Scotland: Why is the Scottish National Party in sharp reverse?

The dramatic rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been thrown into a sharp reverse recently. The partial collapse in the electoral support for the SNP at the June 2017 general election – a loss of 21 of their 56 MPs and half a million votes – speaks to a growing mood of disappointment in a party that claimed to be “anti-austerity”. In practice, however, the opposite has been the case, as Socialist Party Scotland has explained on many occasions. By implementing cuts on an unprecedented scale in Scotland, the SNP leadership has begun to be exposed in the eyes of broad sections of working class and young people who had hoped for far better. Increasingly they are also clashing with groups of workers taking strike action, including college lecturers, teachers, Scotrail staff and other public sector workers.

The 2014 independence referendum campaign saw the SNP come under ferocious attack from the capitalist establishment in Britain. The “Project Fear” campaign, however, was largely a failure. Even though the referendum was narrowly lost, the SNP gained a landslide victory in the 2015 Westminster elections as hundreds of thousands of radicalised independence supporters rallied to the “anti-establishment” SNP. The growth of this middle class-led radical nationalist party to over 100,000 – including many new working class and young members – was itself a distorted reflection of the space for a mass workers’ party in Scotland.
Unlike Syriza in Greece, which was a coalition of left forces, and other formations in Europe like Podemos, the SNP has never been a left party. It emerged historically based on the Scottish middle class, totally supportive of capitalism and has never adopted a left or even a mild reformist platform, never mind a socialist one. SNP policy has generally opposed tax rises on the rich and big business and indeed for decades advocated major tax cuts for corporations in their blueprint for an independent Scotland.

It is true that as Labour stampeded to the right under Blair and Brown the SNP successfully positioned themselves to the left of New Labour, making significant electoral gains as a result. However, its radical populism has, so far, never gone beyond a stout defence of capitalism, albeit of a “fairer” variety. Jeremy Corbyn, despite his mistakes on the national question, has significantly outflanked the SNP to the left in his call for limited public ownership, tax increases on the corporations and support for workers in struggle. This contrasted sharply with the SNP leadership and had an impact in the recent general election where Labour made a modest recovery in working class areas of Scotland.

The experience of working class communities in Scotland has been that SNP politicians have acted no differently from right wing Labour. Avowedly pro-business, the cuts keep coming. An SNP-led Scottish Government for over a decade, and now in control of many local councils, has seen them largely act as a conveyer belt for Tory austerity. Albeit prone to working class pressure over issues like the Bedroom Tax which they were dragged into mitigating when faced with a major campaign.


A marked turn to the right by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leaders has followed the Brexit vote of June 2016. While the 2014 referendum was fought as a proxy for opposition to vast inequality, cuts and was a mass expression of class anger at the establishment, today Sturgeon et al have sought to frame a second referendum as being neccessary to “protect access to the European single market”. Alongside the role of the SNP in making cuts, the prioritisation of big-business interests is undermining the SNP’s base of support among the working class in Scotland.

This is especially pronounced among the one third of pro-independence supporters who are opposed to the EU. At the June 2017 Westminster election the SNP lost 4 in 10 of their voters who backed Leave in 2016. Socialist Party Scotland along with the RMT trade union made a socialist, internationalist case for exit from the bosses EU during that referendum.

The conduct of SNP politicians has also come under increasing scrutiny, the overwhelming majority of whom are drawn from the middle class, managerial, small and medium business community. Writing in the Herald newspaper in August, political columnist Kevin McKenna accurately described the following after the Michelle Thomson controversy:

“You can understand why the police investigation into a solicitor used by former SNP MP Michelle Thomson caused the party leadership so many difficulties. The property business partly owned by Ms Thomson was wound up in 2011 before she became MP for Edinburgh West in 2015. It specialised in buying property cheap and selling it on quickly for a profit. Her property “empire” was reported to be worth around £1 million, comprising fewer than 10 properties. These numbers hinted at what end of the market Ms Thomson’s business was concerned with. Several transactions involved people who had begun to experience financial difficulty. It seemed an exercise in raw capitalism.

“The Herald published a story in 2015 revealing that almost one-third of the SNP’s Westminster class of 2015 owned multiple properties. There is nothing illegal or indeed questionable about this. It did suggest though, that a party that had traded on its socialist identity was not as left-facing as it portrayed itself as.

“The euphoria of widespread grassroots engagement in the independence referendum of 2014 coupled with the egregiously pro-Union stance of the Scottish Labour leadership had bequeathed to the SNP an astonishing windfall of more than 100,000 new members. A significant proportion were attracted by the implied promise of being part of a left-wing bulwark, standing strong against an increasingly hard-right and reactionary Conservative government at Westminster. Many would have been dismayed that a seam of unalloyed capitalism lay just below the surface of the party.”

