Finding new avenues: Scotland’s independence movement and the SNP’s crisis

Issue: 179

Maryam Hally and Héctor Sierra

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the first of a series of ­political earthquakes that shook British politics in the past decade.1 This journal has contributed to an argument that the Scottish independence movement was not some retreat from class politics caused by nationalist fever. Instead, it was an expression of revolt against the politics of austerity following the 2008 economic crash as well as against decades of neoliberal reforms.2

The independence movement is best understood as another ­manifestation of the same global trends that gave rise to the Arab Spring revolutions and other movements of resistance against neoliberalism and the hollowing out of democratic institutions. Left-wing historian Tariq Ali went as far as identifying the ­independence movement as one of the three most important examples of this trend in Europe, along with the rise of the left-reformist parties of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish state.3 Of course, the transformative projects embodied by Syriza and Podemos, as well as by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States, have one by one failed to live up to the expectations they raised.4 Common to all these was a failure to face up to the reality of mighty, unaccountable capitalist states and the class interests they exist to defend. In what follows, we argue the Scottish independence movement may have faced the same destiny.

The radical energies unleashed by that movement were largely deflected into electoral support for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Although the SNP shared the movement’s ambition for Scottish independence, the party stood for a vision far removed from the aspirations motivating working-class people to back rupture with the British state. Scotland became a source of instability for British politics, but Scottish politics itself remained remarkably stable in the period following 2014. For many years, particularly after the 2016 Brexit vote and the confused attempts of Tory administrations to disentangle Britain from the project of European ­integration, it was possible for defenders of the neoliberal centre to look to Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP government as an exception to the norm of political chaos elsewhere. This illusion has now spectacularly ended, with the party plunged into what party president Michael Russell has called “its biggest crisis in 50 years”.5 The claim that a second referendum (“Indyref2”) would take place in October 2023, insisted upon only a few months ago, has now given way to widespread acceptance that independence is off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Here we briefly look at the immediate and long-term reasons underlying Sturgeon’s sudden resignation as first minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP in February 2023, after almost a decade as one of the most successful bourgeois politicians of our times. We chart the contradictory relationship between the mass independence movement and the party that sought to lead it, and we explore what all this means for the future of both in this new phase of Scottish politics. Lastly, we will assess the role played by the left in this process and begin to map out how socialists should intervene in fighting for change in the new political situation.

Sturgeon’s resignation

The SNP monolith had shown signs of erosion for some time.6 Yet, more than a few months ago, nobody (other than perhaps those in the innermost circle of the party’s leadership) could have predicted that early 2023 would see Sturgeon’s exit and that the resulting leadership contest would almost tear the SNP in half. Few would also have predicted that, far from securing the “continuity” that winner Humza Yousaf was supposed to represent, his election would be followed by an acceleration of the SNP’s crisis, with the party plunged into financial scandals and police investigations. These have centred on Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband and, until March, chief executive of the party, with claims that the party used £600,000 from donations towards a second independence campaign for its own purposes. Another claim is that Murrell made a £107,620 loan to the party that was not declared to the Electoral Commission until more than a year later, breaching election finance rules. The investigation has seen police arrest and question Murrell, who had occupied the position of chief executive since 1999, as well as the party’s national treasurer, Colin Beattie. Even Sturgeon faced calls to step down from the party membership.

Prior to Sturgeon’s resignation, the SNP had suffered two important setbacks that framed her departure. The first one came when the Supreme Court, Britain’s highest legal body, ruled that the Scottish government lacked the constitutional powers to legally organise a vote on independence. A few months later, in January this year, the Tory government also intervened to block legislation—an ­unprecedented move—passed in the Scottish parliament with cross-party ­support that would have reformed the Gender Recognition Act. Though the SNP had dragged its feet on the issue of transgender self-identification for years, and the reform failed to recognise the rights of non-binary people, the bill had the support of the main transgender organisations and many women’s groups, and it could have positively enhanced the rights of trans people. Both issues exposed the limitations of the devolution set-up as well as the timidity of the SNP, with the party leadership around Sturgeon meekly accepting both impositions.

