Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon meeting with Guy Verhofstadt, June 2016. Photo: Flickr/ALDE Group

The SNP’s disappointing drift rightwards and Labour’s confusion on the national question make it harder for the left both during and after the general election, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Just days after Nicola Sturgeon vowed to hold a new independence referendum in 2020, Boris Johnson responded with a ‘cast iron pledge’ that he would deny such a referendum if made PM.

Even if you cannot trust Johnson that this is not another ‘I would rather die in a ditch’ claim, we can take his statement as a serious election strategy.

After all, running on an anti-independence platform gave the Tories 13 seats in Scotland in 2017.

That was their best showing since 1983 and it proved to be just enough to deliver a Conservative-DUP government.

Conservative blues

But things are not quite looking so rosy for the Tories this time round. Johnson got booed on his first visit to Scotland as PM (he is getting rather good at that). Journalists have chided him that his visits to Scotland tend to be to secure or remote locations, where he won’t be bothered by the public.

If the more charismatic Johnson is proving as enterprising as the rather wooden Theresa May was in avoiding meeting potential voters, this must reflect a real problem for the Tories.

Indeed, even a recent YouGov poll put the Tories on just 3 seats in Scotland. To underline how bad that may be, we can point out that the same poll predicted 4 seats Lib Dems.

The Tories are deeply unpopular because of the class warfare that they have waged against working class people in Scotland since the 1980s.

But they have also appeared deeply divided over several issues including Brexit.

This has been particularly visible in Scotland. Since Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in 2016, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson tried to tack the Scottish Tories on the anti-No Deal spectrum of the UK party. She also tried hard to appear liberal on various social issues.

It became clear that this was not a dominant position when Davidson quit her position in August. A sign of how deep the crisis in the Scottish Tories is that a new leader has not been appointed since. This may mean that some anti-Brexit Tory supporters may find voting for Boris Johnson’s party difficult.

Scottish nationalists

Meanwhile, the SNP is riding high. Support in the polls suggests it could win more than 50 seats, as in 2015.

This is despite the fact that the SNP has visibly moved towards the neoliberal centre since 2017. The SNP’s growth commission report in May 2018, for instance, wedded any SNP path to independence with the pound and tight restraints on public spending.

The SNP also rejected several potential moves left offered by Scottish Labour in Holyrood, voting with the Tories against ScotRail nationalisation in October 2019.

These kinds of moves can hardly inspire mass confidence, so we need to look elsewhere to understand the sources of the SNP’s current popularity.

Its continued rhetorical commitment to Scottish independence is a major element of the story. This gives the SNP a radical gloss and a simple response to how it is different from the other mainstream parties: it is ready to lift two fingers to Westminster.

Support for SNP has grown among some former opponents, too, because of the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Scotland voted by almost two thirds to remain in the EU. The SNP’s act as a remain party thus appeals to both Scottish nationalists and non-nationalist Remainers, who are now more open to voting for the SNP and even Scottish independence if either means remaining in the EU.

But the SNP has crucially also defended elements of the welfare state in Scotland – students do not pay fees north of the border, for example – which has been enough to ensure working class support for its claim that it is a better alternative to Tory Westminster rule.

Moreover, the SNP is making defence of the NHS a central plank of its election strategy, as made clear by Nicola Sturgeon during the launch of the SNP campaign on 8 November.

This is clearly an attempt at neutralising the Scottish Labour Party, which had an unexpected bounce in 2017, after the “Corbyn effect” gave it a last-minute jump in the polls and 7 MPs.

The two exposed flanks of the SNP

While the SNP’s triangulation strategy has paid dividends in the polls since 2017, careful analysis suggests that its apparent hegemony in Scotland is not all that certain.

While its drift towards the centre has won some additional supporters, especially among liberals and Remainers, it has left it exposed on two flanks.

First, it has meant that more radical independence campaigners have become disillusioned in its further rebranding of independence as a responsible, neoliberal choice. And this is evident because protests organised by the independent All Under One Banner pressure group have been better attended and more spirited than those organised by forces closer to the SNP.

To illustrate the point, it is enough to compare the 200,000-strong march in Edinburgh in early October this year with the 20,000-person demonstration organised in Glasgow a few weeks later under the auspices of the National newspaper, but carefully choreographed to leave out non-mainstream voices in the independence movement.

It is under the circumstances not unsurprising that we have seen the successful re-launch meeting of the Radical Independence Campaign in Glasgow’s Radisson Blu hotel in late October. Pro-independence forces independent of the SNP have found renewed strength that can help renew the independence cause as a matter of the popular classes.

While there is unlikely to be a radical independence challenge to the SNP at the ballot box, the re-emergence of that pole in Scotland helps disentangle the radical promise of independence from the SNP.

That means that the independence cause will not die away or be weakened if pro-independence voters stay home or vote for other parties, including potentially for Labour, precisely because these voters’ hopes and horizons will see beyond this particular set of elections.

This uncoupling of the SNP and the independence movement thus exposes the SNP’s other flank, the electoral one. If you can remain a pro-independence activist and not vote for the SNP, you can seek common cause with the Corbyn project at the ballot box.

Fudging the national question blunts Corbyn’s radical message and weakens the left

However, the unionist core of the party makes it hard for independence supporters to vote Labour in Scotland. This is reflected in Labour’s continued trouble in opinion polls north of the border: once dominant, it is even trailing the Liberal Democrats in fourth place.

Corbyn himself has usually been at pains to keep the door open to another independence referendum. Despite that, the strength of unionism in the Labour Party is such that even Corbyn himself appeared to deny that another vote would take place in the lifetime of the next parliament.

Labour Party officials later clarified that Corbyn would allow a second independence referendum under certain conditions. These would likely relate to the Holyrood elections in 2021 – and be conditional upon pro-independence groups winning a majority then.

But this kind of confusion serves only to dampen the radical message of the Corbyn project in Scotland. Instead of signalling to independence supporters that voting Labour in this general election will not close off the possibility of another referendum further down the line, and thus pulling the SNP back to the left, it is instead driving supporters away and enabling the SNP’s triangulation to the right.

But the Corbyn project is exciting because it represents on almost every other question the possibility of a break from the status quo. In rejecting austerity and promising wholesale reversal of neoliberal policies, Corbyn is breaking with the politics of the establishment over the last four decades.

Moreover, if you can envisage worker shareholding across the private sector, free fibre broadband for every household by 2030, zero carbon emissions by the same date, and a socialist foreign policy, why should it be so difficult to imagine the end of the oldest imperial state in the world at the same time?

This serious shortcoming risks weakening the radical potential of Corbynism, but it also places radical independence campaigners in a potentially more difficult position after the election. For, even if the SNP practically sweeps the board as in 2015, this is no guarantee that it will be willing to push for an independence vote in 2020, especially in the event of a Tory victory.

The SNP has already signalled that it will not conduct a new vote illegally, so its posturing on independence is likely to be with a view to winning another Scottish election in 2021 and using that as a springboard for further, long-term action. The more the SNP delays and dithers, though, the weaker the hand of the independence movement against the British state.

This means that, whatever the outcome of the general election, the left in Scotland will have to seek ways to overcome the divide between the organised labour movement and the radical independence movement. It will also need to ensure its focus is on extra-parliamentary mobilisation, in which the SNP and Scottish Labour continue to be weak, but which alone has the power to break the British establishment.

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.