Scotland: the genie is out of the bottle

Issue: 144

Keir McKechnie

The British ruling class wheezed a huge collective sigh of relief at the Scottish independence referendum result. The No camp secured victory with 55 percent of the vote and the Yes side polled 45 percent. 97 percent of the electorate registered to vote and the turn-out was an incredible 86 percent, the highest in any election in the history of Britain.

The queen may well have “purred down the phone” to David Cameron at the result but that does not alter the fact that it was a close call for the British establishment. It is no exaggeration to say that the British state and the capitalist class it represents were truly panic stricken as the Yes campaign built up serious momentum in the final days before the ballot on 18 September. The No campaign managed to lose a massive lead of 22 points from last year to winning by only 10 percentage points. In numerical terms there were 2 million No voters and 1.6 million Yes voters. The British state came within 200,000 votes of its own dissolution and the end of the 307 year old Union as we know it.

All the reactionary forces of the British establishment and beyond were marshalled in the final phase of the campaign to avoid the impending disaster with the dirty tricks division of the ruling class going into overdrive. An avalanche of propaganda including blackmail, lies and scaremongering were showered upon the people of Scotland. Threats that an economic and social Armageddon would be the result of a Yes vote were the order of the day. Deutsche Bank made a panic intervention in the last week of the campaign promising another Great Depression as a consequence of independence. Project Fear as it became known mobilised the BBC, the bankers, the big supermarket chains, the bosses’ organisation the CBI and an unholy pro-austerity alliance of the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Labour Party to bombard people with threats to their jobs, pensions and living standards.

Yet on their own these scare tactics were not enough to guarantee victory for the Unionist parties. The rapid and growing momentum of the grassroots Yes movement forced Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband three days before the referendum vote to make their desperate historic “vow” of more “devo max” powers for the Scottish Parliament if voters rejected independence. The devo max option of more fiscal autonomy and tax-raising powers for the Scottish Parliament, while remaining part of the UK, had in 2012 been ruled out as an option on the ballot paper by an over-confident Cameron, when he and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement that set the referendum timetable in motion. The pro-Union Better Together campaign’s contempt for democracy was best illustrated by the fact that this “pledge” for more powers was not even discussed in the House of Commons with elected members of parliament, nor in the Welsh or Northern Ireland assemblies. Indeed, there was no discussion of the proposals with members of their own parties. Hundreds of thousands of Scots had cast their postal votes weeks before the “vow” had been conjured up by the three stooges of Westminster.

Within hours of securing the No vote and following the resignation of Salmond as first minister both Cameron and Miliband began backpedalling on their “devo max” promises. The cross-party consensus on more powers is now coming under severe strain as arguments break out as to what, how and when to deliver more home rule or more federalist powers to Scotland within Britain. Miliband’s immediate response after the result was that the timetable proposed by former prime minister Gordon Brown was unrealistic. He proposed to kick the issue of more powers for the Scottish Parliament into the long grass by setting up a constitutional convention that will report its findings in autumn 2015—six months after the UK general election next May.

This is an untenable position for Labour in Scotland. Brown, Better Together leader Alistair Darling and a host of other senior Scottish Labour figures are demanding that Labour and the other pro-Union parties deliver on these promises by turning them into new legislation at Westminster by March 2015. As Labour former First Minister Henry McLeish put it in an article in the Daily Record there is a danger of Labour dying out in Scotland if it refuses to listen to its traditional working class supporters who voted Yes: “We can’t ignore this. It’s happening in solid areas of the old red Clydeside and Dundee… We need full autonomy from UK labour”.1 Brown has been reduced to appealing to Scots to petition the Unionist party leaders to honour their “vow”.

Cameron’s position is now shaped by pressures from his right inside the Tory party and outside from the UK Independence Party (UKIP). He is pushing to reframe the constitutional issues under the banner of what is variously called the “English question” or the “West Lothian question”. This means that any new constitutional powers for Scotland would have to be part of a wider constitutional rearrangement giving more powers to English MPs at the expense of Scottish MPs’ right to vote on “English” matters. Cameron put it like this shortly after the result: “We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must be heard… The question of English votes for English laws—the so called West Lothian question—requires a decisive answer”.2 In other words, the Tories will make every effort to ensure that the Labour Party is weakened at Westminster by excluding Scottish MPs from voting on “English matters” while ensuring that any extra powers for the Scottish Parliament are extremely limited.

