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Issue 39, June 1999

Scotland's Historic Election

    New Labour's support falls away
    Scottish independence
    A socialist in the Scottish parliament
    Scotland's 'anti-establishment' vote

'IT TOOK Tommy Sheridan to provoke spontaneity, which he managed in style. 'Before making the affirmation I would like to declare that, as a democratically-elected socialist, my vision for Scotland is of a democratic socialist republic where supreme sovereignty lies with the people of Scotland and not with an unelected monarch, and I therefore take this affirmation under protest', he proclaimed. At which point he raised a clenched fist. (Let it be noted that when this scene was replayed on television in the pubs around Edinburgh's Royal Mile, the customers cheered)'. (From the Scottish daily Herald).

The effect of Tommy Sheridan's election victory on May 6 on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party, and particularly his dramatic appearance at the 'oath-swearing' ceremony at the opening of the Scottish parliament, has had an electrifying effect on a much wider audience than those who voted for him and the SSP. The Observer, a few days after the election, ruefully commented: 'The Scottish parliament has Britain's first openly Trotskyite elected representative'.

Tommy's election was helped by the introduction of proportional representation (PR). Coming third behind Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the first-past-the-post election in the Glasgow Pollok constituency (with 21.5% of the vote), the second vote for the regional list of top-up seats secured his victory. Dennis Canavan, excluded as a Labour candidate because, according to the Scottish Labour leader Donald Dewar, he was 'just not good enough', crushed New Labour's stooge replacement, capturing 55% of the vote compared to 19% for Labour.

The SSP's candidates elsewhere also chalked up creditable results for a new party standing on an all-Scotland basis for the first time. It received just under 2% of the vote and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) 2.36% of the vote. The combined total vote for socialists, together with the Greens, comes to a commendable 'anti-establishment' vote of 9.12% (see box). Andrew Rawnsley, the political correspondent of the Observer, pointedly commented: 'This time the red meat of socialism was only on offer to the Scots from one-man bands. Who knows about next time?' The 'next time' will apply not just to Scotland but to England and Wales as well.

On a more general level, the Scottish elections signified a defeat for the major bourgeois parties, and for New Labour in particular. Tony Blair envisaged that the 'new politics', together with devolution, would usher in a period of tranquility. 'Conflict', and the class struggle, were to be magically conjured away. The Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have been specially designed to avoid those alleged 'verbal brawls' which scar the Westminster parliament.

Yet the real winner in the Scottish election were the 'can't be bothered'. The major capitalist parties - New Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Tories - are in the eyes of increasing sections of the population the same brand of politics with different labels. The turnout was less than 60% (against 71.4% in the general election) and was lower even than the turnout in the devolution referendum. In Glasgow Govan constituency, which attracted the most attention, the turnout was only 49.5%.

One of the effects of the 'ideological consensus' amongst the major bourgeois parties is that huge swathes of the population are now turned off politics. The 'politicians' have reacted to this in alarm. One commentator compared them to "actors in a huge, dark theatre, initially delighted at the absence of heckling or booing, but beginning uneasily to ask themselves whether anyone is still watching". (The Observer, 9 May 1999) Moreover, into this vacuum has stepped the likes of Tommy Sheridan, who has given a voice to the voiceless millions and touched a deep chord of sympathy amongst many working-class people. On the morning after the election, he declared: 'I aim to fight for Scotland's millions - not the millionaires'.

  top     New Labour's support falls away

IT IS DIFFICULT to imagine a more favourable terrain upon which New Labour could fight these 'mid-term' elections. British prime minister Tony Blair probably secretly wished to postpone devolution and the elections on the basis of proportional representation to a Scottish parliament. Once he recognised the possibilities of PR, particularly the election of MSPs to the left of New Labour, he was not at all keen to proceed. But to have postponed the elections or to have changed the electoral system, would have led to the complete disaffection of Scotland, the reinforcement of nationalism, and increased support for the SNP in particular.

Compelled then to fight the election, Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown (who effectively acted as New Labour's campaign manager in Scotland) were blessed by two favourable factors: firstly, the Kosova war (in a war, the tendency in the first period is for the population to rally round the government); and secondly, that the bottom has not yet completely fallen out of the world economy and therefore the British economy is still staggering along. Yet the Labour vote dropped by 7% compared to the 1997 general election, while its vote fell by 13% in what were its 20 safest seats prior to 6 May. The Liberal Democrats just inched ahead, gaining 1%, while the Tories dropped by 1%. The SNP, who were the main beneficiaries of the move away from New Labour, gained by 7% in overall terms. The irony is that the main opponents of PR, the Tories, benefited most from this system. Without it they would have no seats in the Scottish parliament and just one seat in the Welsh assembly.

