Updated: Mar 26
Paul Moorhouse, Edinburgh
Nicola Sturgeon must 'accept defeat'. This was Johnson's response to the SNP's latest request for a second 'indyref'. Far from being defeated, the general election gave the SNP a massive majority in Scotland, winning 48 of 59 parliamentary seats. The Tories lost 3.5% of the vote compared with 2017 and seven of their 13 seats. Labour’s humiliation, however, put this defeat in the shade.
2017’s ‘Corbyn bounce’ returned eight Labour MPs with 27% of the vote. 2019 saw an 8% swing away from Labour, reducing its Scottish Westminster representation to just one seat.This failure, in a nation in which Remain won 62% in the 2016 referendum gives the lie to siren voices on the Labour right, even in the Shadow Cabinet, who insisted that ‘opposing Brexit’ would guarantee victory. This strategy proved a signal failure North of the border.
Labour’s electoral appeal in Scotland is undermined by its tainted history. This includes its record administering austerity in Holyrood from 1999-2007, as well as in local government over four decades. In particular, the role of Labour during the independence referendum, in which it teamed up with the Tories as part of the ‘better together’ campaign, dramatically undermined Labour’s support.
Labour has lost overall control of councils in all four of the largest cities (accounting for over a quarter of the nation’s population) in the last decade. In Edinburgh they remain in coalition with the SNP, and in Aberdeen the nine remaining Labour councillors defected en-masse to take seats in a Tory administration! In those local authorities where Labour retains control, the same strategy of bi-partisan compromise, attacking jobs and services, continues apace. In Midlothian - one of the seats lost on 12 December - the minority Labour administration has relied on votes from both SNP and Tory councillors to implement £10 million worth of cuts and increases in charges in the last two years. By the Labour Group’s own admission, they now have a ‘no frills’ council, delivering only those services they have a statutory duty to provide.
This dismal record alone, however, cannot fully explain Labour’s defeat.The SNP administration in Dundee has also slashed services and has only recently abandoned attacks on the pay and conditions of the city’s Homecare workers (forcing them to accept split-shifts or pay cuts of up to £4,500) following an overwhelming strike ballot. Similarly Glasgow’s ‘Equal Pay’ strike, which led to significant victory for the city’s women workers had its roots in the discriminatory pay policies of Labour councillors dating back decades but faced bitter opposition from the SNP cabinet elected in 2017.
The SNP likes to pose as an ‘anti-austerity’ party, but in reality it is as firmly wedded to the orthodoxies of neoliberalism as the Labour right and even the Tories. When the ‘Sustainable Growth Commission’, which was appointed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to draw up economic plans for an independent Scotland, reported last year, it demanded that the budget deficit be cut by two-thirds over 10 years and suggested that Scotland pay a £5 billion a year ‘solidarity payment’ to service the UK national debt. These proposals, between them, would require over £30 billion in cuts.
In reality an independent capitalist Scotland would be little better for working people than remaining shackled to Johnson’s Tory ‘Brexit -Britain’, with ongoing austerity and an attempt to strike a race-to-the bottom series of trade agreements with the EU and other capitalist economies in an ‘arc of austerity’ rather than the ‘arc of prosperity’ proposed by the SNP prior to the first independence referendum.
A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Trust (JRT) found that ‘Poverty in Scotland is rising, from an already unacceptably high level… Almost one in five people in Scotland live in poverty, and for children the situation is worse, with one in four in poverty.’  In or out of the Union, the continued rule of profit can only make this worse.
That it is not already even worse is down to the fact that Scotland retains significant remnants of the infrastructure of the post-war welfare state which have already been dismantled in England and Wales. There are no prescription charges and access can be quicker to many operations which carry long disabling waits in other parts of the UK. Water supply is publicly owned and unmetered, and the rights of both public and private tenants are significantly greater than in the other nations of the Union.
The JRF report noted that, ‘although overall poverty rates in Scotland are similar to the rest of the UK, more social housing and lower rents mean that, after housing costs, there are significant differences in poverty levels, with lower levels in Scotland.’ This is due far less to the policies of either SNP or Labour than it is to the bosses’ historical fear of provoking a militant reaction from Scottish working people who have delivered bloody noses to ruling class politicians from Churchill and Lloyd George in the days of ‘Red Clydeside’ to Maggie Thatcher during the poll tax.
