Lessons from Scotland’s independence battle

January 20, 2015

In a referendum held last September, voters in Scotland rejected declaring independence from Britain, but by a 55-45 percent margin, much closer than most people expected only a few months before. What's more, this setback hasn't dampened political expectations in Scotland--instead, there is a radicalization based on new possibilities for the left.

Neil Davidson is a member of the group Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21) and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), and the author of numerous books, including Discovering the Scottish Revolution and How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? He recently wrote an extensive analysis of the results of the referendum for New Left Review, "A Scottish Watershed", as well a five-part series for the rs21 website, titled "Scotland: The Social Movement for Independence and the Crisis of the British State." Earlier this month, he talked to Ashley Smith about the independence referendum and what followed.

WHAT WAS the significance of referendum on independence?

THE MEANING of the referendum changed quite significantly in the course of the campaign, which ran easily for two years, although officially only for six months. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which spearheaded the initial movement, positioned itself in the social democratic tradition that the British Labour Party has more or less abandoned.

The SNP had already carried out some real reforms in Scotland like free medical prescriptions, free care for the elderly and free university education--things that the rest of Britain has lost. As a result, their independence argument was pitched in a social-democratic way from the beginning. The SNP didn't argue simply "we want independence" but instead that if it was achieved "we can carry out more reforms."

Nevertheless, the SNP's "Yes" campaign was a highly conventional bourgeois campaign to get out the vote, emphasizing media events with celebrities. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), which united most of the far left in Scotland, dramatically changed the entire dynamic of the campaign. RIC drove the entire discussion of independence to the left.

Masses of people rally for a Yes vote in the Scotland independence referendum
Masses of people rally for a Yes vote in the Scotland independence referendum

We went to working-class communities, particularly the poorest housing schemes--what you call "projects"--and spoke to people who are normally ignored. We talked with people about how independence would enable us to defend the National Health Service (NHS), which the British state is cutting and privatizing. We also raised the demand for the Trident nuclear missiles to be removed. Those kinds of issues gave people a social basis for voting "Yes."

RIC's message resonated in working-class communities. If we had talked about the Scottish nation I don't think people would have been interested. What drove the struggle for independence was actually opposition to neoliberalism, even though people didn't necessarily use those terms. RIC's efforts and those of many others mobilized an incredible number of people who took ownership over the struggle: people made their own posters and leaflets and participated in politics in ways they haven't since the anti-war movement, 10 years ago.

This transformed the question of independence into something much bigger. What do we want independence for? What kind of Scotland do we want to live in? It therefore became much more of a social movement comparable to the movement of the squares in Spain and Greece. A level of political life developed that had not existed before. Even fairly dyed-in-the-wool bourgeois commentators noticed the new character of the struggle.

The whole campaign really focused on the relationship of Scotland to the British state and what benefits that state does or does not provide to working-class people who happen to live in Scotland. It had to confront the question of whether that state was an obstacle to building the kind of society in Scotland and the world we want to live.

Once the movement confronted the British state, it provoked a whole series of debates about imperialism, about Scotland's role in the British Empire, and about how removing ourselves from Britain might be a way of distancing ourselves from the empire, its legacy and its current collaboration with American imperialism.

In this way, the independence movement shifted from a Scottish nationalist perspective to one emphasizing class demands and opposition to empire. By contrast, the "No" campaign stood for British nationalism, empire, and neoliberalism.

WHAT ROLE did the bourgeois parties, the Labour Party and the British state play in opposing independence?

IRONICALLY, THE British bourgeoisie relied heavily on the British Labour Party to carry the argument for the union. It was the key player. The Conservative Party could not make the case; they are a tiny minority in Scotland, getting less than 12 percent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats are even less popular.

So the British ruling class supported the Labour Party with the full power of the British state, especially its state-owned BBC to trumpet the "No" campaign to try and convince people who mostly rely on it for their news.

It was very heavily slanted toward the unionist side. For example, at one point in Glasgow there was a demonstration of 10,000 people for "Yes." Nearby there were some Labour politicians with a group 20 people from the "No" campaign. Guess which one the BBC covered? The tiny "No" protest. They didn't even mention the mass action for independence just down the street. To get any truthful or rounded perspective, people had to turn to social and alternative media.

