Chris Bambery welcomes Scotland After Britain, which argues for a radical version of an independent Scottish nation, rejecting the neoliberalism of the SNP

The Scottish National Party must now hold the record for being the longest lived government in Europe, having first taken the reins of government in 2007, and having over three years before it must face re-election. Admittedly it now shares government with the Green Party, but it looks to have successfully co-opted them.

For many in England looking north, the Scottish government of Nicola Sturgeon seems to offer a ray of hope in comparison with the government of Boris Johnson or the current, dismal leadership contest to replace him as both leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of Great Britain. Part of this stems from the fact that during the worst of the pandemic, Sturgeon could summon a basic humanity clearly alien to Johnson. Part of it is that much liberal-left opinion south of the border cheered Sturgeon’s full on support for the European Union and opposition to Brexit (Scotland had voted overwhelmingly, like Northern Ireland, to remain).

Yet in 2014, many of those same left liberals had opposed a vote for independence in the Scottish referendum, often trying to draw an equation mark between support for independence and the sort of nationalism backed by Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen. However, there were also those who saw the Scottish government still championing the social-democratic values ditched under New Labour and once more under Keir Starmer. They could look with admiration at free university education, a better deal for pensioners, and a revival of building council houses, not noting that these predated Sturgeon and occurred under her now hated former ‘mentor’, Alex Salmond (you do not need to be a cheerleader for Salmond to recognise this).

The SNP and progressive neoliberalism

What the authors of this book show remorselessly is that under Sturgeon the current Scottish government represents, borrowing the phrase of Nancy Fraser, ‘progressive neo-liberalism’, uniting liberal social movements and liberal, globalised business interests, ‘negotiated through networks of professional preferment’ (p.191). In many ways it represents the sorts of administrations once presided over by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, the last hold-out of the ‘Third Way’. Post-Brexit, those who look longingly back at those days switched from attacking Sturgeon for seeking to break up Britain to lauding her as they championed a People’s Vote to overturn Brexit (and by foisting that on Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 general election campaign, ensuring Labour lost Leave seats across the north of England and the Midlands).

Within Scotland, the representatives of global capitalism were solidly ‘No’ in the 2014 Independence referendum, but have come to have a warm relationship with Sturgeon and her ministers, though that does not mean they’d back independence in any new referendum. However, the same Scottish National Party also gets the support of voters in areas once solidly Labour, particularly in Glasgow and the Central Belt. Plus, the SNP has the support of the professional middle class, even more so since Brexit, although many of those could be frightened away from independence by stories about a hard border from the Solway Firth to the Tweed estuary.

So, it’s clear that in many ways devolved Scotland is exceptional in today’s world, but it’s also true that the Scottish government accepts the neoliberal agenda. Indeed, since this book was written, there has been a marked Atlanticist shift in the SNP leadership in response to the Russian attack on Ukraine. It overnight became a cheerleader for Nato, initially attacking Johnson for being too soft in his response, and some of the neoliberal flankers seemed to warm to nuclear weapons (ridding Scotland of Trident missiles is a holy of holies within the SNP and the broader independence movement). The Scottish government even handed over £65 million to Kyiv to buy weaponry.

For those who cheered on the pro-independence movement in 2014 and watched the carnival of debate and discussion that movement created in every corner shop and housing estate across Scotland, the question must be ‘what has changed?’ What Scotland after Britain does is chart the rise of the SNP and support for independence within, firstly, the ongoing crisis and decline of the British state, and secondly within the hollowing out of social democracy, as leaders of New Labour treated its traditional working-class base with contempt. When, in 2014, Scottish Labour united with the Tories in ‘Better Together’, the official ‘No’ campaign, those voters got their revenge, and because Labour clings to the British state, there is no going back.

Working-class voters see the SNP as offering a dented shield against a Conservative government in London which they abhor. This is the biggest pitch Sturgeon makes, blaming whatever ills fall on Scotland on Westminster, and it plays well because it has truth to it. This allows Sturgeon to present herself as both defending Scotland and as a technocrat standing above the fray of everyday politics.

