May’s General Election saw a surge in nationalism on both sides of the border. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) overturned the longstanding dominance of the Labour Party to win 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, while the Conservative Party narrowly won both the popular vote and the largest number of seats across the UK as a whole. The SNP won in Scotland on the nationalist slogan ‘Stand up for Scotland’. The Conservatives won by stoking fears of a Labour minority government propped up by Scottish nationalists – they won, in effect, by appealing to English nationalism.
It is difficult to understate the magnitude of the change in Scottish politics over the last few years. The Labour Party held only one seat in Scotland on May 7 – the worst result in terms of elected members since 1900. The party has held a majority of Scottish seats since 1964 – and even managed to win two seats – double their current number – in 1906 when the first contingent of Labour MPs entered parliament. As socialists, we have no illusions in the Labour Party and welcome its demise as the natural consequence of the wider European disintegration of a social democracy movement which has bought wholesale into free-market liberalism since the 1990s – and has been inadequate from its very beginning. However, in previous periods we could have expected widespread disillusionment in reformism to result in an upsurge in support for socialist parties and ideas. Needless to say, this has not happened. Instead, with the tacit, and sometimes explicit, support of most of the Scottish Left (including the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party Scotland, Scottish Socialist Party and the groups and individuals around the Radical Independence Campaign), nationalism has become the dominant movement in Scotland.
We should not mourn the Labour Party in Scotland, but we should recognise that such a dramatic shift to nationalism represents a real step backwards for the working class in Scotland. When voting for the Labour Party, you are at least voting with your class – you are voting for the party of labour, no matter how obscure or misplaced that notion may be. When voting for the SNP, you are voting for your nation, for the national interest – the clue is in the name – the national party of Scotland. The nationalist Left have interpreted the vote for the SNP as an expression of discontent with the status quo, of opposition to austerity, and a willingness to break with the neo-liberal consensus of the main parties, including Labour. And they may be right – to an extent – that what motivated people to, as the Scottish colloquialism goes, ‘give Labour a kicking’, was widespread disgust with five years of austerity, a punitive programme largely supported by the Labour Party. But the other main motivator, and one played up by the Left in Scotland since before last year’s independence referendum, is the idea that Scotland suffers a democratic deficit as a nation. Hence the slogan, ‘Stand up for Scotland.’ That Scotland deserves better, that Scotland must have a strong voice within the UK, that – to quote the Radical Independence Campaign’s central slogan – ‘Another Scotland is Possible’, these ideas are expressions of nationalism. These are the demands of a nation, not of a class. There is a glimmer of hope in Jeremy Corbyn’s last minute leadership campaign and it may well be something socialists throughout Britain can cohere around and use to build towards a united struggle against austerity and renewed socialist movement. However, it remains to be seen how much enthusiasm can be mustered in Scotland in the face of a nationalist Left implacably hostile to the British labour movement, and with an insipid leadership contest in the Scottish party running at the same time as the UK leadership contest.
As is the case throughout Britain, the Scottish Left is fragmented and weak. 16 socialist candidates stood in 15 of the 59 Scottish constituencies from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Left Unity, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), and the Socialist Equality Party (SEP). Together they achieved only 2911 votes out of over 2.9 million votes cast, or roughly 0.1% of the vote. The Left in England and Wales did not fare much better. Some of the blame for such a derisory vote has to be placed with the parties themselves. Despite the efforts of the Independent Socialist Network, TUSC is, for the most part, a lash-up between the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party – two groups renowned for their hostility to each other. It presents an anti-austerity platform along with a vague programme of reheated Keynesian reformism and exists only for the purposes of contesting elections – betweentimes, to all intents and purposes, it ceases to exist, as the constituent groups retreat back into their own work. Left Unity, despite promising the largest possible Left challenge to the 2015 General Election on its launch, has a leadership which was distinctly lukewarm to the notion of standing candidates, preferring instead to support the Green Party and Labour Left (see the Left Unity National Officers statement from February). The Scottish Socialist Party has attempted to constitute itself as the left-wing of the SNP, even offering to form an electoral pact with the SNP for the 2015 elections – a pro-independence ‘Yes Alliance’. Unsurprisingly, the SNP declined, despite the sterling work the SSP had done in uncritically supporting the SNP’s independence referendum campaign – proving that while the SNP was happy to use the Left as useful idiots during the referendum campaign, it has no commitment to them or their programme beyond that. The SSP’s election manifesto included a commitment to a ‘competitive, modern Scottish economy’ showing the lengths the party is willing to go in abandoning socialism in favour of nation building. The CPB and SEP are, respectively, a Stalinist hangover and a hyper-sectarian Healyite groupuscule and not worth much more than a cursory mention, other than to say that they at least have not succumbed to the dominant left-nationalism of the rest of the Scottish left (although the CPB’s British nationalist tendencies will no doubt come to the fore in the impending EU referendum).
