England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Independence referendum blocked: Build mass struggle for a socialist independent Scotland

The blatant ‘voter suppression’ ruling delivered by the UK Supreme Court on 23 November, preventing the Scottish Parliament calling a referendum on independence has not, as the British ruling class hoped, dampened demands for independence. An Ipsos-Mori poll shows support running at 56 to 44% in favour. Voting intentions polled suggest that the Scottish National Party would win an unprecedented 51% of the vote at the next Westminster elections.

The ruling further reveals the complete inability of any of the political representatives of capital in Scotland (Tories, Labour or the SNP itself) to solve the national question increasingly dominating Scottish politics. For Scottish people, especially workers, youth and women at the sharp end of the capitalist crisis, the debate is not about ‘flags and kilts’ but the ‘bread and butter’ issues dominating our daily lives. This was shown in another finding in the same poll. Despite the near record majority for independence, it was only the fourth most important political question, mentioned by just 21% of respondents: behind the NHS (41%), the cost of living crisis (28%), and education (23%).

SNP programme incapable of delivering change

This reveals the contradiction at the heart of the SNP’s programme. Public enthusiasm for independence is driven by a desire to win democratic control over the levers of political power, ending decades of austerity, deprivation and poverty at the hands of the bankers, monopolists and big landlords of the British ruling class (with the gleeful participation of its Scottish members), and by the the visceral hatred for the capitalist Tory Party felt by most Scots.

However, the SNP only wish to break the political threads which tie Edinburgh to Westminster, not the economic rule of the capitalists responsible for the misery of life for the Scottish people, nor indeed the massive economic chains which bind the Scottish people to the British capitalist class, of which Scottish capitalists are an integral part.

Moreover, these figures reflect a growing industrial conflict in Scotland. Teachers in the Educational Institute of Scotland, GMB ambulance drivers, and RCN nurses are in the frontline of a growing struggle, with the potential to assume the dimensions of a de facto general strike, to reverse a staggering decline in living standards and defend Scotland’s public services. 

However, holding the line for big business and austerity, seeking to enforce pay rise limits of 5–7% when inflation is topping 12% and insisting on funding any pay increases through cuts to services, are none other than the SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, her deputy (and acting Finance Secretary) John Swinney, Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and Education Secretary Shirley-Ann Somerville. In fact, the Supreme Court case, brought by Sturgeon and Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, represented a cynical attempt to divert the political debate from the inability of the SNP/Green coalition to deliver their 2021 mandate for a ‘fairer greener Scotland’ within the framework of a failing capitalist system.

The British Medical Association Scotland’s chair says that the “NHS is in a perilous situation — we simply do not have enough doctors in hospitals. GPs are on their knees and have practices falling over across the whole of Scotland. Doctors are terrified about the winter and the year ahead.” The SNP are failing to meet pledges on child poverty and the growing ‘attainment gap’ between working class and affluent pupils.

In relation to climate change, this week its own official watchdog concluded: “the Scottish Government lacks a clear delivery plan [or] coherent explanation for how its policies will achieve Scotland’s bold emissions reduction targets‘’. Humza Yousaf’s flagship ‘National Care Service’ has yet to get off the ground, but it is already clear that, far from being the progessive reform promised, it means subcontracting the tattered remnants of local authority community care to the private sector, often the very companies responsible for the scandal of care home deaths during the Covid pandemic.

For the same reason that the SNP have been unable to deliver on their economic and social pledges to the Scottish people, however, they will be unable to deliver on independence – the party’s very raison d’etre. This is because breaking the intransigence of the Westminster Tory government on economic, social, or political questions requires mobilising the growing anger of Scottish workers and youth into a movement of resistance based on our power in the nation’s workplaces, streets and communities. Sturgeon, however, understands, or at least dimly perceives, that doing this would require following a road she has absolutely no wish to tread: threatening the continuing rule of capital in Scotland.

Instead, she has reduced the ‘struggle for Scottish independence’ to a strategy of pantomime politics and shadow boxing, a game of two halves. The SNP are one-nil down at the end of the first-half (the Supreme Court debacle) and are gambling everything on their second-half strategy. Sturgeon has declared that the SNP will “make the next elections to the Westminster Parliament a referendum” on the question of independence. In other words, a blatant attempt to divert voters from calling the SNP to account for their wholesale attack on living standards and the social wage.

