THE struggles for independence and against austerity will run alongside each other in Scotland for the next two years at least. But can they run in train together in order to become bigger than the sum of their parts? Or, will it be more a case of ‘never the twain shall meet’?

This is a key issue for all those looking for a permanent progressive political settlement in Scotland.

The rejection by the Supreme Court late last year of the Scottish Parliament’s right to hold a legal referendum on independence has led to the “plan B” coming to the fore.

Subject to decisions made by the SNP’s special conference on March 19, the next Westminster General Election – scheduled to take place no later than January 24, 2025 – could yet be a de facto independence referendum.

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Quite apart from the considerable challenge of gaining a majority of votes and how the presence of non-voters may be factored in, the strategy is potentially problematic because it asks voters to put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak.

Even if voters are convinced that independence is the long-term solution, they may very well have doubts about how much positive impact it can have in the short-term.

Put bluntly, a vote for independence would not make much of a difference in the here and now on issues such as the cost of living crisis and the lamentable state of our NHS and other public services.

Already, Labour under Keir Starmer (below) are seeking to lower expectations of what the growing prospect of a Labour Westminster government would be capable of and willing to deliver. That means an opportunity is opened up for campaigners in Scotland against austerity.

The National: Sir Keir Starmer

How well placed are the forces for independence to take advantage of this? Groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and Women for Independence (WFI) in the run-up to the 2014 referendum had four great virtues.

First, they were independent of the SNP. Second, they saw independence as a means to an end. Third, they defined independence as being much wider than constitutional independence. And, fourth, they were genuinely grassroots organisations with mass appeal and participation.

If we go back to those virtues, then we can begin to re-imagine how an independence movement could also be an anti-austerity movement, allied to unions and other progressive campaigning groups. Here are the salient issues at hand.

Like many other political parties, the SNP is a highly centralised and hierarchical party. This poses a particular problem given its considerable political weight among the forces for independence.

Nicola Sturgeon’s (below) reaction to the Supreme Court ruling was to seek to restyle the independence movement as a “democracy movement”. For many, this will ring pretty hollow, not just in terms of the SNP as a party but also as a party of government which operates in a very centralised and managerialist way.

The National: Nicola Sturgeon

Seeing independence as a means to an end did not mean thinking all problems could be resolved by one future “big fix”. It, therefore, necessarily meant campaigning on a range of immediate issues which were economic and social in their basic nature.

This was not only to relate the political battle for independence to the battles for economic and social independence at the sub-national level but also to help build the radical forces for independence. For example, WFI discussed what independence for women could and should mean in terms of their relationship to men, civil society and government. RIC and WFI are now barely shadows of their former selves but could re-emerge – or entirely new campaigns and organisations could launch – to replicate what was done before.

It is difficult to speak of an independence movement at the moment if by movement we mean a mass, popular and grassroots social movement independent of any one political party. Old forces need re-invigorating and revitalising alongside new ones being created. This is where the link to the forces of anti-austerity must come in.

Quite rightly, it is unions that have led the way on fighting the cost of living crisis but the sad and sobering fact is that few strikes have won quick and easy victories.

Those workers and their unions need extra support and solidarity if they are to achieve such victories, especially in a situation where Labour under Starmer are not anywhere near approaching a ready and willing ally. But the Scottish Government, although willing to negotiate, has also been hard-nosed here. Strikes have been primarily about pay and job security even if they also relate to the quality and quantity of public services. This means specific campaigns are needed to secure better funded and better provided public services, especially in health, housing and education.

Here, the UK and Holyrood governments are in the dock for what citizens in Scotland experience. This emphasises the need for the requisite campaigning organisations with mass appeal and participation.

If those SNP supporters were, as the Common Weal SNP group tried in 2020, to move the SNP to the left, the SNP might be able to sharpen the cutting edge of the campaign for independence by taking up the cudgel on the cost of living crisis and the effects of austerity in public expenditure. The March 19 conference will tell us whether this is such a fork in the road.

Professor Gregor Gall is editor of ‘A New Scotland: Building an Equal, Fair and Sustainable Society’ (Pluto Press, 2022, priced £14.99)