Contested nature of independence

This book gives an excellent description of the inspiring pro-independence campaign during the referendum, not surprisingly because each author was heavily involved in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). The small forces of the pro-independence radical left gave a lead in RIC, but a majority of its activists were SNP supporters and members.

However, the book also points out that the main beneficiaries of the referendum campaign was the SNP, with some 100,000 people joining it post-referendum, making it per head of population far bigger than Labour or the Tories. At the UK general election of 2015, they reduced the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats to just one seat each, and conceded only eleven seats in 2019.

The SNP’s supporters, old and new, desperately want independence and believe the party is key to securing that. They are told that once independence is achieved then, and only then, should the debate begin on what sort of state and society they desire. The vast bulk accept that argument. The pro-independence radical left, in trying to oppose this, just does not have the clout to succeed.

If you think back to other independence movements (which don’t directly compare to that in Scotland), they began building their new state before achieving their goal. So in Ireland during the War of Independence, Republicans not only established an illegal parliament, Dáil Éireann, but government ministries, courts, police and, of course, an army. I am not suggesting the latter, but what sort of state we want cannot wait until once independence is achieved.

The Scottish government is not waiting. It appointed a neoliberal Growth Commission, from which the trade unions and social organisations were excluded, and, dominated by business figures, it recommended maintaining sterling in an independent Scotland (effectively giving the Bank of England control over fiscal decisions) and austerity measures to balance the books. There is a concern, outlined here, that much of the SNP leadership is happy to settle for ‘neo-autonomism’: achieving greater devolution but remaining in the UK.

Sturgeon’s enthusiasm for re-joining the EU also raises unanswered questions about how much membership of that body limits sovereignty. The authors are clear that popular sovereignty is something the left should champion, but too often doesn’t. Scotland would not be part of the German dominated core group of the EU, rather it would join the more peripheral and subordinate economies; you might recall the post-2008 ‘PIIGS’.

While the SNP has moved in a more neoliberal direction under Sturgeon, although remaining sotto voce about that, it faces problems in going too far. It must be aware from what’s happened to Scottish Labour of the electoral dangers of simply dumping your core support. That support wants independence. It is a party which does not get funded by big business or the unions but rather by its members, so financially it cannot afford to scorn them.

There is no example of a nation like Scotland, never a colonised or oppressed country, breaking away from what is still a significant imperialist power. Nevertheless, some parallels did come to my mind while reading Scotland after Britain. The founders of the Irish Free State did not only have to fight a civil war against their Republican opponents in 1922-1923, but also consciously broke the aspirations of feminists, trade unionists and cultural nationalists who had rallied to the cause of an Irish Republic.

In its first decade, the Free State was a model of neo-autonomism. It preserved key institutions of the old colonial state, notably the legal and judicial system, accepted sterlingisation and continued to allow effective financial control by the Bank of England. At the same time, it sided with the Catholic hierarchy, finance interests and the ranchers to build a clerical, conservative state whose economic priorities were balancing the books and maintaining a dependent relation with Britain, whereby Ireland exported agricultural produce (and its people).

This is not a happy parallel.

The radical answer

So what to be done? As I write this review we are seeing growing working-class resistance to falling wages at a time of inflation. There will be some on the left who, breathing a sigh of relief, will see this as simply a return to class struggle, overshadowing support for independence. Like the authors, I don’t think that is going to happen; the two can easily co-exist. It will, however, test the limits imposed on itself by the Sturgeon government. She attacks growing poverty and blames it on Westminster, but the SNP Trade Union Group put a motion to this year’s party conference outlining measures the Scottish government could take. Somehow it did not find its way onto the agenda!

If I can throw in my tuppence, those of us on the pro-independence radical left need to build an ideological pole of attraction which gives a critique of the Scottish government and SNP leadership’s neoliberal policies, and outlines what needs to be done to build an independent Scotland. This must serve the needs and desires of its people, allying support and participation in the growing strikes and walk-outs with support for independence. Scotland After Britain does just that and is to be welcomed.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.