Scotland: Scottish National Party (SNP) tables ‘independence’ referendum bill

SNP, New Labour & Tories – All pro-capitalist parties threaten major cuts in jobs and services

The Scottish government is set to table a bill for a referendum on independence on St Andrew’s day, on 30 November. At the recent Scottish National Party (SNP) conference, SNP leader, Alex Salmond, claimed that any political party that voted to deny the people of Scotland the democratic right to a say on their constitutional future could not survive for long. The SNP also set a target of winning an unprecedented 20 MP’s at the forthcoming Westminster election. This would, according to Alex Salmond, mean that in the event of the SNP’s favoured option of a ‘hung parliament’, Westminster would be forced to, “dance to a Scottish jig.”

The SNP and a general election

However, the majority of MSPs, at this stage, are opposed to a referendum on independence and there is virtually no chance of a referendum bill being passed by the Scottish parliament. With support for independence at around 30%, the SNP have made it clear that they are not opposed to a third question in a referendum that gives the option of extending the powers of the parliament – but which falls short of full independence. This leaves open the possibility of them doing deals with a Cameron-led government, which, in theory, would support strengthening the powers of the Scottish parliament. Such a scenario is not ruled out, after all, the SNP have had to rely on support from the Tories in the Scottish parliament for the last two years to get their budgets passed.

However in Scotland there is an increasingly powerful mood to stop the Tories coming to power. The memory of Thatcherism, with the economic and social carnage that came in its wake, is still strong, particularly among the older generation. It is, therefore, unlikely that the SNP can increase their Westminster representation to twenty MPs, as hoped for by party leaders, from their current seven. Sections of the Scottish electorate will vote at all costs to try and stop the return of a Tory government. Many will “hold their noses” and back Labour, to do so. A recent poll found that the SNP have fallen behind Labour in people’s voting intentions for the next Scottish general election, due in 2011.

However if the Tories were to win an outright majority it would inevitably lead to a resurgence of nationalism in Scotland, particularly as the Tories are only likely to get 2 or 3 MPs elected in Scotland. It would be seen as a return to the ‘dark days’ of the1980’s and 1990’s, when the Tories were left with a rump in Scotland, but a Tory government held power across Britain, as a whole.

Under these conditions, a Tory government, while attempting to implement an all-out war on public spending and the working class generally, may have to make concessions on the national question and offer talks over extending the powers of the parliament. At a certain stage against this backdrop, and perhaps following the 2011 Scottish general election, a referendum on the constitutional future of Scotland is very possible.

Cuts, cuts, cuts

The SNP have been working very hard in the last few months to distance themselves from the massive public spending cuts that are being carried out now and will be accelerated after the general election in 2010. Alex Salmond is trying to position the SNP as the ‘defender’ of public services, stating, “The only disagreement between the Liberal, the Labour party and the Tories is how savage the cuts are going to be and the timescale on which the cuts are to be implemented.”

Echoing this point the SNP Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said: “Labour has made an almighty mess of the public finances and they now want ordinary folk to pay the price for their failure – and the Tories are just the same.” She could have added that the SNP are also going to try and make the working class pay for the economic crisis. The Scottish budget is being cut by £500 million next year and up to £2.5 billion over the next four years, but it is the SNP who will largely be taking the axe to jobs and public services in Scotland.

The SNP minority government has already been implementing their own cuts, disguised as efficiency savings, over the last year. A large part of the SNP’s programme for government remains gathering dust on the shelf, including the scrapping of the council tax and the abolition of student debt. At local government level, SNP-run councils, like Labour-led councils, have moved quickly to cut jobs and services. In Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Fife, the Lib Dem/SNP coalitions have cut hundreds of council workers jobs, closing schools and axing other council-run facilities. The SNP/Liberal coalition council in Edinburgh has put forward ‘options’ for filling a £247 million deficit that include, cutting the workforce by up to 2,000 staff; every council department having to make a 12% slashing of frontline costs and outsourcing and privatisation of key frontline services including refuse collection, street cleansing, park teams and building maintenance.

