Scotland: SNP in power – populism and cuts

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has been elected as the new First Minister of the Scottish parliament.

Two weeks after the Scottish parliament elections, having been unable to establish a majority coalition with other parties, the SNP have formed a minority government to run the Scottish Executive.

Salmond had the support of the two Green MSPs, which was enough when added to the 47 SNP MSPs to give him a majority of three over Labour’s candidate Jack McConnell. The Lib Dems and the Tories abstained.

As we go to press the SNP are preparing to outline their legislative priorities for the next four years. It seems likely that they will involve a combination of some progressive policies alongside a tax-cutting agenda for business and continued attacks on public services and public-sector workers.

A SNP government

It is likely that the SNP will propose the freezing of council tax levels with a pledge to abolish the council tax within four years. They have also promised to reverse the decision by New Labour to close the Accident and Emergency departments in Monklands and Ayr hospitals.

Alongside promises to phase out prescription charges, extend the availability of free school meals, introduce a cheaper alternative to PFI/PPP schemes, scrap tuition fees (the Graduate Endowment), block plans to build new nuclear power stations, and increase nursery provision, the SNP hope to carry through a series of populist policies that will show in practice the difference that an SNP government can make.

However, given the parliamentary arithmetic (the SNP will have to win the support of at least 18 other MSPs, primarily the Greens and the Lib Dems), they could be forced to backtrack, delay or be blocked on a number of their key pledges.

Alongside these progressive policies, that would have big support in Scotland if carried through, the SNP are also wedded to the free-market and turning Scotland into the "best place in Europe to do business" ie for big business to make profits.

While Alex Salmond has pledged to govern "wholly and exclusively in the Scottish national interest", in practice this will be a government that ultimately defends the profit-hungry bosses. The SNP have promised to cut business tax and to fight for the powers to slash corporation tax to 20%. As Gordon Brown’s spending squeeze bites and funding to the Scottish Executive slows down, the SNP will be under pressure to implement cuts. Even if they are able to carry through some progressive measures these will be undermined by further neo-liberal attacks.

Already, to pay for their spending plans the SNP have said they will make 1.5% efficiency savings each year for the next three years, in a bid to match the 5% savings promised by Gordon Brown when he decided to slash 100,000 civil service jobs. Salmond has claimed this would not mean compulsory redundancies among public-sector workers in Scotland but in practice these ‘savings’ will mean real cuts.

Workers in Scotland facing wage cuts will note that there are now five SNP Cabinet Secretaries on £93,000 a year, ten ministers on £78,000 each, while Alex Salmond will ‘survive’ on £130,000 a year as First Minister. One in three of the SNP MSPs are now ministers in the Executive.


The SNP will also bring forward a "white paper" which would begin the process of preparing for a referendum on independence – but there is no prospect of this being passed with a majority in the current parliament against a referendum.

The establishment of a new "Constitutional Convention" to draw up plans for extending the powers of the parliament is possible. This is supported by the Lib Dems and would likely involve the SNP, sections of the Labour party and even the Tories. At this stage public support for extending the powers of the parliament over tax, Trident and other issues is running at more than double that of outright independence.

The SNP, and particularly Alex Salmond, will try and develop a dual strategy. On the one hand the SNP want to show in practice that they can run the Scottish Executive responsibly (or the "Scottish government" as they will call it), proving to the capitalist establishment that they are a ‘save pair of hands’. They have not ruled out a future deal with the Lib Dems and a possible coalition later on.

On the other hand, where they are blocked by the majority of the parliament from implementing their policies they will blame the opposition and seek to go over the heads of the parliament to the "people of Scotland".

They will also continue their opposition to the US/UK occupation of Iraq and will call for the removal of Trident from the Clyde. In this way they aim to ensure an SNP majority in a future election while also building support for more powers for the parliament and an independent Scotland.

With Gordon Brown replacing Blair as prime minister there is also the potential for a series of conflicts between the SNP in Scotland and New Labour in Westminster which can further fuel the flames of the national question not only in Scotland but in England as well.

Local councils

The SNP’s influence has extended into a wide section of local government in Scotland. The introduction of the Single Transferable Vote system of electing councillors and the fall in Labour support in the last few years has radically altered the make-up of local authorities.

With 20 of the 32 councils in Scotland now having been set up the SNP are part of the ruling administrations in eleven – almost all of them in coalition with the Lib Dems. These include the cities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the second largest council in Scotland, Fife.

Labour hold sway in only four councils so far. With the SNP’s history in local government of attacks on workers’ rights and supporting privatisation and cuts, this will bring the SNP into collision with a much wider section of local government workers and working class communities than before. Especially against the background of New Labour’s public spending cuts under prime minister in waiting, Gordon Brown.

With the SNP in power at a local level in many areas, and a ruling administration in Holyrood, the SNP can be set for a series of conflicts with workers and communities across Scotland.

Under these conditions the potential to build a fighting socialist alternative to the parties of cuts and big business can grow rapidly. It is on this urgent task that the International Socialists in Scotland is concentrating, alongside the other members and activists in Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement. Solidarity polled over 31,000 votes in the recent Scottish elections and emerged as the main left party in Scotland as a result. In contrast, the Scottish Socialist Party lost 90% of its vote from the previous election in 2003.

A very positive National Steering Committee of Solidarity held last week in Glasgow laid out plans to strengthen the base of support that the party has built up in only eight months.

With an elected councillor in Glasgow, strong support in the public sector trade unions in Scotland, and the continuing commitment of Solidarity members – including former MSPs Tommy Sheridan and Rosemary Byrne – Solidarity is the home for socialists in Scotland.

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