frontline 15.

SNP - From Crisis to Where?

Since the Euro elections it’s been a busy time for the SNP. First they dumped John Swinney as leader before electing Alex Salmond and his Holyrood mouthpiece, Nicola Sturgeon, and have recently retreated from the Independence Convention. Keef Tomkinson analyses where the SNP have come from, where they are going and what that means for the SSP and an independent socialist Scotland.

Why should Frontline be carrying an article on the Scottish National Party (SNP)? They are a bourgeois nationalist party whose vision for Scotland includes a monarchy, NATO membership and a warm welcome for corporations interested in exploiting our workforce and resources. However, at present they sit to the left of, and are the official political opposition to, Labour. They have the capacity to gain from popular resentment of Blair’s regime and are the biggest pro-independence party in Scotland.

Furthermore, for the SSP just as we seek to win the support of Labour supporters we also challenge the SNP’s support base. The future plans of both parties need to be analysed and understood if our breakthrough is to continue*. The election of Alex Salmond means that the independence convention and electoral/political gains of the SSP will come under attack.

The need to analyse the SNP is underlined by the fact while many books and pamphlets have been written concerning the history and changes within the Labour Party, little has been produced concerning the SNP. This situation is exacerbated because socialists in Scotland who take their political lead and direction from London, where the SNP do not register on a British-wide perspective, tend to treat the SNP with pre-conceptions which ignore important aspects of the party.

A Short History

Something we cannot ignore when looking at the modern SNP is their origin and history. Since the Treaty Of Union there had always been levels of support for independence within the population and from various political figures. However, the origins of the SNP can be found in the failure of the Liberals, and then Labour, to establish home rule for Scotland after World War One.

In that period the Scottish Home Rule Association (SHRA) had initially lobbied MPs to actively support their campaign before establishing the Scottish National Convention to build a consensus around a new constitutional settlement. After three home rule bills had been defeated in Westminster a strategic debate arose within the SHRA. Many wanted to drop the tactic of lobbying and launch an independent nationalist party.

The result saw the creation of the left leaning National Party of Scotland in 1928 and of a Tory breakaway Scottish Party in 1932. These two groups merged in 1934 to from the SNP.

Initially, in a concession to devolutionists in the Scottish Party, the SNP only supported home rule but quickly reverted to support for full independence. The most notable other policy in these early years was for the repatriation of Irish Catholics back to Ireland – a policy soon dropped but not forgotten by many catholic voters.

For the next thirty years the SNP struggled to have any impact on Scottish political life. Apart from a by-election victory in Motherwell in 1945, it struggled to attract voters or members and stood only a handful of candidates in elections.

In the 1960s, as Scotland underwent major economic and social changes, the SNP benefited from the breakdown of the two party system. Impressive by-election performances culminated in Winnie Ewing’s by-election victory in Hamilton and gains in 1968’s local elections (the SNP won 40% of the vote in Glasgow).

The 1970s saw a huge upsurge in the vote and impact of the SNP. Aided by the discovery of oil in the North Sea the SNP reached a high point in the second general election of 1974, winning 11 seats and 30% of the vote. The British establishment panicked, resulting in a devolution referendum that none of the unionist parties wanted, and one they either opposed or undermined.

The success/failure of the devolution referendum (a mechanism was introduced with the effect that although a majority voted in favour of devolution, because they represented under 40% of the electorate, it failed) and disastrous performance in the general election meant that 1979 saw the SNP begin a decade long spell in the political wilderness.

Although most of this period was dominated by internal warfare it also laid the basis of the SNP’s recovery. The collapse in 1979 of Jim Sillars’ breakaway Scottish Labour Party led to an influx of left leaning members and provided the SNP with new ideas about how to gain independence. Initially, many of these ideas were rejected by the SNP leadership. The 79 Group (a socialist republican group set up pull the party to the left) was banned and after it reformed as a cross party group its leaders were expelled from the party. The leaders of this group included Alex Salmond, Roseanna Cunningham, Kenny MacAskill and Margo MacDonald. However they soon rejoined and their influence began to impact on the party. The SNP’s programme began to develop a much more left wing look, Independence In Europe became a key slogan and opposition to the poll tax placed them back into the Scottish popular consciousness. This culminated with victory in the Glasgow Govan by-election of 1988. A labour majority of 13,000 was swept away by Sillars. The momentum of that carried into the 1992 general election. Although Govan was lost, the SNP’s share of the national vote increased by 50%. The manifesto for that election was also the most left wing in the party’s history, containing commitments to free education, rail renationalisation, increased benefits, withdrawing from NATO and removing nuclear weapons from Scotland. However, while the SNP would go on to face another eight years of growth, 1992 would be the high point for the left within the SNP.