The SNP's 29% share of the poll puts it in roughly the same position as in the second election of 1974, which marked the previous high-point of the SNP. The SNP dissident and columnist, Jim Sillars, wrote scathingly on this in the Scottish edition of the mass-tabloid Sun: 'I suppose I should, as a member of the SNP, write a nationalist consolation piece and follow the line on my fax machine from the party's headquarters which says that, despite losing, this is still one of the party's best election results in history… but this is not 25 years ago. A great deal of effort by many unsung heroes of party workers, tramping around streets, fighting against closures and the poll tax, has seen it move on from those days. To be under where we were 25 years ago, in a Scottish general election, is not something to boast about, but something to ponder'.

The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, effectively abandoned any campaign for Scottish independence as he wilted under the 'Nat bashing' of the heavily New Labour-dominated Scottish media. Gordon Brown was in the vanguard, wielding a 'baseball bat' against the SNP. Economic report after report rained down on the heads of the Scottish electorate, demonstrating the economic 'catastrophe' looming on the basis of independence. The British treasury produced figures to show that in every year of the 1990s, government expenditure per head of the population was allegedly 25% higher in Scotland than in England. Per capita government expenditure for England was £3,885; the comparable figure for Scotland was £4,826. 'Facts' descended like confetti to show that there were particularly large discrepancies in health, education and social security. Each Scottish pupil 'had £188 per annum more spent on their education than their English counterparts'. Similarly, an extra £186 per capita was spent on healthcare and an additional £188 per head was spent on social security. This, of course, ignored the deep-seated poverty and deep alienation of huge sections of the Scottish population at the treatment of Scotland over generations by the British ruling class and, particularly, by the hated Thatcher government.

The SNP weakly countered that Scotland was a net contributor by way of £34bn to the London treasury between 1979-94. They initially argued that Scotland would be better off without England but, under the avalanche of New Labour's offensive, the SNP conceded ground and admitted that, 'in the worse-case scenario', if Scotland had become independent it would, at present, be running a budget deficit of around £1.5bn.

  top     Scottish independence

AN INCAPACITY TO answer the anti-independence arguments, equivocation, the shifting from one position to another by the SNP, is inevitable so long as independence for Scotland is posed purely within a capitalist context. These developments, especially the ferocious offensive by the representatives of the centralised British state (New Labour in this instance), bear out the arguments of the Socialist Party and Socialism Today on the issue of Scottish independence. Steps towards independence in any capitalist state in the modern era are not a seamless process. Generally, the bourgeoisie internationally, particularly the major world powers of Britain and the US, have set their face against the break-up of multi-national states. Globalisation has led to a feeling of helplessness of peoples and nations in the face of mighty, uncontrolled economic forces. This in turn leads to a search for a common identity and 'security'. The historian, Arthur Schlesinger, has commented that people 'feel themselves adrift in a vast anonymous sea and, therefore, desperately swim towards any familiar life-raft'.

In the past, the labour movement could play this role and act as a pole of attraction. But in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism and the shift towards the right in the former workers' parties, this option has largely disappeared. At the same time, there are 4,000 distinctive languages in the world, and yet 'only' 200 member-states of the 'United Nations'. The capitalists are haunted by the implications of this. Phillip Stephens of the Financial Times comments: 'A world in which each identifiable ethnic group (amongst other things based on language) who claims statehood would be one of still more bloody chaos. And self-determination for one persecuted minority too often turns into the oppression of another'.

This 'oppression', however, is only inevitable on the basis of capitalism. Socialism would allow the full right of self-determination, up to and including separation, to all nationalities, and the greatest possible autonomy for the smallest group, 'ethnic' or otherwise. A new socialist world could not tolerate the slightest taint of oppression or insensitivity of one nation to another, or one group by another.

But the bourgeoisie in the modern era oppose independence in general because of its contagious effects on multi-national states and, therefore, on their power, prestige and income. The European bourgeoisie, particularly the Spanish and Italians, have anxiously watched developments in Scotland and have urged Blair and the British bourgeoisie to remain firm. An independent Scotland would immediately stir up the Basque and Catalan nationalists in Spain and, perhaps, resurrect the Northern League and other incipient 'national questions' in Italy. The approach of the bourgeoisie towards the Balkans has been guided by a determination to prevent separation (apart from the examples of Croatia and Slovenia in the first period of the break-up of Yugoslavia) because it will unravel a whole series of national issues throughout the region and impact elsewhere.

The brutal treatment of the SNP in this election is as nothing compared to the approach that the bourgeoisie will adopt if they face a serious prospect of independence in Scotland. This in no way invalidates the call for independence, but the demand must be situated, as the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) have argued, in the context of socialism in Scotland linked to a socialist confederation of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The SNP's call for a penny-in-the-pound rise in income tax, also assisted New Labour's campaign against the SNP. It had a greater effect in the traditional SNP rural heartlands, amongst the middle class, than in the urban, working-class areas. Before the election campaign, the SNP stood a full 14 points ahead of New Labour. Their fortunes, however, plunged once New Labour and the anti-SNP Scottish media were in full stride. The retreat of the Salmond leadership was indicated prior to the election by the wiping-out from their website of all their previous policies on defence and other issues.

