ONE of the biggest single strategic debates amongst activists within the independence movement, before and since 2014, has been whether to campaign for independence as simply the right to national self-determination or, also and additionally, to campaign for a certain type of independence such as a radical, progressive one. This is no reason to think that this time round will be any different.

Indeed, the debate has never entirely gone away, given that the political domination of the SNP at Holyrood and amongst Scottish Westminster MPs has meant there has always been some kind of mandate for another referendum. But now this debate has been brought back with some urgency and into much sharper focus since the announcement of the intention by the SNP-dominated Scottish Government to hold a further referendum on independence for Scotland on October 19, 2023.

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The argument to simply focus on the right to national self-determination can be best characterised as one of “let’s just get independence first”. This perspective is based on the premise of not making any radical, transformative demands for or about independence. Instead, it is to concentrate almost solely upon the issue of democratic, constitutional sovereignty, and then with that new-found freedom of national sovereignty, move politics to the left with independence having been achieved. By contrast, the radical perspective is to explicitly raise radical demands as an integral part of the campaign to gain support to win independence.

The former perspective is essentially a version of “let’s not scare the horses”, which goes like this: “Let’s get independence first and then sort out these issues later on,” because of the view that building the widest possible alliance around the political and constitutional democratic demand for independence is the key task.

Here, there is the perspective that raising radical demands will scare some off from supporting independence, especially from the middle and professional classes. But it also means that criticisms of more conservative politics on the indy side are kept from being made in public. Consequently, this requires some self-restraint from radicals in the form of self-censorship.

The latter perspective is predicated on the view that in order to build support for independence amongst the biggest and most populace social class in Scotland – namely, the working-class – radical economic and social demands must be a key part of the campaign for independence. This is argued to be the case because that necessary support can only be created on the basis of the mass of working-class people knowing with some confidence that they will be economically and socially better off after independence.

There are tensions and traits common to each perspective, centred around the complex relationship between means and ends and between class and nation.

One of these issues concerns honesty and integrity. So, one pressing question is this: Is it politically honest to keep from the public what one’s true political ambitions are for Scotland after independence has been achieved? Another is: Is it politically honest to consciously not make criticisms of those that one has significant political disagreements with? Both could end up with some forming unjustified political illusions, leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths.

The National:

Another important question is: Is it correct to assume, like last time, that many voters will naturally develop their progressive political consciousness in the course of campaigning for independence so that they will move towards a more radical outlook anyway? The assumption often made by the “let’s get independence first” perspective is that a natural alignment will take place so that the radical outcome desired will take place when voters “catch up” with the progressive politicians. While this is a possibility, it is not a probability.

Quite apart from the referendum not being won because the radical arguments for better living standards are not widely made, there is also the distinct possibility that those that form the Scottish Government after independence is won are not put under any pressure to move to the left. This would be because the forces of the left had not been sufficiently built up during the campaign for independence to make that happen. Possibly even worse is that once independence is achieved, there is, in effect, a demobilisation of the forces for independence because of the view that it’s now up to the politicians in Parliament to decide what form independence should take. This would lead to even less pressure put on any post-independence Scottish government from the left.

Intriguingly, one other strand of thinking in the “let’s just get independence first” perspective is that as many people in Scotland are already predisposed to radical ideas, these will naturally assert themselves after independence has been won. Some doubt the evidence for this is sufficiently strong, while others see it as a lazy and complacent position to take.

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Running alongside these issues is another big fissure. This is the one over “nation” versus “class”. The “let’s just get independence first” perspective is one primarily based upon nation rather than class, while the radical perspective is based far more upon class rather than nation.

Here, the “let’s just get independence first” subsumes recognition of any internal significant social divisions within Scotland concerning class because of the priority given to uniting the populace as a “nation”. This nation-orientated approach is taken because this is believed to be the best way to build the widest possible alliance for independence regardless of social class. For radicals, mobilisation of the working-class, as suggested before, is seen as the best way to unite means and ends.

The argument that making too radical demands will scare off the middle class and gain support from the working class appears too simplistic. Many in the middle class are far more radically-minded than many in the working class. Often, they retain their working-class identity when in middle-class occupations. So, here, we can contrast support for red-green policies amongst many professionals with support for the monarchy and social conservatism amongst many working-class Orange Order members in the west of Scotland.

Since 2014, the tectonic plates of Scottish independence have shifted. Though we do not yet know what structural forms the independence campaign will take this time around, it looks like there will be no mass organised left-wing grassroots campaign for independence.

Out of the Radical Independence Conference in 2012 emerged the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). It was an alliance of non-aligned left-wing supporters of independence and those of various parties like Labour, the SNP, Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). It played a major role in increasing voter registration for the referendum and the vote for independence on a left-wing basis amongst the working-class, with its slogan “another Scotland is possible”. However, RIC as a national body disbanded in 2021. Nothing has emerged in its place. The main core of RIC now only has an online presence in the form of the Conter website. Part of the reason for the dissolution of RIC has also been the SSP and Greens operating more as independent political parties.

Another aspect is the benefit of hindsight. In retrospect and, despite the constant diet of diatribe against independence, former SSP MSP and Yes Scotland advisory board member Colin Fox reflects back that the left should have been more assertive of its own agenda on the board. This would have meant being less compliant with the tone and content set by Blair Jenkins, the chief executive of Yes Scotland, under the guidance of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, and giving more support to Dennis Canavan, chair of the board, to push a more left-wing course along with fellow board members, Pat Kane, Elaine C Smith and Patrick Harvie (below).

The National:

Both the “let’s just get independence first” and radical perspectives have their roots in previous historical events. One obvious example is the 1917 Russian revolution in terms of its February (democratic) and October (socialist) expressions. This same tension was later played out in many national liberation struggles in what was then called the “Third World” after the Second World War. This division between “let’s just get independence first” and radical perspectives then speaks to different views on how different stages in struggle unfold in the pursuit of social, economic and political progress, being based on contrasting combinations of class interests and political strategies.

But for Scotland, the tensions explored above also reflect a rather complicated political situation. Referendums ask blunt, simple questions, most obviously the binary Yes or No. There are no addendums attached to the referendum ballot paper saying what type of options are available for voting Yes or what are the most likely ones. It is political parties that produce political manifestos in times of elections, especially general elections. These provide a mandate for action in office for the winning party that does not exist for referendums.

The spaces between referendums and elections are the battlegrounds that the different strategies for independence will be fought out on.

Professor Gregor Gall is author of Scotland the brave? Independence and radical social change (Scottish Left Review Press, 2013) and editor of the three editions of Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism? (Scottish Left Review Press, 2007, 2013, 2016)