Poor old Alex Salmond. Things haven't been going too well for him lately. Maybe it was one too many whiskeys with their Burns Suppers, but the Scottish National Party Government seems to be stumbling from one embarrassment to another. First they couldn't get their “recession beating” budget passed on the first go. Then they were forced to back down on their flagship policy to scrap council tax, apparently due to a lack of “parliamentary consensus”. And then, just to add insult to injury Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour Party leader, slammed the SNPs plans for an independence referendum. This makes it increasingly look like Labour will vote against the proposed referendum to come before the parliament at some point over the next year. What was the SNP's response to this? A cabinet reshuffle! The last resort of any desperate government.
However the fact is no matter how much the SNP insists on calling itself the Scottish Government (they changed the name from the Scottish Executive in 2007), it is still only a devolved administration that gets all its financial backing and political power at the discretion of the Westminster Parliament. For the SNP this task is made doubly difficult by being a minority government without a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. So in order to get their budget passed on the second attempt they had to do deals to get Labour and the Lib Dems (the Tories had been in support from the offset) on side. These two parties demanded the most tokenistic gestures in return for their support. Labour got a pathetic 11,000 new apprenticeships which will be of little relief to the mounting scores of unemployed youth, particularly when these un-unionised apprenticeships pay peanuts and don't even guarantee a job at the end. The Lib Dems won one inquiry into financial sector jobs and another into Scottish public spending. What a gain for liberal democracy! Arguable the opposition party that got most out of it were the Tories who, in return for backing from stage one, got tax cuts for small businesses and a £60m town centre regeneration scheme (read: knocking down social housing and replacing with posh flats no one can afford). It shows the true colours of the SNP that they find natural allies in the Tory party and readily give them the most typical of Tory policies: tax cuts for business. On the sidelines of this earth shaking game of real politik sat the Green Party. Once wooed by the SNP as possibly coalition partners, and the only other party in the parliament to support the SNPs central aim of independence, they were quickly and unceremoniously shoved to the sidelines of the budget negotiations when the SNP realised that they could get Labour and the Lib Dems to back the budget. The Greens were asking for a £100m home insulation project for their support. Needless to say they didn't get it, and when the budget was finally rushed through parliament on the second attempt it was approved by a majority of 123 with two voting against. No prizes for guessing who those two votes were. Yes, that mighty force in Scottish politics - the Green Party!
The Scottish Parliament was sold as following the model of constructive, nice, ‘consensus’ politics that would see an end to political bickering and allow for the input of small parties. The budget debacle has shown once and for all what nonsense this is in reality. Unprincipled political bargaining ruled the roost as the big parties’ horse traded their way to the final agreement. Whilst the 2003-7 Parliament saw the involvement of the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, the Greens and the highly important contribution of the Senior Citizens' Unity Party, their MSPs were on the fringes of the parliament and made no real impact to its political decisions. The shunting aside of the Greens is merely the latest display of the political impotency of support for such small parties as advocated by some on the Scottish left, particularly some in the SSP. The SSP thought that through playing a kind of leftwing lower common denominator politics they could maintain a presence in Parliament and use it to win concessions for the working class. The SSP went about playing the ‘parliamentary game’, engaging in a rash of limited reformist campaigns and attempting to cosy up to the SNP with the ultimate aim of forming a coalition government. The inevitable result of this was political annihilation, with them going from 6 seats in 2003 to zero in the current parliament. In the same way the Greens couldn't even get their home insulation proposal a serious reading, the SSP could never enact serious change in parliament. They were always pushed to the side with the smaller parties whilst the big boys got on with thrashing out a parliamentary majority. Lenin famously said that parliament is a pig sty. After this farce of one-upmanship and political horse trading the Scottish Parliament look less like a pig sty and more like a flea circus. This latest round of bickering has further increased many Scottish working people's disillusion with the political system and this joke of a Scottish Parliament. It raises the question: if anyone bothers going to vote in the next Scottish Parliamentary elections then who will they vote for. It’s hard to say whether it is the SNP or Labour that have come out of this looking worst.