But the consequent rise of Labour frightened many workers and the middle class. Not wishing to give further untrammelled power to New Labour Blairite control-freaks, a section of the population recoiled and SNP support recovered. The election also demonstrated, despite the limitations of the numbers participating, that the opinion polls nationally are not an accurate barometer of the real mood which exists on the ground. Before the election, New Labour recorded 53% support in the polls, yet their actual performance on election day was substantially below this. This underlines what we have been arguing: the Blair government is not as popular as the press and media try to picture it. Its popularity is partly conditioned by the lack of a viable alternative. In this election, however, there was a means at hand for voters to register a protest in the form of Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland.

  top     A socialist in the Scottish parliament

THE PERFORMANCE OF the small socialist forces is a harbinger of how events could develop in Scotland in the future. A coalition government between New Labour and the Liberal Democrats has been cobbled together on the basis of the latter jettisoning their 'non-negotiable' stand on the abolition of university tuition fees! This is despite the fact that probably 60% of the Scottish population voted for parties opposed to tuition fees, including the Tories who produced special 'rude' t-shirts denouncing it. Tommy Sheridan is to move a Bill in the Scottish parliament calling for the restoration of student maintenance grants and the abolition of tuition fees. This should be accompanied by a promise to organise a non-payment campaign in Scotland unless this pernicious measure is dropped immediately, to link up with the already vibrant campaign against tuition fees in England and Wales.

The elections to the Scottish parliament have opened up a new and dramatic phase, with serious implications for workers in England and Wales as well. Although New Labour is the biggest party in both parliaments, those assemblies are generally more to the 'left' and are more susceptible than the Westminster parliament to the pressure of the masses. Moreover, the potential for splits within the Labour Party in both Scotland and Wales is rooted in the objective situation, which will worsen, and New Labour's continued move towards the right.

These elections, above all, signify that the ground is being prepared for the emergence of a powerful left and socialist alternative. The victory of the Scottish Socialist Party is welcomed by all workers and socialists, not just in Scotland but in England and Wales. This party is a coalition of Marxists (members of the CWI) and others from different traditions. It is a broad party within which the Marxists, the Trotskyists, play a key role in its leadership and organisation. It does not, as yet, have a clearly defined Marxist/Trotskyist programme, but has succeeded in attracting, in the course of the election, a significant layer of workers who are looking for a fighting, socialist party. Its performance, as well as that of Dennis Canavan and others such as the SLP, shows the potential which exists for a significant socialist force in Scotland at the present time. Moreover, it illustrates what would have been possible if the SLP, launched by Arthur Scargill in 1996, had from its inception been open, democratic and pluralist - a federation of different socialist organisations and tendencies - as we argued at the time. Unfortunately, Scargill has adopted a narrow, sectarian approach, once again underlined in this election by his refusal to countenance either a common electoral agreement or discussions towards the formation of a new, unified socialist force in Scotland.

Events in England are not yet at the stage which could allow a similar initiative to be taken. The march of events, however, will create the circumstances in which a similar development can take place in England and Wales. The significance of Tommy Sheridan's victory is that one or two socialists, particularly a Marxist, in the parliament of a small country, five million strong, can have an effect out of proportion to the organised force that they represent at this stage. This, of course, is on condition of adherence to firm, socialist principles and a refusal to be bound to parliamentary action alone. We look forward to future advances of the SSP and, just as important, to the strengthening of a conscious Marxist revolutionary core within it, to provide the necessary theoretical backbone for the party's further development.

  top     Scotland's 'anti-establishment' vote

SCOTLAND'S PARLIAMENT is made up of 129 MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) - 73 elected in individual constituencies on a first-past-the-post basis and 56 'additional members'.

The constituencies are grouped together into eight regions with seven 'additional members' each. These 'top-up' seats are allocated to provide a more proportionate reflection of party support in each region. Every elector, therefore, has two votes - one for an individual constituency candidate and one for a regional party list.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) stood in 18 individual constituency seats. In Glasgow, where nine of the ten constituencies were contested, the SSP polled an average of 1,797 votes per seat, 7.15%. Outside Glasgow, the average per seat was 831, 2.66%. The Socialist Labour Party (SLP) contested just five individual constituencies, polling an average of 1,053 votes per seat, 3.32%. The Greens did not stand for any constituency seat.

The SSP, SLP and the Greens each stood party lists for 'top-up' seats in all eight regions, while Dennis Canavan contested the Central Scotland regional list in addition to his own constituency of Falkirk West. In this 'second ballot', when every Scottish elector had a chance to vote for one or the other of the 'anti-establishment' parties, the Greens polled 84,024 votes (3.59% of the total vote across Scotland), the SLP 55,232 (2.36%), the Scottish Socialist Party 46,635 (1.99%), and Dennis Canavan 27,700 (1.18%). The combined total vote for socialists, together with the Greens, came to 213,591 (9.12%).

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