frontline vol. 2 issue 3.

Scotland's Independence election

Andrew Grey of Glasgow Kelvin SSP looks forward to what the May elections will mean for Scottish politics.

'Now there's ane end of an auld sang'. So remarked James Ogilvy, 1st Earl of Seafield, as he signed the Act of Union in the old Scottish Parliament on the 16th of January 1707. The English parliament ratified the Act a few weeks later, and on the 1st of May 1707 it became law, ending the centuries-old independence of the Scottish nation.

Ogilvy's rueful comment was perhaps a reflection of a guilty conscience, for he had been one of the strongest advocates of the Union in the debates that had bitterly divided the parliament during the course of 1706. He was later rewarded with a seat in the new British House of Lords, while other Scottish parliamentarians were bribed with cash or lucrative posts in the army and colonial service. Through these means the Act was able to command a majority in the parliament; it was considerably less popular in the country at large. Angry crowds gathered in Edinburgh and other towns to burn copies of the Act, and even pro-unionist reports acknowledged the Union was wildly unpopular.

Despite this inauspicious start, the Union has proved to be remarkably resilient over the last three centuries, surviving Jacobite rebellions, continental revolutions, two world wars and the rise and fall of Empire. Yet the elections to the revived Holyrood parliament on the 3rd of May, just two days after the tercentenary of the Act, may prove to be the first note in its long-delayed swan song.

SNP Surge

Electoral politics in Scotland are currently in an unprecedented state of flux. Opinion polls over the last few months have consistently shown the Scottish National Party maintaining a narrow lead over Labour in both the constituency and list votes. If this lead in the polls is replicated on election day, the SNP would be the biggest single party, though still well short of an absolute majority.

The SNP is not the only pro-independence party in Scotland, of course, with both the SSP and the Greens having formal positions of support for a referendum on independence. On current figures, however, these two parties would not return enough MSPs to make up an anti-unionist majority with the SNP in Holyrood. With Labour and the Conservatives implacable in their hostility to independence, much will turn upon the position taken by the Liberal Democrats, who are likely to be courted by both the SNP and Labour as junior partners in a coalition government.

The SNP is committed to holding a vote on independence if it forms an administration at Holyrood. SNP leader Alex Salmond has repeatedly declared that this pledge is non-negotiable, though recently, sensing that power may be within his grasp, he has signalled that he is willing to be flexible over the timing of such a poll, even if that means putting it off until near the end of the parliament. The Liberals, for their part, have said that they are not in favour of a referendum at any time. They could change their minds however, if faced with a choice between going into partnership with an ascendant SNP, or maintaining their relationship with an increasingly beleaguered Labour. With an eye on the next Westminster elections, they may well calculate that a compromise on an independence vote at some point in the remote future is a price worth paying to distance themselves from an unpopular UK government.

The End of Union?

The indications are that, if and when a referendum takes place, the majority of the Scottish electorate would incline towards the dissolution of the Union. Every poll taken since June 1998 has shown a lead for the pro-independence position, and this lead has widened over the past six months, despite an increasing barrage of hostile propaganda from the defenders of the Union in Holyrood, Westminster and the pro-union media.

This is, of course, all speculative, and there is still a long way to go in the campaign. The SNP have a track record of underachievement in important elections, which stems in large part from the difficulty they face in trying to appeal to left-leaning workers in Labour's central-belt heartlands without alienating their core support in more conservative rural areas. They performed disastrously in the 2003 Holyrood election, losing eight seats and failing to make any inroads into the Labour vote, and they didn't do much better in the 2005 Westminster poll. The omens look good for them this time around though. Labour's position as the establishment party in Scotland is under threat as never before, due to its association with a London government haemorrhaging support in a catastrophic war abroad and sleazy corruption scandals at home. The Liberals are compromised by their participation in the coalition, and are finding it harder to position themselves as a radical opposition, as they did successfully in 2005. There is no sign that the limited revival of the Conservative party in England is being repeated north of the border. The SNP has managed to gain momentum and credibility without coming under too much critical scrutiny, though this will surely change as Labour party machine and its allies in the unionist press step up their negative campaigning. The SNP may yet contrive to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but it is surely odds on that the May election will signal the start of a seismic shift in the Scottish political landscape. Serious debate about constitutional arrangements will cease to be the preserve of political anoraks, and will become a live issue for a wide layer of the working class. Independence, so long the subject of abstract argument, is beginning to look like tangible reality.


What opportunities does all this present for the SSP, and how can we make the most of them? In addressing this question it is useful to briefly review the SSP's position on constitutional change and explore the thinking underlying it.

Since its foundation the SSP has had a position of support for an 'Independent Socialist Scotland'. This has been a continuous theme in our propaganda, and has had its practical expression in the organisation of events like the Declaration of Calton Hill, and backing for the Independence Convention and the Independence First campaign.

The policy on independence has not been entirely uncontroversial within the party, though it has always been supported by a large majority whenever it has come to a vote. The main organised opposition came from members of the Socialist Worker platform; now that this platform has left the SSP the position is more or less universally accepted internally, though it remains the subject of external criticism.

Those opposed to the policy have tended to focus on a historical analysis of the nature of Scottish nationalism and its relationship to British imperialism. They have pointed to the leading role of Scots in the expansion of the Empire, and the benefits that accrued to Scots capitalists from the exploitation of the colonies, to argue that Scotland, far from being oppressed by England, has since 1707 been a partner (albeit a junior one) in the British state; thus Scottish nationalism is no more than an equally corrosive variant of British nationalism.