A light was shone on the generalised discontent in the SNP’s ­support base by leaked reports showing 50,000 have left the party since 2019. The ­reasons go beyond the lack of progress towards independence. In her ­resignation speech, Sturgeon defended her term in office, claiming, “Scotland is fairer today than it was in 2014.” Yet, the figures do not bear this out. One in four children in Scotland, some 250,000 minors, live in poverty. Bruce Adamson, ­retiring Scottish children’s commissioner, stated Sturgeon had “absolutely failed” Scotland’s children.7 The same yawning gap exists between the rhetoric of ­“world-leading” climate targets and the reality of the governing SNP-Scottish Green Party ­coalition auctioning off Scotland’s seabed to ­developers such as oil giants BP and Shell via the ScotWind scheme. Furthermore, early this year, Scotland was named Britain’s ­“zero-hours capital”, with 3.9 percent of the workforce (around 105,000 workers) having no set working hours. Social care and other services are crumbling under privatisation, and dismal drug-related deaths figures record the continuing ­decimation of working-class communities.8

This was the poisoned chalice fought over by Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Reagan, the candidates in the SNP leadership contest. The campaign revealed a ­conservative wing of the SNP that had been dormant during Sturgeon’s liberal tenure. Forbes, who came close to winning, expressed her opposition to gender reform and abortion rights as well as her distaste for gay marriage over the course of the campaign. Yousaf emerged as leader by only a narrow margin, and his ­leadership will continue the SNP’s neoliberal agenda, which it asks working-class voters to ­support in the name of achieving independence. In an extraordinary policy reverse, one of the first moves by Yousaf’s cabinet was to cut £26 million to colleges and £20 million to universities from a budget already approved in the Scottish Parliament.

A historic failure

Sturgeon’s departure represents the failure of a nine-year trajectory. The scale of crisis engulfing the SNP exposes a deep malaise that had long been growing beneath the surface, even if the arrests and scandals can obscure this. Crucially, this disquiet has been related to the party’s stated reason for existing: achieving Scottish independence. Sturgeon’s “Plan B”, if permission from the Supreme Court to hold Indyref2 was not forthcoming, was to contest the next general election as a “de facto referendum” on independence. Yet, this approach was ridiculed by people in her own camp, and polls showed that even most SNP members opposed it. Quite simply, the SNP’s roadmap to independence was a dead end. The ­leadership had no strategy for overcoming the Tories’ refusal to consent to a referendum. Whatever the other issues at stake, this is the primary cause of the SNP’s travails.

The SNP was the overwhelming beneficiary of the radical moment represented by 2014. Prior to the referendum, the SNP’s membership was around 25,500. This grew to an astonishing 120,000 after the vote, famously turning it into the largest political party in Europe proportional to the country’s population. Sturgeon took the baton from previous leader Alex Salmond in November 2014. Already well-known among independence supporters, she would go on to become one of the most popular politicians in Britain. For many, she was more than a party leader—she was also the head of a movement that went beyond the SNP’s ranks. Yet, almost a decade later, is the realisation of independence closer or further away? The undeniable reality is that, despite the favourable conditions created by the ceaseless chaos of successive Tory administrations, Sturgeon has left behind neither a solid majority for independence nor a plan for achieving it.

The SNP that existed for most of the 20th century, confined to the fringes of politics, was driven by nationalist ideology and the goal of independence.9 However, the priorities driving the party today are shaped by its position of power and its role in the management of the needs of British and multinational capital through the devolved institutions of the Scottish government. In a detailed study, Marxist economist and former SNP politician George Kerevan has argued that, since the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999, the SNP has morphed from “a democratic, mass movement governed by its membership into a ‘normal’ bourgeois political party—one dominated by its parliamentary apparatus”. Although this assessment is too indulgent towards the early SNP, Kerevan correctly identifies how the party has been transformed by occupying official positions in the British ­parliament in Westminster and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, as well as hundreds of councils. Alongside this has come the development of widespread ­networks linking party officials to state institutions and capitalist corporations. These factors have converged to aid the emergence of a powerful and unaccountable bureaucracy within the SNP’s higher echelons, which has interests and motivations far removed from those of ordinary members. This bureaucracy has increasingly asserted its domination, imposing conservative attitudes towards social issues and the pursuit of independence. Sturgeon and Murrell were ­instrumental to this ­process, establishing tight control over the party apparatus.10

