Part One – the Meaning of the May 5th Elections

A good kicking for the Lib-Dems disguises the wider impact of the National Question on May 5th

On May 5th, the Lib-Dem-initiated referendum proposal to introduce AV to Westminster elections was massively rejected in every nation and region of the UK, including Northern Ireland. In the English Local Council, the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament elections, all held on the same day, former Lib-Dem voters used the opportunity either to punish Clegg and his allies for entering into a coalition with the Tories, or to vote for the real thing. This took precedence over any vote ‘Yes’ recommendations on AV by the other parties. In the absence of meaningful resistance, voters turned to revenge instead.

In the English Local Council elections, Labour routed the Lib-Dems in the north, whilst the Tories routed them in the south. Elsewhere in the UK, though, the impact of the National Question pushed the Lib-Dems’ decline to being a secondary issue.

In the Welsh Assembly election, the Lib-Dems also lost out to both Labour and the Tories. However, the main loser was Plaid Cymru, recently in coalition with Labour. Plaid’s recent efforts, throwing all of its weight behind the Coalition’s successful referendum campaign to devolve law-making powers to the Welsh Assembly, seemed to represent the culmination of its political ambitions. Yet, all the mainstream unionist parties supported this liberal unionist measure too. With Plaid less relevant, and the Tories very unpopular in working class South Wales, Welsh Labour advanced and has formed its own single-party government, thus making more posts available for its own careerists.

In the Northern Ireland, the Lib-Dems officially support the moderate unionist Alliance Party. However, the lack of any wider appreciation of this fact, along with Alliance’s different name, meant that, despite its Lib-Dem type politics, it was able to make limited gains in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, as the old UUP continues to sheds its more moderate voters (remembering that ‘moderate’ is a relative term in Unionist politics in Northern Ireland!)

But this too was a side issue when the DUP and Sinn Fein made small gains, despite their joint implementation of public sector cuts. They were able to take their first Stormont Coalition into a second term. Voters threw their weight behind competitive sectarian pleading for Westminster resources, in a Stormont that has a constitutionally recognised divide between Unionists and Nationalists. Voters rejected any return to possible armed conflict, or to a class based opposition to the Con-Dem cuts to the Northern Ireland budget.

On the Unionist side, the tentative move to the centre, marked by the growth of the Alliance Party, was matched by a move on the Right towards the rejectionist, Traditional Unionist Voice. However, the possibility of voting for either of these constitutional Unionist options was underpinned by the continued desire for stability. This was highlighted by the electoral demise of the Progressive Unionist Party, linked to the redundant (for the moment) Loyalist UVF death squads.

However, the most sensational result on May 5th occurred in the Scottish Parliament election. Here the previous minority SNP government was able to increase its number of MSPs from 46 to 69, an absolute majority forecast by no one. Furthermore, the SNP’s votes came at the expense, not only of the Lib-Dems, but of the Tories, Labour and the small Socialist vote too. Only the Greens managed to hold on to their vote and their 2 MSPs. They made a calculated Left appeal, now that their moderate leader, Robin Harper, has retired. They hoped to woo former disillusioned Socialist voters. Labour only managed to increase its vote in two constituencies, Dumfries and Eastwood. Here they were the main challengers to the Tories, who by their own admission remain “toxic” in Scotland. Very few people in Scotland held street parties to celebrate Will’s and Kate’s royal wedding on the 29th April – many are saving these for Thatcher’s funeral!

How socialists fared throughout the UK

In the English Local Elections, three Socialist councillors, now standing under the CWI-initiated, Trade Union & Socialist Coalition (TUSC) banner, lost their previous seats (including both SWP councillors), despite these and a few other candidates still getting a credible vote. Elsewhere though, the TUSC vote was small. It will be interesting to see whether TUSC can survive as a wider Socialist unity project, or whether it will just follow that other CWI initiative, the National Shop Stewards Network and become a complete CWI-front.

In Wales, Socialists only stood on the List vote in the Assembly elections, under the banner of Scargill’s SLP, the Communist Party of Britain, or TUSC. They made little headway. Indeed it is an indication of the decline of the Left, that it was the moribund SLP that attracted most Socialist votes as a purely passive electoral gesture.

In Northern Ireland, those Socialists who contested the Stormont election, either under the banner of People Before Profit (SWP front), the Socialist Party (CWI), the Workers Party or Socialist Democracy (USFI), sometimes competed against each other. They were marginal outside Derry/Foyle, where the SWP’s well-known Eamonn McCann made a credible showing. Republican socialists and traditional pro-armed struggle republicans did not stand in the Stormont elections, but confined their activities to the Local Council elections held in Northern Ireland on the same day (unlike Wales or Scotland). A couple of breakaway former Sinn Fein councillors held their seats, whilst Patricia Campbell of the Independent Workers Union and the republican socialist, eirigi and the IRSP all made a credible showing, despite some mutual competition between these last two in West Belfast. The traditionalist republican, pro-armed struggle, 32 Counties Sovereignty Movement also made headway in Derry, a reflection of the lack of any meaningful ‘peace dividend’ in the most deprived Nationalist communities.

In Scotland, Socialists, who as recently as 2007, held 6 seats at Holyrood, were fatally crippled in the aftermath of the Sheridan affair. As in Wales, they only stood for the List seats and were split between Scargill’s SLP, the SSP and Solidarity. And, as in Wales, Scargill’s phantom SLP gained the most Socialist votes in the Left’s equivalent of ‘bald men fighting over a comb’. In the absence of Solidarity’s leader, the Left nationalist, Tommy Sheridan, they also decided to back another celebrity socialist, the left Unionist, George Galloway. He had parachuted into Glasgow as the George Galloway/Respect candidate after being rejected by electors in East London last year. Glasgow voters recognised an opportunist carpetbagger when they saw one, so knowing he was going to lose, he just picked up his bags and left before the count. The SSP vote continued to fall from its poor 2007 result, whilst Solidarity’s declining vote went into tailspin. This raises the question in both organisations about the prospects of future meaningful Socialist unity.

