Mike Small and Sean Bell are signatories to the 2023 Declaration of Calton Hill. Quite independently, they have been making their own observations and commentaries about the current political situation in Scotland in bella caledonia. Recently Mike has written, The Sturgeon era is over: Now what? and Sean has written What have we learned from the SNP leadership race?. In his comments on these two articles Allan Armstrong takes their thinking a little further.
1. “THE STURGEON ERA IS OVER: NOW WHAT?” – A POSSIBLE ANSWER
Mike Small has provided very thoughtful analysis of the current political situation in Scotland. But he leaves us with a question in its conclusion.
“A shrewd political operator would reflect on the many lessons learned under the Sturgeon and Salmond era and completely revise and reboot the party and re-connect it with its membership and the wider Yes movement. But far more important the incoming leader needs to re-connect with Scottish society and the wider electorate. Can that be done?”
As long as we wait for the ‘right’ leader, the independence movement will not move forward. What Alex Salmond, through Nicola Sturgeon, to the three SNP leadership candidates, and Joanna Cherry and Alba (despite current oppositional ‘Braveheart’ rhetoric) have in common, is that they see independence coming by building up a wannabe Scottish ruling class. This why neo-liberalism is central to all their politics. As soon as the whiff of office beckons, earlier social democratic commitments are ditched in favour of appeasing business. Ash Regan, who was once a key member of Commonweal (the promoter of Scandinavian style social democracy in Scotland), has said she would drop the SNP government’s somewhat limited Green commitments and call on the fossil fuel companies to step up production.
And none of the candidates offered any suggestions on how to democratise Scotland’s over-centralised state by enhancing local democracy, a case so powerfully advocated by Lesley Riddoch. They have no intentions to tackle the power of property and landed interests, nor the bureaucratic management elites who run Scotland’s devolved services, and who frustrate so much reform. And perhaps, just as revealingly, none of the would-be leaders had any plans to democratise the SNP itself. Postponing the SNP conference until there is a new leader, who can then decide policy, is the opposite of democracy. There should have been a party conference first, which instructed any new leader. And Alba still remains Salmond’s own vanity party. Last year, he decided who would be their leading candidates.
Genuine political independence can only be achieved by recognising the sovereignty of the people in Scotland, not that of the UK with its sovereignty based on the Crown-in-Westminster. Westminster, under sufficient political pressure, may sometimes devolve some of its power, but the UK state never devolves its anti-democratic Crown Powers – e.g. the Supreme Court and the Privy Council. And as soon as the British ruling class thinks they have the chance, even the limited devolved powers are clawed back. We can see this today as the powers of Holyrood are diluted and transferred up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to the UK Hub or BOSS – British Occupied Subject Scotland.
But championing the sovereignty of the people, also means that it is up to us to act as citizens and not subjects, whether we are in particular parties or not. We should not wait to see if new leaders will re-connect with us. Organisation is needed so that leaders are accountable to their members. The parties need to be accountable to the wider sovereignty of the people. This needs a renewed movement that builds on the rainbow alliance with its civic national and ‘internationalism from below’ principles that achieved the 2014 Democratic Revolution. This remains unfinished business The 2023 Declaration of Calton Hill, initiated by the Radical Independence Campaign, has drawn in many others who have kept the flame burning since 2014. And the rally, organised on Calton Hill on May 6th by Our Republic, provides us with a chance to show we mean what we say.
2. “WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED FROM THE SNP LEADERSHIP RACE?”
THE NEED TO ORGANISE INDEPENDENTLY
It used to be said, that “A week is a short time in politics”. Things are moving so fast in Scotland that “24 hours are now a short time in politics”. This gives me an undoubted advantage when commenting on Sean’s very informative article.
Sean probably quite rightly dismisses Ash Regan’s future career in the SNP, stating that, “Those who were on Ash Regan’s side… can take some comfort in all sharing the same bus home”! And when it comes to Kate Forbes, Sean also takes some pleasure that “her campaign could be interpreted as a lesson in the dangers of defining political victory as ‘triggering the libs.” In other words, her resort to the only lightly airbrushed, AltRight language favoured by the Free Church of Scotland today, with its US Christian supremacist backers, came unstuck – but only narrowly so.
Sean goes on to warn us though that “All the old familiar faces, along with their abiding grudges and preoccupations, will stick around; it is naïve therefore to expect the SNP to transform overnight – particularly in light of issues that emerged over the course of the race – or that the reactionary ugliness it contains will dissipate.” But although there are undoubtedly other figures within the SNP, whom Sean mentions, who could also take up the reactionary cudgel, he probably underestimates the key position Forbes has taken in a much wider Right wing offensive – Scottish, British/UK and US.
Whilst Sean was writing his article, some of this Right were salivating over the political price Forbes would exact from Humza Yousaf for taking up a Scottish cabinet position. But 24 hours later, it has become clear that Forbes is playing for considerably higher political stakes and looking to the widest Right-wing forces in Scotland, the UK and USA to back her. She is refusing to take up a cabinet position, the better to undermine Yousaf.
With the continued dominance of independence as the political issue in Scotland issue, even the most hard-bitten British ruling class unionists know they have to go further than dependence on the reactionary institutions of the anti-democratic UK state, e.g. the Supreme Court, to maintain the Union. They need to open up the divisions in the Scottish Nationalist camp on particular class and social lines.
