Allan Armstrong

Allan Armstrong

The Yes Movement & The Left

Reading Time: 12 minutes

A number of crises and disagreements have left many pro-independence socialists and activists feeling alienated from the wider Yes movement in recent months. But while many hesitate to wave saltires at nationalist-led rallies, Allan Armstrong argues the left needs to put aside reservations and engage with the All Under One Banner demonstrators. In this long read, he charts the winding fortunes of the Yes movement, the circumstances in which it has been maintained and evaluates how we reached this point…

In May, an estimated 35,000 people marched in Glasgow in support of independence – some anecdotal reports put the figure closer to 60,000. Tens of thousands have joined rallies in Inverness, Dumfries and Dundee in subsequent months, signalling that All Under One Banner (AUOB) represents something significant in Scottish politics. However, it requires an extensive examination of a wider politics going back to 2014 to appreciate the nature of this phenomenon. Only then can we reflect on where the movement is and how we should focus our energies.

The legacy of the first independence referendum was one of a democratic revolution, with 85% voting following a registration drive which drew in 97% of the potential electorate. This was something unprecedented in UK politics. After being defeated, a significant section of the Yes movement joined the SNP, making it by far the largest party in Scotland and now the second largest in the UK. This was followed by the SNP’s unprecedented success at the 2015 general elections as they secured 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. (Even Sinn Fein could only manage 73 out of 105 Irish seats in the 1918 election.)

This momentum clearly hasn’t been maintained. During the referendum, the dominant politics was fought out between the liberal unionism of the official Better Together campaign and the constitutional nationalism of the official Yes Scotland campaign. Although the Scottish Greens and SSP were involved, the campaign was naturally dominated by the SNP. It’s forgotten by many now but the SNP leadership initially intended to conduct a limited and conservative campaign. To indicate their willingness to meet the needs of the great and powerful, the SNP’s October 2012 AGM ditched party opposition to NATO – many members and two MSPs resigned. It was moves like this which created the political space for the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) to launch the following month. The conference was attended by 800 people. At its best, RIC constituted the republican and Scottish internationalist wing of the ‘Yes’ movement.

Reactionary unionism was kept at arm’s length by the official ‘No’ campaign and UKIP made virtually no impact. Better Together didn’t endorse the 20,000 strong Orange Order march in Edinburgh the week before the referendum vote. The loyalist rampage in Glasgow’s George Square – the ‘Tahrir Square’ of the Yes campaign – on September 15 was an embarrassment to organisers. Nevertheless, despite David Cameron getting his No vote, sections of the British ruling class and unionist political establishment had been profoundly shaken. This coincided with mainstream political parties, as in the other states of the EU (and beyond), experiencing a growing crisis of political legitimacy due to their inability to deal with the legacy of the 2008 Crash.

Cameron wanted to reopen negotiations with Europe and seek further concessions to stop the UK’s continued decline in world rankings. Such thinking is central to a British ruling class that once dominated the world and is imperialist to its very marrow. The UK’s continuing relationship with the EU became the hot political issue and panic had set in for the British ruling class, still reeling from the close independence vote, about the future of the state. It was time to batten down the hatches on the good ship ‘Britannia plc’. Having beaten the left with Project Fear during the independence referendum, he used the same tactics to try and stave off the Europhobic right.

The impact of Cameron’s attempt to pander to reactionary unionists, whom he hoped to defeat, was illustrated in the contrast between the franchises for the independence and EU referenda. EU residents and 16-18 year olds were included in the former but excluded in the latter. This reactionary group, until until now largely represented by Farage’s right populist UKIP (after seeing off the BNP), saw their chance. They fronted their long standing anti-immigrant politics with a patriotic demand: ‘Take Back Control’. The Eurosceptic right seized upon this and operated quite independently of Cameron. But these were were not petty bourgeois outsiders or latter-day Enoch Powell-type marginal figures; they were past/present cabinet ministers. And they had much of the press on their side.

For a growing element of the British establishment, taking back control means reinforcing the UK state’s most reactionary elements with anti-democratic crown powers. It means abandoning liberal unionist promises made in the Scottish independence debate and reining in concessions made under Blair’s post-1998 devolution-all-round settlement. Whereas the 2014 debate pitted constitutional nationalists against liberal unionists, the EU referendum was liberal unionists versus reactionary unionists; from Project Hope v Project Fear to Project Fear v Project Hate.

