In the second part of his path-breaking analysis of the impasse in the Scottish National Party, George Kerevan offers suggestions for how we move past the blockage of elite bureaucratisation in the independence movement.
The first part of this article explained how the SNP has morphed since 1999 from being a democratic, mass movement governed by its membership into a ‘normal’ bourgeois political party – one dominated by its parliamentary apparatus. I showed how the SNP is now controlled by a tiny group headed by Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell, the party’s full time chief executive, and I revealed how the party’s elected representatives are drawn increasingly from a narrow band of professional advisors and staffers. The result is that the SNP in office has become bureaucratised, pursuing its own electoral interests rather than those of the wider independence movement. Finally, I argued that these developments have culminated in the SNP leadership and ministerial coterie moving sharply to the right, as they sought to win support from local and foreign capital. All this imperils the success of the independence struggle.
This second part examines how the contest for the soul of the independence movement and its progressive values can be won. And how the socialist left can initiate a process to take power in an independent Scotland. The latter point is crucial. The left in Scotland has virtually abandoned the notion of taking political power in its own right and retreated to being a commentator or a pressure group seeking to influence the current SNP leadership. Such abstentionism ensures either the defeat of the independence struggle or – should Scottish freedom be won in a constitutional sense – the emergence of a right-wing, pro-NATO capitalist Scotland in thrall to global capital.
AN ELITE FLIRTATION
However, to chart a course leading to an independent, socialist Scotland requires much more than a critique of the present SNP leadership. Politics is not driven by personalities. Over time mass political movements come to embody the interests of wider social forces. My contention is that Sturgeon and the present SNP leadership have adapted to the political and economic needs of the upper echelons of the traditional Scottish middle class – the conservative oligarchy of lawyers, accountants, bankers, medial consultants, kirk ministers and university professors who have dominated Scottish civil society since the Union of 1707.
This group retains a unique, weighty, and reactionary place in Scottish society as it supplied the Quisling institutional base for managing Scotland during the long Unionist overlordship. This oligarchy is quite distinct from either the white collar proletariat (teachers, low-level managers, civil servants) or the owners of small businesses who, in great numbers, support the SNP. It is also distinct from the industrial capitalist class (in sharp decline since de-industrialisation) in the 1970s or the local aristocracy, itself still influential thanks to the Union.
Previously the upper middle classes opposed devolution as a threat to their corporatist control of civic Scotland, which explains their hysterical opposition to even the meekest constitutional reforms in Scotland from the 1960s to the 1990s. Obviously, they also opposed independence in 2014, again because they feared both a loss of power and the threat of an anti-austerity plebian revolt from below. But Brexit has changed this picture. The conservative but traditionally cosmopolitan Scottish oligarchy feels intensely offended by crude English nationalism. But worse, the middle class elite recognises that its cosy, corporatist role in Scottish civil society is under threat from moves by the new, libertarian Johnson administration to turn the British Isles into an offshore free trade zone, the better to steal jobs from the EU. Witness the Internal Market Bill, which threatens not just Holyrood’s devolved powers but three centuries of Scottish middle class protectionism.
Which means the Scottish elite is now willing to flirt with independence. Provided, of course, that the separatist project is reframed to protect their particular interests and those of the New Club or the well-heeled residents of Kelvingrove or the New Town. The SNP leadership appears all too eager to make such an accommodation.
PRESIDENT STURGEON’S GAMBIT
Consider the mechanics of Sturgeon’s leadership. She has replaced the mass movement and even the normal checks and balances of parliamentary government with a presidential style of politics, artfully using the Covid-19 emergency to dominate political discourse via daily newscasts. Thus she has used her undoubted communications talents to win over large sections of the old middle class, appealing to its fervid support for the EU, another corporatist entity. But to reassure the middle class that the SNP now represents continuity rather than revolution, Sturgeon has had to neuter the mass movement, lest noisy street politics upset the Edinburgh New Town set. That she is able to do this is a reflection of the rapid, uncontested bureaucratisation of the SNP itself.
These manoeuvres have seen Sturgeon’s personal poll ratings reach stellar heights and the emergence of a sustained majority supporting independence, for the first time ever. But the foundations of middle class support for independence are wafer thin. It is based solely on the political charisma of “President” Sturgeon and the SNP leadership’s slavish support for the institutions of the EU. This provides the professional, pro-EU Scottish middle class with the necessary assurance that the First Minister will personally protect their narrow interests both from incompetent, Little Englander Boris but also from the anti-austerity, democratic passions of the pro-indy underclass in the housing schemes. To keep these newfound bourgeois independistas on board, Sturgeon must eschew anything resembling threats of an unsanctioned second referendum, never mind (God forbid!) declaring a Scottish UDI. Progress towards a “legal” second referendum must march to the beat of wining one, two or umpteen more “electoral mandates”, lest middle class voters take fright.