This argument is not entirely unpersuasive in its own terms; it is clearly true that Scotland's relationship with England does not fall neatly into a simple template of oppressed and oppressor. However it completely misses the point. It is erroneous to say that the SSP's position is a 'nationalist' one - to contend that support for Scottish independence is equivalent to support for Scottish nationalism is to conflate two quite separate issues. Whether or not Scottish nationalism can be considered progressive is not really what should concern us - the question that actually faces socialists in Scotland today is this: in the present political climate, does a call for Scottish independence advance or hinder the socialist movement?

Independence and Socialism

To answer this we need to look at our experience over the last eight years, since the advent of the devolved administration in Edinburgh. It is hard to argue that the socialist movement in Scotland has not made significant gains in that time. The most obvious expression of this is the SSP itself, which has expanded dramatically in both size and influence since 1999, reaching a high point in 2003 when the party polled over 130,000 votes in the Holyrood elections, or 6.9% of the ballots cast. Localised results were even better; in Glasgow our candidates averaged 14.6%.

Much of this success was of course down to active local campaigns that had enabled the party to sink roots in communities and win the backing of a layer of more politically conscious workers, but the translation of this latent support into concrete gains would not have been possible without the change in the political environment created by the new constitutional arrangements. Devolution, while very limited, was a clear democratic advance that the SSP was able to exploit, building the party into a vibrant progressive force both nationally and on the wider European stage.

Events over the last two years have perhaps taken some of the gloss off of the SSP's advances, but the lesson is clear; even a relatively modest extension of democratic rights can provide an opportunity for the socialist movement to make substantial progress.

It does not matter that the independence envisaged by nationalist politicians is of a capitalist nature. The progressive nature of the SSP's position does not rest on a belief that an independent Scotland would in itself be an advance, but on a recognition that the political conditions created by the move towards independence would be more conducive to the growth of a socialist party than the status quo. The rupture of the union would be a political earthquake, calling into question the legitimacy of political institutions that have seemed set in stone, and creating fertile ground for a party offering radical ideas about the transformation of society.

How then can this perspective be translated into a programme of action on the independence issue between now and the 3rd of May? Two interlinked priorities seem essential. Firstly we must build support for the anti-unionist cause amongst workers, and maximise the electoral expression of this support. Secondly we need to clearly stake out our socialist position within the independence movement, in preparation for the debate about the nature of a future independent Scotland that will be triggered by a campaign around a referendum.

Neither of these tasks is particularly straightforward. If we are to deliver anti-unionist votes in any significant numbers we will have to popularise the idea of independence among that section of the working class that is not currently engaged with the electoral process on any level, let alone involved in constitutional debate. We will also have to maintain our ideological distinctiveness in the face of pressure to tone down our socialism for the sake of unity with other forces in the independence camp. To carry this through successfully the party will need to operate with a high degree of ideological confidence and cohesion.

Fighting for Votes

Unfortunately, going into the campaign, the SSP is not in as good a shape as it might have been. The party hasn't really had a chance to debate and digest the lessons of our poor result in the 2005 general election, where our share of the vote slumped to 1.9% nationally. While it would have been surprising if we had been able to maintain the momentum of 2003 on the less friendly terrain of a Westminster poll, the outcome was undoubtedly disappointing. Our showing in opinion polls has improved since then, but we are still short of our 2003 level of support, and it would be optimistic to imagine that we might surpass it this time around.

The stalling of our progress has been at least partly caused by internal factors, principally a lack of certainty among the membership as to what kind of party the SSP is, and how it should orientate itself towards the more or less politically conscious sections of the working class. One result of this has been that we have had a tendency to pay too much attention to the content of our policies without thinking enough about how we propose to deliver them. At times we have come close to falling by default into a unconscious parliamentary left-reformist position, and furthermore a left-reformist position with no credibility, since it has always been plain that there was no prospect of us fulfilling any of our pledges by parliamentary means.

Having a reformist programme is not in itself a problem; to quote an old Militant pamphlet, 'the way to the masses is through unconditional and determined support for every partial reform movement of the working people on a day-to-day basis.' What has been a problem, however, is how we have tended to see our programme not as a propaganda tool that can be used to raise the consciousness of those layers of workers who are closest to us by 'all the time posing the general socialist alternative to the piecemeal gradualism of the reformists,' but as an end in itself.

The result of this is that we have, at least at Holyrood, been outflanked by the real parliamentary left-reformists, most notably the Green party, who have made it clear that they are willing to comprise on practically all of their radical policies in return for limited access to the levers of power. The fact that they too are languishing at the bottom of the opinion polls shows that this is not a strategy with any long-term future.

We have to keep in mind that the strength of the SSP lies not in its similarity to other parties, but in its difference. It does not matter if we cannot match Labour or the SNP in the breadth and depth of our policies, so long as we maintain the thing that makes us unique Ð our vision of politics as a process that empowers ordinary people, rather than a mechanism for concentrating power in the hands of a ruling elite.

External factors have of course frustrated our attempts to implement an educational strategy that might have allowed us to fully discuss and resolve these issues. It goes without saying that we have not had our troubles to seek over the last twelve months, and as a result of this we have been sorely distracted from the tasks in hand.

Despite these challenges we have plenty of reasons to be hopeful for the future. All over Scotland SSP members are involved, often in leading roles, in their communities and workplaces, allowing the party to relate to those workers who have been radicalised by their experience in local campaigns, and infusing us with new life and ideas. If, by focussing our energy and propaganda, we can consolidate this potential layer of support, and recruit a proportion of its members to the party, we will be able to build a base from which we can spread our ideas into the wider working class. This may not translate into immediate electoral support, but it will pay dividends in the long term, and put us in a position to have a decisive influence on the future course of an independent Scotland.