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Socialism Today 104 - October 2006

Scotland’s shifting politics

With support for New Labour falling, there is a new scramble between the parties hoping to form the next coalition administration in the Scottish parliament. Many permutations are possible. Meanwhile, out of the split in the SSP, has emerged a new formation headed by Tommy Sheridan, Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement. PHILIP STOTT reports.

THE REALISATION THAT ‘power’ is starting to slip away has prompted a rebellion against Tony Blair by formerly loyal MPs and members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs). New Labour is likely to lose seats at next May’s Scottish parliament elections, with even the possibility of it being removed from the ruling coalition in the Scottish executive. A series of opinion polls have seen the Scottish National Party (SNP) staging a certain recovery and beginning, once again, to challenge New Labour. Most polls have Labour still ahead, marginally, but there could be enough of a swing away to result in a possible SNP-Lib Dem coalition, with support from the Greens, after May next year.

New Labour’s hope is that a rapid removal of Blair and his replacement with Gordon Brown before the May elections would give it enough of a ‘Brown bounce’ to hold onto power in Scotland, albeit with a reduced number of MSPs.

Both the SNP and the Lib Dems in Scotland have looked at the possibility of forming a ruling coalition if the parliamentary arithmetic allows it after May. UK Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell said he "would not be hostile" to his party joining a coalition with the SNP. However, a stumbling block could be the SNP’s policy to hold an independence referendum if it forms an administration in Holyrood. The Lib Dem leadership has so far said that it could not form a coalition if the SNP insisted on a referendum as a deal breaker.

The SNP, New Labour, and the Lib Dems, have all been attempting to woo the Scottish Greens, which currently have seven MSPs, and could be decisive in the formation of a workable coalition. The Greens are prepared to speak to anyone and, while not yet agreeing to enter a formal coalition, are clearly moving in the direction of being prepared to back an SNP-Lib Dem coalition. However, the Greens, who do not oppose capitalism and whose sister parties in Europe have participated in or supported neo-liberal capitalist governments, including in Germany and Sweden, could also do a deal with New Labour and the Lib Dems, a so-called ‘traffic light’ coalition. If Blair is gone by May, for example, and Brown made an announcement about removing troops from Iraq, a deal could be more likely.

If the SNP forms a coalition, it would pursue pro-capitalist policies from the start as indicted by its pledge to cut business rates and encourage a ‘business-friendly environment’. SNP leaders consistently cite the example of countries like Ireland – whose government is pursuing a war on the rights and conditions of the working class – as a model for an independent Scotland.

However, the SNP up till now is not seen by most working-class people as offering any real alternative policy to the New Labour-Lib Dem executive. The SNP has struggled throughout the seven years of the Scottish parliament’s existence to capitalise on the powerful anti-New Labour mood. Its share of the vote has fallen consistently. At last year’s Westminster general election it was out-polled by the Lib Dems and came third. At root this falling support reflected both the move to the right by the SNP leadership throughout the last decade-and-a-half, and also a certain falling away of support for independence since the setting up of the Scottish parliament.

The SNP dropped its commitment to renationalisation of privatised industries and other mildly reformist policies in the mid-1990s. Instead, it happily embraced the neo-liberal consensus that dominated the policy of capitalist governments and parties internationally. Recently, with the return of Alex Salmond as leader, it has pledged to restore free education for students in Scotland and continued its opposition to the occupation of Iraq. (The SNP only opposed the initial invasion because it did not have UN backing. Now it calls for the removal of British and US troops but supports their replacement with a multi-national force, mainly from Muslim countries including Pakistan.) While firmly pro-capitalist in outlook, the SNP has also, from time-to-time, taken up populist and semi-radical campaigns. These have included opposition to privatisation schemes – private finance initiative (PFI) and private public partnership (PPP) – and hospital closures. But in practice, SNP councillors have supported PFI at local level to build schools, roads, etc, because there was ‘no other alternative’.

In the absence of a significant working-class and socialist alternative to New Labour policies, it is inevitable that the SNP, and even the Lib Dems, can pick up support among working-class people and sections of the middle class.

Independence election?

A RECENT YOUGOV poll for the Sunday Times, which asked how people would vote in a referendum on Scottish independence, found that 44% would vote yes and 42% no. This received widespread coverage, with political commentators describing it as a significant change in outlook following seven years of devolution. However, this level of support is still below previous polls that asked the same question in 1998, when more than 50% said they would vote yes in a referendum.

Most opinion polls have tended to ask people what option they prefer, for example, independence or some form of devolution (either with the same powers or enhanced powers). When the question is asked that way, a statistical analysis of attitudes, made in 2003, found that 37% supported independence rather than devolution in 1997, but by 2001 this had fallen to 29%.

The mood around the national question in Scotland undoubtedly receded following the establishment of the Scottish parliament. This had a major impact on the SNP’s electoral support as well. To a large extent this was a reflection of an initial mood that the devolved parliament should be ‘given time’. However, while supporting a ‘double Yes’ vote in the 1997 devolution referendum as a democratic advance for the Scottish people (Yes for a Scottish parliament, Yes for it to have tax-raising powers), the International Socialists (CWI Scotland) explained then that the parliament lacked the economic power to tackle the decisive issues facing the working class in Scotland.

Even those powers available to the parliament have been wielded like a neo-liberal battering ram by the Scottish executive. An orgy of privatisation of public services, cuts in health provision, and rising inequality has been the result of devolution. The YouGov poll found that a majority of people believed that schools and the NHS had not improved since the Scottish parliament was established. Forty percent believed the NHS was actually worse now and 22% thought schools had deteriorated.

