Sophie Johnson

Sophie Johnson

After Independence: The Need for Political Strategy

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The departure of Nicola Sturgeon and the rise of a lightweight successor makes clear that independence is mothballed for now. But we cannot let this reality dissuade us from challenging power at a national level, argues Sophie Johnson.

This article begins from a position of defeat. For now, independence is off the agenda, and the national movement, as a coherent, mobilised body, is defunct.

Any remaining veneer of strategy or momentum towards independence left with Nicola Sturgeon. Her party plunged into chaos during the leadership election and her successor, Humza Yousaf, offers no new path forward. In coming to grips with this reality, a number of temptations and over-reactions should be avoided.

An acceptance of the depressing reality of the independence cause should not diminish the significance or the successes of the independence movement. For a brief period, in the run up to the 2014 referendum, the gap between national politics and the population substantially narrowed and many previously disillusioned working class people confronted the long-established political consensus. For many people, it was the most empowered they had felt in their lives, and this explains the movement’s longevity since 2014.

The problems with the British state that sparked the Scottish independence movement remain unresolved. We cannot expect the national question to disappear abruptly from political consciousness – and nor should we want this.

Local Organising

One reaction to the defeat of political movements is to move away from national political questions altogether. Frustrated by the lack of tangible gains made by the movement, the immediacy of smaller-scale community activism may offer an attractive alternative. In periods of defeat, syndicalist tendencies also have a record of gaining traction. The defeats of both the Corbyn and independence movements have pushed some activists in this direction. The renewed popularity of approaches that stress “organising over mobilising” in communities and workplaces indicates this shift.

Through applying sustained pressure to the Scottish Government, the tenant’s union Living Rent was able to make some significant gains, winning a temporary rent freeze and eviction ban in the middle of this cost of living crisis. Their victory was testament to the strength of locally organised struggles with clear national level objectives. The recent strike wave also saw inflation-busting victories in a few industries and partial success in some more – with major attacks on wages at least partly rebuffed.

But deep organising and localist approaches can be self-limiting if seen as the essential strategic focus. While such trends derive from a reasonable impulse to exercise agency, their rationale rests on the idea that, to be successful, mass movements must be built around an emphasis on local organisation and select issues. This strategy is weakened if local struggles are unable to clearly relate to the national context. The reality is much political consciousness remains nationally focused. This isn’t a ‘false consciousness’ on the part of workers – who would do better to focus on ‘bread and butter’, economic, local and pragmatic questions. It is a product of how people experience national political life. Environmental catastrophe, war, falling wages, housing shortages, the dilapidated NHS: each of these are defined sharply by the decisions made by national governments.


Similarly, in workplace struggles, immediate economic issues should not be divorced from national-level political decisions – the political context always has bearing on the economic outcome. When Scottish teachers chose to target their strike action in the constituencies of key Scottish government ministers, they were unambiguous about their antagonists and gave their strikes an important political edge. This successfully raised the struggle’s salience whilst breathing a measure of confidence into the rest of the strike movement.

It must be remembered that, while strike activity takes place at a qualitatively higher level than other forms of political engagement (with strikers playing a much more involved role than a leafleter, doorknocker or protest marcher), it also takes place on a much narrower social base. Most workers aren’t in unions, and took a big wage hit in recent months. The power of mass politics, engaged with national level political objectives, is evident from the threat to the establishment the Scottish independence movement posed at its height. Depoliticised or bureaucratic tendencies in union organisations, which separate themselves from the political context are, at heart, rooted in a false conception of working class people as having neither the capability to spontaneously self-organise nor the interest or ability to conceive of politics at a higher level. The national independence movement, at its most powerful, was so energising precisely because its political reach went far beyond a preoccupation with immediate matters.

Abandoning Deference

On a more optimistic note, political deference to the ruling party may be coming to an end. Defensiveness about the SNP leadership has been a driver of intellectual and democratic decline in Scotland in recent years, after defeat in 2014 turned an insurgent and critical mood into its opposite. With luck, the narrow political paradigm represented by the SNP leadership will break down. The chaos erupting within the SNP could mark the beginning of a large-scale dealignment from its sphere of influence among layers of voters and activists. Captured political energies could soon be released.  

Of course, none of the above may transpire. If the left fails to take advantage of this fall – to expand political horizons and connect anger with a platform for real social change – we could be looking at a return to pre-2012 levels of disaffection and demobilisation. Socialists should turn our attention to the class demands of today with a clear view to becoming a serious oppositional force to the decisions made at Holyrood. This re-centring of the national question in Scotland, with democratic and social demands levelled at centres of power here, not just Westminster, is key.

The new SNP leadership will likely seek to divert attention away from domestic crises to either Westminster or else attempt to hide behind another fantastical independence strategy. Yousaf may seek to recruit left-wing opinion behind these efforts. If we have learned anything from the last nine years, it should be to not fall for this ruse.

Shifts in the political landscape can be rapid and unpredictable and so the left must be alert to the next opening. Popular movements may be on the backfoot but the establishments – both Scottish and British – evince real weaknesses with new cracks appearing all the time. To take advantage of these fractures and to build effective oppositional forces we must be constantly and consistently engaged with politics at the national level.

Sturgeon’s exit should be viewed as the finale for the Scottish independence project as a viable enterprise in the short and medium term, and the SNP leadership contest a darkly entertaining epilogue. Even for those desperately holding on to the fantasy of an imminent victory, this will be difficult to sustain for much longer. New fights are coming and the left cannot afford a depoliticised response. Now is the time to reflect honestly on the last nine years and, as new struggles and political opportunities emerge, learn the right lessons from the Scottish independence movement.

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