Britain's EU referendum produced a political earthquake that has shaken the capitalist elite to its core. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation and the Tory party are deeply divided. The Blairites in the Labour Party have launched a campaign to remove Jeremy Corbyn. Fear has gripped the EU institutions and European governments.
Writing in the Financial Times, the mouthpiece of British capitalism, Philip Stephens commented in the wake of the vote to leave: “This was a vote that changed everything. Economic and foreign policies crafted over nearly half a century overturned in the course of a single night. A political establishment shattered by an insurgency against the elites. A vote against globalisation. A decision that weakens Europe and the west. Political earthquake is an understatement."
The FT summed up the class-driven factors that produced the result: “Mr Cameron’s hopes of securing a Remain vote evaporated as working class voters turned out in huge numbers to deliver a stunning rebuke to the establishment and the status quo.”
The Guardian said: “For some, voting Leave was not just about Europe; it was a vote against the entire political class and the economic system they operate.”
It's important to underline the reality that millions of working class people, including in Scotland, used the referendum to hit-back at the political elite responsible for austerity, low pay and poverty. It was, in that sense, reminiscent of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
The attempt, unfortunately also by some sections of the left, to ascribe to this vote a completely or overwhelmingly racist and reactionary character is wrong. Yes, racism and anti-immigrant views were a factor, not least because of the role played by both sides of the official campaigns, which were thoroughly divisive in seeking to whip-up an anti-immigrant mood.
We completely understand that many with a left, anti-austerity and anti-racist outlook, including many young people, voted to remain, disgusted by the reactionary pro-Brexit leaders. Yet their racist and pro-business propaganda of both Remain and Leave could have been cut across to a large extent had the trade union and Labour leaders offered a fighting left opposition to the EU. This was exactly the approach taken by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and Socialist Party Scotland.
As it was, the primary factor in the 52% to 48% vote to leave the EU, and this is recognised by the capitalist strategists, was the working class revolt against austerity and the political elites.
Only in Scotland, London and Northern Ireland were there majorities to remain in the EU. In Scotland, there was a 1.66 million (62%) to 1 million (38%) vote for Remain. The 38% vote to leave was higher than many polls had indicated in the run-up to the referendum. Turn-out was lower by around 6% compared to England and Wales. In Glasgow only 56% of the eligible voters took part.
A major factor in the lower turnout was the general disgust among a section of the working class towards both “official” campaigns who were seen as two wings of the establishment. However, in many working class areas the vote to Leave was higher than the 38% average.
In Dundee, where there was a 40% vote to leave, a left Labour councillor who was campaigning for Remain commented: “There are strong parallels between disenfranchised working class Scots voting Yes in 2014, and working class people across the UK voting to Leave (and it's not just in England).Having spent yesterday in Kirkton [a working class area of Dundee] and then at the count, I saw these boxes being opened and sorted. So, I know the majority there voted to leave.”
More affluent areas voted heavily in favour of remaining part of the EU. Students and young people, for anti-racist and internationalist reasons, voted by a big majority in favour of staying.
The other important factors as to why there was a lower Leave vote in Scotland was the disgust with which Farage, Johnson and Gove, the main leaders of the Brexit campaign, were viewed. Much of their campaign was tinged with English nationalism, especially from the Ukip leader Farage.
In addition, the Scottish National Party, the biggest party in Scotland and still with some authority following the 2014 indyref, ran a major campaign in defence of the EU as a “progressive, job creating” institution. They argued in favour of an “open, tolerant Scotland” and this contrasted with the xenophobic campaigns of much of the Remain side.
The Scottish Greens, Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems, alongside the SNP, produced a joint statement the day before the vote claiming the EU was: “vital for jobs, investment and opportunities for the people of Scotland”. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon also shared a TV debate platform with the Tories in defence of the interests of Scottish and British big business. The SNP's role as part of “Project Fear” will not be forgotten by many working class people.
Despite the unremitting pro-EU propaganda, more than 1 million people, including around a third of SNP supporters, voted in favour of exiting the EU.
Nicola Sturgeon argued that a vote to leave the EU in Britain, with Scotland voting to stay, would be a “material change of circumstance” that would put a second independence referendum on the agenda.
However, the SNP leadership are cautious. Sturgeon's speech after the result was indicative of this hesitation. "I intend to take all possible steps and explore all possible options to give effect to how people in Scotland voted - in other words to secure our continuing place in the EU, and in the single market in particular. The option of a second referendum must be on the table and it is on the table."
Asked if there were any other options available to the Scottish government, she replied: "I think an independence referendum is now highly likely but I also think it is important that we take time to consider all steps and have the discussions, not least to assess the response of the European Union to the vote that Scotland expressed yesterday."
While not committing to an indyref immediately or even definitely proposing to have one, the SNP are using the threat of a second referendum to try and extract from the UK government and the EU an agreement that Scotland can negotiate access to the European single market and for Scotland to continue having a relationship with the EU.
That hesitant position can change if the SNP are refused but they are not keen to move immediately to another referendum. With almost 40% of people having voted in Scotland to leave the EU, and unless and until polls in favour of Scottish independence change markedly, an imminent referendum is not likely yet.
Build the socialist alternative
The outcome of the referendum is a catastrophe for the ruling class in Britain. As a Socialist Party England & Wales statement explains: “While the capitalist class are in chaos, it is urgent that the working class finds its own political voice. The referendum result shows the enormous potential for a mass fight back against austerity”.
This is precisely the task the working class and the trade unions, alongside the socialist forces must turn to with urgency.
A general election is possible very soon and must be demanded. The Tories and the bosses' are in disarray and it's vital that the workers' movement goes on the offensive to oppose all austerity cuts. By using its power it can drive the Tories from office and begin to transform the balance of forces in Scotland and across Britain.