The starting gun for a new independence run?

John Dennis asks: can socialist supporters of independence take the initiative to develop radical policies that allow it to make the most of a 2024 election?

As a socialist and an independence supporter, I was not disappointed that the UK Supreme Court ruled against a referendum called by Holyrood. I can see that putting forward a reasoned request for a Section 30 order to allow a referendum – which requires Westminster’s consent – was a necessary first step for the Scottish Government. The SNP and Green leaderships know that a Section 30 just wasn’t going to happen. Sunak was never going to agree to one. The UK Tories have shown themselves to be repeatedly immune to reasoned pleas on such matters as treating refugees humanely and relaxing Brexit policies to deal with labour shortages. So Sturgeon’s chosen way forward for the independence movement was to declare that a vote for the pro-independence parties (SNP, Greens, and possibly Alba) in the next Westminster Election – due by December 2024 – would be regarded as our ‘de facto’ independence referendum.

The advantages of this would be a clear and valid indicator of support for independence in Scotland – provided we got over 50% of the total votes cast – and the unionist parties are unlikely to boycott the vote (as happened with the Catalan independence referendum). Still, there are clear drawbacks. The election will be held under Westminster rules. This will exclude young voters aged 16 and 17, non-UK nationals, and people who cannot show the forms of identification required under the new Tory rules at polling stations on election day. Majorities of these disenfranchised groups are likely to be pro-independence.

Besides, building enough support would require some far more radical policies from the SNP and Greens as well as a major effort on the part of the wider independence movement to counter the huge anti-independence bias of the broadcasting and print media, the unthinking unionism of a (still substantial) loyalist minority in Central Scotland as well as the targeting of social media users. For example, the Scottish Government has spoken against the Tories’ refugee, asylum and immigration policies but has never put forward proposals to challenge the Home Office system. At present, refugees are forbidden to work and left festering with next to no money in Scottish hotels while the Mears Group profits from their misery and the Home Office takes forever to decide on their asylum applications. A proposal to train refugees could allow new workers with live asylum applications to take up paid employment by filling vacancies in the care system. This could also contribute to reducing or even ending the bed blocking problem in the NHS. It would be a positive policy which would be blocked by the xenophobia of the Westminster Tories. It would also potentially expose Labour in Scotland, which seems content to follow the Starmer line on immigration and refugees. Refugees could also be trained and employedin retro-fitting insulation in social housing. Again, although this would help reduce vulnerable people’s energy bills, it would be vetoed by the Tory xenophobes and would pose problems for Labour.

Redistributive taxation is another area that has been underused by successive SNP governments. Although their powers do have limits, Scottish Governments can still raise revenue for public services by increasing the top rate of income tax, going further than they did in the Scottish Budget of December 2022. They can also introduce land taxes on large estates, tourism taxes and can tax empty properties and control private sector rents.

If the SNP-Green Scottish Government fails to challenge the Tories’ policies, there will be an opportunity, for the first time since the Tommy Sheridan debacle in 2006, for a pro-independence socialist party – but only if the disparate left groups can unite around a republican socialist programme. It would also have to be agreed from the outset that the debating of differences must not be seen as a sectarian point-scoring exercise, but rather as a democratic process aimed at achieving a greater degree of unity, leading to more effective action.

If the majority vote in the Westminster election of 2024 is for independence, the SNP and Green leaders will have to be prepared to take on the Westminster establishment as they’ve never done before, with disruption in Westminster and some withdrawal of co-operation between the Scottish and Westminster Governments (whether led by Starmer or Sunak) to force a start to the process of independence negotiations.

The question is: does the Scottish coalition have the bottle for it, or are the SNP and Scottish Greens happy in their present roles as the new Scottish political establishment? The coalition seems to be running a managerialist government that does not like to rock the UK boat too much and in practice, despite their rhetoric, mostly passes on Tory austerity, cuts in public sector workers’ real wages and service cuts in local government, education and health. If the SNP and Greens are not prepared to take the radical action to take us out of the UK, even a majority vote for pro-independence parties will lead to widespread disillusionment among independence supporters. The task for the Scottish independence movement in the next two years is to take forward the arguments for breaking up the corrupt, Tory-dominated UK state with its antiquated political system.

John Dennis is Secretary of the Dumfries & Galloway Trades Union Council but writes here in a personal capacity