The economic crisis looks likely to hit Scotland as badly, if not worse, than the rest of the UK, and is already causing the SNP some major political headaches. It was less than two years ago when the SNP came to power in Scotland talking about how much better the Scottish economy would be if Scotland was an independent country able its run its own economic affairs to attract foreign business and particularly investment in the finance sector (Edinburgh is one of the biggest financial hubs in Europe). The SNP said we could join the “arc of prosperity”. Scotland was to be a prosperous land of deregulated investment as the wizard men of the finance industry were given a free reign to play with pieces of paper and generally create social wellbeing. They held up the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ and Iceland as examples of small countries with high economic growth and great standards of living, saying that Scotland could be just like these if only it were independent. How ridiculous that argument looks now with the Icelandic economy in a literal state of ruin and Ireland having to launch major cuts just to stave off a similar fate. The reason that the SNP were so keen to press the idea that the Scottish economy could do so well if only it ran itself was because they got their most important political and financial support from a section a Scottish finance capital that wanted to win fiscal autonomy in order to use Scotland as a cheap and easy base for its own dealings. This base amongst finance capitalists seems to have all but disappeared as the Westminster government was forced to nationalise RBS and HBOS to stop them going completely bankrupt. The SNP’s supporters amongst big business in Scotland did make a last ditch attempt to keep HBOS as a separate entity from Lloyds, with British Government financial backing, using the SNP as a political mouthpiece to lobby against the merger. This failed, and the finance executives of these Scottish banks that supported the SNP have lost their financial power and with it their political clout. Not only do the SNP look publicly like they have no idea what they are doing when it comes to economic policy but they have lost the biggest part of their backing amongst the Scottish business establishment.
After nearly two years in office the SNP are definitely over their 'honeymoon period' and are losing political credibility like so much water out a sinking ship. It begs the question how are they going to manage to approach the next election and gain any support, let alone win a second term? It is possible that as the recession worsens they will try to divert any rise in class conciousness (already demonstrated by the public sector strikes, the Grangemouth strike and widespread action during the recent dispute over bringing un-unionised labour in from abroad) into a nationalist feeling against the government in London. If the next Westminster election bring in a Tory government that launches a full scale attack on welfare and public services then this is more likely to be successful. If they can characterise the problem of the recession and massive cut backs in health, education etc. as the fault of the government in London they may just be able to win the next election, and even have a chance at winning a yes vote for independence. The SNP has always blamed London for any promise they can't meet or pledge they can't fulfil. Recently, they have been very quick to point out that the block grant given to the Scottish Government will (by the SNP's reckoning) be £500m less this year than it should be, and that Westminster is refusing to loan them money to build a new Forth Road bridge. The SNP have teamed up with the Lib Dems (yet more political manoeuvring) to demand borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament to finance major capital projects like the new Forth crossing. The Lib Dems see this as a solution to the current constitutional mess, but the SNP see it as a stepping stone to independence.
What these high powered games of political chequers between the parties in the Parliament and crucially between the SNP in Edinburgh and the government in Westminster really mean is a huge hole in funding for desperately needed investment in schools, the health system and particularly the Scottish transport network. At the end of last year the SNP presented their long term transport plan to Parliament. It contained proposals to upgrade the rail and road network, with particular emphasis on building better links between the north of Scotland and the central belt. At its centre was a plan to build a new road bridge over the River Forth, but to do this it needed a loan from Westminster. Westminster wasn't willing to oblige, and now they are talking about putting all transport projects on hold to be able to pay for the new bridge. For the SNP picking fights with London may be a lot of fun, but for working people in Scotland it will damage public services. Whether or not the SNP can win the next election depends a lot on if they can direct the blame for the the effects of the recession and public spending cuts away from itself and towards Westminster. But it depends in equal measure whether Labour can mount an effective opposition.
