A year after re-election as First Minister promising to hold a second referendum on Independence (‘indyref2’), Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has finally named the date on which she intends to honour this manifesto commitment: October 19 2023.
Why the long delay? Perhaps more importantly, how realistic is Sturgeon’s strategy in the face of the stubborn refusal of Boris Johnson’s Westminster Government to allow the people of Scotland a vote on their nation’s future? Indeed, does she have a strategy at all?
Certainly, if she does, it is a rather contradictory one. On 14 June, barely two weeks earlier, the Holyrood government launched a White Paper entitled ‘Independence in the modern world. Wealthier, happier, fairer: why not Scotland?’
This was billed as “the first in a series focusing on independence”. It was generally understood that Sturgeon would outline her strategy for holding a referendum following what her foreword promised would be the “informed, inclusive debate that people in Scotland deserve”.
Sturgeon under pressure
So, what changed to push Sturgeon into announcing something she had avoided for so long? Undoubtedly, she was facing pressure from the SNP membership, and the 1.3 million who voted for the SNP to deliver independence. Many will have asked, what is the point of the SNP being in government if it could not deliver the party’s central purpose?
Sturgeon’s administration has also come under growing external pressure in recent weeks. The SNP’s economic policy (‘austerity-lite’ with a window dressing of token social and welfare reforms) is increasingly unable to meet the needs of workers across Scotland, desperate for relief from the social traumas of pandemic and lockdown, and now facing the cost of living crisis.
Food banks across Scotland issued almost 200,000 parcels in the twelve months running up to April this year. 613,000 households – 24.6% of the population – already experienced fuel poverty in 2019, long before the pain of the latest energy price rises. This pain is particularly galling to bear for workers in Scotland, who produce so much of Britain’s renewable and non-renewable power.
Consequently, there is a growing mood for industrial action to win decent cost of living awards. This is particularly strong in the public sector, which employs one in five Scottish workers. But offshore oil workers, bus drivers and other private sector workers have also taken action, and won significant increases.
In the public sector, ASLEF train drivers employed by ScotRail (re-nationalised in April) have already won a 5% increase, improving an initial management offer of 2%, without strike action. Drivers simply refused rest-day working. This revealed catastrophic under-staffing, forcing management to cut timetables by a third, leaving many areas without any evening services at all and even ending mainline departure between Edinburgh and Glasgow at 10:15PM!
Strike wave brewing
Many more workers in Scotland are now gearing up to recoup the losses of recent years. Following June’s historic rail strike, local government workers, teachers, health workers, and other grades of ScotRail staff, organised in the RMT and TSSA, are all balloting over pay, cuts and working conditions. To date, consultative ballots have produced majorities of 80-90% for industrial action, and even the Scottish Police Federation have begun a ‘work to rule’. Scottish workers are also involved in UK-wide disputes in BT, the Post Office and Network Rail.
Scotland faces an ‘Autumn of Discontent’, bringing organised workers up against the SNP government’s public sector cash limits. A Public Sector Spending Review published by SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes at the end of May, has only intensified these. Forbes wants spending to remain static until April 2026.
This implies real-term pay-cuts for workers. Any increases would be paid for with further cuts to jobs and services, above those Forbes already plans. According to Strathclyde University’s Fraser of Allander Institute, the local government budget will decline by 7% in real terms between 2022 and 2026; enterprise agencies by 16%.
Universities and colleges, fire and rescue and legal aid will be cut by 8%. They add: “However, this does not necessarily mean that the ‘protected’ areas are awash with cash. the health budget is projected to increase by only 3% over the Parliament”. The SNP’s ‘austerity-lite’ looks set to get a lot heavier, and would inevitably worsen as Forbes’ optimistic predictions for the economy crumble in the face of a growing world recession.
This explains why initial offers to hard-pressed workers facing rising household bills were so poor (all around 2%). The ‘offers’ were all set within cash-limits dictated by Forbes and Sturgeon.
Despite this, Holyrood Ministers resolutely refuse to involve themselves in negotiations with workers (aside from teachers, whose pay-body includes Government representatives). This did not prevent Sturgeon taking the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross to task for Westminster’s refusal to negotiate with the RMT south of the border!