The meaning of the SNP electoral victory

So, what does the SNP victory in the Holyrood elections represent? Ever since the banking crash, which saw the SNP and its charismatic leader, Alex Salmond, too closely associated with the failed Royal Bank of Scotland, the party had been unable to win any Westminster or many council by-elections. During the 2010 Westminster general election, the Labour Party, amazingly and also unpredictably, increased its vote in Scotland, retaking a seat previously lost to the SNP in a pre-crash by-election. Labour’s electoral appeal was almost entirely based upon playing up to the fear of the Tories.

As recently as the beginning of the year, polls were anticipating the return of a Labour-led government to Holyrood, in the face of the SNP’s betrayal, after the economic crisis, of its 2007 electoral promises. Labour thought that they could just repeat their ‘No back to the 1980s’, anti-Tory appeal in the run-up to the May 5th. However, that card had been played out in 2010. Despite voting Labour, Scotland now faced the hated Tories once more, supported by the increasingly despised Lib-Dems. Yet Miliband’s Labour Party, consigned to ‘opposition’, was making absolutely no difference.

Salmond was able to repeat Gordon Brown’s 2010 pre-election trick, and postpone major Holyrood cuts until after the election. Although he lowered the electorate’s sights, abandoning many earlier SNP promises, those still remaining aimed higher than any made by Labour. The relentlessly negative Scottish Labour leader, Ian Gray, believed that Scottish voters would automatically return to their ‘natural’ fold, and that the Holyrood gravy train would once more be at Labour’s disposal. He slept-walked towards May 5th. When Labour’s poll support started to ebb away, his response was once more to raise the separatist bogey (it had failed in 2007 with its effect neutralised by the SNP’s promised referendum on independence), and then, in panic, he adopted virtually every other SNP policy.

Meanwhile, Salmond had been assiduously building-up the backing of Scottish businessmen, including Brian Souter, the homophobic owner of Stagecoach, Sir Thomas Farmer, the Con-Dem cuts-approving owner of KwikFit, and Sir David Murray, the Unionist owner of Murray International Metals and recently of Rangers FC. Donald Trump, the controversial American tycoon, given the go-ahead to build a luxury golf-course and gated housing project in Aberdeenshire, also enjoys the support of the SNP government. Both Murdoch’s Sun and Tommy Sheridan ( April 22nd) backed the Scottish populist nationalist, SNP. The SNP obviously gained far more by way of support from the former, given the evidence of the latter’s failure to persuade many Glasgow voters to back his other recommended choice – the Left British unionist, George Galloway.

SNP success in inverse proportion to working class confidence and Socialist success

Underlying the large electoral drift to the SNP is the current lack of working class self-confidence. This reflects the lack of fightback against the Con-Dems’ austerity drive, following on workers’ earlier disillusioned acceptance of Brown’s and Darling’s proposed Westminster imposed cuts. The STUC is every bit as wedded to social partnership deals with the employers and the state as the TUC. The effect of these has been to turn trade unions into a free personnel management service for the bosses. Added to this is the sorry demise of the Left in Scotland in the aftermath of the Sheridan fiasco. The attraction of Socialist unity in the face of massive cutbacks was demonstrated earlier this year in the Irish elections when the United Left Alliance was able to pick up 5 Dail seats.

However, much of the SNP’s electoral support is superficial – a clutching at straws. As long as workers remain acquiescent, the SNP government will openly pursue its real aim – making Scotland a haven for Scottish businesses and global corporations. Earlier this year, to show where the SNP’s loyalties lie, John Swinney, Finance Minister, allowed the lapse of Holyrood’s income tax raising powers, voted for in the 1997 Devolution Referendum. The SNP have extended their council tax freeze for another five years to force Local Councils into privatising services. The Lib-Dem/SNP coalition running Edinburgh Council has brought in consultants to prepare for such measures. This follows their attack on cleansing workers’ pay, preparatory to possible privatisation. The SNP government has even attacked the Con-Dem’s recent proposed levy on North Sea Oil. It’s not to be ‘Scotland’s Oil’, but will remain the petroleum corporations’ oil!

The SNP has entered negotiations with Cameron over Westminster’s proposed Scotland Bill. This is based on the miserable additional devolutionary powers recommended by the Calman Commission to dish the SNP, in advance of any possible Independence Referendum. The SNP’s over-riding concern is to get the political power to cut corporation tax. Up until 2008, the SNP’s very mild reforms were dependent on building up Scotland’s ‘buoyant’ finance sector – a trickle-down ‘social democracy’ courtesy of the Royal Bank of Scotland! Now, any such reforms are meant to be financed by a very limited tax on corporate profits – if their boards agree to play ball!

Constitutional crisis or a SNP negotiated ‘Devolution-Max’ cop out?

The media has made much of a possible constitutional crisis due to the SNP’s commitment to holding a referendum on Scottish independence in the last years of its office. The novelty of a Nationalist victory in one of the UK’s devolved assemblies should not prevent people looking to other comparable examples in Spain and Quebec. Here Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU), the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Parti Quebecois (PQ) have also formed majority administrations in devolved assemblies. Both the CiU and PNV have settled for greater measures of devolution within the Spanish state, whilst the PQ initiated referendum on Quebec independence was narrowly defeated and has not been attempted again.

Meanwhile, ‘over the water’, the former revolutionary nationalist Sinn Fein has settled very quickly into helping to run the UK’s devolved administration in Northern Ireland. All the indications are that the very constitutional nationalist SNP is quite willing to settle for ‘Devolution-Max’. Salmond doesn’t have the excuse that he had in his last government of being in a minority, and hence being unable to put forward the SNP’s promised Independence Referendum Bill. In reality, however, significant forces in the SNP, including rightist Education Minister, Michael Russell, and former leftist, Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, never wanted a referendum, and nor do many of the SNP’s current business backers.

