In the context of polling showing historic levels of support for independence, Jonathon Shafi looks at the class politics driving the surge, and the consequences
With a second poll confirming support for Scottish independence at 54%, there is no longer any question that the pandemic has not dampened support for independence, but increased it. Many predicted the demise of the independence movement, and the subordination of the national question in general, as a result of Covid-19. The opposite has happened.
This polling trend is based on numerous factors. For some, the Tory handling of Covid-19 was the final push needed. Brexit has alienated new cohorts of voters from the Union. The demise of the Corbyn project has sharpened the question of independence. Boris Johnson is deeply unpopular, and distrusted – and has been key to mobilising support for independence.
These factors, not the presence of a major independence campaign are driving independence support. For the last 4 years, the SNP have been soft pedalled independence, elevating opposition to Brexit. And, they enlisted Scotland's corporate lobby to design the 'Growth Commission’ - a deeply unattractive and unpopular economic blueprint for a compromised independence.
Two facts must be stressed here. Firstly on the Growth Commission would be the negotiating position following any Yes vote. This is critical, because it leaves economic power with the City and within the UK framework. It is a neoliberal straight-jacket. It is a form of devolution – but one which would further rationalise the worst elements of British capitalism in the Scottish context.
Second, some have seen the recent polling as a vindication of the approach of the SNP leadership. This is an error. Their lack of action (intellectually and organisationally) means that at this critical juncture – arrived at as a result of the decline of the British state, not by the SNP – there is a lack of preparation.
The currency issue, for example, should have been bedding in for the last four years. Instead of a clear position for a Scottish currency, the SNP leadership have opted for Sterlingisation (the tests that must be applied to form an independent currency are designed never to be met). What is important here is the method as well as the practical questions that arise. The method is the following: to make 'independence' in name only, in order that it can become palatable to UK political and financial institutions.
The other major issue is how to get an independence referendum in the first place. Instead of developing the movement since 2014 the SNP leadership have sought to supplant or offset it with repeated false dawns via managerial, technocratic and corporate elites. They believe that the route to a referendum is to make independence a palatable option to both the Scottish and the English capitalist class. To ensure that the organic links between the Scottish and Westminster/City establishments are not disrupted.
The question of the EU is wrapped up in all of this too. Here, I am not looking for an argument with those who are pro-EU. But to be clear about the nature of the SNP leadership’s relationship with it and to register that many of the arguments and institutional obstructions around Brexit, will also be erected around independence. The questions have become synonymous – since the SNP focused on opposition to the UK leaving the EU, rather than on the wider democratic case for Scottish independence in the years that followed the Leave vote.
At the same time we have seen a steady shift in the SNP’s economic policy to the right. In recent weeks they have supported Scotland's landlord class over tenants. The last programme for government outlined how the Scottish Government were to sell off Scotland's green and renewable assets (totalling £3 Billion) to global investors. The report of the Economic Recovery Group, convened to guide the economic recovery post-Covid-19 by a who's who of the Scottish and Oxbridge establishment, is designed to protect the vested interests of landowners, bankers and corporate elites.
Again – this underlines the method of the SNP leadership. This is a strategy for placating, rather than challenging, the status quo. And this extends to the Union. A solid rise in support for independence infact offers problems for the SNP leadership, who want to avoid confrontations with the British state and wider elite interests.
But then again, they have already said repeatedly that polls must rise to 60% in favour of Yes before another referendum can be countenanced. This is not just about aversion to risk, and the much vaunted 'caution' of Nicola Sturgeon, but because of the material interests of the Scottish establishment.
These interests are counter-posed with the primary expression of the independence movement, namely the massive demonstrations. Here – in the largest mobilisations of the Scottish working class that exist at present – there is urgency, a willingness to be combative, and crucially, they exist outside of the crucible of the SNP leadership who they have been critical of.
Be under no illusions: the mass people's campaign of 2014 spooked the Scottish establishment, including the technocratic elements of Scottish nationalism.
As such, there has been an ongoing effort to steer away from this movement rather than to see the potential of it. Sturgeon would send a hesitant tweet of congratulations, but never attend the demonstrations.
This time round, the SNP leadership want to ensure that they are in control of the process, unlike in 2014. They wish to ensure too that the potential of a larger democratic uprising is contained within the channels of formal politics where establishment interests can be protected.
All of this underlines why the left should be engaged in the independence cause. It is in this arena that the contradictions between the SNP leadership and the movement largely play out, and with it the conflict between the aspirations of the most mobilised part of the Scottish working class and the economic (and other) interests of the status quo.
Beyond that, this is where the primary form of opposition to the Tories resides at present. There will be struggles which emerge. But is unlikely that, for example, a strike movement in Scotland will come to supersede the independence front when it comes to opposing Johnson.
The issue is how to inter-penetrate these questions in a way that draws out the self-organisation of working class Scotland, so that it can demand not just independence, but one that transforms the social order. And not just for higher pay, but democratic control.
By seeking to impede and stymie independence, Scottish Labour (including the Labour left) are unable to relate either to the increasing pro-independence sentiment, or to contest the neoliberalism of the SNP. It is impossible to counter-act the managerialism of the SNP, while arguing against attempts to break from Johsnon and the British state – especially in light of the demise of Corbynism.
Lastly – this question is not separate from international developments. For example, let's say Biden wins in November. That, alongside the defeat of Corbynism in Labour, becomes an axis upon which to re-establish the transatlantic alliance as understood pre-Trump. It is this partnership that is critical in stabilising the whole of Western politics.
In those circumstances, it may be that the SNP leadership would want to avoid being at the helm of what would be framed by European and American elites as a ‘national populist’ movement aimed at breaking the British State. All of that would be wholly counter-propositional to the methodology and positioning of the SNP leadership.
For all of these reasons, a rejuvenation and re-organisation of the pro-independence left is essential in the current period.
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Jonathon Shafi is organiser of the International Socialist Group (ISG) Scotland. He has played a long-standing role in anti-cuts and anti-war in Glasgow and a founder member of the Radical Independence Campaign.