Mon Dec 11, 2023
December 11, 2023

Independence referendum in Scotland: A vote against austerity

When David Cameron, the UK prime minister, signed the “Edinburgh agreement” on 15 October 2012 to allow a referendum on Scotland’s independence at the request of Alex Salmond,  leader of the SNP and Scotland’s  prime minister, he couldn’t imagine that the comfortable advantage of two thirds of Scotland’s 4 million voters against the independence could turn into a nightmare for him.

In middle July, only 2 months from the referendum the Yes voters were still stagnant at 41% (after stripping out the undecided). But things began to change less than a month from the referendum day. In the last Sunday (14/09) of the referendum campaign some of the polls indicated a victory for the independence side, while others showed a No vote lead of only 4 per cent.

The unpredictable result was enough for the big business and their representatives to start a wave of attacks and threats against a possible independent Scotland. The first to make threats were David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

Cameron said he wouldn’t allow the use of the Sterling as currency and Miliband stated that “if you do not want borders, vote to stay in the UK”, adding that he would settle border guards and passport control.

Even Nigel Farage, showing the reactionary character of the UK he defends, appealed to the Queen and said it “might be handy” if she defended the union.

The threats of the big business

The representatives of the finance capital, as the IMF, joined the menace campaign. They said the victory of independence could provoke turmoil in financial markets, while the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and the Lloyds Banking Group have threatened to move their headquarters to another country if the Yes vote won.

Even big supermarket chains – many of them attached to banks – joined the chorus of the No side saying they would be forced to increase the prices of products in their shops because of independence.

On the eve of the referendum Westminster started a “blitzkrieg” campaign promising to do what it didn’t want to: extensive new powers toHolyrood, which could include control of all taxation and the welfare system in Scotland. The Labour Party, represented by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was at the forefront of this campaign.

The rise of the Yes campaign

After all, Scotland said no to independence with a historic turnout of 84% by a narrow margin of 383,937 votes. The “Yes” campaign mobilized thousands of people contrasting to the disinterest of a year before. What changed if Salmond didn’t?

Salmond never defended a real independence. He wanted to keep the currency and the Queen, continue as a NATO member and in the EU. As a representative of the Scottish national middle and petty bourgeoisie (the big bourgeoisie is part of the British financial capital) the SNP looked for “independence” from the decaying British Empire, which no longer serves as before, just to fall into de arms of Germany.

But it could drag behind it the most exploited sectors of the working class and the youth, in Glasgow, which voted yes by 53% to 47%, North Lanarkshire, Inverclyde andDundee. Salmond pledged a fairer wealth share, quality and state public services, more jobs, no tuitions, end of the Trident nuclear base, and they believed the independence could make them be true. There were two campaigns in the Yes side: the coward bourgeoisie campaign that didn’t want a real split with the “Empire” and the working class campaign, which turned it into an anti-austerity fight.

Are the No voters non-working class?

The Union would not be maintained if all the working class had voted for the independence. It was not a “class against class” vote. The most probable is that the upper layer of the working class voted No because they haven’t broke with the Labour Party, and probably for fear of the future, as the 65+ years old. 73% of them backed the status quo for fear of losing their pensions. And 57% of all ages voted No because they wanted to keep the Sterling. Cameron knew what he was doing when he said the UK wouldn’t allow an independent Scotland to maintain their currency.

But it was not a “national question” vote either. Only 27% of the No voters considered the strong attachment to the UK and its history, tradition and culture an important reason to say no. Among the Yes voters only 20% said the future would be brighter in an independent country. So, what was the main element that drove the votes? 

A vote against austerity and for changes

The votes were related, on both sides, with the current economic crisis and the austerity police imposed by the Tory government and sided by the Labour. On the side of the No backers this has less influence, because they are the sectors who have higher wages, stable jobs and are less affected by the benefit cuts. But even among them an important part was concerned with a possible worsening of the economic situation if the independence won. The pensioners, as already said, but also people worried about tax and public spending, jobs, prices and, mainly NHS.

On the Yes side the main concerns were the austerity policy in general, expressed by their hatred of Westminster politics, and the NHS, but also jobs and tax and public spending.

The working-class votes expressed the fight against austerity and their hope for changes, each side with different motivations and reasoning. The No voters are mainly Labour voters, members of Trade Unions, who followed their leaders’ orientation believing (erroneously) that all the UK working class would be better off after a Labour victory in the 2015 general elections. So, keeping united and voting for Labour would be, for them, the best option.

The workers who opted for the independence were more radical, due to their material condition. They had lost all hope in the major parties (Tory, Labour, Liberals, Ukip) that are destroying the welfare state, cutting their benefits, sending them to food banks, expelling their children from schools. For them, the UK is not a solution any more, so, their option was to vote for an independent Scotland and, for a grand part of them, vote for SNP in the future.

A new political scenario in Scotland and UK

Despite losing the referendum, there was a remarkable surge in support for the political parties and movements that campaigned for the independence, mainly the Scottish National Party. Its membership has tripled from 25,000 to 75,000. The Scottish Green party’s membership has jumped to more than 6,000 and the Scottish Socialist party has 2,500 new members.

About 1,000 delegates are expected to attend a Women for Independence meeting and as many as 8,000 people are expected at a national conference in November for the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC).

The big loser is the Scottish Labour Party. 37% of their members disobeyed the chiefs’ orders and joined the independence campaign. Many of them were sickened at watching their party acting as errand boy of the Conservative party and the big business during the referendum campaign.

The aftermath is very contradictory. On one side, the fall of the Labour party in Scotland is very progressive; they (and their trade unions’ leadership) are the main responsible for keeping the working class quiet since the beginning of the world economic crisis in 2008. On the other side, SNP is equally a bourgeois party, neither less pro-imperialist nor less exploiter.

In the past three years SNP administration cut 55,000 public service jobs, they MPs voted against a living wage, advocated a reduction on corporation tax as a priority for businesses, while zero hour contracts are imposed on workers and the minimum wage for young people is held at £2.30 an hour.

So, as far as so many workers are joining the SNP and depositing their hopes in it, a new obstacle in the path of the working class to conquer its independence as a class, not as a nation, is created.

Many in the left are incurring in the error of substituting the national question for the class struggle and are trying to deepen the fight for independence, as the Women for Independence or the RIC are doing.

But, as we tried to show, the referendum was between those who projected the ideal of a social democratic country onto an independent Scotland and those who feared the economic consequences of the change. This is a question of class struggle rather than just national question.   

Unite the working class against capital

The class struggle the working class can’t be divided between those who support or don’t support the independence. 70% of the Yes voters said the most important reason for their option was that all decisions about Scotland should be made in Scotland. This is a progressive feeling of self-determination, but must now be “dressed” with a working-class character. The working class must now fight for their self-determination as a class, either the Yes voters or the No ones.

They need to fight the finance capital and their parties – Tory, Liberals and UKIP; and their “aide-de-camp”, the betrayers from the Labour Party and the TUC bureaucracy (including the national trade unions leadership). But also the SNP and the Scottish bourgeoisie, the Scottish Green Party and other bourgeoisie variants.

For this, the fight for independence can’t be a divide line either in Scotland or in the UK. There is a common fight of the English, Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish working classes: the fight against austerity, against the European Union imperialism and the British imperialism, and against their master, the American imperialism. And a common fight against the national bourgeoisies from all these nations, that can’t be separated from the fight against imperialism. In this struggle, the social allies of the British working class are the European workers, in the common fight against the EU.

This unity must point to a strategic task, the struggle for a Confederation of British Socialist Republics, associated with the fight against the EU and for a Europe of the workers and peoples.

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