Allan Armstrong writes a review of Pete Cannell’s Scotland after Sturgeon



Anyone reading Pete Cannell’s Scotland after Sturgeon will acknowledge his fair-minded approach to Nicola Sturgeon.  In terms of mainstream politics, Sturgeon, whilst leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister, was “easily the most popular politician in the UK”.  Pete is also right to emphasise how Sturgeon used this position “to ride above the tensions between the aspirations of the party’s base, the consequences of centralising, pro-business policies and the limitations a constitutional approach to independence in the face of a hard-line unionist Westminster government.”

But Pete’s article is based on a key aspect of the rs21’s politics dating from its members’ prior membership of the SWP.  Those from the SWP tradition are keen to promote economic, social and more recently environmental issues, but they are ambiguous about political issues, especially state constitutions.  They tend to see these as the concern of the ‘chattering classes.’  But anyone looking at the history of Ireland or Northern Ireland, or the 2012-14 ‘IndyRef1’ campaign can see the weakness of such thinking.  Constitutional issues can mobilise large numbers.

However, whenever the idea of ‘constitution’ is raised in Pete’s article it is in a negative sense, e.g. “the limitations of a constitutional approach”, “a less constitutional approach.”  This does recognise that the SNP, like any constitutional nationalist party (e.g. the SDLP, post-Good Friday Agreement Sinn Fein, and Plaid Cymru), seeks to win independence using the existing UK constitution.  However, Pete makes no mention of the constitution which independence supporters, be they SNP, Scottish Greens, Alba and Socialists, actually confront.  The UK constitution is based on the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster, backed by a whole host of anti-democratic Crown powers.  It is a unionist and imperialist constitution and the two have always been closely connected.

The SNP’s 2012-14 ‘Indy-Lite’, White Paper proposals offered no real challenge to this UK constitution.  If a ‘Yes’ vote had been won, the SNP government would not have seen this as the assertion of the democratic principle of the sovereignty of the people, but as backing for their political position in the UK’s state’s devolved Holyrood.  Hence the SNP government was going to bring all the parties in Holyrood, including the unionist, ‘Better Together’, Labour, Lib-Dems and Tories into their negotiating team.  Starting from the SNP government’s already weak constitutional proposals, the outcome of such negotiations would have been the setting up of a ‘Scottish Free State’, very much subordinate to the Crown, the City of London and NATO.

The rejection by some Socialists of any concern with the ‘constitution’ leads to two failings.  The framing of any new Scottish constitution is left in the hands of an SNP government.  Meanwhile, there is a marked tendency amongst such Socialists to end up giving advice to the SNP (and for others Alba, or the SNP and Alba) over which economic and social issues they should take up to win Scottish independence, or, in the case of Alba, which socially progressive policies  should be dropped.

There is a strong hint of such an advisory approach in Peter’s comments on the election of Humza Yousaf as new SNP leader and First Minister.  Yousaf “pledged to focus on the cost of living, the NHS and a well-being economy.  He also talked about continuing to oppose net-zero carbon emissions and ending fuel poverty.  Most strikingly in the context of the rest of the UK he argued for increased immigration and the importance of migrants to society.”

Pete is right that all these progressive demands come up against Yousaf’s “unchallenged commitment to the private sector”.  To which he then also adds, “neither Yousaf nor his defeated rivals had a serious strategy for winning independence.” But Pete does not reveal what this “independence” –  a constitutional issue – amounts to.  And this becomes further blurred in his concluding list of Socialist tasks – “pay, the cost of living, climate action, self-determination.”  How do you “patiently build a vibrant new left”, which also champions self-determination, “based on networks of solidarity and revolt”, when you can offer no idea of what a new Scottish constitution would look like?

The need to see the importance of the constitution has become even more important, as growing numbers in the Independence Movement have become  aware of the nature of the UK state.  The people of Scotland have been slower than in most nations to understand this.  The Union and Empire brought economic gains, even if very unevenly distributed, as long as the Empire remained a powerful player on the global arena .  And indeed, even as the British Empire declined, Scottish-British unionism still looked to the UK state to maintain Scotland’s economic position, either through more administrative devolution, or later through political devolution.

So, in 2012, many Labour supporters, who were beginning to consider Scottish independence, thought that the Cameron government’s concession of ‘IndyRef1’ created a constitutional level playing field.  The issue would be decided through democratic debate.  However, it soon turned out that it was only the official ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign which was bound by the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement’s rules.  The UK state and its ‘Better Together’ leaders followed a long-standing imperial tradition – ‘Britannia waives the rules.’

But an increased questioning of the UK state came about following the unionists’ blatantly partisan use of the BBC (living up to its first initial ‘B’ for British).  Others also began to see the City of London (with its privileged position under the UK constitution) operating in openly political manner to undermine the economic prospect of Scottish independence.  Some also became aware of the MOD’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to annex the nuclear bases at Faslane and Coulport in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, creating a ‘Guantanamac Bay’ enclave on the Clyde. (Jackie Baillie might even have been made governor-general!)

Once the ‘No’ vote had been obtained, all the promises made of ‘Devo-Max’ in 2014, and after the Brexit vote in 2016, all the guarantees of continued EU membership, were abandoned.  And in the process, the liberal unionist mask for the conservative unionist defence of the UK’s constitutional status quo fell way.  By 2019 we were faced with Boris Johnson’s authoritarian populist, reactionary unionism.  This has been upheld by all his successors.  And it will be by Sir Keir Starmer in their shared ‘Brexit Britain’, unless challenged by a massive democratic movement.  The Tories’ rolling back of Scotland’s limited post-1998 democratic gains are merely part of a much wider offensive to undermine all democratic rights, workers’ job security, pay, conditions and environmental safeguards.  The UK’s anti-democratic, unwritten constitution well serves the British ruling class, giving them the power to make it up as they go along.