However, besides the deficiencies of the parties contesting the election, there are other significant reasons for the miniscule Left vote. In November 2014, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) – a loose coalition of left-wingers and socialists who campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the independence referendum – held a conference in Glasgow, attracting over 2500 delegates. At the conference a succession of leading RIC members told delegates that the Scottish people had been energised by the possibility of a new social movement, one that combined the desire for independence with progressive, anti-austerity politics. RIC, we were told, was that movement. Clearly, the Scottish people thought differently. Across the road, on the same day, the SNP was holding a 12,000 strong rally to celebrate its meteoric rise in membership – the SNP now has over 100,000 members – in the days followingits unsuccessful independence campaign. By backing independence, campaigns like RIC simply ushered what working class support they had garnered straight into the arms of the SNP. After all, if you spend over a year telling people that independence is the only way to fight austerity, to get rid of nuclear weapons, to win progressive reforms, it should be no surprise that the same people flock to the only party actually capable of delivering independence, the SNP.
Indeed, for the purposes of the General Election, most of the Left in and around RIC actually welcomed the SNP surge. The SNP claimed to be an anti-austerity party in the months leading to the election, refusing to support a Conservative government in the event of a hung parliament and pledging to work with other progressive parties against the austerity programme. Despite the patent absurdity of these claims, sections of the Left in Scotland – while stopping short of explicitly endorsing the SNP, except in the ignominious case of Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity Party – simply stood aside for the SNP. While the lack of enthusiasm for projects like TUSC is understandable, the refusal to present an alternative to the SNP or even offer much in the way of criticism is not. Part of the reason for this is a form of nationalist prefiguration adopted by the likes of RIC, which aims to build Scottish-only political movements in anticipation of independence. Standing for the UK parliament is, of course, incompatible with this. But the main reason is that much of the nationalist Left actually saw the vote for the SNP as a real shift to the left in Scotland. Again, they may be correct that such a shift has taken place among the people voting for the SNP but it has found its expression in a nationalist movement, not a socialist one.
The June 20 demonstration in Glasgow is evidence of this and should be a wake-up call to the Left in Scotland. While over 100,000 people gathered in London, only around 2000 congregated in George Square to take part in the ‘Scotland United Against Austerity’ rally. Comrades in RIC never tire of telling us that had the equivalent of their November 2014 conference been held in London it would have meant a gathering of up to 30,000. Well, in that case, working backwards from 100,000 means we should have expected at least 10,000 in Glasgow on June 20. In fact, we should have expected more given how the independence referendum saw a political transformation in Scotland, radicalising tens of thousands in the process and resulting in a situation where, according to the Left Project’s Opening Statement, ‘hundreds of thousands of citizens in Scotland want radical change.’ Where were they on June 20 then? Maybe they were put off by the parochialism encapsulated by the title of the rally, Scotland United Against Austerity? Could it be that they were all with Tommy Sheridan at the rally to commemorate Robert the Bruce’s glorious victory over the English at Bannockburn which was being held on the same day? Or perhaps they thought – encouraged by the nationalist Left – that they had done their anti-austerity bit by voting SNP in May. Those who did attend were treated to the usual predictable speeches while all the various Left groups, including the SSP, SWP, SP, Left Project, Solidarity, and Left Unity, peddled their wares. Beyond a leaflet on their upcoming Scottish conference, there was no visible TUSC presence, having now, more or less, gone into hibernation until the next election. The highlight of the day was discovering that the reason a number of people were waving a strange blue flag emblazoned with a white unicorn was because the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal. Make of that what you will. And if unicorns weren’t your thing, there was a man on hand selling both saltires and lion rampants (the Scottish royal standard), of which a depressingly large number were in evidence. The only visible SNP contingent was small but again, why bother when you have elected 56 MPs to fight austerity for you?