Salmond is publicly ditching more and more attributes of meaningful political independence. The SNP recognise the continued role of the monarchy (which fronts the British ruling class’s draconian anti-democratic Crown Powers), the City (which sets financial policy), and the UK’s armed forces (which would be able to use Scottish military facilities). The SNP supports UN-backed (i.e. US-dominated Security Council approved) imperial wars, and has campaigned vigorously to maintain Scottish regiments, and British and NATO bases in Scotland. There may still be some commitment to abolishing the unpopular Trident bases and hence for Scotland to step down into NATO’s second tier, non-nuclear ‘Partnership for Peace’. However, there are also signs that the SNP would be prepared just to lease out military facilities here, creating, in effect, ‘Guantanamac’ bases.

‘Independence-Lite’ represents the height of SNP leadership ambitions, although a considerable section would settle for ‘Devolution-Max’. Most of the existing institutions of the British unionist and imperial state would remain in place but be given a lick of tartan paint in Scotland. The SNP is no more able to deliver meaningful political independence, than Labour was able to deliver political devolution in 1979. A considerable majority of the British ruling class was against Scottish devolution then, but the overwhelming majority of the British ruling class is against Scottish independence now.

The British ruling class opposes Scottish independence and backs ‘Devolution-all-round’

The British ruling class is currently prepared to go no further than a few more limited devolutionary concessions, based on Blair’s 1997 ‘Devolution-all-round’ and Peace (in reality, pacification) Process settlement. This settlement is designed both to buttress wider British imperial control over these islands (emphasised by the recent royal visit to Ireland) and to create the best political conditions for corporate profitability.

Furthermore, despite the SNP’s overtures to Americans of Scottish descent (many of whom are on the US Right), it is the UK government, which enjoys official US state backing. Indeed the UK is such a reliable junior partner (with military forces that can be deployed more widely than Israel’s) that successive US governments have granted the UK state the imperial franchise in the North East Atlantic. The UK also acts as a useful spoiler to contain any independent French-German Euro-imperial ambitions. The US is unlikely to switch its backing to the SNP. Furthermore, EU leaders will not step on UK governments’ toes over this issue.

Realising the SNP is isolated in the UK and wider international arena, Salmond is likely to offer a second ‘Devolution-Max’ option in the SNP Government’s proposed Independence Referendum. This would satisfy his most ardent business supporters, as well as important sectors of his own party. Those rank and file Scottish independence supporting SNP members could be left to get on with campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote for what is, in effect, ‘Independence-Lite’ under the Crown, the City, the British armed forces and NATO.

However, the SNP leadership would itself be riding two horses, with different members providing their personal support for whichever option they really backed (in a similar manner to Labour in the 1979 Devolution referendum). SNP ‘Devolution-Max’ supporters might hope to get influential backing from those amongst Labour (e.g. Henry MacLeish), the Lib-Dems (e.g. Charles Kennedy) and even the Conservatives (e.g. Murdo Fraser), who are committed to further liberal unionist measures. The SNP’s worried rank and file independence supporters would be fobbed off with the promise that ‘Devolution-Max’ was but another stage on the road to independence – an argument that could have some purchase, given that some SNP supporters also see ‘Independence-Lite’ as but a stage towards ultimate Scottish political sovereignty.

Those actually campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote for Scottish ‘independence’ (i.e. ‘Independence-Lite’) will soon be subjected to all the dirty tricks available to the British ruling class and its political representatives under the UK Crown Powers, since they are currently implacably opposed to such a course of action. The membership of the impeccably constitutionalist SNP is no more prepared for these, than it was in 1979, when the British ruling class was at least split, not united as it is today, over how best to maintain the Union. Meanwhile, the SNP government will be forced to impose the cuts demanded by Westminster and its business backers. This will highlight just whose class interests the SNP’s advocacy of ‘independence’ are meant to serve.

Salmond has just had his own 2011 equivalent of New Labour’s ‘things can only get better’ 1997 election. This is likely to lead to a similar let down in the future. Socialists today appear to be in as much of a mess as they were after Thatcher defeated the miners and Liverpool Council in the mid-80’s. By 1987, the triumphant Tories had decided to introduce the poll tax and face down the growing ‘National Question’ in the UK. However, Thatcher was defeated by mass independent class action and continued Irish republican opposition. Independent class action and a socialist republican strategy based on the promotion of ‘internationalism from below’ is the precondition for our advance today.

Allan Armstrong. 7th June 2011

Part Two – the SNP follows Labour

Social democracy SNP-style and the lessons it has learned from Labour

The long-term decline of the Labour Party in Scotland has enabled the SNP to pose in social democratic colours, particularly in the Central Belt. The SNP’s social democratic commitments are not that great, and like New Labour compete inside the party with another distinctly neo-liberal economic agenda. However, the SNP has skilfully positioned itself, so that it appears to promise more reforms than New Labour – not a very difficult task! However, as with New Labour, any social democratic reforms are only made as election promises when they are compatible with the interests of the major financial institutions, well represented in Edinburgh, and of other global corporations and Scottish businesses engaged in constant lobbying at Holyrood or Bute House.

The last SNP government (2007-11) soon abandoned its election promises of improved teacher/student ratios in schools, the cancellation of student debt, and the abolition of the regressive council tax, in order to prioritise meeting the costs of the bankers’ bailout. This highlights the limitations of the SNP’s social democratic reforms. The SNP pushes much more consistently for reduced corporate taxation and other pro-business measures, highlighted by its courting of prominent Scottish businessmen, e.g. Brian Souter, Sir George Matthewson and Sir Tom Farmer, as well as international tycoons, e.g. Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch.

