In its manifesto for the May 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, the Scottish National Party (SNP) stated that it would regard a “significant and material change” in circumstances since the 2014 independence referendum sufficient to trigger the demand for a second vote, without making explicit what might constitute such a change.
It was widely understood, however, that the most likely motivation would be if the then-imminent referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union resulted in a Scottish majority for Remain and an English majority for Leave. In these circumstances, the English would determine the UK result as a whole and the democratically expressed wishes of the Scottish electorate would be denied.
This is, of course, precisely what happened. The relatively close overall vote for Leave of 52 percent was reflected in England (where 53.4 percent voted to exit) and — more surprisingly — in Wales (with 52.5 percent). The Scottish vote was more decisive and, as expected, in the opposite direction: 1,661,191 people, or exactly 62 percent of those who voted, went for Remain — the highest percentage of any area in the United Kingdom, surpassing even the London Remain vote of 59.9 percent.
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that there were no major geographical divisions: all thirty-two local council areas voted the same way, with only Moray as a borderline case, casting 50.1 percent for Remain.
Accordingly, the day after the vote, SNP leader and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that a “change of circumstances” had indeed occurred. After some speculation as to whether the Scottish government could veto or nullify the result — a suggestion quickly declared a constitutional impossibility — Sturgeon then said that her government would seek participation in the Brexit negotiations with the European Union in order to defend Scottish interests.
If Scotland were to be denied a seat at the table, then a new independence referendum would be highly likely. Sturgeon immediately traveled to Brussels to launch a visible charm offensive on a European Union still reeling from the British decision to quit.
Sturgeon is perhaps the most capable and tactically astute bourgeois politician operating anywhere in the United Kingdom. She knows that, whatever sympathy there might be for Scotland in the European Parliament, the commission — the actual source of power and authority in the European Union — was never going to allow a currently stateless nation special status in Brexit negotiations, still less grant it its own EU membership.
The commission has always been implacable in sticking to the treaties and applying its own regulations, directives, and decisions — as the Greeks recently learned to their cost — and would have done so even without the intervention of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, a politician desperately worried that any concessions to the Scots would encourage Catalan separatist aspirations.
The trip to Brussels was therefore a piece of theater on Sturgeon’s part, which would allow her to say that she had attempted to find a way of meeting the Scottish wish to remain within the European Union without recourse to a second independence referendum, but alas, she now had no choice but to pursue that option, although perhaps not immediately.
It is, of course, not entirely within her power to decide whether a second referendum will be held or not, as the British Parliament alone — in this context any government with an effective majority — can authorize one. In these circumstances much would depend on a strong and visible mass campaign to force the issue.
It might seem, therefore, that the Brexit vote has inadvertently been a positive development for the Scottish independence campaign. I am not so sure. And I am even less sure that it is positive for the type of independence the radical left hopes to achieve.
Yes and Remain
A common claim on the nationalist blogosphere is that Scottish Remain votes were knowingly cast for Scottish independence. In this scenario, Scottish Remain supporters expected an English majority for Leave and knew that the divergence between the two countries would constitute the “change in circumstances” flagged up by the SNP. This may indeed be the ultimate effect of the vote, but it is unlikely to have been most voters’ intention.
Apart from the vast majority of the British ruling class who had their own reason for wanting to stay in — but who constitute considerably less than 1 percent of the population — the majority of people who voted Remain across the United Kingdom did so for a mixture of two reasons.
On the one hand, they opposed the official Leave campaign’s racism and xenophobia, and signaled this by voting against it. There were a number of pro-Remain demonstrations following the referendum result, in Edinburgh as in London, and — setting aside for the moment the fundamentally undemocratic notion that the result should be ignored and the process rerun — the often homemade banners carried by the mostly young protesters made it clear that their main focus was fundamentally positive: solidarity with migrants from both the European Union and elsewhere.
This is why it was important for the radical left to critically engage with the demonstrators — as the left-wing RISE did. This type of intervention would not have been possible with, for example, a demonstration calling for the border closure.
However, people also voted Remain because they mistakenly believe the European Union to be essentially benevolent. While it may currently follow some misguided policies, their argument goes, it is primarily dedicated to the free movement of people, the prevention of war, the establishment of workers’ rights and environmental protections, and the demise of narrow nationalisms in favor of shared European values. One would have to return to the fantasies about Stalinist Russia in the 1930s to find a comparable disjunction between illusion and reality.
The case against the European Union can be stated simply: it is an undemocratic and unreformable apparatus for imposing neoliberal austerity on all but a handful of the most powerful member states, while simultaneously enforcing racist barriers to migrants from outside the current boundaries of what it alone decides counts as Europe.
In Scotland, we will now be forced to deal with the consequences of not having made these left-wing arguments for Leave. However, whatever the precise reasons people had for voting Remain, it is not plausible to claim that a majority saw it as a mechanism for bringing about another independence referendum.
