Scotland, separation and socialism

Submitted by martin on 2 February, 2021 - 5:42 Author: Dale Street
Hadrian's Wall

According to a Panelbase opinion poll recently published by the Sunday Times, support for Scottish independence now stands at 49%, with 44% against and 7% undecided. Subtract the undecided, and it's 52% for and 48% against.

Attitudes towards the holding of a second referendum on Scottish independence at some point in the next five years are virtually identical: 50% for, 43% against, and 7% undecided.

The poll’s findings were not a blip.

Prior to the 2014 referendum, support for independence had consistently hovered between 20% and 25%. But by the day of the referendum itself, support for independence had reached 45%.

This was less to do with the effectiveness of the Yes Scotland campaign, and much more to do with the abject nature of the Better Together campaign, a Tory-Labour-Lib-Dem alliance whose top-down, non-participatory, and entirely negative "campaign" was aptly summed up as “Project Fear”.

In the years immediately following the 2014 referendum support for independence remained around the 45% mark. Even after the 2016 Brexit referendum, when 62% of Scottish voters backed Remain, there was little shift in attitudes to independence.

A combination of factors explains the more recent shift.

A section of Remain voters who had voted "No" in 2014 has now shifted into the "Yes" camp. The "Yes" camp has also picked up support from the SNP’s record on handling the Covid-19 pandemic (in reality, nearly as bad as the Tories', but Sturgeon sells it a lot better).

Waiting for a Labour government in Westminster as an alternative to independence has lost its attraction. There have been three general elections since 2014, and Labour lost all of them.

Boris Johnson is far more unpopular in Scotland than in England, with Sturgeon receiving positive approval ratings triple those of Johnson. Johnson’s pronouncements against independence, or even a second referendum, only boost support for the "Yes" camp.

The impact of longer term patterns is also nudging up support for independence.

While nationalism has generally risen worldwide since the 2008 crash, “Britishness” has been in decline for decades. The institutions around which it traditionally crystallised (the monarchy, the army, the Westminster "Mother of Parliaments" etc.) have steadily lost status and significance.

Today, 56% of Scots self-define as Scottish-only, or as more Scottish than British. Only 12% declare a primary allegiance to the UK.

The Panelbase opinion poll also found high, and increasing, levels of support for the SNP amongst the Scottish electorate.

The SNP formed a minority government after the 2007 Holyrood election (dependent on whoever it could cut a deal with). It was the sole party in power after the 2011 election, and a minority government again after the 2015 election (dependent on support from the Scottish Greens).

Now it is well on course to win this year’s Holyrood election. According to the opinion poll, the SNP should win 70 of Holyrood’s 129 seats, in an electoral system specifically designed to ensure that no one party (i.e. the SNP) could ever win an absolute majority of seats.

So, the scene is set for the SNP to stand on an election platform which includes a second referendum, and then romp home to victory in the election in May. But what happens then?

The Tories have made it clear that they will not agree to a Section 30 order, i.e. authorisation by the Westminster Parliament to hold a referendum. According to Johnson, 40 years is the "appropriate" time gap between two referendum.

The SNP cannot look to Labour for support. Keir Starmer’s line is that 40 years is rather a long time to wait, but a second referendum in the immediate future would be too soon.

The dominant right wing in Scottish Labour is even more hostile: No referendum even if a majority of Scottish voters want it, and no transfer of powers to call a referendum from Westminster to Holyrood.

(In four months time Scottish Labour will be asking voters to put their trust in its candidates. But, at the same time, Scottish Labour clearly has no trust or confidence in the electorate.)

The SNP’s answer to this dilemma is to be found in the document presented to an SNP (online) National Assembly a fortnight ago: “The Road to a Referendum That is Beyond Legal Challenge.”

If returned to power in May, the SNP will enact a bill for a second referendum. The Tories then have three options.

They could grant a Section 30 order (which they have already ruled out). They could agree that Holyrood has the powers to call a referendum (which they will not do). Or they could take “legal action to dispute the legal basis of the referendum.”

But why would the Tories take legal action when, in the absence of a Section 30 order, the referendum would be "illegal" anyway?

A further proposal advanced by sections of the SNP is that the newly elected SNP government should call a referendum on whether there should be another referendum on independence.

Holyrood arguably has the powers to call such a referendum. But what would be the point of the exercise? If returned to power in May on a platform of staging a second referendum, the SNP can legitimately claim that it has a democratic mandate already.

Socialists should combine opposition to turning the clock back over 300 years and raising barriers along what has long been an almost invisible border (i.e. to separation for Scotland) with support for the democratic propositions that if a majority of Scottish voters want a referendum, then one should take place, and that the power to call a referendum should be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood.

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