In reality however, Johnson and Grant Shapps have actually followed the example of the Scottish Transport Secretary Jenny Gilruth, who provided a model for the Tories in insisting that ScotRail negotiate directly with the unions, rather than the ministers who hold the purse strings.
How can a referendum be delivered?
Caught between the expectations of SNP members and Scottish workers’ growing anger, Sturgeon has been forced into appearing as if she is taking action. She has been compelled to drop her ‘snails pace’ approach, and finally set a referendum date. However, how can she deliver a vote next October?
The Tories still refuse a referendum. Contemptuously, Johnson did not respond directly to Sturgeon but delegated an anonymous press spokesperson to say “the position on the referendum remains unchanged. It’s not something the prime minister believes the public want either government to be focused on.”
Just how focused Johnson himself can be on anything apart from clinging to power is revealed by the fact that his own party leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross has called for his sacking! Nonetheless, Ross has lined up behind his leader insisting that he will not take part in what he calls a “pretend referendum”.
Sturgeon’s whole referendum strategy is based on a mixture of make-believe and finger-crossing. Because the Tories are refusing to delegate powers to Holyrood to call a referendum (as they did in 2014), she has asked the UK Supreme Court to rule that Holyrood has the power to call it anyway. This approach of begging the UK state is naive in the extreme.
No reliance on the courts to win indyref2
The recent decision of the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade demonstrates the danger of relying on unelected judges to defend democratic, or even basic human, rights.
Roe v. Wade was not won in the first place by the brilliant legal arguments, but by the strength of the mass movements of women and other oppressed people across the USA. Conservative justices only conceded abortion rights, on behalf of the capitalist class, in 1973 because they feared it deepening.
Only such a movement, based on working-class struggle, can force a referendum in Scotland. Recent opinion polls have shown significant leads for independence (although these have fallen back in the last six months, precisely due to frustration with government policies). However the SNP resolutely refuses to mobilise this support.
This could only be done by tapping into the growing anger in workplaces and communities across Scotland against the burden which the capitalist crisis imposes on workers – the very anger which is driving the emerging strike wave. Such a movement would not stop at rectifying the constitutional niceties of Holyrood’s devolved powers but would inevitably threaten the power and prestige of the capitalist class in Scotland and throughout Britain.
Sturgeon and the SNP have no wish to challenge capitalism, and so they balk at building this fightback.
Acknowledging, how unlikely it is that the Supreme Court will rule in her favour, Sturgeon told parliament: “If it does transpire that there is no lawful way to hold a referendum, my party will fight the next UK General Election on this single question –‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’”
Through maneuvering, she wants to evade responsibility at the ballot box for the cuts and poverty her government’s policies imposes on Scottish workers, and reduce the next Westminster elections to a referendum on just one question. Even if she wins this vote, though, Sturgeon will only be repeating SNP’s results in the 2015 general election when her party won 50% of the vote and all but three of the 59 seats. If that didn’t secure independence how will a repetition of the same approach do this?
Mass movement of workers needed
Only a mass movement, led by the working class in Scotland could find a route out of this towards genuine independence. As of now, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (representing 560,000 union members) has taken the first step of backing a referendum, breaking from the right-wing rump of Scottish Labour, who are busy writing themselves out of history by backing Johnson’s rejection of indyref2.
However, we need to move beyond written resolutions to concrete actions. At the same time as co-ordinating and escalating strike actions. The unions should build a mass campaign to demand Scotland can decide on its own political future.
Linking independence to everyday problems of jobs, wages and public services would directly pose the question: what kind of independence do we need? The logical answer to this, from the standpoint of the working class, is that we need a socialist independent Scotland. There is no point in becoming ‘independent’ from Westminster if our land, industry and natural resources are still shackled by the banks and corporations of the City of London.
The right-wing leaders of most unions are unlikely to pay more than lip-service (at best!) to this programme and strategy. But as more and more workers are drawn into industrial struggle over the coming months, opportunities will arise to build rank-and-file conferences of resistance, linking struggles and co-ordinating action.
From these it will be possible to begin constructing a new mass left party of class-based struggle capable of fighting for a socialist Scotland as a first step to a socialist federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.