Many of the 55 percent of Scots who voted against independence in 2014 did so partly because they wanted to stay in the European Union and thought independence would threaten Scottish membership: we can therefore assume that a substantial block of “no” voters were also Remain voters, at least when they cast their votes this June.
Edinburgh, which had one of the highest “no” votes (61 percent) of any Scottish city in 2014, also had the highest Remain votes (74.4 percent) of any British city in 2016. In other words, those people who voted “no” in the independence referendum partly in order to stay in the European Union would have also voted Remain, hoping that a majority across the United Kingdom would do the same. Under this logic, they would not vote Leave just because a Remain vote might inadvertently lead to a new referendum.
Also much of the support for “yes” in 2014 came from areas where the poorest, worst-housed, and most precariously employed Scots live. Voter registration drives by the “yes” campaign reached out to these hitherto disenfranchised working-class voters, producing an unprecedented 97 percent of the eligible population registering to vote.
Now compare the actual turnout in the two referendums: a total of 3,619,915 (85 percent) voted in 2014, but only 2,679,513 (67 percent) in 2016 — placing Scotland below the UK average of 72.2 percent. Part of the drop is accounted for by the exclusion of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds from the 2016 electorate, but since they only amounted to 109,000 of voters in 2014 this could not have been a decisive factor.
Glasgow, along with Dundee, the Scottish city with the biggest working-class presence, had — at 56.2 percent — the lowest turnout in the entire United Kingdom. And of those who did vote, more opted for Remain in the predominantly middle-class Glasgow North (78 percent) than in working-class Glasgow East (56 percent).
It seems reasonable to assume then that the majority of the missing voters were the most financially insecure, working-class “yes” supporters who, if they had voted, would have likely voted in the same way as their English and Scottish counterparts: for Leave.
In this context it is important to understand that the people who voted Leave are not the vast reactionary mass of racist xenophobes portrayed by the left-liberal journalists writing for the Guardian or the New Statesman, for whom Brexit apparently signals the United Kingdom’s descent into fascism.
Racism and anti-migrant sentiment were undoubtedly present, but there are not seventeen million hardened racists in the United Kingdom. This was, after all, a referendum in which the two leading exponents of austerity — Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne — were arguing for Remain, backed by virtually the entire British establishment and most capitalists and their organizations.
Imagine you are working-class and living in a deindustrialised and abandoned area, where the long-term unemployed have either been ignored or subjected to a benefits regime unparalleled in its harshness since the 1930s. Is it not entirely reasonable to reject the recommendations from those responsible for your situation? I noted earlier that, of all the local council areas, Moray nearly voted to leave; but this has nothing to do with migration and everything to do with the fact that employment in the local fishing industry has been devastated by the Common Fisheries Policy.
Finally, while all Scottish National Party (SNP) members and most of its supporters voted “yes” in 2014, they did not all vote Remain in 2016. Any claims about members’ views of the European Union are inevitably impressionistic because there is no hard data — which an SNP leadership committed to continued Scottish membership in the European Union has unsurprisingly shown no interest in producing — but there is data about the SNP’s base.
An average of five polls about Brexit voting intentions, taken around the May 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, found that 66 percent of SNP supporters (that is, people who said they voted for the SNP in the 2015 general election) said they would vote Remain, and 34 percent said they would vote Leave — figures that suggest they were divided in much the same way as Scotland overall.
At best then, we can say that the Remain vote was probably divided between “yes” and “no” independence supporters — which would make sense if we recall that, when EU membership came up during the independence referendum, the debate was not about leaving the European Union, but about whether voting “yes” or “no” to Scottish independence involved equally good prospects for remaining in it.
It has, of course, been argued since June 23 that, whatever people may have thought they were voting, a number of those who previously voted “no” to independence have now changed their minds, reacting in horror to the Leave campaign’s racism and xenophobia and the anti-migrant (and other minority) violence triggered by the result.
And it is true that there have been some high-profile switchers, including leading Conservative novelist and intellectual Alan Massie and, more ambiguously, Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling. But even if these well-publicized changes of heart turn out to be permanent, there is no evidence that support for independence has risen since June 23 by the extent necessary to ensure a “yes” majority in a new referendum.
A poll conducted the day after the EU referendum showed support for “yes” at 59 percent. One conducted the following week — adjusted for “don’t knows” — showed it at 53 percent. Most commentators — and the SNP leadership — generally accept that “yes” support has to consistently exceed 60 percent over a prolonged period for a successful outcome to be likely.
In other words, the pro-independence share of the vote will have to increase by roughly the same percentage as it did in 2014 (that is, by another 15 percent) to make a “yes” majority certain.
