Are Scotland’s Post-Referendum Politics Set to Challenge Austerity Britain?

First a bit of context on how we got here.

Scotland was united with England to form Great Britain by the 1707 Treaty of Union, which was signed by a political elite with no democratic mandate who were largely bribed into agreement or, as Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns put it, “bought and sold for English gold, such a parcel of rogues in a nation”.  The popular response was an outbreak of rioting across the country with copies of the Treaty burnt by an enraged population.

The intervening 300 years saw challenges to that union: Jacobites in 1715 and 1745, the Radical Rising of 1820, the famous revolt by Clyde workers during WW1, the mass agitation by Marxist John McLean, and the election of a block of left-wing Labour MPs in the early 1920s.

Yet the hegemony of Britain and the British Empire, for most of the turbulent 20th century, seemed firmly secured.  Scots industries produced the sinews of Empire from warships to railway locomotives (Glasgow locos largely hauled trains in colonial India), and Scots soldiers policed the Empire from such famous regiments as the Black Watch and Gordon Highlanders.

Indeed the shared experience of hardship and war served to cement the union and led to the post-war introduction of a welfare state, National Health Service and large measures of public ownership of key industries, which guaranteed full employment in industries such as coal and steel, helping to bolster a British consciousness.

All that was changed with the UK election in 1979 of the hard-line free-market government of Margaret Thatcher who set about destroying the post-war settlement, destroying much of the UK and Scotland’s industrial base, creating mass unemployment and finacialising the economy.  Perhaps the most spectacular example of this was the year-long 1984-5 miners’ strike, which ended in defeat and the closure of virtually all Scottish mines, with mass steelmaking following thereafter.

Throughout the Thatcher-Major years, Scots voted against the conservatives only to see their free-market policies imposed against their will.

The lesson was learned and demand for Scotland to have its own parliament controlling key aspects such as health and education grew, culminating in the Holyrood parliament opening in 1999 — albeit with a hybrid electoral system which was designed to ensure that pro-independence forces never gained a majority.  This unionist strategy was, in the words of ex-Labour MP and NATO secretary general George Robertson, supposed to “kill nationalism stone dead”.  It didn’t and the Scottish National Party won first a minority government in 2007 followed by an absolute majority in 2011.

The 2011 result triggered the process culminating in last September’s independence referendum, and it is that and the huge mass awakening of debate and discussion around it that has utterly transformed Scotland’s political landscape and now threatens to decimate UK Labour’s grip on Scotland and in turn its ability to form a British government after May.

Initially the campaign by the pro-independence side was to be conducted by a cross-party broad Yes campaign.  Obviously the most significant force in that was the Scottish National Party, which as Scotland’s governing party had won the agreement of the UK government to hold the referendum, but the smaller Scottish Socialist Party and Scottish Green Party were also part of the Yes structure.  They were joined by a range of cultural, social and other activists.

As the campaign launched in an Edinburgh cinema the task facing the Yes side looked formidable, with polls showing around 25% support for independence and the three main UK parties — Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour — grouped in the ‘Better Together’ No camp in a commanding lead.

Alongside this the vast majority of the media, particularly newspapers but shamefully the supposedly neutral BBC, threw their weight behind the No camp, and during the two-year campaign scare story after scare story were headlined, ranging from Scotland being refused use o the £ to the spectre of cold war-style frontier guards at the border.

Yes supporters responded with what became a mass, peaceful democratic revolt against the manipulations of the No camp and even more importantly to develop a progressive vision of what an independent Scotland could be like and how it would contrast to austerity Britain.  Across the country from big cities to rural villages local Yes groups formed and then mushroomed in size and scope.  On rainy winter nights it was not unusual to find 200 people in a village hall respectfully debating the Yes case and, most importantly, daring to envisage a Scotland charting its own course free from neo-liberal, austerity Britain.

Faced with a uniformly hostile media, Yes folks took to cyberspace and fashioned their alternative with sites such as Newsnet Scotland, Wings over Scotland, and Bella Caledonia reaching thousands with the facts and arguments ignored by the mainstream media.

However, the most transformational aspect of the Yes campaign was the building of groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign, which organised mass pro-Yes canvassing in working-class areas and drew audiences of 3,000 plus to its day-long conferences examining the progressive case for Yes.