“Dismay” is an accurate depiction of the mood of many of those who looked to the SNP following the 2014 indyref. Polls and consistent evidence on the ground point to the fact that this mood is most pronounced among young people who were so energised by the independence movement. This change in outlook has also impacted on the national question and the prospects for a second referendum.

Indyref 2?

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon “reset” the Scottish Government’s plans for a second independence referendum at the end of June following the party’s heavy loses at the general election. Their plans to legislate immediately for a second referendum, voted through the Scottish parliament in March 2017, have now been shelved. Significantly, Sturgeon admitted that “there was no widespread support in Scotland for a second vote on independence before the UK leaves the EU.” Indeed current polling evidence shows support for an immediate second referendum as low as 20%.

Faced with a new reality the SNP’s approach has slowly changed tack, in the words of Nicola Sturgeon: “At the end of this period of negotiation with the EU – likely to be around next autumn – when the terms of Brexit will be clearer, we will come back to parliament to set out our judgment on the best way forward at that time, including our view on the precise timescale for offering people a choice over the country’s future.”

This reflects a dramatic shift in approach. Indeed Sturgeon’s speech from June 2017 no longer proposes a definitive second referendum, merely to set out a judgement on the “best way forward”. The Brexit vote, the SNP strategists calculated, should have led to a rapid rise in support for Scottish independence as sections of the middle class who backed the union in 2014 moved over to support independence. While there is some evidence that this did happen it was offset by some of the estimated 400,000 independence supporters, mainly working class, who voted to leave the EU. The erosion in support for the SNP among the working class is the most striking feature of the past year.

A deep polarisation has now set in over the national question. The Tory gains in Scotland at the general election saw large parts of rural and middle class Scotland swing towards the Scottish Tories. Ruth Davidson’s single issue campaign – no to indyref 2 – effectively mobilised a large part of the anti-independence vote from 2014, allowing the Tories to win 13 seats. The exposing of the SNP leadership as a party that is not remotely a left force has weakened its appeal, especially among the working class and young people who stand significantly to the left of the SNP. Not only did the nationalists lose seats to Labour in working class areas in June, but their majorities in the seats they held onto in Glasgow and the west of Scotland were slashed. There was also a big increase in abstentionism in 2017 compared to 2015. 250,000 fewer people voted, overwhelmingly these would have been previous SNP supporters.

Significantly, support for independence is still at the same level as it was in 2014 at around 45%, an historic high, despite falling support for the SNP. Moreover demands for a second referendum could erupt again, given the ongoing falling living standards and the crisis facing capitalism in Scotland and internationally. Yet it is clearly the case that the intensity of the mood on the national question has dipped. No longer do a section of radicalised working class and young people currently believe that the SNP offer a real alternative to fighting austerity. And this has had an impact on the immediate prospect for a second referendum as the SNP have moved in a more explicit pro-business direction.

Socialist Party Scotland did not believe that the SNP would undergo an evolution to the left, even after the huge influx of members into the party following the 2014 referendum.Since then, if anything, the evolution by the SNP leadership has been to the right. On Brexit, the SNP’s position is at all costs to fight to retain access to the single market and the customs union. Increasingly, the SNP leadership is acting openly to defend the interests of Scottish and British big business. The single market, after all, is the condensed essence of a neo-liberal, anti-worker and pro-privatisation framework, underpinned by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice that ensure that their rules are stuck to. It is with the Blairite wing of Labour that the SNP are closest to on Europe, whose representatives are using the Brexit process to undermine Corbyn’s call for a Brexit in the interests of “jobs, living standards and workers’ rights”.

A socialist policy, in contrast to the SNP and right wing Labour, stands for an end to privatisation, a £10 an hour living wage, public ownership and democratic planning of the economy and the cancellation of all laws that undermine the interests of the working class. Such policies are incompatible with membership of the EU and its institutions and pose the need to fight for a socialist Europe.

Labour’s mistakes on Scotland

Labour’s modest recovery in Scotland, winning back 6 of the 40 seats they lost in 2015, was a pale reflection of what would have been possible if Corbyn and his allies had been prepared to openly reassess their utterly mistaken policy on the national question. Continuing to oppose independence outright and a second referendum is a huge barrier to winning over the many anti-austerity workers and young people who are attracted to Corbyn’s left policies.
At the very least Corbyn should adopt a more sensitive policy, emphasising his and Labour’s support for the right of the Scottish people to decide their own relationship with the rest of the UK through a referendum. As well as making clear that Labour under his leadership would never again side with the Tories in opposition to independence.