While the SNP was happy with the increase in their vote some disgruntled voices attacked the ‘Free By ‘93’ campaign slogan and hard left manifesto. Even as the SNP continued to perform well in European, local and by-elections the party began to slowly shed some of it left wing baggage while staying to the left of Labour. Indeed that has been their consistent strategy in Scottish politics for the last ten years. As Blair moved Labour into position to displace the Tories, the SNP would tag along while maintaining a healthy distance to Labour’s left.

Establishment Consent

Why did the SNP do this? A simplistic (but not wholly incorrect) response would be that the party was not an ideological and class based party which had any form of commitment to a Marxist analysis of society. Compounding this was that the left forces which had helped inform the 1992 manifesto grew less in number and many embraced a two stage attitude of, first independence, and then socialism.

But that does not fully explain the SNP’s choices. The SNP now embraces low taxation for multinationals, public ‘trusts’ rather than public ownership, NATO membership and a monarch as our head of state. These are not policy commitments which could be defined as populist or even voter friendly.

The reason for these developments can be found in the SNP’s electoral experiences. While the SNP has at times gained the support and attention of the general public, the ruling class in Scotland had always opposed the idea of independence as it threatened their political and economic base. Therefore the SNP’s vision of independence had to become acceptable to the establishment because otherwise they would be rubbished and undermined by the media, business community and church. This theory of establishment consent has become the guiding principle for the SNP’s leadership and their strategy.

There were three main events which laid the basis for the current situation. Firstly, the huge landslide victory of New Labour in 1997 showed just how successful Blairism had been in electoral terms. It was portrayed as a victory for modernisation and the rejection of old-style partisan politics (i.e. dumping any lingering left wing rhetoric and reforms). The seemingly unelectable Labour Party had won over middle England, the Murdoch press and sections of the business community.

The second key event came four months later with the successful devolution referendum. The referendum was the result of years of political fixing within the Scottish Constitutional Convention which was established to defend the union in response to the resurgence of the SNP in the late 1980s. Even though it was clear New Labour opposed the idea of devolution, it was forced to accept it due to its previous involvement in the convention and popular pressure. By the time the referendum campaign kicked off, it seemed as if every section of Scottish society (with the exception of the Tories) was supporting it. Trade unions, churches, political parties, local authorities, artists, the press and television media all backed devolution. For anybody who took part in the campaign it all seemed too easy.

What the SNP saw from the election and referendum was that power and great constitutional change could be won by showing those with political and economic power that they could be trusted to protect their interests.

For the SNP the need for establishment consent was confirmed by the election campaign for the first Scottish parliamentary elections in 1999. The SNP had been riding neck and neck with Labour in the polls but as the elections got closer the SNP faced a wave of fierce scrutiny and attacks from the media, business community and British establishment. In the face of this and spiralling polls the SNP chose to stop talking to the press and launched their own newspaper for the final few weeks of the campaign. The SNP still performed well in the election, winning 35 MSPs, but for the leadership lessons were duly noted.

The lesson the SNP drew from that experience was, not to understand the true nature of the British establishment, but to again consider how the case for independence could be made palatable for those in power who opposed it.

The problem for the SNP is that this position is fundamentally flawed. It is based on the notion that there is a Scottish establishment which would green light independence if convinced that its interests will be defended.

On the first point, there is no such thing as the Scottish establishment. There is, however, a Scottish section of the British establishment which since the union of the crowns and then treaty of union, has been fully integrated into the British political system. Each generation of the ruling class has supported British capitalism, imperialism and militarism. A cornerstone of this outlook is complete opposition to the break up of their United Kingdom and the movements which support independence or devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

By posing no threat to British capital or the state on which it is based, the SNP strategy has led to the ridiculous situation where the leadership of Scotland’s biggest pro-independence party promotes a dead-end vision of independence and gives the British establishment no reason to exercise its powers and therefore expose its true intentions toward Scotland.

That is not to say that the establishment cannot be forced to accept the break up of the union. But it will not be a pleasant and amiable SNP which will force that situation but a militant and radical independence movement. History and the present day social make up of those who support independence shows that any substantial challenge to the union will come from the left and one that is specifically republican. Independence, like socialism, be won by the Scottish people and not granted by Etonian Lairds and Edinburgh bankers. This shows why independence, especially in developed Western Europe, is such a radical demand.

At the point where the British ruling class desperately try to defend their interests and offer independence on their terms they will look to a moderate nationalist force to represent them. The problem is that on their present trajectory and given the leaderships fear of combative politics the SNP, who would be the typical political force to champion such an offer, would be isolated from such a movement. Indeed the SNP’s role would be to try to demobilise such a movement from its inception. The other flaw in the theory relates to Labour’s capturing of middle England. While south of the border that is clearly defined entity in terms of class and geography, up here there is no real ‘middle-Scotland.’ Our peculiarly concentrated population has created an environment where worker’s struggles, job losses and poverty are experiences closely shared. While predominately middle class enclaves do exist, they are do not hold the balance of political power and are not immune to the shared experiences mentioned above.