This writes the mass movement and its working class supporters out of the political script. Worse, it leaves the political initiative with the Tories in London.They can endlessly refuse calls for a Section 30 Order approving a second referendum or attach onerous conditions on the franchise (e.g. giving Scots resident in England a vote). By subordinating the independence movement to the skittish political moods of the Scottish petty bourgeoisie, Sturgeon risks leaving the campaign in an endless limbo. No-one is accusing her of consciously abandoning the independence struggle. But by focussing everything on herself, and by forsaking the use of mass pressure to force Boris & Co. to the negotiating table, Sturgeon could very well pluck compromise from the jaws of victory.
Even when they accept the SNP leadership is drifting rightwards, many party loyalists argue that now is not the time to “rock the boat” – especially as popular support for independence is running at record levels. But Sturgeon’s softly-softly tactics leave the movement impotent if the British state turns nasty – which it will. Worse, the sort of independent Scotland the present SNP leadership is leading us toward will only enshrine the rule of the complacent Scottish middle class and rapacious foreign multinationals, to the detriment of the working people. We face a choice between defeat or a new form of servitude.
What is to be done? We need to realign the independence movement along four suggested axes. I put these ideas forward as discussion points, not as anything like a finished manifesto.
1. A NEW LEADERSHIP FOR THE MASS MOVEMENT
Advance can’t be achieved under the present pro-business SNP leadership, which has sidelined the pro-independence mass movement. The way forward is clear: the mass movement must take over leadership of the independence campaign from the SNP hierarchy. The various autonomous parts of the movement (e.g. RIC, Common Weal, AUOB, the Yes branches and hubs, Women for Independence, SNP Trade Union Group, Pensioners for Independence and so on) must unite to create an elected, central leadership body beholden to the mass membership. This National Convention should organise the indy movement and campaigning. It should raise money and fund campaigning initiatives. Decisions should be made by the mass membership through social media.
The most obvious model is the Catalan National assembly (ANC) which has led the independence movement in Catalonia for decades, separate from the political parties. Famously, the ANC is capable of bringing millions of Catalans on to the streets. Obviously, Catalonia is different from Scotland in that no one political party has hegemony. But then, it is the SNP’s hegemony which is the trouble.
Some have argued that the current Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) already supplies an umbrella for the movement. But the SIC is a federal body based on delegates from constituent organisations. It is powerless to act unless a consensus prevails. Which means that if the SNP is opposed, then nothing happens. The SIC is conspicuous by its relative passivity, a reflection of the SNP leadership’s unwillingness to promote street action or campaigning. Which only reinforces the need for a new body based on mass membership, with decisions taken by delegates from the areas and branches. Above all, the new Scottish National Convention (or Congress) must raise its own funds, and have its own apparatus, in order to be independent of the SNP.
There have been sotto voce discussions regarding the calling of a National Convention throughout much of 2020. Unfortunately, the medical emergency has made a resolution of these discussions difficult. Meanwhile, time is passing. There has also been disagreement regarding the leadership of a National Convention, with some arguing that it would need a “figurehead” to mobilise support and gain media attention. One name mentioned is Alex Salmond. So far, Salmond is biding his own council. However, inviting him to lead or promote the Convention is certain to be controversial. Based on the Catalan experience, it might be advisable to draw on a unifying figure or figures.
Note: the Scottish National Convention would not exist to formulate political policy but to chart a democratically agreed strategy and tactics for securing independence, using demonstrations and effective campaign tools. It would also act as a ginger group to push elected nationalist politicians in the direction mandated by the mass membership. The Convention would not seek to remove the autonomy of existing campaign organisations. But to be the effective voice of the movement it must have a membership structure of its own, organised through town and street committees similar to existing local Yes groups and hubs. Within the Convention, the socialist left would argue for its own positions regarding action for independence, including civil disobedience if the Westminster Government proves obdurate.
2. FIGHT TO DEFEND DEMOCRACY INSIDE THE SNP
In the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, and the influx of a mass membership, SNP branch meetings attracted literally hundreds of activists. But in recent times, internal SNP political life has atrophied. Many members have dropped out, preferring to work in autonomous Yes groups where they can campaign openly for indy. It is axiomatic that the left inside the SNP has to fight to revive internal political life by defending internal democracy. In a nutshell, that means an internal challenge to the leadership apparatus, something rare in the party in recent times.
