Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

Independence: Democratic Control is not an Optional Extra

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Support for independence continues to surge. But independence supporters must be honest about the weaknesses of the official independence case and demand real democratic control argues Jonathon Shafi.

Support for independence now has a sustained majority across a series of polls since March 2020. The latest poll records the highest ever percentage in favour of independence, at 58 percent (when “don’t knows” are excluded). This polling trend is explained by several interlocking factors. The democratic deficit stretched beyond toleration over the Brexit vote has coincided with a deeply unpopular Tory leader in the shape of Boris Johnson, while the widely condemned Westminster mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic has focused discontent against the backdrop of a decade of austerity. Added to this, the unmooring of the Labour Party from its Scottish heartlands and the electoral defeat of Jeremy Corbyn has dealt for many the final blow to the idea of transformative change from Westminster.

While the above dynamics speak to deepening popular disenfranchisement with the Union, sections of the ‘No’ voting upper middle class have also become more open to the idea of independence, on account of the perceived instability generated by Brexit. Indeed, even Tory voters (including many party members) in England have reached the end of their tether on the independence question, elevating Brexit above all else. While the basic intuitions of such constituencies are likely to reassert themselves in the context of an imminent referendum, the softening of the core Unionist vote is an important contemporary phenomenon.

This, in sum, represents a qualitative advance from the 2014 referendum result. In that campaign, support for independence rose around 20 percentage points to reach its final figure of 45% – no mean feat. In doing so it bound a large section of working class Scotland to the independence cause. Indeed, it is largely their tectonic electoral shift to the SNP, together with their attendance at the massive demonstrations which have toured Scotland in recent times, which has kept independence on the agenda in the intervening years.

It is this movement – conjured beyond any institutional control during the referendum – which granted the SNP their political dominance. However, for their part the SNP leadership has barely campaigned for independence since 2014, having primarily positioned themselves in recent years as a vehicle to oppose Brexit. Symbolically, ‘stop Brexit’ has been emblazoned on their battles buses, rather than any pro-independence slogans. While developments at Westminster have represented a powerful engine for recruiting voters to the independence cause, the SNP leadership have reclined in their increasingly comfortable chairs at Holyrood. 

Settled in as Scotland’s new establishment party, the SNP have used the prospect of another referendum as cover for their firmly centrist domestic policy agenda. Big questions around tenants’ rights, the privatisation of national assets, council tax, land reform and much else have been deferred until after independence. Only once the nation is restored will Scotland be genuinely transformed. And that day – as every conference speech goes – is coming soon.


The reality is more difficult. What comes after independence is a direct consequence of the social and political forces that are produced in the making of a new Scottish state. In 2014 the emergent independence movement, composed of thousands of new activists determined to seize the opportunity presented by the referendum, took the British establishment by surprise. But the movement also existed well outside the confines of the SNP – then an organisation of some 25,000 – and of Yes Scotland. Through this process of political action, many for the first time in their lives, the cause of independence entailed something of an insurgent quality.

The demands raised and the ambitions set out were organically counter-posed to that which the movement was looking to leave behind, i.e. an austerity Britain which had abandoned working class communities. The campaign became a lightning rod for issues that connected to the idea of social transformation, animating what might otherwise have been a tepid debate between policy makers on constitutional matters. These developments were as much of a shock to the Scottish establishment as they were to David Cameron and the British state.

The sheer tenacity of this movement has helped it buck recent trends in the lifecycle of social movements, which, having experienced defeat, have tended towards fragmentation and ultimately collapse. While there has no doubt there has been fragmentation, it is testament to the strength of feeling involved and the efficacy of local networks that the movement has retained the ability to put hundreds of thousands on the streets, has moved in such a disciplined manner into the SNP and has remained politically alert to new opportunities.

Corporate Capture

But the SNP leadership have not looked to the movement as a source of strength and innovation, even insofar as the movement is composed of their party members. Instead they have courted the corporate lobby in Scotland. Rather than taking up the spirit and demands of the movement which gifted them indomitable power, they opted instead to harness the case for independence to corporate interests. It is now vitally important that the independence movement is honest about the consequences of the SNP’s ideological shift, because the path currently before us leads not towards a reordering of Scottish society, nor towards independence in any meaningful sense.

The agenda of the SNP leadership has been clearly articulated in the Sustainable Growth Commission report. I have debated this many times with people, written about it, and campaigned against it. Many activists assume, in good faith, that, having secured independence, we will be able to vote down this extreme, experimental neoliberal prospectus. But that is not the case. Referred to by the author of the report as “the softest possible” form of independence, the report will serve, as things stand, as the negotiating position ­with the UK upon a vote for independence.

