Following Nicola Sturgeon's announcement, Vladimir Unkovski-Korica makes the case for a socialist, internationalist Scotland independent from Westminster and Brussels
First minister Nicola Sturgeon has formally announced that she will seek the authority of the Scottish parliament to call an independence referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 if Scotland faces “a hard Brexit”.
This opens up a period of big debate in Scottish politics. It marks a big opportunity for the left to push a popular vision for a democratic, inclusive and socialist Scotland. To do so we need to be clear that we will not settle for “neoliberalism lite” – we cannot trail the SNP, we need own independent, mass movement in this referendum campaign.
Framing the terms of the debate: the SNP remains wedded to “neoliberalism lite”
This is because the SNP is tied to a fundamentally elite-driven process linked to Scotland’s place in the European Union.
Take the independence vote itself. The prospect of a new vote is for the moment just that – a possibility. Sturgeon has made clear that the SNP is committed to a new vote only if Scotland is unable to retain the kind of relationship it wants with the European Union.
Sturgeon has said that she only took this decision once it became clear that Number 10 would not allow Scotland to retain its place in the European Single Market.
But playing the constitutional game and conducting a top-down campaign against Westminster risks alienating the already disenfranchised and downtrodden in Scotland.
The working class vote should not be taken for granted
Tying the vote to the Scotland’s relationship to the European Union is similarly problematic – tactically and strategically.
While it is true that more than 3 in 5 Scots voted ‘remain’ in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, this is not necessarily an indication that they would now vote to leave the UK. A larger minority voted to leave the EU in Glasgow than in the rest of Scotland – often in working class areas.
Glasgow was also one of the few cities to vote ‘yes’ to independence in 2014. This is not surprising. Neoliberalism in Glasgow led to a threefold fall in jobs in industry. Most jobs are now service sector jobs, with unions decimated, and post-industrial areas of Glasgow are either gentrified or run to the ground with high levels of poverty, health and violence.
Working class anti-establishment feeling runs deep but it is clearly not mindless. Working class Scots often vote a particular way because they are voting against undemocratic elites and neoliberalism.
Interpreting the working class vote in Scotland
A vote for Scottish independence in 2014 was a clear working class vote against remote Westminster. Meanwhile, the vote for remain in 2016 could be seen as another rejection of remote Westminster, but there was also clearly a sizeable working class rejection of Brussels.
The trend is even clearer when we follow national elections. The collapse of Scottish Labour in both the General Election in 2015 – when it was almost totally decimated – and Scottish elections in 2016 – Labour came third behind the SNP and the Tories – is another sign working class discontent with traditional parties and institutions.
The SNP should take Labour’s collapse as a warning. It is clearly not enough to decry the Tory approach to austerity and international relations to win. To win, it is necessary to convince the majority that the alternative to Tory rule from Westminster is better.
The SNP failed to do so in 2014. It became hegemonic in Scotland in 2015 but only in the Westminster elections – in the Scottish elections the following year, the SNP lost its overall majority.
This is a sign that most Scots will trust the SNP to defend Scotland’s interests in Westminster, but that they will not automatically trust the SNP in terms of its domestic policies.
Thus a top-down campaign by the SNP, especially when tied to the European Union, runs risks. Because, rightly, many in Scotland are probably more suspicious of the elites, and of the EU, than the referendum on European membership in 2016 vote may suggest.
The campaign for a new Scotland must start now, in deeds not words
Any case for independence must be coupled with a mass campaign in the here and now against austerity if it is to show another Scotland really is possible. This would mean tackling the crisis in the NHS, opposing the privatisation agenda, and taking action against cuts in the public sector.
We should not trust the SNP to automatically do any of this, left to its own devices. Instead, a mass campaign, along the lines of the Radical Independence Campaign in 2014, is necessary to shape the debate around independence.
And this time, the socialist left within this campaign will have to redouble its efforts to oppose austerity now, not in two years. Its radical message that a different, socialist Scotland is possible was key to turning out the popular vote in 2014. It can be critical again.
Independence from Westminster – but also from Brussels
Moreover, this time, the socialist left has to be clear that Scotland is not escaping its fate as a guinea pig for Tory austerity in order to become the next Greece of the EU.
The Tories campaigned successfully in 2014 at least in part because they said an independent Scotland would be forced to adopt the Euro. Many Scots feared that in 2014 and they will not stop fearing that in 2017.
They may also be scared of what European Union looks like several months from now, with the prospect of a Marine Le Pen presidency looming large in France. Who knows what other crises await the EU before the independence referendum takes place.
We should therefore be clear that remaining in the EU means remaining wedded to neoliberalism and racism.
Single market rules force member states to run market economies with free competition and they rule out nationalisation. We should be arguing instead for greater democratic control and participation over the economy – if we are to make sure that, in an independent Scotland, workers are not made to pay for the current budget deficit.
We should also be clear that tens of thousands of migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get to the EU. They were fleeing countries destroyed and impoverished by Western policies and wars. They were greeted by patrol boats and barbed wire fences. We should be demanding an end to imperialist policies and for open borders. This is miles from the politics of Westminster and Brussels.
For a socialist and internationalist Scotland
All this clearly means the left in Scotland would not be arguing for an insular and closed Scotland. Rather, we should instead link up with left movements across borders – movements against austerity, war and racism in England and Wales, but also across Europe.
This would allow us not just to build a mass campaign for independence but to put pressure from below on any government in Holyrood come independence. As a national party, the SNP is now able to unite left and right in opposition to Westminster – but come independence, the SNP would be divided about the road forward.
In case of victory, the road to left re-alignment in Scotland would be open and the movement would be in a prime position to shape the new independent state. Moreover, by breaking with Westminster and Brussels, but linking up with internationalist movements for social justice and solidarity, the left would be hastening the dissolution of imperialist and racist institutions like the UK and the EU.
This would encourage progressive forces to cut the ground under the feet of those resisting neoliberalism from a purely right wing standpoint and encourage the left everywhere.
Indeed, the time may then come when Scotland could federate again with the England and Wales and much of the rest of Europe, when political forces of the left have gained ground and power both here and there.
But as Marx said about Ireland: first comes separation, then comes federation. We must build fast to make sure that we do not squander this opportunity a second time. We must build a mass movement which will be able to break the link with Tory Westminster and hold the SNP to account. We have more than a year. Failure could mean more years of Tory rule and loss of devolution. This is the fight of our lives.
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