Scottish Nationalism and Scottish Labour

By Vince Mills (Red Paper Collective)

Mike Phipps writing in Labour hub about the recent, failed attempted coup on Richard Leonard reflects on Labour’s third place in opinion polls and argues that “a fundamental strategic reorientation to the issue of independence is needed.”

Actually the latest Survation opinion poll for Westminster voting intentions puts Labour in second place on 21% slightly ahead of the Tories on 20%, but there is no denying Scottish Labour’s bleak electoral position. Since Mike does not believe that more devolution will help Scottish Labour it is reasonable to assume that he believes that by embracing independence Scottish Labour will somehow emerge a force for socialist change in a newly independent Scotland.

Although, given his attempt to defend the SNP from what he sees as demonisation “Labour politicians too often paint Scottish nationalism as a reactionary doctrine, entirely opposed to the class and internationalist politics of socialism” a more effective strategy might be to argue that socialists join the SNP.  But of course Mike would no doubt object that supporting independence is not supporting the SNP, especially if you support a radical post independence settlement.

He writes: “But what was significant about the referendum was the way hundreds of thousands of working class voters invested their hopes into a campaign for self-government and democracy, quite separate from the flag of Scottish nationalism.”

Where he gets his evidence for this I am not quite sure. It is perhaps worth mentioning in passing that the data provided by Ashcroft’s polls only shows a majority for independence in one section of the working class in 2014, the C2 group of skilled manual workers. They voted Yes by 52% to 48%. C1 Supervisory, clerical & junior managerial, administrative, professional occupations voted No by 51% to %49 and DE Semi-skilled & unskilled manual occupations and unemployed voted emphatically No by 56% to 44%. It was put succinctly by former SNP Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill in the Scotsman last April: “… we did not win a majority for Yes among working class people last time. And the turnout in poorer areas was another challenge for us.”

Arguing for class based politics was not a feature of the debates that took place in 2014 either. I slogged it out with Tommy Sheridan then leader of the Solidarity Party and former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party in a crowded student meeting in Edinburgh. Tommy made it clear that the primary objective of the campaign was winning independence everything else, including my plea for advancing the interests of the working class which would be displaced by nationalism, was waved aside.

In any case, it is indisputable that the version of independence that was and will be on offer, is that advanced by the SNP. Indeed as Mike acknowledges the SNP’s popularity has been on the increase since 2014  and that continues today. This is despite their performance on Covid 19, not as Mike suggests, because of it. In Scotland as in England there has been a lack of PPE in hospitals and care homes, an irresponsibly slow start to track and trace and perhaps most of all, an appalling lack of concern about the residents and staff in care homes:  more than half of Covid deaths took place amongst Scotland’s Care Homes’ residents, no doubt contributing to Scotland having the third highest level of excess deaths in Europe.

And yet, the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon do undoubtedly have the trust of large sections of the Scottish working class, a trust that Labour once had but has since squandered. That, however, is a process which long pre-dates 2015 although it was undoubtedly accelerated by the disastrous (for Labour anyway) Better Together campaign. As I and many others have noted, the adoption by the SNP of a leftist orientation in order to recruit the urban working classes was a result of an accommodation by the then conservative leadership of the SNP with a younger layer of more radical nationalists organised in the 79 group. The 79 group argued ‘the SNP must look towards the urban working classes to establish itself as the radical Scottish alternative to the Labour Party’.

By adopting a distinctly popular left appeal at a point when Thatcher was wreaking havoc on the Scottish economy and using Scotland as guinea pig for right wing initiatives such as the Poll Tax, the SNP began its journey to political relevance and its current dominance, just as Kinnock and then Blair gave them all the political space they needed to do so by ditching clause 4 and the class politics that it represented.

The critical question for the left now, is what do the SNP intend to do with this dominance and how do we respond to that prospectus. As the party has grown in political strength and confidence the SNP has looked less and less towards its working class support and more and more towards the networks of international capitalism that will have embrace the new member of the club, if, from the standpoint of bourgeois nationalism, an independent Scotland is to be successful.

That prospectus is described in the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission (SCG) report.  It was authored by Andrew Wilson previously a SNP MSP but since leaving the Scottish Parliament has worked as Depute Chief Economist of the RBS and is now a consultant with Charlotte Street Partners, a company he launched.

