2016 in review: The return of the grassroots Scottish independence movement?


The UK’s vote to leave the EU, under circumstances where Scotland voted to remain within the 28 member block, has put the issue of Scottish independence “back on the table” according to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. CommonSpace looks at the re-emergence of the grassroots independence movement.

ON THE MORNING of 24 June, in the wake of the UK’s shock vote to leave the EU, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a speech in which she said a second referendum on Scottish independence was “highly likely”.

It was a little over a year and a half since the No vote in the first independence referendum and the SNP had campaigned for, and won, an historic third Scottish Government in the May 2016 elections. They had done so on a manifesto that said another referendum could take place in the event of the UK as a whole voting to leave the EU and Scotland voting to remain.

So, since the gauntlet was thrown down, has the movement for Scottish independence been reborn?

CommonSpace looks at the re-emergence of the grassroots independence movement and asks, is it enough?

Back to the streets

Small impromptu demonstrations began in the weeks following the leave victory and Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement.

A large demonstration, with over 5000 participants took place in Glasgow on 30 July with the title ‘All under one banner’.

CommonSpace teamed up with Independence Live to provide live coverage of the procession through central Glasgow. The full demo, which can be watched here, was billed by some as the rebirth of the independence movement proper.

The SNP’s listening campaign

At the SNP’s spring conference in Glasgow, just ahead of the May election, Nicola Sturgeon announced a new campaign over the summer months. Announcements about the “listening” exercise were initially short on detail.

Original plans may have been thrown out of joint by the brexit vote, and a national survey was launched in Stirling in September. The survey was launched online but was also promoted by SNP activists across the country.

Within 6 days it had been completed by 300,000 Scots. The survey reached 2 million Scots by St Andrews day 2016.

Read more: Ready for #indyref2? Scale of SNP national survey campaign revealed

Read more: SNP grassroots embrace new campaign on Scotland’s future

The radical independence conference

The radical independence campaign held its sixth national conference on 1 October.

It committed itself to campaign in a possible second independence referendum, and focused on debates including the role of the media, workplace organisation, the crisis of the British state and working with other radical social movements from around the world.

Radical Independence Conference launches with sights set on 2nd independence vote

Read more: Radical Independence Campaign to consider workplace strategy for #indyref2

Read more: Momentum activist tells #RIC2016 that “independence has a voice” in Corbyn movement

Scottish Independence Convention

The Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) was reborn in 2016, and held a party to celebrate the two year anniversary of the Scottish Independence referendum on September 18. The SIC saw speeches from figures including former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Scottish social security minister Jeane Freeman, both of whom spoke of the importance of a second independence referendum, as well as musical and comedy acts.

The question of timing

Inevitably, debate has re-emerged about the exact timing of another independence referendum (assuming one is to be had at all). This is a debate largely confined to the SNP which, after storming election victories in 2015 and 2016 and it’s laying out of the circumstance under which another referendum might occur, now appears the hegemonic institution in the independence movement.

The SNP politician to make the most direct statements about the timing of the referendum has been Alex Salmond, who has said that a second referendum should be held in roughly the next two years, during which time he has said the UK Government will likely arrive at a form of post-Brexit arrangement un-acceptable to pro-EU Scotland.

Other SNP figures, such as Joan McAlpine, have said they believe a second independence referendum is on the “back-burner”, during the Scottish Government’s diplomatic attempts to preserve Scotland’s relationship with the EU.

Has support for independence increased?

2016 was a year that eroded public confidence in the polling industry. The year saw polls and betting odds fail to predict the extent of anti-establishment sentiment from brexit in the UK to US President elect Donald Trump.

That said, it is one barometer of public opinion which has failed to register forward momentum for the independence movement.

Polls shortly after the EU vote street showed a modest surge in support for independence, putting Yes briefly ahead of No.

But the polls stabilised throughout the year. By December an aggregate of polls had support for independence slipping down close to its September 2014 level.

Received wisdom suggesting that support for independence would grow, especially among middle class No voters, may prove unfounded. Then again, apparently unchanged public opinion may reflect widespread confusion and the fact that brexit  hasn’t occurred yet.

Next stop, Scottish Independence Convention conference

After its informal 2016 launch, the Scottish Independence Convention will see a full conference event on 14 January, under the title of ‘Build’ looking at ways to reconstruct both the movement and ideas of independence.

Pictures courtesy of Ryan Smith, The National Survey, Ewan MacintoshMàrtainn MacDhòmhnaillDocumenting YesAsbjørn Floden

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