In practice, however, the Labour left have carried on with a policy that is in reality identical to that of Kezia Dugdale and the anti-Corbyn Labour right. At its root is the analysis – whose “theoretical” wellspring is derived from that of the Communist Party of Britain – that Scotland was never an oppressed nation and therefore has no legitimate national question, unlike Ireland. We oppose this view and have written at some length on the historical origins of the national question in Scotland (here). For Marxists, the key issue is the outlook of the working class and the youth and the need to fashion a programme that takes account of that consciousness and links it to the need to forge a socialist solution.

The idea that the left adopt a policy based on a series of events over 300 years ago and are unable to adapt or update that policyin the face of changing circumstances is absurd. It led directly to the situation that in the face of a mass anti-establishment upsurge in support of independence, as happened in 2014, sections of the left campaigned for a No vote, cutting themselves off from hundreds of thousands of the most radicalised working class people who are open to socialist and left ideas.

Ironically this policy only aided the SNP and ensured Labour’s electoral collapse. Labour were widely seen as opposing democratic rights in Scotland and siding with the capitalist establishment. The SNP gained massively as a result by championing democratic rights but also posing as an anti-austerity alternative to Labour. The consequences of Corbyn allowing the Labour right in Scotland to frame the manifesto on Scotland and indyref 2 for the general election was to limit hugely the potential gains they could have made, given the tide of support flowing away from the SNP.

By standing on a fighting platform in favour of an independent socialist Scotland and a reversal of all austerity, socialist ideas could grow dramatically. This has to be linked to the building of a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation between an independent socialist Scotland and a socialist England, Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe. There is no solution to any of the problems we face: poverty, deprivation and cuts, within the crushing straitjacket of capitalism. It is this approach that Socialist Party Scotland argues that the trade unions, the Corbyn movement and the socialist left should adopt.

Tasks for trade unions and the left

The building of a insurgent, principled left in Scotland – as the SNP are further exposed – is an urgent task. There are three elements to this. Firstly, a serious struggle by the Labour left to wrestle control from the right wing in Scotland. Corbyn’s supporters should challenge Dugdale for the leadership. We have also called on Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters to campaign for the necessary democratic changes to the Labour party, including the right to re-select MPs, councillors and MSPs who oppose Corbyn and have a record of carrying out cuts etc. This should be allied to a pledge that under the new leadership all Labour’s elected politicians must refuse to vote for cuts in councils, the Scottish parliament or at Westminster.

Labour is still two parties in one. A Blairite, capitalist dominated parliamentary party who will never accept Corbyn’s leadership, and a majority of the membership who are anti-austerity and pro-Corbyn. As well as removing the extreme capitalist wing through the democratic renewal of the Labour Party’s structures, the trade unions who are affiliated to Labour should have their full rights restored. In addition, the party should be opened up to all socialists and left and anti-austerity activists to join, including those who were expelled in the past.

The second element, particularly important given the reluctance of the Labour left to challenge the out-and-out capitalist elements in their party, is to build an electoral alternative to cuts and austerity. While of course this means not standing against left Labour candidates who pledge to fight cuts, in most cases that is not currently the case. Both Labour and SNP councillors in Scotland are preparing a new round of austerity budgets for early 2018, in some cases in coalition with each other. In Aberdeen, Labour councillors have formed a coalition with the Tories and were rightly suspended, although not expelled!

Socialist Party Scotland has since 2010 pioneered, alongside the RMT union, the building of the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and local anti-cuts groups to stand in elections. We would appeal to trade unions and left activists to discuss how we can take this further in the new situation that now opens for building left and socialist ideas in Scotland.

And thirdly, the building of organised and coordinated mass struggle by the trade unions and communities is essential in order to defeat ongoing austerity. The recent victory by the Glasgow Janitors after 67 days of strike action and a 20 month-long campaign shows what is possible. As did the recent victory by college lecturers over pay. The 63% vote by Unison members in local government in favour of strike action, again on pay, albeit stymied by the new anti-union ballot thresholds, also indicates a growing mood to take action.


Socialist Party Scotland has always opposed the SNP leaders and their pro-capitalist policies, including during the referendum when we fought for a Yes majority. At times that meant holding the line and even swimming against the stream of the prevailing mood of illusions that the SNP would deliver for the working class. That period has now largely come to an end.

We did not make the fundamental errors of groups on the left like the SSP, Solidarity and RISE who to one degree or another gave uncritical support to the SNP, both during and since the 2014 referendum. These mistakes included offering the SNP an electoral alliance (SSP), calling workers to explicitly (Solidarity) or implicitly (RISE) vote for the SNP.

The key task facing the working class, young people, the trade unions and the left is to build a mass combative movement to end austerity and oppose all the parities who inflict it. To fight for the establishment of a mass working class party armed with socialist ideas that becomes a majority in society. To forge a real instrument that can lead to an independent socialist Scotland and lay the basis for a voluntary and democratic confederation with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland as a contribution to the struggle for socialism internationally.

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August 2017