The failure of devolution and the rampant pro-capitalist policies of the Scottish executive have created an increasing desire for change. This was underlined by the same poll that found support for extending the powers available to the Scottish parliament at 64%, with only 19% supporting the current devolved settlement.

Next year’s elections coincide with the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, and it is inevitable that this focus will be exploited, particularly by the SNP, including through the promise of a referendum on independence. However, at this stage, the SNP’s increase in support is mainly based on an anti-Labour mood, rather than enthusiasm for the SNP or its programme.

The movement against attacks on pensions – which produced the biggest strike action in decades in Scotland and across Britain in March – NHS cuts, pay inequality, as well as the carnage in Iraq and the Middle East generally, are still the main issues for working-class people. But under these conditions, exacerbated by the absence of a fighting, class alternative, support for independence can grow. For a section of the working class, independence can seem to offer a route out of poverty, low pay, and the problems caused by capitalism.

That does not mean that support for independence is not growing compared to the situation after 1999 when the parliament was set up. The war in Iraq, which the SNP argues would not have involved Scottish troops if Scotland was independent and had control over defence matters, can be a factor propelling a layer of people towards the idea of independence. As is the announcement by Brown that under his leadership a New Labour government will replace the Trident missile system, based on the Clyde, with a updated version. The SNP has pledged that in an independent Scotland it would scrap Trident and oppose new nuclear power stations. A combination of these factors, and disgust at New Labour’s pro-big business policies, can lead to a rise in support for independence and also the SNP in the run up to the 2007 elections, as could the fear of the return of the Tories to government in Westminster.

However, this is not the only possible scenario. It is not ruled out that if Brown replaces Blair before the elections there could be a temporary halt to Labour’s declining support. Not because Brown would pursue a different policy on fundamentals from Blair – as one commentator said, it would be ‘Blairism with a Scottish accent’. But there may be a (temporary) perception among some sections that Brown is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, waiting to come to power before unveiling a hitherto hidden radical streak. Under these conditions, there could be a more limited loss of seats for New Labour next year.

Whether New Labour suffers a heavy defeat or survives due to a ‘least-worst option’ mood, the urgent need to build a fighting socialist alternative requires immediate attention.

The Solidarity initiative

THE SPLIT IN the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), as a result of the actions of the SSP leadership following Tommy Sheridan’s spectacular court victory over the News of the World, was a setback. However, the launch of Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement, by Tommy Sheridan and others including the International Socialists, does at least offer the opportunity to rebuild the socialist movement in Scotland. Even at this early stage, a few weeks after its launch, Solidarity has outstripped the SSP in terms of the numbers of socialists now organised under its banner. The massive wave of enthusiasm among the working class that greeted Tommy Sheridan’s defamation victory can be used to rebuild the socialist movement in the months ahead.

To achieve this, it is vital that the new party turns to the working class with a bold campaigning programme, taking up the day-to-day issues facing working-class communities suffering the brunt of neo-liberal attacks, while offering a socialist alternative to these attacks. That includes, of course, opposition to the imperialist wars in the Middle East and the occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian Authority.

This strategy, however, put forward by the International Socialists among others, has put the CWI in Scotland in opposition to the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) which is opposed to Solidarity-SSM being an expressly socialist party. The SWP argues that the new party should overwhelmingly concentrate on anti-war work without linking this to an explanation of the need for a socialist solution to end war and imperialist-inspired slaughter. In effect, the SWP believes that to argue for socialism and for a working-class orientation for Solidarity will put people off joining. In practice, the opposite is the case. If the new party bases itself on communities fighting NHS cuts and school closures, on trade unionists in struggle, fights for a decent minimum wage and an end to low pay and poverty, as well as anti-war and anti-racist campaigning, then Solidarity can build a much bigger base, influence and membership.

The SWP’s extremely narrow prescription for building the ‘left’ in Scotland reflects a lack of confidence in the working class’s ability to draw anti-capitalist and socialist conclusions. This has led it to no longer being prepared to explain the need to build a movement with socialist policies that stands for a complete break with capitalism. In reality, Solidarity-SSM can build rapidly by offering a socialist alternative to the pro-capitalist parties in Scotland, including the SNP.

There will also be pressure on Solidarity-SSM, which supports an independent socialist Scotland and a referendum on independence, to call for a vote for ‘independence parties’ in May next year. To succumb to this pressure, which the SSP may well do as it moves in an even more nationalist direction after the split, means effectively advocating a vote for the SNP in the constituency seats, where neither the SSP nor Solidarity are likely to field candidates.

It is clear that the SNP will pursue pro-capitalist policies in power. Inevitably, that will put it on a collision course with the working class. Any policy that results in socialists advocating a vote for the SNP would, in the eyes of working-class people, weaken the ability of a new party to fight to defend working-class peoples’ interests. This would especially be the case on the basis of experiencing an SNP government in practice.

While supporting a referendum and the right of the Scottish people to independence should a majority support that, the CWI will argue that Solidarity-SSM should take an independent working-class position. That means opposition to the policies of the SNP and the other capitalist parties, while fighting for the democratic rights of the Scottish people.

The International Socialists will continue to fight for an independent socialist Scotland, which we advocate should form a free and equal partnership in a voluntary socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland. In other words, we seek to defend the unity of the working class that already exists between workers in Scotland and other parts of Britain in the trade unions and in common struggle, while waging an uncompromising struggle against capitalism in Scotland, Britain and internationally.

The International Socialists will work to help build the forces of Solidarity-SSM as a campaigning socialist party in the run up to the May elections next year. Provided the new party makes itself relevant to the working class and maintains its political independence from the pro-capitalist establishment, the forces of socialism in Scotland can rapidly advance in the months ahead.


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