Chris Bambery analyses the growing mass movement for Scottish independence and its prospects for success
On Saturday 5 October the largest public demonstration in Scottish history took place in Edinburgh when 200,000 people marched for independence. That’s not my figure, it’s the BBC’s, so it must be right. That surpasses the protest against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The turn out in Edinburgh was approaching a Catalan-style figure – Catalan flags were well in evidence on the day.
What has changed in Scotland to create such a turn out?
The first thing is that the chaos at Westminster means that people looking at the goings-on there draw the simple conclusion that these people could not organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery. In Scotland that takes a different turn because Boris Johnson represents a party which has no mandate to govern in Scotland and personally epitomises the class-ridden political system of the United Kingdom.
Added to that is the fact that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the European Union but in the negotiations, first under Theresa May and now Johnson, its wishes and interests have been ignored. The notion that this is not a “Union of equals” has become common currency north of the border. So even among Leave voters there is a renewed feeling that Scotland’s wishes are being ignored by a government in London they did not vote for.
The likelihood is that a Westminster general election will take place before Xmas once Britain has left the EU. Polls suggest that the Scottish National Party will sweep the board.
Given that the SNP has now been in government since 2007 that’s fairly remarkable but it is under no pressure from the right – the Tories reached peak vote in the UK 2017 general election and as elsewhere are imploding but without a large enough Unionist and Leave constituency to rally – or from the left because Scottish Labour is continuing its slide into oblivion, for reasons to which I will return.
But the SNP’s performance in office in recent times has been lacklustre and while it has secured a majority in the Scottish Parliament to call a second independence referendum, it has no real timetable for this. Nor does it have a response as to what happens if the government in London says no (currently the go ahead for a referendum has to be agreed by both governments), which Johnson has made clear he would do.
A growing mass movement
The result has been a growing dissatisfaction among independence supporters who want to get away from the UK as soon as possible. That is where ‘All Under One Banner’ stepped in because by organising a series of marches for independence across the country, culminating in Edinburgh on 5 October, it re-captured the verve and enthusiasm so evident in the closing stages of the 2014 independence referendum.
It also meant that this new movement went beyond the SNP, as was the case in 2014. Not that SNP MPs, MSPs and members were not out in force last Saturday, but the march was clearly anti-Tory and anti-imperialist (Palestinian flags were to be seen).
Some criticised the lack of chanting and so on but as with the giant marches against the Iraq invasion, that was largely true because most people had not demonstrated before and, unlike veterans, did not come expecting to chant and so on.
The emergence of a mass movement does not guarantee a Tory government in London would acquiesce to a second independence referendum, but it is a huge asset. The re-launch of the Radical Independence Campaign is another welcome development.
Thatcher, New Labour and the roots of change
What is happening across the component parts of the United Kingdom is a growing disconnect from the Union in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and the political alignment within each one is also diverging. So, while in England the forthcoming general election will be a contest between Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn (despite the media trying to dig up a Liberal Democrat revival) it is not as simple as that elsewhere.
In Scotland, Scottish Labour seems to face disaster. Given it ran the place until little over a decade ago that’s a remarkable story and brings us back to a pivotal moment, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Across Britain the majority of the population shared revulsion against this military adventure and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s slavish support for President George W. Bush. Six years before, Blair had secured a land slide victory because of a deep desire among voters to shift away from a Thatcherite full-blooded neo-liberal agenda. Yet they soon found that Blair, Gordon Brown and the rest of the New Labour government were just as enthusiastic about pursuing a neo-liberal agenda as the Tories they had replaced.
South of the border there was no real electoral alternative to New Labour so, despite the revulsion at the invasion of Iraq, New Labour largely retained its support. In Scotland things were different.
Firstly, against his better judgement, Blair had to give in on delivering a manifesto pledge to create a Scottish Parliament. Scottish Labour assured him devolution would finish off any threat from the Scottish National Party because it would satisfy the aspirations of most Scots. Blair believed granting this was to embark on a slippery slope towards the breakup of the UK but gave way.