Project Hate has come to dominate UK politics. Prime Minister Theresa May, who is responsible for the hostile environment policy and the Windrush Scandal, is propped up only by the Democratic Unionist Party, ultra-conservative loyalists. This sharp shift in UK politics to the right has rolled back any democratic revolution and stalled the Yes movement. More than that: just as the British ruling class took fright at the Yes campaign’s impact in 2014, the SNP leadership has become worried by the development of a grassroots campaign beyond their control.

Let’s not forget that the SNP’s independence-lite proposals would have left the UK with crown powers, the British High Command control over the armed forces, membership of NATO intact, and the City of London’s control of the currency untouched. The mass movement spawned by the referendum hasn’t gone away, but its structure has evolved. RIC’s third annual conference, for example, was the biggest yet with 3,000 people in attendance. An already concerned SNP leadership attempted to limit its appeal by organising the party’s own conference next door on the same day.

The job was to ‘hoover up’ as many activists as possible from the wider Yes movement into the ranks of the SNP. Here, Yes supporters’ more radical ambitions could be contained and smothered within the party’s formidable centralised and top-down management structure.


Part of this de-radicalisation strategy was promoting Nicola Sturgeon as a true leader for a social democratic Scotland – values long abandoned by the Labour Party. At the time, Scottish Labour was committed not only to Blatcherite neo-liberalism but also to being the union’s main political prop. The SNP’s 2015 success suggested this was a strategy that had worked, but what is often forgotten was the SNP’s attempt to cement a new constitutional nationalist/liberal unionist alliance. This was designed to deliver the unionist’s referendum promises to implement Devolution Max (sometimes wrongly termed ‘Federalism’, a constitutional impossibility under Crown Powers). This appeal was directed at Labour under Ed Miliband, who collapsed under Tory propaganda and declared he wouldn’t depend on the SNP to deliver his modest manifesto.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn, a left winger, as Labour leader has changed that to some extent and renewed the vigour of radicals in England and Wales. However, he’s not been willing to deviate from British unionism when pressed. Despite minor gains in Scotland in the 2017 election, the prospect of a social democratic government at Westminster would likely still depend on a deal with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. Corbyn might have offered a deal over the implementation of policies in return for the recognition of Holyrood’s right to hold a second referendum. If anything, such a proposal would face more opposition from the neo-Blairite MPs who undermine his leadership. But despite unexpectedly making gains in the 2017 general election, particularly in Remain-voting areas, losing key Brexit-voting seats in former industrial heartlands has left him in a state of paralysis and unable to offer a positive post-Brexit vision which can energise the working class.

However, the SNP’s anti-Brexit campaign has had shades of Project Fear. There was no outline of an internationalist Project Hope and a blanket refusal to debate the EU issue within the Yes movement. The EU is not a state: it has no armies or police force but is a treaty organisation between existing states. Scotland isn’t an existing state and, regrettably, many activists have chosen to forget former European Council President Van Rompuy’s anti-independence interventions in 2014. The EU leadership’s lack of response to Spanish state repression of the Catalan people highlights their dependence on the existing order of powerful states.

Nicola Sturgeon thought she could widen the base of SNP government support by appealing to unionist Remainers, but having fought a negative EU referendum campaign it’s unsurprising the SNP’s appeals in this direction have been mostly unsuccessful. Hyping up the dire economic consequences of breaking with the EU, within which Scotland is very much integrated, just meant swing voters threw their hands up in horror at Scotland also leaving a union within which it’s even more integrated. Depressingly, rather than consider a more radical prospectus, the SNP’s strategy has been to seek out sympathetic support from global corporate capital. It’s a call back to 2007 when First Minister Alex Salmond drew up the party’s election manifesto with the help of Sir George Mathewson, one time Chief Executive of RBS.

Despite attacking George Brown for not removing the last remaining regulatory constraints upon Scottish banks, Salmond himself was was courting both Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump. Looking to the neo-liberal ‘Irish Tiger’, Salmond wanted to create a ‘Scottish Lion’, where the proceeds of corporate profitability could trickle down to the people of Scotland. Then the 2008 crash happened and the people of Scotland, like elsewhere, found their incomes siphoned up to the bankers and elites running the global corporate order.

