Jim Sillars’ recent attack on the SNP leadership is another stark sign of a movement in trouble. Opinion polls taken since the 2014 referendum paint a picture of support slowly trickling away from independence. Polls don’t tell the whole story but they correlate with what we are seeing on the ground; formerly active and vibrant ‘Yes’ groups have either folded, become social gatherings or are dominated by nationalism detached from reality.
Comparing the SNP of 2014/15, buoyed by 100,000 new members and electoral domination, to today seems like day-and-night. The nationalists have paid a huge price for not making the case for independence at any election since the referendum – and allowing themselves to be chased away from the issue by the unionists.
The ‘Yes’ campaign we got behind in 2014 found strength in its diversity. A majority of ‘Yes’ supporters were not tribally SNP and the ‘Yes’ coalition helped reach a diverse audience. Today, the movement is too closely tied to the SNP. Its electoral failures are seen to represent a setback for independence. In reality, there are many independence supporters who find it difficult to vote for the SNP when they duck the issue and there are more left-wing manifestos on offer. It took the 2017 general election, where the SNP held on to a majority in Scotland by the skin of their teeth, to sound alarm bells. I was an independence activist before I joined the SSP and I’m infuriated to see the movement that we built from 2012 so dominated by a single party. It makes us weaker.
Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity has been usurped by Jeremy Corbyn. He’s in all the ‘selfies’ now. He appears to many to offer a different route to the same social democratic goals independence offered. His popularity in some quarters is based on backing Keynesian policies that may make working people’s lives better. That’s a natural attraction to people on poverty wages, waiting for a house or living at the sharp end of austerity. His honesty and integrity has cut through the spin of modern politics and inspired many to imagine an alternative to neo-liberalism.
But he can’t achieve much within a party wedded to the British establishment. This is still the same Labour party of privatization and the Iraq War. Corbyn struggles to put together a shadow cabinet because the majority of MPs fundamentally disagree with his politics and a significant number are organizing to remove him. The Parliamentary Labour Party is a revolving door to the lobby of big business. Nevermind Scotland, the only country where Corbyn lost to Owen Smith. The Scotland where Labour built six council houses in eight years of government and privatized the hospitals and schools in my city through PFI. This party is an obstacle, not a vehicle, for the socialist change that Corbyn and the SSP want.
Corbyn outmanoeuvred a fiscally conservative SNP who, acting as the independence flag-bearers, have defended the status quo. And none more so than by latching onto the idea the EU is some progressive organisation to be supported at all costs. We know what the EU is because we live in it already! It’s an anti-democratic bosses club that works to preserve the dominance of western corporations. This prevents us from making independence about transformative change – a necessary step to build a majority.
By seeking clarity on key social and economic issues and by being ambitious, we can align independence with the everyday struggles of working people. There are hundreds of thousands of workers in Scotland – in hospitality, retail and the public sector to name but a few – who currently only dream of a £10 per hour Living Wage and secure employment through a guaranteed hours contract. The same people who pay rip off transport fares and energy bills and would support these industries being taken into public ownership. And for the people who are getting mugged off by a landlord’s rip off rents while they wait for council houses to be built. These people, in our communities, can be persuaded that the only way to achieve these demands is through independence. But we have to agree that’s what independence is for.
We can thank Corbyn for popularising ideas that we agree on then disagree on his vision of a British route to socialism and his misplaced faith in the Labour Party. But to succeed we must above all make a coherent and persuasive case. We must answer the questions: ‘What do we want independence for?’ and ‘What has gone wrong since 2014?’. Only then can we work out how we are going to get there.
Hugh Cullen is a full-time student lecturer in further education. He’s the SSP Lothians’ branch secretary, SSP Executive Committee member, and EIS member.