It’s been a torrid few months for independence supporters, but what is the longer-term view? Author of A People’s History of Scotland, Chris Bambery, looks at the rise of Scottish independence and argues that as long as it is rooted in the crises of British democracy and capitalism, it will maintain its relevance.
Supporters of Scottish independence could be forgiven demoralisation after the events of recent months and weeks. The inquiry at Holyrood into the handling of complaints levelled at Alex Salmond has exposed deep fissures within the SNP and wider independence movement. The latest polling showing support for independence sliding probably relates to wider moods (such as the decline of pro-EU urgency following Brexit), which the SNP leadership has failed to anticipate.
Amidst the infighting gripping the SNP, and with no clear strategy for securing a second referendum on independence, it would be too easy for the most burned-out to conclude the whole issue of independence is off the agenda. That would be a profound mistake, because what has always driven the emergence of the national question in Scotland, and what guarantees it will remain central, is the ongoing crisis of the British state.
The SNP itself came into existence in 1934, formed by what were essentially two splits from the Independent Labour Party and from the Tories, in reaction to the dreadful slump which affected industry from 1921, and worsening after the Wall Street Crash until re-armament and war, and the decline of local Scottish control over its industries and finance.
The first real electoral breakthrough didn’t come until November 1967 with Winnie Ewing winning a by-election in the seeming Labour bastion of Hamilton. Ewing took 46.01% of the vote while Labour’s share fell by nearly a third to 41.51%. The by-election had been called after the incumbent Labour MP resigned to take up a lucrative post as head of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.
Voters did not like being taken for granted. But local pit closures played a part. Above all the Labour government of Harold Wilson, faced with a widening balance of payments deficit, as imports exceeded exports, took measures which shook working class support. Wilson had implemented austerity measures, including a six month wage freeze. A week after the Hamilton by-election he devalued Sterling.
Labour had been elected in 1964 and again in 1965 on the promise of a new industrial revolution forged in the “white heat” of technological advancement, but that promise had turned to dust as once more Wilson discovered, as have those who went before him and came after, nothing could be done to stem the mounting problems of British capitalism.
1974 saw the SNP build on what might have seemed a fleeting success (Ewing lost her seat in the 1970 Westminster general election) when, during a nationwide miner’s strike, the Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, asked voters to choose who ran Britain, him or the National Union of Mineworkers. Voters said “not you” and Labour crept into office. Wilson called a fresh election in October and the SNP took 11 seats, winning almost a third of the Scottish vote.
Again the background to this success was the continuing dire state of the UK economy, hit harder still in 1973 with the onset of the first post-war global recession, and by successful trade union defiance of Heath’s attempts to impose wage limits and anti-union laws. The discovery of North Sea Oil meant the SNP had a ready slogan, “Its Scotland’s Oil,” accompanied by the promise it would use the oil money to rebuild Scotland’s economy and improve welfare services.
1979 finally saw Labour, now reliant on wheeling and dealing with the smaller parties, including the SNP, and agreeing to a referendum on the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament. An unholy alliance of left and right Labour MPs put the threshold of votes needed to establish the parliament so high as to effectively block it. The Yes vote squeezed past 50% but that was not sufficient because of the fix, and devolution seemed doomed. In the subsequent Westminster election Labour lost, Thatcher won, and the SNP slumped to just two seats at Westminster. A scrum of articles in the press confidently asserted devolution, and the national question, were dead ducks.
A strong electoral performance by the SNP has not prevented the national question asserting itself. The 1980s were fairly dire for the SNP but in the second half of the decade, after the great defeats inflicted on the working class, culminating in the 1984-1985 Miner’s Strike the Scottish working class began to see devolution as a way of creating a shield to protect them from the worst of Thatcherism.
The botched introduction of the Poll Tax first into Scotland was decisive. A mass grass roots non-payment campaign would generate a widespread basis, first for the movement for a Scottish parliament and then the 2014 independence referendum.
When in 1992 John Major unexpectedly beat Labour’s hapless Neil Kinnock, Scotland was once more inflicted with a Tory government it hadn’t voted for.
Thousands flocked to Glasgow’s George Square after a call went out from a new group, Scotland United, to hear speeches denouncing Tory rule as having no mandate and demanding a Scottish parliament. The initiative was begun by the leadership of the Scottish TUC who quickly involved Labour MPs like George Galloway (as always, to distort Mark Twain, the Hobgoblin of foolish inconsistency), Denis Canavan and John McAllion plus musicians like Pat Kane and Ricky Ross. Importantly, the SNP, now under Alex Salmond, decided to end a policy of not participating in broader groupings focusing on Scotland’s constitutional position because they wanted no less than independence.