On this basis, it is worth considering the SNP’s actual record. The SNP has been in government in Scotland’s devolved parliament since 2007. Between 2007 and 2011 it relied on the support of the Conservative Party to pass its annual budgets. In 2011 it won a majority, allowing it to govern alone. Since then, we have seen over £3 billion in cuts, over 60,000 public sector job losses, a highly regressive freeze in council tax, a centralised police force, and the decimation of local government and further education. It presented itself as the anti-austerity party even though the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that the SNP manifesto’s spending commitments were lower than Labour’s, a party explicitly committed to austerity. On nuclear weapons, the SNP’s position is completely contradictory: in favour of scrapping Trident while supporting the continued membership of NATO, a first-strike nuclear alliance which is committed to the mutual defence of its member states. Add to this the SNP’s refusal to support living wage legislation in the Scottish parliament, its continued support for the monarchy and Scottish regiments of the British Army, and close relationship with the Murdoch press – who supported the SNP’s election campaign through the Scottish Sun – and the idea that the SNP is some sort of anti-austerity, anti-establishment party is clearly nonsense. Furthermore, the SNP was at pains throughout the campaign to assure voters that itwould not push for a second referendum on the back of an increased vote – contradicting the position of SNP-supporting socialists that a vote for the SNP is justified as part of the continued campaign for independence.
The coming years present two major challenges for the Left in Scotland. The first is the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections; the second, the Conservative government’s promised ‘in-out’ European Union referendum. Beginning with the latter, many of the Left organisations backing Scottish independence have also traditionally supported withdrawal from the EU. If they maintain this position, it will put them directly at odds with the SNP but will represent another capitulation to nationalism, albeit in a different form. If they switch to support membership of the EU, it will almost certainly be with the intention of tail-ending the SNP and building legitimacy for the Scottish nationalist project. Neither position is adequate: socialists in Britain should support European integration but be committed to refounding the EU on a democratic, socialist basis. Leaving the EU, in this context, would be a step backwards; as would uncritically standing alongside the leadership of the Conservatives, SNP, Lib Dems et al in support of the EU as it exists now. On the Holyrood elections, the ambition that emerged from RIC is to form a new party of the Left in Scotland. The Scottish Left Project has been established with this in mind, is supported by many of RIC’s leading figures and recently announced an alliance with the Scottish Socialist Party. The strategy of the Scottish Left Project/SSP is clear: to replace the Labour Party in Scotland as a loyal opposition to the SNP in the 2016 Holyrood elections before joining forces with the SNP to hold and win a second independence referendum. In other words, socialism must wait for independence and in the meantime we must make do with a programme of reformism and left-nationalism. Unfortunately, there will almost certainly be at least three separate Left groups standing on the regional lists offering just that: the Left Project/SSP; Scottish TUSC (due to discuss standing at their conference on June 27); and Solidarity. The constituency seats will not be contested by the Left, leaving the way clear for the SNP.
Barring the potentially transformative effect of a Corbyn victory on the Labour Party, it seems likely that the SNP will comfortably win another overall majority in the Holyrood elections. The only real danger for the SNP – again, a Corbyn victory and reinvigorated Britain-wide Labour movement aside – is the proposed full fiscal autonomy for Scotland which would entail at least a £7 billion budget shortfall and put the SNP in the position of having to implement severe austerity without being able to blame Westminster. While the notion of ‘budget responsibility’ for Scotland appeals to some within the Conservative Government, the SNP actually fulfils a useful function for the ruling class in splitting the working class along national lines and funnelling support away from class-based socialist politics and into a containable nationalism which is currently incapable of building majority support for independence. Full fiscal autonomy would reveal nationalism as a dead-end and open up the prospect of a revival in the socialist movement, a prospect anticipated by the more astute sections of the ruling class. However there are circumstances in which the demand for Scottish independence will become unstoppable. A year of brutal austerity from the Conservative government, an SNP majority in 2016, and EU withdrawal following the ‘in-out’ referendum will all but guarantee a ‘yes’ vote in a second referendum. However, as socialists, we ought to be opposing all three of these eventualities – not standing aside in the interests of establishing a new capitalist state which itself will result in the deeper immiseration of the working class as an independent Scotland is inevitably forced to provide a more ‘competitive’ and ‘flexible’ labour market in the face of pressures from international capital.
