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Issue 50, September 2000

SNP leadership contest

THE RESIGNATION of Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, Alex Salmond, has opened up a leadership challenge that has exposed the pro-big business orientation of the two contending candidates.

Neither John Swinney, the current deputy leader, nor Alex Neil, the so-called left-wing alternative, have come forward with any decisive changes in SNP policy. Both candidates describe themselves as standing in the 'left-of-centre, moderate, social democratic tradition'. Despite Alex Neil's left, and even socialist, traditions - he was a former Labour Party member who founded the breakaway Scottish Labour Party with Jim Sillars in the 1970s - he has limited his 'alternative' vision to calling for independence to be number one in the SNP pledges. This is a dig at the manifesto on which the SNP fought the 1999 Scottish parliament elections, which relegated 'independence' to number ten out of ten promises. Neil has also called for a greater cut in fuel duty, by up to 30% in the Highlands, and the abolition of tolls for the Isle of Skye road bridge.

Neither wing of the SNP has a policy for a return to even the limited reformist programme of the early 1990s. At that time the SNP stood for the re-nationalisation of the privatised utilities, a major house building and renovation programme, and increases in pensions and benefits. The SNP, in common with all other big business parties, has surfed the wave, shifting their economic and social policies decisively to the right. The SNP now stand for a low-tax, high-productivity independent Scotland, modelled on Southern Ireland's 'Celtic Tiger'. They propose an economy where corporation tax is slashed to encourage foreign direct investment by multi-national corporations.


Yet the leadership contest has served to underline the differences inside the SNP and among SNP supporters. In a very confused and inchoate manner, Neil is attempting to appeal to the working-class base of the SNP. He has argued that the SNP should not ape New Labour and orientate to 'middle' Scotland, but should take the fight direct to the working-class heartlands in the central belt area of Scotland. The nationalists still have their main base in the rural areas of the North East of Scotland, which provide five out of six of their Westminster MPs. Their membership is largely concentrated in that region, which is why Swinney, from North Tayside, is favourite to win the leadership contest as voting will be based on branch membership.

While paying lip-service to the record levels of poverty, low pay and opposition to housing stock transfers in Scotland, the SNP leadership, at the same time, want to present themselves as a 'business-friendly' party. Their economic case for independence depends on a high-profit, low-cost business environment. In other words, the same neo-liberal economic model that has massively accelerated the growth of inequality in Scotland and internationally during the 1990s.

Another battleground in this contest is over how independence is to be achieved. Swinney is part of the 'gradualist' wing of the SNP leadership which sees independence being won through the gradual extension of the powers of the Scottish parliament from Westminster. If the Scottish parliament can be made to work, they argue, it will create an appetite among Scots for more far-reaching powers to be given to Scotland. The 'fundamentalist' wing of the SNP, supposedly represented by Alex Neil, calls for a clear commitment for an independent Scotland that would not compromise on the hope of being handed a few more devolved powers.


These tensions, as we have argued before, reflect huge pressures on the SNP from the British ruling class, and large sections of the Scottish bourgeoisie, who are striving to retain the British union. It was not accidental that the SNP last year relegated the demand for independence to tenth place in their programme for the Holyrood elections. There was a ferocious campaign by the press, the political establishment and sections of big business against the SNP when they looked like mounting a serious challenge to Labour.

The resignation of Salmond is in no small way linked to that experience, as he drew the conclusion that the struggle for independence would be a long and bitter process. Furthermore, he concluded it would lead the SNP onto a collision course with the capitalist establishment. Before that, the SNP leadership had illusions that big business could be persuaded to accept, or at least remain neutral on, the question of an independent Scotland. The economic and political interests of British capitalism and the decisive degree of integration of the Scottish economy into that of Britain, however, make the ruling elite overwhelmingly opposed to the break-up of the British state.

Ian McWhirter, a leading political commentator who writes for The Herald newspaper, said: "The British state would not allow secession without a fight. Maybe not with tanks in the street, but certainly with a sustained and well-financed campaign against 'breaking up Britain' which would have the backing of Labour, the Lib Dems, Tories and most of the Scottish press". (9 August)


These factors have been the decisive catalyst in the movement of sections of the SNP leadership towards accepting the idea of increased autonomy that falls short of an independent Scotland. The SNP recently changed their position on how independence would be achieved. Previously, they argued that an SNP majority in Holyrood or among Westminster's Scottish MPs would be a mandate for opening up negotiations on the terms of a separation of Scotland from the UK. Now they argue that an SNP majority in the Scottish parliament would lead to a proposal for a referendum on independence within four years. This is partly to open the door to other parties like the Liberals, or even the Tories, to set up a coalition with the SNP in Edinburgh to run the administration, while still allowing them to campaign for a No vote in a referendum.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which according to recent polls could have at least four members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) in 2003, would also be approached by a possible SNP administration to enter a coalition. While the SSP has a policy for an independent socialist Scotland, and a referendum, it would be disastrous to formally enter an SNP-led coalition. This idea, which some elements of the SSP support, would lead to the SSP being totally discredited by an administration which would continue a programme of cuts and austerity.

The SSP must follow an independent class policy with a clear Marxist programme. It should back a referendum on self-determination, campaigning in favour of independence. This approach alone will ensure that the forces of socialism will continue to grow and develop into a mass force in Scotland.


Philip Stott

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