Marty Smith

Marty Smith

Introducing Autonomy

Reading Time: 7 minutes

There’s a perception held by many on the pro-independence left that the SNP have tied themselves too readily to continuity EU membership. But what are the alternatives? Marty Smith, co-founder of Autonomy, a new “grassroots movement for SNP activists to campaign against European Union membership for an independent Scotland”, sets out their ideas…

On March 13 last year, Nicola Sturgeon stood in front of a crowded room of journalists at Bute House and declared she’d be seeking the authority of the Scottish Parliament to move towards holding a second referendum on independence. The First Minister emphasised that the UK Government was failing to compromise over Brexit proposals that didn’t represent the views of the 62% of Scottish citizens who voted to ‘Remain’ members of the European Union.

The SNP hierarchy’s belief was that this could be the catalyst to gain increased support for Scottish independence and that the EU referendum result in Scotland constituted the perpetually alluded to “material change of circumstances” needed for a second Scottish independence referendum to be granted. What Nicola Sturgeon didn’t factor into this decision was her own party’s silent voters and their views on the EU. 

In the fallout of the EU referendum, the National Centre for Social Research identified that 36% of SNP supporters had voted to ‘Leave’, the same percentage as that of the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, who was vilified by the Remain camp for his inability to mobilise their membership toward keeping the UK within the EU. Nicola Sturgeon was not disparaged to the same extent and instead went on the offensive, citing the democratic deficit between Scotland and the rest of the UK. But as the results of the referendum were analysed extensively by researchers across the country, some stark conclusions were drawn. 

Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University identified that whilst all of Scotland’s 32 constituency areas favoured the Remain vote, the data revealed that Leave enjoyed more localised success, particularly among communities where fishing was the chief source of employment (Banff and Buchan 61%, Whalsay and South Unst 81%). Professor Curtice told CommonSpace: “It is not surprising to see these regions vote how they did, even in the traditional SNP strongholds in the north-east.” He added: “There is a divide among nationalists over the EU, with as many as one in three favouring Leave”. 

He argued these results served as a warning to Scotland’s pro-independence campaigners. “Trying to tag a second referendum off the back of Brexit alone is unlikely to work,” he added. “There is not enough evidence that a sufficient number of people in Scotland are upset enough by the outcome to change their vote.” 

As the debate around of the results of EU referendum progressed, prominent party representatives such as Alex Neil, SNP MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, acknowledged that he himself had fundamental concerns about the current direction of the EU and had voted to Leave. Mr Neil went on to further suggest he’d been approached by other elected representatives in the party who held the same views as he did.

This didn’t impede the SNP top table’s vision – Sturgeon continued to espouse pro-EU rhetoric in numerous debates regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill, identifying the UK Government as engaging in a “power grab” of devolved issues. A fervently pro-EU speech by party’s MEP Alyn Smith and subsequent pamphlets about ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ regarding the perceived positives of full EU membership only further mobilised the Eurosceptic element of the party. 

Last month, we established Autonomy, a left wing Eurosceptic movement for SNP activists. The group’s core aim centres around breaking the link between a proposed second independence referendum and re-entering the European Union by debating and campaigning for an alternative relationship with the rest of Europe. 

The disenchantment of the 36% of SNP Leave voters was best articulated by Jim Sillars, former deputy leader of the SNP, and the late Gordon Wilson, former leader, who both suggested any future referendum tied to full EU membership would have them vote against independence for Scotland. Our activists’ Eurosceptic ideology is fundamentally rooted in our distaste with the EU following the ‘Eurozone’ crisis in 2009, in which the true colours of the institution were exposed. 

The politically unrealistic Economic Adjustment Plans set out were fundamentally rooted in neo-liberal structural reform. They aimed to provide failing economies a period of resurgent growth at the expense of public sector and social security, drastically impeding working class citizens’ standards of living in Greece, Portugal and Spain.


The European Commission, regularly cited by liberal stalwart Guy Verhofstadt as a great beacon of western democracy, also failed to uphold its own enshrined legislation (such as the Copenhagen Criteria) in defence of the democratic values and human rights of the Catalan people in their own independence referendum in October. As numerous countries across the EU are embroiled in a state of quasi permanent crisis, the Commission seem to be more concerned with retaining hegemonic power in Germany or France and less concerned about the welfare of citizens and democratic values in the periphery member states. 