Furthermore, the essence of any social democratic reforms today, whether under Labour or SNP, is that they only represent ‘sweeties’, selected and handed down by those liberal capitalist parties representing the ruling and middle classes, in order to win votes from what they hope will remain an otherwise passive working class. The conservative capitalist parties (the Conservative and UKIP) oppose state financed, social democratic reforms, and only accept their continued existence as a price to be paid to prevent greater social upheaval. Since the post-1975 ruling class offensive, any new reforms have rarely come about as a result of independent working class campaigning or action. This is why they have proved to be so ephemeral under the current conditions of capitalist crisis.

The notion of what constitutes social democracy has been successively diluted since the late nineteenth century. Then it meant the politics of those who organised the working class to fight for an alternative socialist society. Later it meant the politics of those who represented the economic and social interests of the working class within capitalism and who sought a welfare state – termed Labourism in the UK. Nowadays it means the politics of those who argue for a vague commitment to some state regulation and social reforms, something that also appeal to sections of the middle class, especially those employed in the management of the public sector. However, today’s social democrats everywhere subordinate their proposed social democratic reforms to first meeting the ‘needs of the market’, i.e. global corporate capital.

The SNP has become, in effect, a ‘tartan’ social democrat party, in the current political sense of the term. This chimes in very well with the dominant cultural values found in Scotland. However, when workers take their own independent action you can see the real class face of the SNP. The SNP control West Dunbartonshire Council and have imposed cuts here upon some of the most deprived working class communities. They suspended Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) councillor, Jim Bollan for six months following his consistent backing for workers and service users resisting these cuts. In the City of Edinburgh Council, the SNP are in coalition with the Lib-Dems. Here they have spent more money on hiring private refuse collectors to break the industrial action of the council’s in-house refuse workers resisting a major pay cut, than it would have cost to settle the dispute. This is because the council is preparing for privatisation of services, as a way of making public sector cuts, and of winning business support.

The SNP remains, in effect, a federally organised party, advocating different policies in different regions to appeal to different classes and sections of the Scottish population. It has a somewhat different face in the Western Isles, the north-east and the Central Belt. However, for a long time, a dominant Labour Party was able to limit the SNP’s growth in the major cities and the Central Belt, with its characterisation of the SNP as ‘Tartan Tories’. This was never an entirely accurate label, although the SNP undoubtedly has a right populist wing, where most remaining ‘fundamentalists’ are still to be found.

However, under Jim Sillars and later, Alex Salmond (significantly both from the former Leftist 79 Group), the SNP has made huge efforts to win over the Labour Party’s working class electoral base. They have been mightily helped in this by New Labour’s drift to the Right, and by the current demise, after the Sheridan debacle, of the once promising Socialist alternative, which developed in Scotland in the aftermath of the successful anti-poll tax struggle.

The SNP and the Labour unionist precedent in abandoning a consistent secular approach to society

The SNP has learned more from the Labour Party, though, than the necessity to advocate social democratic reforms to win working class support. Because the Labour Party developed within, and increasingly adapted to the existing UK state and British Empire, with its constitutional monarchy and its established church, it departed from the earlier Radical, and never adopted the continental Social Democrat tradition, which then championed a republican and secular society, as the best means to integrate people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

In the nineteenth century, as those rising middle class members, who owned industries and other businesses, joined and broadened the traditional British ruling class, their Liberal principles became increasingly compromised. This was because they began to fear more Radical challenges from the ‘lower orders’. They sought their own rapprochement with the existing British unionist and constitutional monarchist order with its established church. This became especially clear in their attempts to deal with those challenges they faced in Ireland.

The majority of the British ruling class decided that, rather than push for a secular Ireland, which might bring together ‘lower order’ Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters – the old republican ideal – they would look for influential allies who would help them maintain their overall control. The widening of the franchise, first to the middle class, then later to tenant farmers and workers, meant that they could no longer rely on the old ‘Anglo-Irish’ Protestant Ascendancy alone. They found a powerful ally in the Catholic hierarchy.

However, winning the hierarchy’s support also meant granting it significant concessions. These included the recognition of the papacy’s right to appoint bishops in the UK, and giving the hierarchy control over educational and elementary social provision (hospitals, children’s homes, etc). This was consistent with earlier Liberal capitulation to Protestant denominations over the provision of education and social provision in Ireland (particularly the North), England, Scotland and Wales.

In Ireland, both Daniel O’Connell and later, Charles Parnell went along with the Catholic hierarchy’s demands for a greater political say, in return for support for more political recognition of Ireland within the Union. The hierarchy also ensured that its full weight was thrown behind the suppression of the Radical alternatives represented by Young Ireland, the Fenian Brotherhood and the more Radical wing of the Irish Land League, and that loyalty to the Queen, UK and British Empire was upheld.

This ruling class attempt to broaden the base of ‘Britishness’ by making political concessions to the religious and ethnic leaders in particular communities has become the hallmark of a top-down state managerial approach to win the loyalty of people from different religious and ethnic groups in the UK. Today, this is officially promoted as ‘multiculturalism’, at the same time as the UK constitution and state retains a hierarchy of religious and ethnic privileges. This is highlighted by the continued existence of an established church (the Church of England, with semi-established status for the Church of Scotland too) and the state promotion of ‘British values’ (first developed in and heavily influenced by the context of systematic clearances, enclosures, various types of forced labour, brutal punishments and the worldwide imperial looting of the planet). State promoted multiculturalism is not based on the idea of universal equality of the members of those ethnic and religious groups living in the UK, but by the recognition of a hierarchy of privileges meted out to ‘their’ state-approved representatives[1]However, just as social democratic economic and social measures are being scrapped to meet the needs of crisis-ridden capital, so too, have Cameron’s Conservatives decided to undermine ‘multicultural’ state backing for selected ethno-religious leaders (particularly Muslim), the better to promote old-style racist divide and rule policies amongst the working class..

