Independence supporter holds 'Yes' Scottish flag Independence supporter holds 'Yes' Scottish flag. Photo: Flickr / Garry Knight / CC BY 2.0

Sophie Johnson, in the transcript which follows, explained the way forward for the movement at Glasgow Counterfire’s February 2023 public meeting

The character of the Scottish independence movement has changed dramatically. Anyone that was part of the mass mobilisation ahead of the 2014 referendum could tell you it was a palpably dynamic movement and a wholly energetic and exciting period to live through. Debate was happening everywhere. Working-class people were exercising their agency. The movement symbolised the hope of an alternative to a society dictated to us from an institution so far removed from the lives of ordinary Scottish people.

The movement was also a space for the development of radical ideas, and the demand for popular sovereignty was a major rebellion against the establishment that had not been for seen decades. It was a movement that thrived in its democratic nature, encompassing broad coalitions and grassroots activism. The growth of civic engagement with politics was completely at odds with the dusty, electoral politics that had dominated the British landscape for so long. And so for many socialists, as a movement organised around class issues and set to undermine the power of British imperialism, the potential of the independence movement was clear.

This brings us to the present moment. The party that was elected on the back of this popular movement is in disarray. Polls suggest the appetite for independence is in decline, and despite various ‘mandates’, no coherent strategy for independence has been put forward by the governing party since the last referendum took place. Every strategy put forward by the SNP, including all three candidates bidding to be the next leader, fails to address the obvious constitutional stalemate with Westminster. Furthermore, Nicola Sturgeon leaves behind the remnants of a highly centralised party that lacks any democratic accountability to its members, let alone the electorate.

The movement is thus a shadow of its former self, having had nothing concrete to organise around, and no direction from the party which claims to represent it. Sadly, its democratic spirit has been stifled by an opaque Scottish establishment. Indeed, the radical tendencies of the movement, not least its traditions in the peace movement, have been captured by a party that, despite its ‘progressive’ language, has done nothing to represent the interests of the working class whose votes took them to the top of Scottish politics. Truthfully, it is a fantasy to imagine that the SNP has brought us any closer to independence or that independence is on the cards in the near future as a practical reality.

Prospectus for Independence

In order to understand how we have arrived at this moment of political turmoil, it is first important to clarify the character of the SNP and to take a closer look at the party’s nine years in government since the referendum. The SNP was propelled to electoral dominance on a wave of populism and anti-establishment conviction derived from the independence movement. Since then, it has sought to both capitalise on these credentials as well as imbed itself within existing national and transnational establishments. This inherent contradiction has manifested itself in many of their policies, a large proportion of which have managed to be as nonsensical as they have been uninspiring. For example, the SNP’s vision for independence includes the policy of ‘sterlingisation’ (Scotland would keep the pound after independence), which would tie Scotland to UK financial institutions indefinitely. In this case, our monetary policy would literally be governed by the Bank of England, thus undermining any genuine conception of sovereignty.  This policy alone is indicative of the Scottish government’s wish to avoid a genuine rupture with the British establishment. Indeed, you might ask, what would be the point of independence then?

Furthermore, in the process of promoting relationships with institutions of foreign capital, the Scottish government has deliberately pandered to the corporate lobby, choosing to price out community groups, activist projects and even charities at their conferences, meaning only think tanks and private interests are able to bend the ear of power. No exceptions are made even for their own membership; a motion from the SNP’s own trade-union group to discuss how the Scottish Government’s tax powers could be used to help alleviate the cost-of-living crisis was excluded from last year’s conference.

Moreover, the SNP’s obsession with re-entering the European Union fails to hold up under the mildest scrutiny: the EU requires members to have a national, independently run central bank, with its own currency, as a prerequisite for membership. And finally, the Scottish Government’s foreign-policy agenda for an independent Scotland is even more worrying: ‘the cornerstone of its [Scotland’s] defence policy’ said a member of the SNP defence team ‘will be Nato membership’. This indicates a clear subversion of the movement’s long-held peace tradition, which was recently centred around scrapping Trident. This tradition has thus been trampled on by a party so far removed from its own base that when push comes to shove, it is more than likely the SNP would choose to keep weapons on the Clyde to secure membership in Nato’s aggressive international military alliance.

Unfortunately, the customary argument that these policies and practices could easily be undone as soon as independence is delivered is unrealistic. The SNP’s prospectus would serve as the negotiating platform from which Scotland would begin if an independence vote was successful, with the way the Scottish Government has been functioning up until this point being a firmly established precedent.

