Allan Armstrong (RCN) updates his socialist republican analyses of constitutional developments in the UK and Ireland, in the lead up to the May 2015 Westminster election.



1. British unionists and Scottish nationalists attempt to derail Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’



There are several important features to the political landscape we can currently see in Scotland and the wider UK. One key feature is the shock that the ‘Yes’ campaign gave to the British ruling class and, in particular, to their representatives in the mainstream unionist parties.

The referendum campaign had conjured up a ‘democratic revolution’, beyond either the control of Westminster or Holyrood. Voter registration was 97% and voter participation was 85%. Scotland experienced a wave of public meetings, canvassing, street stalls and cultural events, along with a huge volume of electronic correspondence and face-to-face conversations throughout the campaigning period.

All this provided a direct challenge to the decreasing levels of public participation that have characterised the contemporary political situation promoted under what Tariq Ali has termed the rule of the “extreme centre” [1]. In the UK, New Labour and Orange Book Liberals joined the post-Thatcherite Conservatives to form this “extreme centre”. The Conservative/Lib-Dem/Labour ‘Better Together’ (‘Project Fear’) alliance provided a text book example of how this works in action.

Following the example of Republican/Democratic dominated politics in the USA, which coalesced much earlier around how best to represent the interests of their corporate business backers and ensure the domination of the ‘plutocracy’, all the mainstream parties in the UK began to welcome the much narrower political basis upon which official politics was conducted. They cared little about the steady erosion of wider political engagement. Indeed they probably welcomed it.

Therefore, in the aftermath of the unprecedented level of engagement in the referendum campaign, and the consequent rise of political expectations in Scotland, the UK government and unionist parties were not reassured by their ‘No’ victory in the ballot. Many voters had become even more disenchanted with Westminster politics and, in increasing numbers, with the whole UK set-up.

More importantly, large numbers of people were not moving back to political passivity, nor to the populist Right (e.g. UKIP), whose policies can often be adapted by the “extreme centre” for divide-and-rule purposes. Many of those who have been through the referendum campaign experience still wanted to remain politically engaged.

Hence the British unionists’ overriding concern has been to bottle-up the unprecedented demand for constitutional reform and social change within the constraints of Westminster politics. The first indication of this was the appointment of that quintessentially pro-establishment figure, Lord Smith, to chair a Commission given the remit of coming up with some limited constitutional proposals to update the current Scottish devolution settlement.

Eager to get politics quickly back into official channels, through Westminster and its devolved Holyrood offspring, the Smith Commission treated the SNP government as the sole representative of those desiring Scottish independence. Whatever disdain many in the mainstream unionist parties still hold with regard to the SNP, they understood that its leaders remained the best political option for reining in many of the wider expectations raised in the ‘democratic revolution’.

After all, the queen, the political figurehead for the British ruling class, has long been on good terms with Alex Salmond. She has even dined with Martin McGuinness. If the ‘discrete charm’ of the British bourgeoisie is in somewhat short supply under today’s conditions of economic crisis, then the sang-froid of the British monarchy, developed over centuries and buttressed by the security provided by the UK state’s Crown Powers, can still be relied upon to impress some of the ‘lower orders’.

With the SNP’s Westminster-acquiescent constitutional nationalism firmly in mind, Lord Smith ignored the critical submissions made by other organisations in Scotland, the better to concentrate all his attention upon the SNP leadership. He understood that constitutional nationalists still want official sanction when pressing for their own reforms.

Under the terms of the October 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, the SNP government had to accept Cameron’s rejection of a second ‘Devo-Max’ option in the ballot. Since the publication of the Smith Commission report, whatever other disagreements have arisen between the unionist parties, they have remained united in ensuring that they alone retain the right to frame any future constitutional reforms to suit their purposes. There is no right of national self-determination under the UK constitution.

Because the unionist parties had not been prepared to concede ‘Devo-Max’, the SNP government had been forced to come up with, and then fight for, their alternative ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals. ‘Devo-Max’ would have satisfied many in the SNP leadership and most of their business backers. This is consistent with the SNP government’s long term strategy of developing a wannabe Scottish ruling class, by incrementally devolving more and more of Westminster’s powers to Scotland by agreement with the UK state.

Any popular participation in this process has to be carefully managed, in case it upsets either the SNP’s actual or potential business backers, or antagonises the British establishment. This is why the ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals were also drawn up to appease the UK state (support for the monarchy and British High Command), and the City of London (support for sterling).

Blocked by every official channel of state and nearly all the mainstream media, the SNP leadership had to launch their own front organisation – ‘Yes Scotland’ to campaign for their ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals in the run-up to the September 18th referendum. This drew in Dennis Canavan, the Greens and SSP to provide the SNP with some political cover. At local level, ‘Yes Scotland’ often spiraled out of official control, whilst new independent organisations, Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), Women for Independence and the National Collective grew rapidly, alongside alternative media outlets such as bella caledonia.

