Jonathon Shafi asks what wider strategy might lay behind a so-called ‘de facto referendum’.
This is an abridged version of an article from the Independence Captured newsletter.
During the last referendum, I took part in a debate at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow. Arguing against Jackie Baillie, Willie Rennie and Jackson Carlaw, we converted 5% of those who said they were voting ‘No’ before the debate, to the cause of independence.
The best question asked on the night was quite a simple one. Would there be anything that could make us change our minds, and switch positions? My answer at the time was to say that if it looked like there could be substantial, sustainable and working class led change through the existing constitutional set up, then I would not be pursuing independence. Since this was not possible, we urged everyone to seize the opportunity ahead by voting Yes and taking matters into our own hands. What we needed, if we were to build an alternative to austerity, the Tories and the failures of New Labour, was to break free.
It was radical moment, and a truly exciting time. Not as a result of the official structures of Yes Scotland, but because of the very organic class character the upsurge in largely unmanaged political activism took on. The notion of a genuinely mass Scottish independence movement is a very modern phenomenon. While we could point to a serious and rich intellectual tradition around independence, there were no large scale demonstrations or big public rallies and events in the way that emerged during the referendum itself.
In my view, this is partly because unlike, say, Catalonia, the Scottish national question could never build up a head of steam on the grounds of its distinctive culture or on the basis of national identity. In addition, unlike anti-colonial national liberation movements, Scotland is not an oppressed nation, instead playing a central role in the development of the British Empire. So it does not have the kind of features that come with that either.
The historic cadres of the SNP had a sense of some of this. For independence to take root it had to relate to sentiments that muscular nationalism, or dry constitutionalism, couldn’t appeal to. They had to develop the idea of independence beyond historical caricatures, in keeping with the major themes of the day, if it was to be relevant.
Their basic strategy was to reorientate the SNP towards working class Scotland, if only in a nominal way, so as to disrupt the passing down of Labour votes from one generation to the next. The aim was to shed the image of tartan Toryism, and to seek to replace the Labour Party in its heartlands.
Those heartlands are where many of us spent time working to build up the case for independence. We were to show in practice that the SNP were not the only game in town, should voters have their doubts about the party or its leadership. The Scottish Labour leadership struggled with this, and couldn’t conceive of the Yes support as being anything other than nationalist, rather than democratic or – broadly speaking – socialistic in nature.
This was a movement primarily contoured by class issues. By the time the referendum came around, it had become the primary oppositional force in Scottish society to Tory austerity. Independence turned into a lightening rod for an array of frustrations that lay counter-propositional to the British state. It conducted through it the idea that we citizens could send a shockwave, not just through the British establishment, but the whole Western order.
We would repudiate not only David Cameron, but the White House too, given that Obama had made his views on the matter clear. However much this is denied today, it would also have opened certain conflicts with the European Union, bearing in mind the UK was still a member.
Part of the reason this newsletter exists is to illustrate the ways in which the national question has evolved since 2014. It is an attempt to show how the SNP leadership have integrated the key institutions of the British state itself, into its prospectus for independence. It is meant to detail the ways in which the domestic policy agenda, has in the process, been outsourced to the corporate lobby. It is to raise difficult questions around foreign policy, including on totemic issues like Trident. And, it is to show how Scotland’s governing class instrumentalise the national question to protect and enhance its own political power.
Self-determination absolutely needs to be won as a matter of principle, but also to break Scotland out of its political paralysis. This week we assess the latest announcement from the First Minister against this backdrop.
The party strategy
Firstly, we need an analysis of what is actually happening in order to navigate it. This is not an easy task, as accusations of treachery abound. But if we are to be of independent mind, we need to be able to confront some difficult questions about whose interests are being advanced. In this case, we should think like party strategists to understand how the SNP is operating around the national question and the future of its political project.
As I noted in April, the announcement of a date does not come as a surprise. There’s much to gain for the SNP, and not much to lose. The gain is to rejuvenate the party base, and to focus attention on October 19th 2023. It means that whatever else the party fails at – however many jobs it is going to cut in the public sector, however much of our wind energy is sold off, or however many times they hand over key infrastructure proposals to the architects of privatisation – they are anchored by this date which overarches all else.
