Scotland: Scottish Labour’s U-turn on independence deepens crisis for Brown

Growing fear that the Tories will win the next UK general election.

As a result of the unprecedented defeat for New Labour at last week’s elections there is a growing fear that the Tories will win the next UK general election.

Despite the local elections only taking place in England and Wales, the result has had an immediate impact on Scotland.

The possibility of a return of the hated Tory party brings back memories of the Thatcher years of the 1980s and early 1990s. This period laid the basis for a big increase in support for Scottish independence and the Scottish National Party and led directly to the setting up of the devolved Scottish parliament in 1997.

Ten years later, the SNP won the 2007 elections and formed a minority government. Now Labour’s leader in Scotland, Wendy Alexander, has come out in support of an early referendum on Scottish independence, which has send tremors through the political establishment. This, in turn, has had consequences for the position of New Labour throughout Britain. It has further undermined the leadership of Gordon Brown, himself an MP for a Scottish constituency who has refused to support Alexander’s position.

Until Sunday 4 May, Labour’s position, along with the Lib Dems and the Tories in the Scottish parliament, had been to oppose in principle any referendum bill brought forward by the SNP. In other words they were effectively against the right of self-determination for the people of Scotland.

Ironically, the SNP was elected last year by playing down independence. Since forming a minority government they have made it crystal clear that their primary concern was proving themselves a “competent” government that was seen to “deliver”. Hence the pledge to postpone a referendum until 2010 at the earliest.

In truth, the assumption of the SNP leadership was that they were unlikely to get a majority in the parliament for an independence referendum bill at all. That’s why Salmond opened the door to a multi-option referendum which would include a third question of increased powers for the Scottish parliament but which would fall short of full independence. All the opinion polls show this is currently the favourite option.

“Enhanced devolution” or the mis-named “devolution max” is what the three main opposition parties are currently working on through the newly formed Calman commission.

Now, in an ironic twist it is New Labour and not the SNP who have put independence in the centre of the political stage. As commentator Iain MacWhirter writing for the Guardian web blog commented: “Until now, independence has been very much on the back-burner – indeed, the SNP managed to win the Scottish election precisely because they factored independence out of the equation. Now Labour has put it back in.”

Alexander has insisted that the referendum be a straight choice between independence or the union. With Labour’s supposed preferred option, that of more powers, not even included.

Labour’s ‘strategy’ seems to be based on forcing the SNP to accept an earlier referendum, before the UK general election, which they hope would give them a better chance of seeing the independence option defeated – thus dealing a blow to the political fortunes of the SNP. Because they fear, correctly, if the referendum was to be held after the re-election of a UK Tory government, it would give a major impetus to independence and the SNP.

However, the SNP have constantly sought to avoid a confrontation with big business and capitalist interests who are in the main opposed to independence. Alex Salmond only last week emphasised that while the SNP were seeking an end to the United Kingdom – they wanted to replace it with the United Kingdoms.

The Queen would remain Head of State and trade with the rest of the UK would be central to an independent Scotland. This gradualist approach to a form of “constitutional” independence is predicated on maintaining the economic infrastructure of capitalism and the poverty, low pay and inequality that go with it.

In a cynical move, “the party of independence”, the SNP, has turned down the offer of an early referendum and insisted that the date of late 2010 still stands. They hope that this would give them the best opportunity to maximise the vote for independence or at least more powers for the parliament over tax and other areas currently controlled by Westminster. Although they won’t say it publicly – the best result for the SNP would be a Tory victory at Westminster.

There is little chance of referendum before 2010. But Labour will now find it impossible to reverse their support for a referendum unless Alexander is removed as leader – which is not ruled out.

The cynical manoeuvring of all the main pro-capitalist parties over this issue underlines the need to build a principled party of the working class and for socialism in Scotland. A party that stands for a genuine democratic referendum on Scotland’s future that would at least need to have three options. A party that fights against those, including the SNP, who see the democratic rights of the Scottish people as bargaining chips to enhance the position of the main parties.

But above all a party that stands up against the onslaught on wages and working conditions being carried out by the bosses and capitalist system. Which would continue even in an independent Scotland. A party that fights to build a socialist Scotland and unity with workers in England, Wales and Ireland to form the basis of a democratic and voluntary socialist federation.

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