International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

Scotland - Where now after the elections?

from International Socialist issue 3, Summer 1999

May 6th 1999 marked a turning point in Scottish political history. The first parliament in 300 years. The first independent socialist MP elected in Scotland since the 1950's. Alan McCombes, a leading member of the CWI in Scotland looks ahead at the political prospects facing Scotland as we enter the new millenium.

"The start of a new sang" declared Sir David Steel, as he opened the new Scottish Parliament.

In more prosaic language, other representatives of the Scottish establishment welcomed "the birth of a new politics for a new millennium". However, those who imagine that the new politics in Scotland will be characterised by cosy consensus and polite deference will be sadly disappointed.

May 6 did indeed mark the start of a new beginning for Scotland. However, far from standing on the threshhold of a new era of tranquillity and stability, Scotland is poised to enter an exciting and turbulent new historical phase.

Instead of consolidating the future of the United Kingdom and of capitalism in Scotland, the first Scottish parliamentary elections in 300 years have led to a significant weakening of the Union and, simultaneously, a substantial strengthening of socialism.

On the face of it, Labour's success in fending off the challenge of the SNP, followed by its effective swallowing up of the Liberal Democrats may appear to be a significant victory for Blairism. In the short term, the shabby coalition that Labour has managed to cobble together may even succeed in sparing Downing Street a few politically damaging and embarassing problems. But in the long run, the events of May 1999 are likely to go down in the history books as a turning point when the old structures and the old social system began to break apart.

The SNP is in a stronger position than ever before in its history. With 35 MSPs, and with the Lib Dems embroiled in a coalition government, the SNP could be poised to sweep to power next time around.

At the same time, there is now - for the first time in the UK outside of Northern Ireland - a genuinely multi-party system.

The breakthrough for the Scottish Socialist Party; the unprecedented landslide for independent socialist, Dennis Canavan, who now has the biggest majority in Scotland; and the success in the Lothians of the Green Party on a radical anti-establishment platform has changed the shape of Scottish politics forever.

New Labour con-trick

It is true that compared to Labour's darkest days of last year, when some opinion polls showed the SNP on course to become the biggest party in Holyrood, these results represent a certain short-term recovery in Labour's fortunes.

However, this election was fought under favourable conditions for the government. The continued growth in the British economy - against the expectations of many economists - has allowed the government a continued lease of life.

Although the honeymoon may be over for New Labour, there is - as is usually the case - a gap between the end of the honeymoon and the start of the divorce proceedings.

Britain's role in the bombardment of Serbia and Kosovo has also had a certain temporary subliminal effect on the psychology of some sections of the population - although the claim by Scotsman editor-in-chief Andrew Neil early in the campaign that the war has "engendered a new pride in British identity" is an absurd exaggeration.

In fact, if Blair's gung-ho Balkans adventure leads - as appears likely - to a a messy and humiliating debacle, there is likely to be a big backlash in Scotland against the New Labour government and the Union.

Another factor that allowed Labour to hold on in Scotland was the repackaging of the party that has taken place over the past six months.

Since last November, when Labour was shaken by its relegation into third place in the North East Scotland Euro-by election, New Labour strategists, backed by the popular media, consciously sought to redefine the party's image in Scotland.

The more blatant attacks on the poor were temporarily shelved. Gordon Brown's budget in March, which was deliberately geared towards the Scottish General Election, was cleverly - albeit dishonestly - presented as a reversal of Labour's onslaught against public services.

Influential journalists who had previously criticised some of the excesses of Blairism, such as Ian MacWhirter of the Herald and BBC, began to praise Labour for its supposed redistributive policies. Fearing the backlash against New Labour and Blair that was building up in Scotland, the spin doctors promoted Donald Dewar to the forefront and attempted to create the impression that the party, in Scotland at least, was beginning to return to its Old Labour roots - even to the point that stories were leaked to the press suggesting that old guard left winger, John McAllion, would be appointed Dewar's deputy.

Of course, since May 6, it has been back to business as usual, with not just McAllion, been even softer left wingers such as Malcolm Chisholm, who rebelled over lone parent benefit cuts, carved out of the new Scottish Cabinet in favour of a parade of younger arch-Blairite modernisers, including one individual who only joined the Labour Party in April of last year.

Even the party's general secretary, Alex Rowley - who was close to some trade union leaders - was dumped within weeks of the election because of his alleged lack of wholehearted commitment to the Blairite project.

