Stonewalling unionism hankers after direct rule

There needs to be a democratic and internationalist answer to the ever-growing demand for independence, says Eddie Ford

Scottish secretary Alister Jack stirred up a hornet’s nest last week with his comments on the BBC that Scotland will not be allowed another referendum on independence for at least 25-40 years. His reasoning was that the leaders of the Scottish National Party had said the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” event. Therefore, by his definition of “generation”, the Scottish people will have to wait a very long time before another one.

Jack was responding to the 10th survey in a row to find a majority of Scots backing independence - Survation saying 54% were in favour (not including undecided voters). This finding shows the gap between ‘for’ and ‘against’ widening by 2% since Survation’s previous poll in September. Unsurprisingly it also found that, when it came to voter intention in next year’s Holyrood elections, the Scottish National Party is up 2% from September, giving them an expected 43% - and when it comes to the slightly further away UK general election in 2023 or 2024, the SNP has a commanding lead of 52%.

Contrary to the impression given by Alister Jack, neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Alex Salmond are stupid. They and the other leaders of the ‘yes’ campaign were not making cast-iron vows like Ed Miliband’s six election pledges carved into a large stone tablet back in 2015. They have always said that another referendum would be back on the agenda if there was a major unexpected development - and Brexit easily qualifies in that category. Most of the British establishment was certainly not expecting such an outcome. As everybody knows, Scotland voted by 62% to 38% in favour of ‘remain’ during the June 2016 EU referendum - the SNP having already said a month earlier in its manifesto for the Holyrood elections that “Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will” would justify a second vote on independence.

Then in March 2017, the day before article 50 was triggered, Sturgeon formally requested the consent of Westminster to hold another referendum - which was refused by Theresa May on the grounds that “now is not the time”. The first minister renewed calls for a second vote in April 2019, the SNP’s 2019 general election manifesto stating that the party intended to hold a second referendum in 2020. The SNP won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats on that basis, leading Nicola Sturgeon to not unreasonably claim that there was a “renewed, refreshed and strengthened mandate” for another vote. Again, the first minister formally requested the power to hold an independence referendum - but was rejected by Boris Johnson.

Showing the undemocratic nature of the UK constitution, under the Scotland Act 1998 the Scottish parliament is not allowed to pass legislation relating to matters “reserved” for Westminster - including “the union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England”. This means that any referendum relating to Scottish independence would require Westminster approval. Of course, in 2012 the UK and Scottish governments signed the Edinburgh agreement, which temporarily empowered Holyrood to hold an independence referendum using a ‘section 30 order’, which “put beyond doubt” the legality of that vote. These orders have been used 16 times since the devolved Scottish parliament was created in 1999 and have allowed MSPs to legislate on topics ranging from the construction of railways to reducing the voting age in Scottish elections. Fast-forwarding to 2020, Nicola Sturgeon wants to follow the same process for Indyref2 to ensure that its result would be widely seen as 100% legitimate - especially by the EU, which an independent Scotland would seek to join as quickly as possible. Sturgeon also wants to get in the good books of newly elected US president Joe Biden. She definitely does not want to ‘do a Catalonia’ and risk illegal methods, with all the dire consequences that could entail.

But, of course, there are those within and without the SNP who want just that. The Scottish Socialist Party, Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, the Socialist Party of Scotland, the Scottish Republican Socialist Party, what remains of the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland are all just itching for the SNP to give up on the courts and polite negotiations with the Westminster government. Instead, they want political strikes, street demonstrations and an SNP pressurised into holding an illegal Inde2 referendum. But this would be done in the name of the Scottish nation, not the working class - an abject surrender to cross-class, one-flag, petty nationalism that can only but strengthen the hold of reaction north and south of the border.

Much to the delight of the left nats, the SNP conference at the end of this November will be debating motions calling for direct action if a new section 30 order request is denied - which is a certainty. Sturgeon will resist being dragged in the direction of illegality with all her might. She is a committed constitutionalist. But the desire for independence and her insistence on remaining within the law risks cleaving the SNP in two. Faced by an intransigent government in Westminster and failure in the courts, she, or a successor, might well find themselves treading the road taken by Carles Puigdemont and the government of Catalonia that led them first to their illegal October 1 2017 referendum, with a 43% turnout, and then arrest or exile. Today Catalonia is under the direct rule of the Socialist Workers Party-Unidas Podemos coalition government in Madrid.


