On 13 March, a school in the constituency of SNP Education Secretary John Swinney sent a letter to pupils’ parents asking them to help teach maths in the school, due to a shortage of maths teachers. Later in that week a new report revealed that child poverty, income inequality and the number of people living in relative poverty in Scotland were all increasing.
Over the past year, child poverty increased by 4%, to 260,000. The numbers in relative poverty increased by 2%, to 1.05 million. The income of the top 10% of the population is now 38% higher than the income of the bottom 40%. In 2014/5 the income difference had been 15%. Reflecting the ongoing fall in the median income in Scotland, 70% of Scottish children in poverty are in households where someone works. 15 years ago the figure was 48%. But teacher shortages and growing poverty hardly merited a mention in the news.
Nor did SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have much to say about them in her keynote speech to SNP conference (11-12 March). Schools and education got one mention each, amounting to 94 words out of a total of 4,297 — despite Sturgeon’s promise during the Holyrood election campaign that “improving Scotland’s education system” would be her “number one priority”. Instead, what dominated the news and Sturgeon’s speech was her announcement about another referendum on Scottish independence, to be held some time between autumn of 2018 and spring of 2019.
The case for a second referendum, according to Sturgeon, was that Scotland had voted “Remain” in last June’s EU referendum, whereas a (narrow) majority at UK level had voted “Leave”. By the end of the week Theresa May had stated her opposition to a second referendum, at least in the short term (“now is not the time”). This means that Tory-controlled Westminster will not grant the “Section 30 order” needed to stage a referendum. And the SNP had also recalibrated its position on a second referendum. It was not a referendum which, if successful, would lead to Scotland joining the EU. The alternative to the UK and Brexit had become membership of the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Area (with possible membership of the EU at an unspecified later date).
This shift in emphasis was unsurprising. 38% of Scottish voters, and 34% of SNP voters voted “Leave” last year. Voting for Scotland to leave the UK only to join the EU (i.e. “regain” powers from Westminster only to “hand them over” to Brussels) was unlikely to motivate them. There was also some room for debate, it turned out, about the date of a second referendum. According to Sturgeon: “If she (Theresa May) is talking in the spring of 2019, a bit later perhaps than I was suggesting, there may be some room for discussion about that.”
Later, a second referendum was no longer being posed as “the will of the Scottish people” which Westminster would ignore at its peril. Instead, it was posed as “the will of the Scottish Parliament” (which Westminster would ignore at its peril). Both the latter changes can be put down to opinion polls carried out during the week. They consistently revealed majority opposition to an early referendum and majority opposition to independence (in slightly greater numbers, according to some polls, than in 2014).
Throughout the week SNP spokespersons had ducked the question of the currency of an independent Scotland. Then Sturgeon announced that the currency of an independent Scotland would be the pound sterling: “It’s our currency, it’s a fully tradable, international currency.” (Sturgeon qualified it by saying: “I have a growth commission looking at a plan for the economic future of Scotland.” And to say in 2017 that an independent Scotland would use the pound is open to the same criticisms as in 2014.)
At the time of going to press, the Scottish Parliament is debating a motion calling for Westminster to grant a “Section 30 order”, even though it is already clear that it will not be granted. But grievance-mongering is the DNA of nationalist politics. The SNP are in a minority at Holyrood. But the Scottish Greens will ensure a majority for the motion, even though this contradicts their 2016 manifesto commitment: “If a new referendum is to happen, it should come about by the will of the people and not be driven by calculations of party-political advantage.”
Sturgeon’s drive to call a second referendum also enjoys the support of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Her “bold move” has “thrilled independence supporters”: “Weakening the junior partner of US imperialism, especially in the era of Donald Trump, will be a positive thing.” Confirming the other-worldly nature of its politics, the SWP goes on to say that Corbyn’s decision to oppose independence for Scotland “is likely to find few friends in the (Labour) Party.”
The Socialist Party (SP) also supports a second referendum. But it will give only “critical support” for a pro-independence vote, basically because socialism will not be on offer in the referendum: “We stand for an independent socialist Scotland (which) would seek to forge the closest of relationships with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe.” At the same time, the SP sees a second referendum as a great chance for the left: “Because a second indyref would have the issue of the bosses’ EU as a central issue … there will be a big space to the left of the nationalists.” That is to say: the SP’s target audience consists of pro-Brexit and pro-independence voters.
Socialists outside the ranks of this “independence left” have not been “thrilled” by Sturgeon’s “bold move”. And with good reason. The answer to nationalism is not more nationalism. Not even if the latter nationalism is of a different brand, calls itself a “civic” nationalism, and postures as being different from, and morally superior to, all other nationalisms. SNP nationalism is no answer to Brexit nationalism. A socialist response to Brexit is to help build a united working-class campaign at a UK level which, at a minimum, prevents a “hard” Brexit. Proffering independence for Scotland as an appropriate response to Brexit cuts across building such a campaign.
13 million “Remain” voters in England — the existence of whom is hardly visible in the SNP’s black-and-white England-Leave, Scotland-Remain portrayal of the EU referendum result — are potential allies. A referendum on Scottish independence is not a bridge to link up with them. A renewed focus on possible Scottish independence — although, in fact, the focus has never gone away since 2014, or 2011, or even 2007 — will push aside a focus on class politics and social and economic issues, and on the SNP’s record of failure in Holyrood.
The 2014 referendum campaign — contrary to the current SNP rewriting of history — was socially divisive. It counterposed previously co-existing national identities (Scottish-British and Scottish-only). The prospect of a second referendum will exacerbate such divisions.
The displacement of class politics and class-based voting by politics and voting based on national identity has consolidated an electoral base for the SNP and boosted the Tories. Opinion polls put the SNP on 48%, the Tories on 26% and Labour on 14%. The prospect of a second referendum will reinforce that political polarisation. Labour, quite rightly, is opposed to a second referendum and to independence for Scotland. So too are the Tories.
This will be the trigger, and has already been fired to some degree, for a fresh bout of post-factual denunciations of Labour as “Red Tories”, the staple diet of SNP loyalists. The prospect of a second referendum at some undefined point in the future is an unfavourable terrain for socialists. But when politics is polarising around the false alternatives of Brexit nationalism or SNP nationalism, socialists have an irreplaceable role to play.