In the nineteenth century, by departing from a consistent secular approach, the Liberal party, helped by the Catholic hierarchy, was able to win the vote of the majority of immigrant Irish. It was the passive votes, not the active participation of the ‘lower orders,’ that they wanted. In the twentieth century, the Labour Party increasingly adopted this approach too, but took it much further. It was also able to gain the support of many Catholic members of Irish origin, once the Catholic hierarchy had been won over and offered its lead. Labour accepted the state funding of specifically Catholic schools, which were placed under the immediate control of the hierarchy.

Several things helped the Catholic hierarchy in their endeavours. First the ‘non-denominational’ state schools were, in effect, still dominated by the different Protestant churches found in England, Scotland, Wales and what soon became Northern Ireland. The Conservative and Unionist Party, and the Church of Scotland still had strong Orange Order connections. They publicly displayed strong anti-Irish prejudices. Therefore, it was argued that separate schooling would shield Catholics from the entrenched discrimination, which was certainly still prevalent, particularly in Scotland, in 1918 (and until much later), at the time such schools were set up.

However, the other side of this was the acceptance that religious (or anti-Irish) divisions were a permanent feature of society and could not be overcome. This gave the Catholic hierarchy exclusive control, not just over religious education, but over most other aspects of education and pastoral care for children in their crucial formative years. Unlike the Loyalists and Orange Order, particularly in Northern Ireland, the Catholic hierarchy did not push for other measures of segregation, e.g. to cover employment and housing, to further entrench their influence. Such measures would just confine those of Irish Catholic origin to the worst jobs and homes and not have been popular. Therefore, the hierarchy went along with the majority of Catholics who fought against discrimination by demanding proper access in these economic and social arenas.

The best way to promote wider social integration is to adopt a similar secular and non-discriminatory approach to education too. Few people (apart from Loyalist bigots in Northern Ireland) want separate provision of housing and jobs. A secular approach would mean ending the church establishment, and removing any remaining privileges by eliminating the existing Protestant aspects of ‘non-denominational’ schools. Of course, those Protestant bigots, who campaign for the ending of Catholic schools, don’t wish to end such Protestant privileges. They want to reassert Protestant British supremacy. This why they also call for the promotion of royal events, by celebrating the British Protestant monarchy in schools. In contrast, secular schools would provide education about religions and other world outlooks, rather than permitting any religious indoctrination. However, such an approach is also still vehemently opposed by the Catholic hierarchy, which would lose the privileges it currently enjoys. In upholding this stance they have the backing of the Labour Party, particularly in Scotland.

Labour attacked the SNP, for much of its history, for wanting to create a Presbyterian Scotland. Labour strongly suggested that Scottish independence could only lead to the creation of a new ‘Stormont’-type regime here. As recently as 1994, Labour accused the SNP of anti-Catholic sectarianism in the Monklands by-election. However, just as the SNP has been able to out-social democrat New Labour, so, under Salmond, it has become as adept as Labour in courting the support of religious leaders, including the late Cardinal Winning and the current Cardinal O’Brien.

To win their influential support, the SNP has carefully politically positioned itself to appear less tolerant of gays and abortion rights than Labour, without officially adopting anti-gay or anti-abortion stances, which could lose it liberal support. Furthermore, the SNP has managed this, whilst at the same time courting such prominent Protestant fundamentalists as the homophobic Brian Souter, owner of Stagecoach.

Labour too was long able to play to such seemingly contradictory galleries. Prominent anti-Catholic bigot, Sam Campbell, member of the Orange Order, was the one-time Provost of Dalkeith and prominent Midlothian Labour councillor. Furthermore, Labour also currently enjoys the electoral support of the Orange Order, since it is seen to be the largest and most effective pro-unionist party in Scotland. Labour certainly doesn’t loudly trumpet this, preferring, if challenged, to appear as a mediating influence between religious or ethnic ‘extremes’.

In the recent past, Labour has extended the approach, initially adopted towards the Catholic hierarchy, by seeking the support of Muslim religious leaders in order to win the electoral support of mainly Asian migrants (particularly from Pakistan and Bangla Desh). Following this particular precedent, Salmond has also developed close relations with such people as Osama Saeed of the Scottish Islamic Foundation (which went on to receive state funding under the post 2007 SNP Holyrood government). Saeed became an SNP Westminster candidate in 2010 and he advocates ‘faith schools’. Just as the earlier Labour/Catholic hierarchy rapprochement helped to long cover up persistent child abuse in Catholic institutions, so SNP/Muslim religious leader rapprochement, especially if it were to lead to the setting up of ‘faith schools’, would likely provide cover for the sexist treatment of girls and women.[2]Of course, this is not to imply that such reactionary thinking and practice are confined to these particular religions or denominations. Neither the ‘liberal’ leadership of the Church of England nor the Church of Scotland is prepared to face down the homophobia of influential sections of their churches. The Church of England is committed to retaining its own denominational schools in England. The Church of Scotland has ostracised one of its own female ministers, Helen Percy, after she was raped by a church elder.

Only a secular approach to society can guarantee the right of individuals to practice the religion of their choice without imposing their values on others, and at the same time guarantee universal rights to women, children, gays and lesbians, often granted fewer ‘rights’ or facing real discrimination under religious rulings. Following the earlier path adopted by the Liberal and Labour Parties before it, the SNP has not chosen a principled secular approach.

This is because the SNP, despite having a paper commitment to political independence, has also been very much moulded by the legacy of British unionism and imperialism. This can be seen in the party’s acceptance of the Crown (which fronts so many of the anti-democratic features of the UK state), the United Kingdom (the Queen would remain head of state), its support for Scottish regiments (serving US/British imperial interests) and of sterling (which means recognition of Scotland’s economic subordination to the City).

The SNP leadership does not really offer us a political road to effective Scottish self-determination. Instead it offers itself to both overseas and Scottish business leaders as the best potential management for declining British imperialism and the UK state, in the territory ‘north of the border’. It accepts the continued dominant role of US/British imperialism and corporate capital in the north-east Atlantic. It wishes to uphold this order, but preferably through a saltire-flagged, non-nuclear, military contribution to NATO.

