State of the union
Paul Demarty anticipates a showdown over holding a second referendum and an independence bid.
With the official opposition embarking on a leadership struggle likely to be of near-unprecedented bitterness, Boris Johnson’s triumphant new government will perhaps initially face sterner challenges from the third largest party in Westminster.
That party is of course the Scottish National Party, which recovered from its modest setback in 2017 to another commanding position, taking 47 seats, leaving only 11 for the other parties to fight over. Returned almost to its post-2015 peak strength in the Commons, it is undoubtedly the other winner in this election; and the contest between it and the Conservative government is likely to be feisty.
It is no surprise to find SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon quick out of the blocks to demand a re-run of the 2014 independence referendum, promising a detailed plan for a new one. Paradoxical as it might seem, it was the defeat of independence in that poll, in the end, which accounts for the SNP’s overwhelming success since. (The remaining desperate pursuers of a second referendum on EU membership might like to bear that in mind.) The manner in which a ‘no’ vote was achieved in 2014, and then the manner in which the government conducted the aftermath, was staggeringly dishonest, and succeeded in destroying more or less what remained of Labour’s strength north of Berwick at the next time of asking (along with every other Britain-wide party).
After that, of course, there was Cameron’s next gamble on a plebiscite, which did not go quite so well for him. Scotland voted strongly for remain, and the SNP maintained that as a grievance while the treacherous politics of Theresa May’s ill-starred premiership played out. There is, on the face of it, a contradiction in a separatist party fighting for national independence in order to stay in a large economic-political bloc with a poor record of shitting all over its weaker members in recent years. Indeed, that contradiction is very real, and will have to be faced by Sturgeon and her heirs one of these days.
The rancorous controversies over Brexit, however, have postponed that reckoning by shoving the Tory Party hard in the direction of empire-nostalgist grotesquerie, and English voters strongly in the direction of the Tories. Rarely have the English looked quite so unattractive as partners in a common state enterprise. All this stuff is catnip for the Nats.
By the same token, however, Johnson’s government - betting big on chauvinism and priapic grandstanding - is unlikely to give over. His immediate response was that the 2014 referendum must be respected - respect for referenda coming easily to his lips these days. It is true, of course, that the SNP’s leaders promised that the 2014 vote would settle the question for a generation; but their promises on this point could hardly be trusted any more than those the PM makes to the women he knocks up; certainly not when the ‘no’ camp’s victory turned so rapidly into nationalist electoral domination.
Not, of course, that referendum results should be ‘respected’, anyway. It is not unprincipled for the SNP to continue to pursue policies for which it has some kind of mandate. Nobody would vote SNP to prevent moves towards Scottish independence, surely; and many people have voted for them. Tory snubs will not defuse the issue, either. Sturgeon was quite open about this when talking to Andrew Marr:
The risk for the Conservatives here is the more they try to block the will of the Scottish people, the more utter contempt they show for Scottish democracy, the more they will increase support for Scottish independence - which in a sense is them doing my job for me.
If neither Sturgeon nor Johnson back down, then there are several paths escalation could take.
It is possible that Johnson’s party will take the initiative. There are quotes planted in the media to the effect that the government is planning to “lovebomb” the Scots; exactly what this means is pretty vague, but with a decent majority all manner of bribes might be hurled northward by way of assurances that Scottish people will not suffer from any Brexit-related changes and so on, with the intention of detoxifying the idea of staying in the UK and not the EU.
The trouble with this strategy is, first of all, that the Tories have proven themselves spectacularly untrustworthy on these matters in very recent memory. People have short attention spans, but not that short. Meanwhile, the Scottish parliament has a (narrow) majority for independence, between the Nats and the Greens, who will be very keen to remind the Scots of that recent history. Secondly, it will take time to pay off, if it does. The next election in Scotland is not for another 18 months. If the lovebombing is successful, then a tepid showing for the SNP will seriously damage the case for a fresh poll. Patience is not the PM’s strong suit, however; and for the same reason Sturgeon will turn up the Bannockburn to try and force the issue.
She has promised not to call a referendum unilaterally; but, then, she promised to respect the result of the last one. Besides that, unfortunate things happen, especially to governments (even devolved ones). The clear and ominous recent precedent here is the Catalonian crisis; the conservative nationalist administration of Carles Puigdemont only called the 2017 referendum due to mounting unpopularity of his Catalonian government in the wake of attacks on sections of the working class. His way out was to pivot towards nationalism, in which endeavour he was of course aided by clueless leftist forces at home and abroad (more of which anon). Whatever is in the warhead of Johnson’s love bomb, meanwhile, we know very well that Scotland cannot escape what he has in store for the country at large; and the Scottish government will be under intense pressure to distance itself from the full-blooded authoritarianism and kleptocracy to follow with the tried and true blame-it-on-Westminster method.
