We assess the politics behind the SNP government’s proposed independence referendum and its likelihood of success.
Megrahi, behind-the-scenes deals and the ‘liberal’ US onslaught
Political developments in Scotland are hotting-up in the aftermath of the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the SNP’s Justice Minister, to release Abdelbaset Ali-Mohamed al-Megrahi, the so-called Libyan bomber, on compassionate grounds.
Whatever the undisclosed background negotiations behind this move, involving New Labour at Westminster and SNP at Holyrood, the political fallout has been considerable. Earlier negotiations between the British and Libyan government, involving Tony Blair and Jack Straw, had strongly implied a prisoner transfer agreement. Megrahi would finish his sentence in Libya, in return for BP oil concessions. The Scottish government thwarted this. It denied any right to the British government to interfere with the decision taken by the Scottish judiciary, which had been given original responsibility for Megrahi’s trial, held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, in 2000-1.
What has become abundantly clear is that Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson wanted Megrahi released before his death, to ensure that British corporate interests in Libya weren’t jeopardised if he died in a British jail. MacAskill’s willingness to take responsibility for Megrahi’s release was an added bonus for the New Labour-led British government. It meant that the SNP-led Scottish government could take all the blame, when the right wing press, both in Britain and the US, orchestrated the howls of outrage about ‘weakness’ in the face of terrorism.
It is possible that the SNP leadership thought that, with Barack Obama as President, the new US Democrat government would welcome MacAskill’s compassionate approach. After all Obama had personally given an undertaking to the Moslem world in Cairo on June 4th that he represented a new type of American leader. However, as the continuing war in Afghanistan (and now Pakistan), the continued build up of pressure on Iran, and the US’s failure to discipline Netanyahu in the face of continued Israeli settlements on the West Bank demonstrate, Obama is only trying to re-brand US imperialism, not challenge it.
So ‘liberal’ Obama, Hilary Clinton, and the late Ted Kennedy, led the attack on the Scottish government. Meanwhile, the rabid American Right soon ended any delusions about the longstanding affectionate ties between Scotland and the US. In their eyes, Scotland replaced France as the country all ‘good American’s love to hate. Only now it is the Scots who are ‘haggis-eating surrender monkeys’. Back in Scotland, the British unionist parties, New Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem, characteristically decided to echo the sentiments emanating from the US. They launched an attack on the Scottish government and the nationalist SNP.
The SNP recovers from the attacks and announces its independence referendum
The SNP has been trying for years to win the approval of corporate America, with the prospect of low business taxation and the attempted cultivation of Scottish-American business figures and politicians. Donald Trump, the dodgy property speculator, has been assiduously wooed. Therefore, defending MacAskill’s decision in the face of blatant US imperial pressure did not come easily to the SNP leadership, particularly after the display of Scottish saltires being waved at Tripoli’s airport, welcoming Megrahi upon his return. After all, MacAskill still insisted that he acted solely on compassionate grounds, and that he upheld the Scottish court’s extremely dubious decision that Megrahi was guilty. MacAskill didn’t want to tread on the toes of the Scottish legal establishment.
Early opinion polls seemed to indicate that MacAskill was indeed isolated. However, the Church of Scotland, followed by the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, gave their public backing to MacAskill. Whilst this was undoubtedly embarrassing to sections of the unionist alliance, it was the decision of Nelson Mandela to support MacAskill that turned the tables. Within days, support for MacAskill’s decision had risen to 45% in Scotland.
Sensing a possible drubbing in any Scottish General Election their actions might precipitate, the unionist opposition retreated from a vote of ‘No confidence’ in MacAskill at Holyrood. They settled for a motion condemning the Scottish government’s handling of the affair. Although the unionist parties have an overall majority in Holyrood, their alliance began to break up. Former Scottish Labour Ministers, Henry McLeish and Malcolm Chisholm, backed MacAskill, and the Conservatives decided to switch the focus of attention to Gordon Brown and Westminster Government involvement in Megrahi’s release.
It was in this context that the SNP Government announced next year’s legislative programme on September 3rd, with its proposal for a referendum on Scottish independence given flagship status. Now the unionist parties can kill this off at the first hurdle, by using their majority to vote down any such bill in Holyrood. Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond well knows this, but has likely calculated on there being a British Conservative Government under David Cameron next year. This could place the SNP in a good position before the next Holyrood General Election in 2011, especially with an impotent New Labour in ‘opposition’ at Westminster.
