By Philip Stott
The Scottish National Party (SNP) have launched a “new conversation” on independence, two months after the Brexit vote that in the words of Nicola Sturgeon “put a second referendum on the table”.
Scotland’s first minister unveiled the “summer offensive” – which has in reality become an autumn reconnoitre – with a target of speaking to two million people by the end of November.
However, this is not the starting gun being fired on a new indyref campaign or a `specific pledge that one will even take place. As Brian Taylor, political editor of BBC Scotland, correctly described: “It [the conversation] is emphatically not an immediate gung-ho propaganda push for independence.”
“Before we start talking, we must listen”. This comment from Sturgeon typifies the cautious approach of the SNP leadership towards the timing of a new referendum.
The Brexit vote, to the surprise of SNP strategists, has not produced a qualitative change in support for independence. The latest YouGov poll for the Times newspaper in early September 2016 had support for a yes vote at 46%, with 54% in favour of remaining part of the UK.
Interestingly, only half of those who backed Remain on June 23rd, when Scotland voted by a 62% to 38% majority to stay part of the EU, said they would prefer independence and membership of the EU to remaining part of the UK with no EU membership.
Brexit alone is, at present, unlikely to provide enough of a bounce to give the SNP leadership the confidence to call a second indyref on that issue alone.
Adding into the mix is the significantly worsened economic position facing the economy compared to the 2014 referendum. The price of oil has fallen by well over half since. In 2011-12, Scotland’s geographic share of North Sea oil revenues was worth £9.6 billion. Last year they slumped to £60 million.
This has contributed, alongside the lack of any real recovery in the economy, to a sharp increase in the overall notional Scottish fiscal deficit. It currently stands at 9.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), double that of the UK figure.
The impact on the SNP has been significant. There is currently a growing phalanx of leading SNP politicians who are calling for the party to be more “honest” about the economic challenges. George Kerevan, an SNP MSP, commented recently that, “an independent Scotland would face five years of fiscal consolidation” – in other words continued austerity.
Nicola Sturgeon herself has pointed to the new “challenges and complexities” in making the case for independence this time around. It is likely that any new independence white paper from the SNP would abandon plans to use Sterling as the preferred currency, with the Bank of England setting interest rates. A policy in favour of a separate Scottish currency, as a way of attempting to undercut a key plank of the campaign against the break-up of Britain by the capitalist establishment, is likely to be adopted.
It is also clear that a shift to the right is underway by the pro-capitalist SNP leadership, constrained as they are by their refusal to go beyond the limits of what weakened capitalism can afford.
The starting point of Sturgeon and the SNP is an economic policy that is significantly to the right of, for example, that adopted by the Tsipras-led Syriza government in Greece. After being elected in January 2015 on an anti-austerity manifesto, the Syriza leadership capitulated rapidly to the demands of the Troika and the EU establishment after refusing to take socialist measures to defend the Greek working class and poor.
For a combination of reasons, the SNP are not therefore pushing for an immediate referendum, citing the need to “negotiate the best possible outcome for Scotland from the Brexit talks”.
Indeed, Sturgeon has now proposed a coalition with any willing Tory government ministers to try and retain UK membership of the European single market. This echoes the position taken by Scotland’s first minister during the EU referendum when she shared a platform with Tory representatives to make the case for benefits of the bosses’ EU. In contrast Socialist Party Scotland, alongside the railworkers, train drivers and bakers trade unions, campaigned for a socialist exit from a corporate dominated EU that has championed austerity against the people of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland etc.
Immediately after Brexit Nicola Sturgeon appointed a “council of advisors”, in reality a big business dominated cabal, to advise the Scottish government on the Brexit talks.
Most recently, the SNP have established a “Growth Commission” to discuss ways to reduce the deficit and grow the capitalist economy post-independence. The chair of the commission is ex-SNP MSP Andrew Wilson, who is managing director of a major lobby firm which advises big business. The company chairman is top financier Angus Grossart. All this is playing the role of further exposing the overwhelming pro-business orientation of the SNP.
Pressure to act
While an immediate drive for a second independence referendum is not on the cards, there are significant countervailing pressures on the SNP leadership to be seen to act. Not least is the around 120,000 strong membership of the SNP and its energised electoral base, which grew enormously arising from the 2014 indyref.
The major factor in launching the “conversation” on independence was the need to assuage the base of the SNP. As the pro-independence commentator Iain Macwhirter wrote in the Herald newspaper: “Nicola Sturgeon’s listening exercise is of course a delaying tactic: something to keep the activists engaged without actually committing them to a full-scale campaign.”
But delay is not a strategy for the long-term. The SNP remain committed to independence and a second referendum. They risk losing a portion of their electoral support otherwise. Playing for time and until the polls shift decisively, the SNP have changed tack over the EU. Sturgeon had said that a UK-wide vote to leave the EU if Scotland voted to remain would be a “material change of circumstances” that could trigger a new referendum.
When the Brexit vote took place the referendum was “put on the table”, effectively to apply pressure for a favourable deal over Scotland’s access to the single market. Now it is the nature of the Brexit settlement, soft or hard, that is the line in the sand, but this could take a lengthy period of time to become clear.
Even the triggering of Article 50 may not immediately be the firing of the starting pistol for a second independence referendum.
However, at some point a crossroads will be reached over whether to call a second vote on independence. There is a majority in the Scottish parliament – a combination of the SNP and the Greens – for such a vote. Nevertheless, Westminster would have to agree to a referendum through the signing of a section 30 order. It is unclear what the attitude of the May-led Tory government would be to this demand.
In the immediate term Nicola Sturgeon et al will push the demand that the May government fight for full access to the single market for the UK. For example by retaining access to the European Economic Area. She is supported on this by the anti-Corbyn, Blairite leader of Scottish Labour, Kezia Dugdale.
The SNP leader is acting openly to defend the interests of Scottish and British big business. The single market, after all, is the condensed essence of a neo-liberal, anti-worker and pro-privatisation framework. Underpinned by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice that ensure that their rules are stuck to.
A socialist policy, in contrast, stands for an end to privatisation, a £10 an hour living wage, public ownership and democratic planning of the economy and the cancellation of all laws that undermine the interests of the working class. Such policies are incompatible with membership of the EU and its institutions and pose the need to fight for a socialist Europe.
A second indyref is, over the next few years and perhaps sooner, very likely. Socialist Party Scotland supports such a referendum. However, the political and economic conditions will be markedly changed whenever it does take place. A new economic crisis can emerge in the meantime that would raise more clearly the need for a socialist solution to the problems facing the working class.
The SNP’s platform may well have shifted significantly to the right by then. Certainly their record in power, of presiding over years of austerity and attacks on workers’ rights, has and will create a new space for left and socialist ideas.
By standing on a fighting platform in favour of an independent socialist Scotland and a reversal of all austerity, socialist ideas could grow dramatically. A programme for a socialist government for Scotland would be based on democratic public ownership of the economy, a reversal of privatisation, a living wage of £10-an-hour and full workers and trade union rights.
This has to be linked to the building of a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation between an independent socialist Scotland and a socialist England, Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe. There is no solution to any of the problems we face: poverty, deprivation and cuts, within the crushing straitjacket of capitalism. It is this approach that Socialist Party Scotland argues that the trade unions, the Corbyn movement and the socialist left should adopt.