Ross Walker of the Edinburgh Marxists discusses the events of the recent SNP annual party conference, where leader Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Beneath the apparent party unity surrounding independence, however, it is clear that strong class contradictions are developing within the SNP.
The SNP is by far the largest party in Scotland. In fact, it is one of the most dominant parties in history, having elected 56 out of the 59 Scottish MPs to Westminster and holding government in Holyrood, with over 2% of the population carrying an SNP membership card. For this reason, the annual SNP conference is one of the most significant and telling political events of the year in Scotland, and gives us many an insight into what the future holds for the class struggle in Scotland.
This year’s conference started with the announcement of the deputy leadership election result. Tommy Sheppard MP, the main candidate on the left of the party, despite winning the largest amount of nominations from the largest variety of branches, won just 25%. The other left-winger, councillor Chris McEleny, won 3%, whilst Alan Smyth - the very pro-Europe MEP - got 18.3 %. The established parliamentary group leader, Angus Robertson, won with 53% of the vote to become the Deputy Leader. In his speech he planted his traditional nationalist flag by saying, “We are the Scottish National Party; the clue is in the name, we represent the whole of the country.”
The fact that the established parliamentary group leader, with more than 30 years of party experience, beat the left candidate on a low turnout (34%) is a sign of the fact that the membership are generally happy with the party’s leadership; and although the party’s inevitable class contradictions are beginning to emerge, it is not at the stage of provoking an all-out civil war.
The deputy leadership result was very much overshadowed by Nicola Sturgeon’s dramatic announcement of a draft bill on independence to be published imminently.
Brexit and IndyRef2
In Sturgeon’s speech, she used the issue of Brexit - and particularly Theresa May’s tack towards “Hard Brexit” - to back up her case for the need for another referendum. “Here in Scotland 80,000 jobs could be lost,” Sturgeon warned. “Wages would be hit by up to £2,000 and growth in the economy would slow.” The SNP leader challenged Theresa May by saying, “It's high time you showed some respect for 62 per cent of people across Scotland who voted to Remain”. Her announcement was met with a standing ovation from the conference and predictable hysteria from the largely pro-unionist capitalist press.
The excitement shown by independence supporters inside and outside the conference was clear and predictable considering the recent memory of the 2014 referendum, which inspired so many previously inactive and “apolitical” workers and youth into political activity.
Although it was a constitutional question on Scotland’s independence, it wasn’t ideological nationalism which fuelled the 2014 YES campaign, or indeed today’s mood for independence, but rather an opposition to the austerity, warmongering, and xenophobia emanating from Westminster.
This nature of the 2014 YES campaign provoked the British establishment into its “Project Fear" mode, where it put all its might behind the NO campaign, which in turn played a role in the YES movement’s defeat.
It was clear from events during the recent conference, however, that the SNP leadership and the capitalist class have learnt lessons and have different ideas for IndyRef2.
Nationalists, capitalists, and the EU
The capitalists were at this year’s SNP conference in their numbers. The Association of British Bookmakers, Carillion plc, McDonald’s, and Royal Bank of Scotland: all these big businesses and bankers had stalls. CBI, Oil and Gas UK, Santander, the Scotch Whisky Association, Coca Cola, EDF, and Scottish Gas also had advertised fringe events, costing a minimum of £1,700 each. Charlotte Street Partners and Edinburgh airport, Ernst and Young, and Scottish Power and TSB bank all had pages advertised in the programme, costing over a thousand pounds per page. To add to this there was a private airport-style lounge at the conference as part of a signed “commercial relationship” with Heathrow Airport, estimated to have cost tens of thousands of pounds.
One MP at a lobbyist event, hosted by Charlotte Street Partners and Edinburgh airport, spoke of businesses “which were vehemently on the NO side in the referendum in 2014...doing some scenario planning on how attractive it might be to be part of an independent Scotland which is within the EU, if the rest of the UK was to leave”.