The political terrain also differs. Labour were able to move their focus from their traditional voters to middle England because there was no political threat to their left. The SNP have, in their vain search for establishment consent and a ‘middle-Scotland’, left themselves exposed to the SSP and to a lesser extent the Greens.

Failed Strategy

The SNP’s MacBlairism has had severe affects on the party. Electorally, the SNP is in a slump. Each election since 1999 has seen voters desert them for other parties. Although the basis of the SNP’s vote remains predominately working class that has more to do with Scotland’s social structure rather than any class-consciousness within the SNP.

Its activist base which was a key electoral weapon has been so decimated that, in many areas, SSP members could be forgiven for thinking they are the only party activists campaigning at elections. The low return on campaign expenditure, falling membership (the SNP claims to be recruiting on a grand scale again but this is doubtful) and demotivated activists mean the SNP has built up crippling debts of nearly £1 million.

In Holyrood the party’s search for ruling class acceptance and their electoral opportunism has seen them repeatedly scupper or oppose a range of SSP bills and motions designed to tackle the poverty endemic in our country. The SNP’s disgraceful performance in the original Free School Meals debate reaffirmed to those SSP members attending how little consideration the SNP have for those Scots in need. The party’s anti-war stance fluctuated with the opinion polls and when prominent backer Brian Souter launched his millionaire’s referendum to perpetuate the discriminative and homophobic section 2A, the SNP quickly swung behind the compromise for strict guidelines which pandered to the reactionary press.

The only thing that has not changed over recent years has been the conduct of SNP activists. In general their involvement in campaigning against the war or saving local services from closure has been marked by blatant opportunism.

Convention & The Future

The SNP’s approach to the Independence Convention continues to mix their search for establishment consent with electoral concerns. When the concept of the convention arose from within their ranks and the SSP backed the idea, alarm bells rung for the SNP leadership. Since inception the party had assumed the position as the de facto independence convention even though support for independence has always outstripped support for the SNP.

The convention threatened not only this hegemony but also the nature of the independence debate. As long as SNP were ‘in charge’ they could keep control of what an independent Scotland would look like. The involvement of the SSP and to lesser extent the Greens meant their agenda was under threat. The nature of democracy, nuclear weapons/power, the monarchy, immigration and capitalist exploitation were all up for debate.

With the recent election of the Salmond/Sturgeon leadership the SNP has decided to step back from the convention. The proposed launch date has been postponed as those involved analyse its future.

The SSP should not overly concern itself about the SNP’s retreat from the convention. The Convention is a long term project and was never going to deliver independence overnight.

Starting with the Westminster elections the SNP will be hoping to quickly reassert themselves as the sole representatives of the nationalist movement. However given the SNP’s adherence to a strategy of winning support for independence from a hostile ruling class there is no reason to suggest the content of the Salmond/Sturgeon reign will be any different. Given his profile and strong personality Salmond will re-energise the party and stop the rot but the first ministers office will continue to elude him.

In fact we can look to the point where they are drawn back into the convention. It should be remembered that the leaderships of the SNP and Greens were hostile to the idea of a convention but were forced to sign up by rank and file members who wanted to advance the cause of independence (and were worried by the SSP rapid growth).

As the shine rubs off and SNP expectations do not match their results, the rank and file forces which drove a sceptical Swinney into the convention will again question their leadership’s route to independence.

A vital part of this is the role the SSP plays. We could try and chase the SNP and try to lure them back into the convention. That would fail and severely damage the SSP’s standing as a radical socialist force independent of the political games so prevalent in Holyrood. Furthermore it could cause internal strains among SSP activists who, although overwhelmingly in favour of developing the convention, would not want to see our core anti-poverty campaigns suffer as a result of it. Our role is to develop as an organisation and party of action. The SSP that stands in the 2007 election cannot be the SSP that stood in 2003. The organisational problems we are currently experiencing must be tackled rather then simply ‘noted.’ At the same time we must understand that the causes of these problems are political rather than administrative.

Our vision of an Independent Socialist Scotland must be expanded. In last years Scottish elections we were the party with the radical ideas, with solutions based on empowering workers, communities and young people. I do not believe that such an inspiring manifesto had been offered to the people of Scotland for many a generation. If we constrain ourselves to offering bills we will begin to stand still, making it easier for our opponents to undermine or copy our plans.

The importance of this is that the SSP is the biggest pro-independence threat to the SNP. We tore into their vote in 2003. Part of the SNP’s recovery plan is based on regaining that support and not allowing the SSP credibility. Hence their opposition to and sabotage of SSP bills in parliament. If we can resist that offensive and in fact build on our current position, the SNP strategy will be in tatters, their position as leaders of the movement weakened and look towards an independence which will not just break the back of British capitalism but a socialist independence that can play a key role in undermining global capitalism.