After their shock at the closeness of the referendum result, and the confidence this still gave to many ‘Yes’ supporters, the British establishment wondered if the SNP leadership could still be totally relied upon to return to their earlier ever so constitutional nationalist form.

To the consternation of the unionists, the SNP government put down a political marker to indicate the new political circumstances, which would justify them pressing for another Scottish independence referendum – a UK ‘Yes’ majority and a Scottish ‘No’ majority in any future referendum on withdrawal from the EU. The UK state’s troubled relationship with the EU is another factor, along with the increasingly fraught relationship with its constituent national (Scotland and Wales) and sub-national (Northern Ireland) units, that  has contributed to a growing constitutional crisis, now aggravated by the continued post-2008 economic crisis.

However, Nicola Sturgeon’s political intervention, over the UK constituent units’ relationship with the EU, was mainly made to reassure the SNP’s ‘Independista’ wing. After September 18th, they overwhelmingly joined the ‘We are the 45’ campaign (the ‘45’ referring to the percentage ‘Yes’ vote, whilst also harking back to an earlier ‘glorious defeat’ – the 1745 Jacobite rebellion). They wanted some confirmation that their party’s vision of independence is still there; as the SNP government gets on with its real immediate task – the attempt to reform the UK state in alliance with Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

The SNP leadership rejected any idea that the forthcoming 2015 Westminster General Election could provide another chance to vote for independence as some ‘Independistas’ would have wished – triggered off, say, by winning a majority of SNP MPs. New SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has stuck firmly to the General Election pledge of former leader, Alex Salmond of “holding Westminster’s feet to the fire”.

Thus, the first phase in taming the ‘democratic revolution’ has now been put in place. The British establishment and the mainstream unionist parties, drawing support from the anti-democratic Crown Powers of the UK state, and the hugely compliant mainstream media, can continue their unionist counter-offensive, knowing it will be fought by the SNP leadership under Westminster imposed conditions where, if necessary, ‘Britannia waives the rules’.


 2. The UK’s constitutional set-up, the US’s constitutional privileging of corporations and the continued strengthening of the EU bureaucracy undermine any constitutional notions of popular sovereignty and social provision

There be dragons! The City of London privileged and protected by the Crown Powers
There be dragons!
The City of London privileged and protected      by the Crown Powers

The next phase in lowering political expectations is the 2015 Westminster General Election itself. The SNP leadership wants to use this to bring about its further reform of the UK – with more devolution for Scotland and Wales and a return to devolution for the English regions abandoned under New Labour.

They are also looking for support for continued membership of the EU, but without making any challenge to its central bankers, now as committed to the imposition of austerity as the City of London, as events in Greece highlight.

However, the SNP’s apparently moderate constitutional reforms are still not acceptable to a British ruling class. They are very unwilling to contemplate meaningful liberal political reform at a time of continued economic crisis and wider international instability.

Since 1997, the mainstream unionist political representatives in New Labour/‘One {British} Nation’ Labour and the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition have developed a sophisticated ‘New Unionist’ strategy. This is based on retaining the core principle underpinning the UK state – the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament. The Crown Powers protect whole swathes of the UK state from even any formal political accountability.

Furthermore, the unionist form of the state (which, since 1998, has given constitutional recognition to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a more politically ambiguous England/Britain), allows the component parts of the British ruling class – English-British, Scottish-British, Welsh-British and ‘Ulster’-British – to promote national divide-and-rule policies. This ensures that any of these sub-sections of the ruling class, when facing a local challenge, can get backing from their class cousins elsewhere within the state. The UK-wide backing given to Scottish Tories, under Thatcher, to impose the poll tax first in Scotland; and New Labour’s resort to the vote of its Scottish MPs to impose foundation hospitals upon England under Blair, are two such examples.

From the late 1960s, the British ruling class faced the impact of national democratic movements in Northern Ireland (which moved from campaigning for Civil Rights within the UK state to Republican opposition to the UK state across the whole of Ireland), Scotland (given new life after the successful Anti-Poll Tax resistance) and Wales (particularly the Welsh Language Movement). It was not until New Labour was elected in 1997 that the British ruling class arrived at an agreed ‘New Unionist’ political settlement. This involves ‘Devolution-all-round’ (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and the ‘Peace {pacification} Process’ (covering both 26 and 6 counties Ireland). Together, these are designed to create the optimum political conditions throughout these islands for the global corporations to maximise their profits.

This ‘New Unionist’ strategy has come to be accepted by all the mainstream unionist parties. Cameron and Clegg’s Con/Lib-Dem coalition has developed it further, with the Government of Wales Act in 2011 and the Scotland Act in 2012. However, in Northern Ireland a reactionary and conservative unionist alliance – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) – backed by the loyalists, has blocked any liberal constitutional reform.

