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Scottish Independence Is About Ordinary Scots, Not Alex Salmond’s Ego

Ahead of May's Scottish elections, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon finds herself embroiled in an intense row with her predecessor Alex Salmond, who last week formed his own separate party. The clash between the two is sure to dominate the election campaign — but it's also a distraction from the democratic issues at the heart of the independence movement.

Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond departing Edinburgh High Court, 2020. (Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images)

If elections to Scotland’s devolved parliament rarely bother global news agendas, that started to change after the 2016 Brexit referendum. The vote revealed a split, as a sizable majority (62 percent) of Scottish voters favored remaining in the European Union, unlike their English counterparts. Many observers assumed that Scottish independence would inevitably follow — and, until recently, public opinion was consistently pointing toward that conclusion. Through late 2020, an unprecedented twenty-two consecutive opinion polls showed a majority of Scots favored the breakup of Britain.

Independence also remains the flagship policy of the Edinburgh parliament’s ruling Scottish National Party (SNP). The nationalists have been in power since 2007; since the last referendum of 2014, and the humbling of the once-mighty Scottish Labour at the 2015 UK election, they have ruled effectively unchallenged. With the May 6 elections for Scotland’s Holyrood parliament approaching, polls show the SNP heading for another victory, possibly with one of their strongest ever returns.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s high profile first minister, styles herself as “fan girl” for Hillary Clinton. She has been leading the SNP government, in the top job or as deputy, for nearly fifteen years, and the laws of recent electoral history suggest she should have fallen long ago. In the “populist moment,” European electorates have been harsh on insiders and career politicians who outstay their welcome. Her ideological agenda — corporate globalization, business paternalism, and liberal feminism — has been a worldwide synonym for electoral failure. Many saw Sturgeon as a social democrat when she became party leader in 2014, but meaningful policy changes have been thin on the ground. And yet, against the odds, she commands record approval ratings.

Nonetheless, problems have been mounting ahead of the election. Sturgeon has just survived a no-confidence motion brought by the Scottish Conservatives, the roots of which lie in a highly publicized spat with Alex Salmond, her predecessor as first minister and SNP leader. In 2019 Salmond was indicted for multiple cases of sexual harassment and assault but acquitted on all counts; he has subsequently accused his successor’s inner circle of orchestrating a conspiracy to “get” him.

Last week, an independent official inquiry cleared Sturgeon of specific wrongdoing. But a separate, rather more politicized parliamentary inquiry criticized Sturgeon’s government’s “seriously flawed” handling of complaints, and concluded that Sturgeon had parliament. Perhaps more damagingly, the two original women complainants have accused the Scottish government of “dropping” them. Salmond is not the only SNP politician to have been accused of sexual harassment or bullying — and critics charge that the SNP leadership has shown leniency to leadership loyalists accused of wrongdoing. This matters a great deal, because the Scottish government’s legitimacy rests, in part, on its previous seriousness about #MeToo.

Given the absence of realistic opposition to the SNP, these battles have dominated preelection jousting. And a shock announcement at the end of last week only heightened the sense that this election is a battle of competing personalities. Salmond has launched a new pro-independence electoral vehicle, the Alba Party. The presentation was a PR debacle, with technical gaffes on the stream that left Salmond breathing heavily into the camera for extended periods (not a good look, given the charges against him).

Still, Alba looks likely to draw from a range of grievances against Sturgeon’s mode of progressive neoliberalism. It will attract breakaways from the SNP, ranging from rural conservatives to “gender-critical” feminists critical of pro-trans policies to social democrats with roots in the 79 Group — a historic left-nationalist faction which formed the roots of the contemporary SNP leadership. But if various forces will thus look to channel the Salmond-Sturgeon conflict to their advantage, this should not disguise their fundamental ideological alignment.

What Kind of Independence?

Salmond’s new party will pitch itself as a useful tactical addition to the parliamentary bloc for independence. The SNP membership and the wider Yes movement, having made vast commitments of time and money to the cause, are anxious that their historic moment may slip through their fingers. There is a vague but genuine feeling that progress toward the SNP’s historic goal has stalled.

The appearance of rising support for independence under Sturgeon, crucially, grew from an unprecedented peacetime crisis of the British state, caused by protracted Brexit negotiations and the initial mishandling of the pandemic. This has receded somewhat with Britain’s success (relative to the EU) in administering vaccinations; in parallel, support for independence has dropped from highs of 58 percent, with some polls now showing a pro-union majority.

