With new referendum push, Scotland needs a radical Yes campaign

You know how it is when you go to the movies. Sometimes the sequel has a bigger impact than the original.

The announcement by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that she would bring forward proposals for a second referendum on Scottish independence may prove another example of this phenomenon.

There is a real feeling across Scotland, in Westminster and the media, that this time the Yes side could win and Scotland could break from the “United Kingdom”.

Nicola Sturgeon leads the Scottish National Party (SNP), which heads the devolved Scottish government with the support of the Scottish Greens. She replaced former SNP leader Alex Salmond, who resigned after the Yes side lost the first referendum, and remains a popular figure.

In the first Scottish referendum, the independence campaign was defeated after winning a strong, but insufficient, 45% of the vote. But the referendum threw up a mass social movement that moved beyond the limited goals of the official Yes campaign.

The official campaign, under SNP leadership, backed retaining the pound as Scotland’s currency and the Queen as its head of state — along with NATO membership and an entirely uncritical view of the European Union.

But the referendum also sparked grassroots campaigns, which sprung up in every community in Scotland. Campaigners brought their own vision forward of the type of society they wanted to build.

This inspiring movement did not vanish after the failure of the referendum. Tens of thousands signed up for political parties. The SNP were the main beneficiaries, developing into a mass party with 120,000 members. This made it possibly the biggest party per head of population in Europe. 

Other pro-independence parties such as the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) also benefited. Campaigning groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and Women for Independence also stayed together, building networks and campaigning.

New media such as CommonSpace and Bella Caledonia thrived on the left of the campaign, while more traditional nationalist media outlets, such as the new daily National paper and online Wings over Scotland also grew.

Brexit

It is impossible to understand the new developments in the national question in Scotland without understanding Brexit and the rise of English nationalism.

Britain voted to leave the European Union in June last year. The vote followed a referendum campaign overwhelmingly dominated by the xenophobic and “British” nationalist agenda of the Conservatives and far right UK Independence Party (UKIP). The constant theme from both the “official” Leave campaign headed by Tory politicians Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, and the unofficial campaign led by UKIP’s Nigel Farage, was to blame immigrants and refugees for all of Britain’s problems.

This narrative conveniently ignored the financial crisis caused by the criminal behaviour of the big banks, and the governments who let them get away with it.

A heady mix of Empire nostalgia and xenophobia was tapped to secure the vote and the result was a carnival of reaction. In the midst of the campaign, anti-Brexit Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a neo-Nazi. Racist attacks on Polish and other immigrant workers spiked dramatically after the vote.

Several groups on the left also argued for Brexit — not without reason, given the EU’s neoliberal nature and its persecution of Greece. But these arguments barely surfaced during the campaign. The Brexit vote had a major anti-establishment element, but it was channelled into the swamp of racism and xenophobia.

The vote also exposed the divisions within Britain. The “United Kingdom” was shown to be not so united. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to Remain. In Scotland, the vote was 67.2% to Remain.

The SNP-led Scottish government had pledged in its manifesto to call a second independence referendum in the event of a “material change of circumstances”, such as a vote to leave the EU. After the referendum’s results were announced, Sturgeon immediately called a televised press conference where she promised solidarity with migrant workers and pledged to “defend Scotland’s vital interests”.

Scotland

Why did Scotland diverge so much from the rest of Britain? Scotland certainly faced economic problems as bad as anything faced by its neighbours. Tory austerity had bitten hard and poverty-related health problems were among the worst in the country.

Scots are not any more inherently progressive than the English. Indeed, Scottish and English workers have stood shoulder to shoulder in many key battles over the years, whether against the rise of fascism or during the miners’ strike in the 1980s.

But Scottish national consciousness had been forged in opposition to Tory rule. Scots overwhelmingly voted Labour, yet suffered years of Tory governments that devastated their industry and used them for anti-poor experiments like the hated poll tax in the late ’80s.

In Scotland, the democratic national question was also a class question.

The SNP was never in the vanguard of campaigns such as the anti-Poll Tax campaign. That honour goes to socialist groups like Scottish Militant Labour, which went on to form the SSP. But it did oppose the tax and also opposed imperialist wars in the Balkans and the Gulf.

The next referendum

Westminster is trying to block the referendum until well after the conclusion of Brexit. It hopes the SNP government might face an election and lose its majority, that the steam will run out of its campaign, or that Brexit will prove a success.

As things stand, it is likely to be wrong on all counts. It also hopes to use Brexit to remove the votes of thousands of EU citizens, who were able to vote in the last independence referendum.

But the focus on Brexit is a weakness of the proposed independence referendum. Membership of the EU cannot be the only basis for creating a new state. While the issue motivates many, it will leave others, often the most oppressed, cold. The EU has not delivered for them anymore than Westminster.

The left needs to fight tooth and nail for Scotland’s democratic right to vote on independence. It also needs to fight to bring forward the interests of working people, immigrants and the poorest in Scottish society.

RIC’s role

Groups such as RIC tried to create a vision of an alternative society during the first referendum. It hopes to do so again with an internationalist, democratic and egalitarian program for a Scottish republic.

RIC will argue for a People’s Independence. The 99% have the most to lose from ongoing Tory rule from Westminster. Their votes will decide the referendum and RIC aims to provide a platform to amplify this voice.

RIC will be discussing new ideas for the coming campaign, rather than simply repeating its work from the last referendum. The situation has changed dramatically since 2014 - that means our tactics and approach must also change. 

By trying to block the referendum, Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories have again affronted democracy. May’s actions have highlighted the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the British state — contrasting with RIC’s vision of a democratic republic. 

The result will be a further constitutional crisis. This comes on top of the social crisis created by Tory policies such as the public sector pay freeze, welfare reform and the bedrooms tax.

For anyone outside the millionaire class, Britain is heading in a dystopian direction. People across Britain are suffering from what will be decades of wage stagnation combined with rising housing, energy and food bills.

RIC will make sure this referendum offers a positive alternative where Scotland democratically decides how to share its resources and wealth. This, not the EU, will be at the heart of the radical Yes message. 

The British state is now under the control of UKIP-style bigots and fantasists who dream of returning to the days of the British Empire. Britain now stands clearly on the wrong side of history. May left us in no uncertain terms in this regard when she joined hands in solidarity with US President Donald Trump. 

RIC decisively rejects the racist and bigoted direction of the new national populist and far-right politics in the US, Britain and Europe, and will be part of an international movement of opposition.

An independent Scotland can defend migrant rights and confront the real social issues of inadequate housing, unemployment and low wages that drive people into the hands of the authoritarian right. But that means arguing for this in the here and now — not waiting until after independence.

RIC aims to show that such injustices have nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with a failing system that puts the profits of the richest 1% above the needs of everybody else.

RIC will meet on April 1 to discuss its strategy for a second referendum. 

As an immediate priority, it opposes the Tory government attempts to block the referendum. This will not be a battle of the elites — it needs a people's movement on the streets, in communities and in workplaces.

RIC intends to work with radical movements and organisations from across Europe — believing that only internationalism from below can confront the failures of globalisation from above.

It will hold local events, national conferences and forums to ensure that independence will genuinely empower people to think about and challenge a failing neoliberal order.

[Alister Black is a SSP member active in the Radical Independence Campaign.]