‘New Unionism’s islands-wide (including the southern Irish state) purpose was demonstrated by the City of London’s ability, in 2008, to get the UK government to force the Irish government to convert Irish private bank debts into public sovereign debt. This was done to ensure a continued flow of tribute from the Irish people, particularly the working class, to the bankers. This has also contributed to the ongoing wave of house repossessions in Ireland, at the instigation of British (including Scottish based) financial institutions. (The Troika, of course, exerted an even stronger pressure on the Irish government, but this just further reinforced the Irish economy’s dependency on the banks.)

Neither in the UK nor in Ireland do the official trade union leadership challenge any of this, other than through occasional words or token actions. On both sides of the Irish Sea, they have remained trapped within ‘social partnerships’. These have largely reduced their function to acting as a personnel management service for the employers and state. These ‘social partnerships’ have also led the TUC, STUC, WTUC and ICTU (including its Northern Committee) into providing political support to the ‘New Unionist’ settlement and its political institutions.

Furthermore, the US government also endorses this ‘New Unionist’ set-up – hence their intervention in the Haas Talks in Northern Ireland; and so does the EU bureaucracy – hence the interventions of key Euro-bureaucrats in the Scottish referendum debate.

The ongoing siphoning off of states’ ‘national sovereignty’ towards bodies completely subservient to the global corporations – the WTO, IMF and World Bank – or regionally to the EU bureaucracy and European Central Bank – has, in some measure, long been anticipated in the UK.

The UK state is based on the constitutional principle of only recognising the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament, and certainly not popular sovereignty. This arrangement already gave the City of London protected and privileged status – in effect, the ability to act as an ‘onshore’ banking haven – long before Gordon Brown jettisoned any last illusions in the City’s accountability to the UK government, by awarding the Bank of England complete independence in 1997.

The SNP government, especially under Alex Salmond, enjoyed a particularly close relationship with certain City institutions – the Royal Bank and the Bank of Scotland. Indeed the SNP leadership was even more gung-ho about banking deregulation than New Labour – up until the 2008 Crash. However, the continued importance of this link was demonstrated during the Scottish referendum campaign. Despite all the inconsistencies exposed (including by respected former SNP economic advisors, Jim and Margaret Cuthbertson), the SNP government said it would hold on to sterling after ‘independence’.

Similarly, when the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Deal (TTIP), which is designed to constitutionally entrench global corporate power within the EU and UK, first came up for discussion at the European Parliament, SNP MEPs supported its principles.

If the idea of providing constitutional privilege to key banks was first pioneered within the post-1689 UK constitutional monarchy; then the idea of awarding corporations the same constitutional status as individual citizens was first pioneered in the US imperial republic [2]. The effect of this is akin to giving a new-born baby the right to enter the boxing ring with the world heavyweight champion, who can also line his gloves with lead and choose the referee!

Constitutionally enforced rule by the banks, both under the EU bureaucracy and/or the City of London, (depending whether in or out of the EU), and by the global corporations (supported by all the pro- and anti-EU pro-capitalist parties), has undermined not only national sovereignty but, more importantly, popular sovereignty where social rights can be given constitutional recognition [3].

It is worth remembering that, even in the event of a ‘Yes’ victory last September 18th, the SNP government did not see this as transferring popular sovereignty to the Scottish people, leading to the convening of a Constituent Assembly. Instead, it saw the vote as strengthening its position in negotiations with the Westminster government. To emphasise the fact that the Scottish government believe that sovereignty derives from holding office in Westminster’s devolved Holyrood parliament, they intended to bring the Scottish unionist parties’ representatives into their negotiating team.

With their eyes once again firmly set upon winning over more Scottish business leaders to augment a new wannabe Scottish ruling class, the SNP leadership is keen to return to their earlier strategy of a step-by-step junior managerial ‘buy-out’ of ‘UK Ltd’ assets in Scotland.

The collapse in oil prices has pushed the SNP government to the forefront of championing corporate tax cuts – perhaps they have Aberdeen oil magnate, Sir Ian Wood CBE, as their next target for recruitment! This is instead of giving any consideration to public ownership of North Sea oil to iron out the ‘boom or bust’ reaction of private capital to fluctuating market prices in oil, or to put in place a sovereign oil fund that could help manage the transition to a less carbon-dependent economy.

Thus, above all else, the SNP government wants the gradual accumulation of more powers, to demonstrate their competence to business leaders, and to avoid any popular irruption into Scottish politics – something threatened by the unprecedented participation in Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’.