In Scotland after Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence, James Foley and Ben Wray (who started the book project with late Marxist theorist Neil Davidson) go even further, arguing compellingly that the SNP is too ­comfortable in the ­current devolution set-up to do anything that might risk its position. The book is an ­important contribution to attempts to analyse the dynamics governing Scottish ­politics in the post-referendum era and to dispel myths of SNP progressiveness. The authors state that, despite the ­constant ­sabre-rattling between Westminster and Holyrood, both the Tories and the SNP benefit from the devolved situation:

To implement unpopular measures such as austerity, Westminster relies on letting shit flow downhill from central government to devolved parliaments and onto local councils… The SNP do the same from the opposite direction. Protests are channelled back towards Westminster, and politically costly decisions are deferred downwards.11

The SNP’s cautious approach to independence was compounded by the ­attitude of Tory governments from 2016 onwards. Although prime minister David Cameron agreed to the 2014 vote, believing an easy unionist ­victory would cement his ­authority, later Tory governments learnt from this and took a tougher stance. Without much difficulty, both Theresa May, in March 2017, and Boris Johnson, in December 2019, refused a request for a Section 30 order, which would enable the Scottish government to call a referendum.12 The Supreme Court ruling in November 2022 only restated the obvious.

Two key events in 2016 and 2017 reinforced the SNP’s conservatism. The first was the Brexit referendum, which was an important turning point. The outcome in Scotland was different from England and Wales; a majority of Scottish ballots were cast to remain part of the European Union, and the SNP’s pro-EU position ­triggered a surge in support for the party, particularly among the middle classes.13 It also ­enabled the SNP and Sturgeon to shake off their unwanted image as ­anti-establishment troublemakers, posing instead as ardent defenders of European integration and the institutions of Western ­neoliberal capitalism. For the leadership, consolidating these gains meant moving away from any form of radicalism. The SNP made a clear choice to relegate independence to the back seat, instead focusing on the ultimately failed project of reversing Brexit. The incoherences were evident; one third of those who voted for independence in 2014 also voted to leave the EU. Furthermore, as Jonathon Shafi has pointed out, the “Scotland in Europe” project of rejoining the EU after independence was incompatible with the SNP’s plans to keep the British pound for an indefinite time after separating from the Union.14

A second key event, a year after the Brexit vote, was the referendum in Catalonia.15 The outcome of a vote on independence taking place within an EU member state in Western Europe had obvious implications for Scotland and Britain. The 2017 Catalan referendum saw an explosive revolt that escaped the control of its nationalist leaders. The vote took place in defiance of a ban from the right-wing Spanish government, which responded by brutally crushing it via the deployment of police and the military as well as by pursuing vindictive legal repression.

For all the claims of solidarity with Catalonia expressed by the SNP, these events vividly brought home a number of realities to the party’s leaders. First, it ­concentrated their minds on the idea that the process of achieving independence needed to remain within the confines of capitalist legality. SNP leaders were not prepared to end up in prison or in exile, which was the fate of many of their Catalan counterparts. Second, it exposed the naivety of an approach based on garnering approval from institutions of the so-called ­“international ­community”. Similar ­illusions had been held by sections of the Catalan movement prior to their vote, but these were soon dashed when EU officials came out in defence of the violence of the Spanish state. Instead of solidarity, international actors largely legitimised the repression as an ­appropriate means of maintaining the state’s territorial integrity. Third, events in Catalonia underlined the real danger of nationalist leaders losing control of events due to an insurgent mass movement that they had helped to fuel.