The SNP leadership does hope though that there will still be enough small change left from government revenues to provide a few social democratic reforms, after meeting the continually increasing costs of maintaining a crisis-ridden capitalism. To win wider support for this strategy, it is trying to paint as much of the inherited machinery of the UK state with a good lick of ‘tartan paint’ as possible, beginning with the British Army’s Scottish regiments.

The SNP’s current confident stance is designed to offer a somewhat brighter future than the grim prospects offered by the present Scottish Labour leader, the well-named Iain Gray. However, committed first to meeting the needs of the bankers and other corporate spivs, the SNP’s illusion-mongering can only work as long as workers lack the self-confidence to organise and to take action to meet our own needs.

Real Scottish political self-determination can only be won through the consistent upholding of a democratic, secular and republican approach, which strives for the equality of all those currently living in Scotland, in an alliance with others in England, Wales and Ireland to break up the UK state and the US/British imperial alliance on the basis of an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy.

Such a strategy can not be separated from the need to develop a new socio-economic order to replace an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism. To achieve this means breaking from all those who have become trapped in the web of institutions bequeathed by the successive phases of global capitalism both under the dominance of British and now US/British imperialism. In the nineteenth century, the Liberals succumbed to these pressures, as Labour did in the twentieth century, and as the SNP do today. This is why it is so important that we begin to learn deeper lessons from the most recent failed attempt to do this – the Scottish Socialist Party. There is so much at stake.

Allan Armstrong, 10th August 2011


Gregor Gall on the opportunities and problems facing the SNP government

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire ( but lives in Edinburgh. He is the author of The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? (University of Wales Press, 2005) and a fortnightly columnist in the Morning Star.

The tectonic plates of Scottish politics underwent a further and seemingly decisive shift on 5 May 2011 with the SNP landslide in the Scottish Parliament election. The return of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was destined in the minds of its ‘new’ Labour architects to have made such an SNP advance impossible – recall that while Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Labour MP George Robertson declared in 1995 that ‘Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead’. It seemed from 6 May until late June 2011 – with the debacle over the law against sectarianism – that Salmond was master of all that he surveyed. Even after that, Salmond remained a political and intellectual giant amongst pygmies on the Scottish stage, and convincingly challenged Westminster-based leaders for political dominance.

So, after languishing as the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2007, the SNP has made a remarkable breakthrough. The SNP started off with just 35 MSPs in 1999 – compared to Labour’s 56. By 2003, the SNP had dropped to 27 (with Labour on 50). But by 2007, the SNP gained 47 MSPs to Labour’s 46. It formed a minority government for the Parliament of 2003-2007 with the help of two Green MSPs and an independent (former SNP) MSP.

Although Labour had an early and commanding lead in the polls for the 2011 election (of between 10%-15%), the media believed its negative, lacklustre and misdirected campaign – epitomised by Iain Gray – allowed the SNP to take votes from it to add to the droves of Liberal Democrats voters coming its way. Come the election count, the SNP gained 69 MSPs to Labour’s 37. For the first time since 1999, a single party has formed a majority government but – at the very least – it was not supposed to be the SNP. Indeed, no single party was supposed to be able to dominate in this way. Now the SNP is arithmetically able to push though much of the legislative agenda which it could not in the 2007-2011 parliament. This includes a bill to undertake a referendum on whether Scotland should become a separate nation state. Consequently, this article examines the possibility of a breakup of the union, and what social and political direction such a break up may take. The key points for debate in radical circles are what can and will replace these entities and what will be their social and political composition.

A New Base for the SNP?

One of the key issues raised by the movement of voters concerns how coherent and permanent the SNP’s new electoral base now is. Since 1999, and unlike Labour, its vote has fluctuated widely and most of the former Liberal Democrat vote in 2011 came to it. Was this a mere protest vote against the Liberal Democrats’ participation in the Westminster coalition government which has seen the Liberal Democrats renege on its policy on student tuition fees and agree to savage cuts in the welfare state? Or does it mark the beginning of a permanent realignment? Ultimately, of course, only time will tell. But it can be doubted that the former Liberal Democrat voters have necessarily become more radicalised – or sufficiently radicalised – to become permanent SNP supporters. This can be ventured because an examination of the SNP’s policies shows it to be a left-of-centre party by comparison to the Liberal Democrats, and one which supports independence while the Liberal Democrats do not.

Before the arrival of Thatcherism, the SNP were commonly referred to as ‘Tartan Tories’ in light of not just their policies but their social base of the middle class and the fishing and farming communities outside the central belt of Scotland. But with the revolt against Thatcherism most often framed by a social democratic influenced notion of national identity, the SNP became a more social democratic influenced party. It was more than just Thatcherism had no mandate to the predominant form of Scottish national identity for what it meant to be Scottish was to be the opposite of Thatcherism, namely, egalitarian, tolerant, caring and compassionate. It was under this process that the SNP adopted – in competition with Labour in particular – a set of policies (of which some have been acted upon since 2007) that now comprise what seems like radicalism on the social and political front. The former includes abolition of prescription charges, freezing the council tax, scrapping tuition fees and bridge tolls, introducing free school meals for all 5-8 year olds, ending the sale of council houses, preserving free personal care for the elderly, and progressive local taxation. The later has included opposition to the Iraq war, abolition of new weapons (and Trident in particular) as well as opposition to privatisation of public services via the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and its replacement with the non-profit making Scottish Futures Trust along with the building the first publicly funded and owned hospital for a generation.

Radical Nationalists?

But the extent to which this is or looks radical has to been held in regard of three points. First, the Scottish Labour Party – despite the some organisational autonomy and the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament – did not open up a particularly large expanse of ‘clear red water’ between itself and ‘new’ Labour. The Welsh Labour Party under the less powerful Welsh Assembly has a better claim in this regard. The comparison of the SNP to Scottish Labour, therefore, easily flatters the SNP.