It is important to grasp what this would entail. Take currency, for example, the crucial question that arguably lost us the last referendum. Leave aside all the internal fudging, and the Growth Commission position is almost unambiguously to adopt a policy of Sterlingisation: the so-called economic tests meant to allow for an independent currency are designed not be met. Indeed, these economic tests would be completely at the behest of the UK and would, from day one, tighten Scotland in a straightjacket against any economic sovereignty. 

Without a central bank and its own currency, Scotland may achieve symbolic political independence, but economic autonomy would be sacrificed. This would be doubly devastating in today’s historical context, at the very time when we require large interventions into an economy devastated by the pandemic. In the real world, that means we would not have been able to furlough workers, for example, or to borrow government bonds.  

Indeed, any borrowing we do want to do will be set at a premium since we don’t have economic control or the ability to back up our financial sector. The Scottish economy would be entrapped. In this very real sense, we may even have less sovereignty than under the Westminster regime, because we would sacrifice even the limited political controls we have under the existing set up.  

The European Union 

Despite much of the independence case being built around opposition to Brexit, the currency position stands in direct contradiction to gaining EU membership. Simply put, it would not be possible to join the EU while pursuing Sterlingisation.  

Chapter 17 of the Maastricht treaty, which deals with monetary policy, requires prospective members to have their own independent central bank. The idea that Scotland could Sterlingise with post-Brexit UK and become a member of a club based on the harmonisation of economic rules does not stand up to even mild scrutiny.  

An independent currency would allow the people of Scotland to come to a democratic decision about whether or not the country should become a member of the European Union. This represents a recurring issue: where economic autonomy is destroyed, so is all semblance of political democracy and public control. Even international relations with the likes of the EU become constrained.

Without addressing this, the SNP run the risk of losing support during the debate itself, especially considering that a wider standalone case for independence beyond the question of Brexit has not been made.

Economic Recovery and National Assets

The Growth Commission includes other worrying policy perspectives which illustrate the kind of ‘independence’ the SNP leadership is willing to countenance. From ‘flexi-work’ to deficit reduction (now even more unsound given the context of the pandemic, and officially rejected by the likes of the IMF). These are suggestions that George Osbourne could have signed off.  The report also advises limiting spending deficit to 3 percent and debt at 50 percent. Stripped of jargon, these are the parameters imposed by the EU’s Growth and Stability pact which has created chaos in Eurozone economies, particularly after the pandemic.

And it doesn’t stop there. As I write, the very national assets that could sustain and grow a burgeoning new Scottish state are literally being sold off to foreign investors. The £3 Billion portfolio of green and renewable assets are up for grabs, rather than being harnessed into a plan for a genuine Green New Deal.  

That’s before we get to the Economic Recovery Group, a who’s who of the Scottish upper class brought together to set the agenda for the post-pandemic Scottish economy. Here again, among the soup of buzzwords, we see nothing transformative. Indeed, as the Fraser of Allender Institute commented: “There is little in the report of substantial policy insight which is new or different to what has come before.” 

Prominence, naturally, is given to supporting the private sector, rather than building up the Scottish Government’s own capacities. The ‘business-led’ jobs guarantee scheme comes with no assurances that young Scots will be offered a two-year contract. For all the cack-handed references to ‘resilience’, there are no proposals for domestic supply chains, and nothing at all about a public model for developing national infrastructure. 

Where Now 

The polls are looking good. But for those who want independence to be a step towards real change – change that, given the pandemic, looks not just desirable but also unavoidable – all substance is lacking. Ironically, for all that they sit on a huge lead in the polls, the SNP leadership has no case and no vision for meaningful independence.

The issues raised in this article do not exhaust the contradictions in the SNP case. At best, the Sturgeon-Murrell vision is putting Scotland on a course for independence in name only, with foreign policy decided by NATO, economic policy imposed by UK financial institutions, and key resources sold off to multinational corporations.  

In report after report, we see a Scottish polity captured by corporate interests who oppose public ownership and who would stymie the kind of demands being put forward in 2014. An ‘independent’ state that starts out from these premises will be easy prey for global financial markets.

In 2014 we said, ‘Another Scotland Is Possible.’ In 2020 this remains the case. But advancing the interests of Scotland’s workers and communities today means more than confronting the British state: it also means confronting the SNP leadership, insofar as they remain wedded to a vision that epitomises what Tariq Ali called “the extreme centre”. The independence movement must face this problem squarely and honestly, or, for all the polls, we’ll be going nowhere fast.

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