Scotland: The SNP government, one year in power

A moment for celebration?

On the face of it with a series of popular measures implemented and opinion polls showing the SNP with an extended lead over their rivals the first anniversary of the SNP coming to power is a moment for celebration. At least from their point of view. In contrast to Gordon Brown’s catastrophic premiership at Westminster Alex Salmond’s approval ratings are still running at around 70%.

Since forming a minority administration in May 2007 the SNP have carried through a self-proclaimed “whirlwind” of policy announcements and legislative changes. Many of these have proved popular and some represent limited reforms that socialists would support. They have included the reversal of decisions, backed by the previous Labour/Lib Dem executive, to close Accident and Emergency departments in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. The cuts provoked mass opposition in the areas affected including huge demonstrations and protests that the SNP utilised to strengthen its electoral support. The SNP have also announced the abolition of road bridge tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges, the freezing of the widely despised council tax for three years and its planned replacement with a “local” income tax by 2011, the abolition of the graduate endowment (tuition fees) for Scottish students, the planned phased withdrawal of prescription charges and the limited introduction of free school meals. The SNP government have also called for – although not properly funded – a programme of new council house building at the same time as moving to end the right to buy new council and housing association homes.

The symbolism of Alex Salmond attending the STUC conference in April and announcing that the new Southern General Hospital in Glasgow would be funded by the government and not through private finance reinforced the fairly wide perception of the SNP as a “left of centre” government.

Perception can be a powerful weapon, and in comparison to the unrelenting attacks carried out by the previous Labour/Liberal Executive the SNP are seen as a government that is – at least for layer of people -“ on our side”. The SNP paid the 2.5% pay “rise” for the Scottish police force and agreed a 2.5% pay deal for 2007 for Scottish NHS staff (still a pay cut with inflation at 4%+). This was done at the same time as at a UK level New Labour were staging pay awards and announcing their intention to seek three-year below inflation pay restraint deals for public sector workers.

Two sides to the SNP

However, a wolf can sometimes appear in sheep’s clothing. There are two sides to the SNP. On the one hand there is an element of radical populism which, as well as the limited reforms they have carried through as a minority Scottish government, includes opposition to the occupation of Iraq, the scrapping of plans for new nuclear power stations and the removal of Trident from Scotland. On the other hand the SNP are a died- in-the-wool capitalist party that has embraced a large degree of neo-liberal orthodoxy and seeks at all times to work within the limits of whatever capitalism can afford. Scrape beneath the surface of the veneer of radicalism and below resides a virulent pro-business ideology. Against the background of a rapidly contracting economy the SNP will be faced with stark choice. Either put up a fighting resistance to the coming onslaught against workers rights or become a vehicle to implement brutal measures against the working class. Recent evidence indicates that in the final analysis it is the latter course that the SNP will follow.

The SNP government agreed a block with the Tories to get their budget through the Scottish parliament, including cuts in business taxes and other pro-business measures. It did not take the SNP long to jump on the three year below inflation pay deals either. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP health minister has welcomed the three-year pay offer to NHS staff that will see nurses and other health workers face year-on-year pay cuts. NHS staffs are currently balloting on this offer.

The effective coalition of Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems in the Scottish local government employers body, CoSLA, have offered a take it or leave it 2.5% a year insult to 220,000 local government workers for the years 2008 to 2011. Finance minister John Swinney has launched an almighty assault on public spending demanding a colossal £l.6 billion in “efficiencies” i.e. cuts in the public sector over the next three years. If implemented they will result in a cull of jobs in the public sector.

Moreover, the pro-capitalist SNP have also bared their teeth and will expose themselves further in the months ahead. They have ignited huge waves of popular protest in Edinburgh and Aberdeen where they form part of the ruling council coalitions. At the beginning of April Aberdeen saw one of the biggest protest marches in years when 5,000 people marched against the £27 million cuts package being implemented by the SNP/Lib Dem council. If carried through these cuts will result in the decimation of a number of voluntary sector organisations, and the closure of swimming pools and libraries as well as the loss of hundreds of jobs. The deputy SNP leader of the council was heckled and shouted down when he tried to justify the cuts.