In fact, support for devolution had grown in the second half of the 1980s after Thatcher had seen off a wave of working-class resistance to her assault, culminating in the year-long Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. That defeat led working people in Scotland to see that the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament could provide a shield against the worst of Thatcherism. In 1992 the Tories under John Major unexpectedly won a UK general election that Labour had been expected to win. Once more Scotland faced being ruled by a Tory government that few in the country had voted for. People took to the streets demanding a Scottish Parliament.
But the eventual creation of Scottish devolution meant that many traditional Labour voters alienated from New Labour released that there was an alternative: independence. Initially they tended to vote Labour in the 2005 and 2010 UK general elections but in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary elections the SNP topped the poll, forming a minority government, and have held onto office to this day.
That resulted from the second change; realising that New Labour’s shift right had created a space, the SNP under Alex Salmond moved to take over Old Labour rhetoric and, in office, to implement policies like free education, which put clear red water between Holyrood and Westminster.
Scottish Labour reacted to its defeat in 2007 by burying its head in the sand, unable to countenance that it was losing control of heartlands it had taken for granted. This was augmented by other factors. One was that despite the creation of a Scottish Parliament, high-flyers continued to see Westminster as the place to pursue their career not Holyrood. The result was Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament were lacklustre. Secondly, in Glasgow and the West of Scotland Labour membership was always low because the party bureaucracy was right wing and distrusted members so did not encourage recruitment or new members.
The result was Scottish Labour sleepwalked into a cycle of decline.
In 2017 the party did get a boost from the Corbyn wave, but it was less rooted in Scotland because Scottish Labour was so right wing it never mentioned Corbyn and because they ran a campaign aiming fire at Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP and the possibility of a second independence referendum.
Nonetheless Scottish Labour came third behind the SNP, who got 36.9 percent of the votes, and the Tories, who got 28.6 percent. Scottish Labour got 27.1 percent, winning just 9,860 extra votes.
In the European elections earlier this year things went from bad to worse as Scottish Labour came fifth with less than 10% of the vote - down from 26% in 2014.
Polls suggest that in the forthcoming UK general election Scottish Labour will struggle to hold seats.
The party is bitterly divided between a Blairite wing and those loyal to the left-wing leader, Richard Leonard – but he is no Corbyn. He comes across as the GMB trade union official he was, he does not shine, and he tends to focus still on attacking the SNP and a second independence referendum.
That allows the SNP to maintain its hold, increasingly in working-class areas of Central Scotland – a drastic shift from pre-2014 when its heartlands were seen in the largely rural North East.
As the UK approaches a general election – which the SNP are pressing for unlike the other opposition parties and the right of the Labour Party – the possibility of a Johnson government being returned would set the stage for Scotland to rush for the exit. Support for independence has grown and is around, or over, 50 percent.
The big question is how to respond if a Johnson government vetoes a second independence referendum. The Scottish Parliament has voted to hold one and if the SNP secures a bigger majority of Westminster seats there is a mandate to hold one. In my opinion a referendum must go ahead but we will require a mass movement not just to deliver that but to counter the British state.
If Corbyn were to get into Downing Street, he has said he will agree to a referendum (to the anguish of Scottish Labour) but has indicated he would wait a year or two. The mass pro-independence movement needs to ensure there is no such delay.
Finally, it is important to remind ourselves that in 2014 the vote for independence grew the further down the social and income ladder you climbed. Last Saturday the marchers were dressed differently but it had the flavour of the marches in support of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1971, in support of the miners in 1984, against the Poll Tax in 1989 or 14 years later that against the Iraq War.
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.
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- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win
- Scotland: it's time to break from a broken UK
- Scotland's election
- Huge numbers join Catalonia's general strike for freedom
- Civil liberties in Spain? The clampdown against the Catalan independence movement