 3. The SNP leadership’s strategy to contain the ‘democratic revolution’ – Moving from Independence to Home Rule and hoovering-up the ‘Yes’ supporters

The 12000 strong SNP rally in Glasgow on November 22nd
The 12000 strong SNP rally in Glasgow on November 22nd

With its focus set firmly once more on Westminster, the SNP government’s first port of call for more constitutional reform is a possible future Miliband-led minority government. In line with their arguments with ‘Yes’ supporters to lower their political sights, the SNP government is pushing for the fullest implementation of the Smith Commission’s ‘Devo-Plus’ proposals.

The SNP do hope to get some extra powers beyond Smith’s recommendations, if there are enough SNP MPs elected in May to make their influence felt in a hung parliament. Thus, they have not totally abandoned ‘Devo-Max’, which they have now renamed ‘Home Rule’, because of its resonance with those recalling older Scottish Labour traditions [4]. None of this challenges the UK state’s anti-democratic Crown Powers, which provide the British ruling class with a powerful armoury with which to see themselves through times of difficulty and crisis.

The SNP leadership is now backing the Campaign for Home Rule (CfHR) as their latest project to replace the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign. The SSP and Greens [5] were not invited this time. CfHR has a far more business representation, and has also reached out to include Scottish Labour’s dissident Henry McLeish and former three times Lib-Dem MSP, Margaret Smith. The CfHR’s composition and aims are a further indication that the SNP leadership is keen to get back to its earlier ‘please hand us down more powers’ approach to politics.

The SNP leadership is astute enough to realise that Nicola Sturgeon’s “absolute red line” for propping up a Miliband-led Labour government – the cancellation of Trident renewal – is unlikely to be met. Therefore, they are seeking other allies – Plaid Cymru and Green MPs. They are also courting northern England Labour councillors and MPs, who may well be less enamoured with New Labour/‘One Nation’ Labour subservience to the City of London. Some want to follow Scotland’s example by reviving the prospect of devolution for the English regions.

Yet, the SNP government knows it may also have to call upon the less than enthusiastic support of Miliband’s supporters within the Labour Party. This support could be needed to resist mounting conservative unionist pressures to retreat to the kind of ‘Devo-Minus’ package, already revealed in the watered down Con/Lib-Dem government proposals of January 22nd, 2015.

Such ‘Devo-Minus’ feelings are also to be found amongst such Labour figures as Dianne Abbott. She was goaded by new Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy’s “I’m not a unionist” Damascus road ‘conversion’ and his attack on the people of London. It has always been a feature of British unionist politicians that, far from guaranteeing greater working class unity, they can be as adept as  some traditional Scottish nationalists in promoting national divisions amongst the working class.

The SNP leadership is edging towards the type of political accommodation with Labour that the Irish nationalists had with the Liberal Party in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This alliance never delivered Irish Home Rule, despite three Home Rule Bills in 1885, 1893 and 1912-4. However, it did lead the Irish Parliamentary Party into giving its support for the Liberal government’s participation in the First World War (despite some earlier opposition to other imperial ventures, such as the Boer War). The SNP government has already moved beyond its earlier opposition to the Iraq war to support for the Afghanistan and Libya wars [6].

A key part of the SNP leaders’ strategy to replace Labour as the dominant party in Scotland has been to ‘hoover up’ the non-SNP ‘Yes’ vote, either by recruiting as many as possible to the party, or by forcing others into acting as apologists and outriders for the SNP. Central to this was a major recruiting drive that took the party membership from just over 25,000 before September 18th to nearly 100,000 in just over 2 months. 12,000 people attended Nicola Sturgeon’s final rally in Glasgow on November 22nd, timed to be on the same day as RIC’s own earlier planned 3000 strong conference next door.

The official ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign, with its more radical SSP and Green representatives, had been quickly closed down. Those on the Left, who held illusions in the SNP being willing to leave Westminster seats available for selected non-SNP candidates, were to be quickly disappointed. This ‘vow’ made by successful SNP depute leader candidate, Stewart Hosie, was quickly forgotten after he was elected. The SNP’s November 2014 conference ensured that the party machine controlled all the political channels for electoral advance. And the post-2012 ‘New SNP’ already has all the powers in place to tame and, if necessary, reject any new members with different political ambitions to those of the leadership.

At the same time, the changeover of SNP leader from Alex Salmond to Nicola Sturgeon at the November party conference was done seamlessly and with some aplomb. Up to September 18th, Labour had hoped to persuade many people to vote ‘No’ by claiming to represent the legacy of another ‘45’ – 1945. However, although Labour could claim much credit for the post-1945 social monarchist Welfare State, especially the NHS; New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had been almost as assiduous as the Tories in dismantling this legacy.

This is well understood by many one-time Scottish Labour voters, and has been played upon with considerable effect by the SNP, as the desertion of much of Labour’s vote on September 18th in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dumbarton highlighted. Along with Dundee (another onetime Labour stronghold), these constituencies ‘seceded’ from the Union!

