Trouble for the Scottish Tories, the shifting sands of the Brexit crisis and growing disillusion with the Scottish National Party’s neoliberal policies in practice have all combined to created a boost for independence. Raymie Kiernan calls for a renewed radical movement to deliver real change.
“It can no longer be presumed that Scotland would vote No again in an independence ballot,” said the respected pollster professor John Curtice last month. He was commenting on the first poll taken after the resignation of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in late August.
After successfully consolidating the anti-independence vote in 2017, new polling suggests the Tories’ 13 Scottish seats could be slashed to three at the next general election. The Times newspaper even reported that “at least one Scottish MP was considering switching to an English constituency in an attempt to retain their place in the House of Commons”. The predictions for Labour were even worse, and until it clearly supports Scots’ right to decide that is unlikely to change.
The Tories once claimed that their electoral successes proved Scots rejected independence and that there was “no appetite” for a second independence referendum (indyref2). It’s hard not to laugh at this when hundreds of thousands have been marching for one across Scotland in the last two years.
If expectations are met, this month in Edinburgh could see the largest march for independence yet. Already this year over 150,000 have joined marches organised by All Under One Banner groups in Glasgow, Galashiels, Oban, Ayr, Campbeltown, Aberdeen and Perth.
Since 2014 support for independence has barely shifted from 45 percent but mobilisation on the streets has ramped that up. Now, for the first time, more Scots (49 percent) think there should be another independence referendum in the next five years than those who do not (44 percent).
At the same time, just as the Brexit crisis has seen the emergence of the Brexit Party and breathed new life into the Lib Dems so it has also increased support for independence. Current polling suggests that supporters of the European Union (EU) are becoming more inclined towards independence, with support among Remain voters jumping 10 points in the past year to 57 percent.
Numbers like these will embolden a Scottish National Party (SNP) leadership that has sought to link independence to EU membership and argued for a “Scotland in Europe” strategy.
It has spent the last three years opposing Brexit and, dare we say it, lined up with Tories to do so. The SNP has fought harder to keep Britain in the EU than it has to break up the British state, actively courting big business and fighting to protect its interests by maintaining access to the bosses’ single market.
This strategy was underlined by the SNP’s Growth Commission report, a neoliberal straitjacket for Scotland’s economy, penned by the boss of a SNP-linked lobbying firm with close ties to the financial sector. It was pitched as a strategy to win over opponents of independence. But it was also about dampening the radical spirit of 2014 and became the subject of a year of intense and critical debate among SNP members.
Right wing and business commentators welcomed its pro-EU, pro-market prescriptions as “mature” and “responsible”. But keeping corporation tax in line with Britain will do little to inspire those bearing the brunt of cuts. The Growth Commission is a charter for more cuts and austerity.
The split during the debate over the Growth Commission motion at the SNP’s 2019 spring conference reflected a mood of frustration in the wider independence movement. Instead of seizing the historic opportunity to break up the British state the SNP leadership would rather show it is a safe pair of hands that won’t rock the boat. This approach is clearly evident in its response to the climate crisis.
In April SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency, bowing to the pressure of the youth climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests over the preceding months. XR had recently occupied the Scottish parliament and blocked roads in Scotland’s capital city.
It was clear the protests were working because just the previous month all of Sturgeon’s MSPs (and those of other parties) had voted down the Greens’ call in the Scottish parliament to declare a climate emergency, end investment in oil and gas and ban fracking.
The debate led to predictable howls of outrage at the challenge to offshore bosses and saw Sturgeon’s energy minister whine about the government’s duty to respond “responsibly” and “keep Scotland’s lights on”.
Climate action (and the push for indyref2) requires a break with the business as usual approach that has characterised the SNP’s decade in office. The timing of Sturgeon’s declaration had more to do with being a step ahead of Westminster and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was pushing for the climate emergency vote there within days.
Despite the landmark “12 years left” report from the United Nations, and the vast body of evidence of the existential crisis facing humanity, the SNP is still not willing to immediately break with fossil fuels or its free market approach.
The arguments over the Growth Commission that spilled out at SNP spring conference largely revolved around financial issues. Delegates happily endorsed the recommendation to keep exploiting North Sea fossil fuel reserves, perversely, to fund the transition to a green economy.
