Nicola Sturgeon this week finally delivered the speech that had seemed almost inevitable ever since the Brexit vote in June last year. By announcing her intention to seek a second independence referendum, Sturgeon has started a political storm that will likely rage on - at the very least - until any referendum takes place.
Prime Minister May, under pressure from her party’s reactionary backbenchers, now faces the choice between pushing for a hard Brexit and strengthening the support for Scottish independence, or angering the Brexiters by capitulating to the SNP. The latter would risk splitting the Tories; the former, splitting the “United” Kingdom. Whatever the decision, the impact of this insoluble dilemma means that a period of turbulence and convulsion lies ahead for Britain and beyond.
Whilst it has been described in the press as a move designed to leave Theresa May on the back foot, it is undeniably clear that such an announcement has been brewing for some time. The issue of independence has never really been put to bed since the first referendum back in 2014, where the Yes vote - whilst eventually losing - managed to increase its support from around 30% in the nine months leading up to the referendum.
Since then the SNP has seen a huge surge of support. At the 2015 Westminster election they won 47 out of 50 seats in Scotland; at the Holyrood 2016 election they narrowly lost their majority, but won 46.5% of the constituency vote; and in a country of 5 million they now boast over 120,000 members.
In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote – where in the UK as a whole 52% voted to leave, while in Scotland 62% voted to remain – it initially seemed like the SNP had the perfect chance to immediately move towards a referendum, with a major constitutional change coming to the UK against the wishes of most Scots. Indeed, on the very morning of the result the Scottish government announced that plans would be made for a “highly likely” second referendum. There were spikes in support for independence, with one poll putting support at 56% (although this later seemed to recede to “normal” levels of just under 50% - the new normal that has been established since the 2014 referendum).
In the months that followed there were some suggestions towards independence, but it seemed that the SNP leaders were reluctant to call for a referendum that they didn’t feel they would be sure of winning. They also appeared to want to show voters that they had appealed to Westminster for other options, including Scottish access to the single market, rather than immediately going for the route of referendum.
May vs Sturgeon
Over the recent period, as it has become increasingly obvious that a hard Brexit - with no single market access or guarantees for EU migrants living in the UK - is what is on the table, a second independence referendum has seemed increasingly likely. This was of course bolstered by the fact that Sturgeon’s appeal for a different deal for Scotland has been largely ignored by May. However, even now that Sturgeon has announced her intention to seek a referendum, several important questions remain.
Firstly, will a referendum happen at all? And if it does, when will it be held? The vote at the Scottish Parliament is scheduled for next week, and despite loud opposition from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Tories, it will almost certainly pass given the majority held by the SNP and Greens. However, the vote at Holyrood will only form a legally binding referendum if it is agreed to at Westminster.
Theresa May has accused Sturgeon of simply ‘playing politics’ through her announcement; theoretically, the Tories could block a binding referendum from taking place altogether. Such a move would be dangerous for the Tory government, however, as it would be seen as Westminster snubbing Scotland yet again, and would only increase the popularity of the SNP and independence even further.
More likely is that the Tories will attempt to exercise control over when a referendum takes place and possibly the wording of the question. Sturgeon has said she wants the referendum to take place between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, before the conclusion of Brexit negotiations. But the Tories will not want this to happen, as it would prove a major distraction for them during an already tense period. The last thing May and her cabinet want is to be fighting a battle on two fronts - against the intransigent EU leaders on one side, and the fiery Holyrood leaders on the other.
Another key question is whether the independence vote could actually win a second time round. A study released on 15th March has shown that support for independence is at an historic high of 46%, reflecting polls that have placed support at just under 50%, and as high as 72% among 16-24 year olds. Clearly then, independence is not out of the question, especially since support for a Yes vote could grow on the back of a patronising, bitter and acrimonious No campaign.
Last time round, the nauseating Union Jack flag waving of the Better Together campaign could hardly compete with the messages of hope coming from the Yes side. It was no wonder that support for Yes increased so dramatically. This was particularly helped by many working class and young voters coming into politics for the first time, particularly inspired by the Left of the campaign, such as the Radical Independence Campaign.
This time, however, it seems the SNP – the leading force on the pro-independence side – may be considering a different tactic. If they choose to base their independence campaign around EU membership, the SNP would be at the head of a far more establishment-based campaign. The EU is essentially an organisation based around European capital, and in order to join an independent Scotland would certainly have to prove its capitalist credentials, based around a low-wage, low-regulation economy. Hardly an appetising prospect for workers and young people.
This is not to give the Brexit camp a progressive veil; clearly it is largely based around racist reaction. The idea of capitalist empire 2.0 and a renewal of the “special relationship” with Trump’s administration is clearly no more attractive than the EU. Indeed, the SNP would likely be able to drum up some level of support purely on the basis of many people’s repulsion towards the racism and austerity of the May government.
For a socialist Scotland! For a socialist world!
To renew the mass political movement of last time and win an IndyRef2, however, the message of hope and change would need to be recreated - and that requires going far beyond promises of EU membership.
This is particularly important for those on the Left. It cannot simply be a case of campaigning for a Yes vote, given what the SNP leadership’s vision represents. Illusions must not be sown in the idea that independence - in and of itself - would solve the problems of ordinary Scottish people. Rather, the emphasis must lie upon fundamentally changing the economy and society in the interests of workers and youth across Scotland - and across the whole of Europe.
Out fight is not for an independent capitalist Scotland, but for a socialist Scotland, as part of a socialist Europe – for a society where ownership of the banks and big business is taken away from a rich elite and placed in the hands of the many, so that the economy can be rationally and democratically planned for the needs of the majority instead of the profits of the few. This is the revolutionary change that the workers and youth of all countries must fight for.