Clearly the government in Westminster is determined, in the words of the royal anthem, “Rebellious Scots to crush”. In that spirit Boris Johnson rather absurdly appointed himself ‘minister for the union’ and set up a special cabinet committee usually chaired by Michael Gove (when he is not saving the nation from the pandemic). There is also a small ‘defend the union’ team in No10 led by Luke Graham, former Tory MP for Ochil and South Perthshire. Given any moves by the Holyrood parliament to countenance an illegal referendum, Johnson would more than love to follow Spain’s ‘socialist’ prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and impose direct rule. And if the police and the army have to be mobilised to shut down illegal polling stations and arrest treacherous politicians, so be it.

However, some in the Tory Party are getting alarmed by the belligerent approach adopted by Jack and the Johnson government in general, thinking it only benefits the SNP. Lord Andrew Dunlop, former under-secretary of state for Scotland, has said that Boris Johnson needs to demonstrate “strong leadership and statesmanship” - obviously an optimist - and urgently come up with a “clear strategy for the union”. He is unhappy with the British government’s Internal Market Bill, regarding it as an expression of a more “muscular unionism” that he believes risks “alienating moderate and middle-of-the-road Scots” and in turn generates a more muscular nationalism from the SNP. Instead, Dunlop wants to see more cooperation between the UK and the devolved governments - starting with a new forum, in which they would take decisions together.

On this point, however, he is “very disappointed” that a report he submitted a year ago on the inner workings of the union has not yet been published, let alone implemented. From various leaks we can gather that Lord Dunlop wants Boris Johnson to appoint a “union tsar” - stop groaning - and argues that senior civil servants should decamp from London to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure “policy takes into account the differences within the country”. These are just some of the 40 recommendations contained within the report, which is still languishing on the prime minister’s desk - or more likely stuffed into the back of a filing cabinet somewhere. It almost goes without saying that the findings of the report are yet to be shared with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations.

Someone who echoes the worries of Lord Dunlop, interestingly enough, is John Major. In a harsh attack at the beginning of the week on the “unforgivable” consequences of Brexit, the former prime minister warned the UK government that pig-headedly refusing a referendum could only boost the nationalist cause. In his view, Westminster could agree to another referendum on the basis of two linked votes: the first on the principle of negotiations and the second on the outcome of them (a “confirmatory ballot”).

This is familiar language, of course, from the Brexit wars. Die-hard ‘remainers’, refusing to accept defeat - a bit like Donald Trump, now you mention it - made a similar argument to John Major: we can ignore the result of the first referendum, as it was based on ignorance. We were lied to by the ‘leave’ campaigners with their extra £350 million a week for the NHS. By contrast, the second referendum will be based on enlightenment and the full facts - which can only mean rejecting Brexit. Back to business as normal.

John Curtice, the polling “guru” from Strathclyde University, has said that these consistent majorities for independence are all fine and dandy, but key issues like a future border between Scotland and England have “not been debated” so far. He told Russia Today (an unlikely forum in some respects) that the jump in support can be tied to Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The big question is, when coronavirus “dies down”, whether “support for independence also dies down”.

Curtice might have a valid argument. If there is a hard Brexit, what Scottish independence would mean in reality is a border between England and Scotland with customs posts, etc. The same goes for Ireland, whatever anyone might say. Under those circumstance, far from thriving, Scotland would surely be faced with a devastating economic crisis. Quite conceivably, a million or two would seek to migrate to England, to the US, Canada or Australia. Scotland’s biggest export would not be oil or whisky, but people. Having said that, unless Johnson balls it up - always a possibility with him - the odds are that we will still end up with some sort of Brino (Brexit in name only). Either way, it would be foolish to dismiss the idea of Scottish independence - it is not a fantasy concept.

As to the position of the CPGB, it remains consistent. There is a national question in Scotland - it is real. The desire for independence is generated by genuine discontent. That needs a democratic answer, not ‘once in a generation’ stonewalling or the imposition of direct rule. Crucially, it requires the working class in England taking a lead. Taking a lead is, of course, the exact opposite of tailing the SNP, as the left nats in Scotland do. We do not want the royalist status quo, but neither do we want a royalist, independent, Scottish capitalist state.

For the working class to take the lead it has to fight for a federal republic, whereby Scotland’s parliament can decide on separation without begging Westminster’s permission. That said, it should be understood that we are opponents of federalism as a principle. We favour democratic centralism. So, to the extent that working class unity is cemented around the goals and aims of socialism and communism, then federalism becomes a redundant demand.

Communists fight for the maximum unity between peoples that objective circumstances allow, which is not done by tailing either great British unionism or petty Scottish nationalism - two sides of the same capitalist coin. Our banner is not the Union Jack. Nor is it the Saltire. No, ours is the red banner of proletarian internationalism.