Corporate capital saved the economy – or rather saved capitalism in the short run. Profitability had to be restored, which meant rebuilding the economy around low wages or short-term and zero hours contracts, privatising social provision and slashing social spending. Corporate bosses have received their reward for this instead of us being ‘all in it together’ – wealth has further been concentrated in the hands of the few.

This is the world of the Growth Commission Report, drawn up under the auspices of corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson. In effect, it promises that after a decade of imposed austerity things can only get better. Back in 2007, the Scottish Lion economy may have been wildly optimistic, but it hadn’t been tested to breaking point, which the 2008 crash saw to. Previous certainties, like the EU, and major trade agreements are being dismantled or undermined. Politics has shifted to the right in response and the SNP leadership have returned to totally accepting the existing world order. They believe an independent Scotland needs to win over big business and be capable of undercutting any potential competitor, whether it be in terms of taxes or pay and conditions.

The overall shift of politics to the Right has led the SNP leadership to return to total acceptance of the existing world order. To win over big business and the Right’s support for Scottish ‘independence’, an independent Scotland must be able to undercut any potential competitor, be it in terms of taxes or employees’ pay and working conditions. And the rest of the UK would be biggest state an independent Scotland would be competing with, where Brexit’s current leading advocates are looking to complete Thatcher’s counter-revolution.

What does all this mean for the grassroots Scottish independence movement? The experience of living through the country’s attempted democratic revolution was certainly exhilarating. Meetings and discussions took place in our housing schemes, inner cities and villages, places long abandoned by mainstream parties. A hostile print media sought to counteract this energy, with only the now defunct Sunday Herald coming out for Yes (joined by The National after the referendum). Online alternatives also developed: many were drawn towards the nationalist populist site Wings Over Scotland, but the Scandinavian-style social democratic think tank Common Weal and the imaginative Bella Caledonia have also been outriders for the independence project.

Here is where a palpable division has emerged. The populist nationalist wing of the Yes movement, which initially constituted itself as the We Are the 45% campaign, has held to the belief that all Yes voters are nationalists. And to the outside world, it may appear that the main aim of motorcycle cavalcades and endless rallies is to reach 50% +1 of the population to fly the saltire and independence will be home and dry. There are extreme fringes of this section: the strident Scottish Resistance and the ethnic nationalist group Siol nan Gaidheal, who no longer dress in military fatigues but still promote anti-Englishness. Many local Yes groups initially felt abandoned and alienated since the 2014 referendum. The avowedly non-party oriented Scottish Independence Convention related to these people and it’s telling that there was barely a saltire or kilt to be seen at the 1800 strong Building Bridges conference held in November.

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Both these groups marched as part of the AUOB demonstrations this year and grassroots SNP members and supporters certainly dominated, but banners from Catalonia, the Basque Country, England and Wales were all also visible. There’s naturally trepidation on the left about groups like Soil nan Gaidheal participating – they attempted to hijack the Dundee demonstration with a Scotland First banner, echoing the politics of Trump’s right populists America First and the neo-fascists of Britain First. However, whatever the radical left’s impressions of nationalism, it must be acknowledged that the civic version of Scottishness promoted during the referendum has developed deep roots. Nevertheless, as has been the case in the Welsh independence movement recently, Scottish independence supporters must be wary of emerging ethnic nationalism across the movement.

What is apparent in the overwhelmingly working class dominated AUOB demonstrations, though, is the hunger and demand for an immediate second referendum. Many of them will even put aside their reservations over the Growth Commission or the SNP’s commitments to banning fracking or ending Trident. They believe such issues can be ‘solved’ after Scotland wins independence, which explains their lack of patience over the SNP’s prevarication in holding a referendum. The SNP leadership is keen to delay the referendum as it continues its attempts to woo big business, but they’re also aware that a ‘legal’ independence referendum bestowed by the UK government is as unlikely as an Irish Border Poll. While the Tories remain in power, any attempt to organise a second referendum moves into Catalan territory.

