Why Sturgeon and Corbyn need one another

Both leaders stand at the head of movements aiming to transform the UK, but they can only succeed if they work together.

    Whether they like it or not, Sturgeon needs Corbyn, and Corbyn needs Sturgeon, writes Wray [Reuters]
    Whether they like it or not, Sturgeon needs Corbyn, and Corbyn needs Sturgeon, writes Wray [Reuters]

    "An independence referendum must happen next year."

    This was the key line in Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon's address to her party's conference on Tuesday, and the choice of words is revealing. 

    Notice the use of "must", rather than "will" or "should". It tells you that the first minister of Scotland is not in control of her country's destiny, but expects and demands to be. 

    The tension in Sturgeon's statement reflects the constitutional balance of power at the heart of the United Kingdom. 

    Polling shows the Scottish people are inching towards independence, with the most recent poll putting support for a Yes vote at 50 percent, which rises to 54 percent if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

    However, to translate growing support into political power, Sturgeon needs the UK government to agree to hand over powers to the Scottish government to hold an independence referendum, as former Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to do in 2012 before the 2014 "indyref". Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has no intention of doing the same and has made that abundantly clear.

    Alternative routes are in short supply. The SNP's conference in Aberdeen saw an attempt to win support for a "Plan B" route to independence defeated. The rebel SNP figures wanted the party to look at pursuing independence negotiations after winning a Scottish electoral majority in an election, or to explore the possibility of a Catalan-style independence referendum that is not sanctioned by the UK government.

    Sturgeon was having none of it. No "shortcuts", she said. They will get a legally sanctioned referendum or have none at all. Party members backed her up, voting resoundingly against even having a debate over Plan B.

    So with little hope of persuading Boris Johnson to sanction an independence referendum, and all other routes ruled out, where does that leave the first minister's independence pursuit?

    With the seemingly never-ending Brexit crisis heading inexorably towards a winter general election, there is a narrow window of opportunity in which an independence referendum next year could be possible. That window comes in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn. 

    The Labour Party leader has said that if he were prime minister he would "not block" the will of the Scottish parliament if it wanted to hold another independence referendum, saying it is not the UK parliament's place to do so.

    Corbyn's refusal to rule out an independence referendum has met fierce opposition within his own party, including from the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, the UK deputy leader Tom Watson and, unsurprisingly, former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

    Corbyn has resisted the pressure from the right of his party for two reasons, one principled and one strategic.

    The Labour leader is schooled in a socialist political tradition that takes the right of nations to self-determination, embodied in Article I of the charter of the United Nations, seriously. Corbyn is the first Labour leader to be on record as a supporter of a united Ireland, and while not an advocate of Scottish independence, it is that same politics which informs his commitment to national self-determination.

    Secondly, the Labour leader knows that he needs allies in the House of Commons if he is ever going to become prime minister. This is true both before and after a possible general election.

    Before an election, Corbyn faces a battle to convince MPs opposed to Boris Johnson that they should make him prime minister for an interim period until a general election can be held. The Liberal Democrats, rebel Tories and some Labour MPs on the right of the party would prefer to make almost anyone other than Corbyn interim prime minister. The Labour leader knows this is a fatal challenge to his authority, so wants to accrue the support of the SNP - the third-largest party in the UK parliament - to ward off that threat. 

    After an election, polling suggests that it is extremely unlikely that the Labour Party will secure an overall majority on their own. If they can muster enough support to be the largest party, they will need other parties on board to govern. The SNP is on course to win almost all of the 59 Scottish constituencies up for grabs. SNP MPs may be more reliable allies in the House of Commons than many of Corbyn's own backbench MPs if he were prime minister.

    Sturgeon knows this, which is why she said in her speech on Tuesday that Corbyn should not "even bother picking up the phone" if he is not willing to commit to an independence referendum. She wants to harden Corbyn's resolve in facing down opposition within his own party.

    So, whether they like it or not, Sturgeon needs Corbyn, and Corbyn needs Sturgeon. Their two parties have been the main rivals during the 20 years of the Scottish parliament's existence, with the rancour between Scottish nationalism and British Labourism sometimes reaching visceral levels. Such a pairing may, therefore, seem unlikely at first. But look more closely and they have some very important characteristics in common.

    Both leaders stand at the head of huge movements which exist to transform Britain, one at its periphery and one at its centre. Those movements have surged into their respective parties, making the SNP and Labour two of the largest parties in Europe by membership.

    And both movements share similar values, as much as neither party would like to admit it. Even the laziest critics of the independence movement struggle to draw any similarity between its brand of civic nationalism and the far-right nationalist movements in Europe. If the SNP's politics are consistent about anything, it is valuing multi-culturalism, openness to immigration and opposition to the racism of the British state, whether in its shameful treatment of refugees or the Windrush scandal. 

    Under Labour, Corbyn has also broken with the "controls on immigration" mugs of Ed Miliband's leadership, and sought to pin the blame for Britain's social ills on the country's super-rich instead. At its party conference last month, members voted in favour of freedom of movement in Europe.

    The parties criss-cross with each other on the social democratic terrain as well. Corbyn has taken up long-standing SNP policies like free prescription charges and free tuition fees. Meanwhile, Sturgeon has had to respond to Corbyn's left-wing challenge; new Scottish government initiatives like a Scottish National Energy Company and Scottish National Investment Bank were undoubtedly influenced by the ideas of Corbynism.

    When you look past the partisan party divide, Corbynism and the independence movement have quite a lot which binds them together. That is good news for those who would delight in seeing the final collapse of Britain's ancient imperial state, which Boris Johnson is desperately trying to breathe new Brexit life into. 

    Britain is in the grips of an existential crisis, with its ruling elite completely divided on Brexit. But for it to be defeated, it will have to be attacked from both its centre and its periphery. With a border poll on Irish unity no longer a distant possibility and support for Welsh independence on the rise, the Scottish independence movement and Corbynism may soon have new allies in throwing off the last, rusty shackles of "Great Britain".

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.