We are not at that level yet, and the reason why is quite obvious: the majority of people who wanted to stay in the United Kingdom did not do so primarily because they also wanted to stay in the European Union, but because they valued the continued existence of Britain, perhaps even seeing themselves mainly as British.
For this majority, Brexit, while an undesirable outcome, will not be the only factor determining their attitude to Indyref2. Indeed, they might well reason that, given the prospective upheaval involved in leaving the European Union, it would be best to minimize further disruption by continuing to remain in the United Kingdom.
Let us suppose, however, that Brexit does persuade a majority of Scots of the need for independence. Does this necessarily benefit the Left? Making EU membership the reason to seek independence is highly convenient for the SNP, but not for the independence campaign’s radical wing. There is little prospect that the European Union will see Scotland as the United Kingdom’s successor state: Scotland will not, in other words, inherit the United Kingdom’s existing opt-outs or special arrangements.
Scotland would therefore enter the European Union as a new, relatively small state with a commitment to meet the Maastricht convergence criteria, if not necessarily to immediately adopt the euro. A newly independent Scotland would — from the start — be confined within the EU neoliberal straightjacket.
This allows the SNP to claim popular support for austerity and use the European Union as an excuse for abandoning its more leftish promises — since no one should be under any illusion that the commission would tolerate social-democratic experiments on the European Union’s western fringe.
Indyref2 is therefore unlikely to resemble its predecessor. The balance of forces on the “yes” side will be very different, given the SNP’s massive membership growth. In 2014, the SNP needed the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and the wider Yes campaign, partly because it had tied itself to a post-independence vision of Scotland retaining NATO, the monarchy, and the pound sterling.
A program as conservative as this failed to inspire much support beyond the already committed: it took the interventions of RIC, Women for Independence, National Collective, and the other independence-from-below advocates to actually galvanize support for “yes.”
But despite all the rhetoric of reviving this alliance, the SNP is in such a hegemonic position now that the leadership clearly no longer believes that they need allies — other than perhaps as foot soldiers — in order to win over undecided voters. Some SNP members’ outrage at the very existence of rival organizations which (in member of parliament Mhairi Black’s phrase) “claim” to support independence, suggests the nervousness of a party that is probably aware that the level of support it can garner on the basis of promises rather than delivery has peaked. The leadership will certainly not want to be seen in the company of unwelcome allies intent on exposing the very European Union the SNP is desperate to join.
We can therefore expect an intensification of the type of routines we have become familiar with over the last two years: orchestrated interventions from SNP supporters on social media about the impossibility of delivering any reforms until independence is achieved — and, in extreme versions, that politics itself should be put on hold until then.
In this case the key refrain will be “we can worry about the European Union once we have independence,” by which time it will of course be too late, or at least much more difficult to extricate ourselves. In these circumstances, the radical left has to make three central arguments.
The first concerns democracy. The EU referendum involved two aspects, one which might be called procedural, and the other substantive. The former is that it revealed once again how Scottish voters’ wishes will be ignored if they differ from the rest of the United Kingdom, or even just England; the latter is the specific question of whether or not Scotland should be part of the European Union.
These are separate issues. It is perfectly possible to argue that the democratic deficit that allows Scottish majority votes to be consistently overridden — as has happened again with the Commons vote to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system — is part of the pro-Indyref2 argument while still opposing EU membership. Apart from anything else, going into the European Union as a new member state on far more restricted basis is quite distinct from staying in as part of the United Kingdom.
In other words, we need to argue both for Indyref2 and for a new referendum on EU membership in which the actual nature of the European Union can be openly discussed. It should go without saying that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds and EU migrants should be allowed to vote in both.
The second argument concerns the European Union’s nature, and what this means for the Left. Many UK socialists supported Remain for “lesser evil” reasons, namely that the dominant Leave narrative had been shaped by the hard right, that a Leave victory would encourage racism, even fascism, and threaten the right of EU citizens to stay in the United Kingdom.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of these arguments — I for one was never convinced that even the plausible aspects constituted a case for Remain — the debate in Scotland over Brexit was not about migration. A separate referendum on entry into the European Union wouldn’t concern immigration either.
Those sections of the Left, like the Scottish Greens, that have illusions about the European Union will undoubtedly argue for entry, but those that have no such illusions should no longer feel constrained over describing what the European Union really is and what it really does; in other words, we would need to argue against entry.
The third argument involves reasserting the actual reasons for supporting Scottish independence, which make no concessions to either Scottish nationalism or to Europhilia’s fake “internationalism.” In addition to democracy, these include getting rid of nuclear weapons; weakening both the United Kingdom’s role as an imperialist power and the broader geopolitical structures in which it is embedded; resisting neoliberal austerity; and establishing genuine open borders so that anyone who wants to come here can do so.
Above all it means arguing that we cannot wait until independence before struggling for reforms if we have any hope of shaping what that independent Scotland will look like.