In the words of Professor David Byrne in the Red Paper Collective publication in May 2020:

“The SGC report showed the real nature of the SNP very plainly. For them independence must be achieved  on terms with which international finance capital is wholly comfortable. An independent Scotland on these terms would suffer the kind of severe public service cuts, including cuts to the pay of public sector workers, which happened under EU tutelage in Latvia, Estonia and Bulgaria…What the SNP has in mind is a neo-liberal independent Scotland with worsening austerity and continuing inequality.”

And that is before the implications of the Covid Pandemic are factored in. Whatever crises the Scottish economy has faced recently, like the volatile price of oil and continued externalisation of ownership, it will pale to insignificance in the face of the challenge that the Covid 19 outbreak presents. Scotland has an economy where almost 90% of jobs are in services.  Take tourism. It provides around 220,000 jobs many of them precarious and many of these held by young people, who are certain to suffer most from the economic fall out of the crisis. According to IPPR, 100,000 jobs may be lost here.

This critique is not confined to the non-nationalist left. Indeed George Kerevan SNP MP for East Lothian  denounced the SNP leadership in Scottish Left Review as having  “governed in the interests of … London banking, foreign agribusiness, big oil, property development and major landowners”.

However, there is no doubt whatsoever, that if there is another independence referendum the case for independence will be based on the Sustainable Growth Commission. It was endorsed by the SNP at its 2019 Spring conference. Nor are there any other left parties or movements capable of presenting a radical independence alternative.

Significant though this might be in persuading the left as to whether independence is worth pursuing, it is not compelling for radical socialists.

What is compelling, as Professor John Foster argues in the 2015 Red Paper publication, is the argument that a serious challenge to the dominance of corporate capitalism has to be mounted at both Scottish and British levels. It is inconceivable that such a challenge could be successful without support of the trade union movement which is organised at both levels, a unity that independence would surely strain.  This is necessary because the ownership of Scotland’s economy does not lie in Scotland, it is to be found at a British and increasingly global level.

More to the point the state power constructed to defend this ownership is deployed at a British state level. It was common to hear arguments during and since the referendum that winning independence would ‘break’ the British state. That is to confuse territorial administration with the wider system of state power that sustains corporate capital’s control. If the SNP had won in 2014 they would have detached 8.5 per cent of the population from UK administration but all the systems of control that ensure the dominance of corporate power would have remained in place but Scotland would no longer have had the access to the political levers of power to change or even influence them, levers of power it can only access in alliance with the working class of England and Wales.

It has been Labour’s historic failure to use the Scottish Parliament as an instrument for radical change, especially in relation to the economy, that has given the SNP its opportunity to build support for neo-liberal nationalism. In much the same way as the Tories won support from the northern English working class who felt abandoned by Labour, the Scottish working class turned to the bourgeois SNP to seek redress for their economic decline, especially after the recession that followed the 2008 financial crash.

To have any hope of restoring a leading role for Labour in Scottish politics in face of the pandemic, Scottish Labour has to address the constitutional issue from a left wing perspective. It can do this by arguing that the Scottish Parliament requires additional powers on areas like borrowing  – to allow us to massively increase investment to neglected areas of our economy and employment law to protect the rights of precarious workers threatened, among other things, by the Covid 19 fall-out and to generally enhance the role of trade unions.

It can also argue that we need the return of the repatriated powers the Tories are refusing to relinquish in key areas like fishing, agriculture, environmental protection and procurement.

It must surely also argue that the Scottish Parliament must have the power to call future referendums on the constitutional issue. Logically we cannot argue that the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood ought to be one of partnership and then on a fundamental issue such as this, accept that sovereignty is not shared but reserved to Westminster.

Together with powers the parliament already has, including some we have not even used, the Scottish parliament could become the focus of a people-led recovery based on decent public services and democratic control of the economy in alliance with the British-wide Labour movement. And while we should remain committed to supporting a federal solution for the UK in the longer term, Scottish Labour must campaign to establish a stronger Scottish Parliament as an immediate priority if we want to offer a left wing programme post-covid and if we want to find political space for a socialist project in Scottish politics.