This same MP went on to say: “To that extent, among those who were most vehemently on the NO side, there is something of a shift.”
These words are very clear. The capitalist class, although they generally would rather Scotland didn’t become independent, is prepared to jump ship if things go that way, particularly if EU membership and access to the single market is part of the deal.
EU membership is of course far from guaranteed for any independent Scotland. Resistance exists from the current right-wing Spanish government, who fear an example for separatists within Spain, as well as from various sections of the European capitalist class who pull the EU strings and see no profit in Scotland’s membership.
There are other factors at play here, however, including the instability of the EU as whole, which is in a social and economic crisis. It is rapidly losing credibility in many other countries across the continent. Scotland is one of the few places where the EU is very popular and EU leaders may be forced to concede to some sort of deal with Scotland.
The SNP faces a predicament though; it cannot succumb to big business and EU pressure without alienating its base of support amongst workers and youth. As left deputy candidate Tommy Shepherd said in his campaign, “If we yield to a tax haven dream to win over a few bankers from the city of Edinburgh, then we will lose the argument and the people we really need to enthuse.”
It wasn’t just the capitalists that had an influence on the conference. The TUC were also present. Several MPs spoke alongside TUC General Secretary Frances O’ Grady, who praised the SNPs “broad-based support for unions”. One proposal was to take advantage of Brexit to negotiate a “left Brexit” and renegotiate terms of employment law and bargaining rights. The SNP proposal was to negotiate so that these powers could be devolved to Scotland, and this was met by approval by Frances O’Grady, who said it would be “a beacon of hope to workers throughout the UK”.
The price of stalls and fringe events this year had increased significantly, with some organisations being quoted four times more than last year, making it difficult for anyone other than corporations to influence the conference. Many stalls and campaigns were priced out of the conference altogether.
(Notably, there was a presence from the particularly sinister “Friends of the Middle East” stall, which was clearly a stall supporting the Israeli government, and which was set up in the main conference. This, despite having little support amongst the party membership and being clearly antagonistic to the much more popular “SNP Friends of Palestine”.)
This pricing situation prompted several left-leaning campaign groups and not-for-profit organisations to set up “Ideaspace”, five minutes away from the main conference venue. The SNP leadership instructed its elected representatives to politely decline invitations to participate in Ideaspace, but two MPS and various MSPs defied their leaders’ wishes.
Estimates of over one thousand (mainly SNP delegates) attended this alternative conference. Its first meeting was on land reform, with the mood clearly being very critical of the SNP government for not doing enough to tackle the issue of the large concentration of land ownership. This followed from last year’s SNP conference, where the membership successfully rebelled against the leadership’s tame motion.
Amongst various other left-wing speakers, SNP MP George Kerevan, spoke of the need to set up a National Investment Bank, obviously inspired by left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a similar such reform.
It is clear that there are many people looking to the left of the current leadership within the SNP, and that bureaucratic measures from the leadership will only quell this mood so much. A whole layer within the party is open to socialist ideas, and this layer will only increase at the crisis of capitalism - within Scotland, Britain, and internationally - continues and intensifies.
The long-term perspective, therefore, is for a split along class lines in the SNP: between a pro-capitalist wing and the leftward moving workers and youth that make up the bulk of the party’s membership.
Migration and xenophobia
A strong theme of the conference was opposition to Tory xenophobia, especially that seen since Brexit - and in particular at the Tory conference. Angus Robertson called for a cast-iron guarantee on the status of EU nationals, stating:
“As much as Theresa May wants to run and hide from her record, how could anybody forget her influence…[But] Scotland is their [migrants’] home and they are welcome here”
John Swinney, the education secretary, also reassured EU students that their rights to funding would remain in place for 2017 and “demanded” that the Tory government protect their rights to stay here after their studies. Post-work visas were also called to be devolved to Scotland, with an MSP saying that the decision by the UK government to scrap the post-study work visa was a huge mistake. Another MP, Joanna Cherry spoke out against the Westminster government’s treatment of refugees, and Sturgeon ended the conference by calling for an inclusive Scotland.