In Edinburgh within weeks of taking the chains of office the SNP, along with the Lib Dems, launched an assault on education in the city in a bid to to implement £12 million worth of cuts. This involved the proposed closure of 22 schools, 6 nurseries and 4 community centres. A massive campaign of opposition forced a rapid retreat. But the council are coming back for more cuts. The SNP council in Argyll and Bute council have issued redundancy notices to hundreds of its employees to force them to sign new contracts under the single status agreement. This has provoked a series of strikes by council workers.

What these examples illustrate is that against the backdrop of cuts in public spending the SNP government at Holyrood and their administrations at a local level are prepared to take the axe to jobs and services and collaborate with the driving down of pay and conditions of workers. The deepening economic crisis that is wrecking havoc on the worlds financial markets will necessitate, from a capitalist point of view, a declaration of war on public spending and the rights of the working class. The SNP are quite prepared in Scotland to carry out these policies.

Not a left government

It is wrong to categorise the SNP as a party of the left as even some socialists have done. They have absolutely no alternative ideology that seeks to go beyond the confines of capitalism. Nor, at this stage, do they even promote limited public ownership or nationalisation as they did in the past. The SNP government has come under attack, including from the RMT, for extending the rail franchise for another three years to First Scotrail – a private company – rather than use the limited powers of the parliament to promote a public sector alternative. Their alternative to PPP for capital building projects has been derided as yet another form of privatisation or PFI lite. Private companies would still get the contracts for building schools and hospitals and even after 25 years they would not be owned by the public sector. A deathly silence has engulfed the SNP over support for striking Grangemouth workers. Nor has there has been not a word of criticism from Alex Salmond over the £50 billion bail-out to the banks by the Brown government to try and stem the credit crisis.

The SNP and Alex Salmond are a million miles removed from even the governments of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales in Venezuela and Bolivia who, while not breaking with capitalism, have taken some limited measures against capitalis interests and in the interests of the poor. In contrast the SNP’s model internationally has been Ireland’s so-called Celtic Tiger. A country that has seen almost 20 years of rapid growth rates and a bonanza for the rich elite and big business including the land speculators. As a result the Irish working class have been saddled with crushing housing costs as a consequence of the property boom. A health service that was never free and now is in crisis and a collapse of the housing bubble. The Celtic Tiger is dead and it is the working class in Ireland who are paying the price for it.

A genuine left party, rather than make cuts, would mount a campaign, seeking to mobilise the working class to demand the resources needed from the Brown government and capitalism to carry out policies in the interests of the working class and local communities. The SNP will not go down that road. In fact the strategy of the SNP is in the words of Alex Salmond to; "Prove that the SNP can run a successful government and make Scotland a successful country.” In other words act as a responsible party of government, a safe pair of hands for big business. This approach will inevitably propel the SNP increasingly into a collision course with the working class in Scotland.

Rise of independence.

While the SNP support an independent Scotland they have not made independence a major priority of their first year in power. Instead they have taken an approach that many other nationalist parties have adopted in Europe in seeking a road to government – at all costs. This has meant putting the demand for Scottish national independence – which the ruling class overwhelmingly oppose – on the back burner, at least for now.

While support for independence had not grown since the SNP were elected in May 2007 – despite their popularity – a recent poll at the beginning of April 2008 did see a jump in support for independence to 41%. This put the figures for independence back to where they were in the beginning of 2007 (these polls give two options either for or against moving to independence). The likely reason for this increase of around 10% was the conflict between the Scottish government and Westminster over funding for Scotland – particularly whether the scrapping of the council tax would put in jeopardy the £400 million that comes to Scotland at present in council tax benefit. New Labour ministers ruled out any possibility that the council tax benefit money would come to Scotland if the taxation system changed. This then gave the opportunity for the SNP to accuse Labour of effectively stealing Scotland’s money.

However, the election of the SNP in Scotland has forced a change of tack from the other parties. Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems have established a Constitutional Commission to look at greater powers being allocated to the parliament. This reflects the outlook of the ruling class in the main and the extreme reluctance of Gordon Brown, that further concessions to Scotland in the form of increased powers may well be necessary. The SNP are not seeking an out-and-out confrontation with New Labour or the wider interests of capitalism – rather an adaptation and a recognition that the nationalists will be a safe pair of hands for capitalist interests. So the SNP, who stand for an independence referendum by 2011, have in fact encouraged their opponents to draw up a proposal for a multi-option referendum including the option for “enhanced devolution”.

