Jim Ritchie reviews Scotland After Britain, a new book on the Scottish independence movement. In it he finds an exceptional account of the changing class composition of the independence movement, with guidance for the radical independence activists going forward.
Foley, Wray, and Davidson, Scotland After Britain (London: Verso Books, 2022) 256pp £12.99
Scotland After Britain, a new book by James Foley, Ben Wray, and the late Neil Davidson, begins with the growth of the independence movement from 2012 – 2014. This was an exciting development, in which many working-class people took up the mantle to challenge the Westminster government by delivering a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. The result of this work was a mass movement capable of mobilising large numbers, not only for street demonstrations but also to actively argue the case for independence with their friends and work mates. Rather than abstract ideas of self-determination, the authors argue that ‘it was class politics – not old-style-nationalism -that fired the Yes campaign.’
In 2014, many political parties envisioned that campaigning would be run in the manner of ‘conventional’ politics – leafleting, and door to door canvassing with very little direct input from Scottish workers. The ‘No’ campaign could rely on the support of banks, businesses, and the help of famous faces to plead with Scotland not to leave. Dubbed ‘Project Fear’ the ‘No’ campaign set out to convince a chunk of the population that any impulse towards voting ‘Yes’ would be a disaster for Scotland. As the referendum came closer, fear did not appear to be working, so the ‘No’ parties came together to issue a pledge for more devolved powers to the Scottish Parliament.
‘No’ won by a narrow margin, with many proclaiming this the death knell of Scottish nationalism. However, things began to change in the aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016, argue the authors. With the Westminster government increasingly floundering over exiting the EU, the prospect of independence started to become more attractive to part of the ruling class, and the SNP worked to present themselves as ‘respectable’ and ‘responsible’ in government. Increasingly the independence movement has been influenced by a rising number of ‘think tanks’ and the like; leading it into a bureaucratic morass that’s reflected in groups like the Sustainable Growth Commission. Scotland After Britain argues, in short, that there has been a shift in the class composition of the independence supporters over recent years.
In 2014, ‘Yes’ support amongst Scotland’s ‘elite managers’ ranked as low as 11 per cent; by 2019 it stood at 59 percent, the group now representing the biggest enthusiasts for independence, having been its biggest pessimists.
In an interview with Jonathon Shafi, Wray and Foley, pointed out that following the Brexit referendum, the independence movement:
‘was increasingly becoming acceptable for the establishment and was embracing its role as being the increasingly “respectable” face of politics in Scotland.’
Election after election the SNP have promised that they will hold a second independence referendum but have given ‘reasons’ for the continued delay. The danger of this delay is that the wider movement will become disillusioned – losing members and energy. Scotland After Britain issues a warning that we need to rebuild the movement from the bottom up. The authors point to the difference between ‘independence from above’ and ‘independence from below’, based on Hal Draper’s analysis of socialism in the classic The Two Souls of Socialism. They argue that the independence camp is split into those who passively wait for independence to be handed down from above and those who actively campaign to win independence. Using the ideas of Andreas Malm, they apply the notion of a ‘radical flank’ – there needs to be a grassroots flank able to apply pressure to keep the mainstream leaders honest and to encourage the state to enter into negotiations with them.
Part of this review was written in transit to and from a demo at Faslane organised by All Under One Banner. It was attended by 150-200 people at a very generous estimate, with a fairly muted march to the South Gate of the base. The age demographic of the demonstrators was decidedly amongst the older part of the population (I include myself in this description). One of the SNP speakers claimed that the nuclear weapons would be turned off before an independent Scotland joined NATO.
This highlights to me the slump that the independence movement now stands in. The SNP are still supported by the Scottish working class, but there seems to be a consensus that the referendum won’t happen any time soon. Nevertheless, the authors of Scotland After Britain argue that to build independence from below, the independence movement has to form alliances and widen its scope. We currently face a cost-of-living crisis, a war in Ukraine, and the deepening climate crisis. At the same time, there is increasing industrial action from trade unions trying to fight back. The role of socialists and supporters of independence in these movements is to generalise from them, explaining the connections between them and working to build stronger alliances between the movements. To quote an old adage, unity is strength.
Scotland After Britain ends with a rousing note, despite some of the pessimism expressed in this review:
‘The radical left will eventually have to reassemble its broken wings and jump again as the alternative is unimaginably bleak.
The Indy movement may have stalled but it is not dead and may yet rise again.’
In his interview with Wray and Foley, Jonathon Shafi states that Scotland After Britain is ‘going to be an essential book for left-wing independence supporters in the coming period.” He is absolutely correct – it is a rousing cry with a clear strategy for a radical independence movement.