Today, Scotland goes to the polls.
The pandemic has wrung the country through more social upheaval and dislocation than any other time since Thatcherism, with significant chunks of the economy on ice, hundreds of thousands of people furloughed or laid off, and thousands dead. Unionist parties insist, therefore, that “now is not the time” to think about independence, and that the focus must be on “recovery”, an abstract concept never quantified in any substantial way. And yet the pandemic has seen support for independence rise to its highest ever historic levels, as the UK’s catastrophic response to the virus makes clear how brittle the British state is in responding to acute world-historical crises of the kind represented by Covid-19. Similar surges of interest are happening for Welsh independence and Irish unity at the same time. It is in this context – the interminable crisis of the British state – that, according to polls, the people of Scotland are on track to re-elect the SNP with an historically unprecedented fourth term in office, alongside a significant surge for the Greens.
The current Scottish government, and every government before it, has passed the buck on austerity and shown timidity in tackling elite interest groups such as landowners, the corporate lobby, polluters and private landlords. It has presided over widening social inequality in multiple forms. And yet, in the absence of other autonomous sources of power, our entire movement’s legitimacy rests upon said government’s re-election and electoral prospects. That this is the case is a damning indictment of the left’s failure to engage seriously with the politics of post-2014 Scotland. No matter what happens after the election, it is incumbent on those of us on the radical pro-independence left to build democratic and participatory institutions for building mass power outwith the formal constraints of official party politics. It is also up to us to play our role in organising the working class to fight for real social change, a redistribution of wealth and of power. We should be under no illusions as to how little a standalone SNP government, SNP-Green alliance or even a supposed “supermajority” can do to advance the independence cause against the British state without mass engagement and popular participation.
A discourse rooted in a deep cynicism has emerged around the election, from the established unionist media commentariat, parts of the independence movement and even the radical left. They suggest that this election, with its largely predictable outcome is just the pretext for a phony war of position between Bute House and Downing Street, with no possible scope for any kind of popular agency or intervention. Whether or not the SNP is serious about independence, the people who vote for it and give it a popular mandate most certainly are. Democratic exercises like elections, however imperfect and compromised, should have consequences.
Anti-politics is the weapon of choice for all conservative forces in Scottish public life – whether it is the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems telling the people of Scotland that their democratic aspirations must take a back seat to “getting on with the day job”, or the SNP’s insistence that the case for independence is rooted in becoming a “normal country” and “escaping Brexit chaos”. To succumb to the fatalism of believing that the outcome of the election is somehow immaterial, or that the political stakes themselves are fraudulent, is to give in to this very same anti-political worldview. Instead of passively catastrophising Scotland’s electoral sphere as a return to Boris-vs-Nicola pantomime, the pro-independence left must seize upon any parliamentary mandate for an independence referendum as an opportunity to agitate for true popular sovereignty and set about the urgent work needed to build it.