Meanwhile, inside the SNP — once the archetypal centrally managed party — public infighting has become the new norm: with opposition parties a sideshow, the ruling party has been embroiled in toxic internal struggles for power.

Parliamentary opposition to the SNP may be pitiful, but the vast, left-leaning social movement for independence has become increasingly critical of Sturgeon’s managerial style. Many now openly question whether the SNP has any intention of fulfilling its founding purpose of delivering independence.

Particular doubts surround the SNP’s neoliberal economic plan for independence, which most now consider a relic of the pre-pandemic, pre-climate era. Sturgeon’s failure to update a strategy based on replicating Ireland’s low-tax, high-foreign-investment “Celtic Tiger” model from the 1990s has been cited as proof that she has no intention of pursuing a second referendum.

Sturgeon’s team has formally committed to a referendum soon, perhaps this year, perhaps in the early part of the next parliamentary term, meaning 2022 or 2023 at the latest. Yet the barriers are substantial. Legally, and certainly in the eyes of the international community, Scottish independence would appear to depend on consent from the UK’s sovereign parliament, where the arithmetic is unforgiving. Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has no intention of permitting a referendum, regardless of events in Scotland.

Nor, for now, does the Labour opposition. After a brief opening under Jeremy Corbyn — who thought Labour might need to rely on support from Scottish Nationalists to form a government — the door has slammed shut under Labour’s “new management.” His successor Sir Keir Starmer has compensated for his disastrous role in the People’s Vote campaign (a bid to repeat the 2016 Brexit referendum) by using every opportunity to wave the Union Jack.

Sturgeon has never convincingly explained how she will compel Westminster to abide by Scotland’s electoral will. And the issues do not end there. Economically, longstanding problems have been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. For generations, Scotland’s potential prosperity rested on North Sea oil monies, which, under Margaret Thatcher, were once a significant part of the United Kingdom’s revenues.

Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon speaks at a rally against the Trident nuclear program. Garry Knight / Flickr

While Norway used its oil to become one of the world’s wealthiest and most secure economies, Scotland faced mass unemployment and its aftermath of drug addiction, alienation, and entrenched inequality, as Thatcher used the revenues to help push through a neoliberal restructuring of the British economy.

But oil is declining, both in volume and in economic relevance. Those problems redouble when factoring in rising climate consciousness. Either way, upon independence, Scotland’s fiscal deficits would be considerable. Too large, certainly, for the European Union’s neoliberal rulebook — demanding that member states run budget deficits under 3 percent. Given that Sturgeon has built her own case for independence entirely on EU membership, this presents a considerable barrier.

Which is not the same as an insurmountable barrier, given a willingness to depart from decades of economic orthodoxy. And, with capitalism unlikely to produce rising incomes in coming decades, socialists have a strong case that now is the time for a democratic “break” with the straitjacket of neoliberal globalization.

There is every reason to suspect that Scotland’s left-leaning independence movement would be sympathetic to an agenda framed around popular sovereignty over key economic resources. More to the point, the world’s ruling class seem willing to break many of the old rules after the pandemic. But the SNP leadership seems almost uniquely determined to be the diligent pupil of the old neoliberal pedagogy.

Back to Normal?

The problem is thus less about the abstract impossibility of independence, and more the paucity of vision. Although the current SNP leadership owes its power to their success in mobilizing an anti-austerity, pro-NHS, left-populist movement in 2014, their program for independence remains strangely oblivious to a decade of global capitalist breakdown.

They are wedded to a notion that Britain’s crisis is unique, and that joining the European project will be sufficient to restore “normality.” Given overall Scottish opposition to Brexit, this narrative has chimed with public feeling. But it rests on misconceptions about this historic phase of capitalism, and nobody has devised an updated case for independence.

In the heat of a referendum, the SNP’s case for independence would be exposed as a relic, a product of fantasy neoliberalism that might have appeared in a 1990s think tank paper. Proposals for “sterlingization,” the unilateral use of a (foreign) UK currency, involves ceding all monetary sovereignty to the Bank of England.

For this reason alone, the proposals are unpopular with party members; and even before the pandemic, they would have forced Scotland to wear a hair shirt of austerity for decades. More fundamentally, this currency policy is effectively untested in advanced capitalism, barring exceptional cases like Panama.

