On the surface, the local election results in England suggest that the Tories have escaped a reckoning for their Covid catastrophe: a death toll of over 150,000, the biggest economic contraction in three centuries and the lives of countless workers upended. But in Scotland, the landslide victory for the SNP and the pro-independence majority that was returned to the Scottish parliament reflect the brewing crisis that is undermining the very foundations of the UK. There is an undoubtable mandate for indyref2, posing a real threat to Boris Johnson, the Tories and British capitalism.
Throughout the last year, polls have consistently shown a majority in Scotland who favour leaving the UK, climbing to over 70% amongst young people. Boris Johnson’s criminal mismanagement of the pandemic – its devastating impact on the lives of workers and young people – has only increased the discontent that fuels the desire for independence and a break with Tory rule.
The unprecedented 63% turnout – up 10% from 2016 – shows the importance of these elections. For many indy supporters, the next phase of the struggle was seen to hinge on returning a majority of MSPs committed, on paper at least, to securing independence. Although the SNP has fallen one seat short of an outright majority, the Greens winning 8 seats means 72 of 129 MSPs are pro-independence. Establishment commentators’ hollow narrative that ‘unionist’ parties secured a narrow majority of the popular vote is belied by the fact that polls consistently show that 30-40% of Labour voters (and even a significant minority of Labour Party members) support independence.
While these results mark a turning point, adding momentum to the demand for indyref2, the path ahead is littered with obstacles that only a mass movement of the working class can overcome.
Scottish Tories Ramp up Unionism
The Scottish Tories will remain Holyrood’s second largest party after a campaign that portrayed them as the most capable fighters against independence. “Let’s Stop the SNP and indyref2 together” was one of many slogans that reflected a hardened polarisation on the national question. Outside of their traditional base, they also targeted pro-Union Labour and Lib-Dem voters. Notwithstanding new leader Douglas Ross’s low popularity ratings, this approach seems to have paid off. As one poll revealed, half of those planning on voting Tory were doing so for ‘tactical’ reasons – to keep Scotland in the Union.
While the Conservative and Unionist Party were forced to distance themselves from their English counterparts (Johnson cancelled a pre-election visit to Scotland), there can be no doubt that they are cut from the same reactionary cloth. In one of last month’s televised debates Ross came under fire for his despicable attitude towards Travellers. That this provoked such outrage points to the shift to the left amongst many workers and young people, a sharpened understanding that the Tories are an utterly rotten, racist outfit, and that the growing support for independence is not based on a narrow chauvinistic nationalism.
Tory opposition to a second referendum was mimicked by Scottish Labour which continued its shift to the right. Following the resignation of soft-left Corbyn sympathiser Richard Leonard, Anas Sarwar (a millionaire businessman, whose family firm refuses to recognise trade unions) was elected leader, putting the Blairites back in the driver’s seat. But any hope that Sarwar might reboot Scottish Labour have been dashed. Seemingly in terminal decline, they have lost a further 2 MSPs and recorded their worst ever vote since the establishment of the Scottish parliament.
In the final days of the campaign former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown lashed out at the SNP with words betraying Labour’s mindset:
“That’s the difference: We want to end child poverty, the SNP want to end the United Kingdom. They wake up in the morning thinking about a referendum, we wake up in the morning wanting a recovery. They go to bed dreaming of separation, we go to bed dreaming of social justice.”
Although the SNP should indeed be taken up for their dismal record on tackling inequality, Brown, who himself inflicted brutal austerity on working-class communities across Britain, is the last person in a position to point the finger.
What’s more, this logic fails to grasp that support for independence has grown precisely because Scottish workers and youth see it as necessary to break with crushing poverty and precarity, something Labour have neither the programme nor the will to achieve. Socialist Alternative explains that for Scottish independence to really transform the lives of workers and the poor, a socialist vision, which moves far beyond the pro-capitalist leadership of the SNP, is required.
SNP & Alba
Despite the SNP’s own complicity in the making of the current crisis, they have increased their vote from 2016 and gained an MSP. Throughout the pandemic, Sturgeon has enjoyed a surge in approval ratings as her more PR savvy communiques and “cautious” demeanour meant that she stood in stark contrast to a pompous Johnson, a personification of capitalism’s reckless pursuit of profit at all costs.
Indeed, the electoral triumph of the SNP does not reflect widespread illusions in a party that has moved further to the right and whose Covid response subordinated the health and lives of working class people to the interests of capital. In the absence of a mass left alternative a vote for the SNP was seen as the only viable route to a second referendum.
Indeed Sturgeon barely survived a political crisis that racked the SNP in the months prior to the election. Although manifesting itself as a personal dispute between herself and former First Minster Alex Salmond, the rupture in the SNP and subsequent formation of the Alba party reflected the growing class contradictions within the movement. Salmond attempted to exploit the discontent towards the Sturgeon leadership, in particular its/her conciliatory approach towards winning a second referendum. A number of figures within the SNP and the broader indy movement joined Alba, including former socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan.
Standing only on regional lists and calling for a tactical second vote, Alba’s campaign was based on gaming the peculiarities of the Scottish electoral system to win a “supermajority” of pro-indy MSPs. Nevertheless, they failed to win a single seat.