Whilst the Ipsos-Mori poll mentioned previously suggests that this strategy could work, Sturgeon should not become too complacent. The apparent swing to the SNP reflects the instinctive revulsion at being denied a democratic voice by unelected Judges in London at the behest of Westminster Tories, not any renewed confidence in the ability or willingness of Sturgeon to fight for national freedom or social justice. As the SNP’s unpreparedness, and unwillingness to prosecute any meaningful struggle becomes more apparent her undemocratic manoeuvre may well backfire on her.

SNP’s internal contradictions

Growing awareness of this possibility undoubtedly lies behind the recent palace coup within the SNP’s Westminster parliamentary caucus. The party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford (closely associated with Sturgeon and her referendum strategy) unexpectedly announced his resignation on 5 December. The new leadership team, however, only reflects the contradictions at the SNP’s core in an even sharper manner. 

The new leader Stephen Flynn is closely associated with carbon fuel capitalism, historically opposed SNP’s policy of a windfall tax on oil and gas monopolies, and supports expanding north sea drilling. His Deputy, Mhairi Black is on the left of the party and gained prominence when first elected for her fiery anti-austerity speeches and support for environmental causes. 

There is no doubt that if Black turned her rhetoric into action and used her parliamentary platform to build a mass movement for change she could bring Scottish workers many steps closer to both independence and an end to the cost of living crisis. To do this however she would have to break decisively with the capitalist politics of Flynn, Sturgeon and the rest of the SNP. Her failure to raise even a squeak against Renfrewshire’s SNP council’s cuts in her Paisley constituency (slashing £35 million from their £480 million budget in each of the next three years) does not suggest that this is imminent.

Nothing on offer from unionist parties

If, however, the SNP are unable to fight for independence, the political parties supporting British unionism’ – the Tories and Keir Starmer’s ‘New New Labour’ – are even less able to formulate a persuasive case for Westminster rule. The Scottish edition of the rabidly right-wing Daily Express recently ran the headline: “Who says Rishi doesn’t speak for Scotland? Sunak represents the Highlanders and the Scots Guards”. The basis for this claim is that these regiments, the latest in countless generations of economic conscripts from Scottish working class communities enlisted to kill and die for British imperialism, are garrisoned in the Prime Minister’s Yorkshire constituency! 

Sunak, himself, does little better. Facing Flynn in Prime Minister’s questions on 8th December he said his energy support policies would “save a typical homeowner about £900 on their bills this winter” Sunak claimed this was an example of “the United Kingdom and the Union delivering for people in Scotland”.

However, the anarchy of the capitalist market means that the North and East of Scotland with the cheapest and most abundant carbon and renewable energy production in the UK also have Britain’s highest gas and electricity prices and some of the worst fuel poverty. Capitalism inside, or outside, the union only offers Scottish workers poverty and austerity.

This is why Labour, seeking to replace the Tories as the new ‘natural party’ of (capitalist) government, are also unable to offer meaningful change. On 5 December, Labour unveiled a report by the former New Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, billed as Labour’s answer to independence. Despite the razzmatazz, this proved to be a damp squib. Constitutional expert Professor Marc Weller commented:

“There was a widespread assumption that this new report would aim to relieve pressure for a further referendum by offering Scotland an attractive alternative to independence. However, Scotland occupies only one of its 12 chapters and 14 pages out of a total of 150.” 

There are no meaningful proposals to increase political power or economic rights for working people in Scotland. Professor Weller reports, for instance, that: “Scotland is to gain some foreign affairs powers. However, it can only exercise these in relation to matters falling within its devolved powers.” 

The examples used in the report: cultural relations with Unesco and membership of the Nordic Council, are hardly likely to prompt dancing in the streets of Clydebank or Stornoway. New Labour is deeply tainted by decades of decades of austerity in Scotland, and its scandalous role scuppering the 2014 independence referendum, jointly with the Tories through ‘Project Fear’. Brown’s report, widely regarded as ‘thin gruel’ does nothing to change that.

The lack of answers from the three capitalist parties means that Scottish workers have only our own resources to fall back on. The struggles unfolding in Scottish workplaces demonstrate that when we say ‘enough is enough’, we have the power to change society.

This can win us economic gains in the workplace. But the twisted logic of market capitalism means the bosses immediately move to claw these back. We desperately need a socialist independent scotland, taking control of the energy industry and other vast productive wealth in our nation. 

Alongside the working class of the other nations we can then plan to provide for decent wages, housing and public services throughout a free and voluntary Socialist Federation of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, as part of a socialist Europe. For this we need a mass party of class struggle in Scotland. Socialist Alternative Scotland stands ready to work with our class to achieve this.


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