England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

The struggle for a socialist, independent Scotland

With general elections due in both the UK and Ireland the workers’ movement must reexamine the national question in these islands. The recent conference of the Socialist Party (ISA in Ireland) included a special session discussing Scottish independence and a possible Irish border poll. This article, based on a speech by Paul Moorhouse of Socialist Alternative Scotland, focuses on the first question.

Since the dual shocks to the stability and authority of the British capitalist state of the 2014 Scottish Independence and the 2016 Brexit referenda – the ‘integrity of the Union’ has been central to successive Tory prime ministers’ bid to project the UK as a ‘world power’.

For working people in Scotland this means the British state riding roughshod over our social, economic and democratic rights. The trans community saw the blocking of modest but important reforms in the Gender Recognition Reform Bil (GRR)l; the Single Market Act was deployed to block a drinks container recycling scheme at the behest of brewing and distilling monopolies; and a ruling by the UK Supreme Court has denied us the basic democratic right to a second referendum on independence (‘Indyref2’).

SNP in crisis

17 years of Scottish National Party (SNP) ministers imposing austerity by tamely enforcing budget cuts and wage limits set in Westminster on impoverished working-class communities across Scotland has triggered a crisis for the SNP. Despite narrowly losing the 2014 independence referendum, the SNP have ridden high in Scottish politics for a decade. They all but eliminated Labour in the 2015 and 2019 Westminster elections, control most local councils and, in coalition with the Scottish Green Party, have a commanding majority in the Scottish parliament.

Yet the SNP is in crisis. Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and her husband and SNP CEO Peter Murrel, were arrested by police investigating the disappearance of £600,000 from party funds. One third of party members have left in two years. As we explained when Sturgeon resigned in February 2023, she could not “straddle the widening gap between lip-service to economic, political and social rights and [the SNP’s] refusal to breach the bounds of capitalist austerity”. Behind this crisis lies the SNP’s complete failure to deliver their stated purpose: independence.

Labour to gain but offer no real alternative

It now seems likely that Labour will achieve what seemed impossible just two years ago: winning half or more Scottish seats at the next Westminster general election. However, Starmer’s Labour offers no relief for Scottish people. Determined as any Tory to be a ‘safe pair of hands’ for British capitalism, Starmer echoes the Tories in defending the inviolability of the British state. He stoked up transphobia by backing the quashing of the GRR (voted for by his own MSPs!) and welcomed the Supreme Court decision.

Labour is, if anything, even less able to provide answers to the economic and social crisis in Scottish society than the SNP. Starmer’s recent abandonment of (minimal) spending targets on energy transition betrays 68,000 Scottish energy workers (29% of the UK total), and those 860,000 Scottish households in fuel poverty, as well as setting a match to the planet. Whilst insisting that the Union is a “voluntary organisation” – that Scotland is not “stuck” in the United Kingdom – Starmer has ruled out Indyref2 under the next Labour government.

However, independence remains the constant issue in Scottish politics. Whilst the SNP’s lead over Labour has been slashed from 25-30% three years ago to virtually nil, support for Indyref2 is undented.

Millions of Scottish workers and youth see Indyref2 as a way out of the mounting inequality, exploitation and oppression of capitalism’s ‘omnicrisis’. Slaves to big business, neither the SNP or Labour can deliver on the desire for social and economic equality and freedom which is the motor force of national struggle in Scotland. The only force working-class people can rely on is our own economic, social and political strength. By mobilising this power, a glimpse of which was shown in the strike wave of 2022-23, the roadblock of the British ruling class and its state can be overcome.

Lessons from Catalonia

The 2017 Catalonian uprising against the Spanish state shows we must not underestimate the savagery of the capitalist state machine. Mass pressure forced the ruling Catalan nationalist coalition of capitalist parties to abandon their ‘constitutionalist’ strategy, and call a referendum in defiance of the rightwing government of the Spanish state.

Madrid responded by deploying the police and paramilitary Civil Guard, and the referendum on 1 October took place amidst pitched battles between police and crowds backed up by firefighters. 900 people were injured trying to get to the polls, where 92% of voters backed independence. However, it took a general strike against this repression on 3 October, mobilising 700,000 on the streets of Barcelona and demonstrations across Catalonia, to force the Catalan parliament to make a token declaration of independence on 27 October.

Failing to maintain and extend this mobilisation in the streets and workplaces, however, led to the defeat of the movement. Coalition ministers were arrested and imprisoned. Had the movement on the streets on 1 October been maintained; had popular committees elected in communities and workplaces developed; had the popular movement challenged the power of the capitalist state, then the Spanish state forces could have been beaten back. This could have created the basis for a socialist challenge to capitalism in Catalonia and more widely.

Mass struggle for a socialist independent Scotland

Similarly, Scottish independence cannot be won without rebuilding our trade unions as organs of struggle, alongside building a mass party of class struggle rooted in communities across the nation. A socialist independent Scotland, a workers’ republic, would be a key step towards a voluntary, democratic socialist federation alongside England, Ireland and Wales.

These tasks are increasingly urgent. The deepening crisis of 21st century capitalism inevitably provokes struggles such as the Catalan uprising, and the 569,700 strike days in Scotland between June 2022 and December 2023. But if these do not win, strengthening the ability of our class to overthrow capitalism, then reaction, prejudice and oppression can thrive. We see its dim (yet still grim) outlines in racist far-right violence in Ireland, the rise in transphobic and misogynist violence in the wake of the GRR and Brianna Ghey’s murder, and the growing sectarian tensions over the prospect of an Irish Border poll and the Stormont crisis. If sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland escalate to a level even approaching that of the ‘Troubles’ they will inevitably reignite sectarianism in Scotland.

This makes it more urgent to build a fighting, socialist resistance to exploitation and all forms of oppression. A Starmer Labour government will not mean an end to anti-working class and divisive policies streaming out of Westminster. The multi-racial, multi-gender working class in Scotland have shown by the massive demonstrations against the Israeli state’s genocidal war on Gaza that we have no truck with capitalist oppression: we need a socialist political vehicle capable of sweeping it away. 

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