The November 12th Glasgow North East by-election
However, a more immediate by-election battle is taking place in Glasgow North East on November 12th, after the resignation of the disgraced Westminster Speaker, Michael Martin. With the SNP not wanting to be portrayed as the ‘Orange’ party (Labour’s main accusation against it, when it stood against Scottish party leader, Helen Liddell, in the notorious Monklands East by-election in 1994) their leadership is taking no chances. It has adopted David Kerr as candidate. He is a member of Opus Dei!
Glasgow City Council is one of the few Scottish councils still under Labour control, so the SNP cannot so easily be held responsible for the type of unpopular local policies, which contributed to their surprise defeat in the Glenrothes by-election last November. So, Labour has now switched its focus to an alleged SNP bias against Glasgow city, highlighted by the Scottish Government’s decision to cancel the planned Glasgow airport rail link.
The SNP strategy of trying to appeal to all Scots, regardless of class, has also come unstuck. The introduction of new local service charges for pensioners in Fife was just one indicator of where the SNP’s real loyalties lie. In Edinburgh they share responsibility with the Lib-Dems for the council’s attempt to impose draconian pay cuts on refuse disposal workers, with the threat of privatisation looming. In West Dunbartonshire, they have suspended SSP councillor, Jim Bollan, for nine months, for his tireless commitment to working class communities.
The long honeymoon, enjoyed by the current SNP government, is now under strain. The SNP is wedded to a neo-liberal economic model, which once placed failed corporations such as the Royal Bank of Scotland in the driving seat of their proposed new Scottish economy, and lauded the successes of the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’. Today, the SNP meekly accepts its role in administering the Westminster government’s measures to deal with the current crisis – massive public spending cuts to bail out the bankers.
The Scottish government has also frozen council taxes now for three years. This further contributes to the squeeze on social spending. Added to all this, the full consequences of the SNP’s fawning before Trump means that the Scottish government looks prepared to back a compulsory purchase order to evict residents from their homes in Aberdeenshire to make way for Trump’s new golf course and leisure complex –the new Clearances.
The build-up of reactionary forces and the divided Left
Although the prime press interest in Glasgow North East will be the battle between New Labour and the SNP, there will be other significant political struggles going on. In the last election here, the Conservatives did not field a candidate, following the mainstream parties’ convention of not standing against the Speaker. This left the way open for the Scottish Unionists to stand. They represent that traditional Orange wing, abandoned by the Conservatives, when the party broke their link with the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1970’s. David Cameron has recently re-forged that alliance. Official British Conservative backing for a Protestant unionist party in ‘the Six Counties’ will have knock on effects in Glasgow, where sectarian divisions still exist.
However, the Orange Order in Scotland is still not prepared to throw its weight fully behind the Tories. Grand Master, Ian Wilson, has said the Order will be backing the Labour Party, wherever they are best placed to defeat the SNP in elections. Labour remains Scotland’s premier Unionist party.
Both the previous New Labour/Lib-Dem and current SNP Scottish governments at Holyrood have promoted a bureaucratic and moralistic campaign against sectarianism in Scotland, based on the false notion that there is a ‘war between two tribes’, Protestant and Catholic or, sometimes more simply, between Rangers and Celtic. The real underlying issue is support for, or opposition to, the British occupation of part of Ireland. One of the aims of this official ‘anti-sectarian’ campaign is to cutback on the many Orange Order and the handful of Irish Republican marches held in Scotland’s Central Belt. This will become a focus of opposition for hard line loyalists. There is also the planned provocation in Glasgow, organised by the fascist Islamophobic English Defence League’s satellite organisation, the ‘Scottish Defence League’ (SDL), on November 14th.
The BNP are standing in the Glasgow North East by-election. They would love to have the sort of clout that loyalists in ‘the Six Counties’ demonstrated, when the PSNI meekly bowed before their intimidation of Roma families in Belfast. Furthermore, despite BNP denials, there is obviously an overlap between BNP and EDL/SDL. Like the loyalists in ‘the Six Counties’, they have shown a growing admiration for the apartheid state of Israel and its brutal methods. So, it is only an inner hard core of Nazi ‘Sieg Heiling’, swastika worshippers that cling on to the old anti-Semitism. The majority of Union Jack waving fascists find plenty to celebrate in the history of British unionism and imperialism.
Furthermore, there are other nasty links being forged. The mainstream, usually socially liberal, Church of Scotland is under growing attack by the reactionary Fellowship of Confessing Churches (FCC), with 45 parishes threatening to break away, unless the Church publicly condemns homosexuality. The FCC is backed by Sam Cole, DUP councillor and Orange Lodge chaplain, along with Maurice Bradley, former mayor of Coleraine, Danny Kennedy, Ulster Unionist depute leader, Sir David McNee, former Chief Constable of Strathclyde, and a hundred members of the ultra-conservative Presbyterian Church of America, which also opposes the ordination of women ministers.