This will involve action at several levels. First, expanding efforts to organise left groupings inside the party via SNP Socialists and the SNP Common Weal groups. Next, putting up a left slate for party positions, particularly for National Secretary. However, with a second referendum seen as imminent by members (even if this is an exaggerated hope) many in the party will be reluctant to countenance internal faction fights. It would be a waste of time to isolate the left inside the SNP by launching a faction fight that alienated the mass of party faithful. The immediate issue is not to replace Sturgeon but to make a determined effort to revive internal democracy and policy debate. Most members long for just that. In particular, the Covid-19 crisis has made the pro-market Growth Commission report absolutely redundant. The left inside the SNP should be pushing for a new economic strategy document in the lead-up to another referendum – one that promotes a socialist plan for recovery.
The SNP Trades Union Group (TUG) has a special role to play in reforming the party and in animating the mass movement. The organised trades union forces inside the SNP number in excess of 10,000. TUG is a constituent element of the party, with places on leading bodies. To date, TUG has operated purely as an internal committee – this should change. Instead, TUG should organise party fractions in every union, including workplace committees. These should act as a transmission belt for promoting the demand for a second referendum, and for anti-system action and working class solidarity. The aim should be to return the SNP to an activist movement and away from being a purely parliamentary body. In effect, TUG should become an arm of the socialist, anti-system left. In this way it could be a counterweight to the rightward drift of the party leadership.
3. FIGHT FOR A CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY
When independence is won, it will be necessary to decide on the shape of a new, progressive Scotland and to oppose attempts by big and foreign capital – and certainly by the old petty bourgeois oligarchy – to mould Scotland in their private interests. This is best done by electing a constituent assembly (aka constitutional convention), with the results of the subsequent deliberations put to a national plebiscite. The current SNP leadership will undoubtedly put forward its own constitutional blueprint during any second independence referendum, but this will be written by civil servants, special advisors, and consultants such as Andrew Wilson. We can expect such a blueprint to reflect the interests of the middle class, as part of Sturgeon’s attempt to win them to a Yes vote. Whatever role this SNP document plays in the referendum debate, it cannot be binding on the electorate – especially if it contains proposals to retain Sterling as the national currency.
The idea of electing a post-indy constituent assembly has rather gone out of fashion since the Scottish Parliament was created. However, it is a vital political tool in preventing a nascent independent Scotland from being captured by the existing SNP bureaucracy and the remnants of the British state north of the border. It would put decisions concerning the post-indy constitutional setup squarely in the hands of the people. The Scottish left and entire working class movement would also be in a position to fight for representation in the constituent assembly, in order to frame a democratic, anti-capitalist direction for Scotland.
Raising the demand for a constituent assembly will be hard. Partly because it is a direct threat to the SNP apparatus and its political hegemony over the mass movement. And partly because the demand for a constituent assembly has disappeared from the political lexicon over the past half century and so has no recognition in popular consciousness. Given the rapidity with which political events are moving, it may be too late to raise this demand. However, I introduce it as an idea because it poses the question of how the left of the indy movement is going to organise to win political power. To do so means contesting the hegemony of the SNP apparatus. Wresting control of the preparation of the post-indy constitution from SNP apparatus is a step in this process.
4. FIGHT FOR A NEW MASS LEFT PARTY AFTER INDEPENDENCE
Independence will by definition render the UK parties operating in Scotland – Labour, Tories and Lib Dems – organisationally redundant. Their likely default will be to reconstitute as Scottish-only entities, if only from inertia. At the same time, the SNP will emerge from a successful independence struggle with a near hegemonic control of the Scottish body politic. Neither of these developments will be good for Scottish democracy.
Instead, we should attempt to reframe Scottish politics by launching a mass workers’ party embracing the trades unions, Labour supporters, and the left of the SNP, and a broader left sentiment released from its old constitutional commitments . Its aim would be to take political power at Holyrood and use it as a base to transform Scotland into a socialist republic. The work of the SNP as a national movement seeking independence will have been achieved and the party should be wound up. The task of the hour will be to build a new Scotland. If independence comes quickly, that will mean dealing with the post-Covid economic crisis and de-carbonising Scotland as rapidly as possible. That agenda requires a new, left wing party with a genuine mass base.
This is not a plea for one-party state. It may transpire that several leftist parties will appear along with the Scottish Greens. What I am arguing for is the creation of a strong, left-wing electoral and government presence. Independence affords the prospect of moving beyond the SNP and Labour, the two competing social democratic parties in Scotland, towards creating something popular yet more radical. In Europe, electoral fronts of the various left parties are common at election time. This approach would allow a Left-Green coalition to contest the first post-independence elections, involving ex-Labour, the Greens, the various anti-capitalist groups, feminist groups, climate change activists, and whatever emerges from the left of the SNP.