Feminists formed a mass democratic Women for Independence campaign, which played a major part in bringing that perspective to bear in shaping the Yes campaign, while a plethora of groups from trade unionists to business all organised in their particular sectors for a Yes vote.

The Scottish Socialist Party and its paper Scottish Socialist Voice hosted hundreds of public meetings on the socialist case for an independent Scottish Republic, and the Greens ran a specific “Green Yes” campaign injecting their particular priorities into the debate.

The result of this was that the broad Yes campaign became a genuine people’s movement which saw independence not just as an objective in itself but as a key to unlocking a country to run it on radically different priorities than the austerity and war underpinning Britain.  It was this mood of hunger for change and a vision of a real alternative that fuelled the massive shift to Yes from the outset of the campaign and saw 45% of Scots — almost 1.5 million — defy the bullying of the British state and the fear-mongering of its media allies and vote Yes.

Importantly, the No vote, which was supposed to settle the national question for a generation, has simply moved the question to a fresh terrain and made it a key component in the forthcoming UK general election.

At the heart of the gathering crisis for the unionists is the stunning impact that the referendum has had on the once all-conquering Labour Party in Scotland, which saw former strongholds in Glasgow, the West of Scotland ignore the party’s No line and vote Yes.  Since the Second World War, Labour has dominated Scottish politics at Westminster even after the SNP won its first Scottish election in 2007.  However, with four days of the referendum all three Yes-supporting parties — the SSP, Greens, and SNP — experienced a surge of new members.  In particular, the SNP soared from 25,000 members to 80,000 in four days and is now, according to the opinion polls, set to reduce Labour’s tally of MPs from 50 to a handful.

Across Europe social democracy is in retreat, increasingly compromised due to its accommodation with neo-liberalism, which in Scotland was driven by the so-called “New” Labour of the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown years that abandoned swathes of traditional policies in favour of market economics.  In Europe this process has seen parties such PASOK and PSOE crumble and new forces such as Syriza and Podemos rise; this is part of the explanation for Labour’s dramatic decline in its Scottish heartland but only part of it.

Rising support for greater self-determination up to full independence has boosted the fortunes of the SNP, which has also astutely moved to occupy much of the social democratic territory abandoned by Labour and is now positioned well to the Left of Labour.  So, unlike in England, in Scotland Labour is facing an opponent with mass popular support on its left which, for example, defends universal welfare benefits and demands the scrapping of the UK’s submarine-based nuclear weapons currently based on the Clyde.  The SNP has also called for an end to austerity and favours big increases in public spending, raising cries of horror in the Westminster establishment.

May’s election in less than 50 days’ time will likely see an SNP majority and the destruction of Labour’s Scottish hegemony in what looks increasingly like a historic moment which can put the whole independence question back on the table irrespective of who forms the London government.  To be sure, the SNP may be prepared to offer support to a Labour minority though it has flatly ruled out any deal with the Conservatives; but the SNP’s opposition to renewed nuclear weapons could well be a deal breaker between them.

For the socialist Left this presents a complex situation.  Some have called for a vote for the SNP as the best option for change and to build on the ferment of ideas and optimism thrown up by the referendum campaign.  The Scottish Socialist Party has not taken that view and is standing four candidates as a marker for the need for socialist rather than social democratic solutions to Scotland’s problems.

Also, from the work of the Radical Independence Campaign a “new” left is emerging which draws on that large group of socialists who are not in any organised party but have a shared vision of a socially just, sustainable Scotland.  The SSP has recognised the potential importance of this development and is working with it with the aim of fashioning a common programme of the left to help build a coherent Left intervention in Scotland’s politics.

While still in its early stages, the Scottish Left Project as it is known may contain the seeds of a politics which involves both the SSP and forces who share a left, anti-capitalist, green view of Scotland’s future that has considerable support among voters.  Scotland’s parliament faces re-election next year and the most optimistic prospect would be that the radical left including the SSP could stand candidates on an agreed left programme and maximise the electoral clout of socialist ideas.  Given the partly proportional voting system it is not unrealistic to aim for socialist representatives being elected to the Holyrood parliament.

Of course, as I write, the SNP looks all-powerful and likely to carry all before them, but the public mood underpinning that power is largely of the left and the post-referendum drive for change.  As Lenin said, “There are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen,” and Scotland increasingly seems to be in those weeks.

Ken Ferguson is Editor of Scottish Socialist Voice.