In addition, no sooner were the Holyrood elections out of the road than a new onslaught against claimants of Incapacity Benefit was announced, together with a 'three strikes and you're out' policy of dealing with young claimants who refuse places on the New Deal.

However, for a few months at least, Labour's confidence trick succeeded in deceiving many of its own activists together with a wider layer of trade unionists and older voters.

Also operating in Labour's favour this time round was the fact that people were being asked to vote for a brand new parliament which is completely untested.

There are many people in Scotland who are sympathetic towards the general idea of independence at some stage in the future, but would rather not take that leap at his stage, at least until devolution has been given a chance.

This hesitation - on the part especially of the middle aged and elderly - was reinforced by the hysterical scaremongering campaign waged by New Labour with the backing of the press.

SNP falter

Faced with this propaganda bombardment from big business, the press and even sections of the trade union movement - who disgracefully sought to equate support for independence with racism and fascism - the SNP faltered.

Its timid policy of a penny on income tax to pay for increases in education and health was accompanied by assurances that the party would cut Corporation Tax in an independent Scotland. On the higher rate of taxation, over which the Scottish Parliament has no power, the SNP was completely silent.

This gave the impression of a party which was prepared to increase taxation on the working class, while cutting taxes for big business and leaving the higher rates of personal taxation untouched. In addition, by accepting the financial constraints laid down by Westminster, the SNP's manifesto failed to radically differentiate the party from New Labour. Only on PFI, tuition fees, and the SNP's commitment to organise a referendum at some time in the indeterminate future was there any clear distinction between the SNP and Labour.

In contrast the SSP, with a fraction of the resources and media coverage of the SNP, was able to make a big impact by linking the question of an independent Scotland with the necessity to use Scotland's vast wealth and resources for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

In hustings meetings and on the streets many people made the point that the SSP made a more powerful case in favour of independence than the SNP.

The success of the SSP and other smaller parties to the left of Labour and the SNP was without question the most remarkable feature of this election and was one of the factors that restricted the advance of the SNP.

In the course of the election campaign, academic experts had repeatedly poured scorn on the idea that there could be breakthrough by the SSP or the Green Party. Even Canavan's chances were dismissed, with the pundits predicting that he would split the Labour vote to allow the SNP to come through the middle.

At the start of the campaign, support for 'others' - who were lumped together in the opinion polls - showed at around 1 per cent rising slowly during the campaign. However the opinion poll carried on the day before the election in Scotland's biggest selling paper, the Daily Record, did not even bother to record support for parties or candidates other than the big four.

Yet, in the event small parties and candidates - primarily the SSP, the Greens, Canavan and the SLP - took a sensational 11 per cent on the party vote - almost the same as the Liberal Democrats, with just a fraction of the resources and the media coverage.

As top polling analyst, Professor John Curtice pointed out in an article in the Herald: "All of the polls underestimated Labour's strength while none registered the true scale of support for the small parties."

The vast majority of this vote was a vote to the left of Labour and the SNP. If the SNP had captured this vote it would have emerged as the biggest party in Scotland and would have been forming the administration at Holyrood instead of Labour.

Commenting on the slump in Labour support on the party list ballot, Curtice also pointed out: "Nothing ever prepared us for a 34 per cent Labour second vote".

In fact the vote for Labour as a party - as opposed to the first vote which was to select constituency candidates - was the worst performance by the party since 1983.

In Glasgow, the Labour's share of the vote slumped from 60 per cent in the general to just 44 per cent on the party list. And although Labour managed to consolidate its hold on Glasgow City Council, this was in part due, ironically, to the success of the SSP which stood in 64 seats in the city.

The Herald's municipal correpondent, John McCalman commented: "Ironically, the creditable performance of Tommy Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party had the effect of saving Labour's blushes in at least eight wards."

Things can only get.....worse

There is no doubt that for New Labour in Scotland, things can only get worse. Writing in the Scotsman after the Lib-Lab coalition deal was signed, the Welsh right wing Labourite Tim Williams, who has been an inveterate opponent of devolution wrote: "In the background, the SNP - the true winner of the election, is waiting to eat them all for breakfast.

"This is how you can come second and win - by securing an excellent position in the first battle so as to win the war the next time.

"The last thing the SNP wanted was to form the government this time around.

"For devolution to lead to independence, it was essential the SNP do well in the election, but not as well as to form a coalition government. The last thing Salmond wanted was the taint of power."

Williams goes on to argue that "the government will either buckle (before Westminster) and lose credibility - or it will stand up in defence of Scotland. Either way, nationalism wins."

Williams may be overestimating the strategical intelligence of Salmond and the SNP leadership in suggesting that they did not want power this time round.