Neither Labour nor the SNP, however, have been prepared to mobilise the political power of ordinary Scottish people against ruling class austerity. Instead they play a cynical game of political ‘pass the parcel’: blame for cuts is passed up the line from Labour Councils to Holyrood where SNP politicians engage in empty rhetoric directed at English Tories sitting in ‘Westmonster’, whilst poverty and misery are passed back down the same chain to working-class communities.
In the 1990s Thatcher’s Poll Tax was made unworkable by the collective action of working class communities across Scotland, a struggle which the Committee for a Workers’ International, to which Socialist Alternative is affiliated, played a crucial part in leading. It was on the back of this mass movement that the democratic reform of a Scottish Parliament was won in 1999. Yet the ‘anti-austerity’ majority (95 out of 129) of SNP, Labour and Green MSPs sitting in that legislature resolutely refuse to use this platform to mount an effective campaign to force the Tory government, which has no mandate from Scotland, to provide resources for the homes, jobs and services the nation needs. If a socialist council in a city the size of Liverpool could wrest jobs and homes from Thatcher in the 1980s, it takes little imagination to realise what the working class of the whole Scottish nation in revolt could achieve, especially if Scottish unions mobilised the full economic muscle of working people, which remained largely unflexed in the Poll Tax campaign.
Instead, the SNP has continued New Labour’s policy, using PFI projects to mortgage the future of public services to big business. This has proved an unmitigated disaster, with services and even lives sacrificed on the altar of profit.
17 schools in Edinburgh had to be closed when they were found to be unsafe. Walls at schools across the city and elsewhere simply fell down in high winds. Members of NASUWT have taken strike action at two Lanarkshire schools over the health risk contaminated water poses to staff and pupils. Design flaws at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital have spread infections, killing two children, and defects have delayed the opening of Edinburgh’s children’s hospital (which was built by the same company) by a year. Meanwhile SNP Ministers stall on implementing many changes which they have the power to introduce. For instance, under the Social Security Scotland Act (2018) they could abolish the bedroom tax. Instead, they expect councils to ‘alleviate’ it out of wholly inadequate delegated discretionary budgets.
The fact that blame for this chaos fell into the laps of Labour on 12 December, rather than those of the SNP, is because Sturgeon appeared to offer a way out through independence. By refusing to even allow the Scottish people the right to vote on their future at a referendum, Corbyn seemed to be lining up with Johnson and the Tory Party to maintain rule from Westminster. Whilst this was dressed up with promises of a ‘better future in a Labour Britain’ and even a late, half-hearted offer of an ‘Indyref’ some time into the life of a Labour government, this sounded to Scottish voters too much like the unionism of discredited ‘New Labour’. It associated them in the minds of many with politicians like the Blairite Jim Murphy - reviled for running the ‘Project Fear’ No campaign in the 2014 referendum alongside Tories.
A Corbyn supporter, Richard Leonard, won the leadership of Scottish Labour against the right in 2017. But unfortunately he has made the exact same mistakes as Corbyn himself in seeking accommodation with the right. When blocked by the Blairites in the Scottish Labour Parliamentary group and the more right-wing Scottish executive, rather than mobilising to take them on, he has tended to capitulate. This made a major contribution to blocking Labour’s chances of making an electoral recovery. This error has been compounded by Labour’s Scottish Executive’s decision to reject Leonard’s tentative suggestion to hold a special conference to debate the Party’s stance on the national question on 11 January, the same day as 800,000 people took to the streets of Glasgow in gale force winds demanding a referendum.
In 2017, Corbyn’s radical social policies appealed to many (especially younger) Scottish voters as an alternative to Theresa May’s weak and confused campaign in support of her reactionary programme. In the 2019 election, Johnson’s campaign to ‘Get Brexit Done’ held much more threatening tones of English nationalism, directed as much at Scottish workers’ rights as at Brussels. Moreover the plundering of the NHS and other assets through a US trade deal was felt as a direct threat by many in a small nation which has experienced Trump Corp’s hotels and golf courses trampling over planning, employment and environmental rights.
