Left Out? Socialists and the Scottish Independence Movement

The weakness of the socialist pro-independence movement should be cause for concern rather than celebration for the Scottish Labour left.

Scottish National Party parliamentarians walked out of the House of Commons earlier this month in a protest against the marginalisation of devolution in the Brexit debate. It was an effective piece of political theatre and a boost to the populist appeal of the SNP as an insurgent, anti-establishment force standing up to distant, uncaring institutions. Yet in the years since the independence referendum, and particularly since the Brexit vote, such moments for Scottish nationalism have been few and far between as the SNP have consolidated their position in the centre ground of Scottish politics.

The recent report of the Sustainable Growth Commission, the brainchild of Nicola Sturgeon conceived as a means to renew debate around the economic prospects for an independent Scotland, highlighted the SNP’s commitment to technocracy. The Commission is steeped in a vision that understands economic growth as an unproblematic panacea to societal ills and foresees a continuation of Scotland’s dependence on financial services and multinational investment. Within the Scottish Government, this perspective is coupled with an unthreatening brand of social justice, sufficiently anodyne to keep big business on board. Andrew Wilson, the primary author of the report, is a former SNP MSP. Crucially, he is also a former senior economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland and founder of Charlotte Street Partners, a corporate marketing and lobbying firm regarded as a key link between Scottish politics and the financial sector. Wilson’s appointment should have been an early warning sign that the contents of the report would not constitute radical, transformative proposals for the Scottish economy, nor would they be in the interest of Scottish workers.

This impression was confirmed by the final report which was widely criticised on the pro-independence left (see, for example, this review by Jonathon Shafi and Cat Boyd for Bella Caledonia). A common complaint was that it would commit an independent Scotland to continuing austerity largely due to an acceptance of the necessity to reduce the deficit to below 3% of GDP and reducing national debt to below half of GDP, while also ruling out possible wealth taxes. Contravening standard ‘civic Scotland’ practice, neither the STUC nor any individual trade unions were consulted by the Growth Commission, but it did seek input from the Institute of Directors (amongst 22 other civic Scotland and enterprise bodies), indicating that the interests of Scottish workers and their families, far from being at the heart of the report, barely merited passing consideration. Corporation Tax would not only remain at its current low rate, but would be determined by Westminster and the Bank of England. A central idea was “Sterlingisation”, the proposal that Scotland should retain an unofficial currency union with the rest of the UK. This was a particularly untenable aspect of the report: it entails leaving monetary policy in the control of Westminster, with the result that an independent Scottish Government would have no powers over money creation; no ability to finance its own debt; and no ability to set base interest rates. So far, defences of the substance of the report have been thin on the ground, with Nicola Sturgeon herself seemingly recognising its unpopularity and taking to Twitter to imply that the report was only intended as a contribution to a debate around the economy of an independent Scotland, not as a manifesto.

The Commission report also highlighted that the left of the SNP and the broader independence movement have once again been relegated to the fringes. The left wing sections of the ‘Yes’ movement differed politically from the mainstream of the SNP: they tended to emphasise that an independent Scotland would be a better environment in which to bring about the redistribution of wealth and power than the United Kingdom. In their formal manifestations as the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and the thinktank Common Weal, the pro-independence left were useful to the SNP in the run up to the 2014 referendum by ensuring that left-wing ideas for an independent Scotland were on the agenda. This allowed the SNP to lay claim to Scotland’s socialist and labour movement heritage while simultaneously advancing an essentially neoliberal vision in its White Paper. It appeared that an SNP government in an independent Scotland would be radical in rhetoric while ideologically resembling New Labour. It is this rhetoric that has been largely abandoned since it has become more convenient for the SNP to present itself as credible and serious, which it interprets as ‘moderate’. In 2012, SNP conference voted to overturn the party’s traditional anti-NATO position and the language of its elected members on foreign policy has been increasingly hawkish. This is at odds with the pacifist, internationalist current within the SNP represented by campaigns such as Neutral Scotland. Its third term in government, since 2016, has been marked by a noticeable lack of the big, populist ideas - free tuition and universal free prescriptions - that marked its first term from 2011. In recent years the Scottish Government has shied away from wealth tax proposals put forward by Scottish Labour and early promises to scrap council tax were abandoned during their first term. They have flip-flopped on proposals to raise revenue by increasing income tax, ultimately climbing down on a pledge to freeze the basic rate.

Meanwhile, the left wing of the SNP have found themselves with few elected members representing their politics. Their ideas for a radical transformation of the Scottish economy are ignored in policy as the parliamentary party has pursued continuation of the neoliberal order, softened with some vaguely social democratic universalist measures that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a New Labour manifesto. Leading members of RIC outside the SNP opted to form RISE, a socialist and pro-independence political party which aimed to win seats in the Scottish Parliament and steer the independence debate to the left. However, following the 2016 Scottish Parliament election in which they gained only 0.5% of the regional list vote, RISE have appeared defunct as a party and unable to gain a foothold in the Scottish political landscape, leaving many of its activists politically homeless and with some maintaining critical support of Labour under Corbyn.

The weakness of the socialist pro-independence movement should be cause for concern rather than celebration for the Scottish Labour left, which has similarly struggled to attain prominence. Despite last year’s leadership election which was won by Richard Leonard - largely through the efforts of left wing Labour activists from the Campaign for Socialism and Scottish Labour Young Socialists - the message emanating from the party has remained inconsistent. Policies such as a wealth tax and rent controls are welcome, but Scottish Labour’s commitment to radical federalism remains undeveloped. The party’s line on the constitution has been to oppose a second independence referendum while insisting that they are focusing on employment and housing instead, in the mistaken belief that voters can be conveniently distracted from its lack of answer to a burning political question. A conception of federalism which links the redistribution of political power with the redistribution of wealth could be an important vehicle for Scottish Labour, if only it were brave enough to get in the driving seat rather than defining its constitutional position as a reaction to the SNP.

The combined difficulties of both the pro- and anti-independence left - along with a relatively weak trade union movement and extra-parliamentary activism that has momentary and sectoral successes but lacks coherent visibility - leaves Scotland and its political agenda to be determined by parties of the status quo. Primarily, this means the socially liberal centrism of the SNP, who are in turn defining themselves against the reactionary Scottish Conservatives (the second largest party in Holyrood). The prospect of a second independence referendum is currently uncertain, and the Scottish left on both sides of the constitutional debate should take this opportunity to work collectively to strengthen the labour movement and drag the terms of the economic debate to the left.