And the Supreme Court, another prominent institution of the UK state’s anti-democratic state, has revealed its British ruling class-supporting role.  On November 23rd, 2022, it denied the right of the SNP/Scottish Green government, to hold ‘IndyRef2’, which it had been elected to do in May 2021.  The Tory government will be pushing the Supreme Court to overthrow Gender Recognition Reform voted through by a large majority at Holyrood (including four  Tories). Indeed, the Tories have gone as far as threatening to use the Supreme Court to veto any proposed future Holyrood legislation they don’t agree with.  One reason they aren’t closing Holyrood down altogether, is that it provides well-paid, sometimes second and third jobs, for the likes of Douglas Ross.

Pete can see the frustration of many Scottish independence supporters with the inability of the SNP, under either Sturgeon or Yousef, to produce a viable strategy to challenge the Tories( or more fundamentally the UK state).  But he confines his proposed alternative to “shift{ing} the locus of activity from the ballot box to the workplace and the streets.” But in contrast to Pete’s vague independence or self determination hints, all of the more successful economic, social and environmental campaigns have developed a clear set of demands. And all eventually come up against the constitutional limits of the UK state and its devolved Scottish Parliament.

Furthermore, the approaches now widely discussed in the Scottish Independence Movement are profoundly about the UK constitution and its limitations.  Widely aired proposals include a 1918-style Sinn Fein breakaway by a pro-independence majority of Scottish MPs at Westminster, or by MSPs at Holyrood.  This is a debate Socialists,  who wish to be part of any challenge,  should want to participate in. To do this we  need to act as republican socialists, both in our proposals and actions.  This means we need to offer our own approach to the constitutional issue.  The constitution should be seen as a political or democratic issue, offering an even greater challenge than economic and social campaigns, which still accept the existing state as the framework for winning their demands.

To the UK’s sovereignty of the Crown in-Westminster (and its devolved offspring at Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont) we should counter the ‘sovereignty of the people.’  This is the essence of republicanism, not the absence of a monarchy.  This is why we also oppose the republicanism represented by the imperial presidencies of Trump and Biden’s US Republic and Macron’s French Republic; Putin’s ‘One and Indivisible’, oligarchical Russian Federated Republic, the one-party bureaucratic police states of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Peoples Republic and Kim Jong Un’s Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea; and the theocratic republicanism of the mullahs of Iran.

Perhaps Pete’s saddest comment is that “RIC has shrunk to a tiny group on the Left”. Pete was very active in Edinburgh RIC bringing his valued organising experience.  However, rs21 had a working relationship with ISG-S, now the majority on the conter EB. Their method of organising has been very undemocratic and centred on behind-the-scenes manoeuvring.  rs21 never challenged this.  conter has little understanding of the nature of the UK state, or the British ruling class’s changing strategy to uphold it.  So, following the ISG-S’s completely opportunist and failed RISE electoral bid at the 2016 Holyrood election, they quickly dropped any real commitment to campaigning for Scottish independence. Some  switched to supporting Jeremy Corbyn, a very British social democratic figure. This has undoubtedly weakened RIC’s  presence and allowed others to take a lead on the streets.

Some ISG-S members have looked more to advance their careers or  to raise their profile amongst the intelligentsia, hence conter.  A revived RIC was a challenge to this, hence the Terminators’ attempt to close it down.[1]  But the RIC Revivers[2] went on to produced two important principles, which can provide Socialists with our own alternative to the constitutional proposals still addressed to a future SNP, SNP/Scottish Greens or SNP Alba government.

1) A democratic, secular, socially just, environmentally sustainable, Scottish Republic

2) Action based on the sovereignty of the people not the UK Crown, leading to the setting up of a Constituent Assembly  

If this is all that the RIC Revivers achieved, it would still be a considerable advance on any proposals or lack of them coming from rs21 or conter when dealing with constitutional issue.

Pete recognises the danger of the Independence Movement accommodating to the Right authoritarian populists’ offensive.  “The candidacy of Ash Regan has shown the socially reactionary links between a minority of SNP members and Alba.”  And there are other leading socially reactionary SNP members who do not depend on an Alba link, e.g. Kate Forbes and Joanna Cherry (and the further Right, John Mason MSP).

Pete clearly understands that attacks on GRR reform currently constitute the Right’s main battleground.  Yet, despite having two rs21 members on the conter EB, where are the rs21 articles in conter challenging this?  conter also peddles the Campist apologetics for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  Again, there has been no challenge to this, despite the STUC successfully throwing out ‘Stop the War’s Campist motion at its recent congress in Dundee.

The theoretical underpinning for the ex-ISG-s members’ politics has been provided in the book Scotland after Britain written by James Foley and Ben Wray. Despite the book’s claim to be co-written by the sadly missed rs-21 member, Neil Davidson[3] rs21 has provided no review.[4]

Drawing up principles, drafting motions, writing articles and reviews are the ‘bread and butter’ of any political organisation or campaign.  But to have a significant impact, they most also go on to mobilise people in action.  This is why RIC initiated the 2023 Declaration of Calton Hill to challenge the coronation of ‘Not Sae Bonnie Charlie’ on May 6th.  It is good to see that some rs21 members have signed up.  It would be even better if rs21 published the Declaration and a called for its members and supporters to attend the rally organised by Our Republic.  RIC has further proposals for action, discussed at its National Forum in Stirling on April 15th, if this rally is well supported.  RIC’s Six Principles have be drawn up to maximise support for the civic national and rainbow alliance, which contributed so much to Scotland’s unfinished democratic revolution in 2014.  Pete and rs21  would be most welcome to rejoin..







[4]           A republican socialist review can be found at


also see:

Announcing the 2023 Declaration of Calton Hill