Scottish Independence – why socialists should call for a No vote in the coming referendum

Scotland will be holding a referendum to decide its constitutional relationship to Britain in September 2014. It is now decided that the referendum will be a straight Yes/No vote on independence, and there will no option of further devolution at this stage.

Given the referendum, it is important that socialists adopt a clear position on how to vote. This article argues that Scottish independence is not currently in the interests of the working class and therefore socialists should call for a No vote in the forthcoming referendum.

Framework for assessing the Scottish national question

The question is whether socialists support the secession of a particular nation – the Scottish nation – to form new Scottish state.

It is taken for granted that Scotland is a nation in its own right, with the right to self-determination. It has its own institutions, system of law, culture, and history. By self-determination, we mean political self-determination: i.e. the ability to form its own state.

However, while socialists should recognise the right of nations to self-determination, i.e. the right of nations to choose themselves whether they wish to form their own separate state, this does not mean socialists are in favour of the formation of every particular state.

As Lenin said: ‘While recognising equality and equal rights to a national state, [the proletariat] values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle.’

The question to be posed therefore in order to assess whether to favour secession is: would it advance the struggle of the working class as a whole, or not?

The referendum question has now been decided, following the deal between the SNP and the Westminster Government, and is: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’

While ‘devo-max’ and ‘devo-plus’ options are still being discussed – as it is expected the ‘No’ campaign alliance of Conservatives, Labour, and Liberals may adopt a position of further powers as an alternative to independence – at present the only issue on the table is ‘independence’.

Independence means the formation of a distinct national state. However, in this context, it means the independence being offered by the SNP – retaining NATO membership, sharing defence and with England and Wales, retaining the pound and the monarchy. It is this that has to be assessed, as what is really on offer, despite wishful thinking by some of the Scottish left.

The first issue is to assess its impact on the international class struggle. Given the SNP’s concession on NATO membership is likely to lead to conceding on retention of nuclear weapons, even the small possibility of a slight weakening of British and European imperialism from Scottish independence no longer exists.

This article will therefore focus on the concrete situation in Britain and Scotland in order to determine what outcome would be most advantageous for the working class struggle in those countries.

It will look at the historic relationship between England and Scotland, elements of the current political situation in Scotland, the economic situation, and alignment of class forces on the question to assess the advantages and disadvantages to the working class as a whole of Scottish independence.

Historic relationship between Scotland and Britain

Scotland, unlike Ireland, is not an oppressed nation. The 1707 Act of the Union between Scotland and England was a pact between the two ruling classes of Scotland and England, although England played the key role setting the terms as the dominant economic power.

At the time the Scottish ruling class were almost bankrupt from a failed attempt to colonise Panama that had lost them a quarter of all the money circulating in Scotland, combined with England restricting Scottish exports to their colonies. In exchange for trading privileges in the English colonies, plus significant personal bailouts of the Scottish ruling class (mainly landed-parliamentarians), they agreed to a union of the Parliaments and Nations.

This was clearly a case of two imperialisms coming together with Scotland as the junior partner, unlike Ireland, which was militarily conquered. A present day analogy could be the relationship between the United States and Britain, with Britain in the junior role. The Scottish ruling class were rewarded with key positions as rulers in Britain’s growing overseas empire, and played a central role in the colonisation and subjugation of other peoples.

The demand for Scottish independence from parts of the Scottish bourgeoisie is therefore not part of a struggle against English oppression of the Scottish nation. This is important to understand, as if it were the case that it was fighting the oppression of an aggressor nation, then such a liberation struggle, even involving the national bourgeoisie, could create better circumstances for the class struggle.

Lenin wrote that conditional support can be offered to the bourgeoisie of a nation insofar as it is fighting against oppression. However, this is neither the historical tradition of the Scottish bourgeoisie nor its role today.

On the other hand, simply aligning with the bourgeoisie to fight for its own national privileges is detrimental to the class struggle, because it divides the working class as a whole.