Most of capitalist press joined the BBC in supporting the "No" campaign. Every single major paper in Scotland, including the Scottish versions of the British papers, were either heavily unionist or very skeptical about the case for "Yes." The only newspaper that supported "Yes" was the Sunday Herald. Because of this stance, it actually doubled its paper sales over the course of the campaign. Shortly after the referendum, it launched a new daily paper called The National, which sells around 75,000 copies and regularly features columnists and commentators from the radical left.

Most of the leaders of capitalist states in the world lined up with the "No" campaign. President Obama was joined by the presidents of China, Spain and the heads of European Union Commission to say how terrible it would be for Scotland to become independent from Britain. The establishment threw everything in the book at the independence campaign. Given that it's astonishing that we achieved 45 percent of the vote.

WHAT ARE the lessons do you draw from the defeat of the referendum?

FIRST WE must underscore how close we came to winning. We were coming from behind and made up an enormous amount of ground over the last six months of the campaign. From the beginning, there was 30 percent for "Yes," maybe 50 percent for "No," and with 20 percent who were undecided. Most of the people who voted "No" had already decided their position two years ago and never wavered.

The success of "Yes" campaign was winning over the undecided people after RIC turned the campaign to the left. But we didn't have enough time to consolidate a majority.

We also confronted an unexpected problem of our own success. At one point two weeks before the poll, it actually looked as if "Yes" was in the lead. That may have galvanized "No" voters who might not have voted to actually turn out and vote in the end.

I think another lessons is that we need to think seriously about how we engage with working-class people at work. We were very successful in talking with workers in their communities. But we didn't organize with workers in their workplaces. We should have reached out in particular to workplaces--particularly in finance, defense and the universities--where people were told by both their bosses and unfortunately their unions that their jobs are going to go if Scotland became independent.

WHAT IS the political situation now after the referendum?

WE ARE starting from a much higher level of political debate. The vote for independence was much higher than most expected. There was a social movement for "Yes" on class and anti-imperialist grounds. And our side has momentum.

On the other hand, those who voted "No" weren't happy about doing so. They weren't shouting and dancing in the streets. They were completely silent and feeling a bit guilty about it. And, afterward, I think many of them thought they'd been had, fooled by a propaganda campaign that Scotland would collapse if it went independent.

In this situation, the left is in a reasonably good position. Astonishingly, in the weeks after the poll, the radicalization the campaign unleashed did not stop. People have joined political parties in record numbers. Seventy thousand joined the SNP after the referendum. It now has a membership of over 100,000 people, making it the third biggest party in the whole of Britain.

But the people who joined the SNP are not committing themselves body and soul to this party. They are looking for answers to real social questions. They think, "I'm going to join the SNP and see if they stop the cuts and improve my living conditions."

The Scottish Greens, who are far more left wing in Scotland than in England (it is a separately constituted party), have seen their membership rise from around 3,500 to 10,000. Even the Scottish Socialist Party, which is essentially a shell, increased its membership from 1,500 to about 3,500.

Almost all the parties who supported "Yes" grew. By contrast, the Labour Party has if anything shrunk since the referendum took place--it no longer produces membership figures, but it is thought to be around 13,000. One straw in the wind here is that a majority in Labour's heartland areas in and around Glasgow--Scotland's largest and most working-class city--voted "Yes." If this translates into votes for the SNP, as recent polls suggest will happen, then Labour's future as a party of government is in doubt.

Scottish Labour's response to the decline in their support is has been to elect Jim Murphy--a Blairite Zionist and member of the Henry Jackson Society--as its new leader, which is unlikely to reverse its fortunes.

The RIC conference held in November is an example of the large opening for the left today. It drew 3,500 people. That's a phenomenal number of people to a conference organized by the far left in Scotland.

If you got those numbers in London, you'd consider that a successful conference. But Scotland is a much smaller country with a population of a little over 5 million people. The equivalent size conference in London would have been something like 35,000 people.

This gives the lie to the notion of anti-politics. Here in Scotland, people are looking for political answers, joining parties on a left-wing basis and coming to radical conferences. We're in a very dynamic situation with big opportunities for the left. People are bound to disappointed by the SNP. The question will be whether the left is up to building an alternative and different way forward.

WHAT ARE the questions facing the movement? What is the left doing to put forward an alternative?

EVERYONE WANTS to know when the next referendum will be. I think that we will be able to put it up for a new vote relatively soon. If a Tory government is returned in the next British elections, I think that would trigger a struggle for a new referendum. So we are in the early stage of a dynamic process.

The most important question for the left is how do you transform this movement around the referendum into something ongoing. How do you then relate to the working class? How should RIC relate to the various movements against fracking, against trident or for a living wage without collapsing into these different struggles?

