Scottish Independence Will Dominate British Politics for Years

On Thursday, pro-independence parties won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. But Boris Johnson has insisted he’ll deny any fresh vote on independence. Whether we like it or not, socialists cannot afford to turn away from the national question.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), gives a thumbs-up on May 9, 2021, following the party's landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. (Andy Buchanan / AFP via Getty Images)

In Scotland, Thursday’s elections brought a clear mandate for an independence referendum. Though it will be denied or obfuscated by leading elements of the British state, the sixty-four seats for the Scottish National Party (SNP), plus eight Scottish Greens, mean a majority for independence in the 129-member Holyrood parliament. While it’s true that the SNP included the right to a referendum under certain circumstances in their 2016 manifesto, and this mandate was repulsed twice by British prime ministers, the new mandate is unambiguous. This is a matter of clear democratic principle — the right to national self-determination — around which all progressives should rally.

Now here’s the rub. When Nicola Sturgeon accepted her victory for the Glasgow Southside seat, she didn’t mention Scottish independence. Politicians in her league don’t overlook such things. Every syllable is planned and prepared. This is not how a mandate is constructed, especially if it is meant to galvanize the mass movement surely needed to advance this demand.

The SNP is thus sure to continue on its strange path of triumph; by the end of this term, it will have been in power for nineteen years uninterrupted. The party rode from the margins of Scottish politics on a wave of antiestablishment feeling, which surged around the 2014 independence referendum, issuing in a political leadership which has been able to meld popular feeling with a technocratic, pro-business agenda. And yet that agenda doesn’t sit well with a committed drive for independence, with all the disruption that would entail. This, combined with British state intransigence and the multiple expressions of the national question in popular consciousness, explains why the SNP’s approach to independence remains ambiguous.

SNP Dominance

This runaway success does not, of course, make Scotland the “one-party state” bemoaned by a paranoid Scottish Conservative and Unionist opposition. It does make Sturgeon’s party a hegemonic party in the true sense — any political force must define itself by reference to the SNP. The Conservatives, Scottish Labour, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats rarely discuss much beyond their rejection of the SNP’s dubious (not that the Unionist troika will admit it) commitment to independence, holding this threat over the heads of the pro-Union half of the country.

Not much more can be said of the Scottish Greens, who gained two seats over their 2016 score in this election. They, in essence, act as a middle-class identity faction of Scottish nationalism. They boast of their success as a ginger group, able to parry this or that particularly egregious cut to public services or exceptionally environmentally destructive development plan. But they cosigned every Scottish government cuts budget of the last five years, the fallout landing mostly in working-class communities, where few of their voters live anyway.

Alba, the SNP splinter led by former first minister Alex Salmond, practically boasted of its status as an addendum to the mother party, as it sought to draw SNP votes on the secondary “list” vote. Voters paid little notice, giving Alba no seats and completing the dramatic political collapse of the chief architect of modern Scottish nationalism.

Salmond’s credibility has been pulped after allegations of sexual assault and attempted rape. Though acquitted on all counts at his criminal trial, Salmond admitted to wrongdoing in his behavior toward women colleagues. The investigations which followed cast a harsh light on the conduct of various actors, including Sturgeon, who accepted her government’s responsibility for the collapse of an initial investigation into complaints. But if Salmond thought he had been rehabilitated in the public’s eyes, he was sorely mistaken. The hegemony he did so much to create has outgrown and discarded him.

Sturgeon herself is the quintessential anti-politics figure. Her version of center-leftism consists almost entirely of sentimentality and professional credentialism, which masks conformity with national and international elites, and a total lack of meaningful action on a service economy dominated by low pay, an acute housing crisis, and a feeble industrial base dominated by foreign capital. She represents national pride to a broad section of voters jaded by the vulgar elitism and remote, unaccountable power of Westminster, and this mood presents her to various cohorts as authentic, cosmopolitan, and caring. This profile takes no account of the disastrous handling of a pandemic which killed over three thousand in Scotland’s corporate care-home sector, producing a death count rivalled by few equivalently sized countries. Indeed, Sturgeon is widely perceived to have handled the pandemic well, with public discontent in Scotland focused on the UK government’s very similar failures.

Scotland itself is rapidly transforming under the nationalist hegemony. This was signaled most clearly by the Scottish government’s Economic Recovery Implementation Plan, which declared a fire sale of Scotland’s ecological assets to the international market, tearing out planning rules and environmental protections in haste to trade away Scotland’s renewable energy potential. A “just transition” to renewable energy jobs is stillborn, with workers and industrial capacity in Fife and elsewhere left to idle as international finance cashes in.

It’s difficult to judge how much this squalid record will move with the changing winds of the global political and economic order. The Scottish government is hampered in developing an industrial policy by the retention of key powers at Westminster, and it has proved highly ideologically committed to the “social neoliberalism” of the Blair-Clinton variety. But it is quite likely that, among the slew of measures designed to give the appearance of the pursuit of the national question, noises will be made about a new economic dispensation after the great day of independence.