Today, Scotland has no key features of an oppressed nation. The population is not denied political rights. It is the third richest region in Britain with an average GPD (per capita) of £20,000, although it contains very deprived areas within this. The Scottish working class is suffering from austerity as part of the British working class, not because of any exceptional treatment. Unemployment is slightly higher than in England because of the greater proportion of the population employed in the public sector, but less than the north of England.

Its significant finance sector, based in Edinburgh, plays a junior role to the City of London and its major companies e.g. Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS), Scottish and Southern Energy, are fully integrated into a British economic set-up.

Current political situation

The circumstances of the working class in Scotland therefore largely flow from the political situation in Britain as a whole, not any particular oppression of the Scottish people.

The attacks on living standards of the people of Scotland are part of the attacks being inflicted on all of Britain by the ruling class in an attempt to restore profitability. Likewise, there is no significantly greater level of resistance to these attacks in Scotland that, if set apart from England, would mean the working class there would make significant gains. The question posed in Scotland, as in England, is not of the immediate overthrow of capitalism but resistance to austerity and capitalist reaction and the fight for left reforms.

However, the framework in Scotland is slightly to the left of England in that the historic decline of the Conservative vote is more advanced in Scotland. In October 2012, support for the Conservatives in Scotland stood at 13 per cent as opposed to 26 per cent in Britain as a whole. This is an historic low, down from 16.6 per cent in 2007, 17.5 per cent in 1997, and 24 per cent in 1987.

Since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the SNP have risen significantly to become the majority party; from 28 per cent of the vote in the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections, to 53 per cent in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.

The SNP are a liberal bourgeois party, orientated towards the EU, however in the most recent Scottish elections tactically positioned themselves to the left of Labour as defending the interests of Scotland against the Tories, with high profile signature policies such as free prescriptions and care for the elderly.

Its vote increase came from a Labour decline of 7 per cent – precipitated by the fact that the Labour Party positioned itself as anti-SNP rather than anti-Tory or austerity – and from a collapse of the Lib Dem vote following the formation of the coalition government.

Since its peak in December 2011, support for the SNP has declined from over 50 per cent in December 2011 to 40 per cent in October 2012. This support has transferred to Labour, which has risen in the same period from 26 per cent to 35 per cent – meaning there is now a gap of just 5 per cent between the SNP and Labour.

This shift has coincided with the SNP focusing the political debate on the question of Scottish independence, rather than issues that are directly affecting people’s living standards. Over the same period there has also been a drop in support for independence.

The increase in Labour’s share of the vote in Scotland takes place against a backdrop of rising support for Labour across Britain as a whole. Neither the SNP nor Labour are opposing austerity, but despite this have remained the most popular parties.

Moreover, as in England, there have been no major developments to the left of Labour in Scotland since the split of the Scottish Socialist Party in 2003. The largest force outside Labour and the SNP is the Scottish Green Party, which is explicitly anti-cuts and anti-NATO, with two MSPs and 4.4 per cent of the vote in 2011 – but this is down from its seven MSPs in 2003. The combined vote of Socialist Labour, SSP, and Respect in 2011 was 1.62 per cent.

Nor is there any greater level of struggle against austerity beyond the political parties in Scotland than in England and Wales. The Scottish Trade Union Congress has acted with the TUC – supporting the two one day demonstrations and the pension strike day.

The political situation suggests that there would be no automatic advantage to the working class if Scotland became independent, as there is no reason to suggest that the level of struggle is being held back by the constitutional relationship to Britain.

Within Scotland there is no mass support for anti-austerity parties or a higher level of working class resistance. Despite this, an independent Scotland would likely be a weaker nation-state than Britain which could in theory improve the conditions for working class struggle, should any develop.

However, this potential future advantage needs to be weighed against the weakening of the class struggle in the rest of Britain, which would be smaller and divided, and the impact on the government of England and Wales. Without Scottish votes, there would be likely no Labour majority for around 20 years, following the current trajectory of the decline in Conservative support.

It is also possible that the Scottish working class would be materially worse off. The Barnet formula is used to redistribute wealth from England, which is richer per capita, to Scotland.