For the SNP it is a win-win option. In the event of a referendum – and the parliamentary arithmetic means this is still unlikely – even if independence was defeated and enhanced devolution was the favoured option the SNP would claim that it was they that had delivered this advance and they should be allowed to get to run this new Scotland. It is even possible for a form of “enhanced devolution” to be agreed simply by the Westminster and Holyrood government’s negotiating which powers to transfer thus avoiding a referendum – which may be the approach that the Labour, LibDem and Tory parties intend to take in an effort to avoid the prospect of a referendum which includes the option of independence. The SNP would portray this is refusing the Scottish people the right to decide their own future in a democratic referendum. The International Socialists would support the idea of a multi-option referendum while using the opportunity of such a campaign to raise the need for socialism and a programme in defence of working class interests.

While it is true that support for independence has not grown significantly recently that could change in the future. The possibility of the return of a Tory government under David Cameron would inflame the national question in Scotland. Partly this would be because any Tory revival is unlikely to be reflected in Scotland and this will be seen as a return to the dark days of Thatcher when Scotland voted overwhelmingly against the Tories but still ended up with a Tory government. In Scotland, the Tories, who have one MP, would be seen as an illegitimate government with no right to legislate for Scotland. Support for independence could increase dramatically. More importantly, it would not be passive support. It is likely that under these circumstances a movement on the streets, in communities and workplaces would emerge to demand independence or an extreme form of autonomy. The ruling class would be faced with the option of granting more far-reaching concessions or face a confrontation that could spiral out of control.

New Labour hypocrisy

As we pointed out following the May 2007 elections, Labour in opposition would, on occasion, opportunistically attack the SNP from the “left” in an effort to make up ground.

In a great historical irony Wendy Alexander, who has been in the vanguard of the Blairite counter-revolution in the Labour party, supported the abolition of Clause 4 and championed the pro-market policies of New Labour has declared the battle between the SNP and Labour as one of “nationalism versus socialism”.

Speaking at the STUC conference Alexander attacked the SNP for being in the pockets of big business: "In Alex Salmond’s Scotland some people are indeed more equal than others. The Trump Organisation, Macdonald Hotels in Aviemore, ScottishPower – all big businesses with a special pass to the corridors of SNP power." (Alex Salmond has personally intervened to try and get US billionaire Donald Trump’s millionaires golf course and housing project back on track following the local Aberdeenshire planning committee decision to reject the proposal. Donald Macdonald, the head of Macdonald Hotels, is an SNP donor SNP ministers were accused of speeding up the planning process for an extension to Macdonald’s resort in Aviemore.)

Labour in Scotland is feigning to the left, like a football player seeking to go past a defender, only to then make a turn to the right – especially when they are in power as the last 8 years of Labour rule in Scotland aptly demonstrated. And as the scandalous decision on the 10p tax abolition by Gordon Brown also exposes. Nevertheless, it is not ruled out that in a cynical attempt to rebuild their base among sections of the working class that Labour may continue to try and position themselves to the “left” of the SNP on some issues. This could, as the SNP undermine their position by attacking the working class and the fear of a return of a Tory government, lead to a limited revival of Labour support in Scotland.

Building a socialist alternative.

However, this possibility is in itself – as the coming to power of the SNP also underlined – a reflection of the huge vacuum that exists for the building of a viable mass workers party in Scotland. Alongside building a fighting trade union struggle against public sector pay cuts and attacks on working conditions, the building of a political organisation for the working class is a central task.

In Scotland the demise of the SSP, who lost 90% of their support in May 2007 has complicated the situation. Solidarity, led by Tommy Sheridan, and within which the forces of the CWI play a key role, is playing an important role in seeking to rebuild the ground that has been lost. But the rapidly changing situation which is being prepared by the economic crisis and the moving into struggle of significant sections of the working class will help to change this situation. At a certain stage a combination of these factors will propel thousands and tens of thousands along the road of a independent voice for the working class and for socialist ideas. The continuing need to strengthen the forces of Marxism and the CWI are a vital part of that struggle.

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