However, support for independence in the referendum remained lower amongst women than men. The post-1974 Labour government had been responsible for a second wave of reforms, including the Sex Discrimination Act. This led to an explosion of women’s campaigning, much of it associated with the Labour Party and the trade union movement. Furthermore, this legacy has not come under direct attack from New Labour.

Until very recently, the SNP had no record of such campaigning. Indeed, they triangulated to the right of Labour over several social issues to woo religious leaders in Scotland. They hoped this would prize away electoral support from religious groups previously voting Labour, especially Catholics and Muslims. In contrast to their inability to capitalise on the legacy of ‘1945’, Labour could still do so amongst women over ‘1975’.

Therefore, Nicola Sturgeon, on becoming Scotland’s First Minister, quickly made moves to overcome this discrepancy between Labour and the SNP. She appointed a 50% women cabinet, just at the time that Scottish Labour lost its own female leader, Johann Lamont and installed Jim Murphy instead! At every step, since September 18th, Scottish Labour has shown a spectacular ability to being wrong-footed by the SNP.

The SNP leadership is confident that it can replace Labour as the main Scottish party at Westminster in the forthcoming General Election. This would represent a dramatic breakthrough for the SNP. They had won the battle with Labour for pole position at Holyrood as far back as 2007. However, the last Westminster General Election, in 2010, showed that many Scottish voters, whilst prepared to vote SNP for Holyrood elections (where the Tories are no threat), still voted Labour for Westminster elections. The SNP actually lost a seat to Labour, which they had won in an earlier by-election.

The SNP leadership is now saying that it is quite safe to vote SNP and to replace existing Labour MPs. They can claim that each SNP MP gained will be at least as ‘social democratic’ as Labour under Miliband – not hard to do! The SNP MPs have a stronger social democratic voting record at Westminster (e.g. against the Conservatives’ ‘bedroom tax’, welfare counter-reform and public spending limits) than ‘One Nation’ Labour. In effect, the SNP government is saying, vote SNP in Scotland in May, and you can contribute to a possible new Westminster alliance, but one where the SNP and its allies will hold Labour to its traditional social democratic values.

However, the real contradictions in the SNP leadership‘s strategy of booting out all the ‘Red Tories’ in Scotland is highlighted by their policy to then prop up a future Miliband ‘Red Tory’ government at Westminster! ‘Red’ is a decided misnomer here. Ed Balls is committed to Osborne’s public spending limits. Rachel Reeves is committed to Ian Duncan-Smith’s welfare counter-reforms. Both Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy support the Trident replacement.

There are some parallels between the SNP’s ditch the ‘Red Tories’ scheme in May, and Scottish Labour’s campaign to get rid of every last ‘Blue Tory’ in Scotland back in 1997. The problem with this today is much the same as then. The undoubted joy at seeing every Scottish Conservative MP removed soon became muted, as their New Labour successors, under Tony Blair, continued the Conservatives’ neo-liberal offensive and led the UK into more imperial wars than their predecessors. Far from Labour being any form of ‘Red’, they were ‘Pink’ Tories, with New Labour putting the final nail into the post-1945 Butskellite legacy, and embracing Blatcherism. Prominent amongst that band from Scotland was Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, John Reid and, of course, a certain Jim Murphy.

Like New Labour in 1997, the SNP is entering the 2015 General Election making a number of social democratic style pledges, e.g. defend the NHS now, compared to pushing for the minimum wage then; and further constitutional reform, e.g. Home Rule now compared to Devolution then. And, like New Labour, the SNP leadership is committed to avidly wooing corporate business leaders.

The impact of Local Council spending cuts, delayed by the SNP government as far they could until after September 18th, is now beginning to take effect. This has been shown in the current round of budget cuts, meekly or reluctantly accepted as much by SNP-led as Labour-led councils. This shared attitude is highlighted in Edinburgh, where uniquely there is a Labour/SNP coalition running the council. Indeed, if you want to see how a future Labour/SNP governmental coalition might operate, Edinburgh City Council provides a clue.

One very revealing thing is that Edinburgh’s local councillors have quickly jumped to the orders of senior council officials. These officials are paid and enjoy perks at similar levels to many business bosses. Senior council officials entertain absolutely no notion that they are accountable to the elected councillors. They just assume that councillors are there to do their bidding. Nor do they believe their own jobs, pay or perks should be trimmed, as they impose large scale cuts on dependent service users and many low-paid council workers.

At a local scale, this just reproduces the relationship between national politicians, the bankers and other big business leaders. Today’s social democrats can not think beyond the constraints of corporate rule, even if some are less willing than Conservative supporters to glory in its excesses. Although, of course, there have been social democrats, such as Lord Mandelson, and a pre-September 18th Jim Murphy, who were as triumphalist as any Conservative about the ‘benefits’ brought about by neo-liberalism – which, in their own cases has palpably been true!