Equally, the notion of Scotland rejoining the EU while using the currency of a third country which is not a member state strikes many experts as a rather dubious proposition. All this merely illustrates the contradiction of trying to sustain an old fashioned “centrist” program under contemporary capitalism.

Sturgeon’s vision has found itself tangled up in all the contradictions of the retreating technocratic consensus. However, as the independence movement and much of civil society was swallowed into government, there are few rival sources of agency or authority to reassert a more consistent view of popular sovereignty.

Nonetheless, there remain three crucial reasons why Scottish independence should interest socialists worldwide. Firstly, it puts into question a state that forms a key link in the imperial chain. Despite Brexit, the UK remains a key ally of American foreign policy, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a former empire that once commanded a quarter of the globe. Diminishing its size and role therefore makes a modest but not insubstantial contribution to weakening American military hegemony.

During Scotland’s last referendum, Argentina raised the prospect of removing Britain’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council in favor of a non-colonial power if Scotland succeeded from the union. The particularities of SNP foreign policy, a contradictory mishmash, both antinuclear and pro-NATO, are less important than the fundamental impact of the breakup of Britain on the state system.

Secondly, it opens the black box of state formation. Scottish independence challenges the norm that European constitutions are finished articles. The chief barrier to Scottish self-determination is the almost total absence of historical precedents among advanced capitalist states in the Global North. However, that also hints at how Scotland’s success could shift dynamics in favor of centrifugal movements. Movements toward Irish reunification and Catalan independence, for example, could accelerate markedly.

Thirdly, there are questions of class and democracy. The previous Scottish independence referendum of 2014 is a fascinating study in political sociology. Opposition to independence was led by the political establishment, major corporate interests, and the most conservative sections of the trade union movement. Added to that was the European Union, Barack Obama, and most of the global ruling elite. By contrast, the Yes movement became perhaps the biggest grassroots social movement in Scottish history, and it has set down roots in working-class communities and “flyover Scotland” that persist to this day.

This was reflected in the demographics of the 2014 vote. Among Scotland’s most deprived voters, 65 percent favored independence. Likewise, there was a majority among the demographically defined working class (C2DE — 53.4 percent).

Independence also secured strong support from younger voters, and, with pensioners excluded, there was an overall majority for Yes. Crucially, some of the greatest enthusiasm emerged from depressed “Labour heartlands” — working-class communities which had been taken for granted by mainstream social democracy, and now abandoned the party in droves.

Beyond “Inclusion”

The importance of this is worth spelling out. In 2014, huge swathes of Scotland’s poorest and most disenfranchised people revolted against the political instructions and the dire economic forecasts presented by their establishment. The same is arguably true of Brexit, but the Yes movement was overwhelmingly progressive: it was explicitly anti-austerity and pro-immigration when these were taboo stances inside the Westminster mainstream.

This type of mass political behavior, where working-class voters defy instructions en masse and assert their own agency, always deserves our attention — even when its characteristics are ambiguous. Given that in Scotland’s case this was a largely left-populist movement, it should command a serious response from socialists looking for positive moments of political revival.

Equally, the tragedy of Scotland is how badly this spirit has been let down. 2014 made the SNP into one of Europe’s strongest mass parties and provided the ultimate populist foundation for Sturgeon’s hegemony. However, there has been precious little reward for these working-class voters.

Under the SNP, Scotland has made little progress on poverty, inequality, and key policy areas like schooling, beyond progressive-sounding buzzwords about inclusion. Real policy achievements are conspicuously absent. And the professional-managerial class has strengthened its grip on the Scottish state, forming a praetorian guard against any challengers to Sturgeon’s power.

Nonetheless, independence itself remains a national-popular, democratic project. The movement exhibits extraordinary capacity for self-organization. Against Sturgeon’s wishes, mass demonstrations supporting the breakup of Britain persisted until the lockdown; many were among the largest in Scottish history. Their composition was overwhelmingly drawn from outside the political and professional establishment.

Underlying this movement is a desire for popular sovereignty: self-rule, autonomy, and public control over the state. There is little prospect of achieving these aims under Scotland’s botched devolved constitution. The task for socialists is to separate these healthy instincts, both from conservative nationalism, and from Sturgeon’s reversion to a 1990s vision of neoliberal globalization.