There are better answers to the national question than ‘class versus nation’, argues Frances Curran
At the end of November 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that only Westminster can grant a referendum. By mid-December, six successive polls showed majority support for Scottish independence. These polls were unprecedented; did the court ruling act as a catalyst for the Yes vote in a future referendum? It would seem so. It suggests that by consistently closing down democracy in Scotland the Tories were accelerating the demise of the Union.
What is even more significant is that this took place against a background of increased class struggle. Some on the left have suggested that class issues, industrial action, and a movement fighting on the ‘bread and butter’ issues facing working-class people will cut across the national question. However, support for independence surged alongside a wave of industrial action involving workers seeking cost of living pay increases and defending their terms and conditions. A deepening of class identity and a deepening of national identity are not mutually exclusive.
If you trace the increase in class struggle and working-class movements for change through the 1970s and the 1980s, through the miners’ strike and the anti-poll tax movement, you will find that every upturn in class struggle has increased and deepened the national question in Scotland. As the results of the 2014 referendum highlighted, the most vehement opposition to independence is to be found amongst the wealthiest and some sections of the middle class. Mirroring this, support for independence is now entrenched in many working-class communities across Scotland. Significantly, opinion polls now show the overall figure for those under 35 is skimming 70%. In simple terms, those sections of society most inclined to radicalism and struggle are now in the camp of independence. For the left, therefore, the trajectory is clear. Far from blocking the impetus towards independence, the Supreme Court ruling has fuelled it. Now the left has choices to make as to how to defend the right of the people of Scotland to decide their own future.
Set against this are the institutions of Britain’s imperial state. David Cameron agreed a referendum in 2014 because he did not think that he could lose (he agreed the Brexit referendum for the same reason, and that backfired rather spectacularly!). Suitably chastened by the experience of almost losing the 2014 referendum, the Tories’ attitude has now shifted to denying Scotland’s right to self-determination by any means necessary. This attitude has hardened in the face of political forces in Ireland and Wales that are also propelling the prospect of constitutional change. Sinn Fein is calling for an all-Ireland Citizen’s Assembly to consider Irish unity and to plan and prepare for constitutional change. Should Sinn Fein gain office in the South as well as the North – which opinion polls suggest may be a possibility – such a development may not be too far away. The Welsh Senedd, under a Labour administration, has set up a constitutional commission in which all options, including independence, are under consideration, reflecting a growth in support for an independent Wales since devolution. The stage is therefore set for an existential struggle about the future of the United Kingdom, which not only sharpens the debate but also explains why the Tories believe that they now have no other option than to maintain the Union by shutting down all possible avenues for the people of Scotland to democratically express their views on how they see their future.
Given the road blocks being put up, what are the avenues available to all of those who want constitutional change? What are the options for the SNP in achieving a referendum on independence? We heard the proposal put forward by Nicola Sturgeon that the SNP will use the General Election in 2024 or 2025 as a ‘de facto’ referendum. The problem with this headline was the lack of a strategy which accompanied it. A ‘de facto’ referendum to do what? To declare independence if a majority is achieved or exert pressure on the expected Labour government?
Whatever strategy the party adopts, it is worth just looking at the SNP’s General Election results. In 2010, it had 6 of 59 seats and 19% of the vote but by 2015 it got 56 of 59 seats with 50% of the vote then, in 2017, 39 seats and 36% of the vote, and finally, in 2019, 48 seats with 45% of the vote. To say there has been a reversal of electoral fortunes between Labour and the SNP in the last 15 years is an understatement but it also shows the complexity involved in successfully carrying out the SNP’s declared strategy.
Setting the threshold at 50%+1 of votes for pro-independence parties is a big gamble. If the campaign failed to achieve that it would be a setback for the whole movement. It’s also only a short-term electoral device. So far it is devoid of any longer-term plan.
If it did achieve the threshold, then what? I cannot see the SNP trying to negotiate the terms of a referendum with the new government and, if this is refused, pulling out of Westminster in a similar fashion to Sinn Fein and the first Dáil Éireann. But if the SNP ends up adopting this strategy, the intention – it might be assumed – would be to try to pile the pressure upon Keir Starmer and a Labour Government. This is against a background of the Labour Party, north and south of the border, standing against history on this one, tarnishing its democratic credentials and condemning itself to continued irrelevance in Scotland. Its position is unsustainable, particularly if it continues to set its face against the tide of those demanding democracy in Scotland. Labour’s obstinacy will be particularly ironic for many in Scotland, given that if Labour wins the next general election – and this remains an ‘if’, even if they are on 45% to the Tories 24% – Starmer will claim a mandate for big constitutional change, including the abolition of the House of Lords, while still having less than 50% of the vote. The whiff of hypocrisy will permeate every corridor in Westminster. If there is a hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party, it will create a space for the SNP to negotiate a referendum in exchange for some form of support for Labour forming a government. From its point of view, this would be the best outcome. Of course, a ‘de facto’ referendum general election campaign would also intend to squeeze the Labour vote. However, this would leave the independence movement at the mercy of events over which it has little control.
Regardless of these strategic considerations, this is now clearly not just about independence but about democracy. Within the left in England, we should expect to find reservoirs of support for the democratic right of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum. Many of those inspired by Jeremy Corbyn to join the Labour Party and get involved in left-wing politics, particularly young people, will surely support Scotland’s democratic right to choose its own future free from Westminster’s diktats.
You can support the democratic right to self-determination for the people of Scotland while still supporting Scotland remaining in the union. It is up to the people of Scotland to decide. The left in England in and out of the Labour Party is facing a challenge here. We have a centralised British state, with an unwritten constitution, and potentially, a Labour Party in office, telling the people of Scotland that they will be forced to remain part of the UK, and have no right to leave. How do you square that democratic circle?
There is a difficulty with the ‘de facto’ referendum tactic in that there it gives no role to the wider movement other than to help get SNP MPs elected. Almost a third of Labour voters support independence, as do thousands of trade unionists. So where do they fit into this strategy? They will not get involved in an SNP-only strategy. The wider ‘Yes’ movement has many talented activists but, unfortunately, every serious attempt to revive it has stalled. It doesn’t appear to be part of the SNP leadership’s strategy to involve tens of thousands in a genuine grassroots pro-independence campaign. The ‘Yes’ movement has sustained a structure over these last eight years almost in spite of the role of the party.
A mass grassroots movement for democracy is exactly what we need to force a referendum: a movement which has more than a passing acquaintance with mass civil disobedience. I was involved in setting up Socialists for Independence (SfI). The name says exactly what it is. We have a vision for an independent Scotland that goes beyond capitalism. Independence, we believe, would allow the space to create root and branch change economically and politically. We can work with pro-independence supporters who are not necessarily socialists and also work with the many socialists in Scotland who do not support independence because democracy should not be negotiable. Through the Power to the People campaign, SfI members have been working closely with socialists on the other side of the constitutional divide. We have a lot in common. We all agree that the people of Scotland have a right to a democratic referendum. We are all democrats.
Any pro-democracy movement cannot just involve the ‘Yes’ part of Scottish society: it has to go much wider and link up with those on the other side of the constitutional debate who support the right of the Scottish people to decide on our future as a country without the interference or downright refusal of Westminster to allow us that choice. With a government determined to limit protest, a working-class broad-based movement fighting for self-determination involving everyone who stands for democracy, including ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ supporters is long overdue.
Frances Curran is a founding member of Socialists for Independence, a cross-party and non-party organisation of socialists campaigning for independence (https://socialistsforindependence.scot/)