At the same time a lot of these campaigns and groups are not affiliated with any kind political grouping but are looking for something to attach themselves to. That opens the possibility of establishing a new political formation, which can both stand in the forthcoming Scottish election of May 2016 and mobilize on the streets, communities and in workplaces. Comrades in RIC have initiated the Scottish Left Project (SLP) to bring this about.

We don't want to set it up in advance and hand people a program and a structure from on high. Instead we are organizing local meetings throughout the country to find out what people want, what we can agree on, and what the principles at the center of the SLP should be.

Now if you're in the SNP or the Greens, you'll probably want to stick with your own party. But the majority of people mobilized and inspired by the Indyref Yes campaign actually aren't in the SNP or the Greens and therefore they'll be interested in a new party. If we are able to establish something then there's the possibility of alliances with the Greens. We'll also have to enter into some complex arguments with those in the Scottish Socialist Party. But I think there is a lot of good will amongst all the left that collaborated in RIC, so we have to seize this opportunity and get these local meetings off the ground.

WHAT ARE some of the key issues for the SLP?

AN IMPORTANT task is to win over people in Scotland who voted "No" on decent grounds like the unity of the working class. We cannot just be satisfied with the 45 percent we already have. That would be doomed to failure.

We have to find ways to win these people over to independence. We must not give up the question of independence. Unless a revolutionary situation emerges in England--which would obviously change the entire situation--I would say that the question of Scottish independence has to be consistently maintained from now on in the platform of the Scottish radical left.

So we must persuade the "No" voters that their social interests and political goals would be achieved by supporting a political party that is actually committed to an independent Scotland. We have to show that independence will improve their situation immediately and protect the social benefits that you already get.

We need definite plans to pay for and expand the welfare state. We have to say that we'll nationalize the oil industry to get the money to reverse the neoliberal attacks we've suffered over the last 40 years.

We also have to be able to say that independence is not anti-English. It is not about breaking with trade unions or other forms of solidarity with people in England. For example, if there was an attempt to take the Trident missiles from Scotland and put them somewhere in England we should obviously be solidarity with people in England so they can reject them as well.

The Scottish Left Project does not have a Scottish nationalist agenda. We don't blame English workers for what the British government and British ruling class, which includes Scottish capitalists, are doing. We want to build solidarity with English workers against the British state.

WHAT'S THE role of revolutionaries inside the Scottish Left Project?

I THINK the main argument will be about whether the SLP becomes an actual party or remains a looser formation. In my view, and that of many revolutionaries in Scotland, we need a broad left party with a revolutionary current within it. We are not in a position in Scotland to immediately set up a revolutionary party, which right now would only involve a couple of hundred people. And that's not really a party.

We have to move beyond that model and try to build a broad party as the left alternative to the SNP. However I think there are all sorts of historical lessons from broad parties like Italy's Rifondazione, France's NPA [New Anticapitalist Party] and Greece's SYRIZA. These experiences show the opportunities as well as the challenges and pitfalls. But I can't see any other way of getting people together except through a broader party.

In reality, most of the historic distinction between reformists, centrists and revolutionaries are now understood only among Trotskyists and other revolutionaries. So when people come to the movement for the first time and say, "I am a socialist and I'm on the left," they do not know what these distinctions mean. We have to find a way to be in a common party with them and go through experiences and arguments to win them over to a revolutionary viewpoint.

Let's be honest. We are in this situation of beginning anew as a result of the defeats of working-class movement has suffered over the last 40 years and the accompanying collapse of the revolutionary left. I don't think there is any point in pretending this hasn't happened.

The way the left is reviving in Scotland through the independence referendum is itself an indication weakened state of the labor movement. We wouldn't have chosen this as the route for the revival, but that is the way it goes. You have to start with where you actually are.

So I think that we do need a party, something that can contest elections and something that is not just a revolutionary organization. We have to be absolutely clear, for those of us who actually are revolutionaries, what we stand for, what we are arguing for and want to win people toward. We'll have to build a revolutionary wing inside the new party.

I'm not entirely clear in my own mind how that is going to work. Partly it will be through a trial and error process--although we have the experience of the last hundred years or more on what not to do. But if we don't build a new broad party we will lose all these newly mobilized activists to the dead-end of the SNP. So we have got to try and build something that can actually appeal to them, bring them into a new party, and through that process win the best to the socialist project.

Transcription by Corey Larson and Robin Horne

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