The SNP government’s social democratic style proposals for combatting austerity are even less radical than Hollande’s promises before he was elected French President in 2012. These have long been ditched. The SNP look to the mildest Keynesian measures, not as an alternative to paying off the banker caused debts, but to extend the period of repayment.

The SNP government commitment to lowering corporate taxes remains in place. They remain decidedly ambiguous over TTIP. Their decision to delay fracking for two years could be seen as a cynical exercise, taking them beyond the 2016 Holyrood election, and perhaps providing more time for Scotland’s conventional oil and gas industry to adjust. The Aberdeen-based Wood Group’s owner, Sir Ian Wood lives in Scotland. INEOS’s owner, Jim Ratcliffe, seeking permission to frack near Falkirk, lives in Switzerland. After Grangemouth, he is about as popular in Scotland as another non-resident businessman once courted by the SNP government – Donald Trump!

Furthermore, although certainly more social democratic than ‘One Nation’ Labour, the SNP still have their ‘Tartan Tory’ equivalents in significant positions, e.g. Angus Robertson at Westminster, and John Swinney and Fergus Ewing at Holyrood, whilst also having embarrassing maverick reactionary MSPs like John Mason in the wings.

Facing stormier economic and political conditions ahead, the SNP government know they need to marginalise any possible challenges now. Those, from the ‘Yes’ camp, who can not be ‘hoovered up’ into the SNP, or pressured into acting as apologists and outriders, will have to be dealt with.

The SNP leadership’s rapid ditching of the ‘Yes alliance was the first stage. This was done, first to ensure that the SNP was the only significant non-unionist electoral vehicle in the forthcoming General Election (fought under first-past-the post conditions), but also in an attempt to place the SNP in a hegemonic position before the 2016 Holyrood elections (fought under a form of proportional representation).

Therefore, there is another purpose behind the SNP and others’ invocation of ‘Red’ to laughingly describe Scottish Labour. In 1997, when the infant Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) did stand against New Labour in some seats, they were attacked by some as “ultra-left” for attempting to split the anti-Tory vote. For other people today, opposition to ‘Reds’ will extend to those socialists who dare to challenge the SNP in May, and split the anti-‘Red Tory’ vote. Yet, it was not long after 1997 before the SSA, soon to become the Scottish Socialist Party, was vindicated, and people remembered their warnings.


  1. The reactionary unionist challenge coming from UKIP and the various strands of Ulster unionism and loyalism
Nigel Farage with Northern Ireland UKIP leader and Orange Order member, David McNally
Nigel Farage with Northern Ireland UKIP leader and Orange Order member, David McNally

The liberal and conservative unionists in the Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative parties are currently squabbling over the degree of further constitutional reform, which will need to be conceded to keep ‘HMS Britannia’ afloat. However, there is also a growing reactionary unionist force, determined to roll back many of the liberal reforms enshrined within the ‘New Unionist’ ‘Devolution-all-round’ and ‘Peace Process’ framework.

They have a somewhat different view of the future of the UK and, as the name of UKIP – their main proponent – shows, their political ambitions and organisation extend to the full geographical extent of the UK state. They take the ‘One State, One Party’ call of those orthodox marxists in the Second International more seriously than that shrinking band of bureaucratic, top-down ‘internationalists’ found in today’s British unionist Left!

Since December 2012, the Ulster loyalists (mainly organised by the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) [7] have been orchestrating flag riots and other protests. These began in Belfast. The Orange and other Loyal orders have also continued their provocative annual sectarian marches through certain Irish nationalist areas. Their aim is to unpick the Good Friday Agreement – the centrepiece of the ‘Devolution-all-round’ and Peace Process settlement in the ‘Six Counties’, and to reassert Unionist supremacy.

In the process, loyalist pressure has contributed to a breakaway from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), still in a very reluctant, UK government-backed coalition with Sinn Fein. Thus, the even more reactionary Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) is hoping to do to the DUP, what the DUP once did, under the late Ian Paisley, to the old Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The TUV have MLAs in Stormont and they, along with the PUP, made gains in the May 2014 Local Council elections, as did a certain newcomer on the unionist/loyalist block – UKIP.

However, the political impact of the loyalists and hardline unionists has been considerably greater than these parties’ still quite low-level election presence at Stormont and in the Northern Ireland Local Councils would suggest. Feeling their pressure, the DUP, now under Peter Robinson, has gone on to sabotage, not just the UK government’s very tentative attempts to move the ‘Peace Process’ forward, but also those of its principal imperial backer, in the form of the US State Department, led by their representative Richard Haas.