The SNP, under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, pushed for some minor social democratic amelioration of the full-blooded economic neo-liberalism promoted by the Tories, Lib-Dems and New Labour. Forbes clearly wants to narrow that gap in favour of big business. In this, if not her reactionary social agenda, she has the support of the old SNP neo-liberal Right, e.g. Fergus Ewing and Michael Russell. The gap is covered by an appeal to Forbes’ “competence” – competent at devolving Westminster’s cuts and prioritising business profits over social needs.
A gap has also opened up between an officially more socially progressive Scotland (over the electoral franchise, immigration and LBGT+ rights) and an officially increasingly reactionary UK government over all these issues. Over gender recognition reform, for example, the SNP/Scottish /Green government has followed over 20 other countries in Europe, South America and Asia. The UK Tory government (with minimal opposition for Sir Keir Starmer’s British Labour Party) has followed Trumpite USA and the Putinite Russian Federation. This is the path that Forbes wants Scotland to follow.
Neither Regan nor Yousaf have any viable strategy for taking on the either the Tories’ reactionary unionist government or the anti-democratic UK Crown Powers highlighted in the Supreme Court ruling. Yousaf’s own unwillingness to challenge neo-liberalism in either the private sector, or public sector management (health education, social work, etc) will ensure that conditions get worse for workers and service users. Although, Forbes would push private business interests much further, no longer being in office, she can avoid responsibility for the inevitable consequences of such an approach. She can argue that Yousaf is frightened to administer the bitter medicine still needed to bring about the “growth”, i.e. private profitability, demanded by her business backers.
The British unionists and UK state have little to fear over a Regan-led (or Alba-led) rhetorical ‘Braveheart’ challenge to the UK state. They are aware though that Yousaf, claiming to speak for a mildly social democratic, more socially progressive Scotland, still represents a represents a considerable body of opinion in Scotland.
Many of these people are prepared to take to the streets. As Sean points out, Yousaf himself feels this pressure, appealing as a “socialist” to the SNP members in the leadership election. He has also appealed to them as a “republican”. The Daily Express was outraged that Yousaf should consider pandering to this SNP base, something that doesn’t seem to bother them when Tory leadership candidates appeal to the party’s reactionary and racist base!
Many in this wider SNP base are prepared to go much further than any SNP leadership. This was shown during ‘IndyRef1’ and the support given to the large post-2016 up to 2019, ‘All Under One Banner’ marches. And, of course, there are many other Scottish independence supporters prepared to take extra-constitutional action, who do not necessarily support the SNP (or Alba). And as long as Yousaf appears to offer a faint echo of their desires, the Right wing media will provide their backing to Forbes, using her as a stick to beat him with.
Does Forbes have any plan to gain Scottish independence? The clue is in her 2022 National Strategy for Economic Transformation. Scottish Financial Enterprise accurately pointed out that it “has entrepreneurialism at the core”. To win over business – Scottish and non-Scottish – an SNP government must implement considerably lower corporate taxes, larger cutbacks in social spending, and greater cuts in pay and conditions. Only this might persuade enough businesses to go for a ‘Scottish Free State’ under the Crown, the City of London, the British High Command and NATO. The unionists would be justified in thinking that if Scottish politics could be confined to this terrain that would prolong the life of the Union for some time.
But Sean points to signs that Scottish politics is unlikely to be confined to such narrow official, constitutional channels. He “seek(s) inspiration within the national political landscape, the tenants’ union Living Rent comes to mind, with its rare and laudable refusal to be distracted from rights and interests of its members. There are also swathes of the Scottish trade union movement and those campaigners who have fought to put the cost-of-living crisis at the forefront of our political discourse, who have clearly identified the key issues facing Scotland and have endorsed no politician or party while doing so. To these could be added the Kenmure Street protesters in Glasgow who successfully defied the British Home Office’s attempt to detain and probably then deport targetted migrants
And when it comes down to it, all these oppositional forces come up against the UK state with its anti-democratic Crown powers, and the British ruling class’s continued attempt to roll back the limited democratic rights we have. The royal coronation on May 6th will be a demonstration of the state’s raw power. The armed and security forces will be used to create conditions resembling a military coup. They will organise displays of military force. Highly armed soldiers will be placed on prominent buildings. There will be major clampdowns on people’s movement. The BBC, living up to its first word, British, will drown out any mildly critical coverage and ignore major events elsewhere.
To counter this, and to demonstrate that we will not be intimidated by the state, a protest has organised by Our Republic on Calton Hill on May 6th at 3.00 pm. In anticipation a new Declaration of Calton Hill has been drawn up – www.caltonhill.scot. After the UK’s Supreme Court ruling, we have no constitutional means to achieve Scottish independence, or even to defend the limited post-1997 Devolution deal, as Sunak’s overthrow of Gender Recognition Reform shows.
Our protest anticipates the withdrawal of participation in the UK state’s directly imposed institutions, e.g. the UK Hub. off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, or BOSS – British Occupied Subject Scotland. And our protest looks to extra-constitutional, non-violent, direct action until we complete Scotland’s unfinished 2014 Democratic Revolution.