Will Covid-19 break the Union with Scotland?

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A widespread perception that Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been better than Boris Johnson’s shambles seems to be convincing growing numbers of people in Scotland to break from the United Kingdom. Six polls conducted in 2020 have consistently shown support for independence hovering at over 50 percent. And while Johnson’s approval rating stands at minus 39 percent, Sturgeon’s is at plus 60 percent. In 2019, new support for independence was registered mainly among people who opposed Brexit. However, the present swing to independence cuts across categories, being sharpest among Leave voters. The polls also show a further shift among Labour supporters, even while Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard continues to harden the party’s opposition to a second independence referendum, known as “indyref2”. According to some surveys, 37 percent of those who voted Labour in the 2019 General Election would now vote for independence. This is cheering news for anyone who wants to use independence to deal the Tories and the British state a major blow and to fight for a better society. During the summer, the mainstream media has been lamenting the inexorable dissolution of Britain. Johnson staged a rushed visit to Scotland in late July, allegedly on a mission to “save the Union”. However, Scottish independence is far from the unstoppable. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has not moved decisively in the direction of indyref2. Even before the pandemic, the SNP leadership has remained committed to waiting until the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. A victory in 2021, they insist, would mean a new mandate to request indyref2. The SNP may well be on course for a landslide victory, with pollsters predicting it could win 74 of Holyrood’s 129 seats. Faced with this prospect, independence supporters are supposed to “get behind Nicola”, and not rock the boat. In reality, the SNP’s “mandates” are piling up dust. Since 2014, Tory governments have twice refused requests for an indyref2, and this stance will not change just because the proindependence majority grabs a few more seats in the elections. Why does the SNP keep banging its head against the same wall? In an analysis of the SNP trajectory, former SNP MP George Kerevan wrote, “Thirteen years in Holyrood government … has created a bureaucratic layer inside the party with its own career and political interests”. As a consequence, “there now exists a career ladder from apparatus to elected post which aspiring SNP politicians are unwilling to jeopardise by being too radical”. This process has been accompanied by the development of closer links with the capitalist groups that dominate the Scottish economy, which shape the SNP’s economic agenda and who don’t want to see any route to independence that involves economic uncertainty. This is exemplified by the commission set up by the SNP to advise policymakers on economic recovery after the pandemic. The panel is headed by Benny Higgins, a former bank boss and current chair of Scotland’s biggest feudal landowner. It is stuffed with Lords, probusiness economists and bosses embedded in the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries. So, while purporting to be the voice of the independence campaign, the role of the SNP has been to harness the movement’s energy, not to take it forward. The Scottish government’s plans to confront the crisis triggered by Covid19 are in the interest of big business, not ordinary people. This strategy threatens to demobilise the masses of working-class people who make up the bulk of the independence movement. There are signs that the SNP monolith could be cracking. Frustration at the party’s caution has led to new debates. A number of new proindependence parties have been registered to contest the 2021 Holyrood election. The instigators of the new parties argue that only by standing non-SNP candidates committed to a referendum can the pro-independence majority be significantly increased. But the SNP rejects this and warns that the vote could be split with disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, both sides of share the same obsession with electoral tactics and constitutional politics. The new parties insist it will be up to the SNP to lead the process of achieving indyref2. What has been lacking in these debates is a real assessment of the SNP’s limitations and a discussion about the need to go beyond its neoliberal policies. The need for an electoral vehicle that can challenge the SNP from the left remains. This will only come about if a re-energised mass movement for independence creates the conditions for it. Refreshingly, the grassroots campaign All Under One Banner, which has mobilised hundreds of thousands of working-class people in favour of independence, has pledged to organise demonstrations as soon as it is safe to do so. The group’s online forums have provided a platform for hundreds of rank and file independence supporters to discuss strategy, and to consider what kind of independent Scotland we are fighting for.