Edinburgh rs21 comrades reflect on the SNP crisis and see no easy end to their troubles.

John Swinney being sworn in as the seventh first minister of Scotland at the Court of Session. 8 May 2024. Photo by Scottish Government. Used under CC license 2.0.

“I’m being asked to vote for someone who thinks there’s something wrong with me, not because of any views I hold, but simply because of who I am.”

– Ross Geer Scottish Green MSP on the election of Kate Forbes as Deputy First Minister.

 

Following the resignation of Humza Yousaf, John Swinney has ascended unopposed to the leadership of the SNP and has been approved as First Minister by the Scottish Parliament. But while John Swinney is a mainstream centrist, his new cabinet includes social conservative Kate Forbes as Deputy First Minister.

As a longstanding figure in Scottish politics, he is likely to be more successful than his predecessor at negotiating with the Greens, Labour and the Tories to get budgets agreed and parliamentary business expedited. But as the head of a minority government the aim will be to appease the Greens and the left of the SNP’s support through rhetorical commitment to progressive policies while taking no action on them, the presence of Forbes being a clear indicator of a shift to the right in the leadership.  However, the first few months of Swinney’s time in office will now be dominated by the General Election.  Currently the SNP dominate the Scottish representation at Westminster with some Tory MPs in the Borders and the North East, while Labour holds just two out of the 59 seats.  It’s inconceivable that the SNP will hold or improve its position, the question is how big will the losses be.  Prediction is difficult – in many ways the outcome will depend on which of the three main parties is the least unpopular.

Swinney remains committed to Yousaf’s ‘independence strategy’ of demonstrating support for independence through electoral success in Holyrood and Westminster. Never convincing, it depends on the SNP (and other independence supporting parties) winning more than half the votes at the next Scottish Parliament elections and then Sunak or Starmer saying fair enough you can have another referendum.

In our view, hope lies largely outwith the electoral domain. A new radical politics in Scotland requires a thoroughgoing rejection of the neoliberal consensus that has dominated mainstream politics for so long. The basis for building a mass movement from below exists in the widespread organisation and support for Palestine, in the climate movement, in the rank and file of the unions and in the mass support for independence.

To understand why radical change will not come from the SNP, we have to look at its history in government and the neoliberal path it has taken.

The first SNP government was formed eighteen years ago in 2007. It has been in office for the 17 years since, aided by when it consolidated its position in 2011 by winning enough seats to form the first majority government at Holyrood.  

Assessing the SNP’s first year in office, Neil Davidson noted that in making progress on some limited reforms the SNP was to some extent breaking with the neoliberal consensus. 

In social terms, the minority SNP government is operating close to the limits of reformism, largely in order to build an electoral base at the expense of the Labour Party.

This break, he argued, didn’t signal any fundamental disagreement with core neoliberal principles but reflected the need for the party to appeal to working class voters.

Once the SNP had replaced Labour as the dominant party in central Scotland, and particularly after the independence referendum in September 2014, when huge numbers of pro-indy supporters flooded into the party, the electoral imperative was replaced, at least for a while, by a need to respond to a left of centre membership that was inspired and energised by the referendum campaign. The party was riding high, with its leader Nicola Sturgeon easily the most popular politician in the British Isles.

So, how has it come to pass that Sturgeon’s leadership ended so abruptly in 2023, that her partner and long-time SNP chief executive is charged with embezzlement and her successor Humza Yousaf has now resigned after dramatically ending a coalition arrangement with the Scottish Green Party? 

Firstly it’s important to say that the 2014 referendum was not some sort of nationalist blip after which independence started to slip off the agenda. Two thirds of Scots under 25 support independence and among the population as a whole, support for independence has remained around or just under 50% of those with a preference since 2014. Devolution and the creation of a Scottish Parliament changed how many Scots understand their place in the UK. Since devolution, social and political crises, whether Scotland specific or Britain-wide like the cost of living crisis, are experienced in the context of the powers and the lack of powers of the Holyrood government. National consciousness, frustration at a lack of basic democratic control, and anger over how public services are hollowed out, all tend to reinforce aspirations for independence and a strong current of left oriented civic nationalism. Until recently this frustration has found its outlet in support for the SNP. However, even at the high point of SNP membership support for independence was not simply aligned with support for the SNP. Despite fierce hostility from the Scottish Labour Party leadership some members are pro-independence. The Greens are strongly in support as are large numbers without party affiliation.

Prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the SNP had had moments of electoral success but overall levels of support were relatively low. The party provided a home for nationalists across a broad spectrum from left to right. Its evolution since devolution has been influenced by a few key issues. Labour’s support for the US in Iraq and Afghanistan was deeply unpopular across Britain. In Scotland the SNP took an anti-war line. Moreover, the SNP had a position of opposition to NATO and argued for closing down Faslane and Coulport where the UK’s four Trident missile equipped submarines are based. Labour lost members, including Tommy Sheppard, the Assistant General Secretary in Scotland who later became an SNP MP. Labour’s decision to ally with the Tories and big business in Better Together during the Independence Referendum campaign in 2014 had a further devastating impact on their support. The SNP was the major beneficiary of a mass exodus from Labour. 

So following the referendum the SNP had become a mass party with a left of centre base that expected it to deliver on independence. But despite its growth in membership it remained a very centralised organisation committed to a conventional neoliberal conception of the role of the state and the primacy of the market. Therein lie multiple contradictions. Once an industrial powerhouse for the British Empire, Scotland’s economy is dominated by the finance sector, defence and oil and gas. The leading companies have their headquarters elsewhere. The SNP’s consistent social neoliberalism is insufficient to win big business which was opposed to independence during the referendum and remains so today.  It appeals to a managerial layer in the third and public sectors but many of these supporters and a large part of the party’s working class base are angered and dismayed by the lack of reforms and the ongoing deterioration in public services. It’s worse in England can only work for a limited time .   

Under Nicola Sturgeon the SNP managed to ride above the contradictions in their political position for a surprisingly long time. However, the days of operating close to the limits of reformism were over and those reforms which were attempted, for example Gender Recognition Reform and the National Bottle Return scheme, were increasingly blocked or undermined by Westminster. Neither Labour nor the Greens benefited significantly from the steady erosion of the SNP’s mass base. Unrest over the lack of a coherent strategy for independence continues to contribute to membership losses. But Alex Salmond’s breakaway Alba party has failed to capitalise on this. On economic issues Alba often steers to the left of the SNP, however, Salmond has had a long career of combining pro-working class rhetoric with pro big business practice. Moreover, the prominence of Salmond and the nature of his fallout with the SNP in the face of accusations of sexual harassment has attracted a party membership which is socially conservative and where local activists are often openly transphobic. Salmond played to this socially conservative audience when he explained that the SNP’s ills werethe result of abandoning independence to pursue the byways of woke politics.

Scotland has huge potential energy resources in wind, hydro, tidal and wave power. Yet the failure to meet climate targets which triggered the SNP’s rift with the Scottish Greens and Yousaf’s resignation as First Minister illustrates the roots of the SNP’s crisis. Playing to its membership base and its core support, the SNP government was quick to declare a climate emergency and it proudly declared itself world leading in setting climate targets. It supported the setting up of a Just Transition Commission that brought together climate NGOs, unions and industry. For a while such rhetoric played well in contrast to the lack of commitment from Westminster. But as far back as 2017 the BiFab debacle exposed the weakness in its market oriented approach. BiFab was a fabrication yard on the coast of Fife producing infrastructure for the offshore wind industry and employing around 1400 workers. At that time the biggest industrial component of a putative new renewable sector. But ownership lay elsewhere. Faced with a funding crisis which threatened closure, the workers occupied the yards and took to the streets. The Scottish government responded with a small financial contribution which staved off the immediate crisis and allowed the unions to call off the action. Within months the yards were closed. 

Today, the number of jobs in renewables in Scotland is roughly the same as a decade ago. The growth in offshore wind has been through overseas companies and suppliers, off-shored and often highly exploited labour. The profits flow into the coffers of the often state owned companies that bought up the licences. Relying on the ‘market’ means no plan, no control and certainly no ‘just transition’. The most recent energy plans produced by the Scottish government headlined a huge increase in offshore wind power that would kick start a large-scale hydrogen industry. This was blown out of the water when not one of the new licences offered in 2023 was taken up. Through all of this the Scottish government has remained in partnership with Westminster and the big oil and gas companies in Oil and Gas UK, now rebranded as Offshore Energies UK.

But climate and energy strategy is only one of the areas where the contradictions of the SNP’s social neoliberalism are becoming acute. Part of the strategy was always about devolving the axe. Pushing responsibility for shortages of funding down to local government. This at the same time as state funding has been increasingly centralised. Health and social care is an extreme case in point. Scotland led the way with the integration of health services organised by the NHS and social care organised by local authorities. But the system, run by largely unaccountable joint boards, is in crisis. Nowhere more so than in Edinburgh, which has gone farthest down the route of privatising and outsourcing services. The SNP’s response was a National Care Service. It sounds like an obvious answer, but in fact the plan assumes that the service will simply commission the private sector.

Simply put, they have no effective answers. The cuts and the resulting protests will simply keep on coming, and this is why alternatives have to be organised outside of its electoral framework, whose seeds may be growing in Scotland’s grassroots movements around climate and Palestine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *