English people must fight for Scotland’s democratic rights – or sacrifice their own
If we let Boris Johnson ignore the mandate for a second referendum, he’ll come for our civil liberties next
Barely anyone on the English Left seems to have grasped the gravity of the situation emerging from the May 2021 elections. As the Labour Party contemplates its bleak results, all eyes are now on the precarity and inadequacy of the party’s leadership. A year ago, the party’s incoming leader, Keir Starmer, promised to continue Jeremy Corbyn’s radical domestic agenda, marrying it with competence, electoral success and a nod to Labour’s overwhelmingly pro-European base. The reality has been rightward drift, silence on Brexit, and electoral disaster followed by a series of shambolic maneuvers in which Starmer accidentally started a party civil war by sacking his deputy Angela Rayner from her role as party chair, before later claiming to have promoted her.
The really historically significant thing about these elections, however, was not the fact that Boris Johnson got to pose in front of a giant inflatable version of himself on Hartlepool’s seafront, or Labour’s increasingly fraught and incoherent internal debate about the Red Wall, but the result in Scotland. Falling just one seat short of an overall majority, Nicola Sturgeon is now at the head of a strengthened pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, with the SNP and Greens holding 72 out of 129 seats between them. This means that we are about to enter a period of sharp contestation between the Scottish and UK governments over Holyrood’s right to hold a referendum. There is much to be said about what this means for Scotland, but this will be a crucial test for progressives in England, too.
For five years, when Corbyn led Labour, the English Left threw everything into an electoral project to the exclusion of almost anything else. It is now in a period of existential crisis, unable to break with its addiction to parliamentary leadership and trapped in a relentless focus on high politics, polling figures and D-list celebrity drama with a diminishing sense of power and agency. Its instinct will be to regard the battle between Sturgeon and Johnson – as it gets drawn out through negotiations and the courts – as a sideshow, and it will be disinclined to mobilise around it. There is even a possibility that the Labour Party at Westminster could continue to oppose a referendum in spite of the 2021 election result. Both of these prospects should be cause for alarm.
Growing up in Edinburgh in the 2000s as the SNP was first on the rise, I would always cringe when Scotland – which joined the union willingly, was never colonised by England and enjoyed the spoils of the British Empire – was touted by less subtle backers of independence as an oppressed nation, comparable to Ireland. But questions of national oppression become live when nations are denied their right to self-determination, and that is precisely what the Conservative government now intends to do to Scotland. Few outsiders would have spoken of Catalonia as an oppressed nation prior to 2017, but that changed when Madrid sent in the army to crush Catalonia’s independence referendum in October of that year and then threw members of its democratically elected government in jail. The British state prides itself on its status as a stable, tolerant democracy, but lurking within the framework of all multinational states – especially those with such a dominant central nation – there is a capacity for oppression against even the most prosperous, well-established periphery.
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Questions of national oppression become live when nations are denied their right to self-determination
Sturgeon is emphatic that she will not press ahead with a Catalonian-style non-binding vote, and even if she did, Westminster’s suppression of Scotland would no doubt look much subtler than scenes in Barcelona in 2017. But that is not the point – and the importance of the ‘Scottish question’ goes much further than an abstract principle of self-determination, however important that principle may be. Denying Scotland a referendum is the next stage of a broader anti-democratic agenda, which incorporates, among other things, the UK government’s attacks on the right to protest contained within the Policing Bill, proposals to require ID cards to vote, and a McCarthyite campaign against ‘wokeness’. Underpinning this agenda is a voting system that specialises in handing the Conservatives a parliamentary majority with a minority of the popular vote, which they are now seeking to extend to the few mayoral contests that currently use an alternative vote system.
The battle between basic democratic rights and the conservative and unionist tradition has raged throughout Britain’s modern existence, but it is now reaching a new crescendo, inflected with a resurgent right-wing nationalism that claims to speak for the whole of Britain while openly traducing, and frequently suppressing, large parts of it. Our political class loves this country, but only as an old, white, nostalgic idyll – and an increasingly English one. Just as it once was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the labour movement was a genuine threat to the status quo, the only way that large parts of the UK – whole nations, whole cities, whole communities, whole generations – can be brought into line with the Tories’ agenda (or simply contained) is with a campaign of authoritarianism and gerrymandering.
The job of the Left is to connect these dots – and to understand that the dispute over Scotland’s right to hold a referendum is really about the rights of all of us. The unspoken contradiction at the heart of the emerging constitutional crisis is that the Scottish government simultaneously calls Boris Johnson a cheating illiberal populist and, formally speaking, fully expects him to respect the result of the Holyrood elections. The reality will obviously be messier – and it is in that mess that mass movements and ordinary people on both sides of the border have agency to push, pressure and cajole. When the Left mobilises against the Policing Bill, and in the fights that are to come over the post-COVID settlement, Scotland’s right to self-determination must be on its banners.
For now, we have time: there will be no call for a referendum from Holyrood until after the pandemic is over. But in a sense the moment is already upon us. The people of Scotland have voted for another independence referendum to take place, and with a Tory government hell-bent on stopping them, the battle lines seem already drawn. There is, of course, a perfectly good left-wing case against independence. The Labour Party has every right to make it and to make the case for “a more cooperative union”, as former UK prime minister Gordon Brown has done in the wake of the election results (however bafflingly vague that aspiration may seem). But when Boris Johnson tries to block a second independence referendum, there is no question which side progressives must be on.
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