Party and movement

For many Yes activists, the relationship that developed between the SNP and the wider independence movement after 2014 seemed to be one of cooperation and mutual reliance. The SNP needed the energy of the movement to press ­forward towards independence, and grassroots activists felt the need for a political ­vehicle to achieve their goal. In reality, however, the relationship was fraught with ­contradictions and tensions. Far from being a mutually beneficial partnership, the SNP’s attitude to the movement was more akin to that of a bloodthirsty vampire parasitising the enthusiasm and dedication of grassroots campaigners.

For the SNP, keeping independence alive as an issue was key to maintaining its newly established hegemony in Scottish politics—and to beefing up support for its domestic economic agenda. However, it could not do so without encouraging renewed hopes in a break with all the ills associated with Tory Britain. This fed the continuance of the movement, which existed within the SNP but also exceeded it and was thus a potential source of challenges and headaches for the party leadership. At the heart of this fractious relationship there has always been a clash between the SNP’s commitment to the capitalist status quo, whether as part of the Union or in an independent Scotland, and the expectations for change raised among millions of ordinary people. There was never a complete correspondence between support for independence and support for the SNP.16

The SNP’s massive membership growth also rested on the expectation that it was the party that would deliver independence for Scotland—and membership figures mattered. In comparison to Labour, which receives funds from its affiliated unions, and the Tory Party with its rich backers, the SNP is financially much more dependent on members’ dues. Only the blindly ­faithful can ignore the fact that the financial scandals under investigation coincide with the loss of tens of thousands of members in the years prior to Sturgeon’s ­resignation. SNP leaders were unable to publicly articulate their real fears around ­independence, instead projecting the idea that they continued to be serious about it. At annual conferences and other events, the leadership would throw fodder to the troops, declaring again and again that “next year” would be the year of Indyref2. Headlines on the front pages of The National, a newspaper supportive of ­independence, routinely trumpeted the notion that such a vote was ­impending. Such proclamations would also become a ritual during election campaigns, showing how vital the SNP’s rhetoric about ­independence had become as an electoral device for mobilising its vote.

The dynamism of the 2014 referendum campaign was a result of an ­explosion of grassroots activism, independent of the SNP and the official Yes Scotland ­organisation. This involved groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign and Hope Over Fear, along with a myriad of others.17 Many of these groups remained active in the aftermath of the referendum defeat, but it was precisely when the SNP began to retreat from agitation in favour of Indyref2 that a second wave of grassroots activism took off. Marches organised by campaign group All Under One Banner brought tens of thousands (and, at its peak, hundreds of thousands) of independence supporters onto the streets for demonstrations and rallies across Scotland. The SNP had hoped to make an orderly retreat from the issue of ­independence, but this was made ­impossible by the wave of mobilisation. The party ignored the marches, instructing its politicians to reject invitations to speak at them and telling members not to attend. Nonetheless, these protests became an immense focus for all those who wanted to continue to fight for an independent Scotland. Wray and Foley capture the spirit of these ­demonstrations in Scotland after Britain:

A largely left-wing and working-class social movement has fought to keep the cause of independence alive while the leadership has sought to push it off the agenda. These demonstrations attracted crowds unprecedented in Scottish history… A common, and patronising, impression is that the marches are “apolitical”. Yet, listening to the speeches from the stage, there is far more gutsy and radical politics than would normally feature at a…non-governmental organisation or Labour Party conference. There are frequent calls for abolishing nuclear weapons, solidarity with Palestine and Catalonia, and radical redistribution of wealth and income.18

The height of this process saw many hundreds of thousands taking part in marches for independence in the years before the Covid-19 pandemic. Away from the two main Scottish cities, there were also impressive mobilisations of tens of thousands in places where the left has been historically weak such as Perth, Inverness and Dumfries. Table 1 shows the size of All Under One Banner marches in Glasgow and Edinburgh from 2016 onwards, in what is arguably the largest mass movement in British politics in the last decade.