It is set as the day Scotland can rid itself of the Tories. That, yes, the Scottish Government may not be great, but at least they are providing a route away from Johnson and Westminster. Then boundless opportunities are to open up. It brings together a fragmented movement, eliminates any potential threat to their political dominance of the independence cause and provides an inspiring setting for the first in-person party conference in years. Recently, we looked at non-delivery of a referendum as having the potential of turning into a wider question of trust. That, has been restored.
So, what to lose? Maybe such hype is built up around the date, that should it fail to take place, the SNP are left looking stranded an impotent. Not in this case, for two reasons. First, and most unpopular, is that at the same time as setting a date, the First Minister also accepted this could only happen if it were legally bound. She all but admitted that October 19th could easily be torpedoed. Indeed, they reckon, alongside the weight of available legal evidence, that it will be.
It was an announcement that on the face of it escalated the idea of an independence referendum in 2023, but in fact signalled the opposite.
What, then, is the answer? It is simple – you vote SNP. If a legal referendum is refused, the SNP will use the next general election as a single issue campaign to win a mandate for independence.
Now, already there is some confusion about what this means in practice and what requirements must be met. Angus Robertson refused to answer the question, John Swinney claimed a majority of seats would be sufficient before correcting himself, while close advisors of the First Minister briefed that a majority of the popular vote would be needed.
If a mandate is based on a popular vote, would this include all pro-independence parties or just the SNP? Would manifestos have to be synthesised to include the same campaign slogan for electoral clarity? Or does everything have to go through the SNP? In which case, do the Greens, and other independence supporting parties, stand aside? These are awkward questions but they won’t get any less so as time passes.
It should be said that this is the boldest manoeuvre the party has executed around the national question since 2014. Indeed, not just the national question, but as a piece of electoral strategy it is not without risks. There are lots of seats where the SNP has slim majorities. Figures within the party could well be negatively affected. Pete Wishart has previously been totally opposed to the “Plan B” approach:
“There are no short cuts to this. The Scottish people would never accept a ‘plebiscite’\GE for such a dramatic change to our nation’s constitution, the unionists won’t engage, the international community would be appalled. Going down this route would end any hope of ever winning”
I don’t question his principle, but we should also be clear that his Perthshire seat would be under real threat. Don’t forget, even before now he has had to ask the Greens to stand down as he entered the 2019 election with a majority of just 21 votes.
We could see this replicated in various parts of the country. Perhaps unionist tactical voting might become more organised in these conditions too. While a victory could be cast as another stepping stone towards independence, it would lack international credibility and even a durable domestic legitimacy. The SNP, of course, know this.
But they also know that victory in the popular vote will be viewed as pointless if it is scattered around various parties. Seats need to be won. This means absolute cohesion. The full compliment of all eligible pro-independence voters could not hope to be in more energised mood.
This is potentially useful in an election where, if the SNP had nothing concrete to say about independence, thus depressing their base, they might risk losing out to Labour candidates purely as a means to remove Johnson should he remain Tory leader.
A changing landscape
All of the above is important. But it still doesn’t get to the big picture. Because this scenario, though fraught with risk, is also about a longer term reframing of the party. It has a lot to do with the outcome of the next general election, which could come along sooner than later.
Tory special advisors, commentators and strategists are not so much worried about Labour winning an outright majority. But they are gravely concerned about the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of an anti-Tory majority composed of the Lib Dems, Labour, Greens, and the SNP. Here, lies the essential point in the SNP strategy.
The party in this situation would be faced with a choice. Either they use their votes in favour of Johnson (or whoever the Tory leader is), or they instead reach a deal with Labour which helps anoint Keir Starmer as Prime Minister. This changes the complexion of the Scottish national question, since the evolution of its modern posture is built around anti-Toryism.
Yes, it is true that Labour have become unmoored from their erstwhile base in Scotland, and of course Starmer is seen as a fully paid up member of the British establishment, but it would present a fundamentally different political terrain.
If the SNP are to do a deal with Starmer, in reality their only option, they also require a strong line in the sand between them. They need, in other words, to elevate their unique selling point. What they can’t do is go through this process without having a word to say about independence. That is a step too far even for the most loyal of SNP members.