In fact, Salmond's aim seemed to be to gain a majority, thrash out a deal with the Lib Dems, then proceed to rule Holyrood in a responsible manner, demonstrating, particularly to big business and the media, that the SNP could be trusted to run an independent Scotland.

However the substance of Williams' argument is correct. Had the SNP emerged as the largest party, they may have succeeded in introducing a few reforms, such as the toning down of PFI and the scrapping of tuition fees.

However, their 'Penny for Scotland' would have been hopelessly inadequate. It would not begin to reverse even the cuts of the past three years in education, health and local government.

Moreover, from day one, the New Labour government in Westminster would have gone to whatever lengths necessary to discredit the SNP-led government in Edinburgh, including probably cutting Scotland's block grant at a certain stage, especially if the economy begins to spiral into recession. And just as SNP councils have failed to stand up to Tory and Labour cuts in local funding, an SNP administration in Edinburgh would perhaps have huffed and puffed - but it would ultimately have knuckled under.

Instead of accelerating the drive towards independence, an SNP government in Holyrood would more likely have allowed Labour to step in and derail it. However as things stand today, the exact opposite is the case. By achieving a strong second place, the SNP will remain untainted.


However there will be tensions within the party, some of which have already surfaced in the aftermath of May 6. On the one side, Jim Sillars - who has at least a number of powerful allies now inside the Scottish parliament - has lashed out at the Salmond leadership for embracing devolution.

Although Sillars - who called for a boycott of the referendum - mistakenly claims that devolution has weakened the position of the SNP, he nevertheless does make some pertinent points.

Writing in the Scotsman, he says: " No wonder almost half the electorate did not vote. They would be the non-businessmen whose instincts told them that when political leaders, Labour and SNP, fawn over big business one thing is for sure, that all that stuff about compassion is for the birds."

Sillars, himself now a businessman, goes on to ask the telling question: "Will future policy continue to elevate the political opinions of the business tycoon above the man in the street? I hope not. I know many a successful business person, who, when talking politics, would qualify as the village idiot."

Other disenchanted socialists within the SNP have openly broken ranks and joined the Scottish Socialist Party, including ex-councillors and candidates.

Meanwhile Salmond has also come under fire from the opposite direction. Since the election there has begun to take shape a new right wing spearheaded by ex-International Marxist, George Kerevan, who had become a high-flying Labour councillor in Edinburgh before defecting to the SNP.

Kerevan, the SNP's environment spokesman, has emerged as the champion of a tartan version of Blairism which is suggesting that the SNP should break with social democracy and become in effect New SNP.

Borrowing the language of the New Labour spin doctors, Kerevan says: "The SNP's old fashioned, paternalist approach, symbolised by the 'penny for Scotland' campaign, was a gamble too far... Many of the SNP's target market, traditional Labour voters disenchanted with Blairism, abstained...Others, as a now permanent by-product of proportional representation, by-passed the moderate SNP en route to the hard-left parties whose utopian statism attracted self interested public sector workers. The SNP won't get them back."

Arguing for an economic policy designed to "unleash the entrepreneurial creativity" of Scotland, Kerevan argues: "Imagine if the SNP had called for a half-penny cut in income tax. The remoreseless media questioning would have been wrong-footed by the clear proof we were committed to a high growth economy.

"Of course, we wouldn't have won the support of those who voted for Tommy Sheridan. But then we didn't anyway."

The contrast between the analysis of Sillars, who wants to orientate the SNP towards working class Labour voters, and the analysis of Kerevan - whose smug middle class philistinism leads him to claim that "smokestack, proletarian Scotland no longer exists...most of us shop at Gap and drink designer beer" - could not be more stark.

It sums the age-old dilemma of the SNP, which for three decades has tried to face in two directions at the same time. It is likely that in opposition the SNP leadership will continue to muddle along, trying to straddle both camps, at different stages adapting opportunistically to the prevailing currents within society - but always avoiding the temptation to move too far in one direction or the other for fear of alienating support and provoking an internal crisis.

However, in the short term the party that is likely to face the most serious stresses and strains are the Liberal Democrats.

Their groveling performance in the post-election wheeling and dealing to form the government has led to a ferocious backlash, particularly against the decision to effectively jettison the party's "non-negotiable" policy of scrapping tuition fees within a matter of days.

Officially, the Lib Dems have agreed to a general review of higher education funding as an alternative to their policy of scrapping tuition fees.