Salmond was quick to remark that the Better Together campaign had “tricked” Scottish voters with the promise of more powers: “I think people in Scotland will be astonished and outraged, particularly those who voted No on this prospectus. There is doubt in Cameron’s mind about carrying his own backbenchers, therefore a reluctance to have a Commons vote”.3

Part of the political fallout from the referendum is the creation of a significant level of constitutional upheaval and political instability at the British level. The issue is also creating serious tensions and disagreements inside the wider UK Labour Party. John Denham, a senior Labour figure and Miliband ally, has argued that the impact of offering more powers to Scotland is that “English Labour needs its own voice in this process, unrestrained by Labour from other parts of the union.” Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead near Liverpool, argues that “promises to Scotland ensure that the ‘English’ question will dominate May’s general election. Voters will demand from all English candidates whether they support English home rule and if they support giving an additional £1,500 a year, for ever, for every person living in Scotland… Voters will demand ‘yes’ to the first question and ‘no’ to the second”.4

Labour saves the Union and reaps the whirlwind

The Labour Party have good reason to be petrified at what the future holds for them in Scotland. It is undeniable that their intervention played a major and decisive part in “saving” the Union. In the last days before the vote over 100 Labour MPs descended on Scotland to argue that the austerity Union should continue. Gordon Brown was happy to pedal lies that the National Health Service was safe with the Union. Douglas Alexander was quite happy to share platforms with Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson espousing the benefits of defending the status quo and rejecting the need for change. The Respect MP George Galloway, who also shared a platform with Davidson, mistakenly provided much needed left wing cover for the No camp by focusing on the dangers of Scottish nationalism. At the same time he “forgot” completely to raise the issue of British nationalism, with its bloody imperialist legacy from Ireland to Iraq, its ugly chauvinism and its anti-immigrant hysteria as the greatest danger facing the working class.

Sections of the trade union bureaucracy in unions such as the shop workers’ union USDAW, the Communication Workers Union and the GMB contributed to confusing and disorienting many good trade unionists by adopting an official No position. They argued that what was at stake was the unity of the working class North and South of the border. Only a No vote could guarantee protection of the gains achieved by the British labour movement over the last hundred years or so. Other sections of the left in Scotland represented by the Red Paper Collective fell into the same trap of confusing the unity of the working class with the unity of the British state. Importantly, however, the Scottish TUC and the largest unions Unison and Unite remained officially neutral on the referendum—a reflection of how far we are from the days when Labour could rely on automatic support from such quarters.

The working class votes Yes

Nevertheless, despite the full weight of the Labour Party machine and sections of the trade union bureaucracy getting behind the No camp, hundreds of thousands of traditional Labour voters and trade unionists were convincingly won over to the Yes side. Many prominent trade union activists, chairs of local trades councils and prominent Labour Party members like Bob Thomson who set up Labour Supporters for Independence switched sides and campaigned for a Yes vote. These include the chairs of both Glasgow and Edinburgh trades councils and prominent labour activists including Unite political officer Pat Rafferty and Stephen Smellie, Deputy Convenor of Unison in Scotland.

These forces played their part in ensuring that an amazing 37 percent of Labour voters at the last Scottish general election in 2011 voted for independence in the referendum. This represents a political earthquake for Labour and an intensification of the process of decomposition in the party’s support that has already been developing over the last two decades. Labour’s resilience and ability to bounce back are well known but there is no question that they will be severely tested at the general election in 2015 and in the Scottish elections in May 2016.

The Labour Party lost the argument with working class voters in its traditional urban strongholds. Indeed, the Yes vote across Scotland was predominantly a working class vote and was concentrated in the big cities. Contrary to the myths circulated by the No campaign and some on the left, the Yes campaign was not characterised by a narrow Scottish nationalism or anti-English sentiment. On the contrary, it was primarily a movement of hope that was motivated by a strong desire to end austerity, poverty, inequality and war.