In order to maintain its rate of profit it is likely that the Scottish bourgeoisie will try to increase the rate of exploitation of the working class. The SNP advocates a halving of corporation tax as the main mechanism to drive growth and attract investment – further removing resources for the social wage of the Scottish working class.

Of course, for the British bourgeoisie as a whole, the break-up of the British state could be a negative factor as it would deprive them of resources including a tenth of the population, a fifth of territory, and a ‘to be negotiated’ share of North Sea Oil. However, Scottish independence should not be supported on the basis of there being negative factors for the capitalist class, but rather would require a specific advantage to the working class.

Overall, it appears there are definite disadvantages to the working class as a whole without any certain advantages to the working class in Scotland.

Class forces in favour and against independence

The bourgeoisie is split, but mainly against independence. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrat parties are against independence. The Scottish CBI, while formally not against independence as they ‘recognise the right of the Scottish people to decide’ have suggested that independence would be bad for business, and potentially cost jobs. SSE, Scotland’s second biggest company is against, as is the majority of the press, outside of the Murdoch press and Scottish owned media, which are on the fence.

The Labour Party is also against Scottish independence, joining the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat parties in the ‘Better Together’ campaign for the Union with Alasdair Darling as the chair of the campaign.

On the left, George Galloway is the most significant figure against.

The SNP and the Green are the main forces supporting independence. There is a section of the bourgeoisie allied to the SNP in favour of independence, including its main financial backer, Brian Souter of Stagecoach, and influential figures including the former head of RBS in Scotland, the former head of the BBC in Scotland, and the President of the retailer Iceland.

While the SNP now supports an independent Scotland remaining a member of NATO, the Greens do not. The Greens support independence on the basis that it would mean more powers to tackle climate change and develop renewable energy for Scotland.

Sections of the Scottish left, including the Scottish Socialist Party, support independence. But it is not clear that the working class overall supports independence. The STUC supports more powers for Scotland, but is demanding more detail of what independence would mean on key questions for social justice, taxation, and the economy, before taking a position. More detail on these questions is due to be set out in an Independence White Paper in advance of the referendum.

Support amongst the public for independence has fallen from a high of 43 per cent in January 2011 to 30 per cent in October 2012. 58 per cent of Scots now say they would vote ‘No’ in the referendum, and 12 per cent are undecided.

However, it is the case that support for independence remains highest – though still not a majority – among those in Scotland’s most deprived areas (43 per cent). While conversely, those living in Scotland’s more affluent areas (23 per cent) are the least likely to vote ‘Yes’, as are those aged 18-24 (27 per cent) and 55 plus (27 per cent).

There are no recent polls on ‘devo-max’, but in January 2011 there was 58 per cent for ‘devo-max’ and 42 per cent against.

There is currently no movement of the working class in favour of independence, but a split in the bourgeoisie for and against.


Scottish independence would not be advantageous to the working class as a whole at this time.

There is no greater working class struggle in Scotland than in England, nor is such a struggle being held back by the British state and would therefore be boosted by independence.

There is no particular oppression of the Scottish people that needs to be specifically fought aside from that faced by the working class in Britain as a whole.

These two facts, together with the absence of any working class movement for independence, show that independence would not bring any automatic step forward for the Scottish working class.

Instead it would most likely lead to a greater rate of exploitation of the working class as the Scottish bourgeoisie, with the Scottish Parliament under SNP or Scottish Labour rule, try to maintain the rate of profit with less resources.

In addition there are clear disadvantages to the British working class as it divides it in the struggle against austerity and against the ruling class as a whole.

The small potential for an improvement in the conditions of any class struggle in Scotland from the working class facing a weaker state does not counteract these factors in circumstances where there is no evidence that such a struggle would be forthcoming.

The proposition that Scotland should be an independent country should not be supported in the forthcoming referendum – that is, socialists should call for a ‘No’ vote. However, as and when more details on further devolution options are set out, socialists should assess these options from the same perspective of the workers’ class struggle.