So this is what they will have if the election goes well: a means to negotiate, a means to differentiate themselves and a strong hand to play in the pursuit of a legally binding referendum. The third of those points could also run for some substantial period of time.
Thus, this is not a referendum campaign as such. This is a campaign for a referendum, wrapped up a party-centric strategy geared towards the probable outcome of the next general election.
Happily for the SNP, if the Tories win outright, they don’t lose anything. They will have pursued independence as hard as they can, satisfying the more radical elements in their base. Yet, they have the added bonus of not having to confront the actuality of the wicked questions around currency, borders, EU membership and so on. The stand off with the Tories will persist a while longer, and with it the holding pattern the First Minister and the Prime Minister are now used to.
The risk to the movement
Of course, the election could be a disaster. They clearly judge that there’s enough in the tank. Perhaps. But it’s not clear to me that anywhere enough has been done to shore up support for independence. A prospectus will be drip fed in the coming months, but again, it is an open question as to whether this will be robust or coherent given the previous efforts around the Growth Commission, and delivered in enough time to properly bed in. Opinion polls have remained next to stagnant, and even among independence supporters a referendum next year is not overwhelmingly popular.
There are other points we could throw in. A portion of SNP voters don’t support independence. 16 and 17 year olds can’t vote in Westminster elections. Important sections of the electorate who might vote in an actual referendum, will be less likely to do so in an election. It will also lack the breadth of the movement that mobilised for a Yes vote, given it is being funnelled directly into the SNP.
The party might be in control of the independence movement, such as it is, but they are not in control of when the next general election will be. Timing is pivotal in politics, and that variable is in the hands of the Tories.
For these, and many other reasons, I have never been convinced of this course of action. If the basis is the popular vote, rather than a majority of seats, there are structural problems in achieving this as outlined above.
My own view is that time would have been better spent building up a pressure campaign (alongside rising support for independence) over a number of years leading up to this juncture, with broad social forces distinct from the SNP. It may be too late for that to make the kind of impact required now. In any event, the trajectory instead is to harness the whole question around the party, at potentially huge cost to the movement as a whole.
Perhaps it’s worth adding in that Nicola Sturgeon, come what may, now has a viable exit plan should she wish to take it, able to stake the claim that she did all in her power to deliver independence.
For me, Scottish self-determination is an unshakable principle. The SNP have left it to the last moment, and have turned up to the battlefield still without answers to the major questions around independence. Keeping it on democratic grounds, as we have noted, is within their comfort zone. New policy papers will come, though we might not expect anything too controversial before the October conference, which will now effectively turn into a stage managed rally, with the leadership immune to any irreverent voices.
The national question has been firmly reasserted as the main fault-line in Scottish politics, yet the realisation of statehood remains distant. These two elements exist in a symbiotic relationship, with major consequences on the meaning and role of class politics in Scotland.
For while the fanfare around October 2023 came to a creshendo, the SNP and the Greens were preparing to vote against the introduction of a rent freeze. The issues are not disconnected. When the Scottish Government comes into conflict with public sector unions, as 30-40,000 jobs are cut in the name of hard economic liberalism, it will be the nationalist wedge that is deployed.
The point James Connelly was making in the introductory quote can, in this sense, be applied today. What does it mean to for Scotland to be “free,” if the conditions of the Scottish working class don’t change? Moreover, what does it mean if that “freedom” remains a long way off and now irrevocably harnessed to the same party that won’t vote through something as menial as a rent freeze?
Today, socialists can either go along with the SNP frame unquestioningly, or they can raise the pertinent issues about how it is being deployed and in whose interests. In this way they can avoid opportunism, at the same time as retaining a principled stance on Scotland’s right to decide.
They can chose to overlook the attacks on the Scottish working class until the glorious day, or they can challenge the SNP leadership in the here and now. In the process they can draw together the kinds of social forces, and marshal the kinds of arguments, required in an era of economic and ecological crisis.
The key point is this: none of that is counter-productive when it comes to genuine self-determination. In truth these attitudes, and the organisational expressions attendant to them, are a prerequisite to it.