Tory businessman Lord Ashcroft’s post-referendum poll highlighted that the two most important issues for Yes voters were the economy and defending the National Health Service. Decades of bitterness and alienation have accumulated from an economic and political system that millions of people understand is piling on austerity and misery. At the same time the institutions of the British state—parliament, the Bank of England, the BBC, the police, the army and so on are defending the interests of big business and other powerful elites against those of the majority of the working class.5

The Yes vote was a verdict on neoliberal Britain: 1.6 million people rejected the Union and, for a large majority of those, it was a rejection of it in favour of a different kind of society. In this sense it is important to stress that workers in England and Wales share the same anger and opposition to austerity and the corruption consensus in Westminster politics. The difference in Scotland at this juncture is that this anger and hope for real change has found its political voice through the referendum campaign and has culminated in the birth of a new and radical social movement for change with real roots inside the working class.

The breakdown of voting patterns clearly demonstrates the direction of travel. The areas of highest unemployment and social deprivation voted yes.

  • In Dundee the Yes vote was at its highest with 57.3 percent.
  • In Glasgow it was 53.5 percent.
  • In North Lanarkshire the Yes vote was 51.1 percent.
  • In Inverclyde, the big former shipbuilding and manufacturing centre, the No camp held on to a win by only 86 votes.

A closer look at the Glasgow result is instructive in establishing the general pattern in those cities voting Yes and as corroboration that the vote was also a clear judgement on the Labour Party. In the eight parliamentary constituencies the Yes side won in all of them.

  • Anniesland—Yes majority of 742
  • Cathcart—Yes majority of 2,811
  • Maryhill—Yes majority of 5,985
  • Kelvin—Yes majority of 1,337
  • Southside—Yes majority of 2,412
  • Pollok—Yes majority of 3,851
  • Provan—Yes majority of 6,171
  • Shettleston—Yes majority of 1,226

The pattern is essentially the same across Scotland. Poor areas voted Yes and richer areas voted No. In Edinburgh, where the No side won by a majority of 60 percent to 40 percent, key working class areas like Craigmillar and Leith voted Yes.

As Financial Times journalists John Burn-Murdoch and Aleksandra Wisniewska point out, “the No vote tended to fall as the proportion of people receiving unemployment or disability related benefit rose, supporting the narrative that perceived social injustice was one of the driving forces behind the Yes vote.” It is also worth noting that turnout was lower in those areas with the highest levels of deprivation. As the Financial Times observed: “Glasgow, where employment deprivation is the highest of all Scottish districts, saw the lowest turnout of 75 percent. It was 10 percentage points below the figure for the whole of Scotland”.6 In the wealthier areas surrounding Glasgow the turnout was at 90 percent. In Dundee it was 79 percent (7 percent below the national average). Generally speaking, Scotland’s highest earning regions voted No and the turnouts were extremely high. According to the Financial Times: “Lord Ashcroft’s poll has respondents from the top social grade split 60:40 in favour of a No—the biggest margin across all groups.”

The SNP indy lite strategy versus class politics

There is another area worth exploring in terms of voting patterns, as it highlights that Alex Salmond and the strategy of the Scottish National Party (SNP) of promoting “independence lite” throughout the campaign—keeping the monarchy and the Bank of England, remaining in NATO and cutting corporation taxes for businesses—actually cost the Yes campaign support among workers. This strategy not only failed to convince the middle classes to vote Yes but fed into much of the cynicism and scepticism among workers about the SNP only being interested in supporting big business at the expense of ordinary people. As I argued in a Socialist Worker pamphlet in October 2012, “What is desperately lacking in the SNP and the official Yes campaign is any inspiring vision of an independent Scotland leading the fight for serious wealth redistribution to tackle the deep-seated economic and social problems facing ordinary people.”