The general secretary of the Scottish Trade Union Congress, Campbell Christie, told the George Square rally they were there to: “…tell the nation, to tell the Conservative government and to tell everyone throughout the world, that we in Scotland are not prepared to accept the election results. We representing the 75% in Scotland, we representing the 2.2 million electorate in Scotland who voted for constitutional change, are not prepared to allow the 23 %, the 750 thousand Tories to rule us.”
The novelist, William McIlvanney, was cheered when, in response to attacks on the rally as being anti-English, he addressed the square: “Scottishness isn’t some pedigree lineage, it’s a mongrel tradition.”
Despite the turn out the Labour shadow secretary, Donald Dewar, attacked the Labour MPs taking part as being “collaborators” with the SNP.
Later in the same year, it organised a 25,000 strong rally in Edinburgh when the city hosted a EU leader’s summit. Scotland United did not sustain itself or the protests but it did indicate the growing determination for home rule.
Opinion polls showed majorities of between 75% and 80% in favour of a Scottish parliament. With the SNP now prepared to work towards this, it had unstoppable momentum. The ordinary folk of Scotland had made a decisive step towards the exit door of Union.
At the same time Labour was rebranded as New Labour, under the leadership of Tony Blair – educated at Fettes, Edinburgh’s top private school – who took over upon the death of another Scot, John Smith in 1994. He was committed to ‘modernising’ the party by accepting much of the Thatcher “revolution” and dumping any hint of socialism. But despite his own misgivings he could not dump a commitment to creating a Scottish parliament.
The rest we know. The creation of a Scottish parliament, the alienation of swathes of traditional Labour votes from New Labour, especially after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the espousal by Salmond and the SNP of ‘Old Labour’ rhetoric, saw a number of things happen; the increase in support for independence as a means of escaping a UK state addicted to war, neo-liberalism and the best interests of finance, the emergence of the SNP as the biggest party in Scotland and the success of the Scottish Socialist Party, before its 2005 car crash, in winning 6 Holyrood seats (something now largely forgotten when the focus is on the SNP and to a much lesser extent, the Greens).
2014, and a much closer vote on independence than had been expected, led on to the 2015, 2017 and 2019 General Elections which were dominated by an SNP newly infused with activists and support.
Of course the people of Scotland will have to win independence, and the barriers we face are significant. But we always need to recall that a huge shift has taken place from the days in 1955 when the Conservative and Unionist Party could win just over half the vote in a Westminster election in Scotland. Today, Scots frequently register majority support for independence. This change is underwritten by acute failures in the British state, and by the action of Scots and millions of others across the UK.
The Unionist position has also developed acute weaknesses. The Conservative Party has evolved into an English nationalist party. It’s days as an all-Britain force with the capacity to call on substantial and rooted Unionist feeling feel like a distant memory.
In Wales we have seen support for independence grow, while Yes Cymru has become a mass membership campaign. That is a remarkable change. The incompetence of the Johnson administration in the face of the pandemic has led many in Wales to conclude they could make a better fist of things left to their own devices. That has been a factor in the rise in support for independence in Scotland too. In Northern Ireland the Brexit deal has been a further damper on the flickering flame of Unionism. There is a growing confidence and momentum around the Irish Unity movement.
The British state and the Johnson government remain determined to stick as close to Washington as possible, even more so post-Brexit, and are rushing to lead the US, Australian and Canadian charge against China, and the new US cold war with Russia. Despite the economic protections the Tories have been forced to introduce during the pandemic, they remain a ruthless party of the ruling British elite, who intend to force the majority to rebuild the economy at their own expense. Labour under Starmer will offer no meaningful resistance to the Tories and are going nowhere in Scotland under new leader Anas Sarwar. The crisis of British democracy is, therefore, increasingly pronounced.
Even in the worst case (but, I think, unlikely) scenario that the SNP suffer a sharp loss of seats in the Holyrood election and the party tears lumps out of each other, and support for independence drops substantially, the national question would not go away. In such a scenario we would, as in years gone by, re-organise, sharpen our arguments and fight back: building Now Scotland or other grass roots pro-indy forces, and mobilise to resist new attacks. We have done this time and again in the past, even when the outlook seemed even more grim.
Of course, as socialists we are not simply active in fighting for independence, we take up a myriad of social and economic questions, fight oppression and much more. But to drop independence and the national question would be an arch mistake.
Both Scotland and the UK are profoundly changed. The factors that drove this change are not going to be halted by Johnson or Starmer, and indeed look likely to assert themselves ever more furiously. We have a responsibility to meet this reality.