We should expect no change in the SNP leadership’s fundamental vision: a national independence achieved by ditching sovereignty and democracy. Under SNP leadership plans, foreign and military policy would move to Washington and NATO HQ, monetary policy to the Bank of England with Sterlingization, financial regulation with it to London, and much else aside to Berlin and Brussels, as part of a stitched-up EU membership in which Scots would have no say.

Sovereignty thus decanted, the new nation-state would garner fewer objections from the international order — that’s the theory anyway. But this would also mean a form of independence that would trap the Scottish working class in an emaciated, technocratic state with enfeebled capacities for state intervention. The changes to global capitalism, with states like the United States and UK pumping money into the economy and seeking to right at least some of the imbalances generated by decades of liberal economic orthodoxy, make these plans an absurdity.

Catchall Nationalism

The Scottish result cannot be viewed in isolation from the elections that took place across Britain on Thursday, May 6. Just as the SNP confirmed its hegemony in Scotland after fourteen years of rule, so the Conservative Party extended its hegemony across England after eleven years in office. In both cases, the national question (in England, meaning Brexit) was a key mobilizing force.

This should tell us at least two things. First, the national question is a vital issue for socialists under contemporary capitalism. It is a key democratic issue. As liberal democracy continues its headlong decline, and civic institutions are increasingly hollowed out, such questions have become a major vehicle for mass democratic grievance and a rejection of political elites. Globalization has enhanced, rather than diminished, the national question as a previous generation of left and liberal intellectuals projected.

Second, and to venture a degree of speculation, liberal democracy is becoming so weak that it seems to be shedding the traditional dominant (usually center-right) vs. opposition (usually center-left) form. Instead of a tidal rhythm party system, which has promoted so much stability in Western capitalism over generations, we see a new emerging format in both Scotland and England (and perhaps elsewhere). This means the emergence of popular “patriotic-center” parties, which embrace unusually large and diverse constituencies, including substantial parts of both the working class and middle strata (with millions of other working-class people staying away from the polling stations).

In both cases, these parties are predicated on the decline of social democracy. Labour is already reduced to third place in Scotland (down to twenty-two seats from twenty-four in 2016). In England, it seems the dam has finally burst, and Labour is experiencing the same dire symptoms of decay already afflicting social-democratic parties across the EU. Traditional social democracy, with its orientation on the state as a force of top-down social engineering, has proven extremely vulnerable to democratic and national demands.

It is impossible to say how long the new patriotic-center formation will hold. In the meantime, the phenomenon also inaugurates a world of post-opposition politics, where would-be competitor parties act as external factions of the hegemonic force. In Scotland, the Greens already play this role. Pathetic and disastrous as this may be, Keir Starmer’s Labour also seems content to play a similar role for the Conservatives in England.

Obviously, the rise of the Tory hegemon in England poses yet new problems for the Scottish independence movement. On top of the SNP’s own ambiguity, it now faces an unambiguous and popularly mandated Conservative opposition. When prime minister David Cameron met Salmond to sign the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012, which sealed the independence referendum of 2014, he did so because he thought victory was certain. After two disastrous (from the viewpoint of the ruling class) referendums in Scotland and then across the UK in 2016, there is no mood for these kinds of gambles among the British state elite. Tory resistance strategies may include outright refusal, the offer of a loaded referendum (with a three-question vote, a “confirmatory” vote, or some other device to thwart independence) or even an early general election to ward off the threat.

Early responses from the UK government indicate that a drawn-out negotiation for a referendum with unacceptable conditions may be the preferred option. Sturgeon has already weakened the independence movement’s hand in any negotiations by backing the antidemocratic People’s Vote campaign to overturn the Brexit vote. In truth, both Johnson and Sturgeon (and either of their successors) would benefit from a standoff between their two hegemonic national parties, and both will be planning to use this opportunity to full effect.

The unknown quantity in all this is the independence movement itself — the largest and most active force in recent Scottish history. Could the mass movement which gave the SNP leadership life eventually rebel against this regime of pro-business managerialism and the permanent state of ambiguity on independence? The novelty of the emerging political paradigm means we really don’t know when or how such discontent will appear. Pro-independence activists like those who formed the Alba initiative have found themselves isolated at this juncture, but they could be anticipating moods that will filter out more widely if the road to independence remains obstructed by both Westminster refusal and a lukewarm SNP defense of its mandate.

For now, Sturgeon’s hegemony looks ironclad. One of the consequences of infighting in the nationalist block has been to purge the party of awkward elements — some into Alba, others into a disgusted abeyance. Her prestige within and command over her party are complete.

But as James Foley and Pete Ramand have argued, socialists cannot afford to turn away from the national question. It remains the focus of mass political consciousness, expressing widespread objections to the eclipse of meaningful democratic life and popular sovereignty. Negotiating the national hegemons will not be easy. Much rides on the socialist left’s ability to develop initiatives that concentrate and clarify these core democratic impulses. The outcomes of this battle will be felt far beyond the small northern European nation.