Will there be another referendum on independence for Scotland after the EU referendum? That is now a central focus of mainstream political debate in Scotland. And that spells bad news for socialists and the broader Labour and trade union movement.
At a UK level the EU referendum saw a 51.9% majority in favour of “Leave” on a 72% turnout. In England 53.4% backed “Leave” on a 73% turnout. But in Scotland 62% backed “Remain” on a 67% turnout.
The day after the referendum former SNP leader Alex Salmond responded to the different voting patterns in England and Scotland by touring television studios bullishly predicting another referendum on Scottish independence within two years. The same day SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon struck a more cautious note.
Relying on a clause in the SNP Holyrood election manifesto that a change in “material circumstances”, such as Scotland voting to remain in the EU but Britain voting to leave, would justify a second referendum, Sturgeon said that a second referendum was “highly likely”. Unlike Salmond, Sturgeon recognises the problems confronting what would be, for the SNP, a make-or-break second referendum. Turnout in the EU referendum in Scotland was not only lower than in England but also markedly lower than in the independence referendum of 2014 — 67%, compared with 85%.
1,700,000 people in Scotland voted last week in favour of the UK remaining in the EU — compared with just over two million who voted in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK in 2014. (But the electorate in 2014 was larger, as 16 and 17-year-olds had a vote.) Support for Scottish independence does not equate with support for “Remain” in the EU, the avowed trigger for another referendum.
In the run-up to the EU referendum opinion polls found that one in three SNP voters backed “Leave”. Exit polling on the day of the referendum came up with the same figure. In fact, in an article in the Sunday Herald prior to the EU referendum Sturgeon’s sales pitch to “Yes” voters was not the merits of EU membership but the prospect of another referendum on Scottish independence: “Sturgeon tells Yes supporters: Voting Remain is best hope for second independence referendum.”
There are also political problems in staging a second referendum on independence, and economic problems in winning a majority to vote “Yes”. The decision to call such a referendum is a reserved power. The Westminster Parliament would have to agree to it.
Sturgeon’s counter-argument is that the SNP and Greens will vote together in Holyrood in September on “legislation” for a second referendum, and that it would be “inconceivable” for Westminster to refuse authority for another referendum.
The economic problems which would confront an independent Scotland remain unchanged, if not worse, than in 2014. Scotland has a structural deficit of £15 billions (9.7% of its GDP). Public spending in Scotland is higher than in the UK, with the gap of some £9 billions a year funded by the Barnett Formula. The slump in the price of oil and a weak economy on the brink of recession (even before the EU referendum) have added to the economic problems, as well as exposing the hollowness of the economic predictions contained in the 2014 White Paper on Independence.
And then there is the question of the currency in an independent Scotland. In the space of the last fortnight the SNP has come up with four varieties of what the currency would, or might, be: the pound; the euro; a new currency linked to the pound; an independent Scottish floating currency.
On the other hand, the SNP might find it easier to sell the idea of an independent Scotland in the event of a second independence referendum. With the UK heading out of the EU anyway, an independent Scotland would not be at risk of losing membership of the EU. The EU would be portrayed as a milch cow which would make up for the losses incurred by exit from the UK. And a “Yes” vote would be presented as the expression of an outward-looking pan-Europeanism.
Why is or any or all of this bad news for socialists and the labour movement?
Firstly, because the SNP’s drive for a second referendum and independence cuts across the immediate tasks faced by the working class of all four nations in the UK in the aftermath of last week’s EU referendum. A united fightback by the trade union movement, supported by the Labour Party, to defend employment rights, jobs, pay and migrant workers needs to be built as the impact of last week’s vote kicks in. Campaigning for independence for Scotland contributes nothing to mounting such a united fightback.
In fact, it does far worse than that. It will reinforce the divisions in the working class opened up by the EU referendum, i.e. the fact that England and Wales backed “Leave”, while Scotland and Northern Ireland backed “Remain”. Within Scotland itself, a renewed campaign for independence — inevitably accompanied by an even more severe version of the virulent toxicity of the 2014 referendum campaign — will (re-)open another front of working-class and communal division.
Secondly, because socialists and the labour movement need to address and overcome the reasons why many working-class communities — and not just in England — voted “Leave” last week. This means campaigning for socialist policies which: provide an answer to legitimate concerns about austerity, inequality, unemployment and social deprivation; challenge and overcome illegitimate racist scapegoating; and provide a basis for rebuilding the labour movement as an effective social force. The not-at-all-socialist SNP will certainly not be campaigning for such policies. In fact, a revived labour movement mobilised on the basis of class-struggle politics is anathema to the SNP.
Thirdly, because the SNP’s drive for another referendum and independence flows out of its defining nationalist ideology, one which is at odds with the most basic principles of socialism and the labour movement. Socialist and labour movement politics —however imperfectly expressed in practice — have at their core the basic idea of uniting workers across borders. At the core of nationalism is a drive to rally and mobilise on the basis of national identity.
Instinctively, the SNP looks for what divides rather than what unites. It does not look to the social and economic causes of different voting patterns. Instead, it collapses them into national identities.
Thus, “England” voted “Leave” (although over 13 millions — 47% — did not) while “Scotland” voted “Remain” (although over a million — 38%, including a third of the SNP’s own supporters — did not). In fact, the political psychology which led so many voters to back “Leave” last week is not fundamentally different from the political psychology of the demand for Scottish independence, save that whereas the former blame Brussels the latter blame “Westmonster”.
Fourthly, because the SNP’s relaunch of campaigning for independence will be used to obscure and divert attention away from its own sorry record in power in Holyrood over the past nine years. It is a record of a collapsing NHS, increasing class inequalities in education, rocketing student debts, cuts in local government funding, the imposition of austerity, tax handouts to the rich through the council tax freeze, and a litany of abandoned manifesto promises. None of these were caused by the result of a referendum on EU membership held last week. They were all the product of the SNP’s own political decisions and priorities.
In fact, the SNP’s only lasting “achievement” of those nine years in power was its referendum campaign of 2013-2014. This polarised an electorate around what had previously been non-conflicting national identities. The demagogy of “Quislings”, “traitors to the nation”, “Red Tories”, harassment on the streets and systematic cybernat intimidation all helped whip up the requisite flag-waving fervour. (If the 2014 referendum had not so politically toxic one could laugh at Salmond’s recent contrast of the “pretty poisonous” EU referendum campaign with the “hugely uplifting experience” of the 2014 referendum, or Iain Macwhirter’s simultaneous discovery of “two very different kinds of nationalism”.)
That is the real record of the SNP’s “civic nationalism” in power: social and economic conservatism masked by a divisive nationalist rhetoric. And now the SNP is all set to unleash a new wave of that stock-in-trade nationalist poison. One would have to be wilfully blind to claim that the result of the EU referendum has not raised new questions about relations between the four main nations and national identities which make up the UK. But the basic argument about Scottish independence has
To pose, in the manner of the SNP, independence for Scotland as the “solution” or the “correct” response to the EU referendum result only helps entrench the idea that nationality, not class, is the key axis of politics. Through exploiting voters’ alienation by the politics of Blair and Murphy the SNP has succeeded in eclipsing class politics by the politics of nationalism and national identity. This has left the labour movement in Scotland in a weakened state.
Socialists can play an irreplaceable role in helping rebuild and transform the movement into one capable of beating back the new nationalist offensive, counterposing a campaign which brings together workers of all national identities to the toxic separatism of another referendum on Scottish independence.