Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: ScottishPolitico / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

The stage is set for referendum battle after the independence parties triumphed, reports Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

With the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the pro-independence Greens gaining seats on a record turnout, the Scottish elections have delivered an emphatic mandate for another independence referendum.

The SNP went up one seat to 64 out of 129 seats – just one short of a majority. But the Greens, who have pledged another independence referendum in their manifesto, took two more seats to reach 8, giving the pro-independence bloc its biggest majority ever in the Scottish parliament, Holyrood.

They will feel encouraged because the combined vote of all the independence parties surpassed 50% on the so-called list vote, which includes more parties than the constituency vote.

The unionist parties meanwhile lost ground. The Tories remained on 31, but Labour went down two to hit its lowest result since devolution with just 22 MSPs, and the Liberal Democrats likewise lost a seat, gaining 4 seats.

The SNP capitalised on strong support for Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the Covid pandemic, which was better than Westminster’s, though it still ranked pretty poorly by European standards.

Pitching to the left, the Greens spoke of the need for a green recovery to tackle the climate crisis and taxing wealth.


By contrast, the campaigns of the unionist parties seemed lacklustre and negative. The Tory campaign was dominated by its unionist messaging.

In a failed attempt to arrest its long decline, Scottish Labour emphasised its new leader Anas Sarwar’s personality.  

Although the Scottish Labour manifesto underlined many of the left wing policies on social issues inherited from the Richard Leonard administration, its public presentation emphasised the need to prioritise recovery from the Covid crisis.

This was in effect coded unionist messaging against a referendum. Sarwar participated in ‘Better Together’ campaign in 2014, which saw Labour and Tory grandees campaign together against independence.

It was during his brief 10-week tenure that a left wing candidate in the Glasgow Kelvin constituency who defended holding an IndyRef2 was removed as a candidate against the wishes of the local CLP.

The Liberal Democrats also opposed a referendum, partly on the grounds that recovery from the pandemic should be a priority.

Although there was no dramatic collapse among the unionist parties, they did lose ground, suggesting that the tide continues to turn against them as more and more Scots reject Westminster rule.


As news of an independence majority reached Boris Johnson, he too played on the pandemic, arguing that a referendum could not reasonably be held now.

That he did not rule out a referendum categorically is, however, not insignificant. He knows that, in the eyes of the Scottish population, refusing a referendum would feed support for independence.

We now face a high-stakes constitutional conflict that Sturgeon wishes to control. And, like Johnson, she is playing her cards very cautiously indeed.

In the past, Sturgeon has ruled out an illegal vote, clearly fearful of the Catalan precedent. Catalonia tried to hold a unilateral referendum and to declare independence in 2017, only to be met with heavy-handed police tactics and repression by the Spanish authorities.

Sturgeon’s game has been to constantly place the ball in Johnson’s court. Her campaign promise that she would not hold a referendum before the end of the pandemic was carefully designed to blunt the unionist charge that the SNP do not put the country first.

On winning the election, Sturgeon has rightly stated that her government now has the mandate to draft legislation on a new vote and she has challenged Johnson to take the issue to court if he disagreed.

Tory machinations

Simply refusing a referendum, while perfectly constitutional and probably popular with the Tory base, would politically be damaging, and Johnson knows this. That may not stop him, but he will probably try other routes.

So he may be tempted to play a different card and demand that any referendum should be held according to rules agreed between Holyrood and Westminster, placing the ball back in Sturgeon’s court.

Here, the going would get more difficult, as any refusal by Holyrood could then be used as an excuse to block a referendum by Westminster on issues of process, without ruling one out in principle.

The hope would be that the SNP, in power now for 14 years, would begin to lose popularity on account of voter weariness and real problems borne of neoliberal policies followed by the SNP in Scotland.

Indeed, the SNP has repositioned itself as a party of technocratic competence and political moderation in the past few years, epitomised by the neoliberal turn with the so-called Growth Commission report of 2018. This hardly enthuses ordinary folk going forward.

Sources for the BBC on Saturday predicted that Sturgeon plans high-profile visits abroad and hopes to pile moral pressure on Westminster to allow it a free hand.

But it is naïve in the extreme to expect that independence can be gained without winning major confrontations with Westminster.

And the reality is that the British ruling class is the oldest capitalist ruling class in the world for a reason: they have survived many crises including the collapse of the British Empire.

With Labour in meltdown, the Tories, the nasty party, and the party of choice of the British establishment, could use carrot and stick to begin to erode the popular support of the SNP in Scotland.

The success of the vaccine rollout is an example of the kind of policies the Tories may pursue. Targeted state investment to bolster the UK state coupled with encroachment on Holyrood’s powers are other potential routes.

More democracy, not less

So the going is hardly going to be simple. But first things first. There is a mandate for a referendum, and it is for the Scottish people to decide their future.

This is a fundamental democratic principle that should be insisted on. In Scotland, but also in England, where the left will have to pressure Westminster to defend the right of the Scottish people to self-determination.

Moreover, when it comes to the crunch, Scotland will need to be able to defy Westminster. Independence will not be a gift from abroad, and it is unlikely foreign capitals would support unilateral moves by Holyrood.

The EU may be tempted to pressure London, but that may backfire in England and put pressure on Johnson to defy foreign pressures.

The US establishment weighed in against Scottish independence under Obama and there seems to be no good reason for Biden to change US policy as Britain is a key Nato ally.

So any strategy resting on Westminster’s good will or support from foreign capitals is unlikely to go far, or is likely to come with strings attached – like a commitment to keep Trident.

Any strategy, likewise, that wishes to avoid rocking the boat for fear of upsetting Scottish businesses, with deep trading interests with England, is pie in the sky.

It is enough to look at Ireland since 1921, with its dominant bourgeois establishment parties, to see that that kind of independence is very limiting indeed.

The major constituency for Scottish independence is the disenfranchised Scottish working class, which has borne the brunt of decades neoliberal policies, brutal de-industrialisation, impoverishment, and political humiliation from Westminster.

It was former industrial powerhouses like Glasgow that voted ‘YES’ in 2014, and it was there that the plebeian element of the independence movement struck a chord. It was in Glasgow that we’ve seen the largest demonstrations for independence put on by All Under One Banner in 2019.

So for independence to mean anything, it has to be won by the pressure and actions of working people themselves.

This is why we must insist that the SNP’s current top-down, legalistic approach to independence should be jettisoned.

We should instead insist on the most popular, most democratic demands to be placed right, front and centre of the campaign for independence: that it is the right of the Scottish people to decide their own future, regardless of what Westminster thinks.

And we should prepare for decisive confrontation with a ruthless enemy that is not going to give way without a fight.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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