Although Trump’s plunder was promoted by the former SNP first minister Alex Salmond (himself now facing multiple charges of Trumpesque sexual assault, including attempted rape), the Nationalists were felt to offer a better defense against these threats than Labour. Scottish nationalism is in large part a defensive reflex of working people against British and American imperialism. Johnson’s attacks on public services, and the patrician arrogance of his refusal to allow a new referendum, will only increase the appetite for Scottish independence after the election. The all-party All Under One Banner independence campaign has already called an unprecedented winter march which took place on 11 January, declaring: ‘It is urgent that we exercise our right to self-determination by taking to the streets of our biggest city in the New Year’.
The experience of the struggle in Catalonia should stand as a stark warning for Boris Johnson as to the potential for even a relatively strong, right-wing government to come unstuck over the national question. But it is also rich in lessons for working-class people. The failure of the pro-capitalist nationalist politicians to deliver on the huge vote for independence in the face of brutal repression from the Spanish state also stands as a warning. Ultimately, the SNP will not be prepared to adopt the politics really needed - of mass workers' struggle and a preparedness to break with capitalism - which would be necessary to deliver genuine independence in the face of determined opposition from the British capitalist class.
The growing demand for independence in Scotland is not the only centrifugal force which Johnson’s Brexit has unleashed on the very United Kingdom which the ‘Conservative and Unionist’ party is meant to preserve, on the 300 year old political foundation of British capitalism. Johnson has placed a ticking time-bomb under the Good Friday Agreement in the North of Ireland, as Socialist Alternative’s co-thinkers in the Socialist Party Ireland have explained. Similarly, in Wales, the failure of the Tories to deliver the anti-establishment Brexit which working-class communities voted for in 2015 is likely to fuel the support for greater autonomy, even independence, as shown in recent opinion polls.
The labour movement must break decisively with the unionism of the establishment parties and its shadows on the left. The Scottish TUC and the Labour Party should support the fundamental democratic right of the Scottish people to determine their future, including in a referendum. Socialist Alternative would campaign for independence, given the majority support for this among young people and the working class and probably the population as a whole, and explain that the only genuinely independent basis on which the Scottish people can shape their own future is as a socialist republic, as part of a socialist federation of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland.
Scottish workers have not been oppressed and exploited since 1707 by their class brothers and sisters in England. The Highland Clearances were not carried out by Yorkshire mill workers or Norfolk farm labourers but by Eton-educated members of the ‘Scottish Aristocracy’ with mansions in Westminster. The destruction of the Scottish coal mines and steel industry from the 1980s onwards was not plotted on Welsh and English council estates but in Downing Street and the boardrooms of the City of London. The national oppression of Scotland is at root an act of class war and that is why the SNP, a party tied to capitalism, cannot deliver real national liberation.
The Sustainable Growth Commission envisaged an ‘independent’ Scotland retaining EU membership and using the pound sterling, but both the bank of England and the Treaty of Rome would be fundamental obstacles to even the most basic of the economic and social reforms which Scottish voters expect independence to deliver.
Socialist policies in an independent Scotland are also needed to counter reactionary developments which would be possible in the train of the breakup of the United Kingdom Johnson’s capitalist Brexit has the potential to precipitate. These include the racism promoted by the nationalist, anti-migrant rhetoric of the Tory Brexiteers, Farage and UKIP and resurgence of sectarianism in the North of Ireland as the full implications of his backstop become clear.
The latter poses a particular problem for Scotland where sectarianism has traditionally been used to divide a working class with a substantial Irish Catholic minority. In post-war Scotland sectarian hate may have retreated to the football terraces, but its persistent survival along with institutions like Orange Lodges and state-funded Catholic church schools provide fault lines within our class which could be reopened in a prolonged period of economic down-turn or political and industrial defeats, especially if a similar impasse across the Irish Sea re-ignites the ‘Troubles’.
Against these threats Socalist Alternative in Scotland will work alongside trade union and Labour Party activists to build concrete solidarity with workers in all England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The threat which Johnson’s Brexit poses to the NHS across the UK calls out for linking the struggles of health workers’ unions and community campaigns. Similarly, last summer, shipyard workers on both sides of the Irish Sea at Fergussons on Clydebank and Harland & Wolff in Belfast forced the SNP and British ‘direct rule’ governments to intervene to save their jobs. Linking up struggles, which will only increase in an economic downturn, across national boundaries can point the way to the only lasting solution to the political and economic destruction wrought by capitalism on these islands: a voluntary socialist federation of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland as part of a socialist confederation of Europe.