Any illusion that Alba represented a left alternative to the SNP should now be utterly smashed. It became clear during the course of the election that Salmond is surrounded by a rag-bag of reactionaries, including out and out racists. Central Scotland candidate Margaret Lynch made the false and vile claim that LGBT campaign groups were advocating for reducing the age of consent to 10-years-old. Nor did Salmond’s own allegedly predatory and misogynistic behaviour do him any favours amongst radicalised women and young people who reject sexism in all its forms more than ever before.
Greens: Left Alternative?
The Green Party Scotland managed to increase its vote and pick up an additional two MSP seats. Responding to pressure from below, their campaign tacked left with commitments for green jobs, funding for housing and social services as well as a millionaire tax. With the Labour Party back in the grip of the Blairites and hopelessly out of touch on the national question some look towards the Greens as a pro-indy left-wing force.
Yet the Greens remain a party unable or unwilling to break with capitalism. At Holyrood, this has meant that, at best, their ‘opposition’ is limited to tinkering around the edges of Sturgeon’s approach – that of ‘reluctantly’ implementing Westminster austerity. Most importantly, they have failed to organise a fightback in the workplace or communities.
Undoubtedly many Green voters, as well as members of the Green Party, are genuinely searching for a way out of the impasse of capitalism. Many grasp that the ecological crisis facing the planet springs from the profit system. This necessarily places a global struggle to end that system and plan green growth across the world at the head of the agenda, an argument which will attract a growing audience across Scotland in the run-up to the Glasgow COP26 ‘global warming’ summit this autumn. But this is not what the Green Party is offering. They stop short of offering a programme that challenges the capitalist system and points towards a socialist alternative. What’s more, it was precisely in the field of internationalism that Greens’ manifesto revealed the inadequacy of confining their strategy within the bounds of capitalism. Like the SNP, they argued that:
The Scottish Greens believe Scotland’s future is best served as a full member of the European Union…. We will therefore campaign…to re-join the EU as an independent nation as soon as possible
EU membership, however, would lock an independent Scotland into a capitalist trading block dedicated to defending the interests of the very monopolies which destroy the planet for profit. Indeed, the EU could be used by the capitalist class to place obstacles in the road of any moves on the part of a potential left government in Scotland to roll back decades of austerity and take socialist measures.
On independence they similarly also come up short, echoing the same legalistic strategy of Sturgeon and co. Their manifesto outlines that any effort of the UK government to block a referendum would be “subject to legal challenge.” This ignores the fact that the bosses’ courts have always acted as roadblock in the way of the economic, social and democratic struggles of our class.
Ruling Class Oppose Independence
For all these reasons it is by no means clear that the current pro-indy majority will be enough to guarantee indyref2. As the results were still coming in, Johnson was clear in his dismissal of a second referendum calling it “reckless” and “irresponsible.” Likewise, Michael Gove claimed that the SNP’s failure to win an overall majority, undermines the case for indyref2.
Although these results undoubtedly put the Tories under increased pressure, the comments of Johnson and Gove give an insight into the entrenched opposition the indy movement will face. Both understand that the situation is vastly different from 2014, when an arrogant ruling class granted a referendum unaware of the working-class revolt that was about to take shape.
In response to the SNP victory, Johnson has now called a Covid recovery summit of the devolved UK nations on how they can work together to overcome the crisis. Although to date he has been particularly hard-nosed and even clumsy in his opposition to independence, we may see a changed approach from some sections of the ruling class, aiming instead for a settlement or constitutional ‘reset’ to save the UK from demise. However, this would only differ in style rather than substance as it remains the case that a mass movement for Scottish independence would be a nightmare for the British ruling class. They will therefore do all they can to stop it.
Mass Working Class Movement Needed
Although such efforts to ‘reset’ the UK are almost certainly too little too late and will not halt the key processes driving support for independence, it’s not entirely ruled out that they could be used by Sturgeon and others as cover for a retreat.
While Sturgeon has confidently stated that it is “a matter of when not if” indyref2 takes place, the working-class movement should not step back and leave the struggle for democratic rights in the hands of pro-capitalist parties. Neither the SNP, Alba or the Greens can wage the battle required to defeat the Tories. Focusing on parliamentary and legalistic maneuvers only serves to take the movement off the streets and divert the mood for change into safer channels.
We need to build an organised campaign of the working class, young people and all the oppressed for democratic rights. This needs to be one based on militant class-struggle methods of strikes, occupations and demos. A coordinated mobilisation in our workplaces, schools and communities is the only guarantee to win a second referendum. Trade Unions need to take a firm stance on this. Whilst STUC congress has passed a resolution backing Indyref2, it remains largely a policy on paper. Few unions have taken decisive steps to oppose Labour’s truce with the Tories on the national question.
Socialist Alternative supports the building of such a campaign, one that links the struggle for independence to the fight for socialism in Scotland and internationally.
An independent capitalist Scotland will solve none of the myriad social issues facing workers and young people. Although the desire to escape a car crash Tory Brexit has added momentum to the case for independence, working-class and young people should have no illusions in the pro-capitalist, racist EU that the SNP and the Greens are so eager to rejoin. Only a socialist transformation of society in which the commanding heights of the economy are taken into democratic public ownership and production is planned based on need, not profit can lay the basis for a future free of poverty, pandemics, climate disaster and all the other horrors of capitalism. Ultimately, such a movement for socialist change could never be successful if confined to one nation. Crucial to building a socialist Scotland is therefore developing solidarity across borders. This means linking up with workers and young people who are fighting capitalism and austerity across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, building the struggle for a free and voluntary socialist federation of these countries, as part of a socialist confederation of Europe and a socialist world.