Table 1: All Under One Banner demonstrations




August 2016



June 2017



May 2018



October 2018



May 2019



October 2019



January 2020



May 2021



October 2021



May 2022



October 2022



May 2023



Aside from the mass, sustained character of the movement, what immediately stands out is its sharp decline from 2020 onwards. After the pandemic interrupted, momentum was lost and the mobilisations never went back to their earlier size. For three years, they have tended to be in the low thousands (and sometimes, the low ­hundreds), not in the hundreds of thousands.19 Before this lethargy took hold, could the movement have become the basis for a political challenge to the SNP? Could it have pushed the SNP’s leaders towards more radical action, similar to what took place in Catalonia, even if it went against some of their own interests?

In their discussion of the grassroots movement, Foley and Wray identify a key problem. They say that despite their sympathy and respect for it:

The movement’s overriding flaw is its faith that arguments about the content of independence can be postponed until Independence Day… The crucial questions of currency, the EU, membership of NATO and so on should be opened up to the scrutiny of the Scottish electorate as soon as independence has been achieved. Until then, unity should prevail.20

This is a formally correct criticism, but a missing element in this account is the role played by conscious socialist intervention in opposing such ideas. Higher forms of class consciousness and the types of strategy associated with it cannot emerge in a vacuum; they have to be fought for amid the huge ­ideological ­contestation happening. For the movement to realise its full potential, it required the development of a stronger current that identified the Scottish government as part of the problem and linked independence to a wider struggle for social change.

The movement was largely operating independently of the SNP, but this was out of necessity, not as the result of a conscious strategic decision. For most ­activists, marches were about stepping up the pressure on the SNP to take action, not about creating the basis for an alternative approach—based on mass ­mobilisation, ­militant action and civil disobedience—to ­confronting the British state. The lack of such a differentiation between approaches to winning ­independence proved fatal. The more the SNP shifted rightwards, thus ­disassociating independence from the radical aspirations attached to it by ­working-class supporters, the less enthused people felt about taking to the streets. The low level of workers’ militancy throughout those years was an additional obstacle to a sharper differentiation, making it easier for the SNP to present a progressive rhetoric that went untested by real events. The weakness and fragmentation of the Scottish left was also a barrier to more radical ideas becoming hegemonic and counteracting other political poles of attraction based on nationalism and reformism.

We will explore some of the reasons for this in the next section. First, ­however, it must be emphasised that these arguments do not belong in the past. In May of this year, on the day of the coronation of Charles III in London, All Under One Banner surprised many (including the authors of this article) by putting up to 20,000 people onto the streets of Glasgow. Although this is far from a resurgence, it is sobering to think that the Scottish trade union ­movement has been unable to mobilise an event rivalling these numbers since the onset of the cost of living crisis. Socialists issue a death certificate for the independence ­movement at our own peril. Independence remains popular with around half of the Scottish population, and even though support for the SNP has declined after this year’s scandals, backing for independence has remained robust. There are also interesting suggestions that more people are rejecting the idea that supporting independence means having to back the SNP.21 This should be seen by the left as a positive development.

The left

Across the radical left in Scotland, many identified the democratic and ­transformative impulses behind support for independence as a source of ­possibilities—and not just ones to be analysed and understood, but also ones to be positively shaped. As such, independence has been a key arena of discussion and activity for much of the past decade. Writing for this journal in 2012, Neil Davidson identified three key reasons why socialists should advocate independence. First, he said, “Unless we put forward an argument for class politics within the referendum campaign, the alternatives will simply be the nationalist and unionist positions, with the rest of the left tailing the former, helping the SNP to the hegemonic ­position it seeks in Scottish politics.” He added, “Among other things, we need absolute clarity that there is nothing intrinsically beneficial about Scottish ­independence; ­otherwise, we risk encouraging the popular but wholly false assumption that Scottish people are automatically more left wing than English people, which will encourage dangerous illusions in a Scottish parliamentary road to socialism.”