Prior to last year’s referendum those of us on the Left who opposed independence made a number of assertions, most of which were proved correct. That social democracy in an independent Scotland could not be paid for on the back of volatile oil markets – oil prices have more than halved since September 2014. That support for independence by the Left would lead to an upsurge in support for the SNP at the expense of the socialist movement – not even we would have predicted a fourfold increase in the SNP’s membership. That the Left had abandoned working class politics in favour of nation building – independence remains the priority while SNP-implemented austerity cuts go largely unchallenged. We also argued that a ‘yes’ vote would result, to quote James Connelly, in a ‘carnival of reaction’ on both sides of the border, , with the protracted division of assets and liabilities in the run up to formal independence ramping up nationalism and chauvinism in both Scotland and England. Sadly, this seems to have occurred to some extent anyway. It would certainly have been much worse in the event of a ‘yes’ vote but the concomitant rise of English nationalism with the growth of Scottish nationalism cannot be ignored. All too often on the pro-independence Left, Scottish nationalism – when its existence is admitted rather than being presented as simply an anti-austerity movement – is portrayed as a benign, civic form of nationalism, in contrast to a bitter, racist English nationalism. While English nationalism is undoubtedly the more dangerous of the two, its current growth is the result of the ascent of its Scottish counterpart. In other words, what we are witnessing is the social disintegration of the working class in Britain into national and regional fragments. A divided working class is a weak working class, a fact the ruling class knows all too well. While sections of the Scottish working class have been duped into supporting the SNP – a deception the nationalist Left have to take some responsibility for – the English working class has been told that the only way to stop the feckless Scots from picking the pockets of hard working English families is to vote Conservative. Unfortunately, sufficient numbers were convinced enough to provide the Conservatives with a slender majority – although we should resolutely avoid the popular notion in Scottish nationalist circles that ‘England’ voted for the Conservatives as this attempts to present the nation as a homogeneous political actor and completely obscures the class dynamic in evidence in the fact that a large number of the working class in England did not in fact vote for the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the result was clear to see on May 8 and the only response from the Scottish nationalist Left is to demand another referendum – in other words, more nationalism.
Nationalism in the post-referendum period has become entrenched in Scottish politics. Even the Scottish Labour Party has changed the party’s constitution to commit them to working in the ‘patriotic interest of the Scottish people.’ The outlook for socialists in Scotland is rather bleak. Any new Left party will be wedded to independence and, from past experience, all too willing to compromise with the SNP in the pursuit of independence. And, if RIC is anything to go by, it will be far from a democratic organisation – RIC had no formal membership, no votes at conferences and its leadership was uniformly self-selecting. Whatever emerges from the Scottish Left Project will also undoubtedly seek to sideline the anti-nationalist Left; already the demand for independence, previously rendered as a matter of strategy, has been elevated to a shibboleth. The backdrop to this will be an appalling expansion of the Conservatives’ austerity programme as they enter parliament free of the constraints of coalition government. The Left in Scotland – intent on building pro-independence, Scottish-only movements – has so far been, at best, lukewarm to attempts to unite the working class across Britain to oppose this and we can only assume that this will continue to be the case. All we can do in this period of downturn in working class consciousness is to continue to point out the reactionary nature of Scottish nationalism and fight within the Left – wherever the opportunity arises, including in and around Corbyn’s leadership campaign – for a united, Europe-wide socialist movement as the only viable alternative to austerity and capitalism.