This is where the left must see an opportunity. The majority of those involved in the Catalan independence movement are republicans and voted for a Catalan Republic. Their analysis is that the Spanish state is semi-Francoist and Monarchist in nature, which is more developed than the Yes’ movement’s understanding of the reactionary British state has proven. The people of Ireland know all too well that British state power extends beyond Westminster and an entrenched establishment due to hidden crown powers. A Scottish republican challenge to crown sovereignty remains vitally important.

The revived Yes movement is therefore one place where socialists must be taking a political lead – particularly if we are to organise a republican and internationalist wing, which means seeking support in England, Wales, Ireland and beyond. Why have Socialists been slow to do this? RIC itself remains an alliance of socialists, left wing SNP and left wing Green members, and people in no political party who are involved in campaigns and social movements such as RISE. Many may have seen independence as a campaign of convenience having abandoned New Labour due to their neo-liberal programme. Since the independence referendum, many activists have returned to campaigning over economic and social issues, and the unexpected re-emerged of left social democracy in Labour under Corbyn has meant there’s another game in town.

This is understandable given Corbyn’s programme appears more left wing than Sturgeon’s, but this also means downplaying the role of the Labour party machine and the Blairite-dominated parliamentary party. Labour in Scotland still rules in alliance with the Tories in several Scottish councils and the sort of people who have joined the Labour Party in droves to support Corbyn in England already support Scottish independence. Many Scottish Momentum supporters quietly acknowledge the difference between Labour in Scotland and England but look to the latter to bring about their social democratic nirvana.

However, independence supporters must recognise the limitations to this project. Corbyn believes the UK’s existing constitutional set-up is adequate to bring about his desired reforms. This represents political naivety to a considerable degree at a time when the ruling classes of the world are working to undermine the limited democratic institutions and rights we still have. The Labour leadership’s climbdown on various policies in the face of a combined assault by hostile media, the Labour right and an intervening Israeli state does not augur well. Nasty and influential though this alliance is, it still has considerably less political clout than the City of London. In a time of multi-faceted crisis, these forces of capital will strongly oppose Corbyn’s quite moderate social democratic proposals.

Unlike the SNP, Corbyn-led Labour is not in office so it’s hard to foretell areas of retreat. But lessons can be drawn from France and Greece, where similar offerings (more radical in the case of the latter) were quickly derailed. The SNP leadership realises this and the Growth Commissions signals that it has already accepted a future driven by austerity. As it stands, socialists in either Labour or the SNP see their job as upholding economic and social reforms, whether it be through independent campaigns, trade unions, desperately needed campaigns like Living Rent and Better Than Zero or other means. Whatever our activism, we continually face limitations imposed by the existing political order. As socialists, we see the need to advance economic and social reform, but we also see the need to challenge the existing anti-democratic British state. This is why we need to be organising ourselves in the AUOB demonstrations as an organised bloc.

RIC’s last conference, held on March 10, addressed everything from Ireland to Catalonia while the vexed issues of Brexit and Corbynism were addressed in a fraternal and sisterly manner. Speakers included Rory Scothorne of Scottish Labour and Cat Boyd from RISE (both on Conter’s editorial board) as well as the SNP’s Tommy Sheppard and George Kerevan, Scottish Greens co-convener Maggie Chapman and West Belfast People Before Profit activist Gerry Carroll. This was followed by the RIC AGM on June 30. Here, our strategy in relation to the wider Yes movement was debated. And at the RIC National Forum held in Edinburgh on August 11th, the decision was undertaken to host a republican and Scottish internationalist contingent for the All Under One Banner demonstration in the city on October 6th.

There will be three new banners: For an Independent Scotland, Freedom Come All Ye, For Scottish Internationalism; Another Scotland is Possible, Another Europe is Possible, Another World is Possible; and For a Democratic Secular, Inclusive Sustainable, Social Scottish Republic (the latter having been updated following work with trade unionists, LGBTI, Greens and women’s groups). We’re calling upon people to join us with their own organisations and campaigns and their own banners and materials. We ask that you bring red flags, Scottish republican flags, Catalan republic flags and Palestinian flags. We will produce a leaflet outlining RIC’s strategy and proposals for reviving lapsed branches and to reinvigorate the republican and internationalist wing of the Yes movement. It’s vitally important socialists get involved in this – we hope to see you all there.

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