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The state of play for Scottish independence: in conversation with Jonathon Shafi

By Samuel Rafanell-Williams

How does Jonathon Shafi think the independence movement has grown and changed over time?

Even after Scotland’s rejection of independence in 2014, the promise/threat of another opportunity to test the national question has persisted through a decade of SNP dominance in the Scottish Parliament. For many, however, the prospect of an independent Scotland now feels distant. Moreover, the SNP are in their most electorally precarious position in recent times. To talk through the contemporary history of the SNP, I met with Jonathon Shafi, a socialist activist, campaigner and journalist based in Glasgow. Shafi co-founded and operated the Radical Independence Campaign during the 2014 independence referendum. He writes extensively on Scottish politics and the national question in his column for Novara Media and via his online newsletter, ‘Independence Captured’, and has recently been involved in the campaigning efforts of Stop the War and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

I started by asking Shafi whether devolution in 1997 was key in the SNP’s rise to prominence. He explained that, during the 1990s, there were internal debates as to whether the party should support devolution at all: “Some felt that this wasn’t the agenda and goal of the SNP, that devolution was a detour and could even undermine the idea of independence.” It was then-leader Alex Salmond and party figures around him who advocated for the SNP to support devolution. They argued a Scottish Parliament would allow the party to eventually form a government and press the national question in a referendum. In these respects, Mr. Shafi explained, supporters of devolution within the SNP were vindicated. 

The SNP formed a minority government at Holyrood in 2007 under Salmond, later gaining a majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. This provided the mandate for an independence referendum in 2014. Shafi recounted how support for independence rose from around 25% before the campaigning period to 45% on polling day, explaining why independence suddenly became appealing to so many Scots. He described the sense of betrayal by New Labour, felt by working-class Scots in particular: “At the same time, austerity was also bearing down on people across the UK,” Shafi explained, and “Scots were provided with an opportunity to express opposition to austerity and David Cameron’s Tories, to forge a different kind of future.” This confluence of resentment towards the UK’s mainstream parties gave independence a mass appeal extending beyond the SNP’s normal voter base. Campaigns backing independence, Shafi explained, “became a mass movement not of politicians and the politically experienced, but of people who were new to political activism.”

At the same time, this movement was opposed to powerful forces, including the British state and various international actors. “There wasn’t a popular case to be made by Westminster, but there was a case to be put in a negative way; lots of unanswered questions, lots of risks. In the end, that won out.” Nevertheless, Mr. Shafi stressed that the strength of the independence movement spooked the British and Scottish political establishments. 

Why did the SNP become so dominant in Scottish politics after 2014? According to Shafi, the sense of political voice and agency garnered through the independence movement was unlikely to evaporate quickly. SNP membership continued to rise steeply in the years following the referendum, and the general election in 2015 was the most successful in the party’s history. Shafi argued that the SNP presented themselves as an insurgent party to harness the momentum of the independence movement, and how “over the years after 2014, the approach was to maintain the rhetoric of an incoming independence referendum just around the corner as long as people kept voting for the SNP.” Shafi interprets a degree of cynicism in this strategy, explaining how independence “was a useful tool for the SNP leadership to mobilise around elections, to camouflage failings in domestic policy and sustain the activism which had gathered around the party.”

Last year saw the surprise resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, high-profile scandals involving senior SNP officials, and the UK Labour party becoming ever more likely to unseat the Conservatives in Westminster. I asked Shafi if broad support for independence was enough to keep the party afloat in such conditions after a likely election this year.

He describes how Sturgeon’s dramatic turn in political fortunes was a heavy blow to the independence movement more broadly: “She goes from being exceptionally popular across the country and across various class boundaries, to a position where there are just so many investigations and scandals, the Covid inquiry, being questioned under police caution about SNP finances, the ongoing questions about Alex Salmond and what took place around his court case.” Shafi has elsewhere argued that the SNP leadership should have quickly distanced itself from the Sturgeon era in the wake of these changing circumstances. “The opposite has happened,” he told me.

Shafi explained that support for independence in polling means very little in terms of electoral consequences: “What matters is, can this view about supporting independence be expressed in any meaningful way/ And the answer is currently no.” Serious inconsistencies in the prospectus for independence, such as being tied to Sterling whilst attempting to re-joining the EU, undermine the credibility of the SNP’s plans according to Shafi. In any case, he believes that independence has lost political salience in the face of the cost of living crisis. “The question for the SNP is have they managed to co-join notions of Scottish autonomy with an alternative economic model that could address the questions that people have on a daily basis. And the answer I think is definitively no in that regard.” 

Nevertheless, Shafi gave a measured response to the question of the upcoming general election: “I think it will be a difficult election for the SNP, but I think we shouldn’t overestimate the collapse of the SNP vote. In 2026 at the Holyrood elections, two years into what is probably going to be an unpopular and right-wing Starmer leadership, you can see how forces might be reanimated around the SNP.”

In recent months, Shafi has been increasingly involved in campaigning for the Palestinian cause. I asked him whether Israel’s assault on Gaza will be a factor in the calculations of Scottish voters in the next general election. Shafi pointed out that the electoral salience of foreign policy is commonly underestimated by political elites. In the Scottish context, he explains, stances on foreign policy “provided a core moral and intellectual scaffolding for the nationalist movement over previous decades.” Opposition to Trident was fundamental in the pro-indy campaign in 2014, and the catastrophic Iraq war seriously undermined Labour’s credibility in Scotland, contributing to the resentment towards Westminster politics that has underpinned the recent dominance of the SNP in Scotland. 

Shafi believes that the current Labour leadership’s stance on Gaza will indeed alienate some Scottish voters: “Keir Starmer cuts the figure of the quintessential Blairite, anti-left figure within the Labour party. His positioning and the broader leadership’s positioning around Gaza has, I think, reanimated all those ghosts of the Blair era – this attitude of ‘whatever Washington says goes,’ no matter the stakes, no matter the gravity of the situation in Gaza. I think this will become an election issue without any doubt. There will certainly be people who were going to vote Labour this year who no longer will.” Indeed, Shafi contends that issues of foreign policy might yet serve as an ideological foundation for a future generation of independence advocates: “That doesn’t mean it will be central in the minds of millions of Scots, but it’s going to be central in the minds of tens or hundreds of thousands of Scots. Mass movements develop from the clarity of ideas that emanate from what initially is a political minority.” However, he is sceptical that the current SNP party are capable of harnessing that discontent with Westminster politics, as they have in the past: “I’m not sure the SNP understand how to successfully navigate this kind of situation. The space in this election is to the left of the Labour party: to become the party of the movement of people who want justice for Palestine and a ceasefire in Gaza, who oppose Wes Streeting’s attempts to privatise the NHS, to tack to the left of Starmer. There’s a huge amount of space to do so. But I’m not sure the current SNP have the wherewithal to do that successfully.”


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