By Peter Main
All indicators point to a massive swing from Labour to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in the coming election. It is possible that the SNP could go from its present 6 seats to more than 40 and so hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
Because of widespread support for what might be called “traditional Labour policy”, it is often said in Scotland that it is not the voters that have turned away from Labour, but the party that has turned away from the voters.
But why, since there has never been a majority for Independence in Scotland, have the voters turned to the nationalists?
Although long derided as “Tartan Tories”, the SNP realised long ago that to gain a majority in Scotland, it was Labour’s supporters it had to win. As early as the 1960s and the debates over nuclear disarmament, the SNP benefitted from Labour’s episodic shifts to the right as disaffected leftists joined the nationalists.
By the late 1970s, boosted by the debates on devolution and the Labour government’s rigging of the 1979 referendum, the SNP formally identified itself as a “social democratic” party. However, this did not alter the party’s constitution or establish any organic links to working class organisations. Indeed, “social democratic” at that time generally meant the right wing of the Labour Party who wanted to break all links with the unions and went on to split from Labour and join the Liberals.
Thatcher’s early imposition of the poll tax in Scotland reinforced the SNP’s argument for independence because the Tories by then were a tiny minority of Scottish MPs. The breadth of hostility to Westminster was such that a Campaign for a Scottish Assembly was established and its proposal for a Scottish Parliament, but with limited powers, was included in the Labour manifesto for the 1997 general election that brought Blair to power.
Scottish Labour formed the government after the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament in May 1999, and then pursued domestic policies that differed from those in England, such as free university education and care of the elderly. This was possible because the longstanding Treasury arrangement by which Scotland was allowed a higher level of public spending was retained.
Despite this, the SNP, as the opposition, benefited from widespread hostility to New Labour’s policies at Westminster. In the 2007 election to Holyrood, the SNP won the most seats and went on to form a minority government.
This meant that after the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition came to power in 2010, but with only one Tory MP in the whole of Scotland, the SNP could present itself as the champion of Scotland’s opposition to austerity politics. At the same time, as a minority government in a devolved, not independent, Scotland, that opposition could never be put to the test.
This served the SNP well in the 2011 Holyrood election in which, as well as opposing Tory cuts, it called for a referendum on independence. Although the electoral system had been designed to prevent any party gaining a majority of seats, that is what the SNP did, taking 22 seats from Labour.
In the face of this, the coalition at Westminster agreed to the holding of last September’s referendum on independence and, although the No vote won by a reasonably comfortable margin, it was the referendum campaign that transformed the SNP’s chances. Labour’s collaboration with the Tories in the No campaign, alongside its failure to lead any fight against austerity across the whole of the UK, served to alienate many of its remaining supporters, even the many who opposed independence.
The momentum built up in the referendum campaign has been deftly used by the SNP, now under a new leader, Nicola Sturgeon. While emphasising the SNP’s own policies in Scotland – government investment in 125,000 apprenticeships, £200 million to be invested in renewable energy schemes and further investment in railway development and electrification, a promise of no “efficiency savings” in the NHS in Scotland and a reminder to voters that it removed prescription charges introduced by Labour – Sturgeon has challenged Miliband to agree to collaborate in preventing a Tory government if Labour and SNP have sufficient seats in the new parliament.
That would create a situation where a minority Labour government’s survival would be dependent on SNP support, ideal conditions in which to force concessions for Scottish policy and to obstruct austerity measures in the run up to the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.
That, however, is no reason for voting for the SNP. For all its adoption of policies comparable to Labour, it remains a party that has no organic links to the working class that could hold it to progressive policies.
That is what makes the Labour Party supportable, not its policies, which have never represented a programme against capitalism and for socialism. Moreover, the threat of bringing down a Labour government in Westminster in order to extract concessions for Scotland would immediately dynamise English nationalism.
At no time has the SNP ever had to take full responsibility for the implementation of its own policies. Even as a majority government it has been able to (and does) blame the cuts that have been made in Scotland on Westminster and Scotland’s lack of independence. Its own commitment to an anti-austerity programme, which would bring it into direct conflict with the banks, the major corporations and the international guardians of capital’s interests, such as the European Central Bank and the IMF, has never been put to the test.
Whatever the shrewdness of its tactics, the strategy of the SNP, what actually defines it, is clearly nationalism and, in the context of the UK, in which Scotland is not an oppressed nation, that is an entirely reactionary and backward-looking strategy.
Instead of promoting an all-UK fightback against austerity and the capitalism that demands it, mobilising the whole of the working class in its own interests, the SNP has systematically avoided that fight and led its supporters away from united action with other workers.
Were it to achieve its goal of independence, it would find itself governing a small country facing the same demands for austerity, reductions in welfare spending, increased privatisation and wage freezes as others. Nationalism would demand sacrifices in the “interests of the nation” just as it does everywhere else, and Scottish workers would find themselves in a weaker position to defend themselves on their own.