Editorial from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
The turmoil of the Brexit process has exacerbated the fissures within the UK, which threaten to tear it apart. The Scottish National Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, seized on the fact that the majority of Scottish voters opted to remain in the EU, and is demanding a second Independence referendum. The border between the North of Ireland and the Irish Republic which appeared to be invisible since the Good Friday agreement became a stumbling block in the Brexit negotiations. Sinn Fein wasted no time in pressing for a border poll which they hope will lead to the reunification of Ireland.
The spectre of Scottish independence is nothing new. Scottish workers were badly affected by the economic downturns of the 1970s and 1980s which hit the traditional industries (shipbuilding, coal, steel) particularly hard. Many workers were also dissatisfied with Labour governments. North Sea oil seemed to promise higher living standards. In these circumstances the SNP was able to position itself as the workers’ party. With the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the then Labour government thought they had seen off the nationalist threat. However, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many workers turned away from the mainstream capitalist parties. In Scotland, this helped the SNP to secure a majority in the 2011 elections for the Scottish Parliament and a landslide in the 2015 General Election.
The Irish border has been in contention since 1921. However, with the repression of the Civil Rights movement in the North of Ireland in the late 1960s, Irish republicanism experienced an upsurge of support. In the 1980s Sinn Féin was able to capitalise on the outrage that the British government’s response to the hunger strikes elicited in Catholic working-class areas. It also managed to gain a foothold by providing welfare services to Catholic workers. With the peace process and the IRA laying down its weapons, Sinn Féin was able to reinvent itself as a workers’ party.
In last December’s general election, the SNP increased its seats in Scotland, whereas the pro-Brexit Conservative Party prevailed in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, for the first time, Nationalists won more seats than Unionists. Sinn Féin has made a significant breakthrough in last month’s general election in the Irish Republic.
It must be noted that the electoral successes of the SNP and Sinn Féin do not always reflect support for their respective aims of an independent Scotland and a united Ireland, but more often a deep dissatisfaction with the political status quo. Nevertheless, these parties will use their increased leverage to push for their aims.
Do the working class have any interest in whether or not the United Kingdom remains intact? Or should they, as the Left urges them to, support an independent Scotland and a united Ireland? We say no on both accounts as, wherever the boundaries are drawn, workers will still be subject to the vagaries of the global market system and will continue to experience problems such as unemployment and low wages. Workers will need to organise for a socialist society which will abolish borders rather than rearrange them.