For example, in Stirling—a seat held by the SNP in the Scottish Parliament—the No camp won by a margin of 60 to 40. The Falkirk area also rejected independence by 53 percent to 47 percent despite having SNP MSPs and Dennis Canavan, the chair of the Yes campaign, being based there. Angus, which has an SNP MP and MSPs also voted No by 53 percent. In Aberdeen, a city dominated by the SNP at Holyrood, the No camp won by a large majority of 59 percent to 41 percent. In Perth and Kinross, where two of Salmond’s most senior ministers, John Swinney and Roseanna Cunningham, are MSPs, the result was a 60:40 split in favour of No.

One of the main lessons to draw from the referendum is that the SNP strategy of lowering expectations and emphasising that very little would fundamentally change in an independent Scotland did not appeal to working class people. In fact, it helped to alienate the working class vote because it consciously refused to focus on class arguments around defending the NHS, ending zero-hours contracts, renationalising the railways, the oil industry and so on. This lack of willingness to put forward the class arguments actually opened the door to the Unionist parties and allowed them to portray themselves as the defenders of working class interests.

It was not until he was convincingly beaten by Alistair Darling in the first big televised debate that Salmond shifted the focus in the second debate from the currency and the European Union towards defending the NHS, opposing privatisation of public services, defence of the welfare state, ending zero-hours contracts and opposing foreign wars. There was an immediate boost towards Yes once clear class arguments were injected into the campaign. It was at this point that Old Labour supporters started to change sides in favour of independence. It is important to underline that it was the growth and inspiring dynamism of a new radical left movement—in the form of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), the Hope Over Fear meetings with socialist Tommy Sheridan addressing huge working class audiences of up to 25,000 people and other groups like Women For Independence and the National Collective—that galvanised the working class and mobilised the movement that pushed the SNP and the official Yes campaign to the left and took us so close to victory.

The SNP’s failure to put class centre stage and to take a clear side with the working class against the ruling class gets to the heart of the limitations of Scottish nationalism (or any nationalist movement for that matter). The notion that the fundamental antagonism between labour and capital at the centre of capitalist relations of production can be resolved or wished away by uniting the working class with the ruling class in the shared “national interest” inevitably fails to camouflage the real class divisions in capitalist society.

The SNP under Salmond’s skilful and astute leadership have been masters at presenting the left face of nationalism in order to present themselves as a “social democratic” left alternative to labour. It was these efforts to position the SNP to the left of Labour through policies like scrapping tuition fees, introducing free prescription charges, defending the Scottish NHS from privatisation and opposition to Trident that catapulted the SNP into office first as a minority administration in 2007 and then to victory with a historic landslide over Labour in the 2011 Scottish election.

However, the right face of nationalism always re-emerges and sides with the ruling class as it is forced to choose sides in the conflict between labour and capital. From 2007 onwards the SNP has implemented cuts to business rates while simultaneously pushing through 2 percent “efficiency savings” to local council budgets which has led to job losses and attacks on pay and conditions across the public sector.

The SNP administration passed on UK government budget cuts to local councils across Scotland. When faced with the choice of refusing to implement cuts or “devolving the axe” to local councils, the SNP, like Labour, passed on these cuts and what followed were severe reductions in public services and further privatisation through the contracting out of vital services for groups such as the elderly.

Most recently the SNP were put to the test in 2013 when bosses at the Ineos petrochemical plant in Grangemouth provoked a major confrontation with workers and the Unite union. Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe victimised the union convenor, and then threatened to close the plant unless workers accepted a pay freeze, an end to their final salary pension scheme and worse conditions. Alex Salmond’s response was not to pile in behind the workers or to threaten to renationalise such a vital economic asset. Instead he spoke of protecting the “national interest” and abandoned workers at Ineos. The final rotten deal was accepted by workers at the plant. According to the SNP’s Joan McAlpine, Salmond “negotiated a deal to reduce the cost of Ineos’s gas by £40 million”.

There are other examples that illustrate how far the SNP are willing to go to side with the employers against workers. During the 2011 pensions strike the SNP finance secretary was happy to gloat that “I don’t support the strike action and I’ve already crossed a picket line.”

These examples are important to highlight as they point to the dangers for the left in Scotland of adopting an uncritical approach to the SNP in the coming period. Over 30,000 people joined the SNP in the ten days after the referendum, taking its membership to over 60,000. It is now bigger than the Lib Dems across the UK and looks likely to continue growing. The thousands of new members flocking to the SNP see it as a viable and more radical “social democratic” alternative to Labour and the Tories in Scotland.