The SNP would also be looked to as overseers of any negotiating process. In addition, challenging the might of British institutions that are desperate to preserve the union, will be an endeavour that will require serious energy and momentum on the part of the movement. A momentum that surely cannot exist if it fails to see itself in the vision for which it is fighting. If independence is no different to what currently exists, independence is frankly not worth having.  It is a risk and to carry it through, we need to know it is a serious alternative to the status quo.

It is a reasonable question, then, to ask ‘does the SNP even want independence?’ Yes, many SNP politicians are likely to support independence as a concept, yet ultimately, the ruling party is unwilling to direct any serious confrontations with establishment institutions that could lead to it. Remember, it is not directly in anyone’s interests apart from our own to upset the international arrangement of power.

Democratic Deficit

However, the SNP’s lack of party democracy also mirrors a democratic deficit in Scottish society more generally in which the hollowing out of civic society has been symptomatic of the neoliberal era. Whilst part of a longer-term trend, the gap between people and politics has been widened by the managerial style of the leading party, the current settlement being propped up by the party in power.

Meanwhile, the SNP’s disastrous domestic record provides little hope that they can deliver on their primary policy. The education attainment gap has grown wider, their national care system has been a catastrophe, and hundreds of elderly people have died unnecessarily at the hands of the Scottish Government during the pandemic. Despite pressure from their own membership, the national energy company that was announced in 2017 is yet to materialise. The Scotwind scandal saw the Scottish government eagerly auctioning off Scotland’s offshore wind resources to multinational corporations like BP and Shell.

This record alone illustrates a party that is all talk and no substance, and these policies (and lack thereof) are illustrative of their priorities. These lie with the corporate lobby, British and international institutions, certainly not with the interests of the working class. Unfortunately however, for much of the SNP’s time in government, their failure to address serious economic issues has been able to hide behind a weak anti-Tory facade and ‘socially progressive’ language. Similarly, their insistence on unity around the party for the sake of independence has been an efficacious ploy to mask deeper class conflicts within society.

Lack of strategy

A cursory glance at any strategy for independence also fails to hold up under scrutiny. Sturgeon’s so-called ‘de facto referendum’, and the leadership candidates’ analogous variants, rest upon the assumption that the British Government will concede to a further independence vote, yet fails to address the reality that whoever holds power at Westminster has no incentive to grant one. This apparent lack of political substance goes some way to explaining why the party has arrived at this current moment of chaos: the SNP has had no serious long-term strategy beyond a victory at each election.

Independence is therefore not on the agenda as a practical reality. Facing up to this uncomfortable truth is vital to understanding our current strategic position. Confronting the more general limitations of electoral politics is also a necessary step towards future mobilisations. As socialists, we argue that real change comes from below, it comes from mass movements and it comes from struggle; nothing meaningful is ever just handed to us. A personnel change will certainly not alter the current state of the movement.

The Scottish Left?

Where then, can the left go in Scotland? Unfortunately, much of the Scottish left is tied up with the dominant neoliberal parties. For instance, some people will return to their traditional home of the Labour Party, although with little hope beyond pushing the Conservatives out. Some will stay in the SNP, either out of misguided loyalty to the independence movement or from a lack of anywhere else to go. Some have, and will, go to the Scottish Greens, attracted to their nods to social justice and anti-capitalist language of ‘eco socialism’.  However, if nothing else, the last nine years has shown with startling clarity the real limitations of shallow reformist parties. There is now a persuasive argument to be made for socialists to join and work with other socialists in socialist organisations.

To conclude, this brings me to a few questions that seek to help shape the discussion this evening. Can we return to a point where there was a huge grassroots mobilisation shaping the terms of independence? Have we, in fact, missed our chance? Will independence benefit, or at least create avenues to benefit, the working class? In its current prospectus, probably not. So can we move towards a point where it could? Is now even the time to refocus our energy into rebuilding a movement when there is no clear time frame or point to rally around?

The here and now

Whilst there is no clear road ahead, there is action that can be taken in the present. Socialists in Scotland can provide a sustained critique of the Scottish Government, which for too long has hidden behind the fallacy of imminent independence. We must also demand more than a marginally better situation than the Conservatives have created down south. We can continue to support and participate in the struggles in the streets and the workplaces, and through these we can exercise our agency and actively participate in democracy.

Ultimately, it is through these that we can work towards building politically conscious oppositional forces to institutions of power. A mobilised and politicised working class terrifies the state, and it is there that our collective power lies. With this power we can successfully take on both the Scottish and British establishments to achieve a Scotland that meets our demands.

Finally, this is why organisations like Counterfire are facilitating a space to have these discussions and debates.

Sophie Johnson draws on themes explored more thoroughly in Jonathon Shafi’s weekly newsletter Independence Captured

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