Second, “Britain is an imperial state at war”. Arguments about independence “would be inseparable from the arguments against these wars and the British state’s subordinate alliance with the US empire. Scottish secession would at the very least make it more difficult for Britain to play this role, if only by reducing its practical importance for the US.” This argument, based on a desire to fragment the British state and thus weaken its power on the world stage, had not always been one put forward by socialists. Yet, in the context created by devolution, “The British state has already begun to fragment. So, to call for its further fragmentation on an anti-war basis…means that independence can be supported as a means to an anti-imperialist end, rather than as the political logic of Scottish nationalism”.22

Third, “the campaign for a No vote will effectively be asking voters to endorse a conception of Britishness built around racism and anti-migrant and anti-Islamic panic. No doubt some well-meaning but deluded members of the left will argue that the issue is the unity of the British working class… For socialists to give this ‘left colouration’ to the pro-Union cause would be politically fatal”.23

Although the political context has greatly shifted in the past 11 years, Davidson’s three arguments are still largely valid in informing the left’s attitude to ­independence. However, crucial to these was his stress on the ­conditionality of socialists’ support for the demand. Revolutionaries’ attitude to Scottish ­independence should be a tactical decision, not a point of principle. Nine years on from the 2014 referendum, much of the left has been subsumed under SNP dominance, with diminishing influence among working-class people and ­declining capacity for independent initiative. The key reason behind this ­­weakening of the left is not that it threw itself into the mass independence movement, but rather that it moved away from the ­“conditionality” stressed by Davidson.

Following 2014 and the ongoing prospect of independence, much of the left interiorised a stageist approach to fighting for change, which can be summarised by the phrase “independence first, then everything else”. The self-defeating ­conclusion of this logic was not just that, short of independence, fighting for change was pointless. It also meant accepting that working-class people have no agency to fight as long as they were within the British state. Part of the left gave too much ground to the idea that, without independence, SNP ­governments were starved of the powers to do anything for workers. It also conceded to the idea that fightbacks from below against the Scottish government would be counterproductive to the cause of independence. This approach disarmed much of the left, which saw no point in making demands on the Scottish government. This rationale extended to when the Scottish government attacked ordinary people, since this was not out of their own volition but rather due to impositions on Scotland by the Tories in Westminster. Many embraced the logic of the “lesser evil” that has been deployed in other national contexts to justify leftists backing mainstream, pro-capitalist political forces, whether Emmanuel Macron in France or Joe Biden in the US.

The trajectory of Tommy Sheridan, Scotland’s most well-known ­socialist, ­illustrates this. His Hope Over Fear rallies attracted tens of thousands of working-class independence supporters during the 2014 campaign. Yet, Sheridan’s message was not to build a movement for change that could act for itself. Instead, he ­repeatedly called on his followers to “lend” their vote to the SNP as a way to secure independence. Once socialists had surrendered the initiative to the SNP, giving up on independent working-class action, it was a natural ­progression to fully embrace nationalist politics with no connection to socialism. Thus, Sheridan has ended up dissolving his Solidarity party and joining the nationalist Alba Party, which was founded by Alex Salmond after he left the SNP due to sexual assault allegations.24

Sheridan was not the only one to fall for the trap. When Alba was launched in 2021, the stance of many on the left already spoke volumes about the ­disorientation that reigned. Much of the organised left in the SNP around the Common Weal think tank defected. A series of articles by George Kerevan ­unconvincingly theorised that Alba would become “the social-democratic wing of the independence movement”.25 Yet, there was no evidence for this; indeed, on some issues the new party was to the right of the SNP. It became, for instance, a magnet for those opposing the extension of trans rights. In its approach to independence, Alba’s strategy of maximising the pro-Indy vote by only standing in the regional vote remained a thoroughly reformist one, though without the SNP’s appeal of actually being able to win seats.