Indeed, so desperate has Sinn Fein become in its efforts to prop up the receding Good Friday Agreement’s ‘parity of esteem’ institutions, that the Con/Lib-Dem coalition has been able to push through their austerity measures (largely supported by the DUP) in the new Stormont House Deal on December 31st, 2014. This has even led to criticism from the super-compliant Northern Irish Committee of the ICTU. The British government threatened to collapse the post-Good Friday institutions, leaving Sinn Fein high and dry and outside official state politics. Quite clearly, despite the supposed autonomy granted to Stormont, the British government still calls the shots.

The ‘New Unionist’ settlement has been going into reverse for some time in the ‘Six Counties’. The DUP leadership’s strategy of sabotage from within the existing political framework has now inspired UKIP. They now want to bring this strategy to ‘the mainland’.

Most of UKIP’s political representatives in the ‘Six Counties’, including their leader, the Stormont MLA, David McNarry and their local councillors, have strong Orange Order connections. UKIP’s Scottish organiser, Jake Thackeray, is one example of their bridge between the ‘Six Counties’ and Scotland. The nature of his politics can be understood by his claim that the initials of Glasgow City Council stand for “Gays, Catholics and Communists”! UKIP’s biggest votes in Scotland in last May’s Euro-election came in Central Belt areas with a significant Orange Order presence. Furthermore, ultra loyalist and neo-fascist, Jim Dowson’s Britain First offered to give Nigel Farage physical protection at his failed attempt to publically launch UKIP’s Euro-election campaign in Edinburgh on May 9th. This shows a measure of Scottish loyalist support for UKIP too.

Many on the Left see UKIP mainly as a political expression of a reactionary English nationalism, with a Right populist message that has gained significant traction. This has been shown by UKIP winning the majority of MEPs in England last May, and by their subsequent victories over the Conservatives, and near victory over Labour, in three consecutive Westminster by-elections.

UKIP’s organisation in all four constituent areas of the UK, however uneven its present spread of support, is important for their reactionary unionist project. UKIP’s was a close second  to Labour in Wales in the Euro-elections, and they were even able  to gain the last Euro-seat in Scotland (much aided by their promotion by the BBC). They also have their presence within Stormont and Northern Ireland local councils. Whilst a reactionary English nationalism remains the core of UKIP’s appeal, their support for key features of the UK state – the Union, the British monarchy and the Protestant establishment – also provides them with a niche market amongst reactionary unionists in the ‘Six Counties’, Wales and Scotland. The reactionary features of the UK state are still supported by all the mainstream unionist parties.

UKIP’s hostility to public support for and funding for minority languages – Welsh and Gaelic – is still not so widespread amongst other British unionists, although shared by Left populist, George Galloway. This aspect of British chauvinism can find deeper roots, particularly in Wales, where the language issue was long used by mainstream unionist parties for divide-and-rule purposes; and in Northern Ireland where the Republican Movement used the Irish language to develop ‘communities of resistance’ (although Sinn Fein now seems much keener to promote the Irish language as a tourist attraction in West Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter to match East Belfast’s Titanic Quarter).

UKIP’s anti-EU, anti-migrant worker and Islamophobic scapegoating politics have also been able to take wider root in communities ravaged and fragmented by the now decades long neo-liberal economic offensive. The mainstream unionist parties have increasingly taken up these policies, as they shift their policies to the Right in their attempts to head off UKIP’s electoral appeal.

Furthermore, not only is UKIP able to transmit some of these reactionary features of unionist politics from the UK periphery, it is not all one-way traffic. Farage has been trying to place UKIP at the head of a more ‘respectable’ Islamophobia now that the BNP is flagging and the EDL is fragmenting. Most recently this has been highlighted by Farage’s attacks on ‘multiculturalism’ in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo.

However, Peter Robinson and the DUP have also taken note of this new wider phenomenon. They have attacked Muslims and a new mosque in Belfast. Until recently, most Ulster loyalists’ hatred for Catholics left little room for other diversions; just as Oswald Mosley found it hard to convince Scottish loyalists in the 1930s to take up anti-Semitism, rather than their preferred anti-Catholicism.

Clearly, if UKIP is unlikely to make a big enough breakthrough to replace the DUP, they can still enjoy a certain mutual relationship. UKIP’s Northern Ireland leader, McNarry, although himself standing in South Belfast in May, has argued for the DUP to be given a place in the televised General Election debates. He wants to come to some electoral deal with the DUP. As Bernadette McAliskey explained, if you want to know what a UKIP government would look like, you only have to look to the DUP in Northern Ireland!