If the SNP does call an illegal referendum, then the ball will be back in Johnson’s court - and while a relatively strong governmental position ought to make a Mariano Rajoy-style batons and tear-gas response unnecessary, we do have a prime minister who purchased water cannon for the Metropolitan police (though he was refused permission to deploy them); he is cynical enough to make a demonstrative show of force if he thinks it will prolong his reign.
At this point, the decision tree gets too complicated to bear further speculation. One thing is certain: nationalist rancour, on both sides of the border, will become ever more bitter with each twist in the plot; that is, if the working class cannot scrape itself up from its latest defeat with a class policy of its own.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, most discussion among Marxists and other socialists on the national question has focused on the demand for self-determination, concerning which there is a great deal of confusion.
It is necessary to state at the outset what self-determination is not. It is not, firstly, identical with separation. A nation may enjoy full rights to self-determination without choosing to separate from a larger multi-national country. Secondly, it is not a principle for us. The clearest motivation for this caveat is as follows: for about as long as the phrase has been in the currency of the left, it has also served as a humanitarian cover for imperialist police actions against subordinate states. It is not the business of the left to support such grubby operations - even though in many cases the national aspirations mobilised by the imperialists are themselves genuine. What guides our judgement is the interests of the working class - an international class - not a sentimental sympathy for the underdog.
Our objective is international socialist revolution; and one of the obstacles to that is nationalism, which is in this regard no different to any other form of sectionalism. Nationalism is inherently reactionary, at least in our epoch, and that is true even if it appears - as it currently does for the most part in Scotland - in a right-on, liberal form. We do not want Glasgow workers united with Highlands landowners under the flag of plucky little Scotland, in opposition to English and Welsh workers; nor any other combination of the above. Sooner or later, sectionalism must turn to resentment.
In the British context, it is our undemocratic constitution that is fundamentally to blame here. We are in this situation in part because the Scots do not have the right to self-determination; it is up to Westminster to oblige them with a referendum. On top of that, the Westminster parliament is wildly unrepresentative, as the Nats’ haul of 47 MPs on a minority of the popular vote demonstrates, and local government has been gutted in the same period that powers have been devolved to Scotland and Wales. There is also the small matter of the successive defeats of the labour movement, its ossification under Blair and his heirs, and the failure of the left to take the opportunity to rebuild after Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership.
Add all that up, and you get very auspicious conditions for the growth of Scots nationalism, and of English nationalism resenting the ‘privileges’ granted to the Scots (substantial subsidies, the West-Lothian question and so on). Sturgeon is quite correct to say that Johnson does her job for her when he refuses to allow another vote. To lance the boil of nationalism, the workers’ movement must demand the full right of self-determination for Scotland. That means the right to secede as a simple act of the Scottish parliament (or an equivalent replacement). A united fight on the part of the British working class as a whole for such rights might succeed in making proletarian internationalism into a viable alternative to the SNP - and to Johnsonite chauvinism. Then, if the question of separation was posed, a ‘no’ vote could be a positive step towards internationalist unity with forces all over Europe, not a capitulation to ‘Project Fear’ or cheap bribes.
Alas, the Scottish left long ago collapsed entirely into separatism, and has never really recovered from the disastrous fragmentation of the Scottish Socialist Party in 2006. It exists now only as a clutch of trivial and essentially indistinguishable ginger groups. As for the Britain-wide groups - for present purposes including the Socialist Party in England and Wales, whose Scottish affiliate is merely a trivial appendage separated off for appearance’s sake - they have all capitulated, becoming merely cheerleaders for separatists, while demanding that separation should be done on a ‘socialist’ basis.
Such a programme, if it were won, would be a disaster: an isolated, ‘socialist’ Britain would starve, never mind Scotland. It seems more likely, however, that this ‘socialist’ verbiage is not to be taken seriously. It merely authorises the groups to promote independence as the main objective, and thus constitutes them as hangers-on to the party that is actually well-placed to deliver it: the SNP. This is not only reactionary, but foolish. The break-up of Britain may well be on the cards today, unlike the many prognostications to that effect over the last half-century; but if it goes badly for Scotland, all historical and contemporary evidence suggests that the beneficiaries will not be the separatist left, but the chauvinist right.