Behind the split in the SNP

The launch of a new pro-independence political party, Alba, by the former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond dominated the news agenda for the first days of the official start of the Scottish parliament election campaign. It came in the immediate aftermath of the conflict between Salmond and his successor as SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, which arose from allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Salmond. Above all, the formation of the new party reflects deep-seated divisions within the independence movement in Scotland.

As Socialist Party Scotland commented at the beginning of March, a month before Alba’s launch, “these splits and divisions are also indicative of a conflict over how to confront British capitalism’s opposition to Scottish independence. Sturgeon is widely seen outside of the SNP as too timid. Her insistence that only a ‘legal’ referendum, ie one agreed by Boris Johnson, can offer a route to independence is increasingly seen as a utopia. Her fear of mobilising the working class in a mass movement for democratic rights is a morbid one”.

“Salmond and other pro-Salmond elements take a more combative position, at least in rhetoric. This could crystallise into a split from the SNP after the election in May with the creation of a new political formation. It’s not ruled out that Salmond could even stand in the election, perhaps on one of the pro-independence lists”.

Some commentators and SNP leaders have claimed the formation of Alba is driven by the ‘ego’ of Alex Salmond and his desire for ‘revenge’. While that can be a factor, it is not the decisive one. As Herald columnist Iain McWhirter correctly pointed out: “Sturgeon’s failure to progress the independence cause is what has brought Alex Salmond back from the political undead. Alba is a response to the frustration in the independence movement at her safety-first leadership”.

George Kerevan, the former SNP MP on the left of the party who has now joined Alba, made an illuminating point in his column in the pro-independence National newspaper. “Large numbers of SNP members have been resigning or dropping out of party activity since 2017, angered by the lack of internal democracy, a perceived failure to campaign actively for independence, and the virtual ban on discussing any alternative to waiting on Boris Johnson to grant a Section 30 order for another independence referendum”.

“Already these internal disputes had led to the creation of two new pro-indy parties – the Independence for Scotland Party (ISP) and Action for Independence (AFI). These were preparing to challenge the SNP on the regional lists. The advent of the Alba Party merely simplifies what was already taking place”.

As it is AFI – who include the former socialist Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) Tommy Sheridan – have stood down their candidates and will back Salmond and Alba for the election on May 6. Alba and AFI are still calling for a vote for the pro-capitalist SNP in the 73 constituencies. However, the nature of the electoral system means that a vote for the SNP on the regional lists – the second vote – is likely to lead to very few SNP MSPs being elected.

In 2016 for example one million votes were cast for the SNP on the lists, which led to the election of just four SNP MSPs. The Tories and Labour benefited, wining 24 and 21 seats respectively out of 56. Salmond et al are arguing that if SNP voters back Alba with their regional list vote a ‘supermajority’ of pro-independence MSPs could be elected.

The Tories have responded fearfully to that possibility. The Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, proposed a pro-union agreement between the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems, to try and counter the super-majority danger. Current opinion polls are showing the SNP on course to win around 60-plus of the 73 constituencies, which would mean if a large number of SNP voters switched to another pro-indy alternative then the Tories and other pro-union parties could be badly impacted.

With the Scottish Greens also competing for list seats there could be multiple pro-independence political parties with representation after the May 6 election. This would place Scotland more akin to Catalonia, where there are a number of pro-independence parties represented in the parliament reflecting different class forces and interests. The Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Scottish TUSC) is also standing on a pro-independence manifesto but uniquely fights for an independent socialist Scotland.

The political character of Salmond’s new party is to be ‘social democratic’, according to its website. George Kerevan is claiming that “the early rush of folk joining the Alba Party (now some thousands) appears to be heavily tilted to those who opposed the Growth Report and its conservative advocacy of keeping the UK pound”. The neoliberal Growth Commission report was adopted by the Sturgeon leadership in 2018 and promised a decade of cuts after independence.

It is possible that Salmond may offer a more populist platform to the left of Sturgeon, aimed at the working-class layer most critical of the SNP leadership. However, Alba’s platform is still likely to be limited and supportive of big business. After all, it was Alex Salmond who championed the call for cuts to corporation tax during the first independence referendum in 2014. He also advocated Scotland adopt the ill-fated ‘Celtic Tiger’ model in Ireland, with tax incentives for big business to encourage inward investment before the 2007-08 crash.

Nevertheless, Salmond has previously co-authored a policy calling for a massive programme of state-funded house building. In contrast, Sturgeon has just announced a policy of 100,000 new homes by 2030, which is nowhere near what is required to meet demand.

On independence, Salmond and Alba have tentatively called for an independence majority in May to be a mandate for direct negotiations with Westminster on independence without the need for indyref2. Against the backdrop of Johnson’s refusal to countenance a second referendum, Salmond has also called for street protests. This is something Sturgeon has been reluctant to do. She has, for example, not attended the large All Under One Banner marches that have been a feature of the movement over the last two or three years. However, the most recent announcements by the Scottish government on bringing ScotRail into public ownership and the 4% pay offer for NHS workers indicate the pressure they are under from their working-class base of support.

As Socialist Party Scotland has argued, socialists and the workers’ movement can give no support to the Sturgeon-led SNP or now the Alex Salmond-led Alba party. Neither of them supports the interests of the working class. Both of them have been guilty of carrying out austerity as first ministers and playing pass the parcel with Tory cuts. Nor do they stand for widespread public ownership or increased taxes on the rich and big business. The role of socialists and the working class is to build our own political movement independent of the leaders of pro-capitalist nationalism.

Against that backdrop, it is a huge mistake for Tommy Sheridan and others on the left to continue to call for support for the SNP in elections. Sheridan’s decision to join Alba reflects his independence first, socialism later policy – the antithesis of a Marxist approach. This is summed up in his use of the slogan #countrybeforeparty on social media.

Yet for socialists, there is no contradiction in seeking to lead a struggle for Scottish independence while giving not one iota of support to capitalist parties like the SNP. Indeed it is only a mass movement led by the working class against capitalism that can deliver independence.

Only socialism can liberate the working class from the oppression of the profit system. The two issues are bound together. And must be linked to fighting for a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation of Scotland with England, Wales, and Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe.

Concretely, now, that means building support for Scottish TUSC in the May election. Scottish TUSC is standing to offer a socialist alternative in areas covering 1.5 million people. Its policy of fighting for pay rises, jobs and homes, and a socialist recovery after Covid for the working class based on public ownership of the economy, is a complete contrast to that of both the SNP and Alba. Moreover, it stands for a mass working-class movement to confront and defeat Boris Johnson’s and British capitalism’s opposition to self-determination.

Only Scottish TUSC understands that the struggle for independence is linked to the struggle for socialism. Therefore after the election, it is vital that the trade unions organise a conference open to all socialist and workers’ organisations to discuss the building of a new workers’ party in Scotland.

Philip Stott