Yet, unlike the Labour Party, which Lenin described as a “bourgeois workers’ party”, that was historically “the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy”, the SNP is not, nor does it pretend to be, a party rooted inside the working class or with any serious links with the trade union movement. The SNP is a bourgeois nationalist party. It did not arise out of a struggle against colonial oppression. Its emergence coincided with the decline of British imperialism on the world stage. As Iain Ferguson notes: “The SNP was founded in 1934 to unite the different strands of the nationalist movement. It brought together left wing activists who supported independence and former Tories who favoured some form of home rule”.7

A key issue for the left is how to relate to the SNP and the thousands of activists engaged by the independence movement—many who have joined the SNP believing it can either be pushed further to the left, or to punish the Labour Party at the next election, or in the belief that it can be the vehicle for bringing independence back onto the agenda again.

A wee whiff of Tahrir

Anybody who was fortunate enough to witness the gatherings of thousands of people in Glasgow’s George Square in the days running up to the referendum will confirm how electrifying and joyful the atmosphere was. Ordinary people would speak on an open microphone about their hopes for a better society. Large crowds of young people, many of them first time voters, spoke of a world without nuclear weapons, of the urgent need to save the planet and stop fracking. Working class women got up and spoke about how they were politically active and engaged for the first time and how things would never be the same again. There was a festival atmosphere in towns and cities across Scotland at the prospect of building a different kind of society that put people before profit. Social media also played an important role in countering the BBC and other mass media lies. There was a demonstration of over 5,000 people at the BBC protesting at its biased coverage.

Across the country mass canvasses of big working class housing schemes organised by the Radical Independence Campaign not only mobilised the Yes vote but drew thousands of new people into a wide range of activism. Socialist Workers Party members played a key role in these canvasses and worked closely with groups like Scottish Asians for Independence in the Pollokshields area of Glasgow. We also leafleted workplaces like Govan shipyards, the big hospitals and key council workplaces in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The SWP shared platforms in Aberdeen, Dundee, Motherwell, Paisley and Edinburgh with Tommy Sheridan in the inspiring Hope Over Fear tour. These meetings were massive with several hundred attending each one. English and Welsh comrades played their part by coming to Scotland and campaigning for a Yes vote as one that they welcomed and that would give confidence to English and Welsh workers to fight austerity and the Tories. This message was very well received on the doorsteps in working class areas and among the activists.

There was an explosion of interest in socialist ideas. Sales of Socialist Worker were the highest they have been since the great West of Scotland strike-wave of 1974-5 with around 1,000 copies sold each week in the last fortnight of the campaign. The Socialist Worker pamphlet Yes to Independence—No to Nationalism sold 2,500 copies. The SWP also engaged in the debates with those who supported a No position. These debates involved Labour councillors and key trade union officials and activists. We did not treat No voters as scabs or class enemies. We argued that they were wrong and engaged seriously with them.

The SWP also played a significant role alongside others in linking up the independence movement with wider internationalist struggles. In the solidarity movement for Gaza, for example, we argued that an independent Scotland should boycott Israel and open a Palestinian embassy. We successfully put pressure on the SNP government to send direct aid to Palestine. The Scottish government announced that it supported a boycott in procuring any contracts from companies based in illegal Palestinian settlements. The Palestinian flag was hoisted over Glasgow City Council for a day.

Along with other activists in the anti bedroom tax federation we exerted a huge and successful amount of pressure on the SNP and Labour Party in Holyrood to find an extra £50 million fully to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax—effectively killing the bedroom tax in Scotland.

Promoting the united front approach to campaigning against the Scottish Defence League and UKIP was a key area of activity for socialists during the referendum campaign. We appealed to Yes and No voters to oppose UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s toxic brand of racism and trips to Scotland. We did not shy away from the need to challenge racism and racist scapegoating.

Where next after the referendum?