Second, the SNP has – notwithstanding the aforementioned policies – gravitated towards the centre ground of politics as ‘new’ Labour and neo-liberalism reconfigured the whole political landscape. Thus, the SNP’s economic policy was and remains very similar to Scottish Labour’s ‘smart successful Scotland’ agenda of a high-tech and research-based ‘value added economy’ under which business is supported and encouraged through deregulation and financial assistance (within the confines of devolved matters). The SNP 2007-2011 government’s support for Donald Trump’s golf and leisure development near Aberdeen is an indication of how the SNP is prepared to support business (and in the course of this, often, browbeat opposition) in order for business to have free rein for its terms on which to invest its capital. Like many other examples such as Amazon and News International, the benefit in the eyes of the SNP of Trump’s investment is to bring jobs to Scotland at a time of economic stagnation – and in contradiction of the ‘value added economy’ approach, pretty much never mind the types of jobs that are created, namely, low paid and low skilled ones. This was why some two hundred leading members of the business community endorsed the SNP in the 2011 election, with Finance Secretary, John Swinney, proclaiming ‘Captains of industry have benefited from the SNP’. This is particularly true with regard to ‘big oil’ and ‘big finance’.

The main regard in which the SNP’s economic policy is different from Labour’s ‘smart successful Scotland’ is that the SNP advocates that Scotland as an independent nation state should join the economies of Ireland, Iceland and Norway in an ‘arc of prosperity’. That the SNP chose these exemplars and put much emphasis on the Ireland as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy with its vastly lower level of corporation tax is instructive, for this left out the rather more socially democratic-inclined Denmark, Sweden and Finland. There are a few counter-movements to the influence of neo-liberalism upon the SNP’s economic policy. The resistance to PFI and the like is evident but no moves have been made to recapture lost ground to the domination of the market. Interesting as though they are the minimum pricing on alcohol (to reduce health and social problems) and the so-called additional ‘Tesco tax’ on supermarket profits do not contradict this analysis. Indeed, with the vast price increase in gas and electricity of 1 August 2011 by Scottish Power, the SNP merely asked the company to justify this increase rather than say it was thinking about setting establishing price controls and arguing that such a power should be devolved.

Third, the SNP is not a republican party by policy or leadership and has always made it clear that while the ending of the union of countries is its favoured policy, it would still maintain the union of the crowns. Fourth, upon greeting the 2011 election result the following day, Alex Salmond declared that: ‘For the first time, we’re living up to the idea that we’re the national party of Scotland, all classes, all communities, all parts of Scotland; we will do our absolute best to redeem the people’s trust’. Although it seems somewhat churlish to castigate the SNP alone for having a worldview based on the politics of a supposed ‘national interest’ (even a Scottish rather than British one) whereby ‘national interest’ is that defined and controlled by the powerful forces of the capitalist status quo, it remains the case that for those that see radical pretensions in the SNP will likely be disappointed. Such an examination of the nature of the SNP and its political support is essential to then assessing if, how and when an independent Scotland may emerge as well as what that independence may look like.

Support for Independence

Support for the SNP has nearly always exceeded support for independence and historically not all SNP voters have supported independence so the two are far from being synonymous with each other. Even before the SNP took some 45% of the vote in the constituency and regional vote on 5 May 2011, support for independence has between 1999 and 2007 never exceeded 34% and has been as low as 23% according to the Scottish Social Attitudes surveys (which asks gives the option of ‘independence’, ‘enhanced devolution’, ‘status quo’ and ‘end devolution’ to a wider sample than most polls). In these surveys, support for enhanced devolution – that is, greater fiscal autonomy in particular – shows support ranging from 37% to 55%. More recent polls conducted by YouGov broadly continue this pattern (and show that the percentage favouring independence for Scotland is higher in England and Wales). However, it remains to be seen whether the higher level of support for independence (39%) than support for staying in the Union (38%) – as recorded in the early September 2011 TNS-BMRB poll – is a blip or the beginning of a more fixed phenomenon.

The difference between support for the SNP and independence arises for a number of reasons but a principal one is that the SNP itself has wavered over time in the extent to which it has prioritised independence and was divided between the ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘gradualists’ wings of its party over the roadmap to independence and the centrality of independence to the SNP’s political platform. Nonetheless, as much as 58% of SNP voters supported independence in 2003 according to the Scottish Social Attitude survey. This is both a strength and a weakness – the former because as the only major party supporting independence but the latter because only just over a simple majority of SNP voters supported (with support for independence amongst the voters of other parties like Labour much lower).

Salmond will not be forced by the Unionist parties and Unionist media into organising a referendum before he thinks he has strengthened the case of the SNP as a credible party of government in order to strengthen the case for independence. This means the SNP wants to take time to deepen its image of managerial competency. Salmond will also devise a ballot paper which maximises support for independence (probably by avoiding a simple ‘yes’/’no’ choice and asking the question in principle, maybe by even avoiding use of the term ‘independence’) and will use a staged approach of a successful referendum outcome to negotiate terms of sovereignty which will then be subject to another referendum. He will try to use the opportunity of the newly enhanced power of the Scottish Parliament (through the Scotland Act 2011) to show what more could be achieved with independence. With a majority in the Scottish Parliament, he intends to introduce the bill to initiate the first referendum no sooner than the end of 2013. But between now and then and thereafter there are quite a few issues that could derail this SNP plan.