Such an electoral front could win a substantial number of seats and change the agenda of normal bourgeois parliamentary politics in Scotland for good. However, I don’t doubt the difficulties in building such a Left-Green coalition, agreeing a programme, and maintaining it in Holyrood – especially as we have little experience in such an undertaking.
Inside either a mass party of the left, or a Left-Green electoral alliance, the anti-capitalist left would fight for leadership on a programme of breaking with neoliberalism and the market-driven economy; and making Scotland a democratic republic. There is no question that a tiny Scotland marooned in a global capitalist economy could abandon completely market incentives or an element of private ownership of production, in the short run. But a socialist government in Scotland would certainly seek to create a separate Scottish currency and central bank as fast as possible, to ensure genuine economic independence from the City of London. It would also create a public and community-owned banking system to direct credit and investment in a democratically determined direction; ensure that strategic industries such as energy and transport were publicly owned, and keep Scotland free of NATO. The timetable for de-carbonisation would certainly be accelerated. In short, there would be a break with the logic of capitalist growth and accumulation in favour of a rationally-ordered community based on participatory democracy and genuine human need.
AFTER MAY 2021
How do we implement all or any of the above? Start by grasping the nature of the political period we are entering. The tempo of Scottish politics is about to speed up massively. Scottish political life is hurtling towards May 2021 and the Holyrood elections. If current opinion polls hold up, the SNP will win a majority of seats in the incoming parliament. With Green MSPs added, there is the prospect of a significant majority for a second independence referendum in the Scottish Parliament.
In these circumstances, we are likely to see a dramatic upsurge in working class confidence and in working class anger at Tory resistance to another referendum. This popular rage will be intensified by the extent of the COVID-19 economic crisis and rising unemployment after the furlough payments cease. Ordinary folk in the housing schemes and over-priced urban flats will expect action. The SNP leadership will find itself battling to stop this popular anger from spilling onto the streets, especially if Sturgeon’s eternal promises to hold a second indy referendum are shown to be hollow.
At this historic moment, the left must be prepared to battle the SNP apparatus for control of the mass movement. It is vital the fragmentation of the Scottish independence left is overcome as quickly as possible. A new generation of youth will be radicalised in the coming conflict between a majority SNP government and the reactionary, anti-democratic Tory cabal in London. The last thing the present SNP leadership will want to do is give those new, pro-indy forces a lead, lest it upset the traditional middle class elite. We therefore need to create a new movement to provide a rallying point for these new radical forces.
I am not talking about a new political party but a popular, democratic structure to allow the new anti-system, pro-indy forces to gather, debate and act together. It would be based around a few simple points of agreement – centrally, the right for Scotland to determine its own future through a referendum. Note: this is a slightly broader slogan than calling for a second independence referendum. The latter would be propelled by AUOB or a new Scottish National Convention. But there is a separate task of unifying the left. The vast majority of members of the new movement will be pro-indy. But to unify the entire anti-system left means common action with forces still breaking with Unionism, or those being radicalised primarily by the climate or economic crises. The minimum point of agreement with these latter forces has to be recognition of Scotland’s right to choose. I am confident that in the course of a united struggle for common, anti-system goals, the logic of independence will prevail.
As a working title, let’s call this new movement Forward! or Forward Scotland! – which has a long, historical pedigree on the Scottish left. The models I am looking at are the Front de Gauche in France and the early Podemos in the Spanish state before it became bureaucratised. Forward! would be open to members of existing organisations, including the SNP, Scottish Labour, the Greens and Climate Extinction – or members of nothing. Decision-making in Forward! would be through open local and national assemblies (Covid-allowing) or Zoom conventions and internet polling. There would be a fluid leadership collective but no “leaders” in the conventional sense.
The strategic goals of this anti-system project are obvious. Firstly, we have to shift political debate away from the electoral straitjacket of the Holyrood Parliament, Westminster and the agenda set by the Daily Mail. To achieve this, we need to create a porous, attractive, non-didactic movement – one that is attuned to popular concerns and which promotes direct action. But also a movement with enough discipline to mobilise, to remain mobilised, and strike collectively at the weak spots of the ideological enemy. We need to dominate social media. We need a simple, affective set of messages that everyone can understand – “no evictions” or “free public transport as a step to zero carbon” – and slogans aimed at bringing down the oligarchy: “end private education”.
I am aware there is a huge gulf between where we are now and the strategy laid out in this article. My concern is to provoke a debate that moves us away from commentary and armchair criticism towards action aimed at the left taking power in an independent Scotland. If we do not move in this direction, indy Scotland will continue to be run by the same old reactionary oligarchy as it has been for the past three centuries.