In Dundee and Edinburgh, the SNP supported using private refuse companies to undermine local authority bin workers who have been taking industrial action – showing that when put to the test they are prepared to undermine basic trade union rights. Moreover, it is clear that there is not the slightest intention by the SNP to stand up to New Labour, or a Cameron-led Tory government and refuse to make the savage cuts that are being prepared.

At a time when Royal Mail workers are taking strike action to defend jobs and fighting against the threat to privatise the service, the SNP have handed an £8 million contract to TNT, the Dutch privatised mail service, to deliver all second class mail from the Scottish government.

Adopting the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly’s defence of, “A big boy did it and ran away!” is not going to get the SNP off the hook. The SNP is guilty of effectively being handed a loaded gun and instead of refusing to turn and fire on working class communities, the SNP are pulling the trigger, while blaming the people who handed them the gun in the first place.

Genuine Left opposition

If the SNP were a genuine left party, prepared to stand up for working and hard pressed middle class families in Scotland, they would refuse to make these cuts and play a role in building a mass campaign of defiance demanding the resources to defend vital jobs and services.

This was the approach that Liverpool City Council took between 1983 and 1987, when it refused to make cuts demanded by the Thatcher government. Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the International Socialists in Scotland, played a leading role in that struggle by mobilising the working class and the trade union movement in a mass campaign that won concessions and extra resources for the city. The outcome was a transformation in housing conditions and other important reforms for working class people.

The SNP could be lacerating Brown and the capitalist establishment for spending over £1 trillion on bailing out the capitalist system, supposedly necessitating a public spending onslaught. They could be explaining that if the government can spend that amount of money to defend their system they can come up with the relatively small amounts needed to invest in a real recovery programme, creating jobs and expanding public services – instead of cutting them.

However, the SNP, whose leadership are pro-capitalist to their core, cannot foresee anything other than implementing a savage cuts agenda. They will rightly blame Brown and Darling for handing on reduced funding for the Scottish government, but cynically, while having no interest in fighting the cuts, the SNP leaders hope to make political capital to increase support for the SNP.

The SNP leadership supported, without criticism, the banking bailouts, not least because the main beneficiaries were the darlings of the SNP, the big Scottish banks of the effectively insolvent HBoS and RBS. Alex Salmond was a former economist at RBS and leading Scottish bankers also sit on the SNP government’s economic advisory committee.

There was not a word of criticism from the SNP leaders at their recent conference over the behaviour of the bankers. Alex Salmond, only two weeks before HBoS was saved by the public purse, claimed the bank was a “well capitalised and a good, sound business.” Salmond fared no better in his analysis that the ideal model for a future independent capitalist Scotland would be the self-styled “arc of prosperity,” which was to involve Ireland, Iceland, Scotland and Norway. All that is left now of this fantasy is a blackened, smouldering wreck of collapsed banks, economic recession, mass unemployment and draconian attacks on working class people. Only Norway has survived relatively unscathed, for now.

Working class communities, trade unionists fighting the onslaught against jobs and working conditions and young people facing a future of mass unemployment need a political party to represent them, The SNP cannot play that role, and clearly Labour and the rest of the establishment parties are also a dead end. The building of a working class party, based on a significant layer of trade union activists and left unions nationally that can attract a new generation of class fighters, is urgent.

The International Socialists (CWI in Scotland) supports all steps towards the building of an independent voice for the working class. We are involved in the RMT (rail union) led initiative to put together an electoral pact in time for the Westminster general election. We are actively involved in current Tommy Sheridan and Solidarity’s election campaign in Glasgow North East.

In the process of the formation of new parties to represent the working class, it is also vital to build a strong Marxist core to help strengthen and give political guidance to these new parties. It is these tasks, alongside fighting to build working class opposition to the economic recession, which the International Socialists turn to with energy.

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November 2009