The foundation of Alba reinforced the belief in the “parliamentary road to independence”. For example, in February 2021, Now Scotland had launched as a national membership campaign to take the fight for independence forward, with an emphasis on grassroots activity, due to growing impatience with the SNP. The national committee that was elected at an inaugural assembly attended by over a thousand people included left wingers such as Kerevan and members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). When Alba launched in March, Kerevan and other figures immediately lost interest, rendering the project stillborn.

These weaknesses did not lie exclusively with the pro-independence left but also extended to those sections of the left that opposed independence, most notably in Scottish Labour. Labour’s servile support for the British state had been justified on the spuriously left-wing grounds that independence would divide the working class north and south of the English border. Yet, on both sides of the argument within the left, the constitutional debate was approached as an end in itself, not through the lens of class politics and with the aim of creating the best possible circumstances for workers to unite and mobilise against their enemies.

The class-based approach that the SWP has sought to defend emphasised the need for socialist arguments and independent ­working-class ­tactics to fight for Indyref2. It has also stressed the need for independence ­supporters to get involved in the wider struggles against racism, climate change and attacks on workers’ rights, always with an insistence that these movements should not become divided over attitudes to independence. It was through this approach that the SWP was able to win a series of arguments within the movement that gave a glimpse of how it could be taken forward. This included the calling of an emergency All Under One Banner demonstration in the wake of Boris Johnson’s election with the slogan “Not my Prime Minister!”. The protest attracted 80,000, ensuring that some of the despair that may have been engendered by the defeat of Corbyn in the 2019 general election was turned to defiance. All Under One Banner was also won over to encouraging supporters to join anti-racist events, and it organised a large bloc of thousands of independence activists on the mass climate justice demonstration during the United Nations’ COP26 talks in Glasgow in November 2021. Marches targeting the Faslane nuclear base and protests themed around opposing poverty and attacks on the National Health Service would also not have happened without socialists winning an audience through active engagement with the movement.


The legacy of 2014 continues to haunt Scottish politics, but the dominance of the SNP is fragmenting, and there is no basis for a credible challenge for independence. Three things are necessary if the left is to effectively reorientate itself in this context.

First, while engaging in struggles against the Tory government in Westminster, the Scottish left needs to be prepared to take the fight to our own government. As Foley and Wray correctly argue:

The trick…is to end the habit of seeing Westminster and Scotland’s progressive neoliberal parliament as separate problems… They are interdependent. Both the SNP and Tories benefit from Scotland’s current state of constitutional deadlock.

Of course, there are nuances about how this should be done. The SNP still ­commands the allegiance of a sizeable section of working-class people in Scotland, however reluctant and diminishing this loyalty is. Socialists should be part of ­campaigns that place demands on the ­government and emphasise the ­contradictions of the SNP leadership. Failing to do this will mean ­allowing ­opposition to the SNP’s ­neoliberal programme to be ­dominated by the Tories and the version of Labourism ­associated with Keir Starmer and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar. It is also at least conceivable that some who saw ­independence as an outlet for their anger may turn to the far right, which is attempting to publicly mobilise in Scotland for the first time in many years. This reinforces the importance of ­initiatives that respond to issues such as the cost of living crisis and racism, which can unite working-class people irrespective of their attitudes to independence.

Second, socialists should continue to support the breaking up the British state. This does not mean encouraging unfounded illusions in prospects of a referendum; this is off the cards for now, and there are no agitational demands for socialists to make around this. However, it would be a profound mistake to believe that the national question will simply vanish due to the SNP crisis, with Scotland returning to a “pre-2014 status quo”. There are no reasons to expect the deep rift between the British state and a section of its population in Scotland to heal. The deep crisis in British politics means mass support for independence could find new organisational expressions in the future, even if they hardly exist at present. To quote Davidson again, our attitude should continue to be “conditional upon class struggle”:

There are circumstances in which working-class resistance could reach such a level that the question of independence would be irrelevant or even reactionary…Nevertheless, we should beware of assuming that high levels of class struggle will result in “normal service being resumed”, with workers returning to Labour… Nor will the national question simply disappear in a wave of strikes and demonstrations… Economics and politics are not autonomous from each other, and the mediations between them are deeply complex.26

