The Scottish independence referendum produced the expected majority for NO, by a margin of 10% – 55% to 45% for YES. However, some of the patterns of the vote were surprising to many.
Areas that have been the core of support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) such as Aberdeenshire, Perth and Kinross and even Banff and Buchan, where Alex Salmond has represented a seat for most of his career, voted No – in some cases by more than 60%. Clearly in its core areas, which are largely rural, the SNP did not even carry its own voters. Polls reported that across Scotland around 20% of those who voted for the SNP in the 2011 Holyrood election voted No.
In contrast, the victories for the Yes vote were in the traditional bastions of the working class: Dundee (57.4% Yes), West Dunbartonshire (54%)– centred around the old shipbuilding and engineering town of Clydebank (54.0%), Glasgow (53.5%) and North Lanarkshire – with the former coal, steel and engineering towns of Motherwell, Airdrie and Coatbridge – (51.1%).
The first question arising from this is why did the SNP fail to gain support in its traditional areas while traditional working class areas – the base for the Labour Party, the Communist Party of Britain and numerous organisations arising from Trotskyist groups – including the Scottish Socialist Party – were the base for the vote for independence and Scottish nationalism?
In answer to this first issue it is clear both from our own experience in workplaces and the polling done during and after the referendum that the working class was split. Three sections tended to support a Yes vote. That section which had already convinced itself of Scottish nationalism – many of whom are in and around the SNP – was the smallest of the three. The second section was the organised left and those around them and, more widely, those workers who view themselves as on the left. In some workplaces, particularly in the public sector in the main cities, makes up an influential group. Under the influence of the majority of the organised left groups this layer of workers has been moving towards Scottish nationalism and went over to complete and enthusiastic support during the referendum campaign. The third and largest section of the working class to give majority support to a Yes vote was the insecure, marginalised and/or unemployed who have seen their living standards – and their faith in most forms of politics – steadily ground down or near destroyed since the destruction of much of large scale industry in the 1980s and 1990s. It was the votes of this final group that were decisive in delivering the four major council areas for a Yes vote.
The Yes vote in working-class areas was essentially an alliance between those who had decided for their own political reasons to support a Scottish nationalist project. A large section of the working class sees itself as having little or nothing to lose and voted Yes to put up two fingers to the Government and the system combined with a hope for a halt to the oppression of austerity.
There was another section of society in Scotland which publicly backed a Yes vote, probably to a greater degree than any other – artists and cultural workers. This group is heavily dependent on Scottish government funding and patronage and alongside the activity for the Yes campaign there was an intense and vitriolic campaign within the community against those artists brave enough to publicly support the No side which will have silenced many others.
Polls make it clear that more men than women voted Yes while in age terms the largest Yes vote was by the 25-39 age group at over 55% while the older the voters the more likely they were to vote No. the youngest age group those 24 and below were also more likely to vote No, however, there do not appear to be an adequate sample of 16-17 years to determine how this group voted.
The SNP made it absolutely clear that if the Yes campaign had succeeded then the economic policies of austerity and support for imperialist wars would have been continued uninterrupted. SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond made clear in his speeches and visits to the US during the campaign that his servility towards the US Government was at least the equal of Cameron’s or Miliband’s. The SNP Scottish government’s White Paper on Independence (‘Scotland’s Future’), its manifesto for a Yes vote, is clearly based on austerity economics.
While the White Paper waffles on about growth and better prospects for workers in an independent Scotland two things expose these promises as window dressing and lies. The first is its commitment to maintain UK Sterling as the currency of an independent Scotland in a currency union with the remainder of the UK. This would mean that an “independent” Scotland would have to adhere to the economic requirements of the Bank of England, that is, austerity economics and attacks on working class living standards. The second point is the pledge to cut corporation tax, revealing the true nature of the SNP’s pro-business agenda. It would entail a race to the bottom for tax rates on capital and for workers’ living standards in Europe.
Many of the left groups which supported nationalism and a Yes vote tried to disguise the unpalatable policies that the SNP was preparing to implement by claiming that a Yes vote did not mean support for the SNP and that a move to independence would not necessarily mean an SNP government. Clearly this was whistling in the dark as there was no other political organisation capable of forming a government if the Yes campaign had succeeded. The SSP at least put forward an alternative economic strategy for a capitalist independent Scotland in its pamphlet “The Case for an Independent Socialist Scotland”, calling for a new currency controlled by the new Scottish state and the nationalisation of parts of the economy. The problem with this proposal is that it is essentially an effort to (re)create some kind of imagined social democratic utopia in a very small state. Any currency issued by such a state would be unlikely to find favour or much of a price among the sharks of finance capital. There is nothing about overthrowing the power of the capitalist class and its state machine in the pamphlet.
The lack of any serious economic programme for the proposed independent Scotland was compounded by the nervousness of finance capital. In the wake of the near collapse in 2008, banks and other major finance enterprises are now rightly considered essentially as deferred liabilities on the balance sheets of whichever state they are legally based in. The major finance institutions legally based in Scotland such as RBS, Lloyds Bank and Standard Life are each many times the size of the Scottish economy and therefore made clear their intention to move their legal domiciles to London in the event of a Yes vote. It was unsurprising that the large sections of the working class voted to reject this economic blackmail by the bankers.
The key to bringing a significant section of the working class to the point of supporting Scottish nationalism was the activities of the organised left groups. The left in Scotland, particularly the groups originating in the Trotskyist movement, but also sections of the CP and even parts of anarchism (which has a history of political activity in Glasgow over many decades) have been subsiding into Scottish nationalism over the past twenty years or more. This trajectory is essentially a product of despair following successive defeats of the working class and the destruction of large sections of the organised working class. In essence it amounts to a switch from socialist and revolutionary politics, which hold that the working class is the sole agency for the liberation of humanity, to nationalism, which effectively is a movement in support of the local (‘national’) capitalist class.
This political collapse can now be seen on any of the actions or demonstrations this nationalist left is taking part in by the switch of symbols from the red flag of socialism to the nationalist saltire. Even, on occasion, the lion rampant (flag of the Scottish monarchy) can be seen. This alliance of groups operated in both the official Yes campaign (the SSP were part of the Yes Scotland Advisory Board) and in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), which was set up by the International Socialist Group, a split from the Socialist Workers Party. The nationalist left was able to reach far further into the working class than the SNP and made all kinds of promises, many of them absurd, in order to move sections of the working class to support Scottish independence as a possible escape from austerity. It was this activity by the nationalist left that was a critical factor.
In the wake of the referendum it is clear that the nationalist left has benefited little, if at all, from its efforts to support the nationalists. Only the SSP has claimed any substantial gains in membership and it remains unclear if these are of active or paper members as no new activists have been evident yet. Rather it is the nationalists themselves who have gained, with claims of large scale recruiting. Even former left activists, including a whole series of former leading members of the SSP, have joined the SNP. Other organisations like the Socialist Party have been driven to issuing appeals to the SNP to actually fight against austerity (vanishingly slim chance). The Scottish Labour Party has been driven into crisis with its leader resigning after watching some of its core areas vote for independence. At root this is due to the fact that the Labour Party is incapable of either campaigning for, or delivering on, the interests of the working class it claims to represent. Instead, it is an administrator of austerity. If it can crawl into government in the 2015 general election, then its base and organisation will be further smashed up as it delivers the attacks on living standards it has already promised.
It is important to note that Scottish nationalism is not driven by national oppression (unlike Ireland), but instead is motivated by the decay of capitalism. Essentially the destruction and disintegration of the economy is driving the potential disintegration of the British state in the absence of the socialist left being able to put forward an alternative to capitalism.