Tragically, the Left today is divided in Scotland. In the last Glasgow North East election, the SSP easily defeated both the Scottish Unionists and the BNP, although Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was able to do better still and get 14% of the vote, in the confusion caused by the absence of an official Labour candidate, with Michael Martin standing solely as the Speaker. The SLP has left no organisation on the ground and is, in effect, now only one man’s vanity party.
The concern now is that, with a Left split between the SSP, Solidarity/Tommy Sheridan party and the SLP, the BNP’s vote could overtake the Socialist vote. Whilst Sheridan will cultivate the celebrity vote, he faces competition from John Smeaton, the ‘people’s hero’. Meanwhile, John Swinburne, the ex-MSP, from the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party, and Mikey Hughes, former Big Brother runner-up, campaigning for the disabled, are also standing. More worrying than any likely BNP vote in itself, would be the opportunity this could provide them to become the ‘shock troops’ of hard right unionism in Scotland, at a time when the issue of Scottish independence is coming to the fore.
When Nick Griffin visited Scotland on October 28th, he said he supported a referendum for Scottish independence. However, he made it quite clear that the BNP would strongly oppose those campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote. He is lining himself up with ultra unionists like the Tory, Michael Forsyth, and New Labour’s Wendy Alexander, who also want a referendum campaign to see off any threat of Scottish independence for the foreseeable future. You can rest assured, whatever differences they still have, that these ultra-unionists don’t intend to confine their opposition to polite democratic debate – and the BNP are signalling that their services can be called upon to defend the Union.
The SNP unprepared for the British state counter-attack – a socialist republican and ‘internationalism from below’ approach needed
The SNP remains a thoroughly constitutionalist party, and has indicated, by its recently declared support for the British monarchy, its complete willingness to play politics by Westminster rules. The problem is, that the British ruling class only play be these rules when it suits them. When their state is under threat, both Conservative and Labour governments have shown their preparedness to utilise the antidemocratic Crown Powers to thwart any challenges, as any Republican living in Ireland can testify. If necessary, they would not be averse to covertly encouraging British loyalists, as the British state’s continued financial support for their organisations in ‘the Six Counties’ demonstrates.
Furthermore, the SNP’s complete lack of appreciation of the continued imperial role of British troops in the world is highlighted by its continued support for the British Army’s Scottish regiments. SNP Westminster defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson, has announced that ‘English’ troops would be welcome to remain in Scotland after ‘independence’. It probably won’t be long before the SNP retreats further to accommodate US imperialism. They could settle for Scotland being removed from the NATO frontline to become a ‘supporting’ state within NATO’s Orwellian renamed second tier, ‘The Partnership for Peace’. NATO bases in Scotland would still remain available for imperial use.
Scotland, with its North Sea Oil, and its numerous British and NATO military bases, is far more central to ruling class interests, than ‘the Six Counties’. It is unlikely that the British state will just wait until the Scottish independence referendum bill comes to Holyrood. US and British security services are probably preparing a strategy, using both official and unofficial forces, to marginalise the threat of the break-up of the UK and the potential loss of NATO bases.
Although there is no deep-seated tradition of independent republican organisations in Scotland, there is nevertheless widespread popular support for a Scottish Republic. Furthermore, this is strongly linked to support for public services provided on the basis of need, and opposition to British and American imperial wars. A vote for the SNP has sometimes expressed this feeling in a sentimental way. As the SNP moves further to the Right such support is becoming as undeserved as a vote for Labour from those hoping to improve their lives.
It is the job of socialist republicans to organise such sentiments in an effective way, by linking everyday struggles, such as the ‘Save Our Schools’ campaign in Glasgow today, with the demand for a Scottish Republic tomorrow, when the SNP independence referendum comes up against British unionist intransigence. Only the SSP links its support for independence with opposition to all imperialist wars, whether or not they are sanctioned by the UN – a thoroughly undemocratic body, which is nothing other than a plaything of the imperial powers. In contrast, the SNP stance on the ongoing US/British war in Afghanistan has been profoundly ambiguous.
Since the British state and its Irish government allies coordinate their actions through the ‘Peace Process’ and Devolution-all-round; and both the British and Scottish TUCs and the Irish CTU promote ‘social partnerships’, which subordinate workers’ interests to those of the bosses; whilst the BNP and loyalists are trying to cement links ‘across the border’ and ‘across the water’, it becomes all the more imperative that Socialists in these islands organise ourselves on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’ to more effectively promote working class interests throughout these islands. We need to build on the success of last year’s Republican Socialist Convention.