Similarly, if UKIP is unable to make a big enough breakthrough to replace the Conservative Party in England and Wales, they could quite easily move that party even further rightwards in alliance with the Tory Right. This could put an end to Cameron’s (and Ruth Davidson’s) social liberalism and their support for some further constitutional reform. And ‘One Nation’ Labour – Tory-Lite for the concerned middle class – would probably give way to ‘Blue Labour’ – UKIP-Lite for the working class – as they tried to defend the party’s traditional heartlands, long taken for granted by consecutive Labour leaderships.

In the very unlikely alternative of a Labour majority government in May, this would quickly prove to be as bad as their European counterparts – George Papandreou’s PASOK in Greece, Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party in France, or Joan Burton’s Labour Party in Ireland. Miliband and Balls are very much committed to continuing the Brown/Darling initiated, and Cameron/Clegg/Osborne stepped-up austerity offensive, their support for Trident and further imperial wars, if necessary.

There is now no significant organised Left in the Labour Party. The decidedly limited challenge mounted by Left-talking, but Right-walking, UNITE General Secretary, Len McCluskey, who had supported Ed Milband as Labour leader, spluttered to an ignominious end at Grangemouth. Despite STUC backing (after their conspicuous absence from Labour’s ‘No’ campaign), Neil Findlay failed in his belated Left challenge for Scottish Labour leader (his first call was for Gordon Brown to stand!) Instead, uber-Blairite, Jim Murphy (previously consigned to the political wilderness by Miliband for being too Right wing!) was made Scottish leader.

The increasingly rusty Scottish Labour machine is still taking its lead from conservative unionism (itself looking over its shoulder, at the Westminster level, to the reactionary unionism of UKIP), rather than committing itself to the liberal unionist, ‘Devo-Max’/Federalism ‘vow’ dangled by Gordon Brown in the last weeks of the referendum campaign. Although this offer was always a cynical smoke-and-mirrors affair, such a commitment probably represented Labour’s last chance of serious revival in Scotland. Many Labour Party members in Scotland had become heartily sickened with  their  leadership’s eager embrace of the Tories and Lib-Dems in the ‘Better Together’ campaign – or ‘Project Fear’.

A massively expanded SNP has now rapidly recolonised ‘Devo-Max’ and is invoking old Labour’s Home Rule traditions. This is why the beleagured Scottish Labour leadership is only able to rely on shrinking forces in Scotland, and still feels the need for wider British unionist support. This is what forces Scottish Labour into a more conservative unionist stance, highlighted by East Lothian party vice-chair, Robert Neill’s and Labour peer, Lewis Moonie’s call for Labour supporters to vote either Lib-Dem or Tory in the May Westminster General Election, where they are best placed to keep  out the SNP!


5. The forthcoming Westminster electoral contest battle between liberal, conservative and reactionary unionism

The Conservatives appealing to conservative and reactionary unionism to save the UK
The Conservatives appealing to conservative and reactionary unionism to save the UK

The constitutional question will be at the very heart of the Westminster General Election this May. The UK state is being subjected to major political pressures. The SNP government is currently to the forefront of those pushing for a liberal unionist ‘solution’, looking for allies in Miliband’s Labour Party and more hopefully in Plaid Cymru and the Greens (south of the border). UKIP are in the leadership of those reactionary unionists who want to turn the clock back, by battening down the hatches of Her Majesty’s Loyal UK, and severing its EU moorings. They are looking to the Ulster unionists and the Tory Right for support, although their influence also extends into the Labour Party, particularly through Blue Labour [8] .

Between these liberal and reactionary unionist political forces, the mainstream unionist parties – Conservative, Lib-Dem and Labour – are being pulled apart. They are divided over the concessions they feel need to be made to the SNP over further devolution, and to UKIP over EU membership (with some also flirting with reactionary unionism over limiting devolution too).

The political forces, which want to develop the legacy of Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’, are still in an early stage of development. However, it should be clear that the only basis for making such an advance is by extending the ‘democratic revolution’ to cover the while of these islands, and by linking up with the growing resistance found in southern Europe and Ireland.



[1]           Tariq Ali – The Extreme Centre: A Warning, Verso, 2015

[2]          The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power – Joel Barkin (film and book, published by Constable, London)

[3]           Although, as long as capitalism exists, independent organisations of the exploited and oppressed are still needed to any get justice, even under constitutions based upon the principle of popular sovereignty.

[4]           There has even been a debate in The Herald letters page about whether Keir Hardie would have joined the SNP today!

[5]           The SNP government sees the Scottish Greens as competitors not potential allies, north of the border. This contrasts with their attitude to the Greens south of the border and, of course to Labour in England.

[6]           Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Right wing, Defence Spokesperson at did recently lead his Westminster MPs in a vote against British military intervention in Syria. But this was very much a political manoeuvre, which could easily be reversed, if the US State Department decides to exert pressure on its NATO-loving SNP leadership.

[7]           The PUP developed as the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) loyalist death squads.





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