Marching to the end of the constitutional nationalist road

Westminster vs Holyrood

James Harvey considers the SNP’s call for a second independence referendum and asks how the left should respond

When Nicola Sturgeon announced on June 29 that a new Scottish independence referendum would take place on October 19 2023, ‘the Scottish question’ was once more thrust to the centre of British politics. It is also clear that Scottish independence will remain a major issue, whoever leads the Tories into the next general election.

Independence has continued to be the main dividing line in the Holyrood parliament despite the September 2014 referendum, which saw a 55% vote against separation. This demand is supposedly the raison d’être of the Scottish National Party government. It has repeatedly made proposals for an Indy2 referendum, but nothing specific until last week. So why the delay and why the push now?

One reason advanced by the SNP itself is the constitutional restrictions imposed on Holyrood by the legislation that established the Scottish parliament. The Scotland Act lays down that the 1707 union of England and Scotland is a matter reserved for Westminster alone, and that is generally interpreted to mean that no referendum can be held without Westminster’s approval. Within this constitutional framework any exercise in Scottish ‘self-determination’ is subject to the wishes of the UK parliament, which can ultimately override the Scottish parliament. Thus the 2014 referendum took place because the British parliament agreed to it, not because the SNP headed the government at Holyrood.

The SNP is not made up of militant separatists or radical nationalists staking a bold claim for Scotland’s national rights. However, there is a militant and radical wing that has run out of patience with Sturgeon’s moderate constitutional nationalism - and, most importantly, her determination to stay within the spirit of the law.

So, predictably, alongside the announcement of the date of the proposed referendum, Sturgeon also said that she would ask the Supreme Court to rule on whether holding such a referendum was within the powers of the Scottish parliament. Cue a few days of legal debate about the nature of reserved powers and the consultative status of referenda, but the underlying political and constitutional issues remain unchanged. The Supreme Court has ruled before that the Scottish parliament’s remit is limited and argued for the supremacy of Westminster, so it is unlikely to favour the SNP’s October 2023 bid.

Moreover, whoever is prime minister, it has to be said that both the Tories and the Labour leadership are opposed to a new referendum, which means that the chances of the SNP getting one through this ‘legal’ route are virtually non-existent.

For the Tories, standing up to Scottish nationalism and suggesting that a Labour government would, in effect, be a ‘coalition of chaos’, reliant on SNP votes at Westminster, has obvious attractions. North of the border, although they have suffered an historic decline since the 1950s, unionism still has the potential to be an electoral gift that might give them just enough in a tight general election. Likewise, south of the border, a strange amalgam of English nationalism and appeals to our beloved union, threatened by the SNP, might also pull in the votes, as David Cameron successfully managed to do in 2015.

The issue will run and run for the Tories, and recent history has shown how they will use the SNP’s demands for their own electoral purposes. Not to be outdone, Starmer has attempted to undercut the Tories by remaining strong on the union and ruling out any coalition deal with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament.

Peak SNP?

In the meantime, Sturgeon (apparently no fool) has already revealed her strategy if the Supreme Court and the Tory government rule out a referendum. She suggests that the next general election, due in 2024, would be become a de facto referendum by campaigning on the slogan that ‘A vote for the SNP is a vote for Scottish independence’. An SNP majority in Scotland would thus test the nature of the 1707 union and give Sturgeon a legitimate mandate to negotiate independence.

All very legal, constitutional and above board; but what happens if the UK government disagrees with this interpretation of both the voluntary nature of the union or the implications of the SNP gaining a majority of Scottish MPs on the basis of such an electoral campaign? When questioned on this probability, Sturgeon has not been giving much away, beyond suggesting that sensible negotiations about the future of the union must be possible between Edinburgh and Westminster. Surely proof of the bankruptcy of Sturgeon’s brand of constitutional nationalism. She has no way forward except by relying on the good will of the Westminster government. No wonder there is talk of the SNP peaking and going into decline ‑ that or settling for the status of a tame regional party that de facto accepts the United Kingdom.

Despite all the uncertainties about electoral outcomes, one thing we can be sure of is that the SNP will not seek serious confrontation by a unilateral declaration of independence and taking up arms. So no emulation of 1918 and Dáil Éireann. It will not risk even the rather comic-opera secession attempted by Catalan nationalists in 2017, which resulted in imprisonment for some of its leaders.

The SNP is not only a bourgeois nationalist party: it has essentially become a ‘home rule’ party which really only wants an extension of the current status quo (apparently Scotland would be ‘independent’ under the British monarch), not radical change. Despite the appeals to civic nationalism and a rather moth-eaten Scandinavian social democracy, the SNP has governed Scotland as a thoroughly capitalist party. Its proposed form of ‘independence’ would not only keep the monarchy, but retain the pound as its currency and maintain close links with England - while at the same time applying for membership of the European Union. Like the Irish Free State that emerged after 1922, despite all the trappings of statehood an ‘independent’ Scotland would still be under the economic and political sway of its more powerful neighbour. In an age of great-power rivalries and concentration of economic power within trading blocs, its fate as a small nation would be continued economic decline and mass emigration, not the mirage of some form of ‘Tartan Tiger’ or offshore financial centre.

The utopian and contradictory nature of the SNP’s small-nation nationalism becomes even clearer when we consider the radical changes that have occurred since the last referendum, including Brexit and the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Would the EU allow an independent Scotland to join? Maybe, maybe not. With Catalonia in mind, Spain could easily object. Would there be a hard border with England? Surely. Given that Scotland has been an integral part of British capitalism since the 18th century and the defeat of the feudal clans, to ask such questions is to expose the SNP’s fantasy of an independent Scottish capitalism.


From the viewpoint of the working class internationally, Scottish independence and the Balkanisation of Britain does not represent progress or an advance for the working class movement.

Those comrades on the left who support independence as a way of weakening British capitalism and imperialism are right in one way, but profoundly mistaken in another. The breakup of the union would weaken the British state and reduce it to England, Wales and an increasingly detached Northern Ireland. It would be essentially a London-based financial economy with an increasingly poor and declining periphery. But such a development would also weaken the working class in both Scotland and England, producing in both rump states a carnival of reaction, whipped up by chauvinist politicians. In the case of Scotland, such separation would be all the more tragic, given the historic role that Scottish workers have played in the fight for socialism and the struggle against British capitalism.

Not only do we refuse to line up behind the SNP and its project of an independent capitalist Scotland: also, neither do we play the left-nationalist card like the Scottish Socialist Party nor go for the disaster socialism advocated by the SWP, SPEW and Socialist Appeal. But, most of all, we are not supporters of the constitutional status quo and rallying behind the union either. Instead, we support the rights of Scotland and Wales which the present constitutional set-up palpably denies.

Because we favour the maximum unity of the working class and real internationalism - not the reproduction and reinforcement of nationalist divisions - we reject both the bourgeois politics of the SNP and the reactionary supporters of the union. So, in campaigning for the working class throughout Britain to build its own party and develop a programme for its own self-emancipation, the fight for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, along with the achievement of socialism as part of a United States of Europe, remain key demands for Marxists.