First amongst those is whether the SNP can as a party remain unscathed from the effect of the swingeing cuts in the welfare state that are coming. As the Scottish government, it is obliged to make savings of £3.3bn over the next five years. Moreover, with fresh election pledges to maintain on a council tax freeze for five years, no tuition fees for home students and the like, the public sector worker pay freeze will require continuation along with considerable cuts in other budgets. So-called ‘efficiency savings’ not only can only go so far but these will necessarily have to comprise huge real cuts in provision. The SNP government will no doubt ramp up the rhetoric of the ‘blame game’ on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in Westminster for initiating the cuts and will point out with its rich natural reserves (especially of oil) that Scotland, as an independent country, would not have to suffer these cuts. However, if the SNP government does not firmly square up to the Westminster government in a fight on this and have some measure of success as well, it will be undermined as the defender of Scotland, especially as the welfare state and the values of fairness and egalitarianism are so central to the dominant notion of Scottish nationality. Having travelled so far to the right since their ’79 Group’ days, it is incredulous to believe that Salmond and MacAskill would now advocate ‘a real Scottish resistance’ including ‘political strikes and civil disobedience on a mass scale’ as they did then. It is highly unlikely that the cuts can be delayed or ameliorated through extra borrowing or economic growth. The SNP is also not currently minded to increase (personal) taxation by varying the basic rate of income tax in Scotland (as any Scottish government could have done since 1999) or abolish the council tax and replace it with a progressive alternative which also would generate more revenue from the well-to-do.

if the SNP government does not firmly square up to the Westminster government in a fight on this and have some measure of success as well, it will be undermined as the defender of Scotland, especially as the welfare state and the values of fairness and egalitarianism are so central to the dominant notion of Scottish nationality.

If the case for independence is to be made and made successfully, it will no doubt hinge upon the type of independence that is on offer. But this will not come without its own problems. During the 2011 election campaign, the SNP did not make a big fist of independence given it was still smarting a little from the blow of the ‘arc of insolvency’ jibe. Nonetheless, it did make clear that independence – in its view – would be ‘better for jobs and the economy’. Since the election, it has emerged that the SNP now favours what has been dubbed ‘independence-lite’. This is to envisage Scotland as more independent but remaining within a confederation of states on the British Isles, and sharing services such as defence, foreign affairs and social security with England while exercising full fiscal and political sovereignty. In other words, outright independence or separatism is not being contemplated and shows that, as before, the SNP’s vision of independence is a flexible and changing one. For example, in the late 1980s, the slogan of the SNP was a fairly definite, full-blown ‘independence in Europe’ while by the early 2000s it had moved to fiscal autonomy to precede independence (then unclearly defined). Such nimble footwork may be able to form an internal balancing act between the fundamentalist and gradualist wings within the SNP as well as one amongst the electorate, media and other key players like business. But much will depend upon whether the message remains coherent and credible, and whether what is lost by angering those clamouring for quick and outright independence is made up for by assuaging those that fear separatism.

Mobilising Voters

But probably a more significant consideration is that come the actual independence campaign, politically, the SNP will have to go much further to the left than these mere platitudes on jobs if it wants to win the campaign and amongst the majority ‘lower orders’. If the SNP is to keep and maintain political influence for its political objectives, crucially convincing these ‘lower orders’ – which constitute the majority of citizenry and electorate – that their living standards will be better under independence (however defined) becomes the central task. This is because it is evident at the moment that independence being better for jobs and the economy is conceived within the conventions of neo-liberalism (and absent economic expansion) and that is not a convincing basis upon which to argue to most citizens that independence will be better for jobs etc. Indeed, if a) there is no credible sense that independence will not protect jobs and their terms and conditions as well protect and promote public services and b) independence is, thus, essentially just about constitutional and political change, then a whole swathe of citizenship amongst workers and the impoverished will either not vote at all or vote against it (under the influence of a Unionist dominated media). A low turnout is already a problem for in the Scottish Parliament elections where it has declined from a high of 58% in 1999 to 50% in 2011%, and in some areas of Glasgow 60% did not vote in 2011. But to envisage what a socially radical version of what independence may be and which is capable of moving the disenfranchised to vote could also scare some of the horses on the political centre and right including many amongst the business community. For example, intervening in the market to control prices (rather just on minimum pricing of alcohol) and having a solidaristic wage and taxation policy would create this kind of positive and negative reaction.

The Left and Independence

Although the SNP‘s legislative programme for the 2011-2015 Parliament is quite unimaginative, with Labour, the Liberals and the Tories all being affected by their own internal crises, it’s not quite a case that the SNP thus looks better than it actually is. It’s more a case of it not looking as unappealing and uninspiring as it is. Turning to the left, at the moment, with Scottish Socialist Party continuing to be at the very bottom reaches of its doldrums after gaining just 8,272 votes in May 2011, there is very little sense at the moment and for the foreseeable future in which it and the wider pro-independence left is going to be able to pull the overall independence agenda towards it in order to make it more radical and left-wing. The effect of the second Sheridan trial was to further alienate voters from the SSP and Solidarity as ‘a plague on both your houses’.

The irony is that with the SNP in government and its goal of independence, the purchase of Scottish socialism is potentially large because the framing of the issue of which direction society should move in plays to the politics of the SSP’s platform of ‘Socialism – Independence – Internationalism’. What the SSP and wider radical left woefully lack are numbers and credibility to take advantage of this window of opportunity. They have the slim opportunity to regain lost ground for that purpose by helping to organise the fight against the cuts in public expenditure. If they do not, and in this overall situation, the SNP may end up being caught between a rock and a hard place of trying to be all things to all classes and not be enough of anything to anyone of them. Consequently, the break-up of Britain, for good or for ill, will have to wait some time yet.

This article was first published on the online on Frontline on:- The End of the Union?


1 However, just as social democratic economic and social measures are being scrapped to meet the needs of crisis-ridden capital, so too, have Cameron’s Conservatives decided to undermine ‘multicultural’ state backing for selected ethno-religious leaders (particularly Muslim), the better to promote old-style racist divide and rule policies amongst the working class.
2 Of course, this is not to imply that such reactionary thinking and practice are confined to these particular religions or denominations. Neither the ‘liberal’ leadership of the Church of England nor the Church of Scotland is prepared to face down the homophobia of influential sections of their churches. The Church of England is committed to retaining its own denominational schools in England. The Church of Scotland has ostracised one of its own female ministers, Helen Percy, after she was raped by a church elder.