Third, we must shape a revolutionary force in Scottish politics that places independence within a wider context: the need for a socialist transformation of society, the economy and our relationship to our environment. The yearning for change that was channelled into the independence movement was unfulfilled because this movement remained dominated by forces that sought to contain it within the confines of the capitalist system. In this sense, the movement for Scottish independence shares the same fate as the other mass explosions of the 2010s, from the Egyptian Revolution to the anti-austerity movement in Greece. As revolutionaries in Scotland, our involvement in the struggle for independence has been about creating better circumstances for working-class people to engage in the fight to overthrow of capitalism. We disagree with nationalists, who see independence as a goal in itself. In the era of what historian Adam Tooze has termed the “polycrisis”, revolutionary arguments can find a wider audience than ever before.27 In the context of climatic disaster, global economic crisis and rising tensions between the world’s most well-armed powers, the fight for independence will become increasingly devoid of meaning without revolutionary arguments. The catastrophes incubated by capitalism today cannot be averted within the confines of any one nation-state. They require a fundamental restructuring of how human beings organise to meet their needs—in an ecologically sustainable way and on an international scale. The hopes raised by the 2014 moment are yet to vanish, but we must recognise that these were not simply aspirations for Scottish independence. Rather, they were infused with longing for a different society. Socialists now need to ensure those hopes do not turn to despair but instead find new avenues.

Maryam Hally is a member of the SWP and an anti-war activist based in Glasgow.

Héctor Sierra is a Spanish socialist based in Glasgow and a member of the central committee of the SWP.


1 Thanks to Charlotte Ahmed, Joseph Choonara, Iain Ferguson, Bob Fotheringham, Donny Gluckstein, Keir McKechnie and Angela McCormick for thoughtful remarks on an earlier draft.

2 For an analysis of the dynamics of the 2014 referendum campaign, written in its aftermath, see McKechnie, 2014.

3 Ali, 2015.

4 For analyses of these left-reformist projects, see Garganas, 2015; Kimber, 2020; Lemlich, 2020; and Sierra, 2022. See also Joseph Choonara’s article in this issue on left-wing electoral formations.

5 Simpson, 2023.

6 Kimber, 2021.

7 BBC News, 2023.

8 Fotheringham, 2023. For a longer account of the reality of life under the SNP, see Ferguson and Mooney, 2021.

9 For a history of the SNP and the independence movement, see Fotheringham, 2021a.

10 See Kerevan, 2020a and 2020b.

11 Foley, Wray and Davidson, 2022.

12 Section 30 of the Scotland Act allows the Scottish Parliament to legislate in areas that are not devolved, in this case passing a law to enable the holding of a referendum.

13 For an analysis of the Brexit referendum result in Scotland, see Gluckstein and McKinnon, 2017.

14 For example, see Shafi, 2022.

15 For a brief account of the independence struggle in Catalonia, see Sierra, 2017.

16 It is well established, for example, that between one third and 40 percent of Labour voters back independence.

17 McKechnie, 2014.

18 Foley, Wray and Davidson, 2022, p17.

19 See Fotheringham, 2021b, for the early indications of crisis within the grassroots independence movement.

20 Foley, Wray and Davidson, 2022.

21 A recent analysis by political scientist John Curtice noted that 70 percent of Yes supporters say they would vote SNP if an election was held today, compared to 88 percent two years ago—see Curtice, 2023. For the prospects of Scottish Labour benefitting from the crisis in the SNP, see Sierra, 2023.

22 The SNP’s warmongering in support of the proxy war between NATO and Russia in Ukraine does not alter this. Scottish independence would still have the objective effect of weakening the British state, rendering it almost impossible for Britain to hold on to its nuclear arsenal and diminishing its position in world politics.

23 Davidson, 2012.

24 Russell, 2021.

25 For example, see Kerevan, 2021.

26 Davidson, 2012.

27 Callinicos, 2022.


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