“The genie is out of the bottle” and “Things will never be the same again” are common expressions among the Yes movement activists. The desire to keep the movement alive is evidenced by the continuing demonstrations, public meetings and conferences that are planned for the autumn. Tens of thousands of people have been energised and are refusing to return to “normal life”. There is a determination not to let the anger against the Tories, the Labour Party, big business, the BBC and the Westminster establishment dissipate or fragment.

Already tens of thousands are joining political parties. The main beneficiary to date has been the SNP. The Green Party report that their membership has doubled and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity and the SWP have seen thousands inquiring about membership. This should be welcomed as a sign that thousands of activists want to remain organised and continue to fight.

The significant challenge and immediate task for the left in Scotland is to create a new political vehicle that can organise a radical anti-capitalist alternative to both Labour and the SNP. Although the social movement for resistance to austerity in Scotland has not been on the same scale as in countries like Greece or Spain there is, however, a unique opportunity to build a new left formation that can pull together and organise thousands of the best activists and trade unionists. It is unsurprising that the SNP, the party that put the referendum centre stage, should initially act as the biggest pole of attraction for many people.

Of course, the left should welcome and support those SNP MPs who voted at Westminster against bombing Iraq. We must continue to force it to the left whenever possible. But the left in Scotland should also be under no illusion that the SNP will deliver on the hopes of millions. As a nationalist party that promotes the “national interest” it will continue to promote alliances with the likes of union-busting billionaire chair of Stagecoach Brian Souter and the billionaire owner of Clyde Blowers engineering, Jim McColl. Confronted with the logic of capital and an acceptance of the impeccable laws of the market the SNP will adapt by saying that it has no choice but to implement Westminster cuts. When the next round of austerity kicks in the SNP will impose its own package of cuts and “efficiency” savings on workers’ living standards while promoting tax breaks for big corporate interests.

That is why the SWP does not support calls from Tommy Sheridan and others to vote SNP at the next general election, avoid standing radical left candidates against it and instead wait until the Scottish general election in 2016. To reduce this new social movement or the existing radical left to being the unofficial political wing of the SNP is a flawed strategy. It will only provide a left wing cover for the SNP and cost valuable time by postponing the urgent task of building a new left party. Let’s strike while the iron is hot!

There is an urgent need and a mood among a wide layer of activists to build a new party. This process could begin bringing together all those inspired by the Hope Over Fear tour, those mobilised by the Radical Independence Campaign and Labour Supporters for Independence into the same room to discuss a way forward. A blockage to this kind of realignment needs to be addressed. Any new party cannot be defined by the splits in the SSP a decade ago. Many younger activists are demanding a united left alternative and see no sense in separating into competing left groups when there is a crying need for the left forces in Scotland to unite. A broad anti-capitalist and anti-austerity politics can mobilise the working class for the class battles that are on the horizon and offer a serious electoral alternative in the upcoming elections.

The SWP will be taking part in these debates at the Solidarity and RIC conference in the autumn. We will continue to build support for strikes and resistance to the next wave of austerity. The challenges ahead for the left are considerable and the stakes are high but the prize is well worth fighting for.


1: Philip, 2014.

2: Wintour, 2014.

3: Herald, 2014.

4: Grice and Wright, 2014.

5: Ashcroft, 2014.

6: Burn-Murdoch and Wisniewska, 2014.

7: Ferguson, 2014.


Ashcroft, Michael Lord, 2014, “How Scotland voted and why” (19 September),

Burn-Murdoch, John, and Aleksandra Wisniewska, 2014, “Scottish Referendum: Who Voted Which Way?” (19 September),

Ferguson, Iain, 2014, “The Limits of Scottish Nationalism”, Socialist Worker (9 September),

Grice, Andrew, and Oliver Wright, 2014, “Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the ‘English question’”, Independent (19 September),

Philip, Andy, 2014, “Henry McLeish Warns Labour are in Danger of Dying Out in Scotland unless Radical Action is Taken Now”, Daily Record (24 September),

Herald, 2014, “Salmond: I Quit as First Minister and SNP Leader”, Herald (19 September),

Wintour, Patrick, 2014, “David Cameron raises West Lothian Question after Scotland Vote: ‘English Votes for English Laws’”, Guardian (19 September),