Director of “COMMON WEAL”
Five years have gone since the self-determination referendum of Scotland, lost by pro-independence advocates only by a narrow margin. However, Brexit has offered a new opportunity to the Scottish pro-independence movement, since the Scots wish to remain in the European Union and stay miles away of Europhobic English attitudes. The streets of Glasgow have seen crowded demonstrations in support of independence these last months, with Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirming her determination to hold a second referendum.
Pro-independence Scots enjoy a favourable context, but London is reluctant to reach a compromise on a second referendum. In this article, Robin McAlpine, president of the popular group Common Weal, examines for NAZIOGINTZA the present-day Scottish context:
In the middle of a period of remarkable turmoil in the UK, where stands the case for Scottish independence? Inevitably the answer to that is more complicated than this simple questions suggests.
Let’s begin with the situation in the UK. Everyone agrees that some form of Brexit was voted for in 2014 – but that’s pretty well the last thing everyone agrees on. Put simply, the UK is based around a parliamentary system which assumes one-party majorities. There is very little tradition of coalition government.
But we’re in a position where there is hardly a majority for one course of action inside any of the political parties individually, never mind between them. There is little precedent for what to do when a parliament of majorities can’t achieve a majority, and despite the acres of commentary still no-one really knows what’s going to happen next. So mostly it’s chaos.
Against this context the recent very strong showing of the SNP in the EU elections would suggest all is broadly well. But that’s a dangerous message to take. There has been barely one opinion poll since 2014 which has put support for Scottish independence ahead. The UK may be a sinking ship but people are not yet running for the lifeboats – or not quite enough.
The SNP’s electoral success disguises another problem – its vote has been declining fairly consistently since 2015. This is hardly surprising given that it is an incumbent government which has been in power for 12 years. But with elections to the Scottish Parliament due in 2021 and with the pro-independence majority in that Parliament being very small, any loss of seats could cause real trouble.
Certainly the opposition anti-independence parties appear to be doing everything they can to help the SNP keep power by being somewhere on a range from insignificant to incompetent. But we must take care not to assume a pro-independence parliamentary majority in Edinburgh is forever.
So what of the prospects of a referendum before 2021? If you have been looking at this issue from a distance it might sound like there are purposeful plans to hold another referendum in the next two years. But that appearance must come with some pretty massive caveats.
The first is that the issue of independence is not in the competence of the Scottish Parliament but Westminster. In 2014 the referendum could only happen because Westminster transferred the power to Holyrood on a temporary basis using a mechanism called a ‘Section 30 Order’. If Scotland tried to hold a referendum without that it would very probably be deemed illegal by the UK Supreme Court and the opposition would boycott the vote. It would be a mirror of Catalonia’s problems.
But there seems to be little to no chance of any potential leader at Westminster agreeing to another referendum before 2021. In that context there is reason to fear that a lot of the noise about independence just now is more about placating the SNP’s grassroots activists than it is about making purposeful strides towards a second referendum.
And restlessness is undoubtedly growing. One of the features of the independence movement has been a remarkable level of discipline and very little (public) criticism of the SNP leadership. But the more the UK sinks into a Brexit disaster without Scotland making much progress towards independence, the more vocal has become criticisms of the leadership strategy.
On top of this there has been the emergence of some real differences within the independence movement about how to position us to have the best chance of winning. The movement has been a broad coalition but it is overwhelmingly skewed towards the broadly left side of the political spectrum – from social democracy to socialism.
But in the last year there have been arguments inside the movement about whether we need to reposition ourselves, to become a bit more ‘centrist’ or even centre-right. The argument has been that this is where the remaining votes we have to win will come from.
The focus point has been the ‘Growth Commission’, an initiative set up by Nicola Sturgeon to answer outstanding questions about what currency Scotland should use and to make the economic case for independence. It’s proposals for an extremely conservative approach to currency would have been a clear shift rightwards for the movement. But they were at least partially defeated at the recent party conference, leaving something of a policy vacuum.
What is so frustrating about all of this is that there is pretty clear evidence that, just under the surface, public attitudes are moving towards greater support for independence. Key factors such as the level of trust in UK politics, the sense of crisis in UK politics and the sense that there is no ‘status quo’ to cling to are all changing attitudes.
There are certainly pressures in the other direction – the mishandling of Brexit has been so enormous that the line ‘see how hard it is to come out of a political union’ is certainly hitting home too. But generally things should be going much better for independence supporters than our opponents.
And yet for all the other reasons outlined in fact we’re in a position which at best might be described as ‘waiting’ and at worst something more like paralysed. There is a sense that our destiny is not currently in our hands, that we hope for external events to help us.
There is one constant in this however, and that is the rank and file members of the independence movement’s grassroots. The actions above them may be best seen as somewhere between cautious and patient to directionless and piecemeal. But as always this is just a challenge they will rise to.
And so on-the-ground campaigning (not to mention the many very big marches which are now being organised around the country) has never died down. The ‘independence army’ is ready to engage in battle again as it always has been. It’s just a question now of when the referendum path will be open to us – or wether we need to clear that path for ourselves, or even find another one.
Brexit is the chaos that infects everything it touches. It has moved the debate on Scottish independence forward, but it has infected us too.