However, the Labour leadership has made it clear that as a partner in the coalition government, the Lib Dems will be bound by any collective decision by the government.

For New Labour in London, the retention of tuition fees is of paramount importance - first, because it would mark a further weakening of the Union if the Scottish Parliament scrapped tuition fees while the Westminster Government retained them; and secondly, because the defeat of tuition fees in Scotland would galvanise students in England and Wales to step up the battle against tuition fees there.

However, the survival of tuition fees is far from guaranteed despite the Lib-Lab deal. If, for example, the Lib Dems were to suffer an electoral humiliation in the coming Euro elections there would be enormous pressure on Lib Dem MSPs to break ranks with Labour, at least on the specific issue of tuition fees. Such a development would be a huge blow to the credibility of Dewar and could lead rapidly to the unravelling of the coalition government. If, on the other hand, the Lib Dems close ranks alongside Labour, back down on fees and act as loyal junior partners of New Labour, the Lib Dems could face almost total oblivion by the time of the next Westminster general election in two or three years time.

Socialist breakthrough

Now with the breakthrough into Holyrood, the SSP is poised to develop into a mass force for socialism in Scotland. With an MSP who has an outstanding personal track record and ability to popularise the ideas of socialism, no one should underestimate the potential of the SSP. Just a glimpse of this potential was revealed within days of the election, when photographs of Tommy Sheridan standing defiantly with clenched fist raised during the swearing of the oath of allegiance was plastered over newspapers across Britain and Ireland, leading to a torrent of letters of support and applications to join the SSP.

It should also be noted that by winning two per cent of the vote across Scotland, and gaining a seat, the SSP has achieved in just six months of its existence what took the SNP more than three decades.

Founded in 1934, the SNP failed to break through the one per cent barrier until 1934, when the party took two per cent of the vote.

With a membership comparable to that of the SSP today, the SNP went on to take five per cent of the vote in the general election two years later, win a by-election in Hamilton the following year and build a mass membership of over 100,000 by 1968.

With over 1000 members, an MSP in Holyrood and a bedrock two per cent support upon which to build - and with a right wing New Labour government in power in London and in Edinburgh - the SSP could rapidly emerge to become a powerful force in Scottish politics in the first few years of the new millenium. Although it is necessary to retain a sense of proportion, it is nonetheless clear that in the longer term the SSP has to prepare to set its sights on taking power and establishing an independent socialist Scotland.

Undoubtedly, there will be debate and discussion within the party on programmatic, tactical and strategical questions as new challenges arise and decisions have to be taken.

However, no one should imagine that the SSP is a 1990s version of Old Labour. Under the SSP constitution, there is no place for trade union leaders wielding huge block votes. Instead, policy is decided by the party membership on the basis of open democratic debate.

Within the SSP, the leadership is under the control of the membership. Elected representatives are obliged to carry out party policy, live on the average salary of a skilled worker and repudiate the lavish perks and privileges which are used by the establishment as a form of corruption to incorporate working class representatives into the system.

The programme of the party too is an uncompromising declaration of the need of the need for struggle, solidarity and socialism.

As a brand new party barely six months old, the SSP is still at a formative stage. The character of the party will be forged over a prolonged period of months and years, not just through debate and discussion, but in the white-hot furnace of earth-shattering events.

Ultimately the methods, the policies and the tactics that are likely to prevail within the SSP are those ideas that are capable of taking the battle for socialism forward at each stage as the struggle against the British state and the capitalist economic system unfolds.

Now that the dust has settled on the first Scottish parliamentary elections, and the facts and figures are soberly analysed, one thing is clear: nothing in Scottish politics will ever be the same again. Increasingly the focus of political dissent will be turned towards Edinburgh rather than London. But the political map of Scotland as reflected in Holyrood is radically different to the political map of the UK as reflected in Westminster.

Instead of commanding a 180 majority, New Labour in Holyrood will preside over a ramshackle coalition and a parliament in which the two coalition partners could muster just 46 per cent of the vote between them on the party list ballot.

And while the official opposition in Westminster is made up of Hague's right wing Tory party, New Labour in Scotland has the SNP breathing down its neck - a party committed to the break up of the United Kingdom.

On top of that, New Labour in Scotland now has to contend with powerful dissident voices within Holyrood, in the shape of Dennis Canavan, the Green MSP, Robin Harper and especially Tommy Sheridan who has standing behind him Scotland's fastest growing and most vibrant political party, the SSP.

The stage is now set for a titanic and protracted battle over the future of Scotland in which the forces of socialism and Marxism can ultimately play a decisive role.