Many of the activists involved with Autonomy are fundamentally concerned about the authoritarian approach the European Commission is imposing over the smaller nation states within the Union. This Eurosceptic ideology correlates with many people’s motivations for supporting independence during the first Scottish independence referendum.

We recognise that the Yes movement, for many, was never about blanket nationalism against “the English” – it instead focused on the decentralisation of power, not just in a geographical sense but in a societal capacity, through the redistribution of wealth, social ownership and dismantling the monopoly of big capital. 

The fundamental belief of Autonomy activists is that an independent Scotland, as members of European Union, will only suppress these goals. Whilst there are divergent views within Autonomy about the future relationship an independent Scotland would look to establish with the rest of Europe, a reoccurring proposal is that of EFTA (European Free Trade Agreement). EFTA countries are in the Single Market but outside of the Customs Union, with flexibility on economic policy and issues like fisheries, procurement and state aid. 

Many activists across the independence movement, including former First Minister Alex Salmond, have identified EFTA as being used within a transition period for an independent Scotland before potentially applying for full EU membership. The Nordic Model, as promoted by Lesley Riddoch and Robin McAlpine, favours avoiding full membership of the EU and instead having a similar relationship with the EU to that of Norway. EFTA nations, like Norway, have the right to not only reform but also reject some EU proposals and have been described as a “leaders” in EU-rule making, engaging in numerous negotiations pertaining to fisheries, trade, security and environmental legislations. 

Another alternative is also gaining significant traction amongst many on the left across Europe. Autonomy activists suggest that EFTA shouldn’t be used as part of a ‘phased approach’ towards full EU membership; rather, EFTA can be used to establish economic stability in an independent Scotland whilst we engage with other movements across Europe in the process of building a new multinational social integration project, similar to that proposed by Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25).

The DiEM25 movement, led by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, proposes “a constitutional assembly where Europeans will deliberate on how to bring forth, by 2025, a full-fledged European democracy, featuring a sovereign parliament that respects national self-determination and shares power with national parliaments”. A variety of political representatives across Europe have called for a similar solution and the establishment of a Europe of social and democratic cohesion. 

Catarina Martins of the Left Bloc in Portugal suggested “a true future of Europe is not confined to the scenarios that the EU now sets for its own future”. She added: “It will be the struggle of the workers and peoples of Europe, for the right to their sovereign development and for breaking with the constraints that impede it, which will define the paths for the future of the continent. It will be this struggle to pave the way for a project of partnership between sovereign states and equal rights, based on mutual benefit, peace and social progress. A project which, as is increasingly clear, requires the defeat of the EU.”

In the 2014 European Elections in Spain, Podemos, led by Pablo Igelsias, revealed that the party would campaign on a soft Eurosceptic platform. Iglesias said the party coalition would oppose the “neo-liberal decrees” of Brussels and reclaim sovereignty of the nation-state. Podemos supported repealing the Treaty of Lisbon “so that public services are not subject to the principle of competition and neither should they be commodified”.

Moreover, they championed the “opening of a process that moves toward the foundation of a new institution by means of a constituent assembly” and promoted the development of a “mechanism of integration and cooperation”.

With these various positions in mind, Autonomy argue that the SNP, or any movement leading a hypothetical independence campaign, must have a coherent vision for Scotland within Europe before engaging in the process of holding a vote. The current policy of the SNP to apply for full EU membership, adopted in the late 1980s, is no longer pragmatic and doesn’t acknowledge the geopolitical development of the institution and its current member states. 

A prominent example of this can be identified by comments made by the former Foreign Minister of Spain during a meeting with Alex Salmond, in which he stated that any reference of sympathy towards Catalan independence would result in the Spanish Government refusing to recognise an independent Scotland and utilising a legislative veto should Scotland apply to become full EU members. 

The SNP hierarchy and its mass membership of over 120,000 must recognise that the debate around alternative European relationships for an independent Scotland must not be indecisively taken in the middle of a formal campaign. Autonomy activists will be engaging with as many as people as possible via social media in the mean time, and we will soon be holding conference to discuss these issues. We want to highlight the negative impacts of full EU membership in relation towards the type of independent nation Scotland can be and set out an alternative vision for our relationship with the rest of Europe. 

We need to engage in debate before any prospective referendum if we are to reach a conclusive proposal. The potential alienation of 36% of pro-independence supporters over the issue of the European Union is too high a risk to take for a movement that has already been defeated once.



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