The New Labour leadership has found no way of winning political points off the SNP since they came into government, despite the fact that they have been practically giving points away over the last few months. First they tried a little left wing rhetoric with the former leader Wendy Alexander declaring that it was a battle “between socialism and nationalism” at the 2008 Scottish Labour Party conference. But working people looked back over the cutbacks and broken promises that marked the eight years of a Labour administration in Scotland and over ten of Labour Government in London and saw straight through this facade of “getting back to Labour's socialist values”. So next Alexander tried calling the SNPs bluff and challenging them to an immediate referendum on independence, knowing that the idea of a separate Scotland would get voted down with a fairly sizable majority against. The SNP knew this too and also realised that they had to put off a referendum until there was the likely possibility of a Tory government down south. The nationalist tacticians see that if there is a Conservative government in London launching an all out attack on the working class then people might see independence as a way out, when they wouldn't have given it a moment's thought two years earlier. Anyway, the Labour leadership in London were getting a bit jittery about a slide to the left and supporting a referendum on Scottish independence, so they got rid of her over an illegal leadership campaign donation of £900 and brought in the current leader Mr. Gray, who is easier to keep in line. Just to make sure that the SNP didn't get any false hopes about Labour supporting a referendum Gray lambasted the idea in Parliament last week, as well as pointing out that the SNP are making a habit of defaulting on their manifesto pledges: first replacing student loans with grants and now on scrapping the council tax. But Labour seems incapable of proposing any alternative. Everyone knows that they were the ones that brought in tuition fees in England and would have done the same here if their then coalition partners the Lib Dems hadn't put their foot down. They haven't put forward any alternative to the SNP's promised local income tax after their restructuring of the current system outlined in their election manifesto just didn't add up.
The short of it is that the New Labour clique has reached an impasse. They have lost all their best activists, systematically isolated their working class electoral base and when they try to distance themselves from the government in London are quickly whipped back into line. If the Scottish Parliamentary Labour party really cared about saving Scotland from the recession and re-energising its base it would propose a radical, socialist program in opposition to the SNP’s bosses’ budget. Apprenticeships yes, but not on low pay and with no job security. Why not call for apprentices to be unionised, paid a living wage and guaranteed a job? Even better how about an apprenticeship for everyone young worker out of a job? Why don't the Labour leadership call for full fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament so it can nationalise all of the Scottish banks (and not just the failed ones!) for the benefits of workers all over Britain? Why don't they demand a fair sliding scale of tax to make the rich pay their share instead of the SNP's proposed flat rate local income tax that will in reality hit the poorest hardest? The New Labour clique won't call for these things, in fact it can't do. London won't let it, and more importantly its big business backers won't let it.
The failures of the Labour leadership are threatening the future of a united labour movement in Britain. If they were willing to raise a genuine socialist programme then nationalism would not be an issue. The SNP have emerged as a political force and sustain themselves only because of the inability of the Labour leadership to answer the problems of working class people in Scotland. The capitalist crisis is seeing these mounting everyday as unemployment and repossessions rise. There is not much time left! If the Labour Party and the trade unions fail to offer a fighting alternative then a solution will be sought elsewhere and a strengthened nationalism could emerge. It would be a tragedy for the opportunity presented by the current developments to be wasted and turned into its opposite. Action to prevent further degradation and to reclaim our movement must start now.
The fight for a socialist Scotland and a socialist Britain are inseparable and is not one that will be confined to parliament. It has to be fought on the streets and on the picket lines, and by linking the recent wave of industrial action in Scotland with working class people’s desire for a Scottish politics that really works. Not this caricature of democracy that is the Scottish Parliament, which is nothing more than a debating club for trumped up councillors, but a Scottish budget in the interests of working people implemented and administered by working people. And that’s what the SNP or the New Labour clique can't give us and fear most.