership has increased. The coronavirus pandemic has also seen a multitude of workers in Scotland turning to collectivism, realising that our best defence is each other. There is a growing and renewed consensus in Scotland’s workplaces and communities that concludes that power will not be handed to us: instead, we will have to organise and fight for justice ourselves.

It brings me no joy to see Labour’s continued opposition to a second referendum. Socialists must express clear democratic principles, regardless of how we would personally vote in such a referendum.
The right to a referendum is now supported across the union movement, explicitly by unions such as Unison, but also at a branch and workplace level. The unions are listening to sustained calls for democracy, but it is also time we interrogated the prospect of independence itself.

The people of Scotland deserve a politics which engages us all in building the kind of country we want to live in. This does not mean being under any illusions about the solutions offered by a market-oriented vision of independence. However, the short comings of the SNP make independence a neo-liberal proposition only if our movement fails to intervene and interrogate the current situation.

A second referendum is no a quick fix to unregulated capitalism, yet countless elections have showed that Scotland does not want to be governed by Tories. Independence holds opportunities for collectivism to flourish, a chance for trade union freedom and to build an economy which enshrines dignity. As trade unionists, we understand that when workers collectivise, we can shape the world around us. We must apply our commitment to worker’s self-determination, the right to organise and the power of a collective, to the institutions of the state that govern us.

Becoming an adult in the shadow of the referendum has taught me that disappointment is sadly a prerequisite of being on the left. Yet the struggle continues, and we must never forget how electrifying it feels for ordinary people to be so close to power. The left must build a strategy which allows the workers of Scotland to shape the country we live in, and this means our worker’s movement must consider independence as a serious option.

Stella Rooney is a union activist and the chair of Unite Young Members Scotland. She is also a former member of the Labour Party and former Momentum activist.