And while youth climate strikers and XR protesters were congratulated for their action SNP politicians trotted out the often repeated line of “not having the powers” to effectively act — in this case to address the climate crisis — until independence. While containing an element of truth, this is used time and again as an excuse for inaction and to mask the contradictions between the rhetoric and the reality of the SNP leadership.
Its commitment to net-zero emissions by 2045 is relatively ambitious compared to other countries, yet it’s rather unambitiously based on the recommendations of the British government. Scottish environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham insists 2045 is the “highest possible target”. This is in stark contrast to Labour’s new policy of decarbonisation by 2030, passed at its conference last month.
As the SNP’s Climate Bill passed through committee stage in June hundreds of protesters joined XR’s direct action Rebel Camp outside Holyrood in the days leading up to the vote to demand the bill go much further to face the scale of the crisis.
The climate action group rightly criticised MSPs’ decision to stick to a 2045 target as “two decades too late”, arguing that business as usual “is killing us all”. In response to the protests, the Scottish government hastily announced “big climate conversation” — an event that was subsequently panned after the first event for its narrow focus that ignored systemic change.
Now, six months after declaring it, Sturgeon has revealed some of the measures her government has planned to deal with the climate emergency. There are new targets on electrifying railways, banning gas heating in new buildings and making some flights carbon free. All of which should be welcomed and all of which we will be told are “better than Westminster”.
And as with so many of these kinds of SNP statements the fact can’t be disputed that they are indeed a bit better than the Westminster government, but it hardly inspires. As one astute young climate striker quipped on BBC News, “What’s the point in being the fastest snail?”
One environmental NGO said Sturgeon’s new measures showed “real leadership” but such statements only serve the SNP narrative that its environmental policy is “world leading”. And while, again, there may be some truth in this it is a damning indictment of other states.
Friends of the Earth Scotland rightly criticised the measures as “not nearly enough” and pointed to the “obvious contradiction” of backing the offshore oil and gas industry to “keep on drilling and destroying our climate”. It called for “a radical change of direction” and described the focus on carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen, as “dangerous distractions”.
Director of left wing pro-independence think tank Common Weal Robin McAlpine even drew comparisons with hated Tory Margaret Thatcher over the SNP plan for the “mass privatisation of Scotland’s renewable assets”.
Hoping the politicians will live up to their rhetoric is a fool’s game. If we want to see the urgent climate action we need only a genuine mass movement involving trade unions and millions of people can force the transformation required to stop capitalism destroying our planet. Similarly, “waiting for Nicola” in the tortured hope that the SNP leader will deliver independence and radical change won’t work.
The progressive change many associate with independence and which they have projected onto the SNP as the obvious vehicle to achieve it is not borne out by the record of its decade in office. From pro-business policies to services under pressure from cuts it’s clear the SNP does not offer us a significant break from the past. Sturgeon’s leadership only seeks to preserve the status quo.
It’s been two and a half years since the Scottish parliament voted to seek a second referendum on independence. The SNP leadership’s strategy has barely brought indyref2 any closer since then but it has instead thrown everything at stopping Brexit. There will be no Catalan-style strategy, says Sturgeon, and she seeks Westminster’s permission for indyref2. Strangely enough, with Corbyn as the only potential prime minister committed to granting it, independence supporters following Sturgeon’s line of march should make sure he gets into Number 10!
This is not a story of “SNP bad”, as staunch SNP supporters describe any criticism of their party. Having a first minister that speaks out about welcoming refugees and migrants to Scotland of course makes a difference. Yet her support for an EU that has left thousands of those same people to die in the Mediterranean and that persecutes humanitarians trying to save them just doesn’t stack up.
What the 2014 referendum showed was that linking independence to tackling social and wealth inequalities, not EU membership, builds the mood to break up the British state. Arguing to end austerity, instead of managing it, and for real solutions to tackle the climate crisis, not to keep exploiting North Sea reserves, is what can inspire a boost in support for independence.
We need a movement willing to do what the SNP leadership isn’t — to really shake things up. We need a movement focused on class issues and that unites all those who want system change not climate change, who want to scrap Trident, fight racism, fund climate jobs and our public services, and build a better society.