The fact that many in Scotland are attracted by such stances shows a healthy response to Brexit induced xenophobia and a belief that Scotland can be a more tolerant place - a positive sign of class consciousness.
There is another cynical side to this, however, as shown by the CBI’s (Confederation of British Industry) intervention in the conference, who showed support for more powers to be given to the Scottish government on issues such as immigration, knowing that this would mean more pro-immigration policies. The predominant wing of the capitalist class are indeed in favour of immigration, as it ensures a large supply of cheap and easily exploitable labour.
The SNP leadership are therefore taking out two birds with one stone on this issue: appealing to the more radicalised workers and youth who want a more tolerant and open society; and also appealing to big businesses that need cheap migrant labour and that are put off by the “Hard Brexit” being put forward by the Westminster government.
Who do you represent?
In an interview with left-wing website Commonspace, the new deputy leader, Angus Robertson, claimed that the party was interested “in success, not ideology”. This clumsy remark highlighted a naivety within the SNP leadership. Every movement has an ideology, whether consciously or not. To reject ideas is to succumb to the dominant current of ideas within society which - as Marx explained - is the ideology of its ruling class. When the SNP try to avoid ideological questions and debates, therefore, they are in fact trying to avoid the unavoidable question of which class - and whose interests - they really represent.
The class contradictions could be seen in one of the most heated moments at the conference, when a motion on the charitable status of state schools passed by only 9 votes (464 to 455). Many delegates correctly saw this as a reactionary move, with one delegate calling for charitable statuses to be removed from all schools, including private schools. John Swinney, the education minister, who traditionally stands on the right of the party, also refused to rule out free schools, autonomous from the local authorities.
To continue down this road will put the SNP leadership at loggerheads with Scottish public opinion, which is generally against academy schools, and also will likely provoke teaching unions, such as EIS, who are already actively opposed to such moves.
Trade unionists from the TSSA and RMT, meanwhile, picketed the SNP conference over the issue of rail re-nationalisation, which SNP policy doesn’t support, but which has lot of support amongst public opinion and amongst the SNP membership, with groups like the SNP Socialists being critical of the leadership regarding this question.
The SNP leadership have shown before that they are susceptible to pressure from public opinion, from their membership, and from trade unions. This year they have conceded to campaigns by the EIS on pay and by the RMT on CalMac privatisation. Of course, in doing they will inevitably antagonise their big business sponsors.
The future of the party can be summed up by its answer to the question: “Who do you represent - the workers or the bosses?” This question will not be answered in one sentence, but by a complex and drawn out process of divisions, debates (which will become less and less polite), and eventually splits along class lines. When and how this will happen we cannot predict, but the current mood of content is unsustainable.
For a socialist Scotland! For a socialist world!
The SNP have been able to thrive up until now off the discontent towards Westminster, and will likely continue to do so. When the majority of MPs in Scotland vote against welfare cuts, nuclear weapons, airstrikes on Syria, etc., and yet these policies still get implemented, people in Scotland see it as undemocratic. The Westminster government is destined to keep implementing austerity due to the capitalist crisis. Its foreign policy is also not likely to change, and many people in Scotland will continue to live in the danger zone of the Faslane nuclear submarines - yet the majority of Scottish MPs vote against it. Anger and resentment, therefore, will only increase and drive more and more people into political activity.
Many will enter political activity with the illusion that independence can solve these issues. A capitalist Scotland, however, cannot provide solutions to any of these problems. Only an overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a Scottish Workers Republic - as part of a Socialist Britain and an International Socialist Federation - can liberate workers in Scotland and internationally from austerity, poverty and wars.
As time goes on, this fact will become more and more clear to members and followers of the SNP, who will become increasingly winnable to such revolutionary ideas.